On October 27, 1973, “Midnight Train To Georgia” by Gladys Knight & The Pips hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. With the band’s sultry harmonizing vocals and the universally appealing sentiment expressed in the lyrics, the song went on to win a Grammy in 1974 for Best R&B Vocal Performance and it is still an enduring classic.
The lyrics that were popularized by Gladys Knight & The Pips’ hit have a surprising origin story. The song was originally penned as a pop country tune by singer/songwriter, Jim Weatherly, in 1972. The main line in the song’s original chorus came from a phone conversation that Weatherly had with the soon-to-be superstar, Farrah Fawcett. She mentioned that she was taking a midnight plane to Houston and the line stuck with Weatherly. He turned the phrase into his song, “Midnight Plane to Houston,” that caught the attention of Whitney Houston’s mother, Cissy Houston. When Cissy went into the studio to record her cover in 1973, she decided to switch the lyrics around so she could make the story more authentic for her own life experience. Since the people she knew took trains to Georgia, not planes to Houston, Cissy changed the song’s title and chorus to the one we know and love today.
Gladys Knight & The Pips went on to record their own version of the song also in 1973 and watched it ride straight to the number one spot on October 27. It came as no surprise that the song was such a success. Train-themed songs have always been a staple in the American songbook. Yet, the lyrics in “Midnight Train To Georgia” skewed from the common trope about trains as a mode of moving forward. Instead, the narrator wishes to get on the train to return back “to a simpler place and time.” This nostalgic yearning was appealing to listeners. Additionally, Gladys Knight (aka the “Empress of Soul”) & The Pips were already legendary for the smooth melding of their magical vocals on earlier Motown hits.
After opening up for R&B stars, including Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, in the 1950s, Gladys Knight and the Pips — comprised of Gladys’s brother Merald “Bubba” Knight and their cousins Edward Patten and William Guest — were signed to a record deal in 1966. They scored a string of pop hits throughout the late 1960s, including, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” that topped the R&B chart for six weeks and hit No. 2 on the pop chart in the U.S. At the 1974 Grammys, along with Best R&B Performance for “Midnight Train To Georgia,” the band picked up the Best Pop Vocal Performance for “Best Thing That Never Happened to Me.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s they continued their success, including 1987’s “Love Overboard” that earned them a Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
Gladys Knight & The Pips were rightfully honored for their impact on American music when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. And, whenever “Midnight Train to Georgia” comes on the radio, who can’t help but to turn up the volume and sing along?