Monday, November 02, 2009

Yet Another Viral Song: "Memphis, Tennessee"

Viral songs will stick in your mind for the rest of the day. Today, the NY Fishwrap's roving essayist, Verlyn Klinkenborg, mentioned "Memphis, Tennessee" as performed by Chuck Berry (originally), Johnny Rivers, and Buck Owens. Chuck Berry of St. Louis wrote "Memphis, Tennessee" in 1959 and Chess Records released it as the B-side to "Back in the U.S.A." The A-side didn't stand a chance. Chuck Berry and others sang:

Long distance in formation, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
'Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie
She's the only one who'd phone me here from Memphis Tennessee
Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee

Last time I saw Marie she's waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

— © 1959 Chuck Berry

Interestingly, none of the singers/guitarists mentioned by Klinkenborg had a tie to Memphis, Tennessee. Berry originated in St. Louis, but gained stardom in Chicago with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Johnny Rivers (John Henry Ramistella) was born in NYC, but grew up in Baton Rouge, LA. Buck Owens (Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr.) was born in Sherman, TX, but grew up in Mesa, AZ and moved to Bakersfield, CA as a young adult.

Thanks to YouTube, this blog presents the three versions of "Memphis, Tennessee" mentioned by Klinkenborg.

[x YouTube/Kekzors Channel]
"Memphis, Tennessee" (ca. 1959)
By Chuck Berry

[x YouTube/Suttersmith66 Channel]
"Memphis, Tennessee" (ca. 1964)
By Johnny Rivers

[x YouTube/NZpakeha Channel]
"Memphis, Tennessee" ("Austin City Limits" performance, 1988)
By Buck Owens

If this is (fair & balanced) appreciation of a great bassline and "hurry home drops," so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
By Verlyn Klinkenborg

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

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. Lately, it has been haunting me — the metrical precision of the lyrics, its emotional realism and, of course, the revelation in the penultimate line. You know the one: that this is a father’s mournful love song to his daughter, Marie, who is only 6 years old.

What I really find myself listening to is Chuck Berry the sociologist of incredible economy. It’s the open-ended plea to that disembodied personage, “Long-distance information.” It’s the household where uncles write messages on the wall. It’s the geographical precision of Marie’s home, “high up on a ridge, just a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge.” Undercutting it all is the very hopelessness of the singer’s plea.

The version I know best is the one Johnny Rivers recorded, live, at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood. It reached No. 2 on the charts in July 1964. In some ways, it best captures the internal tension of the song. He plays it bright and clear. His guitar rings through the bridge and chunks away in the verse. His Louisiana twang adds its own geography to the lyric — just listen to the way he sings “ridge.” Behind it all are the handclaps of a joyful audience. For the story of a shattered man, this is an incredibly happy song.

“Memphis, Tennessee” is also a reminder of how much country there was in Chuck Berry’s rock ’n’ roll. Just listen to the version recorded by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in 1965. The swing in Johnny Rivers’s version has gone stiff-legged and angular. The melodic line has been straightened by the harmony of Owens and his guitarist, Don Rich. And yet it’s glorious, a country plaint closer, in many ways, to the original.

I’m no longer surprised by Marie being 6 years old. But her “hurry home drops” do still surprise me, every time. I wonder even now about the operator on the other end of that connection, and the sequel. I like to think that, in the end, the call was placed and a happy ending found, if only in joint custody. Ω

[Verlyn Klinkenborg was born in Colorado in 1952 and raised in Iowa and California. He graduated from Pomona College with a B.A. in English and received a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University. Klinkenborg joined the editorial board of The New York Times in 1997. He is the author of Making Hay (1986), The Last Fine Time (1991), The Rural Life (2003), and Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006).]

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company

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