Beale Street is one of the most essential attractions in all of Memphis and is one of the most iconic streets in America. At one point in time, it was a main route through downtown Memphis, and as a result, clubs, parks and theaters began opening and attracting musicians from all over the South. It wasn't long before a trumpet player from Clarksdale, Mississippi, came to town and started playing his own signature style of song. W.C. Handy's "Beale Street Blues" kicked off a new era in music. Soon, other musicians like Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and more were playing in clubs on Beale. Eventually, the unique musical sound on Beale began to draw curiosity from all over the region. Curious pedestrians replaced cars, and even today, a section of Beale Street remains blocked off to vehicles every evening and on weekends.
While the Beale Street Historic District is mostly known for its music venues and blues clubs, you don't have to be a music fan to take in all that Beale has to offer. This popular street hides a few spectacular gems that are worth uncovering... and since the blues are all about authentic experiences, consider this your guide to everything you never knew about Beale Street. You’ll feel the soul of the city while you explore.
One of the coolest gems on Beale is its own version of the Walk of Fame in Hollywood: musical notes inscribed with the names of blues legends are set in the cement sidewalk. It's also interesting that Beale Street is the official, legal home of the blues, thanks to an act that Congress passed in 1977. Plus, since it doesn't have any open container laws, it's the only place in the state where you can take your drink into the street!
W.C. Handy Museum
There’s a humble, blue shotgun home on Beale Street. It’s easy to miss, but it’s worth taking the time to explore. This tiny house is the former home of W.C. Handy, the father of the blues. William Christopher Handy is responsible for turning the blues genre from a local fad to a national (and historical) phenomenon. Handy was born in Alabama and traveled across the country playing in bands, from Chicago to Texas, and even to Cuba and beyond. He took his studies of African American music very seriously and eventually started his own band and settled in Memphis, where he played his style of the blues in several clubs on Beale. The house where he lived during his time in Memphis was moved from its original location to Beale Street and turned into a little museum dedicated to his life and work. It's an incredibly interesting and informative stop for anyone curious about the history of the blues.
Withers Collection Museum
Another hidden gem rich in history is the Withers Collection Museum. Ernest Withers was an African American photojournalist whose work captured what it was like living in Memphis (and the South) during the turbulent 1960s. The Civil Rights movement was a major theme of his work, and many of his photos capture events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike. The museum, located in his former studio, displays many of his photos. He took nearly 5 million photos in his life, and the museum has 1.8 million of them!
Pictures of icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and James Meredith; athletes like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and other Negro League baseball players; and singers like Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin can be found alongside photos of everyday African Americans as they fought for equality in the South.
Silky O'Sullivan's is one of the more popular joints to visit on Beale. They're famous for their dueling pianos, ribs, and their specialty drink, The Diver – a gallon bucket-sized concoction made of who-knows-what. Still, there's one more awesome reason to visit: the goats. The patio is bordered by a goat pen where several goats live. You can feed them (they reportedly also like to drink beer). Plus, most people don’t know that goats love to climb things, so prepare to be impressed when you watch the surprisingly sure-footed beasts wind their way up their steep Goat Tower ramp.
Tucked away in the back of the Rum Boogie Cafe is Mr. Handy's Blues Hall, one of the most authentic juke joints in Memphis. Memorabilia from famous musicians and photos from W.C. Handy himself line the walls of the little venue, and you can soak it all in while you listen to some of the best blues around. The house band is incredible, but on weekends, they bring in some of today's top blues bands and singers. Belly up to the bar, grab a beer, and enjoy the atmosphere... this is exactly how the blues were meant to be experienced.
Tater Red's Lucky Mojos
You can also explore Beale's dark and mysterious side at Tater Red's Lucky Mojos. When you first enter, make sure to look up... the ceiling is covered in drums that have been signed and decorated. As you browse the wares, you'll find all kinds of kitschy souvenirs and interesting little odds and ends. Stock up on gifts for friends or little bits and pieces to add to your secret voodoo shrine. Of course, they also offer magical candles, potions, oils, spells, and the like. Whether or not their mojos work is up for you to discover!
Itta Bena Restaurant
Beale isn't all about booze and down-home fun; you can also find quite a bit of class tucked away for the discerning traveler. Itta Bena Restaurant is a speakeasy-style eatery (evoking the Roaring Twenties, when Beale Street was at its bluesiest peak) located up an unmarked staircase above B.B. King's. It's named after the town where blues legend B.B. King was born. The restaurant features a chic atmosphere and contemporary Southern cuisine like scallops and grits topped with sweet corn crab cream sauce. You can also enjoy their posh take on chicken and waffles (made with duck confit and wild pilaf waffles), nosh on white chocolate bread pudding for dessert, and take in the views from above Beale.
Elvis Presley also had deep ties to Beale Street, even though he was shakin' his hips after Beale's heyday. Lansky Bros., the store where he famously bought the outfits that made up his signature style early on in his career, is located on Beale. To commemorate Elvis, the world's first bronze statue in his likeness – tasseled jumpsuit and all – was erected on Beale Street in 1980. However, fans couldn't be kept from breaking off pieces of the statue, and it quickly fell into disrepair. It was ultimately moved to the Tennessee Welcome Center located in Downtown Memphis. Several years later, the City replaced the statue with a sturdier bronze Elvis. In the new Beale Street statue, he's wearing an outfit that looks more like the stylish suits he brought from Lansky Bros.
Whether you're looking for the authentic Beale Street experience that includes all of the famous juke joints and bars, or you want to explore the lesser-known gems and hidden history, your trip to Beale Street is sure to be memorable and entertaining. Every visit to Beale Street offers a guaranteed different experience and atmosphere, so this is one district that you'll undoubtedly visit again and again!
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