Throwback Thursday is a new feature that showcases a classic song through many years.
It’s impossible to overestimate the significance of “Maybe it Was Memphis” for Pam Tillis. The fourth single from her debut country album, Put Yourself in My Place, it pushed that album to gold status, becoming her signature song and launching her to stardom.
The formula is simple…right song plus right artist equals massive hit. But the history is a bit more complex than that, and thanks to the magic of YouTube, the full story can be told.
Pam Tillis recorded “Maybe it Was Memphis” for the first time in the mid-eighties, while still signed to a singles deal with Warner Bros.’ country division.
She had previously released a pop album for them in L.A., entitled Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey. Two singles went nowhere, but the project did lead to her only music video for WB: “Killer Comfort.”
Tillis recorded several tracks for Warner Bros. Nashville. Two of them would go on to become major hits for other artists: “Five Minutes,” a #1 hit for future tour buddy Lorrie Morgan, and “Those Memories of You,” a top five hit from the Trio project of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris.
She also recorded early versions of two future hits of her own, though interestingly, neither of them were among the five WB singles of hers to make the charts: “One of Those Things” and “Maybe it Was Memphis.”
Tillis had the connections in Nashville to get regular television exposure, and she used a slot on Ralph Emery’s Nashville Now show to debut “Memphis.” Here’s the first televised performance of the song, back in 1987:
The song is already great, but the arrangement and the vocal aren’t quite there yet. Tillis doesn’t take flight with the melody or perform with the torrid passion that would define the track when recorded again for Arista in 1991. Tillis would later remark that she cried in the studio when she heard the final playback of her second recording of “Memphis” in 1991:
The song was frequently performed when promoting the single and the album.
Here’s an interview and performance on Lonesome Pine in 1991:
And another Nashville Now performance from 1992:
It wasn’t the highest charting hit Tillis would have – it peaked at #3 like her other hits, “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “In Between Dances,” while “Mi Vida Loca” went to #1 and “When You Walk in the Room” reached #2. But it’s still her biggest hit, the designated show closer ever since it first made her a star.
Here are some more performances through the years.
Performing in Nashville’s Centennial Park in 2007:
An overseas performance in 2013:
With Lorrie Morgan in 2013:
An acoustic version from 2015: