By Billy Watkins
More than the touchdowns he produced for Ole Miss, more than the hit songs he wrote, this is what I remember most about Jim Weatherly, who died Wednesday at age 77 at his home outside Nashville.
On the first Saturday in August 2010, Gov. Haley Barbour declared Jim Weatherly Day in Mississippi, and Weatherly’s hometown of Pontotoc planned a big celebration party.
While interviewing him a few days before the event, Weatherly told me he was having a hard time coming to grips with it.
Finally, he said: “It’s very humbling. I’m extremely honored by it and I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of old friends.
“But at the same time, you go, ‘Am I really deserving of this?’ It’s hard for me to even think about it, much less talk about it. I’ve never gone out and sought publicity. Things have just sort of fallen my way.”
And on another occasion, Weatherly told me: “I just write my songs and leave the rest in God’s hands.”
That’s who Jim Weatherly was — immensely talented and confident but spiritually grounded to his core.
He gave the world a gorgeous iconic song: “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which won Gladys Knight a Grammy Award and Weatherly a Grammy nomination. Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
He was one of those rare individuals who hit the daily double — sports star and music star.
Before all of the hit songs, those of us who were around in the early 1960s remember Weatherly as a hot-shot quarterback running coach Johnny Vaught’s sprint-out offense From 1962-64, Weatherly helped lead Ole Miss to a 22-6-3 record, two Southeastern Conference championships and the school’s only perfect season (10-0 in 1962).
Perhaps, football fans remember him most for missing a handoff in the ‘62 Egg Bowl and running 43 yards for a touchdown on what many thought for years was a bootleg play.He was halfway to the end zone before any defender realized he had the ball.
As he said, things just sort of fell his way.
He didn’t have many scholarship offers out of Pontotoc High, which is baffling.
“I didn’t even know Ole Miss was interested in me until after football season my senior year,” Weatherly told me in a 2006 interview for The Clarion Ledger. “So it was a big deal to know that the school that had produced (quarterbacks) Eagle Day, Charley Conerly, Jake Gibbs, Jimmy Lear, etc. was interested in me.”
He was the first person to wear No. 12 after the legendary Gibbs. “I didn’t ask for it,” he said. “It was my number in high school and it was given to me at the start of my sophomore season. I knew Jake had worn the number so I was really proud to have it. I don’t know if it was intentional or just the luck of the draw.”
His teammates kidded him a lot about his guitar picking in the athletic dormitory. But Kenny Dill, who played center with Weatherly at Ole Miss and later became mayor of West Point, once told me: “We were all jealous of Jim, to be honest. I’d make him come down to my room and sing to my girlfriend over the telephone.”
He had his chances to try professional football. The Boston Patriots of the old American Football League drafted him and scouts from the Dallas Cowboys called. But a young guy who grew up 25 miles from Pontotoc — Elvis Presley of Tupelo — had touched his soul with his swaggering rock and roll music.
Weatherly, who was blessed with the looks of a Hollywood star, learned to play piano, guitar and ukulele. He had a band at Ole Miss — Jim Weatherly and the Vegas — “and I drove all over the Mississippi Delta watching them play,” said another former Ole Miss quarterback, Archie Manning.
Weatherly named the band after Vega, the brightest star in the summer sky. They played the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Weatherly formed a new band — Gordian Knot — and gained a following in Los Angeles.
When the band broke up around 1968, Weatherly decided to become a solo performer and a songwriter.
There were good times, such as writing music for the Jim Nabors Show, a variety TV program that aired from 1969 through 1971. That job allowed him to save enough money to keep chasing his music dream.
But there were also lean times, which led to bouts with depression. Still, he kept writing songs, playing gigs.
It’s called “networking” today. Back then, it was meeting a friend who has a friend who has a friend, etc. It led Weatherly to a meeting with Larry Gordon, a prominent agent. He didn’t sign Weatherly but vowed to push his songs to artists.
Before “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gordon sent another of Weatherly’s numbers — “Neither One of Us” — to Gladys Knight’s producer. Knight wanted to record it immediately, but the producer was also asking for publishing rights. No deal, Gordon informed him.
Gordon told Weatherly to “hang tight.” Knight’s record deal with Motown was almost up. She needed a hit song in order to get a new contract.
She wound up recording the song and Weatherly retained publishing rights. It went to No. 2 on the Billboard chart and earned Knight a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Knight recorded 12 of Weatherly’s songs.
“Gladys and I are very good friends. We just never had the opportunity to become real close. We were always going in different directions — except for music,” said Weatherly, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “We have talked on the phone a few times and I always go back stage to see her at her concerts here in Nashville. We get to spend a little time together then.”
Knight tweeted Thursday: “We were just made for each other. We grew our lives together. I’m gonna miss him terribly and love him always.”
The list of artists who have recorded Weatherly’s songs is long and offers a wide range of genres. A few of them: Glen Campbell, Widespread Panic, Garth Brooks, Johnny Mathis, Reba McEntire, Dean Martin, Indigo Girls, Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, Ray Price, Vince Gill, Marie Osmond and Peter Cetera.
Jeff Roberson, a longtime Mississippi sports writer, spoke with Weatherly by phone on Monday.
“We had a 30-minute conversation,” said Roberson, Weatherly’s first cousin. “We talked about books and movies and music. He said everything was going good.
“We don’t always get the chance to have that last visit, but I’m thankful I did. I’m hurting for me, but I’m really hurting for his wife (Cynthia) and the kids (Brighton and Zack). They are devastated.”
At Weatherly’s request, Roberson co-wrote “Midnight Train,” a 2018 book about Weatherly’s life.
“I helped him write it, but it was told exactly like Jim wanted it to be,” Roberson said. “I’m glad I did. I hope it will help a lot of people, especially the younger generation, get to know Jim a little better. His story is really something.”