Here is one of my favorite examples in pop music of how a pretty decent song can be made into an absolute classic.
In 1970, a songwriter named Jim Weatherly called his buddy on the phone. He wasn’t home, but his girlfriend, this woman named Farrah Fawcett, answered the phone. Weatherly chatted with her a bit and Fawcett said she was packing for a “midnight plane to Houston.” He thought that sounded like a good title for a song, and wrote and recorded this:
Now, no offense to Jim Weatherly, but this track makes me want to slit my wrists. The bones are there, but it’s just not quite right. (As an aside, that line, “I’d rather live in her world than live without her in mine”? Dang.)
Well, Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom!) heard something in it, even though when she went to record her version in 1973, she had to make a few changes.
“My people are originally from Georgia,” she said later, “and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.”
She asked permission from Weatherly and he said, “Change anything but the writer and publisher.”
Now we’re getting somewhere! Note how better it is with the gender switched and Houston’s pipes. (That moanful harmonica is a bit much for me.)
Weatherly’s publisher then sent Gladys Knight and The Pips the track. And with producer Tony Camillo, they turned it into the classic it is today:
That arrangement! The subtle lyric switches. (“Proved too much for the man.”) Those horns! That muffled snare way up in the mix. The backing vocals! So good.
Here they are doing it on Soul Train. (I love how Gladys laughs right after she lays it down so hard.)
And here’s them on Midnight Special doin’ it sitting down:
The song was such a gigantic hit and the band got so big, they became the joke of a skit on The Richard Pryor Show:
And here’s a Doonesbury from 1974 sending them up (my father-in-law gave me this clipping years ago):