Written by Jim Weatherly
Videos by American Songwriter
The very concept of cover songs gets a bad rap. Quite often, new iterations of previously released works are as good, if not better, than the original. That’s certainly the case with “Midnight Train to Georgia,” written by Jim Weatherly and first recorded by Cissy Houston on her 1970 studio debut, Presenting Cissy Houston. Weatherly had recorded his own version, of course, originally titled “Midnight Plane to Houston.”
The song came to him after a phone call with a close friend named Lee Majors, with whom he’d played in the Flag Football League in LA. Majors was dating Hollywood starlet Farrah Fawcett at the time, and one day, when he phoned up Majors, Fawcett answered. “We were just talking, and she said she was packing. She was gonna take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks,” Weatherly told the Wall Street Journal in a song deep-dive in 2013. “So, it just stayed with me.”
Weatherly wrote the song in under 45 minutes, using both Majors and Fawcett as the characters. “A girl 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,” he continued.
Producer Sonny Limbo, who’d worked on the Houston record, asked to change the title so Houston could record it. Weatherly approved, as long as the rest of the song remained intact, and soon a monster hit was born. “I wrote it as a kind of a country song. Then, we sent the song to Sonny in Atlanta,” Weatherly recalled in 2003’s “The Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits,” by Fred Bronson.
As Houston’s voice wraps around the wistful lyrics, crescendoing into the stratosphere, the instrumentation certainly leans into the countrypolitan style of the time. It’s a little bit Dolly Parton and a whole lotta soul, fusing her own star power into the mix. “L.A proved too much for the man,” she swoons, a harmonica’s tears mingling with a traditional country bend. “Too much for the man he couldn’t make it / So he’s leavin’ the life he’s come to know.”
“Midnight Train to Georgia” later arrived into Gladys Knights’ hands when Weatherly’s publisher passed the song along to the legendary R&B group. The band had just left Motown Records and signed a deal with Buddah Records. 1973’s Imaginations was their first for the new venture, and “Georgia” only their second single there. Quite noticeably, the song landed in very capable hands, and Knight injects the story with a more polished, soulful mood.
“I wanted an Al Green thing going, you know? Something moody, with a little ride to it. I’ve always liked my tracks full: horns, keyboards, and other instruments to create texture and spark something in me,” Knight expressed to the Wall Street Journal in 2013. “While recording that single, I was thinking about my own situation. My husband at the time was a beautiful saxophonist, and so gifted, but he 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, in ‘73.”
In her 1998 biography “Between Each Line of Pain and Glory,” Knight expressed how “Midnight Train to Georgia” was “the first song in a long time that felt like it belonged to us,” she wrote. “Our fans must have agreed; it is still selling.”
“He kept dreamin’ / Oh that someday he’d be a star,” she sings, truly digging deep for the emotional punch. “But he sure found out the hard way / That dreams don’t always come true.”
Gladys Knight & the Pips took the song to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Soul Singles chart. Later, it won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.