• Invitation Oxford

Midnight Train

Updated: Jun 1, 2019

Written by Michael Newsom | Photographed by Joe Worthem and Ole Miss Athletics

In Jim Weatherly's new memoir, the road from Pontotoc to the songwriters hall of fame is paved with music, football and little miracles.

Jim Weatherly was on the phone one day with actress Farrah Fawcett when she dropped a line on him that was music to his ears.

Weatherly, who was then a songwriter living in California and running with the Hollywood elite of the 1970s, had called for Fawcett’s boyfriend, actor Lee Majors. During the course of the conversation, Fawcett mentioned to Weatherly that she was taking a midnight plane to Houston, Texas, to visit her family.

“It sounded like a song title,” Weatherly remembers. “When I got off the phone, I wrote ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’ which only later got changed to ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ It was only a title change. The rest of the song was the same.”

His manager, Larry Gordon, shopped it around and the song was recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips. It went on to become one of the most well-known songs ever written, and it won a Grammy.

“The melody was the same, but when Gladys sang my song, she did a few things with the melody to fit her mood and her vocal range,” Weatherly said. “She just made it that much better.”

Weatherly’s biographical bullet points bear witness to his extraordinary life. They include Hall of Fame songwriter and Southeastern Conference quarterback under legendary Ole Miss football coach Johnny Vaught. In October 2018, Weatherly added a new credential to the list: author. With themes of perseverance, his memoir chronicles his personal journey toward self-worth, from his first rock ’n’ roll band, to playing football for Ole Miss, to his years trying and finally succeeding in the music business. The title? “Midnight Train.”

Weatherly wrote the book with his cousin Jeff Roberson, who worked with him on the project for over six years. He says the two produced a story that was told exactly how Weatherly wanted it.

“I learned more about him and his life as we worked on it together, but I had a head start since I lived a lot of it through the years with the family,” Roberson said. “I’m happy he asked me to be a part of helping to tell his story, and I know that we wrote it just as he wanted it to be told.”

The fortuitous conversation with Fawcett that inspired the famous song is just one part of Weatherly’s life story, which is an unlikely one, he said.

“Things just fell into place for me,” Weatherly said. “As I look back on it, I can see little miracles. Not that any miracle is little, but comparatively speaking, there were little things that put me where I needed to be at the right place at the right time. It’s amazing to me how it even happened.”

Growing up in Pontotoc in the 1950s, Weatherly developed a love for Elvis and rockabilly music. While he was writing songs and playing in rock ’n’ roll bands in high school, he was also becoming a talented football player. He had scholarship offers from Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and interest from other schools.

He opted to play for the Rebels and Coach Johnny Vaught, who was a rock star of the profession. He expected the head man at Ole Miss to be brash, like many successful coaches. But Vaught turned out to be different. Weatherly compares him to more of a John Wayne-like character.

“I was always kind of surprised at how soft-spoken Coach Vaught was,” Weatherly said. “He was just very direct and had a sense of humor. I expected him to be gruff, but he wasn’t that way at all. He never said an unkind word about my music. That impressed me a whole lot.”

If his story only included football, it would be more than most people could brag about. As a sophomore in 1962, Weatherly was a member of one of the best teams in the history of college football. That year, the Rebels went undefeated, were untied, won the SEC championship and beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. He played on the team that won the SEC championship the following year, as well.

It’s hard to imagine a top-tier football coach these days allowing one of his quarterbacks to play gigs at rowdy bars at all hours, or to do anything that requires a significant amount of focus that isn’t football or academics. Vaught was different.

When Weatherly wasn’t busy on the field, he was playing gigs with his band during the off-season with the full support of his coach.

“I think he really liked the idea,” Weatherly said. “Somebody asked him what he thought about me playing in clubs until all hours of the night in the summer; he said, ‘I don’t care if he played the tuba at 2 a.m.’ He had a sense of humor about it. I think he was behind me and hoped I succeeded at it.”

Vaught’s support and the conversations and chance encounters Weatherly had shaped his life immensely. But, Weatherly says, one lesson he took from his own success is that talent, passion and connections aren’t enough. It takes something else to make it.

“Perseverance is the key,” Weatherly said. “You have to have the talent and the desire, but I’ve known people who had those two things, but they couldn’t sustain it. They got disillusioned and they gave up.

“I always knew I would have a job as a football coach if everything else fell apart. I was just enjoying what I was doing. Even though I was being rejected, I realized I was getting better and better at it. It evidently was meant to be.”

Music To Our Ears

“Midnight Train to Georgia” was far from a one-hit wonder for songwriter Jim Weatherly.

Gladys Knight and Pips also had R&B and pop hits with his “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” “Neither One of Us Wants to Say Goodbye,” “Where Peaceful Waters Flow,” “Love Finds It’s Own Way” and “Between Her Goodbye and My Hello.” Success didn’t stop there.

“The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” later became a No. 1 country hit for Ray Price, and Bob Luman turned Grammy-winning “Neither One of Us Wants to Say Goodbye” into a country hit.

Glen Campbell had a No. 1 hit with “A Lady Like You,” and Bryan White had his first No. 1 country hit with “Someone Else’s Star.”

In addition, Weatherly’s songs have been recorded by an astoundingly vast number of diverse artists including Vince Gill, Neil Diamond, Marie Osmond, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, Peter Cetera, Indigo Girls, Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney, Joan Osborne, Hall & Oates, The Temptations, The Manhattans, The Spinners, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Andy Williams, Etta James, the Rev. James Cleveland, Widespread Panic, Jennifer Hudson and many more.

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