I’ve been thinking about Memphis all day. In light of MLK Day. In light of the excellent Joe Brouwer poem “Lines in Memphis, Tennessee.” In light of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. In light of his speech the day prior where he gloried in having lived through a previous stabbing and a little girl’s letter professing happiness that he didn’t sneeze when even a sneeze would have killed him. In light of King’s joy at having lived to having seen the sit-ins, the Bill, the marches, the mountaintop. In light of his refusal to fear, as he arrived in Memphis, the threats of “sick white brothers.” For he had seen the mountaintop. And was ready to face Memphis.
I’ve never been to Memphis. But I think of it often. Certainly, because of King. But also because it’s home to the greatest song ever written about a city. Or about fatherly love.
Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” (sometimes recorded just as “Memphis”) may not match King’s gravity or rhetoric, but it’s own small miracle. Against a jaunty jangled blues lick, Berry starts it off as a classic torch song for a distant love. Calling a long distance operator to try to get in touch with his baby. And as a torch song, it’s a near perfect example of the form. But then. Oh my. The reveal in the last stanza. And the song’s bottom drops out. And so does my stomach.
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
And within twenty seconds, the song reverses itself. From erotic to paternal love. From staid to heart-wrenching. From a great song to one of the greatest songs ever recorded.
Covers abound, with a surprising amount of good versions. And even the bad versions couldn’t wear away the brilliance of the song.
Faces: A subdued pedal guitar draws this version out. A fair version that fails to get that brevity being the soul of this song’s wit, but with a fun barnstorming ending. Rod Stewart’s vocals don’t suggest he has a particularly strong understanding of fatherly love. Sorry, Rod’s seven kids. Wait, what? He has another on the way at age 66?
Elvis Presley Look. It’s Elvis. Of course it’s excellent. But still a tad disappointing. Love the “jungle” era Duke Ellington drums that kick the song off.
The Monkees: A promising version that descends into disaster: an unfinished version. Love to hear the squeaky-clean band of Marge’s lunchbox swear at each other as they blow it.
The Beatles: Neither this version, nor the Plastic Ono Band’s live take with Chuck Berry, are very good. But this version, live at the BBC, sure beats the crap out of the one for their Decca audition tape, which makes me doubt they had even heard the song before recording it. (The Stones also did a version. It sucks. Keith Richards solo demo is slightly better.)
Foggy Mountain Boys: Surprisingly, one of the better covers is the Foggy Mountain Boys’ bluegrass version. Keeps the tenderness, amplifies the song’s teasing jokiness.
Sandy Bull: The best cover, however, is a complete shocker. Ignoring Shakespeare’s advice about brevity, Bull stretches the song into an endless, perfect groove. Who knew this song could accommodate psychfolk so perfectly?
The worst cover: This video of Hank Williams Jr. where he trades off every instrument. Like an asshole. He’s so busy playing all the instruments that he forgets to do the last verse. You know. The verse with the reveal. The most important verse. The worst. I hope his father called long distance (from the grave) to tell him what a crime against music he committed with this song. And everything else he’s done since.
Other covers of note: For some reason, as far as I can tell, Nina Simone didn’t cover this song. Why? “Memphis in June” is such a tease. Del Shannon has a solid straight-up version. The Statler Brothers do it country gospel style. The Silicon Teens come close to ruining this song with their cheesy new wave. Faron Young does a decent honkey tonk. The Ventures do a decent surf rock. John Cale does a sneering version that doesn’t really have a reason to exit.
And finally, one last note: this Fair article detailing King’s final years, when he railed against poverty, is very much worth a read.