The Soul of Memphis

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

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)
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Tad Pierson, 58, a straw-hatted blues aficionado originally from Kansas, is the Zen master of Memphis tour operators, a one-man Google of local knowledge. “I do anthro-tourism,” he told me.

I rode shotgun in his creamy pink 1955 Cadillac for an afternoon ramble. We looped around to the juke joints near Thomas Street, which some people call “the real Beale Street.” The more interest you show, the more Pierson lights up. “I get a sense that people are called to Memphis,” he said. “It’s cool bringing them to the altar of experience.”

The largest number of worshipers go to the slightly eerie theme park that is Graceland. Maybe I was just in a bad mood, but the whole Elvisland experience—the Heartbreak Hotel & RV Park, the “Elvis After Dark” exhibit, Elvis’ private jet and so on—seemed to me a betrayal of what was most appealing about Elvis, early Elvis at any rate: his fresh, even innocent musical sincerity. There’s an undercurrent of cultural tension there, with some visitors reverentially fawning over every scrap of Presleyana, while others snicker, secure in the knowledge that their home-decorating taste is more refined than that of a slick-coifed rocker born in a two-room shotgun shack in Mississippi at the height of the Depression—who, even posthumously, earns $55 million a year. Actually, the white-columned house and grounds he bought for himself and his extended family are quite pretty.

I was struck by the fact that Elvis’ humble birthplace—there’s a scale model of it at Graceland—was almost identical to W. C. Handy’s Memphis home, which now houses the W. C. Handy Museum on Beale Street. The composer’s first published work, 1912’s “Memphis Blues,” began as a jaunty campaign song for Boss Crump, and Handy eventually wrote many popular songs, including “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”: “If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk.”

Late one afternoon, hours before the street ginned up for real, I was leaning into the open-air bar window of B.B. King’s Blues Club at Beale and South Second, checking out a singer named Z’Da, who’s been called the Princess of Beale Street. A tall man with a white T-shirt and salt-and-pepper hair approached me, pulling on a cigarette. “I saw you taking pictures of W. C. Handy’s house a little while ago,” he said, smiling.

We got to talking. He told me his name was Geno Richardson and he did odd jobs for a living. “I bring water for the horses,” he said, pointing over to one of the carriages that take tourists around the area. He had heard stories about Beale Street in its 1920s heyday, when prostitution and gambling flourished and George “Machine Gun” Kelly was a small-time bootlegger here. Talented bluesmen could always find work, but it wasn’t a place for the faint of heart. In the ’50s, “Elvis was about the only white guy who could come here after dark,” Richardson said. “And that was because B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and those guys sort of took him under their wing.”

Today’s throbbing two-block entertainment district is well-patrolled by Memphis police; it’s all that’s left of the old Beale Street, which stretched eastward with shops, churches and professional offices before they were razed in misbegotten urban renewal schemes. Across the intersection from the Handy museum, in the basement of the First Baptist Beale Street Church, the famed civil rights advocate and feminist Ida B. Wells edited her newspaper, Free Speech. In 1892, after the lynching of three black grocery store owners—friends of hers who had been targeted for taking business away from whites—Wells urged blacks to pack up and leave Memphis; a mob then ransacked the paper’s office and Wells fled the city herself. Seven years later, on an expanse of land adjoining the same house of worship, Robert R. Church Sr., a former slave who became the South’s first black millionaire, created Church Park and Auditorium—the city’s first such amenities for African-Americans—and later hired W. C. Handy to lead the park’s orchestra. Booker T. Washington spoke there, and President Theodore Roosevelt drew throngs to this now-forgotten patch of turf.

Richardson, 54, asked me where I was from, and when I said New York, he touched the Yankees logo on his baseball cap and smiled again. Then he handed me a copy of the weekly Memphis Flyer, opened to the music listings. “This has everything you need,” he said. I gave him $5 and we wished each other well.



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