Hello there! This week our blog features a great soul song, Midnight Train To Georgia. We will first discuss the original by Jim Weatherly, a country song called Midnight Plane To Houston. Next, we will review a the best-known cover of this song by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and we will finish with a cover by Joss Stone.
Jim Weatherly and Midnight Plane To Houston:
Jim Weatherly has led a most interesting life. Born in 1943 in Mississippi, he was an outstanding athlete and became the starting quarterback at the University of Mississippi. He was sufficiently promising that he was drafted as a professional into the National Football League.
However, his pro career never really materialized, so Weatherly fell back on his musical talent, and became a country music songwriter. Weatherly has had a long and successful songwriting career. Below is a photo of him accepting an award at the Grammy Museum in Mississippi.Embed from Getty Images
For example, he has written almost 40 songs for Ray Price. Weatherly also wrote songs that were performed by artists such as Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks. In honor of his renowned career, Jim Weatherly was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.
The song Midnight Plane to Houston had a fascinating history. After his National Football League career did not pan out, he was playing recreational football in LA while trying his luck at writing and singing country songs.
One evening Weatherly phoned actor Lee Majors, who was his teammate in a recreational football league. Actress Farrah Fawcett, Majors’ girlfriend at the time, answered the phone and said that she was taking “the midnight plane to Houston.” Weatherly then turned that comment into a song.
So here is the audio of Jim Weatherly’s song, Midnight Plane to Houston.
As you can see, this is a straight-up country song. Weatherly is accompanied here by guitar and strings. In Weatherly’s original version the gender roles are reversed (from Gladys Knight’s best-known version), as it is the woman whose dreams have not panned out and she is taking the midnight plane to Houston, where her man intends to join her.
After Weatherly had released it, singer Cissy Houston wanted to record a soul version of the tune. However, she thought that “Midnight Plane to Houston by Cissy Houston” sounded awkward, so with Weatherly’s permission she changed the title to Midnight Train To Georgia, and she switched the gender roles in the song.
Gladys Knight and the Pips subsequently recorded their own cover of the Cissy Houston version, and as we will see that became a gigantic hit for Gladys.
Here is a nice live clip. Jim Weatherly was performing at Nashville’s Tin Pan South songwriter’s festival. He was joined by singer Lynn Anderson and they performed Midnight Train To Georgia.
Here, Ms. Anderson sings Midnight Train To Georgia in a style very similar to Gladys Knight’s version, while Weatherly accompanies her on guitar and joins in on the chorus. Note that Anderson emphasizes the Pips’ “woo woo” train whistle, to great appreciation from the crowd. This is the only video I could find of Weatherly performing live, so we’re happy to include it here.
By the way, Weatherly gained fame after he sued Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) for shorting him on the royalties for Midnight Train To Georgia. UMPG asked that the suit be dismissed, on the grounds that his contract only allowed him to dispute royalty payments for one year, and that time had passed.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Weatherly’s favor. In their summary, the court ruled that the one-year limit on appeals should not apply, as
“A defendant cannot hinder the plaintiff’s discovery through misrepresentation and then fault the plaintiff for failing to investigate.”
This ruling became a landmark in the entertainment industry. Many artists have since used this decision to support their claims that they had been underpaid royalties due to misrepresentation on behalf of their publishers. And one will not be surprised to find that “misrepresentation of income by publishers” appears to be extremely common.
So we salute Jim Weatherly – a famed athlete turned successful country songwriter, and a person who has had even greater success when his country songs were converted to R&B classics.
Gladys Knight and the Pips and Midnight Train To Georgia:
Gladys Knight was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia in May 1944, and got an early start in the music business when she won a contest on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour at age 7. One year later she formed a musical group, The Pips, together with her siblings and cousins.
The Pips changed membership a few times before they formed the most famous version of Gladys Knight and the Pips. Here the Pips were a trio consisting of her brother Merald and cousins Edward Patten and William Guest. Below is a publicity photo of Gladys Knight and the Pips.Embed from Getty Images
The group joined the Motown Records stable in 1966, although there was continuing tension between Gladys Knight and Motown management. Initially, Gladys had been reluctant to join Motown due to concerns that the organization might neglect them in favor of other artists.
Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded on the Soul Records imprint from Motown, a label that Berry Gordy used for artists that were considered more R&B than pop. In early years the group opened on tour for The Supremes until Berry Gordy removed them from the tour. Gladys Knight maintains that this was because her group was upstaging Diana Ross’ act.
Gladys and the Pips had several hits for Motown, including If I Were Your Woman and Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye). However, the group never believed that they were regarded as one of Motown’s “front-line” artists.
In 1973 they signed a deal with Buddha Records, where they had major hits with songs like Midnight Train to Georgia and I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.
Here are the lyrics from the Gladys Knight version of Midnight Train to Georgia. They give a beautiful, detailed description of a couple where the man is returning to his rural roots, and his woman decides to accompany him. The response from The Pips is in parentheses.
