Atlanta skyline (thanks, Daniel Mayer)
The 1960s were a lot of things. I’ve written a number of other articles for this site about songs from the era. Some of them were protest songs, empowering anthems, melancholy tunes about the lost American dream, and countless others. The one solid fact that can be gathered from the amount of timeless pop music that emerged from groups during this decade is that the 1960s were, without a doubt, a musical renaissance. Folk. Psychedelic. Surf. Progressive rock. Bossa nova. Rhythm and Blues. The British Invasion. And Motown.
One aspect of this musical renaissance was the increasing involvement of African-Americans in both the performance as well as production and management areas of the entertainment industry. Their role began decades earlier as minstrels and clowns, but the contributions of such greats as Barry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, and Sam Cooke and likewise the talent that permeated the decade – Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, the Temptations, the Four Tops (the list goes on and on…), and Gladys Knight and the Pips – paved major strides for their counterparts in other industries to break through the racial barriers plaguing the nation and the world. These artists and producers carried well into the '70s and some even into the '80s.
Gladys Knight c 1969
(thanks, Joost Evers)
Gladys Knight and the Pips were a rhythm and blues family musical act hailing from Atlanta, Georgia. Their 1978 Grammy Award winning song, "Midnight Train to Georgia," landed them in multiple halls of fame and reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The city at that time became one of the largest organizing centers of the Civil Rights Movement under great men like Martin Luther King Jr., and by 1970, blacks comprised the majority of the population such to the extent that by their new-found political influence, Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, was elected in the same year "Midnight Train" was released (just not by the Pips).
Originally recorded by Jim Weatherly (as a country western song) under the title "Midnight Plane to Houston," the song was inspired by a telephone conversation with Farrah Fawcett. She was on her way to the airport to take a red-eye to Texas for a family visit, and the concept sparked the idea for a song. Once the song was recorded, it was sent more or less as a demo to a producer in Atlanta who loved it and requested to re-record it under a new title, altering the word plane
and moving the city from Houston to Atlanta. Weatherly agreed, provided nothing else in the lyrics were changed.
When Gladys Knight heard the train
version, she insisted on recording it again with the Pips and keeping the altered lyrics instead of reverting to the original. She told Marc Myers of the Wall Street Journal, “I wanted to do something different [with it]. I wanted an Al Green thing, something moody with a little ride to it. I’ve always liked my tracks full – horns, keyboards, and other instruments – to create texture and spark something in me.” The result is a perfect blending of country western roots with a soulful rhythm and blues.
Farrah Fawcett c 1977
The tune’s themes center on the age-old idea that love conquers all. The narrator’s boyfriend is a failed musician in Los Angeles who gives up trying to become a superstar and gives up, going back to the life he once knew. In spite of her being established, she opts to move to Georgia with him. “I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine” (perhaps the best lyrics of the entire song). "Midnight Train to Georgia" is the perfect example of how alike different types of music can be and how those same genres can pull people together over common themes and ideas using nothing but the power of music. Both country and R&B have their origins in the soul-ridden slave music that became early jazz at the turn of the century. When the renaissance hit, everyone forgot their differences and celebrated what makes us all human.
In her autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory
, Knight expresses a hope that the song comforted many thousands (now millions) who sojourn to Los Angeles – forsaking family, friends, and loved ones – to realize their dreams of breaking into the entertainment industry (myself included), only to fail and plunge into personal and psychological despair. As she eloquently sings, all of us can always just come home.
~ Justin Novelli
Midnight Train to Georgia Songfacts
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