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VOL. 128 | NO. 226 | Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Overton Square Banner Hints at Music Return

By Bill Dries

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In the place where the marquee for Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square was once anchored, a new banner went up last week by Loeb Properties reading “The Music Is Back.”

On the wall where the marquee for Lafayette’s Music Hall was once anchored, Loeb Properties has offered some new clues about what is to come in the space the old music hall occupied for about five years in the 1970s.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

Covered over with a blank tarp is another sign above it also by the Overton Square developers that bears a striking resemblance to the old marquee.

Bob Loeb, president of Loeb Properties, has said an announcement is near on what is going in the storied space with wrought iron railing. And the announcement is also clearly some kind of introduction of a live music venue element to a still-forming entertainment district that is now restaurants, bars and theaters with an emphasis on building diversity.

The appeal of the idea of the old music hall that lasted less than five years doesn’t always intersect with the reality that belies the nostalgia.

The Lafayette’s brand came up in Bar Louie, the bar-restaurant one door down from the space, during a Sunday brunch that featured a jazz trio whose playing was punctuated by some applause but also some shouts from another group of jersey-wearing patrons focused on the cluster of football games on the screens that dominate the club’s décor.

Some of those applauding the band lamented that Overton Square used to be a better gig when Lafayette’s was around.

Lafayette’s came in the initial success of TGI Friday’s, the business next door to the west of Lafayette’s. It was the anchor of the Overton Square development announced the day after Memphis voters approved liquor by the drink in late 1969.

But by 1975, Lafayette’s was losing money when the founders of Overton Square moved Playhouse on the Square into the space, according to Jackie Nichols, founder of the theater company that from its most recent location farther south is the anchor of the district’s new identity as a theater district.

Nearly 10 years after the last show at Lafayette’s, one of the original businesses on the renovated Beale Street that opened in October 1983 was named Lafayette’s Corner.

The short life span of Lafayette’s on the square was about normal for the then new phenomenon in Memphis of a nightclub that served mixed drinks and focused on nationally known music acts, many of whom within a few years would be touring arenas and stadiums fueled by the escalating new ground rock ‘n’ roll was showing as a business model.

Billy Joel’s Memphis date at Lafayette’s at the start of his life on the road is usually mentioned first when older Memphians begin ticking off the acts that appeared there. Barry Manilow and Kiss are near the top.

After Lafayette’s closed, Godfather’s, on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Cooper Street – a club that had as its theme and centerpiece a bullet-riddled car allegedly used in the movie “The Godfather” – became Solomon Alfred, another “showcase” music club. But it didn’t open just for a booking of a touring performer. It was open with restaurant hours and live acts always in the front room, often in the front room and the back room. And when there wasn’t a touring act, there were plenty of local bands and singers to play the front room on a continuous basis.

It too has endured in reputation longer than its actual run as a showcase club, ending with a show by Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers the day before demolition began to make way for the French Quarter Inn in the early 1980s.

Live music blossomed elsewhere just beyond the fringes of the square. The Ritz, which later became The Music Hall, was another showcase club on Madison west of McLean.

South of the square, clubs like “High Cotton,” which was even smaller than Lafayette’s were on Cooper near Peabody where the Strings ‘N’ Things music store thrived until it burned during the firefighters strike of 1978.

By then live music as the basis for an ongoing storefront business was facing a challenge from discos where the music was recorded and didn’t cost as much as a live band. The live music in clubs had taken a much different turn in attitude toward punk rock and new wave. And the epicenter of that musical movement was again a very small nightspot on Madison Avenue. This time it was farther west at Madison and Avalon at a club called “The Well” that became “Antenna Club.”

Ironically, Antenna Club, with its focus on a punk rock ethos of nothing enduring, made it past the decade mark.

The idea of a showcase music club returned to Madison Avenue in a much larger space in early 2009 with the opening of Minglewood Hall as the anchor of a $5 million mixed-use development within site of the Antenna Club in an old brick building that had been a bread factory, a church and one of several post-fire locations for Strings ‘N’ Things.

PROPERTY SALES 0 291 21,272
MORTGAGES 0 160 16,194
BUILDING PERMITS 258 692 41,920
BANKRUPTCIES 1 117 6,579