L.A. proved too much for the man
(Too much for the man, he couldn’t make it)
So he’s leaving a life he’s come to know, ooh
(He said he’s going)
He said he’s going back to find
(Going back to find)
Ooh, what’s left of his world
The world he left behind not so long ago
He’s leaving (Leaving)
On that midnight train to Georgia, yeah
(Leaving on the midnight train)
Said he’s going back (Going back to find)
To a simpler place and time, oh yes he is
(Whenever he takes that ride, guess who’s gonna be right by his side)
I’ll be with him (I know you will)
On that midnight train to Georgia
(Leaving on a midnight train to Georgia, woo woo)
I’d rather live in his world (Live in his world)
Than live without him in mine
(Her world is his, his and hers alone)
The following is just the audio of the record of Midnight Train To Georgia, but I want to play it because the production values are superb.
The song begins with a brief drum roll, then adds horns, piano and bass while Gladys and The Pips exchange passages at a stately tempo.
Not only are Gladys Knight’s vocals just superb, but this is complemented by memorable call-and-response vocals from The Pips. The “midnight train to Georgia — woo woo” refrain and the response “I know you will” to Gladys’ “I’m gonna be with him” are simply wonderful touches. The song ends with Gladys repeating “I’ve got to go,” while the Pips continue their beautiful harmonies. No wonder this became Gladys Knight’s signature tune!
As you can see, apart from changing the song title from Midnight Plane to Houston to Midnight Train To Georgia, and reversing the gender roles, Jim Weatherly’s lyrics were taken more or less intact from country to R&B.
Now here is Gladys Knight and the Pips in a live performance of Midnight Train to Georgia.
The tempo of the song is a bit faster than on the record, but Gladys and the Pips are clearly in great form. Her beautiful, powerful voice riffs through the lyrics, while the Pips, resplendent in their white suits, step through the classy choreography that we associate with Motown groups. What a treat!
By the way, in July 1974 Garry Trudeau produced a terrific Doonesbury cartoon showing a singer performing Midnight Train To Georgia, while her three backup singers talk amongst themselves as they dance and sing. Here is that cartoon:
The cartoon is colloquially referred to as “beats working,” from the final remark by one of the backup singers.
I find it pretty amazing that Jim Weatherly’s country song converts so seamlessly into a soul classic. What is even more amazing is that Midnight Train To Georgia was only one of several Weatherly country tunes that Gladys Knight covered in soul versions.
Knight also performed Weatherly’s song Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye). This had been a successful country song by Bob Luman before Gladys Knight & the Pips covered it and took it to #1 on the Hot Soul Singles charts, and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was Gladys’ top-charting single before Midnight Train To Georgia became her only #1 pop single.
Jim Weatherly also wrote You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me. That song was recorded by Ray Price in 1973 and became a #1 country hit. Gladys Knight and the Pips covered it in a soul version in 1974. Their version once again made it to #1 on the Hot Soul Singles, and #3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Over their career, Gladys Knight and the Pips won several Grammys. In 1996 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2001 they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
The group disbanded in 1988 and since then Gladys has pursued a solo career. She has also appeared as an actress on several television shows and series.
What a terrific singer and performer. We wish Gladys Knight all the best.
Joss Stone and Midnight Train To Georgia:
Joscelyn Eve Stoker was born in April 1987 in Dover, Kent in the United Kingdom. She grew up in a village in Devon, where she began singing at an early age.
Ms. Stoker favored R&B music, and was particularly inspired by Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield. At age 13 (now performing under the stage name Joss Stone), she won a couple of British TV talent contests, where she caught the eye of Steve Greenberg, who signed her to his S-Curve Records label.
Below is a photo of Joss Stone performing at London’s Royal Festival Hall.Embed from Getty Images
Ms. Stone’s first album The Soul Sessions, released in 2003, contained a number of covers of songs by soul artists such as Aretha Franklin. A couple of single releases from that album made the top 20 on the British pop charts.
Stone’s next album hit #1 on the UK pop charts and #11 on the Billboard top 200 albums playlist. A number of singles from that album also were best-sellers in the UK.
As a result of her success in Britain, Joss Stone was one of the singers featured in the 2004 VH1 TV special Divas Live 2004, together with artists such as Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle and Cyndi Lauper.
At this point, Joss Stone became a hot commodity in the R&B world. She appeared in collaborations with artists such as James Brown, John Legend, Stevie Wonder and Santana. Ms. Stone also shared a 2007 Grammy award for Best R&B Performance by a Group.
So here is Joss Stone in a live performance of Midnight Train To Georgia.
Actually, I wasn’t quite accurate – this is actually a medley of Midnight Train To Georgia and I Say A Little Prayer. I really enjoy Joss Stone – she certainly has the voice to get away with these soul classics.
Ms. Stone’s versions are very close to those of Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin, respectively. Some people find it strange to hear a blonde, blue-eyed singer taking on Gladys and Aretha (in fact, some fans who have heard her records are stunned when they discover that Ms. Stone is white). There has also been some controversy because Ms. Stone is not only white but comes from an upper-middle-class family (not the traditional origin story for a blues singer). But I believe Joss Stone is sufficiently talented to pull it off.
Joss Stone has been called a “white Aretha Franklin.” I am sure that this would have caused trouble for Joss while Aretha was alive, as Ms. Franklin tended to take offense when any other artist was compared to her.
However, over the years Joss Stone has continued to release top-selling records and to collaborate with some of the best-known R&B artists. She has also taken part in a number of charity concerts, and has even appeared in a few movies.
So we salute Joss Stone and hope that she remains on her stellar career trajectory.