Exploring Beale Street from a historic point-of-view
According to Memphis Tourism, Beale Street is currently the most-visited attraction in Tennessee. The popular 2-block strip that gets so much attention is only about 1,500 feet in length, but on most Fridays and Saturdays it draws a nightly crowd that would more than fill the nearby 18,000 seat FedExForum.
Most visitors care little about the iconic street’s lingering legacy and folklore. Few care that it has been a National Historic Landmark for over 55 years. They’re there for the party.
But, more than a century before it became the entertainment hotspot it is today, Beale Street was home to an assortment of taverns, cabarets, theaters, dance halls and similar enterprises. It’s history actually dates all the way back to the 1840s, and it has been a music mecca of sorts since the 1860s.
Keep reading for fun facts and other background information that can help you get in a historic state-of-mind before your next trip to Beale Street.
Beale Street: The National Historic Landmark
Beale Street between 2nd and 4th Street became a National Historic Landmark in 1966. In 1977, it was officially declared the Home of the Blues by an act of Congress.
Today, the section of Beale Street known for its dining, drinking and musical entertainment looks somewhat as it did about 80-90 years ago. While most of Beale outside of the National Historic Landmark area that survived until the time it gained the landmark designation was demolished between 1968 and 1979, about half of the buildings between 2nd and 4th Street remain to this day. In many cases, newer construction can be found behind historic facades.
In the Beale Street National Register application, the dates of its historical significance are declared to be 1905 to 1938. But, according to the application, “... by 1938, Beale Street’s initial flowering as a center of night life had lost much of its vigor.”
Many buildings were replaced between 1919 and 1938. Only about 25% of the newer structures that were built during that span were considered to be worth saving by 1966. A majority of the doors and windows of the surviving buildings were boarded up throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Some roofs had partially caved in. The entire street may have been bulldozed if not for the nationwide preservation movement that was growing at the time, and the city’s desire to make the two-block portion a tourist attraction.
Shown above: 140 to 152 Beale Street as it appeared in the 1970s, and the same buildings in Nov. 2021.
In 1993, the boundary of the Beale Street Historic District was expanded to include the c. 1869 First Baptist Church, now known as the Beale Street Baptist Church, and Church Park, a very significant greenspace related to the African-American community. The church was individually listed with the National Register in 1971.
It’s easy to assume that Church Park gets it’s name from the fact that it’s located adjacent to the church, but that is not the case. It’s named for the first African-American millionaire in the South, and his family.
The millionaire, Robert R. Church Sr., founded the six-acre park in 1899. It featured an auditorium, a bandstand, a playground and picnic grounds. Several significant events occured at the park in its early days. W.C. Handy served as an orchestra leader there. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke there during a visit to Memphis in 1902. The city’s first African-American-owned bank opened next door in 1906. The Lincoln Republican League was founded there in 1916, and Tennessee’s first NAACP chapter was founded at the park in 1917.
Beale Street’s enormous historic significance can be traced to both the musical heritage and how Mr. Church’s investments in the area paved the way for early 20th century African-American entrepreneurship.
Why Memphis is considered to be the Birthplace of the Blues, Southern soul and rock and roll
William Christopher Handy solidified his rise as one of the most impactful music composers in the world while working on Beale Street from around 1905 to 1917. According to Gilbert Chase’s 1966 book, America’s Music, “Handy’s works brought the blues to new heights of general popularity, and made him a preeminent figure in the establishment of composed blues as a form of American popular song.”
Some of the iconic places from Handy’s time such as Peewee’s Saloon, the Panama Club, the Hole in the Wall, Hammitt Ashford’s Saloon and Sims’ Beer Garden — along with the pawn shops, flophouses, brothels and gambling houses — fostered an environment where the music that fundamentally rose out of the cotton fields would continually propagate and mutate.
The power of music kept Beale Street alive through the 1940s and 1950s
The Beale Street magic surged to the forefront of the national music scene in post-depression America. African-American blues guitar legends Howlin' Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) and B.B. King came out of the Mississippi Delta during that period.
Similar to how aspiring movie stars were attracted to Hollywood, California, if you were an aspiring African-American musician in the South in the late ’40s and ’50s, you packed up and headed to Beale Street. Those who made it there often moved on to the music scenes in St. Louis or Chicago.
As he began ascended as a local star in Memphis in the late 1940s, Riley King chose to market himself as Riley “Beale Street Blues Boy” King, and then Riley “Blues Boy” King. It was just B.B. King by the time he became a star on a national level.
