Memphis, Tennessee: Chuck Berry; Johnny Rivers; Jerry Lee Lewis

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic 50s rock ‘n roll tune, Memphis, Tennessee. We will first discuss the original version by Chuck Berry. Next, we will review a cover by Johnny Rivers and then one by Jerry Lee Lewis.

Chuck Berry and Memphis, Tennessee:

Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry, who passed away in March 2017 at the age of 90, was one of the most important figures in the history of rock and roll. His status as a rock music pioneer is so significant that John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”

Chuck grew up in St. Louis and became interested in rhythm and blues, admiring both the guitar style and the flamboyant showmanship of blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. Berry began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson.

Below is a publicity photo of a young Chuck Berry with his Gibson electric guitar.

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Chuck auditioned for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. At the time Berry was interested in rhythm and blues, so he tried out some blues songs. But Chess Records had an incredible stable of blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and so had little use for Chuck’s blues offerings.

In 1955 during a rehearsal with Chess Records, the producer heard Berry goofing off with fellow bandmates between takes. When asked what he was playing, he said it was a variation on a country song, Ida Red, that was performed by Bob Wills’ western swing band. In a critical moment of serendipity, the producer urged Berry to write a rocking song in the spirit of Ida Red. Chuck’s new tune became his first hit record Maybellene, which soared to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.

The song Memphis, Tennessee was written by Chuck Berry in 1958. In this song, Chuck asks a long distance telephone operator to provide him with the number for “Marie.” It appears that Marie is a former girlfriend who broke up with the singer because “her Mom did not agree.”

Long distance information, 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

In a clever twist, the end of the song reveals that Marie is his six-year-old daughter, who is currently living with her mother in Memphis.

The song was apparently recorded in St. Louis in September, 1958. The musicians include Chuck’s long-time associate Johnnie Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on upright bass and Fred Below on drums. Although the song did not make the Billboard singles charts, nevertheless it has become a favorite with rock bands ever since.

Here is the audio of Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee.

As with so many Chuck Berry tunes, the song contains a simple but memorable guitar line. The song is more sparse and restrained than many of Chuck’s rock ‘n roll tunes. Memphis, Tennessee was not released in the U.K. until 1963, but it then made it to #6 on the British pop charts.

And now here is a live performance by Chuck Berry of Memphis, Tennessee.

This was recorded in the BBC TV Theatre in March 1972. Chuck’s live version is more up-tempo than the record. Like all his hits, it features Chuck’s signature story-telling. Here Chuck also noodles around, throwing in several of his signature rock guitar riffs.

The guitar licks appear rather simple, but one has to remember that Chuck personally introduced these into rock music, after which they were meticulously copied by generations of budding rock guitarists.

This clip also features Chuck’s famed showmanship.  He swings and sways back and forth with his guitar, and briefly shows off his signature move, the duck-walk (just barely visible in this video).

This video also includes a common feature of Chuck Berry performances. To save money, Chuck frequently toured without a backing band; he simply hired local musicians to accompany him.  In fortunate circumstances (such as this concert), Chuck got a group who were familiar with rock ‘n roll, and could play along with him. But he often ended up with jazz combos, or 40s-style big bands who didn’t know the first thing about rock ‘n roll.

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones commented that, after his initial hits, Chuck continued to release effectively the same song over and over again. It’s true that Chuck Berry’s biggest hits contain many re-cycled elements. But heck, Chuck invented this stuff – why not stay true to a proven formula?

For a song that never made the US charts, Memphis Tennessee has now been covered roughly 200 times. Covers of this song have been released by musicians as diverse as Elvis,
Count Basie … Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs … Al Green …Tom Jones … Led Zeppelin … Roy Orbison, Buck Owens, … Rod Stewart, … George Thorogood, … and Hank Williams Jr.

From 1955-1965, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music. Chuck keenly understood the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was selling records primarily to middle-class white teen-agers. But he was a sublime story-teller, and songs like Sweet Little Sixteen or School Days effectively conveyed the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.

Alas, in 1962 Chuck was convicted of violation of the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes), and served 18 months in jail. Chuck subsequently resumed his career, but with less commercial success.

