About a decade or so ago I had the opportunity to visit Memphis for business. I made sure I had some extra time to have some ribs at “The Rendezvous“, hopped a cab over to The King’s old house (but didn’t brave the lines at his grave), and stopped by Sun Records where so many got their start. But the highlight of my visit was spending Friday night on Beale Street.
Beale Street in downtown Memphis is just under 2 miles long and in addition to being an important part of Memphis’ history it is also central to the history of the blues. Beale Street’s heyday was the roaring ’20’s and the gambling joints and bars were overflowing nightly with people of all walks of life – some good – some bad.
Beale Street was developed around 1841 with one end fixed at the banks of the Mississippi River (and used primarily for merchant trade) and the other end developed as a wealthier suburb. In the 1870’s, following a yellow fever epidemic that rocked the City, a man named Robert Church seized the opportunity of a depressed economy to purchase a central section of Beale for redevelopment that included a square and park (Church Park). [Trivia alert: Robert Church was the first black millionaire from the U.S. South.] It was at Church Park where local black musicians began to gather to play the blues – leading to the development of nearby blues clubs (juke joints) and a concert theater.
I found a great number of songs about Beale Street and Memphis. I tried to select a few you may not be familar with for inclusion in this tribute…
- Furry Sings the Blues – Joni Mitchell (1976)
- Beale Street: Then and Now – Documentary Short Film (2008)
- Beale Street Blues – Ella Fitzgerald (1958) – with Nat King Cole in the role of W.C.Handy!
- Beale Street Mama – Bessie Smith (1923)
- I’m Not a Bad Girl – Memphis Minnie (1941)
- Memphis – Johnny Rivers (1964)
- Beale Town Bound – The Beale Street Sheiks (1927)