Farrah & Midnight Train to Georgia

FARRAHAs my wife would gladly tell you, I’m the world’s worst when it comes to song lyrics.  Even though I was on radio for about ten years, I spent most of my on-air time doing research rather than actually listening to the songs.

Of course I’m lying.  I spent most of the time on the phone with girls.  Why do you think most of us deejays got into radio in the first place?  I would hear the first few seconds of a song, as I introduced it, and the last few seconds, as it ended.  Everything in between was pretty much background noise.  Years later, my wife and I would be listening to the radio, and I’d comment about how much I liked a certain song.  For instance, “You’re Sixteen” by Ringo Starr.  My wife would say, “How could you possibly like that?  It’s creepy!  He was like, 35 when that came out, and he’s hitting on a 16-year-old girl.”  “Oh,” I’d say. “I had no idea.  I just knew it had a good intro, and I like the kazoo.”

Or, “Vehicle” by Ides of March.  “Now, there’s a great song!” I’d exclaim.  “What?  Have you ever actually listened to the words?”  Uh, no.  “Well!  I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan, won’t you hop inside my car? I’ve got pictures, candy, I’m a lovable man, I can take you to the nearest star.”

“Okay, okay, I get it.  Now wait, there’s a great love song.  Sting is singing  ‘Every Breath You Take,‘ I’ll be watching you.  How romantic is that!  We should’ve played that at our wedding.”  There I go again.  “Seriously, David?  It’s about his divorce!  He was very controlling and wanted to track her every move.  Do you EVER pay attention?”  Clearly, the answer was no.

However, one of the few songs that I would actually crank up in the control room was “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips.  (I always hoped they would have lots of hits, so that Gladys wouldn’t have to lay off a Pip or two.  I mean, how embarrassing would it be to fill out a job application, and under “previous occupation” you’d have to write, “Pip. From 1967-1980.”)

Recently, thanks to a great article in the Wall Street Journal, I learned the cool back-story about this song.  Obviously, most love songs were written about a real person.  Some were inspired by a girlfriend whose name became famous after the song became popular.  Sharona, the teenage girl that caught the eye of Knack lead singer Doug Fieger, or Peggy Sue, the girlfriend of Buddy Holly’s drummer.   There was even “Rosanna” (Arquette) who would become famous on her own, after being serenaded by her boyfriend’s band, Toto.  Others, as we’ve come to know, were already famous.  “Sweet Caroline” Kennedy, the namesake of Neil Diamond’s song.  Plus all those guys who jilted Taylor Swift, and that unidentified but reportedly famous vain dude that Carly Simon sang about.

Back in the 70s, we had no way of knowing that “Midnight Train to Georgia” was inspired by…Farrah Fawcett.  Yes, that girl on the poster, and  Charlie’s best-known angel. In 1970, Farrah was a 23-year-old Texan who had moved to Hollywood to become a star.  She linked up with actor Lee Majors, whom she would eventually marry.  Farrah landed some bit parts in shows like “I Dream of Jeannie” and a few commercials, but had become discouraged.  One night she’s at Lee’s place, and the phone rings.  On the other end is songwriter Jim Weatherly, one of Lee’s pals.  The two chatted, and Farrah told Jim she was packing her bags, taking a midnight plane to Houston to see her parents.  She might decide to stay, and if so, Lee might go too.  The conversation ended, and as good songwriters do, Jim started writing down lyrics.  “Hmmm…a midnight plane to Houston…that sounds like a song.”  And in 30 minutes it was.

He used Farrah and Lee as characters in his story, which included the great line, “I’d rather live in her world, than live without her in mine.”  Weatherly recorded a country-sounding version of “Midnight Plane to Houston,” which didn’t go anywhere.  His publisher sent the song to record producer Sonny Limbo, a former Chattanooga disc jockey (WMOC and WGOW in the 1960s) who was working with singer Cissy Houston in Atlanta.  (That’s Whitney Houston’s mom.  Little Whitney was eight years old at the time).  It was Cissy’s idea to change the plane to a train, and Houston to Georgia.  She said her family didn’t ride planes or go to Texas.  They rode trains and were from Georgia.  Songwriter Weatherly said he was okay with that, just as long as he got paid if her version of the song was a hit.  It wasn’t.

Soon after, Gladys Knight heard the song, and decided she wanted to record it.  Her record company hired a producer to add more instruments and pep it up.  Her brother Bubba, one of the Pips, encouraged her to ad-lib, resulting in that great ending: “I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go, hey!”  A few weeks after it was released, it shot up to number one, displacing “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. (“Angie” may have also been inspired by a real person, the Stones won’t say.  More likely, they just don’t remember.)

The next time you hear “Midnight Train to Georgia” you’ll know that it would never have been written if Lee Majors had answered the phone that night.  Speaking as a music lover who actually knows the words to this one, I’m glad Farrah took the call and told Lee’s friend about her travel plans.  Crank it up, and join me!  I always try to sing the Pips parts.  Be glad I keep my car window up.


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