Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Long Distance Information

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part III
"Memphis, Tennessee" (Chuck Berry, 1958)


"If I had to name the best short story in the form of a song lyric, I suspect the winner would be Chuck Berry’s 'Memphis, Tennessee,' first released as a B-side in 1959," wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg in 1999.  At the very least, in my estimation, "Memphis, Tennessee" has the greatest twist-ending of any song in what Casey Kasem liked to call the rock era.

The song would work fine on its own without the twist, if it were merely the story of a man struggling to get in touch with Marie, the woman who broke his heart. The details are indelibly rendered: "hurry-home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye," "my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall."

But the song's ending flips the whole thing over, turning the narrator into a loving father who can't stop thinking about his little girl. There's no cheating it, either - every detail in the story that we thought was about a lost romance works perfectly for the lost daughter. Chuck knows exactly what story he's telling here; there's no chance of getting lost in the weeds, like you do in "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia."

As Klinkenborg alludes to, "Memphis, Tennessee" was originally the B-side to "Back in the U.S.A." It never charted for Chuck, but people noticed it, and almost immediately began covering it. The Beatles played it at their audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962; Pete Best's drumming probably ruined whatever chance they had on that day.

Anyway, here we have one of the greatest lyrics ever to appear in a rock song. But what makes "Memphis, Tennessee" so remarkable is that even if you strip out its greatest strength, it's still a hit. The blues guitarist Lonnie Mack recorded an instrumental version, titled simply "Memphis," in 1963. Without that classic lyric, the song still went to Number Five on the Billboard pop chart.

That's really something, isn't it? It's as if someone recorded a spoken-word version of "Boogie Oogie Oogie," and made a hit out of it. That would kind of give you more respect for "Boogie Oogie Oogie," wouldn't it?

The biggest hit version of "Memphis" was the one recorded by Johnny Rivers in his quasi-live style, which hit Number 2 in 1964. The country singer Fred Knobloch (most familiar to me as the author of "Killin' Time") took his own version to the Top Ten of the country charts in 1980.  

Buck Owens and Roy Orbison both cut it as well. The Beatles played it FIVE TIMES on their BBC Radio show, one of which was included on their monumental Live at the BBC box set. I wonder if they ever did it as an instrumental.





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