A new documentary honors the late music producer Tony Camillo and the 50th anniversary of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the smash hit by Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Tony Camillo’s son-in-law and journalist Ian T. Shearn created, wrote and produced A Song Unto Itself: Midnight Train to Georgia.
Shearn and jazz musician Barry Miles spoke with WBGO’s Doug Doyle about the podcast and the magical collaboration of Tony Camillo.
Ian T. Shearn (left) and Barry Miles (bottom center) chat with WBGO’s Doug Doyle
Shearn says he started thinking about the project last year, as the famous song’s big anniversary approaches in 2023.
“The motivation was to pay tribute to Tony Camillo, but at the same time I also admired all the players involved in this collaboration.”
Tony Camillo recorded, mixed and produced “Midnight Train to Georgia” at his Venture Sound Studios in Hillsborough, New Jersey. Shearn says his father-in-law had many opportunities to work for larger companies, but wanted to have his own say in the music he produced.
“This was a time of great change in the music and recording industry. Tony was offered a chance to join Motown and the legendary songwriting production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, but he declined. At the time, Motown was the epicenter of popular music in America. Tony wanted to build a studio in his basement and produce his own records. He stayed true to his cause and you saw what happened.
Shearn adds that “Midnight Train to Georgia” wasn’t always called that. It was originally created as “Midnight Plane to Houston.” And it didn’t always sound the way it sounded when it was recorded 50 years ago.
“The song’s author, Jim Weatherly, was a former All-American football quarterback from Ole Miss. He then tried to make a name for himself as a songwriter and (country) singer. He moved to LA. He was good friends with an actor named Lee Majors. They played flag football together. One day he called Lee to check on him and Lee’s new friend Farrah Fawcett answered the phone and they chatted for a bit. Lee wasn’t home and Farrah said he was getting ready to catch a midnight plane to Houston. Jim put the phone down and said “Wow,” there’s what a song. He sat down and came out with these really powerful lyrics 20 to 30 minutes after that call. That’s the genesis of the song.”
Gladys Knight with Tony Camillo (left) and Bubba Knight (far right), 1973
The documentary podcast takes you behind the scenes, where the music makers themselves tell you the remarkable backstory of this legendary pop record – including the struggles and setbacks that derailed the recording sessions, as well as the long, challenging journey that Gladys and the Pips took went through before they finally reached their defining moment.
Barry Miles, known for his jazz fusion projects, worked with Tony Camillo many times and was called upon to play keyboards on “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Miles says he didn’t necessarily know the song would win a Grammy award at first.
“When I played it, I heard the rhythm section. I think I heard about the tune Gladys played in an earlier version of it. So I knew about the song. I thought it was a great song and obviously by Tony.” The arrangement was beautiful. All I heard was Tony’s electric guitar, bass and drums. I knew it was really good, but who knew at that point where it would lead. There are so many elements and things that would determine where a song would go in how it was promoted. When I finally heard the final version I said it was a hit.”
Tony Camillo and Barry Miles at Venture Studios in New Jersey
Newark-born Miles, who performed with the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis and eventually became Roberta Flack’s musical director, describes the mood he initially felt when he played the song.
“Midnight Train to Georgia had an R&B-pop element to it, but Tony wanted to bring a little country flavor or something else to it, at least at that point. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Gladys really wanted to go in that direction, so there’s a little piano line at the very beginning of the song and Tony wanted me to play something there. I played around a bit and finally came up with a line and he said it was perfect. It was something reminiscent of Fred Cramer’s piano style and that was the first thing he had in the song. His arrangements had a lot of elements that weren’t the typical Motown and typical R&B sound, and that’s why it was so unique.”
Tony Camillo (left), Chief Engineer Ed Stasium and Assistant Engineer Dave Domanich (far right)
Musicians included longtime Motown bassist Bob Babbitt, drummer Andrew Smith and guitarist Jeff Mironov. The vocals, strings, horns (by players such as trumpeter Randy Brecker and baritone saxophonist Michael Brecker), drums and keyboards by Barry Miles were added later.
Jeff Mironov and Bob Babbit, 1973.
Camillo, who also played keyboards and percussion on the track, died in 2018 at the age of 90.
Ian Shearn says this 36-minute documentary will give his father-in-law the honor he deserves for a wonderful career in the music industry.
“Tony Camillo was a very talented trumpeter and arranger and ultimately producer. I think Tony had an instinctive affinity for music. He had a calling for music from a young age. He followed this calling. Yes, he wrote arrangements, but he took those arrangements into the studio, handed out his lead sheets to his musicians, and said, “This is what I think, but you guys are great, so I want you to put your own thing on it.” “ So songs like “Midnight Train to Georgia” captured the magic because he encouraged and allowed this collaboration during the live sessions. That’s pretty amazing.”
Shearn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight News.
Ian T. Shearn created, wrote and executive produced A Song Unto Itself: Midnight Train to Georgia.
Credits for A Song Unto Itself: Midnight Train to Georgia:
- Ian T. Shearn: Creator, Writer, Executive Producer.
- Robin Garb: Narrator, Music Supervisor Editor.
- Vince DiCola and Kenny Meriedeth: Underscore Composers.
- Jordan Gass-Poore: Sound engineer
You can watch the entire conversation with Ian T. Shearn and Barry Miles here.