- Historic Sites
A gracious antebellum city of stern-wheelers and cotton money; a restless, violent city with a hot grain of genius at its heart; a city of calamity, desolation, and rebirth; a city that changed the way the whole world hears music. It’s all the same city, and it is this year’s Great American Place. Thomas Childers answers a summons to Memphis, Tennessee.
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
Then of course there is Graceland. Since Elvis’s death in 1977 his mansion south of town has become the second most visited residence in the United States, far outdistancing William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Only the White House draws more visitors. With its Jungle Room, flowing fountains, floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, banks of televisions, and ornate smoked mirrors, the mansion is a wonderfully outrageous affront to good taste, a monument to the country-boy-made-good—and not a little eerie. Yet, in a way, it is ironic that Graceland should be the focal point of Elvis mania in Memphis, since his most creative musical period was over by the time he took up residence there in 1957. For many, the King’s ghost seems far more alive at 706 Union Avenue, in the cramped twenty-by-forty-foot studio where he was discovered, or even on Beale Street, where in his early days he listened to the blues and bought his flamboyant pink and black clothes at Lansky Brothers.
The building that housed Lansky’s is now, appropriately, the site of Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a restaurant and nightclub that opened in the summer of 1997 and now anchors one end of a four-block area that is the revived Beale Street. In the sixties the old street was a dismal wasteland. The music scene had long vanished, the businesses had fled, and even that Beale Street staple, vice, seemed to have departed for more promising pastures. In a spasm of grandiose urban renewal beginning in 1966, the Memphis Housing Authority announced plans to make “drab Beale Street into a glittering jewel, complete with a revolving tower-restaurant at the Mississippi River, a riverfront freeway, high rise apartments, a plaza along Beale,” and so forth, as the Memphis Press-Scimitar told it. “You’re forgetting one thing,” said one of the many local residents who protested the plan. “If you tear down all these buildings, you will no longer have Beale Street.”
The bloated project collapsed under the money pressures of the mid-1970s. Then in 1978 the Memphis Community Development Division opened the door to private developers. A local company named Carlisle Properties, which had already started a restaurant complex over on the Mississippi at Beale Street Landing, joined up with a group—largely made up of black merchants from the neighborhood—called the Beale Street Development Foundation. With a few million dollars pledged to the project, they set about salvaging what they could of the old Beale Street.
For all its prosperity, there lingers aoout this old river city an unsettling and irresistible air of mystery, of haunted memory.
In 1979, with the outcome far from certain, the historian T. H. Watkins wrote that “history may yet combine with private profit and the public good to make something worthwhile on Beale Street. The result, of course, will not even approximate the world that produced the blues which the new Beale Street will memorialize. Nor should it. For all its luminous vigor, for all its music, there was too much pain in that world, too much desperation, too much truth.”
Today the results are in. Beale Street is enjoying an exuberant revival and is once again a place where the music that made Memphis famous can be heard. With a dozen or so blues clubs, cafés, record shops, and restaurants, the street jumps with entertainment every night. On weekends two revamped blocks of Beale are blocked off to traffic, and people of all sorts—conventioneers from Iowa, European tourists, exotically dressed Japanese youth, panhandlers, evangelists, impromptu acrobats—surge through the area, mingling with itinerant musicians, fortunetellers, and a colorful assortment of locals on the street, while music—blues, R & B, and rock—floods from the open doors of B. B. King’s Blues Club at the west end of the street all the way down to the Rum Boogie Café several blocks away.
Some observers have disparaged the spruced-up Beale Street, with its cobblestones and sandblasted facades, as little more than a blues theme park, artificial and touristy. It is true that better barbecue can be found at Payne’s, out on Elvis Presley Boulevard, or at the Interstate Bar-B-Q Restaurant, on South Third Street, and a blues purist can find grittier fare at Wild Bill’s Restaurant and Lounge, on Vollintine Avenue, or at Earnestine & Hazel’s, which was once a sundry store on South Main Street, or at any number of other juke joints that still dot the sprawling Memphis landscape. Certainly the spiffy, newly opened Hard Rock Café on Beale and Hernando could be anywhere. But such criticism is unfair.