Instead of Majors, the actor’s new girlfriend, Farrah Fawcett, answered the phone.
“Just during the course of the conversation, she mentioned she was packing her clothes and she was going to take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her family,” Mr. Weatherly later recalled. “ ‘Midnight plane to Houston’ got kind of stuck in my mind in bold letters. When I got off the phone, I wrote ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’ in about 30 to 45 minutes.”
Mr. Weatherly thought he had written a country love song, a potential hit for a guitar-picking crossover artist like Glen Campbell. He recorded it himself to attract attention — “L.A. proved too much for the girl,” he sang in the opening lines, “so she’s leaving the life we’ve come to know” — and his publisher soon got a call from Sonny Limbo, an Atlanta producer who wanted to record it with soul singer Cissy Houston, the mother of Whitney.
There was just one problem. As Houston later told the Wall Street Journal, “My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.” What about changing the song’s title to “Midnight Train to Georgia”?
Mr. Weatherly had always believed that tweaking a song was fine, so long as it helped the artist connect with the material. So he and his publisher signed off on the change, leading to a 1972 recording for Houston and paving the way for a million-selling 1973 hit by Gladys Knight & the Pips.
“Gladys Knight wanted to change the title too because they’re from Atlanta, and also the fact that it was a train now opened up a big thing for them with their background vocals,” Mr. Weatherly told an Ole Miss interviewer in 2014. “They made it a timeless record, not just a hit record but a timeless record.”
Mr. Weatherly, whose songs were recorded by artists across country, pop, gospel and R&B — including Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, Neil Diamond, Aretha Franklin, Ray Price, Kenny Rogers and the Persuaders — died Feb. 3 at age 77, at his home in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, Tenn. His friend and former publisher Charlie Monk said the cause was not immediately known.
Growing up in rural Mississippi, Mr. Weatherly listened to big band, pop, blues and jazz, and started singing his own songs as a teenager after discovering rock-and-roll through Elvis Presley. He had never dreamed of writing an R&B song. When he first heard Knight’s version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” he recalled, “I kind of sat there with my mouth open going, ‘Is this the song I wrote?’ ”
With its infectious backing vocals, punchy horns, propulsive high-hat beat and soaring vocals from Knight, the song rose to the top of the Billboard pop chart and won a Grammy Award for best R&B vocal performance. It was named one of the 500 greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone and remains a staple of movies and television shows such as “30 Rock,” which featured a showstopping cast rendition in 2008.
“He had an ability to write songs that could be translated into any genre,” said Monk, a radio host known as the “mayor of Music Row” in Nashville, where Mr. Weatherly had lived since the 1980s. In a phone interview, he added that Mr. Weatherly was “one of the broadest writers ever to come to town,” and an unusually self-restrained figure in the music business who “didn’t smoke, drink, cuss, chew [tobacco] and didn’t chase women.”
“He had a lot of music in his soul,” he said. “He was not an outstanding musician — he played guitar and keyboards, and in Nashville there are a lot of people that play those things — but he had an uncanny ability, melodies running around in his brain, that he transferred to his songs.”
James Dexter Weatherly was born in Pontotoc, Miss., on March 17, 1943. He said he was 14 when his father died in an accident. Around that same time he began performing with a band, and later angered his high school football coach by playing a gig after a game.
Mr. Weatherly said he had stopped performing during football season by the time he was recruited to the University of Mississippi, where he was a backup on the 1962 squad that went undefeated. The team won its last regular season game, 13-6 over Mississippi State, after Mr. Weatherly ran 43 yards on a broken play to ice the game with a touchdown.
He later recalled that he was supposed to hand off the ball instead of keeping it, but missed the play. “Don’t tell anybody,” the team trainer told him.
The team’s historic season was marred by violence surrounding the admittance of James Meredith, Ole Miss’s first Black student, whose enrollment triggered a riot on campus. A mob of White segregationists attacked federal agents sent to protect Meredith, and two people were killed, including a journalist. Mr. Weatherly said he “wasn’t any kind of an activist either way. I just minded my own business and did what I was there to do.”
He led the team to another SEC title in 1963, followed by a disappointing 5-5-1 finish the next season, which some fans blamed on their quarterback’s burgeoning musical career. “To them, bad coaching or recruiting didn’t derail the rebels,” ESPN journalist Wright Thompson later wrote. “Rock ’n’ roll did.”
In fact, Mr. Weatherly said, he was done in by turf toe and gout. He graduated in 1964, according to the Ole Miss Alumni Association, and settled in Los Angeles two years later, performing at Sunset Strip clubs like the Whisky A Go Go with his band, the Gordian Knot, who competed for stage time with the Doors.
The group eventually broke up, leaving Mr. Weatherly unsure of his future. He made plans to return to Mississippi and become a football coach before his songwriting career blossomed in the early 1970s, following encouragement from his new manager and publisher, Larry Gordon. A few years later he recorded a Top 20 pop song, “The Need to Be,” and a country hit, “I’ll Still Love You.”
Survivors include his wife, Cynthia; two children, Brighton and Zack; and several brothers and sisters.
In 2013 he told the Tennessean that he had attended one of her shows — naturally, its highlights included “Midnight Train” — and gone backstage, where he saw Knight’s older brother, Bubba, one of the backing singers on the record.
“Aw, we hugged,” Mr. Weatherly recalled. “And then I said, ‘Bubba, we been riding that train a long time, haven’t we?’ ”