In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In 1977, Richard Pryor hosted an NBC variety-show special that included at least one absolutely classic comedy bit. One of Pryor’s musical guests was the Pips — not Gladys Knight & The Pips, just the Pips. The Pips were, of course, backup singers. They make no sense without Gladys Knight. That was the joke.
On Pryor’s special, the Pips ran through their “Midnight Train To Georgia” choreography — the spins, the synchronized steps, the pulling-a-train-whistle thing that little kids used to do when they saw trucks on the highway. And the Pips sang all their backing bits. But nobody sang the main part of “Midnight Train To Georgia.” Behind them, a spotlight illuminated a mic stand, with nobody there to sing into it. It’s a glorious little deconstruction that, if anything, makes me love “Midnight Train To Georgia” even more. Because you need the Pips. The Pips are crucial.
In his great 1997 book The Accidental Evolution Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, the critic Chuck Eddy (who was also the first person ever to hire me to write about music) posits what he calls “The Gladys Knight & The Pips Rule.” It’s all about “Midnight Train To Georgia.” Eddy’s whole idea is that “Midnight Train To Georgia,” this grandly wrenching song about being hopelessly in love with a loser, ends up meaning a whole lot more because the Pips are in there, making it sillier and lighter and friendlier and more approachable. Knight, a gospel-trained powerhouse, wails about giving her heart to this hopeless doof. Meanwhile, the Pips circle around her, throwing in little bits that almost seem to be lightly mocking the whole story: “A superstar! But he didn’t get far!” Here’s how Eddy puts it:
In “Midnight Train To Georgia, which everybody I’ve ever met acknowledges is a great record, the frivolousness of the Pips doing their train-whistle ooo-wooos (especially if you’re watching it on TV and they’re gesturing and spinning around in unison at the same time) is what keeps Gladys’ soul singing down-to-earth. Without the Pips, Gladys would be merely “intense” — not catchy enough, therefore boring, therefore not intense at all, really. Calling music “intense” or “emotional” or “soulful” is usually a euphemism for “it seems like something I’m supposed to like.” It’s fairly obvious that the Pips alone would be an ignorable proposition; my point is that Gladys alone would be just as ignorable.
I don’t agree with Chuck Eddy about everything, but I love this idea. (In the book, he lists a bunch more example of “Pipsiness,” including Flavor Flav and Temptations bass singer Melvin Franlin. You should really read it.) And he’s absolutely right about “Midnight Train To Georgia,” a perfect record that draws its perfection from that near-impossible balance of seriousness and silliness.
Knight and the Pips had plenty of time to figure that balance out. By the time “Midnight Train To Georgia” hit #1, Knight had been singing with the Pips for more than 20 years. Knight had joined up with two siblings and two cousins to form the Pips in 1952, when she was eight. That same year, she’d won The Original Amateur Hour, a TV singing competition. (When Knight sang on an American Idol finale decades later, she was really just going back to her roots.)
Knight and the Pips played the talent-show circuit around Atlanta, where they were from. They signed a couple of contracts with small labels, and one of their early singles, 1961’s “Every Beat Of My Heart,” was an out-of-nowhere hit, peaking at #6. (It’s an 8.) But a year after that, Knight temporarily left music behind. She was 18 and married, and she wanted to start a family with her husband, the musician Jimmy Newman. During those years, the Pips kept performing without Knight, and as you can probably imagine, not much came of that.
Knight rejoined the Pips (who went through a few lineup changes) a couple of years later, after she’d already had two kids. They didn’t make hits for a long time, but with the help of the choreographer Cholly “Pops” Atkins, they put together a great live show. In 1966, they signed to Motown, but Berry Gordy, who didn’t see a ton of crossover potential, moved them to Soul Records, a Motown sub-label that specialized in harder R&B. They weren’t a priority at Motown, and Knight has told a story about how they were removed as an opening acts on a Supremes tour because Diana Ross thought that they were too good and that they were outshining the headliners.
