Authentic, Artsy & Urban on the Other Side of Memphis

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When you think of Memphis, what do you think of? Likely Elvis comes to mind, the birthplace of rock-and-roll according to most, and a sense of some things southern, especially given the fact that Memphis is only a stone’s throw from the Mississippi border.
History tells us a lot. Rewind the clock to the 1500’s when the Spanish first settled in the area and then visualize Confederacy supporters during the Civil War. It was considered a strategic location at the time because of its prime location along the Mississippi River, but its location also contributed to the city’s first failure.
The city didn’t enjoy the sanitary conditions that it does today and much of the area was prone to flooding, which led to the breeding of mosquitoes. Then, yellow fever. This was long long before a wealthy black businessman named Robert Church, Sr., began buying up land around town, primarily on Beale Street. For those not familiar with the Memphis Scene, it is where the blues, soul and rock music performed in its music heyday and still today.
He built Church Park and Auditorium as a place specifically for blacks and helped make Beale Street an integral part of daily life for the city’s African Americans. No grave surprise given that it was on the west to Chicago route that the 1800’s were full of saloons, gambling and prostitution. William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was hired to write a campaign song for E.H. “Boss” Crump, and in 1912 he changed the wording of the piece and published “Memphis Blues,” the first blues song ever published in America. Handy, considered to be the Father of the Blues, also went on to publish the “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues;” the three were tremendously popular blues songs throughout the century.
Above Photo credit: Outside the 
It was Beale Street where the locals went to find anything and everything legal and illegal. In addition to dice games, houses of ill repute and other wicked diversions, Beale was home to a number of music clubs. Workers who toiled in the hot dusty cotton fields all week would come to Beale Street on the weekend in search of good times and good music. They didn’t have to look far. They brought with them the chanting songs, called “field hollers.” W.C. Handy was the first to put pen to paper and record these songs and their “blue” notes, and an enduring American art form was born.
Above, courtesy/from of historical Beale Street 

In 1916, the modern supermarket was born in Memphis as local entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened Piggly Wiggly, the first self-serve grocery store. Within seven years, there were more than 2,600 Piggly Wiggly stores across the country and Saunders had become a millionaire. During the early 1920’s, he began building himself a 22-room, pink marble mansion – dubbed the Pink Palace – which he eventually lost, along with his company and all of his millions. Today, the mansion belongs to the city of Memphis and has been turned into a museum, planetarium and CTI 3D Giant Theater.

Above Piggly Wiggly from 

Like other cities across the nation, Memphis was hit hard by the Depression. The country’s entry into World War II provided the city with a much-needed influx of commerce and industry thanks to a strong cotton market and the city’s numerous defense-related industries. Memphis provided WWII with one of its most enduring symbols – the Memphis Belle, the first B-17 bomber to successfully complete 25 missions over Europe. The plane and its crew logged more than 20,000 combat miles, all without a single casualty. The bomber was named for Margaret Polk, a Memphis sweetheart of the plane’s pilot, Robert Morgan.

Throughout the 1940’s, Beale Street became home to black musicians who brought the cotton field hollers into the juke joints and clubs. A few blocks off Beale, WDIA became the first radio station in the country that had an all-black format and black disc jockeys. Rufus “Funky Chicken” Thomas and legendary blues man Riley “B.B.” King were DJs on the historic station, and both began recording at Sun Studio in the 1950s.

Above shot from of Beale Street in the 1950’s.

During the early 1950s, Elvis Presley showed up, begging night club owners to let him in, then spend all night listening to them play and copying their styles. He even copied the way the flashy musicians dressed and bought his clothes at the same Beale Street men’s store, Lansky Brothers. Later, Elvis took what he learned from the Beale Street musicians and used it when he recorded “That’s All Right Mama” at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio located a few miles east of Beale Street. (see our write up on Sun Studio as well as our fun summary with tons of fun photos from Graceland taken this past January).

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, blacks and whites worked together to create some of the most important music in American history. The “Memphis Sound” emerged in 1960 when siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton formed Stax Records. Stax would give voice to such legendary musical artists as Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding, and the world would groove to soul classics like “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay.” Another local record label that played a major role in the development of the “Memphis Sound” was Hi Records. (See our write-up on the Stax Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to honoring soul music and soul musicians — located in Memphis of course).

In the early 1990’s, Beale Street made a comeback as a tourist destination and entertainment district with clubs offering live music seven days a week. The entertainment district continued to flourish throughout the decade and was voted the second most popular entertainment district in the country. Every year, Beale Street and Downtown’s Tom Lee Park are transformed into a sea of music, pork and people during the Memphis In May International Festival. This monthlong celebration draws tens of thousands of visitors every spring and features the world-famous Beale Street Music Festival, World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and several international events honoring a different foreign country every year.

Below, the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis

Above photo courtesy –

Since the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll (July 5, 2004 — the same date that Elvis recorded his first record, “That’s All Right,” at the legendary Sun Studio), Memphis has grown in popularity as a tourist destination particularly for music lovers.

Today Memphis is home to a revitalized downtown area, at which Beale Street closeby – we stayed at the ever so funky and chic Madison Hotel, which is a stone’s throw from everything ‘downtown’ and the service is outstanding. (see our write-up on Madison and our write up on the neighboring outa this world restaurant Eighty3, with an award-winning chef)
Most won’t relish in the other side of town, the not so built up or renovated part of a city. I do. Always. I love the path not taken, and the authentic and raw about a city even if it’s not particularly pretty. The historical past to Memphis gives rise to so many things, calling attention to what is real and authentic about this magical music wonderland. Sure, there are studios, theatres and musical venues galore, where some of the top musical greats of our time got their start.
There are historic buildings, the historic riverfront area in and around Beale Street Landing, which is going through renovation. There’s also the area on the other side of town, not far from the Stax Museum (the museum of soul music) and Sun Studio where Elvis did so many great recordings, that are not undergoing renovation but are interesting and compelling in their own right.
Raw brick buildings with no touch ups exist here….and their history tells me Memphis’ history, at least a little more authentically.

Below, graffiti and murals are splashed along the walls not far from Sun Studio. Here we walked and we captured art, grunge and a whole lotta nothing-ness and everything-ness all at the same time.

When you go to Memphis, yes, be sure to soak up the newness and fabulous art scene and great food in and around Beale Street and the renovated downtown area, but don’t be afraid to venture across town to where it all began — where the soul of music began.

Despite there being no trendy shops, restaurants or even clubs, you will feel a different side of Memphis worth knowing. I did, and it’s worth the meander — by car, by book and by foot. If you have time, I’d encourage all three.


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