Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 26: Gladys Knight & The Pips, "Midnight Train To Georiga"

Artist: Gladys Knight & The Pips
Song: "Midnight Train To Georgia"
Album: Imagination
Year: 1973

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Throughout the course of music history, regardless of era or musical style, there are a handful of themes that have persisted. From songs of unrequited love to the joys of the being alive to questions on the overall puzzling nature of life, it is often these universal themes that make even the most remote genres seem not as foreign. Then of course, there are the countless number of songs that tell tales of people aspiring for greatness, but ultimately falling short. While this theme has been famous explored by everyone from Tom Petty to Metallica, there has perhaps never been a finer and more beautiful example of this theme than the 1973 hit from Gladys Knight and The Pips, the unrivaled, "Midnight Train To Georgia." Bringing together absolutely phenomenal orchestration, brilliant vocals, and one of the finest lyrics in history, "Midnight Train To Georgia" would rise all the way to the top spot on the charts, as well as win a Grammy Award and become one of the most cherished songs in the history of music. The song remains the ultimate song for those who have traveled far in hopes of achieving fame in music or movies, and it also stands as one of the most beautiful love songs in history. Having been featured in countless films, most notably in a rather ironic scene in The Deer Hunter, "Midnight Train To Georgia" is without question one of the most perfect and iconic songs ever recorded. Though it was actually originally recorded and released a year earlier by Cissy Houston, it is the Gladys Knight version that remains not only the definitive version, but one of the greatest songs in music history.

In many ways, "Midnight Train To Georgia" fuses together a number of different musical styles, and this is rather reflective of that time in music. Caught between the end of the Motown and soul era, and the beginnings of the disco and rock movements, one can easily see 1973 as one of the most eclectic years in music history. It is very much due to this that there are multiple styles at play, from the soulful vocals to the hybrid of Motown and doo-wop on the backing harmonies to the orchestral musical arrangements, with a subtle layer of funk to top it off. These amazing arrangements are highlighted by the soft cello and violin contrasted with the sharp punctuations of trumpets and saxophones. In many ways, this juxtaposition in sound is parallel in the powerful lead vocals of Knight against the more restrained harmonies and backing vocals of The Pips. The soul of the music on "Midnight Train To Georgia" unquestionably comes from the rhythm section, and the bassline is one of the finest that was NOT written and performed by The Funk Brothers. It is within the rhythm to the song that the sounds of Motown and funk shine through, and this is of very little surprise as the bass player was, in fact, former Funk Brothers player, Bob Babbitt. Also featuring the likes of Randy and Michael Brecker, the musicians found on "Midnight Train To Georgia" are without question some of the finest in history, and it is the combination of their performance with the magnificent vocals that makes the song such a timeless classic.

Having been making hit records for more than a decade, it was almost a bit of a surprise that Gladys Knight and The Pips scored this hit in 1973. Having recently departed Motown Records, "Midnight Train To Georgia" was the final proof that, regardless of "where" an artist was, truly great talent would always shine through. Without question, "Midnight Train To Georgia" is not only Gladys Knight's finest vocal moment, but easily one of the most stunning vocals in all of music history. From the deep, soulful verses to the crying, heart-wrenching choruses, Knight excels across the music scales, and there are very few vocal performances that even come close to the power and emotion. Perfectly capturing the feeling of the lover telling the cautionary tale of her boyfriend's quest for fame and fortune, Knight brings the story to life in vivid fashion. The basis for the song can be summed up in the iconic line, "...superstar, but he didn't get far..." as the narrator chooses to stand with her love, though he initially left her behind. These subtle lyrical interjections from The Pips remain equally as iconic as the lead vocals, and the interplay between Knight and The Pips exemplifies the ideal way in which such a setup should function. Truth be told, the "woo-woo's" from The Pips are perhaps as memorable as the lead vocal, and they were highlighted in one of the most amusing parodies, when in 1976, The Pips performed the backing vocals sans Knight on The Richard Pryor Show. Truly one of the most stunning vocal performances in history, few songs even come close to the perfection found on "Midnight Train To Georgia."

Standing today as one of the most iconic songs in music history, "Midnight Train To Georgia" is perhaps the essential song about the failed quest for fame and fortune. Strangely enough, the song was inspired by a conversation concerning a pre-Charlie's Angels' Farrah Fawcett, though it is in no way a tale of her life. The songs' writer, Jim Weatherly, was said to have had a conversation with Fawcett's boyfriend, Lee Majors, and he said that she was "taking a midnight plane to Houston to see her family," and this served as the beginning of the songs' formation. Though the finished product in no way references the original inspiration for the song, "Midnight Train To Georgia" can be applied to countless situations, and the phrase itself has become a part of the vernacular of society. This crossover into so many different aspects of music and society as a whole serves as a testament to the overall impact of the song, and that is much the reason that it stands today as one of the most important songs in music history. Bringing together musical perfection on all fronts, "Midnight Train To Georgia" contains one of the most beautifully diverse sonic landscapes, and the interplay between the traditional backing band and the string section, punctuated by the bright horns, makes the song one of the most instantly recognizable tunes in history. Capped off by the similarly phenomenal interplay between Gladys Knight and The Pips, "Midnight Train To Georgia" stands today as one of the most magnificent and truly unparalleled recordings in music history.

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