of the week

This week’s suggestion came from yet another conversation that arose at the end of one of my weekly music quiz nights. I’d played Midnight Train to Georgia as part of a theme round of American States and mentioned, when giving the answers, that was not the song’s original title which, in itself, prompted another round idea, and at the end of the quiz someone came as asked me why the title was changed and, before I had a change to give something of an explanation, they carried on saying, “you could do the story of week on your website.” “Perfect,” I replied, “keep your eyes open for it.”

The original version of this song wasn’t sung by a woman, it wasn’t a train and it wasn’t going to Georgia, so, what happened? The essence of this soul classic tells us the story of a woman and her other half who craved fame and dreamt about being a star, but all his dreams and hopes are dashed and her place was to be with him regardless which is quickly realised by the powerful line, ‘I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine.

All this came from the pen of Jim Weatherley, the Mississippi-born songwriter who could have had a successful career in football, but chose music instead. Wise choice Jim! Whilst at school he was the quarterback at the University of Mississippi football team who were also known as the Ole Miss Rebels and, by 1962, had remained undefeated. In his spare time he wrote songs very much in a country vein and, upon graduation, decided that was his vocation.

One of the players in his Uni football team was the actor Lee Majors, then known as Harvey Yeary who began his acting career in 1964 but is best-remembered in the UK as Steve Austin in the sci-fi series The Six Million Dollar Man. Majors, at the time, was dating the actress Farrah Fawcett who would star alongside him in The Six Million Dollar Man and then went on to star in her most famous role as Jill Munroe in Charlie’s Angels which began in 1976. Majors also recorded the theme song to the show The Fall Guy. Fawcett and Weatherly were friends and during a phone conversation she said, that she was packing to catch a midnight plane to Houston. A line he kept in the back of his mind. He completed the song in 1972, gave it that title and recorded it for his album called Weatherly.

In an interview with Gary James on the Classic Bands website, Weatherley said, “I sat down and wrote the song probably in about 30 to 45 minutes, something like that. Didn’t take me long at all, ’cause I actually used Farrah and Lee as kind of like characters I guess. A girl that comes to L.A. to make it and doesn’t make it and leaves to go back home. The guy goes back with her. Pretty simple little story, but it felt real to me. It felt honest to me. I played it for them and they loved it. I cut it on my first album as Midnight Plane To Houston. And then later on, maybe a year or six months later, a guy in Atlanta wanted to cut the song on Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother. They called and said they would like a more R&B sounding title and asked if I would mind if they changed the title to Midnight Train To Georgia, so that ‘Houston’ wouldn’t appear in both the title and artist name. According to the journalist Sue Norris, she said, “It wasn’t the ‘Houston’ clash that bothered her, but one of authenticity. If she was going to sing this song she had to ‘feel’ it explaining, “My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere, they took trains.”

So regarding the request to alter the title, Weatherley continued, “We said ‘change anything but the writer and publisher.’ So, he cut the song on Cissy Houston and it was a nice little cross between an R&B and country record. It got on the R&B charts. That’s the version that Gladys heard. Some of the background vocals you hear on Gladys’ records were first on Cissy Houston’s record. It wasn’t as much, but just some of the feel of the background vocals. And of course Gladys’ record was more of a groove-oriented thing. It wasn’t as slow. It just became a monster record.”

Gladys Knight opened her UK chart account with Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me in 1967 when she was still signed to Motown. She followed it with her version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine which was not the original, but was the first to chart here. By 1972, she was a big name and had a cover of Kris Kristofferon’s Help Me Make It Through The Night, Bacharach and David’s The Look Of Love and then another Jim Weatherley-penned song Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodnight). Her first UK top 10 hit was the medley of The Way We Were  and Try To Remember which reached number four.

Knight recorded her cover of Midnight Train in August 1973 but also wanted to make some minor alterations to the lyrics which Weatherley agreed to on the same conditions as before. She wanted the story to include her man’s ambitions in Los Angeles which the previous versions hadn’t. “I wanted to do something different with it. I wanted an Al Green thing, something moody with a little ride to it,” she explained to Marc Myers at the Wall Street Journal. “I’ve always liked my tracks full – horns, keyboards, and other instruments – to create texture and spark something in me.” The result is a perfect blending of country western roots with a soulful rhythm and blues.”

As a quiz master of many years, there’s always one person who wants to rush to point out any faux pas I might make, thankfully, rarely, but some people get much enjoyment from it. Well, the same happened to Weatherly. Only a few years ago, a producer at a Canadian radio station got in touch with him to say that there were no trains that ran from L.A. to Georgia and certainly not at midnight. I’m sure Weatherley wasn’t too worried once he’d checked his bank balance and I can only imagine what he thought about the comment. Maybe he considered buying the DJ a life!

Weatherley’s bank balance will have certainly increased over the years as versions have been recorded by Aretha Franklin, Lynn Anderson, Neil Diamond, Garth Brooks and even the American Comedienne Sandra Bernhard.

In 2021, 33 years after the original, the film Coming 2 America was released and it features a wonderful scene with Gladys Knight and her backing singers (not the Pips), in full African attire performing a spoof version retitled Midnight Train from Zamunda.

In 2007, I had the pleasure of working with Ms Knight when she performed as my warm-up act at a wedding in St. Albans, but that’s a story for another time.