True Blues and the Soul of Memphis

Dirt-poor sharecroppers made music out of misery in west Tennessee in the late 1800s. African-Americans exchanged “field hollers” during the back-breaking work of picking cotton on the Mississippi River. They would “call and respond” to each other with snatches, phrases and idioms.

A coronet player and composer, William Christopher (W.C.) Handy listened keenly on the Delta to the thump of their guitars, the wailing of their voices and the yowl of their harmonicas. From their shanties and shacks, Handy defined what we now know as the blues from their rhythms through his three-verse lyrics and 12-bar melodies.

Handy became known as “The Father of the Blues” after writing a slogan song, “Mr. Crump,” in 1909 at the cigar counter at PeeWee’s Saloon (now the site of Hard Rock Café) on Beale Street for politician Edward “Boss” Crump who was running for mayor. When he updated the arrangement, Handy titled it the “Memphis Blues.”

Before he said farewell to Memphis in 1917, Handy penned the “Beale Street Blues” which led officials to rename what was then Beale Avenue. Today, a lifesize bronze statue of Handy guards W.C. Handy Park, where informal open-air concerts have been held since 1938.

Handy’s humble clapboard house (where he raised six kids) was moved in 1985 to Beale Street from the nearby Soulsville neighborhood. Today, the W.C. Handy Home & Museum features artifacts, pictures and other mementoes.

After he left for Tin Pin Alley in New York, Handy still made Memphis roar in the 1920s and ’30s. Workers who toiled from sunup in the hot dusty fields in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi danced and drank to his blues songs at nightclubs and juke joints.

By the 1940s, Beale Street’s Daisy Theatre was where a youth named Riley B. King from nearby Indianola, Miss., kept winning the $2 prize at Saturday talent competitions. Soon, audiences began referring to him as the “Beale Street Blues Boy” or “Blues Boy King,” which they eventually shortened to B.B. King.

Today, B.B. King plays his trustworthy Gibson semi-hollow body guitar Lucille at least twice a year in Memphis at his original B.B. Kings Blues Club (there are five others from Orlando to Las Vegas). When he’s not singing about how “The Thrill Is Gone,” his six-man B.B. King All-Stars fill in.

Meanwhile, the stage where B.B. King once headlined at the Historic Daisy Theatre has been restored in all its glory as a former nickelodeon and cinema. Nearby, the 900-seat New Daisy Theatre hosts a variety of acts—from bluegrass to the blues and everything between.

In the racial divisions of the 1950s and ’60s, blacks and whites united in Memphis around gospel, rockabilly and soul music—Sam Moore, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Isaac Hayes were among the elite. In 1966, Beale Street was honored as a National Historic Landmark.

These days, blues aficionados can dress the part with fedoras, suspenders and harmonicas from A. Schwab’s Dry Goods Store, which has been in existence since 1876. Or head to Lansky at the nearby Peabody Hotel, whose fashions have been worn by regulars such as Count Basie and B.B. King since 1946.

At the Gibson Beale Street Showcase, you can buy an electric guitar to match your outfit. Or, tour the 16 stations it takes to make a finely tuned B.B. King “Lucille” Epiphone or Gibson Custom. The St. Blues Guitar Workshop is the place to go for a “Bluesmaster” like those owned by Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.

Club-hopping on Beale Street takes revelers to the Rum Boogie Bar and Café, Ground Zero Blues Club (partners are actor Morgan Freeman and friend Bill Luckett), the Black Diamond and Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall (where Mr. Feelgood Potts has a steady gig) until the wee hours.

After a late night, cure your hangover at the Memphis Rock ’N Soul Museum, where exhibits take fans through primitive performances recorded by John Lee Hooker to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in the Delta to the sophisticated studio strains of Justin Timberlake; or The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which explores the offerings of Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Al Green and others.

From the Delta to Beale Street, in the past three decades, Memphis has spread its case of the blues worldwide.