October, 2013. Memphis, TN. The Real Beale

Posted on October 22, 2013


If you’re anywhere near Memphis, TN, make sure you take time to visit Beale Street.beal street at  night

It’s a two-block linear theme park combining Black history, culture and commerce. Packaged, promoted and choreographed like a great stage play, it offers a wide variety of music and food set in a lively party atmosphere – day or night.

And it’s a lot of fun. However, it’s also a two-block linear theme park situated on a ‘real’ historical site.

Beale Street was created in 1841 by a local entrepreneur, who named it for a now mostly-forgotten military hero. At its western end was Front Street, right next to the river, where cotton merchants had their offices and warehouses and cotton was shipped out from the cotton1910landings along the river. This section of Beale developed into the home of a variety of merchants, who traded goods with ships along the Mississippi River.

After the Civil War, Beale Street became a haven for African-Americans migrating from small Southern towns. But there were also waves of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants settling in Memphis.  The Jewish immigrants traditionally became the city’s merchants, and many of them peddled their wares on Beale Street.

Memphis resident W.C. Handy is credited with writing the first blues song in 1909.  It was actually a campaign theme for political boss E. H. Crump called “Mr. Crump”.  It was later published as “The Memphis Blues” and caught on quickly in the Beale Street clubs, in part due to its unique sound.

By the 1920’s, Beale was a prosperous eclectic mix of banks and conventional retauntitledil establishments spiced up – especially at night – with gambling, nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, pawnshops and hot music performed by the likes of Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong and B. B. King.

The Great Depression took its toll on Beale Street, as elsewhere. By the 1950’s some of that old magic had returned, but the two big movements of the 1960’s – civil rights and urban renewal – wore Beale Street right down to the ground.beale-ghost

Stores closed, original buildings fell into disrepair and were torn down.  In spite of being recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, Beale became a virtual ghost town.  Every building except Schwab’s Department Store – still in business, by the way – was boarded up.

Out of desperation, the City of Memphis bought nearly all of the properties along three blocks of Beale Street in the late 1970’s, and a corporation was formed to create an entertainment district.

Then Performa Entertainment Real Estate, Inc., a privately owned real estate development and advisory firm located in Memphis, was founded in 1982 to manage and develop the Beale Street Historic District for the city of Memphis.

Performa handled construction of ‘new’ old buildings, oversaw restoration of the original ones still standing, and picked tenants and events to create the ‘home of the blues’ entertainment theme.

While the ‘real Beale’ is but a memory, today’s Beale Street is a carefully-crafted way to experience a bygone era and better understand its influence on modern music and entertainment.

And, more importantly – it’s fun!