The Band, “Back to Memphis” from Moondog Matinee (1973): Across the Great Divide

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The Band simply stole this song from Chuck Berry, who recorded it in Memphis but had never lived there. Vocalist Levon Helm’s nearby roots give his take on “Back to Memphis,” completed for but not originally included on the Band’s 1973 covers album Moondog Matinee, this sense of yearning that Berry simply wasn’t equipped to muster.

The song originally grew out of a lightning-fast three-day session in 1967 that saw Chuck Berry working with local legends like Andrew Love at Memphis’ Royal Studios in service of a debut album for Mercury. Only, in a suddenly psychedelic age, “Back in Memphis” ended up as the opening cut on a largely forgotten album.

That is, until the Band revived it, several years later. Helm sings with a raw desire to return to the Mississippi Delta’s endlessly unique, endlessly unkempt environs, while Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson jostle back and forth within the song’s rambling groove. As the only American in a group that became a worldwide phenomenon from an initial home base of Canada, Helm frames this outsider’s tale with just the right touch of pathos. Where Chuck Berry tended to wink, Levon Helm finds something darker.

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And yet “Back to Memphis” somehow didn’t make the final tracklisting for Moondog Matinee, replaced by “The Promised Land,” another Chuck Berry favorite. Instead, the studio version of this track remained unheard until Moondog Matinee was given an expanded reissue in 2001. In the meantime, however, it became a concert staple for the Band, and subsequently for Levon Helm.

“Back to Memphis” was memorably performed during their long-bootlegged 1973 stop at Roosevelt Stadium, and later featured on a strange 1995 release purporting to be from the same year at Watkins Glen — but actually including a series of studio songs with overdubbed crowd noise. The song remained part of the Band’s setlists into the post-Robbie Robertson era too, appearing as early as 1983. The track “Back to Memphis” from the Band’s penultimate 1996 studio effort High on the Hog was, however, a separate composition – written, ironically enough, by longtime Chuck Berry sideman Johnnie Johnson.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

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