This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 print issue.
If you’re a songwriter struggling to get a foothold in the music industry, there’s a lot to be learned from reading biographies of successful songwriters. Here’s one we all need to read, Midnight Train (Amazon), Jim Weatherly’s autobiography co-written with his cousin, Jeff Roberson. The songwriter of several classic hits for Gladys Knight & The Pips, including “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Weatherly also wrote “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” and “Neither One of Us,” all of which are modern standards.
To have just one song as iconic as “Midnight Train to Georgia” changes a songwriter’s life forever. It’s a song which tells the simple story of a man needing to escape the music world in L.A. to take the train back home to Georgia to be with the woman who loves him is. With a great economy of words and a melody that effortlessly cradles the lyric and carries it home, it’s a perfect song.
“I thought it was a good song,” Jim wrote, “but I’d written a lot of other songs that I thought were in the same category, and I’d had so much rejection that I felt I wasn’t a good judge of them. You never know which songs are gonna make the connection.”
It was football that paved the way for Jim Weatherly’s songwriting career. Attending the University of Mississippi on a football scholarship, he became one of the best quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference. Football shaped Weatherly’s songwriting career for two reasons. It taught him to be a tough competitor, as any top-grade college football player needs to be tough and competitive. Songwriters also need to be tough to survive. The competition is fierce, and rejection is the rule. In 1962 Weatherly helped make his team perhaps the best in the school’s history. That same year James Meredith desegregated Ole Miss, in the midst of riots, violence and political turmoil. The team held together through all the turbulence that went on around them and turned in the school’s first undefeated football season.
After college, he considered becoming a teacher and football coach, but instead worked as a musician with a band called The Vegas (later The Gordian Knot). Moving to L.A., he made some connections that pointed toward a songwriting future, got a few breaks that led to dead ends, before ultimately meeting folks who could benefit his musical career. Again, his football past helped.
Befriending many L.A. luminaries, Jim got close to the actor Lee Majors, with whom he played flag football. Majors helped him network, which helped him land good gigs, including an appearance on the Steve Allen TV show, joining Nancy Sinatra in Vietnam to entertain the soldiers, and a record deal with Verve Records. But the band broke up, and Jim found new work writing songs for the actor Jim Nabors’ music publishing company.
“Night after night,” he wrote, “I lay in bed staring at the TV… in a state of nervous panic. I prayed a lot… I was always left with the feeling that I shouldn’t give up just yet.”
He figured he would wait until his remaining $7,000 in savings was gone, at which time he’d go home to coach football. But during a Saturday morning flag football game, he met Gary Usher, lyricist of Brian Wilson’s beautiful Beach Boys ballad of isolation, “In My Room.” Usher connected Jim with the music publisher Larry Gordon, already successful with Paul Williams and Harry Nilsson, and signed a publishing deal with him.
Feeling Gladys Knight and the Pips were perfect for Jim’s soulful songs, Gordon brought them “Neither One of Us,” which went to number one. Next he pitched a song—then called “Midnight Plane to Houston”—but they passed on it. He pitched it instead to Cissy Houston who loved the song, but wanted its title changed to one more in tune with the R&B tradition. When they suggested “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gordon resisted. But without the change, the song would not be recorded, so he relented. Cissy’s 1972 version of the song was not a hit, but made it to the middle of the R&B charts.
That title change seems to have persuaded Gladys Knight to record the song, which she did. When Buddah Records released it a year after Cissy’s, it became that worldwide megahit that every songwriter dreams about.
It’s an example of a songwriter learning a tough lesson, that changing a song—even creating a new title—can be what is necessary, even serendipitously essential.
“It got the song cut,” wrote Jim. “My attitude was always, ‘You’ve got to make the song your own. Sing it like you feel it.’ Cissy and Gladys both said, ‘You know, our families took trains. They didn’t take planes.’”
So they sang a simple country song, their way. And it became a great American classic.