Bright lights, fine barbecue, and the best blues heard anywhere are the hallmarks of Beale Street in Memphis. One of Tennessee’s top tourist attractions, visitors come down to Beale Street in increasing numbers each year but in addition to the blues, the street has a far more diverse history.
If the music first found voice in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, the blues were born down on Beale Street in Memphis. Almost a century ago, blues master W.C. Handy penned the first blues song and Beale Street was never quite the same. As one of Memphis’ oldest streets, Beale Street has a history all its own but remains proud to be the cradle of the blues, the birthplace of rock and roll.
Named for a long forgotten soldier back in 1841, Beale Street was one of the city’s affluent districts in that decade. Immigrants began arriving from around the world and Beale Street was soon home to a variety of businesses – produce stands, theaters, clubs, stores, pawn shops, churches, and even brothels. Located near the busy downtown district and not far from the cotton warehouses and wharfs down on Front Street, Beale Street boomed. A site on Beale Street served as Union headquarters for General Grant during the Civil War. Early populations in the area included both African-American and Irish. Many of the Irish men joined the police force and their heritage is highlighted in the Beale Street Police Museum today. After an Irish youth died in 1866, race riots between Memphis residents of Irish ancestry and African-American citizens began. Many of the black residents of Beale Street fled as Irish-American burned and looted Beale.
Other immigrants who settled on or near Beale Street included those of Jewish, German, and Italian extraction. Between 1872 and 1878, several cholera and yellow fever epidemics hit Memphis. By 1878, half of the city’s population had died or left the city. Because African-Americans had a greater immunity to disease, many remained in the Beale Street community. After the epidemics ended, they worked to rebuild the community.
By the early years of the 20th century Beale Street was booming. Music rang from the many churches and the clubs. Night life began to become a vital force down on Beale Street. As a result, a unique combination of colorful characters, free flowing cash, music, and booze created the atmosphere where the blues were born.
Blues music has deep roots in the agricultural South. From the cotton fields to the river wharfs and the plantations, African-Americans created their own blend of music. Some of the harmonies and rhythms came from Africa and were handed down through several generations. Church music added to the mix with sacred rhythms and harmonization. When this all-American breed of music reached the city streets of Memphis, the juke joints and honky tonks gave the tunes another twist.
Famous blues man William Christopher (W.C.) Handy was a band leader and he wrote the first documented blues tune in 1909. Written as a campaign theme for a infamous Memphis politician, “Boss Crump Blues” soon became “Memphis Blues”. The sound spread through the clubs and was picked up by Jazz orchestras who liked the new music.
Music was the main feature of turn of the century Memphis. Young musicians began arriving from the Delta and from across the nation. In 1913, the hot number was “St. Louis Blues” and blues was a musical revolution. Both Soul and Rock and Roll were styles that came from the basic blues. Some of the blues scene’s most famous players began down on Beale Street. Alberta Hunter, Muddy Waters, Furry Lewis, Memphis Minni McCoy, and Albert King are just a few. In the 1940’s, a young man named Riley King arrived, guitar in hand. He soon earned the nickname of the Blues Boy of Beale Street and found fame with another name – B.B. King. His club remains part of the local landscape on Beale Street. Nearby, Handy Park offers musicians an open air outlet for their tunes and pays homage to the man who started it all – W.C. Handy. A bronze statue memorializes Handy.
By the 1930’s, the Depression affected Beale Street with the rest of the nation. The famous blues mecca declined until in the 1960’s, urban renewal plans threatened the future of Beale Street. Although a few of the historic buildings were lost, the city of Memphis acquired the district in the Seventies. By 1982, a major redevelopment was underway and although many feared that Beale Street would never return, the first club re-opened in 1983. Others soon followed and the historic street rang with music once again.
Clubs, shops, and restaurants are all part of today’s Beale Street. Memphis landmarks like A. Schwab Dry Goods Store remain. The store was founded in 1876 and has remained in the Schwab family for generations. Dyer’s Hamburgers, another Memphis tradition, sells their trademark hamburgers on Beale Street. Blues music is dominant but other music, including gospel, fusion jazz, reggae, and soul, are also heard. Souvenir shops are side by side with blues clubs and street vendors add to the unique ambiance found only on Beale Street.
In addition to the Beale Street Police Museum, look for the Blues Music Museum, the W.C. Handy House, and the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum. A small museum is also found on the second floor of Schwab’s store. By day or night, Beale Street still bops to the beat of the blues traditions born here. The blues are alive and well in Memphis – down on Beale Street.