Music

'Midnight Train to Georgia's' Backstory Involves Whitney Houston's Mom + Farrah Fawcett

AP Photo and AP Photo/Charles Sykes, File

"Midnight Train to Georgia" is very much a product of the South. Former Ole Miss quarterback Jim Weatherly wrote it after Texan Farrah Fawcett mentioned something to him about a "midnight plane to Houston," and it became a hit for Atlanta-based family band Gladys Knight & The Pips.

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, 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 the song 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.

In between the Fawcett-inspired original and Knight's seminal recording, it was Whitney Houston's mom, Cissy Houston, to first record the song as "Midnight Train to Georgia." The change from Houston (the city, not the surname) to Georgia came via a request to Weatherly from Atlanta-based producer Sonny Limbo.

"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.

"I listened to Cissy's version and loved it--but I knew I wanted to do something different," Knight told the Wall Street Journal. "I wanted an Al Green thing, 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.

"I also wanted to change a few of Jim's original lyrics--add a word or two and take out a few," she continued. "So I'd call him every day. I'd say, 'Hey Jim, what do you think of 'So he's leaving a life he's come to know?' instead of 'we've come to know?'' Jim was cool with everything. He allowed us that freedom."

Read More: The 10 Best Alabama Songs, Ranked

Lyrics about loved ones seemingly living in two different worlds hit close to home for Knight.

"While recording that single, I was thinking about my own situation," she told the Wall Street Journal. "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. I was going through the exact same thing that I was singing about when recording--which is probably why it sounds so personal."

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 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") and Charley Pride ("Where Do I Put Her Memory").

"Midnight Train to Georgia" Lyrics (as sung by Gladys Knight & The Pips)

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, wooh, wooh)
I'd rather live in his world
(Live in his world)
Than live without him in mine

He kept dreaming
(Dreaming)
Ooh, that some day he'd be a star
(A superstar, but he didn't get far)
But he sure found out the hard way
That dreams don't always come true, oh no, uh, uh
(Dreams don't always come true, uh, uh, no, uh, uh)
So he pawned down his hopes
(Wooh, wooh, wooh-wooh)
And even sold his old car
(Wooh, wooh, wooh-wooh)

Bought a one way ticket back to the life he once knew
Oh, yes he did, he said he would

Oh-oh, he's leaving
(Leaving)
On that midnight train to Georgia, yeah
(Leaving on a midnight train)
Said he's going back to find, ooh
(Going back to find)
A simpler place and time, ooh yeah
(Whenever he takes that ride, guess who's gonna be right by his side)
I'm gonna be with him
(I know you will)
On that midnight train to Georgia
(Leaving on a midnight train to Georgia, wooh, wooh)
I'd rather live in his world

Than live without him in mine
(Her world is his, his and hers alone)

Ooh, he's leaving
(Leaving)
On the midnight train to Georgia, yeah, ooh y'all
(Leaving on the midnight train)
Said he's going back to find
(Going back to find)
Ooh, a simpler place and time, ooh y'all, uh-huh
(Whenever he takes that ride, guess who's gonna be right by his side)
I've got to be with him
(I know you will)
On that midnight train to Georgia
(Leaving on a midnight train to Georgia, wooh, wooh)

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)

For love, gonna board the midnight train to ride
For love, gonna board, gotta board the midnight train to go
For love, gonna board, uh huh, the midnight train to go
My world, his world, our world, mine and his alone
My world, his world, our world, mine and his alone
I got to go
I got to go
I got to go, hey
I got to go
I got to go
My world, his world, my man, his girl
I got to go
I got to go, oh
I got to go
My world, his world, our world, his girl

Now Watch: 'Me and Bobby McGee': The Story Behind the Song

recommended for you

'Midnight Train to Georgia's' Backstory Involves Whitney Houston's Mom + Farrah Fawcett