But Knight and the Pips still found a way to break through. In 1967, a year before Marvin Gaye hit #1 with “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Knight and the Pips’ hard, funky version of the same song peaked at #2. (It’s a 9.) Knight and the Pips kept cranking out hits at Motown, but they weren’t a priority at the label, and they knew it. Their last big Motown record was 1972’s “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye),” a heart-wrenched ballad that peaked at #2. (It’s a 7.) Jim Weatherly, a former Ole Miss quarterback who’d turned to songwriting when he didn’t make it into the NFL, wrote the song. But that single’s success didn’t save Knight’s relationship with Motown. Knight and the Pips tried to renegotiate their Motown deal, but they couldn’t come to an agreement. So Knight and the Pips left Motown for Buddah Records. And unlike almost everyone else who ever left Motown, Knight and the Pips became more popular outside that machine.
“Midnight Train To Georgia,” Knight and the Pips’ second single on Buddah, was another song from Weatherly, that ex-quarterback. Weatherly played rec-league flag football with Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man star, and the two got to be friends. One night, Weatherly called Majors, and he ended up making conversation with Farrah Fawcett, Majors’ girlfriend. Fawcett mentioned that she was packing; she had to catch a “midnight plane to Houston.” The phrase stuck in Weatherly’s head, and he wrote the song in about half an hour, using Majors and Fawcett — or hypothetical unsuccessful versions of Majors and Fawcett — as the song’s characters. When he recorded his own take on “Midnight Plane To Houston,” it was basically a country song. He put the song on Weatherly, the solo album he released in 1972.
Shortly thereafter, Cissy Houston, a gospel singer who’d found some level of fame singing backup for Aretha Franklin, recorded a countrified R&B version of “Midnight Plane To Houston.” (Cissy’s daughter Whitney will eventually appear a whole bunch of times in this column.) Cissy Houston’s version of the song made some crucial changes. It flipped the genders around, and it changed both the song’s destination and its mode of transportation. It seemed confusing to have a singer named Houston singing about flying to Houston, so “Midnight Plane To Houston” became “Midnight Train To Georgia.” (A train from Los Angeles to Georgia would take fucking forever, but never mind.)
When Knight and the Pips got ahold of the song, they kept the changes from the Cissy Houston version. Working with the producer Tony Camillo, they gave it a sweltering slow-burn soul arrangement. This was one of those cases where everyone in the studio must’ve been feeling some kind of divine inspiration. Everything about that arrangement is perfect: The opening drum-cracks, the immaculately-timed horn stabs, the churchy organ, the glowing Fender Rhodes, the burbling bass, the flighty strings. Knight belts in a hard, gospel-derived rasp, putting on a real command performance. And then, of course, there are Pips, chiming in with those little ripostes — “I know you will” — that undercut Knight even as they build her up.
The song’s story is a sad one. Knight’s character is hopelessly devoted to some chump who tried to become a movie star and who “sure found out the hard way that dreams don’t always come true.” So this guy gives up and writes his entire LA adventure off: “He pawned all his hopes, and he even sold his old car / Bought a one-way ticket back to the life he once knew.” This whole time, all we know of Knight’s character is that she loves this pud. We don’t know whether she came from Georgia with him or whether she met him in LA. But we know that she’s so hopelessly in love that she’s willing to give up her own life, to jump on this train with him: “I’ve got to be with him on that midnight train to Georgia / I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine.”
It’s not going to work out. You know it’s not going to work out. Knight’s character probably knows it, too; you can pick up on it in the way she sings about the guy’s failed acting career. And yet she can’t help herself. She’s in love, and she’s got to give it a shot. It’s pathetic, and it’s also romantic, in the way that only pathetic things can be. The Pips sit back and dispassionately observe: “Whenever he takes that ride, guess who’s gonna be right by his side.” They’re the train-whistling Greek chorus to this grand, silly, stupid, majestic tragedy. Gladys Knight needs them there, and so do we.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Dismemberment Plan’s splenetic and heart-tangled 1997 indie classic “The Ice Of Boston,” wherein Travis Morrison’s character hears “Midnight Train To Georgia” and wants to yell at Gladys Knight’s character even though he knows he’s trying to do the same thing that she is and failing at it even worse: