As I’ve said in previous blogs, we songwriters all go to school by studying the masters. Check out the lyrics to Chuck’s classic song, “Memphis”, and the subtle genius of his storytelling. This is a rock ‘n’ roll novel in four A-A-A-A verse sections and 2:12:
1) Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
’Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall
2) Help me, information get in touch with my Marie
She’s the only one who’d phone me here from Memphis Tennessee
Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge
3) Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee
4) Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me goodbye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee
In the first verse, we hear Chuck singing in a conversation he’s having with a telephone operator—a brilliant device that communicates the key story elements through a third person: we learn of a location, “Memphis, Tennessee”, and one of the protagonists, “The party trying to get in touch with me.”
There’s immediate tension—the two are apart, and trying to connect, but “she” could not leave her number. At first we probably think this is a romantic break up between those two. Years later, Jim Croce would use the same device for “Operator,” and, not quite as cleverly. Chuck is going to tell us something even more heartbreaking, with verse-by-verse storytelling drama.
In verse two, we learn that the subject of Chuck’s concern is named “Marie.” She actually lives in Memphis, he knows exactly where. The characters and location take on additional color and dimension. And he’s asking the operator for her “help.” Chuck is clearly upset; something’s not right between him and this girl—we still don’t know what, but want to.
In verse three, he asks for “help” again at the top: he “misses her and all the fun we had”. We continue to think that Marie and Chuck were romantically connected. Then—the bomb: they were “pulled apart” because “her MOM” did not agree. WOW. This IS about a romantic break-up: between Marie’s mother and the father singing about it. And this pivotal moment of revelation in the plot, with just that one word, tells it all.
In the last verse, we have the image of the last time Chuck saw Marie—with her “waving me good-bye”: since her Mom did not agree, Dad has to leave her behind. Marie’s tears are “hurry-home drops”—is there a hipper, more descriptive metaphor in the history of rock? And, because “Marie is only six years old,” we finally understand. Chuck is suffering through one of life’s greatest hardships—losing custody of his daughter to a failed romance, calling just wanting to talk to her again. A two minute, two chord song! And rock ‘n’ roll at its most poignant, and best.
R.I.P. Chuck Berry. You were not only one of the creators of rock ‘n’ roll, but you’ve rocked our world. And you’ll continue to teach songwriters our craft for as long as we make music.
Andy “A.J.” Gundell has worked on/with: ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, ESPN, MTV, NBA-TV, HBO, Netflix, Disney, Spirit Music Group, Opus 1, PolyGram, WB, Sony, Cherry Lane, Proctor & Gamble Productions, Discovery, A & E, Viacom, AT & T. He is a 13-time Emmy award-winning songwriter, composer, music supervisor and producer… and currently the founder and CEO of next gen music library, Future Hits.
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