Rock Legend Chuck Berry, Top-Notch Short Story Writer

"Memphis, Tennessee" shows Berry's sociological side: Klinkenborg
By Harry Kimball,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 2, 2009 5:30 PM CST

The original Chuck Berry version of “Memphis, Tennessee” isn't as well known as some others—by Johnny Rivers, say, or Buck Owens. But the real star is the tune, first released in 1959, which Verlyn Klinkenborg suspects is the “best short story in the form of a song lyric.” It showcases not just Chuck Berry the rock and roll progenitor, but Chuck Berry the “sociologist of incredible economy.”

Klinkenborg, writing in the New York Times, marvels at the detail Berry packs in. “It’s the household where uncles write messages on the wall,” he observes. “It’s the geographical precision of Marie’s home, ‘high up on a ridge, just a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge.’” Interpreters contribute their own depth—Rivers’ “Louisiana twang adds its own geography,” and Owens turns it into “a country plaint.” But in the end the lyric, an oddly happy “story of a shattered man,” prevails. “I like to think that, in the end, the call was placed.” (More Chuck Berry stories.)

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