By M. Scott Morris
BRENTWOOD, Tenn. – These days, Jim Weatherly is a music man whose songs have topped the charts for decades.
But at one time, he was “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.”
That happened on a fall afternoon in 1962, when he was quarterback of the Ole Miss Rebels and his team was facing the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
“I missed the handoff on a trap play, so I just put the ball on my hip and ran around the right end and there was nobody there,” the 71-year-old Pontotoc native said. “I ran for 40 or 45 yards, something like that, for a touchdown.”
The play has become legendary among Ole Miss fans, and people still bring it up. While he was with the Rebels, the team won two SEC championships and a national championship. Many thought he’d take his skills to the next level, and the Boston Patriots offered him a $12,000 contract.
“But $12,000? I thought, good gracious, I could make that playing clubs,” Weatherly said during a phone interview from his home in Brentwood, Tenn. “I just decided to go into music. Really, it was just the natural choice.”
Great music grew out of that decision. Gladys Knight & The Pips took a little song he wrote called “Midnight Train to Georgia” to No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts. Glen Campbell won a Dove Award with Weatherly’s “Where Shadows Never Fall.”
Ray Price, Bill Anderson, Reba McIntire, Neil Diamond, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and hundreds of others have recorded his songs. Earlier this year, Weatherly was given a Mississippi Governor’s Award for the Arts. On June 12, he’ll travel to New York to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“A lot of these awards have come later in life,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to realize people are looking back and recognizing me for a career, not just for a song or a period of time.”
Elvis Presley gets some credit for that career. Weatherly did more than listen when the King of Rock ’n’ Roll came onto the scene.
“I was a huge Elvis fan,” Weatherly said. “I must’ve been 12 or 13 or something and I formed a band, and we just started playing. Our first job was the local VFW club. I started to write things like I heard on the radio, so we could play them with the band.”
He got another group together in college, and when football season was over, Jimmy Weatherly & The Vegas played high school dances and fraternity parties.
Weatherly completed the course work to become a physical education teacher and coach. All he lacked was his student teaching. He and his band mates went to Los Angeles in the summer with a plan to return to school in the fall to finish their degrees.
“We stayed there, I don’t know, maybe it was four or five weeks before we got our first job. The day we ran out of money was the day we got our first job, so we were able stay out a little bit longer,” he said. “Then the bookings just picked up and we began to make a small living at it. It wasn’t anything major, but we could stay out there and have fun, and that was basically what we were doing, just enjoying ourselves.”
Weatherly kept writing songs and caught the attention of Larry Gordon, who became his publisher and manager.
“I’ve never been a salesman. I’m a songwriter. I was fortunate enough to find a guy in L.A. who believed 100 percent in what I was doing,” Weatherly said. “Larry was the one who formed the relationships with the producers and artists. He’s the one that got all my songs cut.”
Houston to Georgia
Football and a healthy dose of flexibility led to one of Weatherly’s biggest successes.
“I was playing flag football with a group of guys and one of those guys was Lee Majors, who was ‘The Six Million Dollar Man,’” Weatherly said. “Lee had just started dating Farrah Fawcett.”
He called Majors’ house one day and Fawcett answered and said she was packing her bags for a midnight plane to Houston.
“A little bell went off in my head when I heard that, so when I got off the phone with her I wrote a little song called ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’ in about 30 or 45 minutes,” he said. “I put it on my first album that way. It’s on YouTube as ‘Midnight Plane to Houston.’”
He got a call from Cissy Houston’s manager. She wanted to change the song to “Midnight Train to Georgia” to give it more of an R&B feel.
“Later on, Gladys Knight heard that version and wanted to change it because they’re from Atlanta. It just made sense to them. It also gave them the opening to sing all those backing vocals that made it such a big hit record,” Weatherly said. “I’ve known songwriters who dug in their heels and didn’t let anybody change anything, and they would miss out on big cuts. I really have always been an artist’s person when it comes to my songwriting. If somebody can help me have a hit record, I’m all for it.”
It’s a practical approach.
“If it becomes a big hit, great,” he said. “If it doesn’t, nobody will ever hear it anyway.”
More to come
His hits include “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” “The Need to Be,” “Neither One of Us,” “Where Peaceful Waters Flow,” “A Lady Like You” and “Someone Else’s Star.”
He still writes songs and records them at his home studio in Brentwood. His music is available at www.jimweatherly.com.
One of his recent songs harks back to his earliest musical inspiration, when Elvis was just starting to shake the world.
“It was for a project called ‘This is My America.’ They needed a song about Elvis, and I actually already had a song about Elvis started,” he said. “It’s called ‘Hot Night in Memphis,’ and the subtitle is ‘Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys.’ It’s basically about Elvis’ first recording session. It’s a rockabilly song.”
Billy Burnette sang “Hot Night in Memphis” for volume II of “This is My America,” but not as many people have heard it as Weatherly would like. Now, the decorated songwriter, who’s only a few short months from joining the Songwriters Hall of Fame, finds himself in the uncomfortable role of salesman.
“I would really love for somebody else to come and cut that song, maybe in the Americana genre,” he said, “because not a lot of people are going to hear it unless somebody cuts it who can get it on the radio. That would be great.”
If Weatherly had chosen a career in professional football, he might’ve become a Patriots’ legend and come up with another golden egg or two.
Then again, there’s certainly nothing wrong with gold records. He’s had his share of those, and there’s always hope for more.
“I don’t know if songwriters ever really retire,” he said. “I thought about it. I backed off a little bit. I don’t do it as consistently as I used to, but whenever the mood strikes and I get an idea, yeah, I go write it.”