The180

The Problem With This Song: Midnight Train to Georgia

The 180's senior producer Geoff Turner launches a summer series in which we identify the central problem of a beloved popular song. To kick it off, he dissects "Midnight Train to Georgia." See if you still love it after you listen — or if you love it even more!
(Twitter @MsGladysKnight)
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Behind the scenes here at The 180, this scene tends to play out every now and then: 

Geoff Turner, our Senior Producer, says: "And have you ever noticed, the problem with (insert song name here)? " 

Matthew Lazin-Ryder, one of our story producers, says: "Yes, and you know what else is odd...."

And so begins an investigation based on an observation about The Problem With This Song. 


This week, it's Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight and the Pips, from August 1973. 

​The Grammy-winning song, which hit number one in October of 1973, is told from the point of view of a woman, whose fella is giving up on his dreams of Hollywood stardom and heading back home to Georgia. As the title leads you to believe, he'll get there on a train leaving Los Angeles at Midnight.

But our Senior Producer Geoff Turner, who says he's the son of "rail nut," has always had a hunch that there probably was no train departing Los Angeles for Georgia at midnight, and certainly not in August of 1973. 

That hunch was confirmed by Joseph Wenclawiak, a marketing official with Amtrak, who has access to comprehensive archives of train schedules.

"There's not a train that would go the whole way. The most logical way would be to leave Los Angeles, the train travels to New Orleans, and then you would connect with an overnight connection in New Orleans for the remainder of the trip to Georgia. The train leaves Los Angeles three times a week only. It left on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays at 9 p.m," said Wenclawiak. 

It left on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Fridays at 9pm. - Joseph Wenclawiak , Amtrak

But that wasn't enough for our intrepid producer Geoff Turner. In fact, it got him wondering why would Jim Weatherly, the songwriter, make a factual error? 

So, he called Weatherly to find out. 

"Well first of all, I didn't write 'Midnight Train to Georgia,' I wrote 'Midnight Plane to Houston,'" said Weatherly in a phone interview. 

Weatherly, who also quarterbacked the University of Mississippi to a national football championship in 1962, says he actually had Glen Campbell in mind as the singer when he wrote it. In his original, the narrator is a man, and it's a woman who is leaving.

In this Jan. 17, 1996, file photo, Gladys Knight, centre, William Guest, left, and Merald Knight take the stage as they are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during ceremonies in New York. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

It turns out the real lif couple inspirations for the song were Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors. 

Weatherly and Majors played flag football together, eventually forming a friendship. 

Lee Majors in all his bionic glory as Col. Steve Austin in a scene from the television action series The Six Million Dollar Man. (Fotos International/Getty Images )

One day when Weatherly called Majors, Fawcett picked up the phone, and mentioned she was packing her clothes to catch a midnight plane to Houston to visit her parents. 

Well first of all, I didn't write Midnight Train To Georgia. I wrote Midnight Plane to Houston. - Jim  Weatherly

"A little bell went off in my head when I heard her say 'midnight plane to Houston' — it just sounded like a song title to me." 

Great backstory right? But as for how the song actually got changed, Weatherly says his demo of the song wound up in the hands of Atlanta-based producer Sonny Limbo. 

Limbo was recording with Cissy Houston - Whitney's mother - and Cissy wanted to cut the track. She loved the song, but apparently the title didn't feel authentic. 

A detail of the Farrah Fawcett poster, which became one of the best-selling images ever, and is regarded as one of the iconic pictures from the 1970s. (Bruce McBroom/Pro Arts Inc.)

Houston reportedly said in an interview, "my people are originally from Georgia and they didn't take planes to Houston or or anywhere else. They took trains."

So Cissy Houston recorded the track with the new lyrics, and it eventually caught the ear of Gladys Knight, who was as it turns out, from Atlanta, Georgia. 

As for Weatherly he says he's grateful for all the twists and turns that happened to make the song possible. 

Cissy Houston, right, seen with her daughter Whitney, in 1988. (Mark Peterson/Reuters)

"There are so many things, so many little miracles that happened to make that song get to where it got, in Gladys's hands, and to have someone with her kind of voice sing that song. It was just totally amazing to me." 


And now we turn it over to you! 

Is there a song with a problem that you would like us to tackle?

Email us at the180@cbc.ca with "The Problem With This Song" in the subject line.

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