Headin’ Down To Memphis

Originally posted June 8, 2007

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, if your musical career was stalled, the answer – or so it seems in many cases – was to take a trip to Memphis.

I say “or so it seems” because I haven’t got the inclination to do exhaustive research, but three or four cases pop out at me rather quickly when I consider the question. For a few years – from, oh, 1968 through 1973 – various rock and pop luminaries made their ways to the western end of Tennessee to make some music.

And it was pretty good music, at least in the cases that come easily to mind.

The earliest example that pops to mind –again without doing a lot of digging – is Dusty Springfield, who headed to the city on the Mississippi in 1968 for the sessions that became her Dusty In Memphis album. Recorded with the Memphis Cats rhythm section – highly regarded for their work with, among others, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis and, soon, Elvis Presley – and with vocal backing from the Sweet Inspirations, the album is less of a soul/R&B record than one might have expected. Songs by the teams of Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil and Hal David & Burt Bacharach aren’t the types of music one expects from an album done in western Tennessee, but it worked, both artistically and commercially. And it brought Springfield her third Top Ten hit in “Son Of A Preacher Man,” the grittiest song on the album.

The most notable performer to go to Memphis to record in those years, without doubt, was Presley. Lost in a whirlwind of mediocre movies (and questionable management) and bypassed by trends in music, the King in early 1969 began to record in his adoptive hometown for the first time since 1955. And the results were remarkable. The sessions – using many of the same musicians as Springfield had – resulted in the album From Elvis In Memphis, which topped off at No. 13 on the charts during a fifteen-week stay. And four Top 40 singles came from the sessions, as well: “Kentucky Rain” went to No. 16; “Don’t Cry, Daddy” reached No. 6; “In The Ghetto,” the only one of the four singles from the sessions included on the album, reached No. 3; and “Suspicious Minds” hit the top spot on the charts for one week during the fall of 1969.

Perhaps the most surprising of the artists who went to Memphis in those years was Petula Clark, whose Memphis album was cut – like the two above – at Chips Moman’s American Studio. Not nearly as well known as the Springfield or Presley releases – I happened upon the record, used, twelve years ago in a Twin Cities shop and haven’t run into it since – the record had no impact on either the album or singles chart. Currently available new only as a combination CD with Clark’s The Song Of My Life compilation, Memphis is well worth a listen. Approaching the music from the pop aisle rather than from the country/soul section as Springfield and Presley did, Clark puts out some of the best work of her career, finding a pop/soul groove – not all that different than Dionne Warwick’s sound – in a good group of songs.

The fourth artist who came to mind this morning among those seeking renewal or something like it in Memphis was Jerry Lee Lewis. A member with Presley of the so-called Million Dollar Quartet – as the 1956 jams the two of them recorded with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins came to be known – Lewis found his way to Memphis in 1973. Long removed from his string of classic Top 40 singles that began in 1957 (though, oddly, he’d hit No. 40 with his version of “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1972), Lewis and famed Cajun producer Huey Meaux gathered around them more than forty musicians and came out of the studios with Southern Roots.

The album, if not exactly putting Lewis in a setting where he could recapture the lightning he’d released fifteen and sixteen years earlier, at least surrounded him with musicians who understood his roots. That hadn’t entirely been the case with his previous release, The Session, which had been released a year earlier after being recorded in London with group of relatively prominent English rock stars (Rory Gallagher, Peter Frampton, Albert Lee, Alvin Lee and Beatle pal Klaus Voorman were among them). The English album wasn’t a disaster – it spent three weeks on the charts, the only Jerry Lee Lewis album ever to do so. But Lewis’ reaction – pulling together a squad of musicians that included MG’s Al Jackson, Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper from the Stax studios; the Memphis Horns; guitarists Carl Perkins and Tony Joe White; and numerous other studio musicians with their roots in the South – seems to indicate that he and Meaux were looking for what might be called a more organic sound, something closer to the soul of the South.

And, in general, Lewis and those around him found it. Some of the selections on Southern Roots seem a little forced; I’m not sure “When A Man Loves A Woman” and “Blueberry Hill” do much except reveal that Lewis is neither Percy Sledge nor Fats Domino. Nor did his remake of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming” seem to work. But the other seven cuts on the album finds a comfortable place between rock ’n’ roll, southern R&B, gospel and the country music that Lewis had been making in more recent years.

Highlights for me are “Big Blue Diamond,” “Born To Be A Loser,” and the gospelly “That Old Bourbon Street Church” that closes the album. Only once, however, does Lewis really find that old-time snarl, and that happens during the album’s opening cut, the hideously titled “Meat Man.” Overall, though, Southern Roots is a good listen.

Jerry Lee Lewis – Southern Roots [1973]

Track listing:
Meat Man
When A Man Loves A Woman
Hold On I’m Coming
Just A Little Bit
Born To Be A Loser
The Haunted House
Blueberry Hill
The Revolutionary Man
Big Blue Diamond
That Old Bourbon Street Church

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