Paradoxically, the British Invasion put a real dent in his record sales. With cruel irony, groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones who adored Berry and covered many of his songs, threatened to put him out of business! However, although Chuck’s record sales declined he remained in great demand on tour, which allowed him to stay afloat financially in those difficult times.

Over the years Chuck Berry received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his bio was that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” How true! Chuck is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Chuck Berry passed away in March 2017 of cardiac arrest. This rock music pioneer currently is a charter member of the band in Rock ‘n Roll Heaven.

Johnny Rivers and Memphis:

John Ramistella was born in 1942 and grew up in Baton Rouge, LA. While still in high school he started to form his own bands, singing and playing guitar. His striking talent got him noticed by legendary DJ Alan Freed, at the time the most influential figure in rock ‘n roll. Freed advised Ramistella to change his name to Johnny Rivers (presumably after the Mississippi River, which flowed through Baton Rouge).

After changing his name, Johnny Rivers worked his way through clubs in the South, supplementing his income writing songs. His first big break came when fellow Louisiana native and guitar legend James Burton recommended one of Rivers’ songs to Ricky Nelson.

For several years Rivers performed but achieved little success, and he eventually decided to dedicate himself full time to songwriting. He moved to LA in 1961, where he continued to do session work in studios, and to take gigs at clubs.

Here’s a photo of Johnny Rivers performing live at the Hollywood Palace in May 1966.

Embed from Getty Images

Rivers’ big break came in 1964 when he opened at a new bar, the Whisky a Go Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. There he attracted an enthusiastic following, and producer Lou Adler released an album, Johnny Rivers Live at the Whisky a Go Go. This became a surprise hit, making it all the way to #12 on the Billboard album list.

Here is Johnny Rivers in a “live” performance of Chuck Berry’s tune Memphis, Tennessee (which Rivers released as “Memphis”).

This took place on American Bandstand, where Johnny is introduced by host Dick Clark. Rivers’ cover of the song was a cut from his “Live at the Whisky a Go Go” album, and this song made it to #2 on the Billboard singles charts.

Johnny Rivers produces a more up-tempo version of Chuck Berry’s tune (and Rivers’ arrangement is what most people remember). He shows off his technical mastery on the guitar, and the genial stage presence that made him such a hit on the LA club circuit.

However, this song sparked a personal feud. Apparently Elvis Presley had an unreleased cover of Memphis that he played for Rivers.  When Johnny later released his version of Memphis, Tennessee, Mr. Presley felt that Rivers had stolen his arrangement.

Rivers’ commercial success was notable as it occurred at the beginning of the British Invasion, when groups like the Beatles and Stones wiped out most American pop groups. Rivers subsequently had a number of hits, mainly covers of ‘roots’ rock and roll and blues, with a few folk songs thrown in.

Rivers churned out several pop hits during the 70s. While he continued to produce covers from other artists, he had some success with his own songs. Rivers then branched out into producing. He was associated with several new record labels, and apparently was a supportive mentor to a number of young artists.

Johnny Rivers continues to tour even today, some 60 years after he began in the music business. He now focuses on the blues, the music that initially inspired him. Rivers is one of the few artists who owns the copyright to his own songs, and he must have done pretty well financially, with
9 Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and 17 in the Top 40 from 1964 to 1977; he has sold well over 30 million records.

Although Johnny Rivers has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several times, he has yet to be inducted. Strange – I would have thought he was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Memphis, Tennessee:

Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the great early stars of rock and roll. He became an overnight sensation in the mid-50s, and his piano playing helped define rock ‘n roll as a new and vibrant musical genre. Jerry Lee was a larger-than-life performer, whose roller-coaster career featured dramatic twists and turns.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in 1935 in Concordia parish, Louisiana. Jerry Lee and his two cousins Mickey Gillis and Jimmy Swaggart became seriously interested in music. Mickey and Jerry Lee would continue in music, while Swaggart became a famous, indeed infamous, preacher and TV evangelist.

Below is a photo of Jerry Lee Lewis performing in concert in England, May 1958.

Embed from Getty Images

After Jerry Lee showed a serious interest in music, his parents, bless their souls, mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. But while Jerry Lee was interested in popular music, particularly R&B and country, his parents envisioned their boy taking up gospel music.

