Pontotoc native Jim Weatherly is best known as the author of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” a huge hit for R&B group Gladys Knight and the Pips, and he also had success as a country songwriter and recording artist. Charley Pride, Ray Price, Glen Campbell and Bryan White all topped the country charts with Weatherly compositions. A star quarterback at the University of Mississippi, Weatherly also received acclaim through multiple music industry awards and he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006.
Jim Weatherly was unique in achieving renown in both sports and music, interests he pursued from his earliest years in Pontotoc. Born on March 17, 1943, Weatherly grew up in a “football family” that produced many quarterbacks. His paternal grandfather sang in gospel quartets and presided over a “singing school,” and his maternal grandfather ran a store on the square where young Jim had free rein over the latest records. He began playing guitar and songwriting at twelve when Elvis Presley, born twenty miles away in Tupelo, began dominating the charts, and Weatherly credited him as “the one person directly responsible for my career in the music business.” In the ninth grade he formed his first band, which evolved into Jimmy Weatherly and the Empaladors, who played high school dances, at community houses and at the Pontotoc VFW, and performed over Houston radio station WCPC and on the TV show “Dance Party” on Memphis’ WHBQ. Meanwhile, his achievements on the gridiron at Pontotoc High School led to a University of Mississippi scholarship. During the football season Weatherly put music on the back burner, but he traveled widely with Jimmy Weatherly and the Vegas during the off-season and after graduation, when he decided to pursue music professionally.
In 1966 the band, now named The Gordion Knot, relocated to Los Angeles, where they enjoyed popularity with Hollywood celebrities and recorded with limited success. During this time Weatherly became active as a songwriter—influenced greatly by Jimmy Webb—and was signed by Larry Gordon, who promoted his songs. Weatherly recorded seven albums under his own name, with hit singles including “The Need to Be” from 1974, but his greatest achievements were via writing songs. “Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me,” “Neither One of Us” and “Midnight Train to Georgia” were each recorded by over a hundred artists. The latter was most famously recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips, who recorded over a dozen Weatherly songs. Other R&B artists who cut Weatherly songs included Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Mississippi’s Dorothy Moore, who recorded nine.
Most of Weatherly’s impact as a songwriter, though, was via country artists. Ray Price recorded dozens of his songs, and others who recorded multiple Weatherly compositions include Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Carl Jackson, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Eddy Arnold, and Johnny Lee. He was ASCAP’s Country Songwriter of the Year in 1974, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, and received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. “Midnight Train to Georgia” was inducted into the GRAMMY® Hall of Fame in 1999, chosen as #29 in the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts and the RIAA, and selected as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Weatherly continued recording and writing songs well into the 2000s, and died on February 3, 2021.
Weatherly’s most famous composition was inspired by a conversation in L.A. with actress Farrah Fawcett. Initially titled “Midnight Plane to Houston,” Weatherly allowed R&B vocalist Cissy Houston to record it as “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ cover version topped Billboard’s R&B and Hot 100 charts in 1973 and received two GRAMMY awards the following year.
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