Singer Gladys Knight Turns 78

by Kevin Burton

   Happy 78th birthday to gospel singer Gladys Knight, and all aboard that midnight train!

   I think we’ve all taken that midnight train. It’s the one you ride when you are forced to leave cherished dreams behind and build a new life.

   The song “Midnight Train To Georgia” hit number one on the Hot 100 for Gladys Knight and the Pips in October 1973. It was written by singer/songwriter Jim Weatherly.

   “The song actually came about after a phone call I had with Farrah Fawcett,” Weatherly told SongFacts. Weatherly said he played with Lee Majors in a flag football league in Los Angeles. One day he called Majors and Fawcett answered the phone.

   “We were just talking and she said she was packing. She was gonna take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks.  So it just stayed with me.”

   “After I got off the phone I sat down and wrote the song probably in about 30 to 45 minutes. I actually used Farrah and Lee as kind of like characters I guess. A girl that comes to LA to make it and doesn’t make it and leaves to go back home. The guy goes back with her.”

   “Pretty simple little story, but it felt real to me,” Weatherly said.

   Weatherly knew a little bit about dashed dreams. He had played quarterback at the University of Mississippi, but he didn’t make it into the NFL. 

   He recorded the song himself under the title Midnight Plane to Houston. About a year later Cissy Houston recorded the song, changing the title to Midnite train to Georgia (misspelling midnight) so that you would not have Houston in the song title and the artist name. 

    Houston’s version is the one Gladys Knight heard.  Knight and the Pips left Motown and signed with Buddah Records around this time. 

   “The single debuted on the Hot 100 at number 71 and became the group’s first number-one hit eight weeks later when it jumped from number 5 to number 1 on October 27, 1973, It remained in the top position for two weeks,” according to Wikipedia.

   In her autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, Knight wrote that she hoped the song was a comfort to the many thousands who come each year from elsewhere to Los Angeles to realize the dream of being in motion pictures, television or music, but then fail to realize that dream and plunge into despair, according to Wikipedia.

   The song is also notable for the robust nature of its background vocals by the Pips, Merald “Bubba” Knight, Eddie Patten and William guest.

   Contrast the song with “Where Did Our Love Go,” by the Supremes, in which the background singers sing “baby, baby” over and over again.

   The song won the 1974 Grammy for best R&B vocal performance by a duo group or chorus.  It was awarded an RIAA Gold single (for selling one million copies) on October 18, 1973. In 1999, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of fame.

   Knight has seven Grammies in all.

    The name “Pips” for the background singers was inspired by the nickname of their cousin James “Pip” Woods, according to Wikipedia.  But “pip” is also the name for the dots on dice and dominos. That may have played some part in it too.   Knight suffered through a gambling addiction that lasted more than ten years, according to Wikipedia wrote.

    Gladys Knight and the Pips had a string of eight top 20 hits from 1961 to 1971. That included taking an early version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine all the way to number 2 in 1967.  That song, good as it was, was later eclipsed by the classic Marvin Gaye version.

   The group’s best years started in 1973 when “Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye) went to number 2.  Next came Midnight Train, then “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” went to number four. 

  In 1974 “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” hit number 3 and the Curtis Mayfield penned “On And On” went to number 5.

   Knight had a solo career after Gladys Knight and the Pips had to dissolve for contractual reasons. 

   She launched a farewell tour in 2009 but nevertheless has gigged as recently as 2019 in Scotland and England.

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