Tillis single 'Two Kings' stretches boundaries

To record her single 'Two Kings,' a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Elvis Presley, Pam Tillis wanted to sing a duet with a local singer.

Courtesy of Pam Tillis

To record her single "Two Kings," a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Elvis Presley, Pam Tillis wanted to sing a duet with a local singer.

Award-winning country singer Pam Tillis has visited Memphis before in song. In 1991, Tillis, the daughter of stuttering country superstar Mel Tillis, had a Top 10 hit with "Maybe It Was Memphis," the fourth single off her sophomore breakout album, Put Yourself In My Place.

Tillis, who performs Friday at the Bartlett Performing Arts & Conference Center, returns to the area on her latest single, but ends up straying into some unexpected territory with a pair of unlikely Memphis collaborators. "Two Kings," currently available online as a digital single, is a song that merges the singer's well-known country-pop style with touches of R&B and gospel as it tells the stories of two seemingly disparate men -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elvis Presley -- with deep connections to the city.

"The song just came to me," says Brenda Berger O'Brien, the Mid-South native who co-wrote the song with Tillis. "They were two very prominent people that we all looked up to and idolized, and it all just kind of fell into place being from Memphis and just having that soulful feeling about people."

To write the song, O'Brien drew on her history as a part of Memphis' music history. Her father was Morris Berger, founder of mid-20th century West Memphis nightclub the Plantation Inn. Open from 1942 to 1964, the club was an important proving ground for a generation of post-war musicians, black and white, including Jim Dickinson, Willie Mitchell, Wayne Jackson and others.

"As a little girl, I used to dance at the Plantation Inn in the daytime," says O'Brien, who now lives in Florida. "I lived over the Plantation Inn, and I heard that music all night long. In the daytime, I really didn't have a lot of friends that could come play at the Plantation Inn, so I just daydreamed and danced to the music and sang the songs."

Though music has been with her for her whole life, it wasn't until about six years ago that O'Brien began to write songs herself. After she had built up a backlog of songs, she went to a songwriting camp where she met Tillis. For reasons she herself doesn't quite comprehend, she presented the Grammy winner with "Two Kings."

"Right away, she was excited about the words," O'Brien says. "She started singing a melody while she was reading it, and it was just awesome. I had chill bumps going up my arms. She just really got into the song."

Tillis made some additions of her own, and the two stayed in touch as O'Brien "very nicely bugged" her about taking it in the studio. But Tillis wanted to "bring it home to Memphis" by making the song a duet with a local singer. O'Brien spent a year searching on the Internet until she found the right partner in unknown Kris Thomas.

Memphis-born and -raised, Thomas grew up singing in his pastor father's church and attended the Stax Music Academy. For college, he went to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Being so close to the capital of country music in Nashville, Thomas honed his songwriting with some of the genre's top tunesmiths and developed a new appreciation for the music.

Promoting a Nashville-area gig, Thomas appeared on a local TV morning show singing Carrie Underwood's "I Know You Won't." It was a YouTube clip of this performance that caught O'Brien's eyes and ears.

"I listened to him over and over and thought, 'wow, this could work,'" she recalls.

If O'Brien and Tillis immediately saw the possibilities, Thomas himself was less sure.

"I was shocked, to be honest," says the singer-songwriter. "I was honored and more than excited to be a part of something so big and epic. I had never heard of anything like this being done before."

When they cut the song, Thomas brought his own touch to the proceedings, suggesting that they bring in The Stax Academy Street Corner Harmonies choir to sing on the chorus. The group is also featured -- along with Tillis, Thomas and lots of Memphis scenery -- in the video for the song, which has been on YouTube since December.

With no accompanying album or label support, "Two Kings" has been slowly building a buzz in the Internet.

"It's been received very positively," Thomas says. "Honestly, I was a little nervous about that initially, with us being from such different backgrounds. But there's been nothing but positive feedback since it was released from everybody who's heard it."


Pam Tillis

8 p.m. Friday at the Bartlett Performing Arts & Conference Center, 3663 Appling. Tickets: $20, available at the box office and by phone (901) 385-6440. For more information, visit bpacc.org.


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