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Jimmy Weatherly, from the gridiron to the Grammys

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jimmy weatherly

It was the one that every songwriter dreams about, and it was the best known work from a multi-talented guy, born and raised in Pontotoc, Mississippi. That man was Jimmy Weatherly. 

When Jimmy Weatherly wrote “Midnight Plane to Houston”, he was certain he had a hit on his hands.

Weatherly and his agent pitched it to Gladys Knight confident that she would love it, take it to the Pips and record it. After all, the group had previously had great success with Weatherly’s song, “Neither One of Us”.

However, Gladys Knight rejected it. The lyrics just didn’t “flow right”.

Undeterred, Weatherly then pitched it to a lady named Cissy Houston. Yes, that Houston, Whitney’s mother. The older Houston was a beautiful singer in her own right, and she also had a way with words.

Cissy Houston changed the lyrics from a plane to Houston to a train to Georgia, recorded it and it made the charts.

Then Gladys Knight and the Pips changed their minds and they recorded it as well.

Surely you know the rest of the story.

“Midnight Train to Georgia” went to No. 1, was a Grammy-winning mega-hit and remains on Rolling Stones list of top 500 songs of all-time.

Weatherly runs for yardage as a sophomore, 1962 (Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics)

In addition to being a successful songwriter for others, Jimmy also toured around the Delta with his band, the Vegas. The band had a few devoted fans who followed the group when they toured, and among them was a red-headed, freckled-faced teen named Archie Manning.

At a speaking engagement many years later, Manning recalled, “I started out a big fan listening to his Ole Miss games on the radio. But when I went to a dance and heard his band playing, well he was pretty much my idol.”

Manning said, “He was a really handsome, Elvis-looking guy with that jet black hair all slicked back. And he could sing and play. I remember one night in Rosedale, I went right up to the stage, right in front of him and never left. Oh, my gosh, he was something.”

Manning recalled listening on the radio in 1962 when Ole Miss was trying to finish off a perfect season against Mississippi State.

Sophomore quarterback Jimmy Weatherly was in the game in the fourth quarter with Ole Miss nursing a 7-6 lead. From the sidelines came the play, a simple handoff from Weatherly to running back Dave Jennings. Only Vaught had recently adjusted the play for that game, a change that threw off the quarterback’s footwork and the timing of the handoff.

Weatherly forgot, causing him to be late with the handoff.

What resulted was one of the great “fakes” in handoff history. State players went for Jennings. Weatherly was in the clear. He ran 43 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

That’s right: The game-winning play that clinched the only perfect season in Ole Miss history was a busted play.

Weatherly came off the field laughing and was greeted by Ole Miss trainer Doc Knight. “I missed the handoff!” Weatherly shouted.

“Don’t tell anybody!” Knight answered.

But of course Weatherly did. He was as modest as he was talented.

Manning said Weatherly was “pretty good even when the plays weren’t busted.”

Mike Dennis, former Ole Miss and NFL running back, was his suite-mate in the Ole Miss athletic dorm. “Jim Weatherly was a great quarterback and a great guy. He could run. He could throw really catch-able passes. He was a leader. And he was one of the nicest guys in history, plus he never smoked, never took a drink, never even cussed.”

After college, he focused on his music career, moving to Los Angeles and recorded with the likes of Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney amongst other stars, but his most fruitful and lasting partnership was with Gladys Knight and her group.

Sports writer Jeff Roberson was Weatherly’s first cousin and wrote the book on Jimmy, “Midnight Train”. He wrote “Many Mississippi boys dream of being a star quarterback or a guitar-playing singer songwriter. Jimmy Weatherly did both.”

Jimmy Weatherly, the Ole Miss quarterback and Grammy award winning artist, passed away Wednesday, February 3, at his home in Brentwood, Tennessee. He was 77.

Roberson was asked what people should know about the great Jimmy Weatherly. He said, “Well, Jimmy loved his family, he loved football, he loved his friends, and, of course, he loved music. And he also loved home. He loved Pontotoc. He loved Mississippi. He always said that he has lived a lot of his life in California and in Tennessee, but he never considered himself anything other than a Mississippian.”

Plus, he was Archie Manning’s hero. How good is that?

Copyright © 2021 Vicksburg Daily News.

Vicksburg Daily News