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Jim Weatherly, Who Wrote 'Midnight Train To Georgia,' Dies At 77

Feb 5, 2021
Originally published on February 6, 2021 7:01 am

"I'm missing Jim Weatherly already. He was about life and love," tweeted Gladys Knight.

Friends and fans are paying tribute to Weatherly, a singer-songwriter who penned a number of hits, including "Midnight Train to Georgia," "Neither One of Us" and "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me." Weatherly died at his home in Brentwood, Tenn., on Feb. 3 at age 77, historian and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame board member Robert K. Oermann wrote in MusicRow magazine.

Weatherly's friend Charlie Monk told the Tennessean that his family attributes his death to natural causes.

There's an unexpected twist to the journey Weatherly took in writing "Midnight Train to Georgia." It began with a 1970 phone call to a friend, actor Lee Majors, whose then girlfriend, Farah Fawcett, answered the phone. Weatherly told the newsletter for Ole Miss, where he'd been a star quarterback, that he originally called the song "Midnight Plane to Houston," inspired by something Fawcett told him.

"During the course of the conversation, she mentioned she was packing her clothes and she was going to take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her family. 'Midnight plane to Houston' got kind of stuck in my mind in bold letters. When I got off the phone, I wrote 'Midnight Plane to Houston' in about 30 to 45 minutes."

Weatherly recorded the song himself under that title. His publisher wanted to give the song to Cissy Houston, but she told the Wall Street Journal, "My people are originally from Georgia and they didn't take planes to Houston or anywhere else." Making the change was fine with Weatherly. "We were both in agreement that we would let the artist make the song what they could sing to make it something they could believe," he told the Ole Miss newsletter. Houston recorded the song, but it was Gladys Knight & The Pips who turned it into a smash hit and one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

GreatOldiesDJ via / YouTube

Weatherly was born in Pontotoc, Miss. He started writing songs at age 13, inspired by the music of Elvis Presley and rockabilly. In college he was in a band called Jimmy Weatherly and the Vegas. He fronted another band, The Gordian Knot, that recorded for Verve Records in 1968, with Weatherly as lead vocalist and guitarist.

His music spanned genres, from country to pop to R&B. Among the hundreds of artists who recorded Weatherly's songs are Glen Campbell, Ray Price, Charley Pride, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis and Indigo Girls. In an interview with the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 2006, he talked about the importance of writing songs that are "honest and true," and not forcing it.

"When I attempt to write a hit song it really doesn't come out quite as true, quite as honest to me," Weatherly said. "I think for the most part people pick up on that. When I hear music with a false sincerity, I don't believe the song or the artist."

In a statement to the Jackson Clarion Ledger, Gladys Knight remembered Weatherly as "a sweetheart and so gentle."

"We were just made for each other. At that time African Americans weren't into country music and he really helped us know it and love it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jim Weatherly wrote the song "Midnight Train To Georgia. He died this week at his home in Brentwood, Tenn., at the age of 77. According to The Tennessean newspaper, it was natural causes.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Jim Weatherly wrote songs that became hits for a number of country artists, including Ray Price and Glen Campbell. But it was Gladys Knight & the Pips who took his words and melodies to another level.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) Because you're the best thing - you're the best thing that ever happened to me - that ever happened to me. You're the best thing that ever happened to me. You are the best thing that ever happened to me.

BLAIR: Jim Weatherly told interviewers he thought Gladys Knight liked his songs because he leaves a lot of space between the lines for the Pips to fill in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO GEORGIA")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) LA proved too much for the man. Too much for the man. He couldn't make it. So he's leaving the life he's come to know.

BLAIR: The journey behind "Midnight Train To Georgia" is a lesson in serendipity and artistic flexibility. In 1970, Weatherly called his friend, actor Lee Majors, whose then-girlfriend, Farrah Fawcett, answered the phone. Weatherly told Mississippi Public Broadcasting what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM WEATHERLY: She said Lee wasn't there, but during the course of the conversation, she mentioned that she was taking a midnight plane to Houston.

BLAIR: Weatherly liked the sound of those words, midnight plane to Houston, and wrote a song in less than an hour. And he recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT PLANE TO HOUSTON")

WEATHERLY: (Singing) And she's leaving on the midnight plane to Houston.

BLAIR: Weatherly's publisher wanted to give the song to Cissy Houston, but she told The Wall Street Journal, my people are originally from Georgia, and they didn't take planes. Weatherly agreed to change it. Gladys Knight, who's from Atlanta, also approved.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO GEORGIA")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) Said he's going back to find - going back to find - a simpler place and time. And when he takes that ride, guess who's going to sit right by his side? And I'm going to be with him - I know you will - on that midnight train to Georgia.

BLAIR: Rolling Stone named "Midnight Train To Georgia" one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. After learning of his death, Gladys Knight tweeted, I'm missing Jim Weatherly already.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO GEORGIA")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) He's leaving - leaving - on the midnight train to Georgia. Leaving on the midnight train. Yeah, said he's going back to find... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.