Jerry Lee subsequently enrolled at the Southwest Bible Institute. Fortunately for everyone, he was expelled for playing boogie-woogie at a church assembly. With a religious vocation closed off, Jerry Lee began to play at clubs in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1956 he moved to Memphis, where he became a session musician for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records while he attempted to score a hit record. Jerry Lee’s unmistakable piano playing can be heard on Sun recordings of artists such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

At that time, rockabilly music tended to emphasize the guitar. But Jerry Lee Lewis’ distinctive piano licks were creative and notable, and induced producers to add piano into their instrumental mix.

Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the greatest exemplars for piano and keyboards in rock music. He was in a class with legendary figures such as Fats Domino and Little Richard.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style was an over-the-top combination of boogie-woogie stride piano,
which is characterized by a regular left hand bass figure and dancing beat.
Jerry Lee combined this with elements he absorbed from his Southern gospel upbringing.  In Lewis’ talented hands, the results were electrifying.

For many artists, Jerry Lee Lewis defined rock and roll piano artistry. Young musician Elton John recounted that
My dad collected George Shearing records, but this was the first time I heard someone beat the shit out of a piano. When I saw Little Richard at the Harrow Granada, he played it standing up, but Jerry Lee Lewis actually jumped on the piano! … Those records had such a huge effect on me.

So here is Jerry Lee Lewis in a live performance of Memphis, Tennessee. This took place in 1981.

I greatly enjoy this video, even though what we view here is the “restrained” Jerry Lee. No jumping on the top of the piano, no pummeling the keys with his feet, elbows, or butt – just The Killer working away at the keyboard, accompanied only by guitar and drums.

This is a good example of Jerry Lee’s playing style, with great close-ups of his hands. You can see the influence from boogie-woogie stride piano, which Lewis subtly transformed into rock and roll.

Early in his career, several radio stations refused to play Jerry Lee Lewis’ records on the grounds that they were too sexually explicit. Well, duh – sexual innuendo was an essential element in 50s rock ‘n roll, particularly when expressed by artists like Elvis and Jerry Lee.

At the height of his fame, Jerry Lee’s career suddenly hit the rocks. As he embarked upon a tour of England in 1958 it was revealed that Myra, Jerry Lee’s third wife and his first cousin once removed, was just 13 (Jerry Lee was 22).

This revelation immediately enveloped Jerry Lee Lewis in scandal; he had to cut short his British tour after just 3 shows. This also had a catastrophic effect on Jerry Lee’s career in the States. He was blacklisted from the radio, Dick Clark dropped him from American Bandstand, and his producer (Sam Phillips of Sun Records) also turned against him.  Overnight, Jerry Lee Lewis went from a top rock and roll headliner to showing up at juke joints.

In addition to these problems, Jerry Lee had major issues with both alcohol and pills. He was not only a wild man onstage, but a prodigious drinker as well. And he took copious quantities of amphetamines to fuel his manic lifestyle.
“That was blues and yellows time…. I tell you, greatest pills ever made,” he says. … That would keep me going. Desbutal. Man, you couldn’t beat the Desbutal. Went hundreds of miles a day on them… biphetamines [black beauties], Placidyls, up and down. I took ’em all.”

In the late 60s when it appeared that Jerry Lee was washed up in rock and roll, he re-surfaced as a country artist. His new career began with a couple of surprise country hits. It turned out that his songs were extremely popular with country fans.

A defining event for Jerry Lee was his debut appearance on Grand Ole Opry in 1973. His performance there led to a thunderous standing ovation that helped jump-start a successful country career.

For the past 40 years, Jerry Lee Lewis has persevered as a living legend in rock and roll. He was one of the inaugural class of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

In May 2013 he opened a club in Memphis, and to the best of my knowledge he is still performing as of March 2019. As befits the title of his 2006 album, Jerry Lee Lewis is truly the Last Man Standing. He has survived a lifetime of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – Jerry Lee, long may you rock!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Memphis, Tennessee (song)
Wikipedia, Chuck Berry
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Chuck Berry bio
Wikipedia, Johnny Rivers
Wikipedia, Jerry Lee Lewis

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Rockabilly and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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