“Midnight Train to Georgia” Writer Jim Weatherly Has Died
He could have been a star in the NFL. Instead Jim Weatherly chose to become a songwriter. The football world’s loss was the music world’s gain, if for no other accomplishment than the Pontotoc, Mississippi native wrote the iconic Southern anthem “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which became a #1 and Grammy winner for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1973. But his contributions to the country music canon were just as grand. And now he’s gone, passing away at 77 at his home in Brentwood, TN on February 3rd.
James Dexter Weatherly was born in March 17, 1943, and became an all-star for the Pontotoc High School football team. Following his passion to the University of Mississippi, he was the Ole Miss backup quarterback during the university’s legendary undefeated season in 1962. He moved to starter in 1963 where the team successfully defended their SEC championship, and he received honorable mention All-American honors the subsequent year.
But Weatherly decided to pursue music full time after he graduated, and was an active songwriter for over 50 years. Though it was a pop/R&B song that is regularly associated with his name, Weatherly contributed some 50 compositions to the catalog of Ray Price, and wrote songs for Brenda Lee, Lynn Anderson, Glen Campbell, and Kenny Rogers. His career lasted so long, he was around to also contribute songs to the likes of Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney, and was active well into the later stages of life.
Much of Jim Weatherly’s output was centered around specific artists that he would work with closely, like Ray Price, who he penned the #1 “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” for, as well as “Just Enough to Make Me Stay,” “Storms of Troubled Times,” and “If You Ever Change Your Mind” among others. Gladys Knight recorded a total of 13 Weatherly songs, including further hits “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Country or otherwise, if it captured that Southern soul, Bill Weatherly was into it.
Weatherly started writing songs when he was as young as 13, and after college, moved to Nashville with a rock band he formed, but they didn’t find much favor, so they continued on to L.A., making their recording debut as “Jim Weatherly & The Vegas” in 1965. Short lived, Weatherly then formed The Gordian Knot, which released albums through Verve Records and RCA. He was then offered a solo contract in the 70’s through Buddah Records after “Midnight Train to Georgia” took off, releasing a couple of records through them as well, and scoring Top 10 hits with “The Need To Be” and “I Still Love You.”
But songwriting was ultimately Weatherly’s most lucrative pursuit. He also helped make precedent for his fellow songwriters when he took on the Universal Music Publishing Group to court for underpaid royalties, and won in a landmark case. Previously, contracts stipulated that songwriters could only look back one, two, or three years in royalty disputes. After Weatherley’s win, those limitations were lifted.
Jim Weatherly was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2011, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.
February 4, 2021 @ 9:39 pm
If Jim Weatherly had only written “Midnight Train To Georgia”, he’d have written a masterpiece. But he wrote quite a few more, as you pointed out Trigger, that, thanks to Gladys Knight, helped him get to be an important songwriter of his time, pop AND country. It’s sad to see another one leave the scene, but his songwriting acumen will be remembered (IMHO).
February 4, 2021 @ 11:23 pm
more sad news . thanks for the tribute , trigger . what a memorable musical legacy mr. weatherly has left us .
February 5, 2021 @ 4:31 am
I got to meet Jim Weatherly at one of the NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) songwriter lobbying functions in WASHDC. I always enjoyed his backstory for “Midnight Train to Georgia” and singing the woo-woo train whistle when he performed the song. He was a down-to-earth guy and a fantastic songwriter. Godspeed on angels’ wings.
February 5, 2021 @ 5:58 am
I’m old enough to remember when Midnight Train to Georgia made it to the radio. Love the song to this day. And “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” was a great one, too. Listened to “Neither One of Us” this morning for the first time in a long while. Loved the sound of that song when I was a kid, but the lyrics really hit home with this divorced man this morning like they didn’t back then. Just a great song performed by a great interpreter.
Back then, there was plenty of disposable pap on the radio (Billy Don’t Be a Hero or The Night Chicago Died, anyone?), but it was still possible for a masterpiece of a song to be a national hit. And these Jim Weatherly songs were masterpieces.
By the way, I didn’t know who Jim Weatherly was (or that the same songwriter wrote those three Gladys Knight hit songs that I remember so fondly) . So thanks, Trigger.
February 5, 2021 @ 8:26 am
Everybody needs to hear Neil Diamond’s tender take on ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’. Even better than the original.
February 5, 2021 @ 12:36 pm
I had the privilege of meeting Jim Weatherly at a songwriting class. He was a gracious gentleman. As most of you probably know, Midnight Train To Georgia started out as a country song called Midnight Plane To Houston. The ingenuity and foresight of the team involved morphed it into something more relatable to Gladys and created a stone classic.
February 6, 2021 @ 12:45 pm
Washington Post has an article that describes how Jim called his friend, budding actor Lee Majors, and new girlfriend Farrah Fawcett answered. She said she was packing to take the midnight plane to Houston to visit family. Jim took that and write a song Midnight Plane to Houston. Cissy Houston asked to change it to a train to Georgia, to fit her circumstances better. And the rest is history.
February 6, 2021 @ 8:16 pm
We don’t know that Weatherly would have been a star in the NFL.
Mike Reid is one guy who managed to do both–captain and All-American defensive back at Penn State, 2-time NFL Pro Bowler with the Bengals, before launching a music career–and even scored a #1 hit as a performer of his own penned song,
February 7, 2021 @ 7:42 am
Nice to read about this man, including the comments from people that met him.
Both of the tunes done by Gladys Knight are high up on my best song list.
February 7, 2021 @ 3:09 pm
Jim’s 2018 memoir Midnight Train is a good read for anyone interested in songwriting, college football, Hollywood in the 60s and 70s or Nashville in the 80s. Now that he’s passed, I’m especially glad he wrote the book when he did.
For anyone interested, here’s Jim’s original country version of Midnight Plane to Houston:
February 25, 2021 @ 5:48 pm
One of the greatest songwriters ever. I never felt Nashville quite gave him full due even with his songwriter HOF election because he had so much such success in the pop/soul market. I consider him probably one of the ten best songwriters of country music ever.
It’s worth noting that Ray Price, widely considered one of the greatest male vocalists in country, recorded almost nothing but Weatherly songs for a good patch in the 1970’s, that’s how much he thought of his work.