This was written and originally recorded by Jim Weatherly, who had a solo hit in 1974 with "The Need To Be." Weatherly explained the origin of this song in an interview with Gary James: "The song actually came about after a phone call I had with Farrah Fawcett. Lee Majors was a friend of mine. We'd played in the Flag Football League together in L.A. He had just started dating Farrah. One day I called Lee and Farrah 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. Something like that. Didn't take me long at all, 'cause I actually used Farrah and Lee as kind of like characters I guess. A girl that comes to L.A. 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. It felt honest to me. I played it for them and they loved it. I cut it on my first album as 'Midnight Plane To Houston.' And then later on, maybe a year or six months later, a guy in Atlanta wanted to cut the song on Cissy Houston, Whitney's mother. They called and said they would like a more R&B sounding title and asked if we would mind if they changed the title to 'Midnight Train To Georgia' [so that "Houston" wouldn't appear in both the title and artist name]. We said 'change anything but the writer and publisher.' So, he cut the song on Cissy Houston and it was a nice little cross between an R&B and country record. It got on the R&B charts. That's the version that Gladys heard. Some of the background vocals you hear on Glady's records were first on Cissy Houston's record. It wasn't as much, but just some of the feel of the background vocals. And of course Gladys' record was more of a groove-oriented thing. It wasn't as slow. It just became a monster record."
Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded Weatherly's "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)" in 1973 and released it as a kiss-off record as their contract to Motown Recording Company (Soul Record) was expiring. "Neither One of Us" was their biggest Motown/Soul hit, reaching #2 as the group signed with Buddha Records. When they decided to record an album consisting of only Jim Weatherly songs (Imagination), his publisher sent a copy of the song to Knight. This was the second single from the album, after "Where Peaceful Waters Flow." It became the group's biggest hit. The third and fourth singles off the album didn't do too badly either - "I've Got to Use My Imagination" peaked at #4 in the US, "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" #3.
"Midnight Train To Georgia" was not only a #1 hit on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B, but also a #10 on the UK Singles chart. It garnered the group the 1974 Grammy Award for "Best R&B Vocal Performance" and was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. It is considered Gladys Knight's signature song.
This title is name-checked in Billy Crystal's 1989 TV special Midnight Train to Moscow.
Films and television shows in which "Midnight Train To Georgia" is part of the soundtrack include The Deer Hunter, 30 Rock, House M.D., Broadcast News, and Las Vegas. It also gets its day in the sun in the 1974 episode of VH1's I Love the '70s: Volume 2. Richard Pryor (we still miss him) also used it in his 1977 special.
You might ask what, exactly, a "pip" is besides Knight's backing singers. Well, a 'pip' is casino/gaming jargon for the spots on a die or domino. So when you're at a craps table and you roll a "hard 8" on the dice, that means that there's four pips showing on the face of each die, as opposed to an "easy 8" which would be the statistically more common 2-6 or 3-5 combinations of pips.
This song has special relevance when you consider 21st century online dating, which unites partners over the internet who are separated by a great distance. The decision the protagonist has to make, choosing to move to Georgia to "live in his world," is a common one that people have to eventually face if they start a long-distance relationship.