GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: "Midnight Train To Georgia"
They had reached an impasse.
It happens. Often. It happens in friendships, professional partnerships, work, play, in life itself. It happens in families, between siblings, between parents and children. It happens in love. It happens a lot in love. In a party of two, each will have to decide if compromise is possible, or desirable. If no compromise can be struck, each must weigh the question of giving in versus moving on.
Would you rather live in his world, or live without him in yours?
Believe it or not, the former resolution is not inherently sexist. "Midnight Train To Georgia" began its pop life as "Midnight Plane To Houston," with male singer Jim Weatherly--the song's author--declaring he'd rather live in her world than live without her in his. Cissy Houston's subsequent cover flipped the genders, traded modes of transportation, and changed destinations to the more familiar choo-choo bound for the land of peaches and Coca-Cola. Weatherly's original is country, and so is the basic arrangement of Houston's version, really (Houston's inherently soulful vocal notwithstanding). The song's overall feel changed dramatically in the hands of Gladys Knight & the Pips.
By 1973, Gladys Knight & the Pips had already had a few hit records. "Every Beat Of My Heart" made it to # 6 in 1961. The group signed with the Motown-affiliated label Soul Records in 1966, eventually leading to a # 2 hit in '67 with "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." "The End Of Our Road," "The Nitty Gritty," and "Friendship Train" all made the Top 20, but only "If I Were Your Woman" made the Top 10, a # 9 hit in 1970. At the end of '72, Jim Weatherly's "Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)" became the Pips' final big hit with the Motown family, ultimately duplicating "Grapevine"'s chart peak at # 2.
And, with that, they had reached an impasse.
Gladys Knight and her Pips (her brother Merald "Bubba" Knight, and their cousins William Guest and Edward Patten) wanted a better deal with Motown. Motown did not want to offer that deal. The decision was made: the Pips would no longer live in Motown's world, but live without that label in theirs. Buddah Records beckoned. The midnight train left the station.
Their success with Weatherly's "Neither One Of Us" inspired Knight & the Pips to record more of that songwriter's offerings. Weatherly's song "Where Peaceful Waters Flow" did not duplicate the success of "Neither One Of Us." But "Midnight Train To Georgia" surpassed it.
As listeners, as fans of pop music, it may be difficult to imagine the divine alchemy that transformed this unremarkable country tune into an all-time classic, a giant of pop soul. The percussive opening snaps and swings, establishing a groove that will pummel any impending impasse with extreme prejudice. The music sways, a luxurious flow of pure beauty, pristine wonder, a glimpse of Heaven shining on the Georgia clay. Gladys Knight sings, and my God, what kind of fool would even think of trying to deny her whatever she wants? The Pips support her with irresistible vocal fills and choreography that you can somehow, some way, see on your radio. It may be a miracle.
Remember that TV comedy sketch about The Pips performing without Gladys Knight, executing their smooth steps and moving to the microphone only for their sporadic WOO-WOOs and I KNOW YOU WILLs. Funny, right? Now forget all about it. The Pips' vocal contributions to "Midnight Train To Georgia" are integral, essential, as important as--no, more important than--any piano lick or bit of brass. Too much for the man, he couldn't take it! The Pips tell the story nearly as much as Knight does. A superstar but he didn't get far. The Pips were no joke.
Which is not to slight the music itself. Man, every little piece of "Midnight Train To Georgia" is precisely where it should be. It conveys an illusion of locomotion while retaining its own leisurely groove. There are a handful of records like this, records whose sheer musical balance and accomplishment you take for granted until you pause to understand, appreciate, and become joyfully conscious of the subtle sense of economy, the deliberate approach, the craft that shines through an otherwise convincing cloak of abandon, a masquerade of casual exuberance. Every note, every nuance, is precisely the right choice.
But, even above all of these irresistible elements, "Midnight Train To Georgia" belongs to Gladys Knight. Her mastery of this song is complete and unquestioned, even as she sings of capitulation, of a woman surrendering her own dreams, retreating with her lover. As noted in a previous blog entry about the definitive rock 'n' roll jukebox: Lyrically, the tale verges on heartbreak: the girl is giving up everything else in her life, because the jerk she loves can't hack it in The Big Time, and she'd rather live in his world than live without him in hers. Knight's commanding delivery makes it sound like a celebration. Maybe it is.
They had reached an impasse. He kept dreaming that one day he'd be a star. But he sure found out the hard way that dreams don't always come true. And love found a way nonetheless. No one could have owned this song with greater authority. Not Elvis, not Otis, not Aretha, no one.
"Midnight Train To Georgia" would be Gladys Knight & the Pips' only # 1 hit. They made many other fine records, including the simply wonderful "I've Got To Use My Imagination" and "You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me." But you should think of "Midnight Train To Georgia" as much more than just a # 1 record. I know you will. Today, it's The Greatest Record Ever Made.
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