Listening to the car radio this week, I happened on a few golden oldies as usual. At one point, I realized that several classic songs have been rendered lyrically obsolete by virtue of their reference to the phone.

I’m not talking about the fancy smart phones that are surgically attached to many ears by an unknown adhesive. But the old fashioned phones, the ones that ran through wires across lines on telephone poles that ultimately led to your house where you took the call on the phone usually attached to the kitchen wall.

To all you young uns out there, no we didn’t always used to carry our streamlined phones in our pockets. They hung on kitchen walls or sat on end tables in the living room. And they all had cords, great big cords that could magically tangle themselves without ever being touched. They performed no other functions except to serve as a vehicle to speak with other people via the telephone.

The song I heard that prompted the realization of lyrical obsolescence of some phone references was a classic rockabilly song written by Chuck Berry in 1963. The song “Memphis Tennessee” has more to do with a phone call than the actual city located on the Chickasaw Bluff at the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi Rivers.

The song has been recorded by at least 25 different artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Rod Stewart to Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions to Johnny Rivers who reached number 2 with his version in 1964. Here it is, in a classic clip from American Bandstand:

The song starts off:

Long distances information give me Memphis Tennessee.
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me.

OK, we can stop right there. “Long distances information” is probably an outdated thing of the past. Again, for the young uns’ out there struggling to understand the complex lyrics of this simple song: Once upon a time, long before there were cell phones, one could make local calls and long distance calls.

The phone company would charge the customer by the minutes of the call AND how long the distance was of the call. Ergo, Long distance calls. (They also tricked us into believing it cost more, the farther the call went, not unlike some of the scams cell phone companies use today.)

Obviously Mr. Rivers received a call from a long distance away, likely Memphis Tennessee, the namesake of this song. He did not have “caller ID”, an unknown feature way back in 1964. If he did, there would be no such classic song since he would have known who called and what number they called from. But he did not, so we happily have this classic song
he next line of the first verse of the song is:

She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

This call was most likely taken on that phone on the wall in the kitchen. The message may have been written on a bulletin board that hung next to many kitchen wall phones back in the day or heck, maybe Chuck’s uncle wrote it right on the darned wall, who knows. But phone messages don’t happen much anymore either since everyone carries their phone in their pockets now, once they are able to detach it from the adhesive that keeps it stuck to their head.

So each verse of the rest of the song deals with Chuck’s conversation with the information operator. Likely he dialed 4-1-1, or possibly he just dialed 0, for operator. In either case, he would have spoken with a real live person to try and obtain information on the call. Live phone operators are a thing of the past now as well. But once upon a time young uns, you may be shocked to know, in a galaxy far, far away, there were REAL people who answered information calls.

Anyhow, the song really is a poignant tale of man trying to get in touch with his estranged 6 year old daughter, Marie. Here’s the rest of the lyrics for you.

Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie
She’s the only one who’d phone me here from Memphis Tennessee
Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

That’s all the time Wedwand has for this week. But keep your ears tuned to the radio and let me know if you hear any more songs with obsolete references to the telephone of days gone by.