In this exclusive first-person memoir, songwriter Marc Cohn recalls the genesis of his classic piano-driven hit, "Walking in Memphis." -Ed.
I first went to Memphis, Tennessee in 1985. I always knew it was a place I had to visit because so much of my favorite music came from there. From Al Green, Ann Peebles, and everything on Hi Records, to Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, and the Stax catalog, an almost endless stream of brilliance and soul came out of Memphis. I was aware early on that just like Detroit and the music of Motown, there was something going on in Memphis that was utterly inexplicable. It was part of what me want to be a musician in the first place.
The Songwriter’s Predicament
Around that same time, I was reading an interview with James Taylor. The interviewer asked James what his antidote for writer’s block was. James responded, “I do a geographic,” meaning that he’d attempt to reawaken his sensibilities just by being someplace unfamiliar. He said, “I’ll take my guitar and put it in the trunk of my car, or I’ll get on a plane and go somewhere I’ve never been, hoping to find some idea I wouldn’t get just by sitting at home.” I thought I’d try that as well. Memphis was the first place I decided to go in my search for inspiration.
Beyond just trying to cure writer’s block, the trip was also about finding my songwriting voice. By that time I’d already been a songwriter for many years. I’d struggled in Los Angeles, playing all the clubs, but had never been signed. Later when I came to New York City, I started having success as a session singer, but I still didn’t get a record deal. One night while listening to all of my demos, I came to the realization that I shouldn’t be signed, because I didn’t have any great songs yet. My voice was good and the demos were interesting, but the songs were only just okay. I was 28 years old and not in love with my songs. James Taylor had written “Fire and Rain” when he was 18, and Jackson Browne wrote “These Days” when he was only 17. I thought, “I’m already ten years older than these geniuses. It’s never going to happen for me.” So it was a pretty desperate time, and I went to Memphis with that struggle at the forefront of my mind.
I did all the touristy things you’re supposed to do. I went to Graceland, and I saw Elvis Presley’s tomb and his airplanes. I also went to the Rendezvous restaurant for ribs. But a friend told me there were two things in particular that I had to do, things that would forever change me. They would later become the centerpieces of “Walking in Memphis.”
The first thing was go to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning to hear the Reverend Al Green preach. I’ll admit that I didn’t go for religious purposes—I went to hear one of my favorite singers sing. But it didn’t take long until I had chills running up and down my spine. The service was so deeply moving that I found myself with sweat running down my face and tears in my eyes, totally enveloped by everything I was seeing and hearing. There was something incredibly powerful about Al Green’s voice in that context. Even after three hours of continuous singing, his voice only got stronger and his band only got better. I sat there crying in the church, aware of the irony of how I used to cry in Synagogue in Cleveland as a kid—but because I wanted to get the heck out of there! Al Green’s service was one of the great experiences of my life.
The second thing was to go to the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, Mississippi, about 40 minutes outside of Memphis, and hear Muriel Davis Wilkins sing. I’d never heard of Muriel before, but I took my friend’s advice and went anyway. The Hollywood Café had supposedly once been a slave commissary, but it was now a lovely little restaurant that served fried pickles and catfish. Muriel was a schoolteacher who on weekends made extra money playing music. When I arrived, Muriel, who at the time was in her 60s, was onstage playing a beat-up old upright piano and singing Gospel standards like “The Glory of Love” and “Nearer My God to Thee.” I felt an immediate connection to her voice, her spirit, her face, and her smile. I was totally transfixed by her music.
While many of the patrons were busy eating and not paying close attention to Muriel, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. During her breaks, the two of us would talk. Muriel asked me why I was there, and I told her I was a songwriter trying to find inspiration. I also told her a little bit about my childhood—how when I was two and a half years old, my mom had passed away very unexpectedly, and about ten years later, my dad had passed away and I’d been raised by a stepmother. My mother’s death was a central event in my life, and I’d been writing a lot about it over the years, both in songs and in journals. I think a part of me felt stuck in time, like I’d never quite been able to work through that loss. Muriel was as sweet as could be, and she was really funny, too. I remember that she asked how I spelled my last name. When I told her, she replied, “You mean, like corn?” We had a lot of laughs.
By midnight, the Hollywood was still packed, and Muriel asked me to join her onstage. We soon realized that there wasn’t a song in the universe that both of us knew in common. A quick thinker, Muriel started feeding me lyrics to Gospel songs so that I could catch up in time to sing somewhat in rhythm with her and make up my own version of the melody. Some songs I was vaguely familiar with, and some I didn’t know at all. The very last song we sang together that night was “Amazing Grace.” After we finished and people were applauding, Muriel leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Child, you can let go now.” It was an incredibly maternal thing for her to say to me. Just like sitting in Revered Al Green’s church, I was again transformed. It was almost as if my mother was whispering in my ear. From the time I left Memphis and went back home to New York City, I knew I had a song in me about my experience there.
