“Midnight Train to Georgia” was not always called that. It was initially created as “Midnight Plane to Houston.” And it did not always sound the way it ended up sounding when it was a recorded by Gladys Knight & the Pips, 50 years ago, and became one of the most memorable singles of its era.
The late Tony Camillo, a producer and arranger working out of his own Venture Sound Studios in Hillsborough, was largely responsible for giving the song the sound it had, and a new 36-minute podcast, which you can listen to below or HERE, tells the story of how the “Midnight Train to Georgia” magic happened.
Camillo, who also played keyboards and percussion on the track, died in 2018 at age of 90. His son-in-law, Ian Shearn, created, executive produced and wrote the podcast. It is narrated by Robin Garb and uses a combination of new interviews with those involved in the making of the song, and older, archival interviews.
The song’s original arrangement, which is heard on the podcast, was tasteful but a bit bland. Knight said she wanted something more “down home.” Bubba Knight — Glady’s brother and a member of The Pips — remembers telling Camillo that he thought it should have something like the feel of Al Green’s 1971 hit, “Let’s Stay Together.”
The podcast explores Knight’s often-frustrating experiences in the music industry up to that point; Camillo’s background; the song’s genesis as “Midnight Plane to Houston,” written by Jim Weatherly; the contributions by musicians such as longtime Motown bassist Bob Babbitt (who, like the other musicians on the session, was paid $50); and Camillo’s “epiphany” concerning the song’s arrangement. He said it came to him in a dream.
He assembled a small combo (Babbitt, drummer Andrew Smith and guitarist Jeff Mironov, with he himself on electric piano) to record the basic track. Vocals, strings, horns (by players including trumpeter Randy Brecker and baritone saxophonist Michael Brecker), percussion and more keyboards were added later.
Bubba Knight sums it all up this way:
“I love ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ for the chemistry that went into that song. Jim Weatherly’s writing: The story was beautiful. Tony Camillo’s arrangement put a frame around that song that Jim had written. And then we jumped in there and put ourselves in the picture. It was a ‘Mona Lisa,’ buddy … And the musicians, Bob Babbitt and all of those guys in the studio … you could feel ’em. It’s about that feeling, man. It’s about the chemistry, and the culmination of all of those people that were involved. No person involved in that particular record was miniscule. Nobody was small.”
Gladys Knight will perform at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m., with Davell Crawford opening; visit ticketmaster.com.
Here is the podcast and, below it, a photo gallery.
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