Beale Street

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Beale Street Historic District
Beale Street 060523.jpg
Beale Street, showing King’s Palace Cafe, Beale St. Tap Room, and Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall.
Beale Street is located in Tennessee
Beale Street
Location Memphis, Tennessee
Coordinates 35°8′22″N 90°3′7″W / 35.13944°N 90.05194°W / 35.13944; -90.05194Coordinates: 35°8′22″N 90°3′7″W / 35.13944°N 90.05194°W / 35.13944; -90.05194
Area 27 acres (0.109 km2)[1]
Built 1900
Architectural style Late 19th And 20th Century Revivals, Late 19th And Early 20th Century American Movements
Governing body Beale Street Development Corporation
NRHP Reference # 66000731
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966[2]
Designated NHLD May 23, 1966[3]

Beale Street is a street in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee, which runs from the Mississippi River to East Street, a distance of approximately 1.8 miles (2.9 km). It is a significant location in the city's history, as well as in the history of the blues. Today, the blues clubs and restaurants that line Beale Street are major tourist attractions in Memphis. Festivals and outdoor concerts periodically bring large crowds to the street and its surrounding areas.


Beale street in 1974
Beale Street in 2014
Rex Billiard Hall for Colored, Beale Street, 1939. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.

Beale Street was created in 1841 by entrepreneur and developer Robertson Topp (1807–1876), who named it for a forgotten military hero.[4][5][6] The original name was Beale Avenue. Its western end primarily housed shops of trade merchants, who traded goods with ships along the Mississippi River, while the eastern part developed as an affluent suburb.[5] In the 1860s, many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale. The first of these to call Beale Street home were the Young Men's Brass Band,[5] who were formed by Sam Thomas in 1867.

In the 1870s, the population of Memphis was rocked by a series of yellow fever epidemics, leading the city to forfeit its charter in 1879.[5] During this time, Robert Church purchased land around Beale Street that would eventually lead to his becoming the first black millionaire from the south.[5] In 1890, Beale Street underwent renovation with the addition of the Grand Opera House, later known as the Orpheum. In 1899, Church paid the city to create Church Park at the corner of 4th and Beale. It became a recreational and cultural center, where blues musicians could gather. A major attraction of the park was an auditorium that could seat 2,000 people.[7] Some of the famous speakers in the Church Park Auditorium were Woodrow Wilson, Booker T. Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.[5]

In the early 1900s, Beale Street was filled with many clubs, restaurants and shops, many of them owned by African-Americans. In 1889, NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells was a co-owner and editor of an anti-segregationist paper called Free Speech based on Beale. Beale Street Baptist Church, Tennessee's oldest surviving African American Church edifice built in 1864, was also important in the early civil rights movement in Memphis.

In 1903, Mayor Thornton was looking for a music teacher for his Knights of Pythias Band and called Tuskegee Institute to talk to his friend, Booker T. Washington, who recommended a trumpet player in Clarksdale, Mississippi named W. C. Handy. Mayor Thornton contacted Handy, and Memphis became the home of the famous musician who created the "Blues on Beale Street". Mayor Thornton and his three sons also played in Handy's band.[8]

In 1909, W. C. Handy wrote "Mr. Crump" as a campaign song for political machine leader E. H. Crump. The song was later renamed "The Memphis Blues". Handy also wrote a song called "Beale Street Blues" in 1916 which influenced the change of the street's name from Beale Avenue to Beale Street. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and other blues and jazz legends played on Beale Street and helped develop the style known as Memphis Blues. As a young man, B. B. King was billed as "the Beale Street Blues Boy". One of Handy's proteges on Beale Street was the young Walter Furry Lewis, who later became a well known blues musician. In his later years Lewis lived near Fourth and Beale, and in 1969 was recorded there in his apartment by Memphis music producer Terry Manning.

In 1934, local community leader George Washington Lee authored Beale Street: Where the Blues Began; the first book by a black author to be advertised in the Book-of-the-Month Club News.[9]

In 1938, Lewis O. Swingler, editor of the Memphis World Newspaper, a Negro newspaper, in an effort to increase circulation, conceived the idea of a "Mayor of Beale St.", having readers vote for the person of their choice. Matthew Thornton, Sr., a well-known community leader, active in political, civic and social affairs and one of the charter members of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, won the contest against nine opponents and received 12,000 of the 33,000 votes cast. Mr. Thornton was the original "Mayor of Beale St." an honorary position that he retained until he died in 1963 at the age of 90.

In the 1960s, Beale became run down and many stores closed, although on May 23, 1966, the section of the street from Main to 4th was declared a National Historic Landmark.[1][3] On December 15, 1977, Beale Street was officially declared the "Home of the Blues" by an act of Congress. Despite this national recognition of its historic significance, Beale was a virtual ghost town after a disastrous urban renewal program with every building except Schwabs boarded up.

In 1973, the Beale Street Development Corporation (BSDC) was formed by George B. Miller and others as a cross-sectional, bi-racial cooperative effort for the redevelopment of Beale Street. The corporation was selected by the City of Memphis to participate in the redevelopment of the blocks on Beale between Second and Fourth streets in August 1978. The corporation dedicated its efforts to the success of the Beale Street Project for the preservation of the street's rich history, and to its cultural as well as physical development. This corporation with Miller's guidance raised 5.2 million dollars in grants for the renovation of Beale Street.

