My impression is that my music life in 2012 was rather dismal. So, to kick start the year, why not start in Memphis, on Beale Street, birthplace of the blues, and a melting pot of music with jazz, R & B, rock and roll, and gospel. It is also the home of Graceland, where the ghost of Elvis lives on. And speaking of ghosts, this is the place where the great Martin Luther King lost his life. As they say, combine cold beer and hot music to make Beale Street the coolest place in Memphis.
Beale Street was originally home to traders and merchants along the Mississippi River. By the 1860s, musicians began performing on Beale, and it began to flourish as a musical mecca. In 1890, came the famous Orpheum Theater, touted as the finest theater in the South. Then in 1899, the first Black millionaire in the South, Robert Church, created Church Park, a gathering place for musicians. Beale Street became a place where people could listen to music.
Then, in the early 1900s, along came W. C. Handy, who made his mark from the 1920s to 1940s. He attracted other blues and jazz legends, like B. B. King (do you know what the BB stands for?), Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, Albert King, and Louis Armstrong. They all performed on Beale Street, and created the style now known as Memphis blues.
In 1966, Beale Street was declared a National Historic Landmark. Then in 1977, Congress officially declare it the Home of the Blues. But all one needs to do is walk down Beale Street, with music pouring out into the street in copious amounts. Among the clubs and restaurants are the Rum Boogie Cafe, B. B. King’s, Silky O’Sullivan’s, Coyote Ugly, The Red Rooster, Miss Polly’s Soul City Cafe, and the Hard Rock Cafe.
Every May, the Beale Street Music Festival attracts big names like Wilco, John Legend, Johnny Trash, Otis Redding, Snoop Dogg, and John Mellencamp. It launches a month of festivities known as Memphis in May. What about the ghost of Elvis? I can see why he said that you MUST move when you hear his rock and roll. He must have learned that from his musical roots here in Memphis! Beale Street itself runs from the River to East Street, a distance of 1.8 miles. It is the major tourist attraction of Memphis. Beale was named by developer Robertson Topp in 1841 for a forgotten military hero. Many Black traveling musicians began playing here, the first among them, The Young Men’s Brass Band. When Mr. Church built the park, he added a 2,000 seat auditorium. W.C. Handy arrived on the recommendation of Booker T. Washington. The mayor had called the Tuskegee Institute looking for a music teacher for his Knights of Pythias Band. Handy made Memphis his home, and created “Blues on Beale Street”. Mayor Thornton and his three sons played in Handy’s band. Like many inner cities, Beale Street became rundown, with many stores closed in the 1960s. Fortunately, in 1973, the Beale Street Development Corporation was formed to redevelop this famous street. The goal was to preserve much of Beale Street’s music legacy, with the $5.2 million in grants. And despite many controversies and lawsuits, the area has prevailed and regained its place as the birth place of the blues.