“I’m missing Jim Weatherly already. He was about life and love,” tweeted Gladys Knight.
Friends and fans are paying tribute to Weatherly, a singer-songwriter who penned a number of hits, including “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Neither One of Us” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Weatherly died at his home in Brentwood, Tenn., on Feb. 3 at age 77, historian and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame board member Robert K. Oermann wrote in MusicRow magazine.
Weatherly’s friend Charlie Monk told the Tennessean that his family attributes his death to natural causes.
There’s an unexpected twist to the journey Weatherly took in writing “Midnight Train to Georgia.” It began with a 1970 phone call to a friend, actor Lee Majors, whose then girlfriend, Farah Fawcett, answered the phone. Weatherly told the newsletter for Ole Miss, where he’d been a star quarterback, that he originally called the song “Midnight Plane to Houston,” inspired by something Fawcett told him.
“During the course of the conversation, she mentioned she was packing her clothes and she was going to take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her family. ‘Midnight plane to Houston’ got kind of stuck in my mind in bold letters. When I got off the phone, I wrote ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’ in about 30 to 45 minutes.”
Weatherly recorded the song himself under that title. His publisher wanted to give the song to Cissy Houston, but she told the Wall Street Journal, “My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else.” Making the change was fine with Weatherly. “We were both in agreement that we would let the artist make the song what they could sing to make it something they could believe,” he told the Ole Miss newsletter. Houston recorded the song, but it was Gladys Knight & The Pips who turned it into a smash hit and one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Weatherly was born in Pontotoc, Miss. He started writing songs at age 13, inspired by the music of Elvis Presley and rockabilly. In college he was in a band called Jimmy Weatherly and the Vegas. He fronted another band, The Gordian Knot, that recorded for Verve Records in 1968, with Weatherly as lead vocalist and guitarist.
His music spanned genres, from country to pop to R&B. Among the hundreds of artists who recorded Weatherly’s songs are Glen Campbell, Ray Price, Charley Pride, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis and Indigo Girls. In an interview with the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 2006, he talked about the importance of writing songs that are “honest and true,” and not forcing it.
“When I attempt to write a hit song it really doesn’t come out quite as true, quite as honest to me,” Weatherly said. “I think for the most part people pick up on that. When I hear music with a false sincerity, I don’t believe the song or the artist.”
In a statement to the Jackson Clarion Ledger, Gladys Knight remembered Weatherly as “a sweetheart and so gentle.”
“We were just made for each other. At that time African Americans weren’t into country music and he really helped us know it and love it.”