Back Catalog: The Source Of "Midnight In Memphis"


Yeah, heard the river risin' and this is what it said:
"I don't need no live ones — I just take care of the dead."

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For me, the best song from 1979's hit movie The Rose wasn't Bette Midler's iconic take on Amanda McBroom's song of the same name. That legendary song won a Grammy and has been famously covered by thousands of performers, but it only appears in the credits.

Neither did I think the best song Midler's Janis-Joplinized renditions of "Stay With Me" (originally recorded by Lorraine Ellison) nor "When A Man Loves A Woman" (originally recorded by Percy Sledge) although her performance of both of them were heroic, and became staples of her live shows.

For me, the song that I couldn't ever get enough of was a song called "Midnight in Memphis" which is as lyrically important to the narrative of the movie as the other songs were. The song shows the talent and elusive joy of the Mary Rose character played by Midler, which is then contrasted with her addictions, weaknesses, and victimization.

The song as performed in the movie is a rollicking piece of music that straddles multiple genres. Midler sings it with the full and fearless roar of her then-34-year-old voice and the slick band behind her makes every moment jump. The movie version features studio vets Jerry Jumonville and Mark Underwood playing over a rhythm section led by Steve Hunter and Whitey Glan, then just off working with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. It always sounded to me like a hidden gem of a Stax number, with those too-cool-to-fool horns and the tight rhythm section holding everything perfectly in place as the singer shouts her way around the verses. The tempo is almost faster than seems safe, as if the band had played it a million times before but was worried that things might fall apart if they didn't keep things moving briskly.

For decades, I have tried to figure out where the song came from. The liner notes were not helpful. The song sounded like it had to be one from the vaults, some forgotten bourbon-drenched hit that I needed to study, but I couldn't find any earlier recordings of it in those days before the Web. The record store people kept suggesting dead ends like Asleep At The Wheel or Hoyt Axton, a man of incredible talent who nonetheless did not write this song.

There were a million articles written about the movie and about the soundtrack in particular, but of course they were all about the title song and not this incidental one with which I had fallen so completely in love. I began to worry that my affection for the song was just fanboy imagination and that it might have just been written for the film without any other history behind it.

Eventually, the Internet gods smiled on me and I found that the writer of the song (Tony Johnson) was also a drummer and singer for a string of bands including Sandi & The Accents, the Brain Police, and then Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. Johnson and some other Airmen put together a side band called the Moonlighters (because they were moonlighting from Cody, heh). So when they weren't playing "Hot Rod Lincoln" they were cranking out a few albums of what they hoped would be "rhythm and western" music in which horns, lap steel guitars, and skinny neckties could connect Memphis to Nashville to California. Although the drummer wasn't the bandleader, he did contribute "Midnight in Memphis" and it appears on two of the band's three albums. It was the band's first single in 1977, and their signature song.

My journey through the winding warrens of Internet rabbit holes led me at last back to this recompiled version, and while it seems less elaborate than the version in the movie, that unmistakable energy is there. I had found the source at last and it was Tony Johnson. His vocal adds a sweet earnestness to the song, and it is wonderful. 
Johnson later performed the song in Commander Cody shows as well. Here's a performance from 1980, right after the movie had become a hit and the title song had been so persistently played on the radio.

Johnson played with all sorts of acts other than Commander Cody, including Jr. Walker & The All Stars, Maria Muldar, and Nick Lowe. Besides this illustrious musical career, Johnson was also a Yale Divinity School student, a sailor who circumnavigated the globe, an author, and a teacher of ethics, logic, and humanities at the College of Marin. Somehow he doesn't merit a Wikipedia page, and I have this idea that I might need to get one started.

– J.F. "Jeff" McCullers