I heard Gladys Knight described as “Motown’s greatest ever female vocalist” the other day. There have arguably been more famous Motown female singers, but have there been any better ones?
I like Gladys Knight’s voice very much, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge. However, Trevor Nelson, the BBC’s all-round expert in things R&B, said she was on a TV programme I watched the other evening, and I’m prepared to accept his option is more likely to be on the money than mine.
“Midnight Train To Georgia” is Gladys Knight’s signature song and whoever you think Motown’s greatest female vocalist might be, I’m sure we can all agree her vocal work on this song, alongside The Pips, more than deserved to win the Grammy for Best R&B Performance back in 1974.
“Midnight Train To Georgia” was a Billboard Number One and a UK Top 10 song, so it was commercially successful as well as critically acclaimed.
But it started out as a very different song to the more famous chart-topping version.
It was originally a Country song called “Midnight Plane To Houston”, recorded by its songwriter Jim Weatherly (here if you’d like a listen… https://youtu.be/J3_JQr6RqWs ).
And it didn’t become “Midnight Train To Georgia” until Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) switched the title to sit better with the more gospel-infused style she was famous for. (Her version here… https://youtu.be/XtzyxoX0To0 )
By the time Cissy Houston is finished with it we’re about 80% of the way to Gladys Knight and The Pips’ chart-topping version, but we’re not quite there yet. That’s where producer and arranger Tony Camillo stepped in to create the musical backdrop to Gladys Knight and The Pips’ peerless vocals.
He took a “less is more” approach which I always like because it’s a lot harder to pull off successfully than the “more is more” approach commonly found on songs recorded by less talented people who don’t shine without every ounce of production trickery known to mankind being deployed on their behalf.
By the time we get to Gladys Knight’s treatment of “Midnight Train To Georgia”, it’s ironic that the lady described by Trevor Nelson as “Motown’s greatest ever female vocalist” was no longer at Motown. Gladys Knight and The Pips were at Buddah Records when they recorded their most famous track.
However, and I mean this as the greatest of all possible compliments, Gladys Knight and The Pips version of “Midnight Train To Georgia” could easily have been recorded at Motown as, between Jim Weatherly’s songwriting skills, Tony Camillo’s production and arrangement, and Gladys Knight and The Pips’ performance and co-production of the song, it’s as good as anything recorded at possibly the most famous record label of all-time.
And it’s a great song.
A song about someone who’s tried their hardest to make it in the big leagues for many years, but has ultimately had to face up to the fact that they’ll never achieve their dreams to become a movie star or sign a big record deal…
LA proved too much for the man
So he’s leaving the life he’s come to know
He said he’s going back to find
Ooh ooh ooh what’s left of his world
The world he left behind
Not so long ago
For me, even the first line of “Midnight Train To Georgia” is a story all in itself. “LA proved too much for the man” says so much with so few words. You can feel every ounce of the weariness from someone ground down by the system in those words.
Whether our hero was truly “beaten by the system” or was just not quite the 5-star talent he seemed to be back home hardly matters for the purpose of our story. To be a global superstar in anything, 5-star performers will crowd out 4.93-star performers every day of the week.
In many ways, that’s the tragedy of Hollywood and the music industry.
All the spoils go to the victors who somehow make it through.
And you don’t just need talent. You need a massive dose of good luck too…there are plenty of singers, songwriters and actors who didn’t make it who are more talented than those who did.
So our hero was either a 4.93-star performer or just unlucky, like the millions of others who never quite made it.
Either way, it takes a big person to stop what they’re doing and try a different tack in life. The emotions are complex — you feel you’ve let yourself down and your family down. You were a big star and a notable talent tipped for the top back home, but LA spat you out without a second thought.
The journey from stardom-in-the-making to complete indifference is hard to face up to.
You ego takes a knock that many never recover from.
He kept dreaming
Ooh that some day he’d be a star
(A superstar, but he didn’t get far)
But he sure found out the hard way
That dreams don’t always come true
You’ve got to keep dreaming. Let’s face it, none of us would get out of bed in the morning if it wasn’t for our dreams. That can be a dream of earning enough to eat this evening or a dream of making it big in Hollywood.
Dreams are vital to our motivation as human beings.
But it’s important to know when a dream is becoming a delusion and reconsider your priorities before your dreams end up damaging you beyond repair.
Because, although dreams are mostly positive, they also carry inside them the seed of self-destruction. Carried too far, they become counter-productive. Instead of a force for good, they become a force for evil.
People become so desperate for their dreams to become a reality, they go too far down a path from which there’s no return. They get manipulated by unscrupulous people into situations for which nobody would get into if they’d been thinking rationally. But the power of dreams is that they can overpower most people’s rational thinking processes. Dreams can become an unhealthy addiction you can’t let go.
So it takes a genuine hero, and someone with great strength of character, to know when it’s time to get off the merry-go-round…
So he pawned all his hopes
And he even sold his old car
Bought a one-way ticket back
To the life he once knew
There’s something very final in the decision to buy a one-way ticket back home. The decision’s made. He’s leaving the circus and not coming back.
Strength of character like that is one major part of making life-changing decisions. But so is love.
And “Midnight Train To Georgia” has one of the finest ways of expressing love you’ll find in popular music…indeed it’s one of the most famous lines in a song packed full of great lines…
And I’ll be with him
On that midnight train to Georgia
I’d rather live with him in his world
Than live without him in mine
There’s no greater expression of love than “I’d rather live with him in his world, than live without him in mine”.
We know even less about this person than we do about our hero. But the one thing we do know is the strength of her love for a guy who’s given up on his dreams.
It’s much easier to love someone who’s a big star, or trying to become one. You tell yourself that it’s your path to the glamorous life you’d always dreamed of too, so you go along with it…partly to support your partner’s dreams, of course, but if you’re honest, partly because you’d rather like to live the life of a big star’s partner too.
However, as the old saying goes, it’s when things are tough that you get to find out who your friends really are.
My own experience is that nobody hangs around when you no longer serve a part in their purpose. You get forgotten faster than one of the millions of actors and singers who never made it.
So someone who would rather “live with you in your world than live without you in theirs” is a rare find.
And that’s what makes “Midnight Train To Georgia” such a great song.
We start off with devastating disappointment…LA had been too much for the man. He was beaten down by his experiences there.
But just a couple of minutes later, we find he’s loved by someone who cares for him more than just about anyone could care for another human being.
Someone who gave up everything they knew because they couldn’t contemplate life without them.
Maybe LA was too much for the man.
Maybe he wanted to be a superstar, but didn’t get far.
What he found instead was much more valuable than having his name up in lights.
He found someone who loved him. Someone who couldn’t imagine life without him. Someone who gave up everything to move across the country to a place they didn’t know and a life they didn’t choose, because this guy mattered more to them than anyone else ever had.
The hero of “Midnight Train To Georgia” isn’t a loser, although it might seem that way at first.
He’s a winner. And he’s won the jackpot in life because he’s found someone who loves him completely, totally and absolutely.
I don’t know about you, but I’d trade a couple of disappointing years trying to make it in LA in a heartbeat if I knew that’s how my story would end.
That’s one lucky guy getting on board the midnight train to Georgia.
Here’s Gladys Knight and The Pips with the full story…
(And, for what it’s worth, on the basis of her performance in this song, I think Trevor Nelson probably called it right…this is a vocal performance of rare quality…)
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7MF7QAodbGzNYav5ZfIhAY