Pen on Paper
There have been countless songs about Memphis, so I knew if I was going to go down that road, it needed to be deeply personal. Within a few days of coming home, I began to write the song on guitar. I think I already had the opening line, “Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane.” I started playing an arpeggiated figure that I liked, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t play it very well on guitar. So I went to the piano, where that kind of rolling rhythm was easier for me to play. Then I added that first line to the piano riff (see Figure 1 below) and I was off to the races.
The music for “Walking in Memphis,” except for the bridge, is really just the same thing over and over again. It’s an attempt to keep things simple so that the narrative is what the listener focuses on. The story keeps changing; it goes from one scenario to another, all following the thread of my elation, described in the lyric “Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale.” What’s being expressed is my love of music and the spiritual transformation I’ve always felt through it. The line, “Tell me are you a Christian child, and I said ‘Ma’am I am tonight’” . . . even in the moment I wrote it down, I knew I was getting closer to finding my songwriting voice. To this day, people still ask me if I am a Christian. While I have to admit that I enjoy the confusion the lyric brings, the thing that makes that line work is the fact that I’m a Jew. So many great artists over the years needed to hide the fact that they were Jewish to protect themselves and their families from anti-Semitism, so I’m proud of the fact that I could come right out and practically announce my religion on the first song I ever released.
I kept writing and rewriting the lyrics. Even in some of the later drafts, I still didn’t have the final lyrics yet (see Figure 2at left). I was still working on the “ghosts of Elvis” verse, and there were still some things that weren’t in place yet. When I finished the song, I felt like I had completed a jigsaw puzzle. I wasn’t sure if it was a “hit,” because I was still years away from being signed to Atlantic Records. Six months later, after I wrote many of the songs that would later comprise my album Marc Cohn, I went back to the Hollywood Café to play them all for Muriel (see Figure 3at bottom). After I finished, Muriel said to me, “You know the one where you mention me at the end? That’s the best one you got!”
Later in 1986, my engineer and co-producer Ben Wisch and I made a piano/vocal demo of “Walking in Memphis” in a studio in New York City. At that point, I wasn’t thinking about how my songs would work with a band or on record. I wasn’t thinking about a groove or what a guitar player might play. I was simply trying to write songs that sounded complete with just me and a piano, and I’d record them with a little Sony Walkman. Years later, after I signed with Atlantic and it came time to turn that demo into something they thought would work on the radio, I barely knew where to start. After many different versions of it with just as many different musicians, I went to Peter Koepke, the guy who signed me, and said, “Maybe this just needs to be a piano/vocal track. Or maybe it shouldn’t be on the record at all.” He replied, “If it’s not on the record, I’m not sure we’re going to make a record! So you better go figure this out, because we think this just may get on the radio.” Later, I went back to the label and said, “I’d like a shot at producing this record with Ben Wisch, who I made the demos with in the first place. He got a great sound on my voice and on the piano, and that’s at least half of what this is all about.” Atlantic ultimately agreed, and the rest, I guess, is history.
Fig. 3: The "Muriel" of "Walking in Memphis, Muriel Davis Wilkins, looks on as Cohn plays piano.
Producer Ben Wisch on Recording “Walking in Memphis”
“Marc was basically signed to Atlantic Records because of ‘Walking in Memphis,’ co-producer Ben Wisch says. “We probably recorded it five different times in different configurations. On one version, we actually had Steve Gadd playing drums in the studio. It was after midnight and we were all frustrated because the recording wasn’t going well. And Steve said, ‘Let’s all switch instruments!’ That version didn’t work out, but I’ll never forget Steve’s devotion to getting the song right. Eventually, we settled on a band that featured John Leventhal on bass, Denny McDermott on drums, and Chris Palmaro on Hammond organ. Everything was based around Marc’s singing and piano playing. We recorded live to 24-track tape at Quad Recording Studios in New York, with any editing done between entire takes of the song. The piano sound is very in-your-face, not unlike Bruce Hornsby’s sound of a few years prior. We used the old Steinway grand at Quad Studios, and I miked it with a pair of AKG C451 condensers. Those are bright mics, and I put a fair amount of compression on them. For vocals, Marc sang through a vintage Neumann U67 tube condenser microphone through a Teletronix LA-2A compressor and then into an SSL console with outboard API EQ.”