“Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry

With the passing of Chuck Berry, one of the all-time legends of Rock’n’Roll, I thought we should reflect on all that he added to the genre. Whether Chuck Berry actually invented Rock’n’Roll could be debated (there are a couple of other pioneers, particularly Ray Charles and Little Richard, that could make a similar claim), but what is indisputable is that he was the first truly great Rock songwriter. The other pioneering Rock acts like Little Richard were almost entirely performance-oriented; for example, “Tutti Frutti” is a great vehicle for Little Richard’s performing style, but it doesn’t amount to much as an actual composition. Berry, who was both a master of indelible guitar riffs and a brilliant lyricist, wrote the first great Rock songs that retained their greatness no matter who was performing them, which was an incredibly key factor in making the genre sustainable. This song is one of his all-time masterpieces, a tender and touching piece about a man trying to get through to someone named Marie who called him from Memphis, Tennessee. For most of the song it seems like Marie is an ex-girlfriend, but in the last verse it is revealed that she was actually the narrator’s six-year-old daughter. This is a genuinely poetic and beautifully moving song that shows off what Berry was truly capable of as a lyricist. The landscape of modern music would be almost unrecognizable without this great artist’s contribution, and we should all be grateful for his accomplishments both in writing some of the greatest songs of all time and in making so many other great songwriters’ work possible by his influence.

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