Most larger cities have a party district that aspires to be like Bourbon Street and the French Quarter in New Orleans; Beale Street is Memphis’ version. It’s a street that runs nearly 2 miles long from the Mississippi riverfront. Today it’s a tourist attraction with blues clubs, gift shops and restaurants run by Performa Entertainment, a privately owned real estate development and advisory firm. But this avenue’s history is storied.

youtube: ‪‪Beale Street Blues‬

Memphis became a chartered city in 1827, and by the 1840’s Beale Street was originally host to upscale residences like the extant Hunt-Phelan mansion.

Memphis was occupied by Union troops early during the Civil War, and Beale Street became populated with emancipated African-Americans. When the troops pulled out at the end of the war, the white population retaliated by burning down many residences and churches and slaughtering many blacks. The war was followed by a yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s that decimated the town’s population— to the point that it lost its charter. An enterprising man, named Robert R. Church (1839-1912), bought the area’s properties for pennies on the dollar. When the city rebounded, Church became the South’s first black millionaire.

In the 1890s, Robert Church built the Grand Opera House and Church Park at the corner of 4th and Beale. Blues musicians were attracted to this spot and the area was soon teeming with clubs, restaurants, speakeasies, pawnshops and gambling dens. The local authorities generally turned a blind eye to its illicit activities, and Beale Street sported legendary, lawless characters like Casino Henry, Slop Crowder, Machine Gun Kelly, “Wild Bill“ Latura, “Two Gun” Charlie Pierce and the notorious beat cop, Lee Quianthy. It also sported legendary places like Pee Wee’s Saloon, Battier’s Drug Store, vaudeville shows at the Daisy and the Palace and a red-light district. The Monarch Club, also known as The Castle of Missing Men, conveniently shared the alley with an undertaker.

But more than a street of vice and entertainment, in a strictly segregated society that subjected a black man to many discriminatory humiliations, Beale Street was a place where an African-American could walk in the front door of a restaurant, sit in the best seats at the Hippodrome, and walk with an easy stride down the sidewalk, head held high. Beale Street became the cradle for the best music Memphis had to offer the world.

In the 1900s, Beale Street’s fortunes rode on the will of Memphis’ infamous “boss” Mayor E. H. Crump (October 2, 1874 – October 16, 1954), who, at first, turned a blind eye to its activities and also refused to enforce Prohibition (the period from 1919 to 1933 during which Congress banned the sale of alcohol). The 1920s and ’30s were the heyday for blues musicians like Ma Rainey II, Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes, but after the Great Depression, Crump had a change of policy and decided to clean up the city. He ran the prostitution and gambling off of Beale. By the end of Crump’s reign, things were changing. Nat D. Williams and Rufus Thomas were hosting talent contests on Beale Street, but the street was deteriorating. In 1949, the city pioneered the first black radio station, WDIA, and in 1954, Elvis and Dewey Phillips were shaking up the status quo. The center of Memphis music was shifting.

By the 1960s, the street was in decay and many properties vacant, and the Urban Renewal program saw most of the epicenter of the blues fall to the wrecking ball and the blade of a bulldozer. The effort to declare it a National Historic Landmark and an act of Congress in 1977 declaring Beale Street the “Home of the Blues”, still only left the facades of some store fronts propped up by steel beams, the Daisy Theater empty and A. Schwab‘s dry goods store left standing.

After Elvis’ death in 1977, when the city saw the amount of tourism Graceland was drawing, it belatedly decided to play on the city’s musical reputation and try to rebuild it. Beale Street, Mud Island, turning Main Street into a brick paved and fountain-laden mall, and erecting a giant mirrored pyramid as a sports center were the first attempts to revitalize the depressed city— a city that had taken for granted its musical treasure. And so goes the story of Memphis music.

Famed WDIA radio announcer Nat D. Williams once wrote,  “Come what may, there will always be a Beale Street, because Beale Street is a spirit— a symbol— a way of life. Beale Street is a hope.”

youtube: ‪‪‪Beale Street Then & Now‬

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image credits: T. N. Serose; Richard Underhill; Adelphi Records; Memphis Travel; Jack Boucher; Memphis/Shelby County Library; Ryan Meyers

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Comments
  1. Joanne Fish says:

    Hi, I’m making a documentary about W.C. Handy. We’re in the beginning of the editing phase and I’m looking for photos/footage from early Beale Street, and anything at all on the Minstrel group that Handy and other African American musicians performed with. I would love to talk to you about this when you have some time. I have some leads but it seems like you have some great photos on your blog, and I’d like to investigate the sources. thank you.

    • Hi Joanne!

      Looks like a great project. For W.C. Handy images you should just go right to the source — Memphis. There are three great resources there, The Memphis Public Library and perhaps these 2 instructors at the University of Memphis – David Appleby is a brilliant film documentarian and professor there, and also blues musicologist David Evans. I’m sure they are all easy to contact. I did my Master’s studies on the history of Memphis music and there are just too many W.C. Handy resources to mention here, but I started with a couple of his books that I received through Inter Library Loan.

      If I can be of any help, though, let me know. I’ve been practicing his “Memphis Blues” on guitar for a performance in October. Handy was brilliant! Worthy subject! Cheers!

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