Before we begin…lets set the mood:
Whether you’re a born and bred Memphian, or like myself, an adopted son of the city – when you think Memphis, you think Beale Street.
But how much do you know about this iconic layer of cobblestone?
More than likely, not very much. So, enjoy the musical stylings of the late, great B.B King and follow me on a brief historic tour of Beale Street – the home of Memphis Blues.
It’s 1841 – the air is thick, the sun is hot, and Beale Avenue is preparing itself to be the most iconic ‘street’ in American history.
To the east – we find an affluent suburb. To the west a bustling commercial center. Small store fronts, traders and merchants, each trying to make a buck from the ferryboats going up and down the Mississippi.
But the real action is happening in the center.
Known as the ‘underworld’, the center of Beale Street was filled with bars, brothels and the various unsavory characters one would expect to patron those establishments (not judging, what else was there to do?).
Overtime, the ‘underworld’ attracted countless musicians and artists countrywide – slowly setting the stage for what would be Memphis Blues.
However, the realities of the time were not fun.
Having an enormous river as the backdrop of your city has its disadvantages. Add open sewage and a general misunderstanding of basic sanitation, and you’ve got yourself a breeding ground for mosquitos.
In 1870, if you felt a mosquito bite your leg, you were likely saying your goodbyes.
There was a mass exodus. All of the bars and brothels in the world couldn’t persuade someone to stay in Memphis. And those that did stay, contracted yellow fever.
Memphis was devastated.
What was once a booming city center – Memphis lacked a functioning government and lost it’s charter, essentially starting over.
But chaos always breeds ingenuity. And the grit and grind mentality was just starting to take shape.
Enter Robert Church.
The black businessman and soon to be first African American millionaire saw opportunity where others saw nothing. He purchased vast amounts of land surrounding Beale Street, including the Grand Opera House; better known today as…
In time, his vision became reality.
Beale Street began to attract politicians, creative thinkers and blues musicians from around the country. The jazz age came rolling in during the 1940s and quickly adapted the soulful angst of the south.
What could be seen as ironic, Memphis once again was being built through the efforts of African Americans. Though this time in lieu of being property; they owned the property.
Stores, restaurants and clubs, owned and operated by black entrepreneurs. A new age of economic expansion and opportunity was being seized.
The iconic street had an incredible array of characters.
Just imagine: B.B King, Memphis Slim, Louis Armstrong, and Muddy Water. Off to the side, a skinny white boy smoking a cigarette; absorbing the style and biding his time.
Today, Beale Street is the most iconic street in the United States. If you find yourself visiting Memphis and fail to walk down the historic cobblestone corridor, you’re denying yourself a unique experience.
Memphis may not be Rome. Memphis may not be New York, Las Vegas or New Orleans.
But Memphis is Beale Street, and Beale Street is the blues. It encapsulated a generation and influenced the world.
“Nobody loves me but my momma, and she might be jiving too”. – B.B. King
So go get a beer at Silky’s. Listen to some music as Rum Boogie Cafe. Support the Beale Street Flippers and reflect on the historic climb of Beale Street, the epicenter of Memphis Blues.
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