by Jim Dees – Not many people can say that Coach Johnny Vaught and Gladys Knight and the Pips were among the most influential people in their lives – OK, only one person can say it: Jim Weatherly. Weatherly played quarterback for the Ole Miss Rebels from 1961-64 and played rock and roll in nightclubs during the off season. Grumpy alums muttered their disapproval. Vaught, knowing Weatherly needed the money after Weatherly’s father had been killed by electrocution on the job when Jim was 14, gave his blessings.
“Coach Vaught was behind me,” Weatherly said this week in a phone interview. “Rock and roll was still in its infancy and he seemed to be a very forward-thinking coach. He never said one unkind word to me about my music. Some of the other coaches didn’t accept it.”
Weatherly tells this story and more in his eminently readable memoir, Midnight Train. The book is co-authored by sportswriter Jeff Roberson. Weatherly will appear Thursday, Oct. 18 at 6 pm on The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour at the Lyric Oxford to talk about his eventful life. Admission is free.
After his Ole Miss playing days, Weatherly and his band, the Vegas, moved to Hollywood to try to make it. They eked out marginal gigs before Weatherly, with a new band, the Gordian Knot, began playing lucrative Hollywood private parties, eventually touring Vietnam with Nancy Sinatra of These Boots Are Made for Walking fame.
“She was on a mission and she just pulled us along with her,” Weatherly says. “We were there to back her up. It was fun but scary. We would have to drive out from base camp into the boonies at night in a caravan of jeeps, all with our lights off. We were just thrust into a war zone without knowing what to expect.”
The band eventually broke up leaving Weatherly in his “wilderness” years as a songwriter. His book details the many, many days and nights he sat alone in a sparse Hollywood apartment with an upright piano and a reel-to-reel tape recorder writing song after song. He suffered many soul-searching lean years before things finally took a turn for the Pip.
“I kinda thought my songs fit with what they called, “countrypolitan,” he told me, “recorded with strings and horns like Ray Price or Eddy Arnold. So when Gladys Knight started recording my stuff, I was amazed. I’ve come to realize that one of the reasons she liked my songs was because there was space between the lines for the Pips to do their thing. Gladys took my songs and made them her own.”
Gladys Knight and the Pips’ recording of Weatherly’s Midnight Train to Georgia hit Number One, the album went platinum and Knight won the Grammy for Best Vocal. (Weatherly was nominated but lost the 1974 songwriting Grammy to Stevie Wonder for “Supertsition.”) Train was eventually named one of 365 “Songs of the Century.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSXLOQPozOc
Weatherly’s book describes fascinating details regarding his interactions with a cavalcade of notables from a golden age of yesteryear: Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Fred Astaire, Natalie Wood, Sen. Robert Kennedy, Elvis (Weatherly appears as a silhouetted dancer on Presley’s famous “’68 Comeback” TV special – who knew?) and, in perhaps my favorite anecdote in the book, a random Bill Murray-like encounter with gonzo comedian, Jonathan Winters.
Thursday’s show amounts to a homecoming for the former Rebel. A huge movie buff, he remembers seeing movies at the old Lyric as an Ole Miss student.
“There were two movie theatres when I was there, The Lyric and the Ritz. I went to both a lot. I became enamored of the art form. I look forward to being back at the Lyric and seeing good friends.”
Speaking of good friends, we’ll also welcome our ole buddy Cary Hudson to Thursday’s show. I say “ole buddy” because Cary performed on the very first Thacker Mountain Radio show back in October of 1997 – playing the fiddle, no less. Hudson has gone on to enjoy a long career as a fine Mississippi songwriter with a sturdy stack of albums (solo and with Blue Mountain) to his credit, including his latest, Town and Country. Hudson will perform with fiddle player, Katrina Miller.
This week, our songwriting cup runneth over. Thursday’s show will also welcome newcomer, Taylor Hunnicutt and her band. Taylor is based out of Birmingham, AL. Her latest release is the gritty-southern soul-rocking EP, Flower in a Drought.
It’s homecoming, y’all! Come say hey-
Thursday, October 18 at 6 pm at the Lyric Oxford (1006 Van Buren Ave, Oxford, MS 38655). FREE admission. Book signing: 5:00- 6 pm and again at 7 pm. Plenty of seating; cash bar.
Guests: Songwriter, author and former Ole Miss quarterback Jim Weatherly (“Midnight Train”) singer-songwriter Taylor Hunnicutt (“Flower in a Drought”) and special guest, Cary Hudson (“Town and Country”).
Hosts: Jim Dees and our house band, the Yalobushwhackers
Radio: WUMS 92.1 FM (Oxford)