What does it take to have an accent – or not to have one? I thought I had a great example of a Memphis accent when I discovered that Aretha Franklin was born there. But then I found out she moved away when she was two. I knew Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, a hundred miles away, but he lived most of his life in Memphis. Do either of them have a Memphis accent?
In my experience, the bulk of a person’s accent is formed in their teenage years. That doesn’t mean that it’s always a copy of the people around them: many people rebel and try to sound as different as possible from their neighbors. If they’re especially attached to a childhood or family identity that clashes with their teenage situation, they may try to hang on to as much of it as they can.
From a cursory search, nobody seems to think Aretha Franklin has an accent of any kind other than “black,” but they definitely don’t associate her amazing voice with Memphis. Elvis, on the other hand, was occasionally described as having a “melodic Memphis accent,” and described himself as “just a poor-boy from Memphis, Memphis.”
When I started this series I decided that I wouldn’t go looking for speakers of any of these accents. I want to say nice things about the speech of these cities without having to look it up. I do some research to find good examples, or pictures to go with the posts, but I haven’t been pulling up the Wikipedia list of “Famous people from Memphis.”
Another name that came to my mind was Bobby Whitlock, who played and sang with Eric Clapton in Derek and the Dominos, on “Layla” and other assorted love songs. Here’s a recent reunion of the two men performing “Bell Bottom Blues,” where you can hear Whitlock’s accent:
In looking up details about Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Bobby Whitlock today, I did sneak a peek at the Wikipedia lists, and they reminded me of another famous Memphis voice, Alex Chilton. I knew Chilton as the high-voiced lead singer of Big Star on songs like “September Gurls” and “In the Street.” Until today I didn’t know that he had already had a career as the lead singer of the Box Tops, delivering the gravelly lead on “The Letter” in 1967, when he was sixteen years old, and boy do you hear that Memphis accent! Here he is in 1985 (when there was music still on MTV) with an impromptu solo performance of “The Letter” at the end.