Music

Jim Weatherly: Ole Miss Football Legend and 'Midnight Train to Georgia' Songwriter Dead at Age 77

Screengrab via YouTube

Jim Weatherly, the singer-songwriter best known for penning Gladys Knight and The Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia," died on Wednesday (Feb. 3) in his home near Nashville. He was 77 years old.

Charlie Monk, "the Mayor of Music Row," confirmed the news to the Tennessean. No cause of death has been announced.

Born on March 17, 1943 in Pontotoc, Mississippi, Weatherly first rose to fame while playing for some of head coach Johnny Vaught's most talented teams at the University of Mississippi. Weatherly was a backup on Ole Miss' unbeaten 1962 squad. By 1964, he was a star quarterback and an honorable mention All American.

After his college football days ended, Weatherly worked in Los Angeles as a songwriter. He played flag football in his spare time with other creative types with athletic backgrounds. One notable teammate was Lee Majors, a former college football player and the star of The Big Valley and The Six Million Dollar Man.

As the story goes, when Weatherly called Majors' home one day, Major's future wife, Farrah Fawcett, answered the phone. During her brief conversation with Weatherly about Majors' whereabouts, Fawcett mentioned taking a "midnight plane to Houston" to visit her family.

Weatherly wrote and first recorded his crowning achievement as "Midnight Plane to Houston." He cut it for rockabilly singer turned record producer Jimmy Bowen's Amos Records, and a version appeared on Weatherly's self-titled 1972 debut for RCA Victor.

Other standouts from Weatherly's solo career include Top 10 country hit "I'll Still Love You" and "The Need to Be," a Top 15 entry on the adult contemporary and pop charts.

"Midnight Plane to Houston" got its better-known title from Whitney Houston's mom, Cissy.

"When Sonny played me Jim's song, I loved it right away," Cissy Houston told the Wall Street Journal in 2013. "It was a country ballad that told a good story--about two people in love. But I wanted to change the title. My people are originally from Georgia and they didn't take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains. We recorded the single in Memphis in 1972 with a country-gospel thing going, and I arranged the background singers. But Janus, my label, didn't do much to promote it and we moved on."

A year later, Knight and her Pips chased a new hit with a song by Weatherly, whose "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)" topped the soul charts for Knight in '72.

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The most famous version of "Midnight Train to Georgia" needs no introduction. Knight and The Pips' second single after leaving Motown for Buddah Records topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart and went on to win a Grammy award (Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus, 1974) and a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

It solidified Knight as one of popular music's top superstars and inspired future covers by Aretha Franklin, the Indigo Girls, Neil Diamond and even Garth Brooks.

Weatherly also wrote songs recorded by such country artists as Johnny Russell ("Finer Things in Life"), Ray Price (the original recording of another Knight hit, "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me"), Glen Campbell ("Where Shadows Never Fall"), Bob Luman ("Neither One of Us"), Bryan White ("Someone Else's Star"), Kenny Rogers ("Until Forever's Gone"), Vince Gill ("If I Didn't Have You in My World") and Charley Pride ("Where Do I Put Her Memory").

The songwriting great's been honored in his home state (the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame) and in Tennessee (the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame).

Weatherly is survived by wife Cynthia, daughter Brighton and son Zack.

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Jim Weatherly: Ole Miss Football Legend and 'Midnight Train to Georgia' Songwriter Dead at Age 77