Like a rare rockabilly 45 rpm record, the origins of King Memphis are enveloped in the scratchy crackle and hiss of times long gone.
A few things are clear. They emerged from Portland’s bar scene in the early 1990s with more style, talent and dedication to a theme than anyone else. They played rockabilly, a 1950s mashup of hillbilly country twang and hopped-up soulful blues. They were the city’s original roots revival band.
That was 25-odd years ago, and unlike the rest of the Old Port bands from back then, they’re still rocking the music and vintage threads.
This weekend, original members Matt Robbins, Kris Eckhardt, Kris Day and Gary Burton — who flew in from Texas for the occasion — are celebrating the band’s longevity by performing three anniversary shows. Friday night, they’re at the Portland House of Music, Saturday they’re playing a wedding and Sunday will find them bashing it out at the New England Shake-Up in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.
Their rockin’ road to the quarter-century club took them all over the country, from Portland, to New York City, to Seattle and back again. They’ve even played a rockabilly festival in England.
They’ve shared the stage alongside, and backing up, giants in their field, like Link Wray, Ronnie Dawson and Sleepy LaBeef. They even had a run-in with Elvis, sort of.
In the beginning, they called themselves The Memphis Mafia. But they played a festival in Pennsylvania one time, and shared the bill with the actual Memphis Mafia. That’s the name the dearly departed King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, gave his entourage of body guards and yes men — and they were unhappy about it, to say the least.
A few lawyer-produced “cease and desist” letters later, the band was forced to change their name to King Memphis. Robbins is still a little sore about it. But the newer name has stuck for the better part of their career and the back story just adds to their mystique.
If you miss their shows this weekend, don’t fear. They still have a monthly gig at Salvage BBQ in Portland.
Special thanks to Tom McPherson Photography for lighting the dark garage at the King Memphis rehearsal last night for my video.