As many in the Memphis area already know, an eight-episode CMT television series with the working title of “Million Dollar Quartet,” is scheduled to start filming in March 2016. This TV series was inspired by the musical of the same name. It will focus on the burgeoning careers of the 1950s legends, who were discovered by Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Studio. Many of these rockabilly stars have died, including Sam Phillips, but the music is still alive in the minds of many. One proponent of this music is singer/songwriter Ted Harris. Ted even wrote a song about the legends and their music in 1996, and recorded in 1997 at Sun Studio, where it all began. In an interview with Ted, he talks about this song, called “The Memphis City Sound,” which some have dubbed as “The Sam Phillips Tribute.”
Examiner: Ted, tell us about this song and why you wrote it.
Ted: I wrote the song in 1996 while living in Tallahassee Florida. I made a trip to Memphis in early 1997 and recorded it at SUN and the engineer on it was James Lott. The final mixing was done in Nashville by an engineer there who was working on a few of my other original tunes that I had recorded over there. But I just knew I had to record The Memphis City Sound not just in Memphis but it had to be recorded at SUN. Believe it or not, this was my first completed song. I had been trying to write something for over 7 or 8 months and some of those tunes finally did get finished but this one was the first. I wrote it on July 21, 1996.
Examiner: I understand that you were influenced by Sam Phillips and other rockabilly legends.
Ted: I was always a huge fan of Sam Phillips, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash….I mean what’s not to like right? But I was also fans of Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and most all of the others. But there was just something about the studio itself…the mystique of the studio…of the sound that Sam was able to capture in that little room. I was listening to Carl Perkins one day driving to work in 1996 and the tune was “Birth of Rock & Roll” and Carl lays it all out in that tune and it had stayed in my mind all morning long. Then…that afternoon out of nowhere “The Memphis City Sound” started playing in my mind. First some of the lyrics and then I could hear some of the music and I quickly pulled out pen and paper and started writing it all down. By the time I got home a few hours later, I had it all down on paper, and that night I grabbed my guitar and wrote out the main melody and guitar chords and before I knew it…it was done. My first completed song, and it was about a few of my music heroes. It has a rockabilly style and feel to it just like all those awesome tunes that Sam put together. Then the flood gates opened and I started writing songs left and right, upbeat to ballads and from pop to country to contemporary.
Examiner: Is it dedicated to anyone in particular?
Ted: The Memphis City Sound is near and dear to my heart because I wrote it as a dedication to Sam Phillips. It was what he had done at Sun that really got me into music. I was totally addicted to just about any record that had that yellow label on it. So even though when I started writing I didn’t really set out to write a tribute song to Sam Phillips…the song came to me. Prior to me writing it I had been working on other tunes that were more of a country two-step feel and a couple of pop style ballads. The Memphis City Sound came to me all by itself and it came quickly. When I write tunes I just can’t sit down and start from scratch…in other words I can’t just “manufacture” a tune. The words or phrases come to me as a thought and usually at the same time a main melody line will be in my thoughts and I write all of that down as they come to me. I can’t force them out…it has to happen naturally and sometimes it’s a quick (say about a few hours) or much longer like weeks to complete. I have partial tunes I started years ago and have never finished.
I am honored that The Memphis City Sound was the first because before I wrote it I felt like I had writer’s block or something because I had such a desire to write but nothing was there…until this one and then after this one I began writing like crazy. But the biggest thrill of this tune for me was the honor of recording it in Sun itself….I mean WOW!!! Here I am in the very room that it all happened in, and I’m paying my tribute not only to Sam but to all of those guys, all of the guitar pickers, drummers, bass players and piano players…all of those musicians.
Examiner: Did you have a chance to and talk with any of legends?
Ted: I met Sam Phillips and Carl Perkins, I met DJ Fontana, Scotty Moore, W.S. Holland and others who had actually recorded there professionally, and it is awesome to know that I have that in common with all those guys now. I mean this tune (or any of my other ones for that matter) have never been heard nationally, but it was heard on a few radio stations here in Memphis the week that Sam passed away. Some of the DJ’s dubbed it the Sam Phillips Tribute which was totally fine with me. My band has played it during some of our shows over the years since 2004 but that’s really about all the air time its ever had, and now of course a little bit of it is in a movie.
Examiner: It is a very good song, and hopefully it can still get promoted to a higher status in the music world.
Ted: I don’t know why this song chose me to write it, but I sure am glad it did…even if the rest of the world might never know about it or my other tunes. My hopes are that one day, I will find a way to get these tunes to some artists that might record them and do well with them. Now that would be awesome!
Examiner: Thanks for the interview Ted, and thanks for allowing this song to be posted in the video section of this article. Everyone, please click on video link and enjoy “The Memphis City Sound.” If you enjoy this song, visit The Express Band page on YouTube for more songs, as well as The Express on Facebook. Also, Please support the performing arts in the Memphis area; they support you. Also, to stay abreast of coming events, get a free subscription to the Memphis Performing Arts section of the Examiner by clicking on the subscribe link below.