Some things don't start out where you think they do. They don't always end where you anticipate they will, either. Midnight Train to Georgia is a little like that; it started as a midnight plane to Houston, inspired by a telephone conversation. And we all probably know Gladys Knight and the Pips' rendition of it; but they didn't record it first.
That girl who's following the boy back to the life he once knew because he didn't make it in LA was originally a boy, following a girl back to her simpler place and time. As they were both heading to Houston, the song had a much softer, mellower country feel to it than the later R&B/soul versions.
The girl was Farrah Fawcett; the boy her then-boyfriend (and later husband) Lee Majors. Of course, it wasn't so much that Fawcett had failed in LA. More that she was packing to take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her family when Jim Weatherly, the song's writer, happened to call them. Inspiration being what it is, 45 minutes later, Weatherly had a song.
He recorded it on his own album first. But about a year later, Weatherly was approached by the producer Sonny Limbo in Atlanta who wanted Cissy Houston (as in, Whitney Houston's mother) to record it. It wasn't exactly how Weatherly had envisaged his song being recorded; he'd been thinking more Glen Campbell and now the song needed to be given a more R&B/Soul feel. Hence a midnight plane to Houston became a midnight train to Georgia. When he was asked if he agreed to the change, Weatherly responded that they could amend anything but the writer and publisher.
When Gladys Knight and the Pips heard it, they were all over it because the Pips were from Georgia. So they recorded it on their 1973 album, Imagination, and next, it was all over the airwaves. I don't know about you, but when I think of Gladys Knight and the Pips, I always think of Midnight Train to Georgia. It was the song that won them the 1974 Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group or Chorus.
I heard Neil Diamond's version of it on the radio last week. It's still a Midnight Train to Georgia, but a slowed-down version. It's probably somewhere between the original Midnight Plane to Houston and the train to Georgia. I've not been able to listen to Neil Diamond comfortably for about 12 years, since I spent three miserable months as an au-pair in Switzerland, where the father was a Neil Diamond fanatic. This, though, I could listen to.
I once heard someone say that she couldn't bear the song because it was so demeaning to women, portraying them as puppies to their male masters. Maybe she needs to think again. Or maybe she just needs to appreciate it for being a great song.