Remember When Marc Cohn Went "Walking in Memphis"?

Marc Cohn in 1991
Photo Credit
Michel Linssen/Redferns

In early February 1991, Marc Cohn came roaring - or at least folk-rocking - out of Cleveland, Ohio with his self-titled debut album, an LP which featured one of his most enduring hits.

Co-produced by Cohn and Ben Wisch, Marc Cohn was recorded in New York City at Quad Recording, having emerged after Cohn had spent a fair while working as a session singer. Although he’d been on the lookout for a record contract of his own, he wasn’t finding one, and in a 2014 interview with Keyboard magazine, he revealed that he felt at the time that maybe he didn’t deserve one.

“One night while listening to all of my demos, I came to the realization that I shouldn't be signed, because I didn't have any great songs yet,” said Cohn. “I was 28 years old and not in love with my songs. James Taylor had written 'Fire and Rain' when he was 18, and Jackson Browne wrote 'These Days' when he was only 17. I thought: 'I'm already ten years older than these geniuses. It's never going to happen for me.' So it was a pretty desperate time.”

Recalling what a friend had told him about James Taylor taking a trip to somewhere he’d never been before in an effort to overcome writer’s block, Cohn decided to take a trip to Memphis, during which time he visited the Full Gospel Tabernacle Choir to hear Rev. Al Green preach...and, yes, it’s that Al Green. In addition, a friend suggested that he make his way to the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, Mississippi to see Muriel Davis Wilkins perform, which he did. These things served as key autobiographical ingredients in the song that became “Walking in Memphis,” but you probably already worked that out.

“Walking in Memphis” became the big hit of Marc Cohn, making its way into the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 within a few months of entering the chart, and when all was said and done, it eventually topped out at No. 13. That’s actually pretty shocking when you consider how much airplay the song got at the time, but keep in mind that it did ultimately spend 23 weeks on the Hot 100, which makes for a lot of spins on the radio. In addition to its chart success, “Walking in Memphis” also earned Grammy nods for Best Pop Male Vocalist and Song of the Year, and while it failed to win either of those, Cohn did walk away with Best New Artist.

Alas, none of the other singles from Marc Cohn managed to make as much of an impact on the Hot 100, but Cohn did successfully score two more minor chart hits: “Silver Thunderbird,” which made it to No. 63, and “True Companion,” which hit No. 80.

While Cohn’s studio output hasn’t been terribly dramatic of late - his last proper album was 2010’s Listening Booth: 1970, which was a covers album - he did release an odds-and-sods collection in 2016 (Careful What You Dream: Lost Songs and Rarities), followed by a mostly-live album with the Blind Boys of Alabama, Work to Do, in 2019.


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