Saturday, July 21, 2012

A (Hot) Walk Down Beale Street

There is at least one positive result of having days with temperature and humidity in the 90 degrees/per cent range—few travelers venture out in the morning to walk Beale Street.

So, one recent morning, we hopped on—no, slowly boarded—the Riverfront Trolley and tripled the number of riders at that time.

Since we were ahead of schedule, the driver stopped at Vance Park, a little park atop the Mississippi River bluff. It offers a view of the the Hernando de Soto Bridge, which is shaped like the letter "M" and carries Interstate 40 traffic across the River to West Memphis.

John Medwedeff’s 18-feet modernist whirligig, simply called Whirl, “…transcends conventional boundaries with his metalwork, forged painted steel to mimic the wind and water that whip the South Bluffs.” It also doubles as a park bench.

Making the turn from Riverside Drive and heading north on Main Street, we passed the Orpheum. Built in 1890, it was originally known as the Grand Opera House.

The trolley ride provided an introduction to the Memphis downtown, but we had come to walk along Beale Street. Officially declared the Home of the Blues by an act of Congress on December 15, 1977, Beale Street’s history seems to exemplify the blues.

It was created in 1841 by entrepreneur and developer Robertson Topp (1807–1876), who named it for a forgotten military hero.

In the 1870s, the population of Memphis was rocked by a series of yellow fever epidemics, leading the city to forfeit its charter in 1879.

In the 1960s, Beale became run down and many stores closed, although on May 23, 1966, the section of the street from Main to 4th was declared a National Historic Landmark. Despite this national recognition of its historic significance, Beale was a virtual ghost town after a disastrous urban renewal program with every building except Schwabs boarded up.

Pig on Beale is described as having "some of the best in local and national blues bands nightly. The best BBQ in the South served nightly with the best pizza on Beale Street all served with Southern Hospitality." A banner over their entrance proclaims: "2010 and 2011 Memphis in May Second Place Whole Hog Championship."

Music has always been part of the life of Beale Street. In the 1860s, many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale. The first of these to call Beale Street home were the Young Men's Brass Band.

The Beale Street Tap Room, "with big-screen televisions and a vast selection of draft beers, is a true tap room."

During the late 1800s, Robert Church purchased land around Beale Street that would eventually lead to his becoming the first black millionaire from the South.

In 1899, Robert Church paid the city to create Church Park at the corner of 4th and Beale. It became a recreational and cultural center, where blues musicians could gather.

In 1903, Mayor Thornton was looking for a music teacher for his Knights of Pythias Band and called Tuskegee Institute to talk to his friend, Booker T. Washington, who recommended a trumpet player in Clarksdale, Mississippi, named W. C. Handy.
Mayor Thornton contacted Mr. Handy, and Memphis became the home of the famous musician who created the "Blues on Beale Street".

Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and other blues and jazz legends played on Beale Street and helped develop the style known as Memphis Blues. As a young man, B.B. King was billed as "the Beale Street Blues Boy".

The Club is described as "featuring the best in local and international entertainment. A very classy club. Probably Beale's classiest."

In the early 1900s, Beale Street was filled with clubs, restaurants and shops, many of them owned by African-Americans.

I was taken with Miss Polly's Soul City Cafe with a motto of "Love, Peace, and Chicken Grease."

We finished our time on Beale Street with a walk down the recently-renamed "Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous Alley" past Rendezvous. "Charlie Vergos took an old coal chute from the wall of his smoky basement tavern in downtown Memphis and created barbecue history."

After a walk along tree-lined Main Street, we headed back to the nearest Riverfront Trolley stop.

No comments: