‘Memphis, Tennessee’: Roy Orbison Visits Chuck Berry Down South

‘Memphis, Tennessee’: Roy Orbison Visits Chuck Berry Down South

When Roy Orbison started the sessions for what became the Memphis album in March 1972, he was on a break from his almost relentless touring schedule. Now he was ready to make the follow-up to his previous MGM release, Roy Orbison Sings.

A strong selection of songs drawn largely from the 1960s was lined up for him to invest with the inimitable “Big O” style. They included Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Sonny Curtis’ equally widely-covered “I Fought The Law.” On April 7, Roy cut the number that would become the opening song on the album, a strident version of Chuck Berry’s immortal “Memphis, Tennessee.” 

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The classic story song inexplicably never made the US charts for Chuck himself in its 1959 original. But it was covered almost constantly throughout the 1960s. British acts such as the Hollies, the Animals, Tom Jones, and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders were all drawn to the song. Back in the States, it became a Top 5 hit in successive years, in 1963 for Lonnie Mack and 1964 for Johnny Rivers, both as “Memphis.”

Covers from Jerry Lee to Elvis

Thereafter, the number was further interpreted by Jerry Lee Lewis, Del Shannon, Elvis Presley and countless others. Soon before Orbison got to it, Rod Stewart and the Faces gave it their distinctive rocking treatment in 1971.

Listen to the best of Roy Orbison on Apple Music and Spotify.

Roy co-produced his version with Joe Melson to an arrangement by Joe Tanner. It was a spirited, band-driven performance with harmonica, several guitarists, background singers and a full horn section. The MGM Years 1965-1973 box set liner notes featured a contemporary review that remarked: “Now this is MY kind of Roy Orbison, singing with a boogie beat and a marked absence of gloom.” Sadly, the only major market in which Roy’s remake charted was Australia, where it reached No.84.

Buy or stream “Memphis, Tennesee” on the Memphis album.

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