W.C. Handy, the "Father of Blues Music," once wrote:
"The Seven Wonders of the World I have seen, and many places I have been."
"Take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first."
Beale Street is the number one tourist attraction in the state of Tennessee. It is part of the major entertainment district in Memphis, a lively area stretching eastward from the Mississippi river bluffs. With the opening of the FedEx Forum and being flanked by Peabody Place and AutoZone Park, Beale Street has become the center of Memphis' entertainment Mecca. But back in the day it was a simmering cultural cauldron of dice parlors, gin mills, pool halls, and bawdy houses. Its home grown music reflected what its residents most keenly felt; the blues.
It was here, in 1909, that a young band leader and trumpet player named William Christopher Handy wrote a campaign song for Memphis mayoral candidate E.H. Crump. "Boss Crump" won, and the song was an immediate success, not so much for its lyrics as for its new sound - a tune composed of "blue notes" that caught the attention of the public. The song was soon titled "Memphis Blues." And it became the first Blues number to be published. Handy followed with the immortal "St. Louis Blues," perhaps the most popular Blues song of all time. These and other classics established Handy as the "Father of the Blues," and Beale Street as its home. Today, his statue overlooks the street from the shady park named in his honor. Handy's former Memphis home, a small shotgun house where he raised six children before moving to New York, is located at 352 Beale Street and is open to the public. Handy established the new blues music, and history was set in motion. Beale Street has had its ups and downs in more ways than a musical scale, but today, it's a virtual shrine to the kings of soul - Sam Moore, David Porter and Dave Prater, and to the legendary Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Isaac Hayesx, And the King Elvis Presley.
In late 1940, a young Mississippian joined in the amateur contests on Beale and soon developed a large following. He traded his first name, Riley for "The Beale Street Blues Boy," and today B.B. King is acclaimed as one of the masters of the genre. As a testament to the musical contributions of ground breaking talent that grew from Beale Street, a musical note walk of fame dedicated to these and other musicians, line the side walks of the street we came to know as Beale Street.
Beale Street Gained its prominence as the major street for African American enterprises in the first part of the 20th century. What was originally a street where black field workers milled around while the white farmers brought their cotton to the distribution center during the 1880's and 1890's, had began to grow and develop as black professionals, lawyers, doctors and shopkeepers began to thrive down Beale. Robert Church, the south's first black millionaire, built a small real-estate empire and owned several clubs, bars and boarding facilities on Beale Street. In addition, there were a number of Italian and Jewish Shopkeepers located on Beale Street to.The cloud of racial discord which had plagued the nation also gathered over Memphis though out the mid-20th century, leading ultimately to the wanton assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the Balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Riots and fires followed, and downtown Memphis died a slow death. Buildings lay derelict, even the South's Grand Hotel, The Peabody Memphis had closed. Beale Street fell upon hard times and was literally closed with only A. Schwab Retail Store remaining open The streets were fenced off to the public.
But, while Memphis was down, she was not quite out. In 1976, the process of rebuilding the center of the city was launched by a major public initiative to improve the area. With the redevelopment of Beale Street in the late 1970's the rejuvenation of downtown Memphis was on track for total completion by the late 1990's. Developer John Elkington was given a 52-year lease by the city to manage and develop Beale Street. The Beale Street Merchants Association was then formed in 1985 to help a handful of local visionaries. Armed with the insight that the majority questioned, they rolled the dice and began to open their businesses on Beale Street. Retail stores, clubs and cafes began to populate the street with the original sounds and flavors of a spotted past and a questionable future.
In addition to the Beale Street innovators that began this journey a mere 20 years ago, a few international chains have followed in their footsteps and joined forces for a bright future. Currently, the association is composed of thirty businesses located in the Beale Street Historic District. The Association was formed to best utilize the joint resources of the businesses in the district and work as a whole to develop the Beale Street Historic District to its fullest potential. It is the Association's mission to promote Beale Street in its capacity as the number one tourist attraction in Tennessee as well as educate residents in the surrounding region of the importance of the Beale Street Historic District Heritage.
The Beale Street Historic District employs approximately 700 people. It also contributes approximately four million dollars annually to local, state and county tax coffers. As of 2005, the gross sales were over $40 million dollars. Today Beale Street is a thriving, dynamic market. Memphis is on the map again, bustling with business as it was meant to be.
"The spirit of Memphis is sure to stay with you long after you've left"