HANDS UP all you folks who agree that Cissy Houston's "Midnight Train To Georgia" is not only far superior to Gladys Knight's multi-million selling version but also ranks as perhaps the best straight soul single to be released in Britain this year?
The record's actual release has come as a bolt out of the blue — not only to we record buying peasants but also to Ms. Houston herself who got the shock of her life when we acquainted her with the information at her New Jersey home one sunny afternoon recently. You see, the record was actually recorded two years ago and was an American R&B hit well over twelve months back.
"The song was actually written by Jim Weatherly," Cissy informed me once the shock had sunken in. "He's the guy who wrote Neither One Of Us' for Gladys Knight. Anyway, the song was originally called 'Midnight Plane To Houston' and it really didn't sound right to me — especially with me having the name of Houston. So, I sat down with my producer (Sonny Limbo) and we came up with the idea of changing to "Midnight Train To Georgia".
"We called over to Jim Weatherly's publisher's office and got permission to change the words and off we went. And the record was a fair-sized hit and was my biggest hit during the time I was with Janus. You know something, people still are asking me about my record today."
I naturally asked Cissy if she knew how the song came to the attention of Gladys and the Pips and whether she felt her version had any influence on Gladys' recording
"Well, I don't know about my having an influence on the way Gladys sings it," she hesitantly replied," obviously not wishing to sound in any way conceited, "but I remember shortly after Gladys' record started selling big, she did a radio interview and she said what a great version I had done of the song and how at the time she recorded it, she really didn't know what she could add to the song.
"But she took it a little faster and with a vocal background. And I love Gladys' version of the song and, to me, I can look upon it really as two different songs."
Actually christened Emily, Cissy's early years were spent singing gospel with the Drinkard Singers. But she was dubbed Cissy early in life by her family because she is the youngest of eight children. In her teens, most people referred to her as Cissy Warwick because of her closeness to Dionne and Dede, who were also an intergral part of the gospel Drinkard Singers.
When the Drinkard Singers disbanded — by this time Cissy had married John Houston — Cissy started singing with three other girls and they were getting involved with singing backgrounds when their first real break came. Until that stage, they were known simply as Cissy's Girls and they had sung back-up for most of Atlantic's top acts, such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and others.
At the suggestion of Atlantic's executive Vice-President, Jerry Wexler, Cissy's Girls' made a record, called it "Why Am I Treated So Bad" and called themselves the Sweet Inspirations. That began a period of almost four years during which time the quartet of Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemley and Estelle Brown not only recorded four albums together but also were highly sought after back-up voices.
They worked for a virtually unending list of artists that is highlighted with Aretha, Wilson, Chuck Jackson, Solomon Burke, Nina Simone and Herbie Mann.
Rumour has it that the group took its actual name from Wexler outlining his plan with the final words: "It's an inspiration" and Cissy laughingly adding, "That's sweet."
The group was successful to a point but in 1970, Cissy decided to leave and try her luck as a solo attraction. She joined Commonwealth United Records, a company that promised great things but ended up achieving virtually nothing. All of which was a pity because Cissy recorded a great album for them.
After so many years, why should she suddenly up and leave the Sweets — and at a time when they seemed to be getting nearer to their goal. "Well, we were all getting older," she philosophically replied, "and we were developing different viewpoints on how to do certain things. Rather than argue about it, I decided to leave while we were still good friends.
"I always had a feeling that I could do well as a solo act and I knew I could succeed. At first, of course, it was difficult and I missed them greatly. You know, you've been part of a group for so long that you feel lost when you're out there alone. It was always so much fun being on stage with the other girls. But, for all that, I have never regretted the decision.
"I think it was bad luck that the situation at Commonwealth went so badly because they seemed to be making so much progress. Plus, of course, I was so pleased with that first album and we were well into recording another — which they had tentatively dubbed "Houston U.S.A."."'
On the demise of Commonwealth, Cissy moved over to Janus Records, there she debuted with her version of "Darling Take Me Back I'm Sorry". Her third (of five) releases with the company was "Midnight Train To Georgia" and when the contract expired, Cissy decided not to re-sign. A decision which I can well understand because Janus really never captured Cissy's style — and during the recording of those five single releases, they utilised the services of four different production units, which certainly suggests that they didn't know quite what would be best.
Only on "Midnight Train" did they fully capture Cissy's magificent vocal, which is disciplined to the stature of a gospel singer yet is worldly enough to be tinged with the true soul feel.
From time to time over the past few months, Cissy's name has cropped up as she returned to her original art of background singing. "I like doing it and it keeps my creativeness tuned in," is her simple explanation as to why she still adds her vocal support to her fellow artists and artistes.
"I've just finished working on a new Aretha Franklin and next week's job is to work on a forthcoming Dionne War-wicke album for Warner Brothers. Jerry Ragavoy is the producer and in my opinion — having heard the basic tracks and ideas — this will be Dionne's best album in a long, long time."
Before closing, I asked Cissy what her immediate plans were. After telling me that she was sitting back and considering plans to record in the near future, she excitedly told me of a plan for her to go into an opera early next year.
"It's going to be in San Francisco and there will be four evenings, beginning January 22. I guess you would call it a fusion of opera and gospel. It's a brand new opera, written by Carmen Moore. The rehearsals will begin this fall (autumn) and I have to go to San Francisco to rehearse with the city's Symphony Orchestra. There's even talk that Deutsche Grammaphon will be recording the whole thing. It's all very exciting to me because it's such a challenge."
Meanwhile, Cissy's "Midnight Train To Georgia" could surprise some folks by emulating Gladys Knight's American hit version in Europe. Certainly, the initial sales and airplay indicate that this is a distinct possibility and it certainly couldn't happen to a nicer, more sincere person.