Circa 1980, the City of Memphis wanted the BSDC to have a management company to collect the rent, keep the street clean and manage the clubs and businesses as they were rented out. Each lease had to be signed off by BSDC, the City of Memphis and Performa. Performa was to collect the rent and keep a percentage for a managing fee per tenant, then turn the rest of the monies over to the BSDC. The Corporation would then, in turn, pay a percentage of those fees to the City of Memphis. To this day, the BSDC has never received payment.[citation needed]

Later, Memphis wanted to purchase the BSDC; to do so, the original members were brought back together. At that point, the original membership became unclear and divided. The creator of BSDC, George Miller, and the other persons that say they were the original members went to court to see who the true original 25 members were. Randall Catron had his 25 members and was dealing with the City of Memphis to purchase the BSDC. The judge asked each party to write down the name of the original members on each card. After that was done, the judge put all the names in a hat and said the first 25 names drawn from the hat would make up the BSDC. He asked Mr. Miller to put his 25 cards in a Lincoln-style hat where the index cards could not be shaken shuffled or rearranged. Then, he asked Randall Catron to place his cards on the top of the hat. All the names drawn were the top names in the hat.[citation needed] There were no cameras allowed in the courtroom for this scientific method of deciding who were the original members of BSDC. Elkington did not build any original buildings on Beale Street. Later, Elkington did bring good tenants to Beale Street but was not the original developer.

During the first weekend of May (sometimes including late April), the Beale Street Music Festival brings major music acts from a variety of musical genres to Tom Lee Park at the end of Beale Street on the Mississippi River. The festival is the kickoff event of a month of festivities citywide known as Memphis in May.[10]


  • Hard Rock Cafe (126 Beale)
  • Blues City Cafe & the Band Box (138-142 Beale)
  • Blues City General Store (144 Beale)
  • B. B. King's Blues Club (143 Beale)
  • Memphis Music (149 Beale)
  • Club 152 (152 Beale)
  • The Shadows - 3rd floor of Club 152 (152 Beale)
  • Tater Red’s (153 Beale)
  • Miss Polly's Soul City Cafe (154 Beale)
  • Alley Katz (156 Beale)
  • Superior Bar (159 Beale)
  • King’s Palace Cafe (162 Beale)
  • A. Schwab's (163 Beale)
  • The Pig (167 Beale)
  • Beale Street Tap Room (168 Beale)
  • The Black Diamond (153 Beale)
  • Johnny G's Creole Kitchen (156 Beale)
  • Strange Cargo (172 Beale)
  • Rum Boogie Café (182 Beale)
  • Silky O'Sullivan’s (183 Beale)
  • FedExForum (191 Beale)
  • Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum (191 Beale)
  • Alfred's on Beale (197 Beale)
  • Beale Street Blues Gifts (200 Beale)
  • Dyer's Famous Hamburgers (205 Beale)
  • Wet Willies (209 Beale)
  • People’s Billiard Club (323 Beale)
  • Coyote Ugly (326 Beale)
  • Historic Daisy Theatre (329 Beale)
  • The New Daisy Theatre (330 Beale)
  • The Lange Place
  • Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall
  • Eel Etc. Fashions (333 Beale)
  • Jerry Lee Lewis' Cafe and Honky Tonk (310 Beale)
  • Lil Anthony's Cafe (341 Beale)
  • W.C. Handy historic home (352 Beale)
  • Red Rooster (340 Beale)
  • The Beale Street Flippers

Musical references[edit]

  • Beale Street Blues written by W.C. Handy (most recently recorded by Joyce Cobb), this is the oldest and most famous of all musical references to Beale Street.
  • Clutch's song "The Devil & Me", on the album From Beale Street to Oblivion, contains a reference to Beale Street.
  • Joni Mitchell's song, "Furry Sings The Blues", is a lamentation of the redevelopment of Beale Street in the late 1960s. It references W.C. Handy and both the Old and The New Daisy Theatres, among others.[11]
  • Cab Calloway's song "Beale Street Mama" is all about Beale Street.
  • Todd Agnew's song "My Jesus" says that the singer thinks Jesus would prefer Beale Street to the stained glass crowd. Todd's song "On a Corner in Memphis" also references Beale Street.
  • Marc Cohn's 1991 single "Walking in Memphis" includes the lyric "walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale" in the chorus.
  • In 2002, David Nail's song "Memphis"' music video featured images of Memphis.


  1. ^ a b Cecil McKithan and Horace Sheely (1988). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Beale Street / Beale Street Historic District" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-06-22.  and Accompanying 15 photos, from 1965 and undated PDF (3.53 MB)
  2. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  3. ^ a b "Beale Street Historic District". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  4. ^ "About Beale Street". Archived from the original on 2007-05-30. Retrieved 2007-06-23. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Raichelson, Richard M. (1999). Beale Street Talks: A Walking Tour Down The Home Of The Blues. Memphis, TN: Arcadia Records. ISBN 0-9647545-1-7. 
  6. ^ Genealogical Tidbits, Memphis Daily Appeal, 1876
  7. ^ Barlow, William. "Looking Up At Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Temple University Press (1989), p. 208. ISBN 0-87722-583-4.
  8. ^ wc handy
  9. ^ Sewell, George A.; Dwight, Margaret L. (1977), Mississippi Black History Makers, University Press of Mississippi 
  10. ^ "Memphis in May Webpage". 
  11. ^ - Lyrics: Furry Sings The Blues

External links[edit]