Beale Street: The History Behind the Memphis Party Scene

Beale Street is much more than a great spot for a night out. It also played an important role in the civil rights movement.
By: Alyson McNutt English
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Photo by: iStockphoto.com/DenisTangneyJr

iStockphoto.com/DenisTangneyJr

Stroll along Beale Street in downtown Memphis and you’ll see rows of elaborate neon signs advertising blues and jazz clubs, renowned restaurants and party-hardened bars and dance stops. But behind the now glamorous street’s current facade is a history enmeshed deeply in music legend and lore as well as civil rights and economic independence and equality for black Memphians.

At its inception in 1841, Beale Street was known as Beale Avenue, and it was both residential and commercial, with high-end homes at its east end and shops and merchants making shop in the west end. The central part of Beale was known as “the underworld” and was mostly inhabited by saloons and brothels. “The underworld” began attracting musicians and artists until, in the 1870s, Memphis fell victim to a yellow fever epidemic. Mosquitoes, which are common in the riverside city, carry yellow fever. An outdated water and sewer system enabled the disease to spread more efficiently, as well. As a result, Memphians fled the city in record numbers. Of the residents who remained, nearly 80 percent became sick and almost one-quarter of those people died. The population dwindled so severely that Memphis lost its city charter. There was no government to speak of, and the city’s once rapid expansion receded.

In the aftermath of the yellow fever epidemic, black Memphis businessman Robert Church bought land around Beale Street. It proved to be a good investment; Church’s Beale Street bet led to him becoming the first black millionaire in the South. After Church’s purchase, the Grand Opera House, now known as The Orpheum, was renovated and Church Park, located at 4th and Beale, became a mecca for blues musicians of the time period as well as prominent thinkers and politicians, who gathered at the auditorium to speak to the city of Memphis.

But Beale Streets modern-day character truly began emerging in the early 1900’s when black entrepreneurs opened clubs, restaurants and shops along the famed corridor. Church’s purchase of the area allowed economic opportunity and equality for black Memphians in a time of great racial injustice. And when blues musician W.C. Handy came to town, Beale Street was on its path to becoming synonymous with the best blues music in America. Handy wrote the song Beale Street Blues, which immortalized the swinging street in musical legend and lore. During the jazz age of the 1920’s-1940’s, musicians flocked to Memphis, and to Beale. B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters were just a few of the jazz and blues legends who helped create the style known as “Memphis Blues” -- a style that was born on the Beale Street. In fact, a young white boy from Mississippi named Elvis ended up making a name for himself in the music world, thanks to the influence of the soulful, sensual music he soaked in while hanging around the jazz clubs, smoking parlors and brothels on Beale in the 1950’s.

In the 1960’s, however, the area fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s that downtown revitalization became a priority for Memphis’ city government, and Beale Street was raised with the renewal tide. Now it offers live music seven days a week and is ground zero for blues and jazz festivals like the Beale Street Music Festival that’s part of the famed Memphis in May festival. Clubs like B.B. King’s, Silky O’Sullivans and Rum Boogie Cafe, as well as restaurants like Dyer’s Burgers (said to have the best burgers in Memphis) and Hard Rock Cafe now draw visitors and locals alike. Whether you’re looking to chill to some blues and jazz or want to find a raucous party any night of the week, Beale is the place to be.

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