The Story of... 'Walking in Memphis' by Marc Cohn

8 August 2019, 15:31

Walking in Memphis
Picture: Atlantic/Getty

By Tom Eames

It's one of the ultimate rock tribute songs of all time, and became Marc Cohn's biggest hit by far upon its release in 1991.

But what exactly is the meaning behind the song, and who has covered it since? Here's all the fascinating facts behind the iconic song:

  1. Who wrote 'Walking in Memphis'?

    Marc Cohn in 1991
    Marc Cohn in 1991. Picture: Getty

    Marc Cohn wrote this song for his self-titled debut album.

    He was aged 31 when he first recorded the track in 1990.

  2. What is the meaning and inspiration behind 'Walking in Memphis'?

    James Taylor
    James Taylor. Picture: Getty

    Marc Cohn was first inspired to write the song after a 1985 visit to Memphis, Tennessee.

    He then lived in New York City, working as a session singer while aiming for his own recording contract.

    "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," he later said.

    "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."

    He visited Memphis after reading an interview with James Taylor, where the singer said he overcame writer's block by "go[ing] somewhere I've never been, hoping to find some idea I wouldn't get just by sitting at home".

    Cohn followed Taylor's idea, choosing Memphis: "I always knew it was a place I had to visit because so much of my favorite music came from there."

    He later recalled that after arriving in Memphis: "I did all the [expected] touristy things ... I went to Graceland, and I saw Elvis Presley's tomb and his airplanes".

  3. The song isn't actually about Elvis Presley

    Elvis Presley at Graceland in 1957
    Elvis Presley at Graceland in 1957. Picture: Getty

    Cohn later said he wasn't sure about referencing Elvis in the lyrics of the song.

    "To me, the song is so minimally about him, but I worry that it gets cast off as another Elvis tribute," he said.

    "It's a testament to the power of his name, even if you just mention it in one verse, the song becomes about him because people focus on it".

  4. Al Green and a café were huge inspirations

    Al Green
    Al Green. Picture: Getty

    Cohn explained: "The first thing was go to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning to hear the Reverend Al Green preach. I [soon] 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."

    His friend also advised him to visit the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, Mississippi to see Muriel Davis Wilkins, a retired school teacher who also performed at the cafe on Friday nights.

    He soon befriended Wilkins, and he eventually joined her onstage: "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 Reverend 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."

  5. It wasn't a massive hit

    Marc Cohn - Walking in Memphis (Official Music Video)

    Amazingly, upon release it didn't exactly set the charts alight.

    In the US, it reached number 13, spending 23 weeks in the Hot 100. It also reached number 3 in Canada.

    In the UK, it only peaked at number 22.

    Despite this, it has gone on to become a radio staple, and has been described as "an iconic part of the Great American Songbook".

  6. Who has covered it?

    Cher - Walking In Memphis (Official Music Video)

    In 1995, it was remade by Cher for her 22nd album, It's a Man's World. It was the song's lead single, and its black-and-white music featured footage of Cher singing with footage of an Elvis Presley-like figure, also played by Cher.

    Her version performed better than the original in the UK, reaching number 11.

    Country band Lonestar also scored a hit with a cover version in 2003.

  7. What are the lyrics?

    Put on my blue suede shoes
    And I boarded the plane
    Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
    In the middle of the pouring rain

    W.C. Handy, won't you look down over me
    Yeah, I got a first class ticket
    But I'm as blue as a boy can be

    Then I'm walking in Memphis
    Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
    Walking in Memphis
    But do I really feel the way I feel?

    Saw the ghost of Elvis
    On Union Avenue
    Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
    Then I watched him walk right through

    Now security they did not see him
    They just hovered 'round his tomb
    But there's a pretty little thing
    Waiting for the King
    Down in the Jungle Room

    When I was walking in Memphis
    I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
    Walking in Memphis
    But do I really feel the way I feel?

    They've got catfish on the table
    They've got gospel in the air
    And Reverend Green be glad to see you
    When you haven't got a prayer
    But, boy, you've got a prayer in Memphis

    Now Muriel plays piano
    Every Friday at the Hollywood
    And they brought me down to see her
    And they asked me if I would

    Do a little number
    And I sang with all my might
    She said
    "Tell me are you a Christian child?"
    And I said "Ma'am, I am tonight"

    Put on my blue suede shoes
    And I boarded the plane
    Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
    In the middle of the pouring rain