As the Memphis style of blues continued to evolve in the mid-20th century, it heavily influenced singers and songwriters of other emerging styles and helped stem the birth of several genres and sub-genres including R&B, soul and rock and roll.
The King of Rock and Roll himself hung out on Beale Street as a teenager. Elvis Presley’s career took off in 1954 when he sung “That’s Alright” — a song he heard on Beale Street — while taking a break from what had been a disappointing recording session at Sun Studio, which is, by the way, still standing on Union Avenue only a block from east Beale Street.
More about W.C. Handy and his broad musical influence
Pictured above: Now a small museum, Handy lived in the structure when he first moved to Memphis. It was moved in the mid-1980s from south Memphis to the corner of Beale and 4th.
Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1873. His father and grandfather were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. As a youth, hymns and spirituals influenced him greatly, as did his uncle Whit, a fiddle player. Handy traveled with a vocal quartet in the 1890s, and became a well-known cornet player between 1893 and 1898.
It would be correct to consider him a songwriter, a musician, a composer, a bandmaster, a publisher and a folklorist. In 1900, he was a music teacher at Alabama A&M near Huntsville. His autobiography, “Father of the Blues,” was published in 1941.
Some of the top African-American recording artists of the 20th century recorded Handy’s music. Those include Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Lena Horne. Some of his best-known songs include Memphis Blues, Saint Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues. Three Saint Louis Blues recordings are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Louis Armstrong 1954 album titled Louis Armstrong plays W.C. Handy is considered by many to be Armstrong’s best studio recording.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a 6-cent stamp honoring W. C. Handy in 1969 at the time of the Memphis’s sesquicentennial anniversary celebration.
Check out this excerpt from the Beale Street National Register of Historic Places application:
Though Handy left Memphis for Chicago and New York City around 1917 or 1918, Beale Street continued, into the years of the Great Depression, to represent important facets of a time and milieu in which the blues began to exert a major influence in the history of mainstream American music.
For more about Handy, see this Encyclopedia of Alabama article.
Why is it named Beale Street?
An entrepreneur, Robertson Topp, started developing the street in 1841. Following the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, he named it Beale in honor of a war hero.
It was actually shown on maps as Beale Avenue until the 1950s when it was officially changed to Beale Street.
Some of the city’s most significant historic markers are found on Beale
Today, it’s easy to consider what remains of the historic strip to be an open-air museum. Permanent steel barricades have recently been placed at the 2nd and 4th Street entrances, making that portion pedestrian-only for all hours of the day. Visit in the early AM and you can practically have it to yourself.
Of the five dozen or so state historic markers located in downtown Memphis, some of the most interesting ones are found along Beale Street. Those include the Pee Wee’s Saloon marker and a good number of markers that honor significant African-American leaders of the late 19th century and the early 20th century including Benjamin Franklin Booth, Mary Church Terrell, Nat D. Williams and Ida B. Wells.
Why is there a 3-story facade propped up by steel girders near the corner of Beale Street and B.B. King Boulevard?
Every historic building has a story to tell.
That facade is all that remains of a very interesting structure. Found at 179-181 Beale Street, a fire destroyed the interior of the c. 1891 Gallina Exchange Building in 1980. The girders were installed to temporarily support the facade, but they are still there more than 40 years later.
Between the time it was built and the time its owner, Judge Charles Gallina, passed away in 1914, the building featured a 20-room hotel, a restaurant and a 24/7 saloon. Gallina and his family lived on the top floor. He held court on the 2nd floor.
Today, the facade conceals the large patio section of Silky O’Sullivan’s, a famous pub that opened there in 1992. It serves barbecue, oysters and other good food. Visit the Silky O’Sullivan’s Facebook page for info about their entertainment lineup, their Irish Diving Goats, their annual St. Patricks Day parade, etc. Thomas “Silky” O’Sullivan passed away in 2013.
See 26 more pictures at Streetscape galleries: Additional Beale Street photos.
Nightlife, barbecue, blues and booze are certainly not the only reasons to visit Beale Street, especially if you are a historic-places enthusiast, or are a lover of American nostalgia. Even if you prefer to avoid the night-time crowds, you still must see the neon signs at night.
A stroll along Beale Street is a must for folks who enjoy learning about the roots of American music, those who are enjoying a civil-rights pilgrimage or for just about anyone who finds themselves in the fascinating city of Memphis.
See my other Memphis article, Enjoy a self-guided historic-places sidewalk tour in the heart of Memphis.