Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
The oft-covered Chuck Berry gem “Memphis, Tennessee” was never meant for stardom, taking a back seat to Berry’s “Back In The U.S.A,” which was the A to “Memphis”’s B on the 1959 single they shared. Chart success would eventually happen in England, where it was released as a double A-side with “Let It Rock” and climbed to #6 on the UK charts. With this history, it’s no surprise that a who’s-who of the British invasion has covered it – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, and The Hollies have all taken a stab, turning the trip through “Memphis” into a rite of passage.
The song itself is a wonder of subtle storytelling, so much so that it may take a few listens to understand what it’s actually about. As the song starts, set up as a call to the operator, it’s easy to think the narrator is looking for a long-lost lover near the Mississippi Bridge, but in the second-to-last line, Berry reveals the truth: Marie is only six years old, and her father desperately misses her. Here are five more takes on this broken-home tale.
MP3: Johnny Rivers – Memphis (Chuck Berry cover)
Quite possibly the most famous version of the song. Johnny Rivers had a bona fide hit with his chugging rendition of “Memphis,” rising to #2 on the US charts. Rumor has it that Rivers decided to record the song after hearing a test pressing of Elvis Presley covering it, even copping the arrangement used by Elvis. The King wasn’t too happy about this, but Rivers’ audience at the Whisky a-Go-Go couldn’t have been happier.
MP3: The Faces – Memphis, Tennessee (Chuck Berry cover)
With “Memphis,” the Faces prove they can take a song about divorce and turn it into a party scene. Tossing together Rod Stewart’s gravelly vocals, a slippery bass line, a slide guitar, and buoyant keys, they sound like they are having fun despite whatever tragedy the song’s narrator is enduring.
MP3: John Cale – Memphis (Chuck Berry cover)
John Cale infuses “Memphis” with menace, giving the impression that Marie could be in danger if this caller actually finds her. Released on his notorious Animal Justice EP, “Memphis” confirms that Cale is one of the best at finding the dark underside of classic songs.
MP3: Pianosaurus – Memphis (Chuck Berry cover)
Pianosaurus’s gimmick of playing songs on toy instruments brings some unexpected poignancy when applied to a song about a father’s search for his six-year-old. The chiming and ringing percussion on “Memphis” is a highlight of their 1987 album Groovy Neighborhood.
MP3: Jerry Lawler – Memphis, Tennessee (Chuck Berry cover)
In another line of work, Jerry Lawler was the King of Memphis, Tennessee, so it’s only appropriate that the pro wrestling legend would record a cover of one of the iconic songs about the city – and at Sam Phillips’ place, no less! It’s a little bumpy, but considering how he dealt with Andy Kaufman on Letterman, somebody else can tell him that.