VOL. 6 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 20, 2013
The New Beale
By Bill Dries
Over the last four years, the next chapter in the development of Beale Street has been a stop-and-go affair. First would come announcements followed by silence from official channels.
Along with that silence, though, was quiet activity on the side, a movement that culminated with the March announcement of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s strategic planning committee’s report, “A Framework for Beale Street.”
It is a 52-page plan for the next phase of the historic district’s development that takes on the backstage questions about how Beale Street works and what the district should represent.
The report was completed in September 2011, nearly a year and a half after Wharton had announced a settlement with Beale Street developer John Elkington over Elkington’s exit from the district where he had been involved since its debut 28 years ago.
But as soon as the report by the 31-member committee was completed it was then ordered by City Attorney Herman Morris to be boxed up and stored after what the city thought would be a quick settlement with Beale Street Development Corp.
But the settlement was anything but quick, as the city still hasn’t come to terms with the nonprofit entity over a Chancery Court case. The development corporation is the middle man between the city, which owns the district and its land, and whoever the city ultimately hires to manage the district.
“The core of that is behind us now,” Wharton said last month. “There is still some mop-up, clean-up operations. You’re not going to clean it all up with one fell swoop signature of a judge. But we have those behind us.”
The report’s most volatile and challenging idea is an expansion of Beale. It’s not necessarily a physical expansion of the district’s borders, but an expansion of what the district does and also seeking an older Beale Street demographic.
Beale Street is an entertainment district dominated by bars and restaurants featuring mostly live entertainment. Most of the exceptions are grouped on the southern side of the street between Hernando and Fourth streets. On the more prosperous westernmost block of the district, amid its most successful restaurants and nightclubs is A Schwab, the circa-1876 general store that changed ownership and direction in 2012.
It was the upper level of the old store where Wharton chose as the backdrop for the unveiling of the report last month.
“My thinking is that they did a really intensive study,” said Terry Saunders, the new owner of the store, minutes after the mayor’s unveiling of the report. “They really did try to get to the root of it.”
Saunders has curated a general store whose layout was once a maze of sale tables with little coordination and where customers were unable to use credit or debit cards to make purchases. The store is now part retail, part museum and part venue for music as well as story-telling about the street.
Schwab’s is exactly the kind of institution the report says Beale Street needs more of.
“Memphis music as the world knows and loves it has roots deeply planted on Beale Street,” the report reads. “But the ‘other’ history of Beale Street is equally important. Important because it is the story of a community and several generations of predominantly black Memphians who shaped not only their own times, but helped shape that of later generations as well.”
The report also says the burden of presenting that should not fall on the existing businesses but on what it describes as a new “special” nonprofit institution that would replace BSDC.
"Memphis music as the world knows and loves it has roots deeply planted on Beale Street. But the 'other' history of Beale Street is equally important. Important because it is the story of a community and several generations of predominantly black Memphians who shaped not only their own times, but helped shape that of later generations as well." – "A Framework for Beale Street" (Photos: Lance Murphey)
The group concluded the development corporation “has failed to live up to its potential as a protector and presenter of the district’s history.”
“City leaders envisioned that role for BSDC, but BSDC simply hasn’t met anyone’s expectation – including the organization’s own,” the report adds.
A sign outside the Old Daisy lists several hours each weekday that free walking tours of the district are available. But the real business at the development corporation’s headquarters is renting the space for proms, banquets and other gatherings as well as keeping alive the challenge in Shelby County Chancery Court over who controls the district.
It has been decades since the development corporation had anything to say about the street’s culture or history other than the announcement of the walking tours last year.
Nevertheless, Wharton has said there is still a role for the entity.
“That role is still there,” he said when asked about it again last month despite the wording in the report about a “new” nonprofit with no role in the leasing.
Wharton also sought to assure merchants that the report’s exploration of what kind of music should be played on the street identified with the birth of the blues probably won’t mean an end to karaoke nights or ubiquitous covers of “Mustang Sally.”
The blues of W.C. Handy’s heyday and Beale’s golden age are not the electric guitar post-World War II sound that the genre’s “purists” seek.
And Handy’s big band blues sound wasn’t the rural acoustic, ever-evolving primitive melodies that he standardized and published. Long after Handy’s death, music critic Nelson George termed him one of the worst offenders of the adulteration of the blues. He also disputed Handy’s title as “father of the blues,” saying Handy was only “one of the first to commit it to sheet music,” in his 1988 book “The Death of Rhythm & Blues.”
“Handy, though hardly the blues’ daddy, was demonstrably insightful about the economic value of blues in a way most of his middle-class peers were not,” George wrote.
That’s not the image of a creative soul, horn in hand and ear to the street that is one of the earliest books in the gospel of Memphis music.
But it is an indication of what is ahead if whoever runs the district becomes more intent on pushing the history and culture of the area. The closer it gets to a reality, the more debate there will be about whose reality is reflected and what its rightful place is on Beale Street.
The report notes “strong differences of opinion” on what music visitors to the street should hear.
“There were some highly respected stakeholders who were interviewed for this project who believe that Beale Street … has totally deserted its roots and has become a venue for the presentation of all kinds of unacceptable, historically impure events and music,” the report concludes. “That Beale Street – with its ‘bike night’ and ‘country nights’ and Liberty Bowl parades etc. – has become a kind of all purpose-no purpose community entertainment venue that has, in relation to its history, become something of a sacrilege.”
Among those on the other side of the question is David Porter, the Stax Records songwriter and producer, also on the committee.
“They say ‘blues music,’ but what they are really talking about is music of the ’60s,” Porter said a month before the report was completed. “If you come to Beale Street, that’s really what you are hearing. If you stay true to that, which it’s being played all over the world, then I think it works. I think if we get close to that then it’s going to work.”
On a recent morning, the 1980s sound of Journey floated along the street from the Hard Rock Café, a venue that Rufus Thomas was able to go to shortly after its opening and see some of his stage gear under glass while watching music videos from the MTV era.
Across the street, J.W. Whitten roared up on a custom-made Harley Davidson motorcycle that is to become the centerpiece of one of the bars in the new Jerry Lee Lewis Café and Honky Tonk. Whitten is Lewis’ long-time manager. Lewis’ entry into the district proper isn’t the first time a member of the Million Dollar Quartet has had a place on Beale Street.
Carl Perkins lent his name in the 1980s to the space now occupied by Coyote Ugly, next to the New Daisy Theater.
The “Blue Suede Shoe” became controversial when someone noticed a Confederate flag on a wall by a pool table in the back part of the restaurant. The flag was taken down at the height of the flap by then-County Commissioners Vasco Smith and Julian Bolton.
Wharton hopes to have a formal reaction from the Memphis City Council to the report this summer. So far, he favors another for-profit management company. The report suggests that or an improvement district that is a coalition of the street’s merchants.
Wharton said he wants an agreement shorter than the 50 years, including renewals, that interim Mayor Wallace Madewell signed for management and development of the street in 1982.
Elkington’s point has been that without a long-term lease, no one would have been willing to take on the challenge a boarded up and fenced off Beale Street represented in the late 1970s.
The founders of Overton Square were approached by the city before Elkington and turned it down. They were instead involved at that point in running concessions on the newly opened Mud Island River Park. And, according to Elkington, they didn’t want Beale Street.
Elkington concluded early on that instead of recruiting and managing the tenants in the district and encouraging its growth from a distance, he would have to get involved in the business of creating businesses.
“Whatever it is, we can’t drag on it,” Wharton said. “We’ve got to come up with some management structure and go. It won’t be perfect. … We just want to get something and go to it.”