- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
For superstar Gladys Knight, recording “Midnight Train to Georgia” was probably like singing poignant lines from a diary.
“I was going through the exact same thing that I was [singing] about when recording,” she once said, “which is probably why it sounds so personal.”
The story begins with singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly. An all-star quarterback for his Mississippi high school’s football team, he also formed a band as a teenager and began writing original songs. Upon graduation, he chose music over a possible athletic career.
Weatherly moved to Los Angeles to try his songwriting luck. One evening in 1970, he phoned Lee Majors, an actor friend who had just started dating model Farrah Fawcett.
“Lee and I were in a flag football league together,” Weatherly explained. “Farrah answered the phone. She said Lee wasn’t home and that she was packing to take a midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks. I thought, ‘What a great line for a song.’”
After Weatherly hung up the phone, he grabbed his guitar and wrote “Midnight Plane to Houston” in 45 minutes.
The next year, Weatherly recorded an album of original songs, including “Midnight Plane to Houston.” When RCA Records released Weatherly’s LP in 1972, gospel icon Cissy Houston — Whitney’s mother — envisioned a pop-country tune and wanted first crack at the track.
“I loved it right away,” Houston said. “But I wanted to change the title. My people are from Georgia, and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains. We recorded ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ in Memphis in 1972, but my label didn’t do much to promote it.”
Weatherly’s tune was then offered to fellow Georgian Gladys Knight. She had been an R&B and Top 40 sensation since 1961, when, at 17, she scored her first hit single — “Every Beat of My Heart” — with the Pips, her family-oriented backup group. (One cousin was nicknamed “Pip.”)
Knight recalled, “I listened to Cissy’s version, and I loved it, but I wanted to do something moody — horns, keyboards, and other instruments to create texture and to spark something in me.”
Knight thus recorded her signature song, which told of a man relinquishing his dreams of Hollywood stardom to return home, with the love of his life choosing to follow him:
L.A. proved too much for the man
He’s leaving the life he’s come to know
He said he’s going back to find what’s left of his world
The world he left behind not so long ago
He’s leaving on that midnight train to Georgia
Said he’s going back to a simpler place and time
“While recording that single, I was thinking about my own situation,” Knight admitted later when discussing her chart-topping, Grammy-winning smash release on Buddah Records.
“My husband at the time was unhappy that we didn’t have a more traditional marriage, because I was often on the road or recording. Ultimately, it all proved too much for him, like the song said, and we divorced later.”
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.