Inspired by a trip to Memphis to see soul legend and man of the church, The Reverend Al Green…
Walking In Memphis – Marc Cohn
Atlantic 87747 (USA) / Atlantic A 7747 (UK)
Recorded at Quad Recording, New York City
Released March 1991
Writer Marc Cohn
Producers Marc Cohn & Ben Wisch
USA #13 5/91 UK #22 10/91
Quotes from Mojo/Q Magazine Lyrics copyright © 1990 Museum Steps Music (ascap)
It was hearing Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album in his teens that inspired Marc Cohn to a life in music. A self-taught pianist, Cleveland born Cohn first found success after moving to New York where he formed a 14 piece swing-band, The Supreme Court, in the 1980’s. Among their admirers was Carly Simon who got the band a high-profile gig at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding. Not long after this, Cohn’s demos won him a contract with Atlantic and work on his debut album began. Like many other hit songs in this series, ‘Walking In Memphis’, nearly didn’t make it onto the finished album. Cohn recalls, “I was close to not putting this tune on the record for a couple of days” and refers to comments he made in a notebook he kept at the time; “I’m not putting that song on the record. It’s impossible to get, it’s horrible, I hate it…the band doesn’t play it well.” Fortunately, he got over his misgivings and his studio band ultimately turned in a fine performance.
Inspired by a trip to Memphis to see soul legend and man of the church, The Reverend Al Green, Cohn recalls: “I went to see Al Green in the church, I don’t practise religion, but I was in tears. I spent five hours in the sweltering heat listening to him and I almost found religion, if only temporarily.” Later that day he drove across the border to Arkansas where he stumbled across an old slave shack turned into a honkytonk bar off Highway 61 called “Hollywood”. Here, curiosity aroused, he soon came into conversation with Muriel, an elderly black stride pianist who sang the blues and had a few tales to tell. These two experiences were the genesis of ‘Walking In Memphis’, a song of spiritual awakening and a potted musical history of the “Land of the delta blues”.
There were plenty of references for music fans to ponder over. W.C. Handy, often called “the father of the blues” was the author of, ‘St Louis Blues’ (1914), one of the most important (and performed) blues songs ever. ‘St Louis Blues’ was written in a bar on Beale Street. Naturally there are references to Elvis and his home Graceland and also Carl Perkins’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Presley’s early recordings, together with ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, were of course recorded at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, which had its base on Union Avenue (#706), where Cohn’s song claims he, “Saw the ghost of Elvis”. His experiences that day, first witnessing Al Green’s sermon, and then meeting Muriel, led to the song’s declaration of spiritual awakening in the final verse where Muriel asks, “Tell me are you a Christian child” and Cohn declares, “Ma’am I am tonight.”
‘Walking In Memphis’ helped Marc Cohn win the 1991 Grammy® for Best New Artist, and was a UK hit in a cover by Cher in 1995. It was also the subject of a legal affray in 1992. UK dance act Shut Up And Dance sampled the record without permission to create, ‘Raving, I’m Raving’. They also changed the lyrics to highlight the rave aspect of their recording thus adapting the opening line to, “Put on my raving shoes and boarded the plane”. The song reached #2 on the basis of 35,000 sales before Mr Cohn raised strong objections and asserted his “moral integrity rights” under the 1988 Copyright Act and had the record deleted after 2 weeks on the market.
All profits went to charity, though this didn’t stop German act Scooter reviving the song in 1996 and having a major European hit with, ‘I’m Raving’ – presumably on this occasion they got the necessary copyright clearances first. (Despite the lyrical alterations, ‘I’m Raving’ was credited to Cohn alone.) Marc Cohn was shot in the temple in an attempted car-jacking after a concert in Denver, Colorado in August 2005. Thankfully he was not seriously injured and in a statement released when he left hospital declared, “I feel lucky to be alive and happy to be heading home to my family. My band and I look forward to putting this behind us and going back to work.”
Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton