Trains are just a cooler, more romantic mode of transport than planes. Perhaps it’s because you actually see the countryside passing by, maybe it’s the slower pace means you talk to people more along the way. Either way, Arlo Guthrie’s big breakout hit in 1972 was about the Illinois Central train “The City of New Orleans” not a Pan Am flight; Steve Perry sang about all the losers taking the “midnight train” years later on Journey’s megahit “Don’t Stop Believin’”; Kenny Rogers would barely have had time to play a hand of blackjack with “The Gambler” if they were in a 747 instead of a Pullman coach. So it is probably a good thing someone along the way had the idea of changing Jim Weatherly’s plane to a “train”. And sending it to Georgia helped too… but we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. This week in 1973 well-established soul sensation Gladys Knight & The Pips made the bigtime, hitting #1 on the singles chart with “The Midnight Train To Georgia.” Surprisingly, by that time they’d been at it for over twenty years. More surprising, at that time Gladys was still in her 20s!
The Pips were essentially a singing family which started in the most innocent and humble of ways – singing at a child’s birthday party. Gladys’ mom suggested she, her sister Brenda and two cousins sing at their brother Bubba’s tenth birthday party, in 1952. They did, and it must’ve sounded good. Within months, 7 year-old Gladys was winning a local TV talent contest and the mother had them, with Bubba along too, singing at shows around Atlanta. Not long after they signed with Brunswick Records; by 1961 they’d scored their first big hit on R&B radio – “Every Beat of My Heart.” They’d soon sign to Motown and by 1973, had 16 top 10s on the R&B charts, including a #1 with their version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” But a big breakthrough into mainstream radio was elusive for them. Until they took the surprising step of leaving Motown and signing with the smaller Buddah label. Buddah was a fairly new company then, associated with MGM and distributor of Essex (Bill Withers label) and Charisma (home to then-not-so-well-known Genesis at the time.)
They left Motown on a high-note, with a single that got to #2 on Billboard – “Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)” . Buddah however, was where everything really clicked. The first LP they did for that label, Imagination, was their first gold one and besides this hit, it also had another R&B #1/ mainstream top 10 in another Weatherly single, “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.” Both singles also made the top 10 in both Canada and the UK, where their exposure had been a little more limited than at home.
Weatherly originally wrote the great track as a country song he called “Midnight Plane to Houston”, allegedly after talking to Farrah Fawcett one night on the phone and asking her what she was up to. She answered she was going to hop a midnight flight to Texas and his mind and pen got working. However, someone – in all likelihood Whitney Houston’s mom, Cissy – thought a train to Georgia sounded better. Houston recorded her own version of the song earlier in the year, but soon Gladys’ would be the only one that mattered. It made her and The Pips a household name, so much so that they soon would have their own short-lived TV variety show. It won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo, one of three they’ve put on their shelf in that category.
The Pips kept singing until 1989 and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in ’96; Gladys has had a solo career off and on since. A good thing since her voice is great indeed. Rolling Stone picked her as the 51st greatest singer of all-time, praising her “pop elegance and soul power” and adding that she “approaches singing with inspiring seriousness.” She was a voice on an ’80s smash as well – the AIDS charity single “That’s What Friends Are For” with Elton John, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder. More recently, she’s been keeping herself active with her church and being the namesake co-owner of three restaurants in the Atlanta area – Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles. As well, she sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 2019, the same year she was an ongoing contestant on the TV show The Masked Singer.
Interestingly, not only were trains popular in pop music in the ’70s, so too was Georgia. TV star Vicki Lawrence had a #1 hit only months before Knight’s one, with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, Brook Benton had revived his career in 1970 singing about a “Rainy Night In Georgia”, and of course, later on people outside of the bluegrass/country field would find out who Charlie Daniels was when he told the story about “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Perhaps people might like “California Dreaming” but they just prefer to hear songs about the Peachtree state!