As long as we’re talking about great riffs that weren’t played on guitars, how about the piano work in Walking in Memphis, which lent the song a distinctive sort of Bruce Springsteen-meets-Bruce Hornsby feel when it was released, and thirty years on still sounds a little different from anything else on the radio. It was the standout cut on Cohn’s eponymous 1991 debut album (which won him a Best New Artist Grammy), and told the true story of a journey taken years earlier to the city that was one of the wellsprings of the Delta Blues, as well as the home of the legendary Sun Studio, which Cohn aimed to visit along with other real yet mythical locales like Graceland, the tacky mansion where Elvis lived out his fantasies, and Beale Street, immortalized in the blues classic by the legendary W.C. Handy – the sort of trip that for many American musicians would amount to a sort of religious pilgrimage. There was a little actual religion, too; Cohn also made a point of visiting the church where soul singer Al Green had taken up preaching as a Reverend, and took in a sermon.
Later, after walking the streets for a while, Beale Street especially, he headed home, up Highway 61 and into Mississippi, where he had the encounter that inspired him to compose the song, in a little roadside diner/cafe that caught his eye called Hollywood, of all the things to name an utterly unglamorous little joint sitting in the middle of the impoverished boondocks of pretty much the poorest state in the Union. Inside, an aged black piano player named Muriel Wilkins, who’d obviously been a regular at the place for years, was performing spirituals and old standards, and there was something about her – maybe Cohn simply admired the skill of a fellow musician, but you get the sense that it was something else, that he felt drawn to her at some sub-conscious level. When she took a break between sets, he approached her to strike up a conversation, and they hit it off. He wound up telling the sympathetic 70 year-old the bulk of his life story, really spilling his guts about how he was a struggling performer, how he lost his parents young, his Dad when he was 12, his Mom at only 2, and bless her heart, Muriel listened – really listened. As Cohn told Q magazine in 1992:
She was real curious, she seemed to have some kind of intuition about me, and I ended up telling her about my family, my parents, how I was a musician looking for a record deal, the whole thing. Then, it must have been about two in the morning, she asks me up to sing with her and we do about an hour, me and this lady I’d never met before, hardly a song I knew, so she’s yelling the words at me. Then at the end, as the applause is rising up, she leans over and whispers in my ear, she’s whispering, “You’ve got to let go of your mother, child, she didn’t mean to die, she’s where she’s got to be and you’re where you have to be, child, it’s time to move on.”
In the song, she asks him if he’s a Christian child, and he answers “Ma’am, I am tonight”.
Now that’s a hell of nice story, isn’t it? Heck, it’s downright inspirational, and steeped in the sort of mythical quality one expects from tales about finding your muse along the dusty roads of the Old South (plus it’s way more uplifting than the one in which Robert Johnson sold his soul to Satan at the crossroads).
Cohn kept in touch with Muriel, and she attended his wedding before she passed on, about a year before Walking in Memphis was released. You can’t help but wish she’d lived to hear it.
Walking in Memphis wasn’t the only good thing on the album – I’m a big fan of Ghost Train, the very next track on Side 1 – and two others, Silver Thunderbird and True Companion, made it on to the charts. Unfortunately, with that, Cohn peaked commercially, but he’s kept on making records, and I’m thinking I should check them out, and for that matter, revisit his debut.
The Hollywood, named not after Tinsel Town but Hollywood, Mississippi, still stands, and is, it turns out, a legendary place, which you can read about here if you’re interested: