The following post from February 18, 2019 was supposed to demonstrate the difficulties we face while trying to reconstruct Chuck Berry's recording legacy from the few sources we have. And it was supposed to provoke readers to provide further knowledge. Scroll down for additional comments.
[Within our database of all Chuck Berry recordings we try to present the most complete and the most correct information about Berryâs recording work. The database is the result of decades of research using all of the data publicly available about these recordings (and sometimes even more). However, we deal here with recordings which were made when we, the researchers, were little kids or not even born. This means that most of what we do is historical research. Arne Wolfswinkel presents here an example of how difficult such research is.]
is one of Berryâs best-known songs. However, its origins and its recording details are very obscure. There are at least three different sources which talk about different personnel involved in the creation of the recording.
Today we think of Memphis as one of Berryâs greatest hits and one of his most important masterpieces. But at the time the song and the recording originated, nobody really knew what to do with it as it was so different. Bruce Pegg summarized the song as follows:
[The song] is a masterpiece of storytelling, simple and yet full of detail. It is also, quite possibly, one of the earliest pop songs ever to deal with the effects of divorce and child custody, certainly one of the first to deal with it from a male point of view.  In a two-minute pop song, Chuck Berry captured the frustrations and sadness of a divorced father, a rare adult theme in the disposable world of 1950s teenage rock and roll. [Bruce Pegg, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, p 106]
This was not to become a hit record in 1958. Which is why its release history is reasonable: it was not released at all after recorded in mid 1958. Chess Records hid it on the back of single 1729 (Back in the USA
), released in June 1959 concurrently with the movie âGo, Johnny, Go!â (and its promotional soundtrack album) into which it did not fit either.
One must merely ignore the central plot and the two characters played by Jimmy Clanton and Sandy Stewart, although even there you get some insights into the differences between the way that some black artists perceived and wrote rock & roll, and how white teen audiences perceived it. As Chuck Berry performs "Memphis Tennessee" on television (concluding with a fiercely sexual "duckwalk" that was astonishing for a black man to be seen doing, in a movie aimed at mainstream white audiences in 1959), a very serious song about marriage, divorce, and broken families, Clanton's and Stewart's characters are seen laughing as they watch the performance onscreen at her home. [Bruce Eder, AllMovie.com]
In the movie, Berry performs, well lip-syncs, Memphis all by himself in front of a TV camera. What we can definitely tell is that here we miss instruments playing. There definitely are drums on the recorded track as well as multiple guitars.
Trying to find out who played which instrument on Memphis, CHESS master number 9073, we find inconsistent data.
According to âThe Chess Labels: A Discographyâ by Michel Ruppli the song was recorded during a September 1958 session in Chicago, with Berry on vocals and guitar, possibly Bo Diddley on second guitar, Johnny Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on (double) bass and Fred Below on drums. This line-up was repeated in a recent French discography and others.
In contrast, a discography printed on the 1972 sleeve of âChuck Berryâs Golden Decade, Vol. 2â states âMemphis recorded by Berry himself and drums added by Chessâ.
In his 1987 autobiography Chuck Berry confirms this, although he claims to have played the drums himself:
Memphis  was recorded  on a $145 homemade studio in the heat of a muggy July afternoon with a $79 reel-to-reel Sears, Roebuck recorder that had provisions for sound-on-sound recording. I played the guitar and the bass track, and I added the ticky-tick drums that trot along in the background which sound so good to me. I worked over a month on revising the lyric before I took the tape up to Leonard Chess to listen to. He was again pressed for a release since my concerts (driving on the road then) kept me from the recording studio for long periods.
Based on Berryâs recollection, Fred lists both Memphis and Jo Jo Gunne (which has the same primitive sounding fidelity) as being recorded in St. Louis, July 1958 when he publishes his book âLong Distance Informationâ (2001). He changes his mind when thirteen years later the details of a September 26, 1958 recording contract become available. Both songs are listed on the contract, which also reports that the musicians present at the session are Berry (vocals, guitar), Otis Spann (piano), Willie Dixon (double bass), and Jasper Thomas (drums). Placing the songs (back) in the session, the matrix numbers allocated to the songs now run consecutively, so Fred concludes that Berry must have confused a demo recording of Memphis with the studio cut.
However, itâs still possible Berryâs recollection is actually correct and he recorded the master of Memphis â and Jo Jo Gunne â in his home studio.
First of all, both songs just feature vocals, guitar, and drums (the bass part on Memphis is actually played on the low strings of a guitar). Why are Spann and Dixon suddenly absent? Of course, it could be an artistic decision not to include piano and bass on those songs, but it still seems a bit odd if they were there during the session.
Secondly, Berry writes that he used a âreel-to-reel  recorder that had provisions for sound-on-sound recordingâ â a technique where layers of sound are placed on top of each other (a famous example being How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford, recorded in 1951). This would explain why the fidelity of those songs is much lower (loss of clarity, considerately more tape hiss) than Anthony Boy and Sweet Little Rock and Roller, the other tracks recorded at the September 1958 session. And it might be coincidental, but session reels with multiple takes of those two songs still exist, while this isnât the case for Memphis nor Jo Jo Gunne.
However, we know for certain that Berry misremembers one thing: the only $79 recorder available in 1956 and 1958 catalogues of the Sears & Roebuck mail-order company was the Silvertone 7070, which had no way to do sound-on-sound. Perhaps Berry mixed up his receipts and used an AMPEX or Berlant Concertone recorder, which did have provisions for sound-on-sound in 1958.
Unfortunately, we probably will never find out what has happened exactly. It is possible that Berry recorded Memphis and Jo Jo Gunne all by himself at home. It is also possible that both the basic track and the overdubs were done at the Chess studios. And every combination of home tape and studio overdubs is possible as well. Until we learn better, our database will list Jasper Thomasâ drums and the additional guitars as overdubs with a note that there is an option that Berry recorded all instruments by himself.
Comment from April 13, 2019:
Chuck Berry expert Jean-Pierre Ravelli, who ran a European fan club in the 1960s and 1970s, tells us that he remembers talking to Francine Gillium in August 1970. Fran was Berry's personal secretary and managed his fan clubs and businesses since the 1950s. In her talk with Jean-Pierre, Fran confirmed that 'Memphis, Tennessee' was recorded at Berry's office and that she (Fran) had been playing the drums. Of course we can only speculate whether such a claim is valid and if it is, whether this was the recording which finally made it to the records.
Comment from November 25, 2019 (and following):
Dave Rubin, author of "Play Like Chuck Berry" (Hal Leonard Corp., to be released in 2020), found another reason which may point to a home recording: "While analyzing the guitar solo I noticed a mistake where he misses his mark by one fret. In measure 14 of the guitar solo Chuck plays D/F at fret 10 instead of D#/F# at fret 11. Maybe he thought he could get away with it, and he has, as the rest of the recording was a good take?" Maybe. Though it's doubtful that such a minor mistake would have forced recording of another take even in the studio. The error could indicate it's indeed a 'sound on sound' recording (so Berry wasn't able to have another go at the overdub), but on the other hand, there are other such examples from his sessions at Chess.
Comment from February 20, 2020 (and following):
Using experimental software called Spleeter, which tries to split a given recording back into individual tracks, we tried to find out more about the instruments and overdubs used. The algorithm to split tracks is far from perfect (and probably the task is often impossible to solve), but the software does a nice job in extracting the drums.
Arne summarizes what we got from Spleeter's output: "There are three guitars parts: the 'rhythm' part which starts the song, immediately followed by the 'bass' part (played on the lower strings of the guitar). Come to think of it, this part probably inspired George Harrison for the Beatles' Two of Us. The 'lead' part starts during the first verse.
As far as I can hear, the drummer only uses a floor tom on the song (and perhaps another tom or a snare drum with a loosened snare). I don't hear any cymbals or a kick drum. On Jo Jo Gunne there's also a snare and hi-hat, by the way."