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A throbbing two-block entertainment district is all that is left of old Beale Street, most of which was razed in urban renewal schemes. (Lucian Perkins)

The Soul of Memphis

Despite setbacks, the Mississippi River city has held onto its rollicking blues joints, smokin' barbecue and welcoming, can-do spirit

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Through his films and writings—which include a biography of Muddy Waters and It Came From Memphis, a captivating study of the Bluff City’s racial and musical gestalt during the pivotal Sun-to-Stax era—Robert Gordon, 49, has become a beacon of Memphis culture.

I met Gordon for lunch one day at Willie Moore’s soul food place on South Third Street, which, he pointed out, is the continuation of Highway 61, the fabled blues road that slices through the Mississippi Delta from New Orleans to Memphis. “All roads in the Delta lead to 61, and 61 leads to Memphis,” Gordon said. “The way the moon creates tidal flows, the Delta creates social patterns in Memphis.”

We drove around Soulsville, USA, the predominantly black section where Aretha Franklin and several other important music figures came from. Gordon turned down South Lauderdale to show me the studios of Hi Records, the label best known for recording Al Green, who still performs. The street has been renamed Willie Mitchell Boulevard, after the late musician and producer who was to Hi Records what Sam Phillips was to Sun. There’s common ground there, Gordon suggested. “I think that what runs through much of the stuff in Memphis that has become famed elsewhere is a sense of individuality and of independence, establishing an aesthetic without being concerned about what national or popular trends are,” Gordon said.

Just a few blocks farther along we approached the Stax Museum and the adjoining Stax Music Academy, where teenagers enjoy first-class facilities and instruction. I met some of the students and teachers the next evening; it’s impossible not to be moved by the spirit of optimism they embody and their proud (but also fun-loving) manner. The hope is that the new Stax complex, which opened in 2002, will anchor a turnaround in this historically impoverished community.

“I like the whole message of what’s happened to Delta culture, that it’s gained respect,” Gordon said. “It didn’t yield to pressures, it maintained its own identity, and ultimately, the world came to it, instead of it going to the world. And I feel like you can read that in the buildings and streets and history and people and happenstance exchanges—all of that.”

__________________________

“Put your hands together for Ms. Nickki, all the way from Holly Springs, Mississippi!” the emcee yelled to a packed house. It was Saturday night at Wild Bill’s, a juke joint wedged next to a grocery store on Vollintine Avenue. The drummer was laying down a heavy backbeat, accompanied by a fat bass line. Wild Bill’s house band, the Memphis Soul Survivors, includes sidemen who have backed B.B. King, Al Green—everybody—and the groove is irresistible. Then Ms. Nickki, a big-voiced singer with charm to spare, stepped to the mike.

As it happened, the club’s founder, “Wild Bill” Storey, had died earlier that week and had been laid to rest at the veterans’ cemetery in Germantown just the day before. “I almost didn’t come. I cried my eyes out,” Ms. Nickki said tenderly.

They say there are two very good times to sing the blues—when you’re feeling bad, and when you’re feeling good. Sometimes they overlap, like the sacred and the profane. So Ms. Nickki decided to show up. “Y’all came to the best doggone blues joint this side of the moon!” she declared, reaching deep and belting out one impassioned verse after another in Wild Bill’s honor. She turned up the heat with a B.B. King blues: “Rock me baby, rock me all night long / I want you to rock me—like my back ain’t got no bone.”

Wild Bill’s is a long narrow space with red walls and ceiling fans and a tiny bar and kitchen in the back. People were drinking 40-ounce beers in plastic cups at communal tables, laughing and carrying on, black and white, all ages. Fourteen dancers crammed into a space big enough for eight, right up where the band was playing. From a corner table in the back, under a bulletin board festooned with hundreds of snapshots, three smartly dressed young women spontaneously launched into a backup vocal riff borrowed from an old Ray Charles hit—“Night ’n’ day...[two beats]...Night ’n’ day”—spurring on both the band and the dancers. The Raelettes would have been proud.

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