Music Off

Historic Memphis Beale Street 

Beale Street is the most famous street in Memphis, and it's the soul of Old Memphis.  From the moment you set foot on the cobblestones, you know there's something special here.  The street was created in 1841 but it peaked in the 1920's.  Since that time, no other Memphis landmark has held such mystique.


Beale has been home to everything from bars and clubs to gamblers and musicians, and from prostitutes to churches.   But throughout its early history, Beale was mostly occupied by white shop owners who traded along the Mississippi River.



In the 1860's, many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale, and the street became a Mecca for African-Americans from all over the South.  By the end of the 1800's, Robert Church, a freed slave and the first black Southern millionaire, had become interested in Beale.  He created Church Park at the corner of 4th and Beale, as well as a large recreational-cultural center and the first-class Church Hotel for blacks.  In the early 1900's Beale was still filled with shops, restaurants, and clubs, but now, many of them were owned by African-Americans.  The setting was complete for creating a unique new sound in music.  Beale had survived the Yellow Fever epidemics and the Civil War - but would eventually succumb to The Great Depression - although this tragedy took over 30 years to bring the street down. 

Church Park-Cultural Center

Thanks  to the Memphis Public Library and the University of Memphis Library for many of the  photos on this page


The early years of Beale Street...


Beale street was named after a forgotten hero of the Mexican-American War.  Indeed, the original name was Beal Avenue - without an "e".  Over the years, in legend and in song, an "e" was added.  Although everyone referred to it as Beale Street,  it wasn't until the late 1950's, with a "push" from entertainer Danny Thomas, that the "Avenue" was officially changed to "Street."  Immigrants from many countries had begun flocking to Memphis in the 1800's and by 1840, Beale was an affluent suburb.  The Hunt-Phelan home, which still stands, was built in 1832 and is an example of the affluence that was once Beale.


Hunt-Phelan House on Beale

During the Civil War, Memphis quickly fell to the Union troops and many freed men settled in the area around Beale.  A large Irish population also settled in Memphis and this group dominated the Police force of the time.  In 1866, the death of an Irish boy fueled race riots between the African Americans and the Irish of Memphis.  Many blacks fled Memphis as the Irish immigrants burned, looted, and murdered Beale residents in retaliation.  * (Rebuttal from Kevin Kern, Click here)

In addition to the Irish, there were  also waves of Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants settling in Memphis.  The Jewish immigrants, traditionally became the city's merchants.  And many of them peddled their wares on Beale Street.   Indeed, Goldsmith's first location was at 348 Beale Street. 

In the 1870's a series of cholera and yellow fever epidemics practically wiped out Memphis.  While the Church's role in caring for fever victims is well documented, it's not as well known that African Americans also assisted the sick, tended the dead, and helped rebuild the city after the diseases passed.  And they remained in the area around Beale street after they had helped re-build it. 

Goldsmiths on Beale c. 1870


By the 1920's, Beale was prosperous and the area took on a carnival atmosphere, with gambling, drinking, prostitution, murder and voodoo, thriving alongside nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, stores, pawnshops and hot music.  The Monarch Club, was known as 'The Castle of Missing Men' because its gunshot victims could be quickly disposed of at the undertaker’s, which shared their back alley.  Every evening on Beale, expensively dressed patrons mingled with those in overalls. Young ladies sashayed around the bars and gamblers waited for the easy mark straight from the country to stroll in, bug-eyed at the big city. If the mark escaped from the dice or the cards, maybe he'd  fall victim to "the best pickpockets in the South."  Or maybe the rube would stop over at Pee Wee’s Saloon and visit with the musicians, play a little pool, or secure some voodoo portions that were prominent during this time.   The time was ripe for new sounds in music.


      Monarch Club


1860s - Early Photo

Beale Bakery 1887

New Market House - 1899

Market House - interior


    Beale 1906 (P. Wee Saloon)

White Rose Cafe - 1900s

Beale Street Baptist - 1871

Beale - 1920


Palace Theater-Beale 1939

Palace Theater-Beale 1939

1939 - Former Theater Building

1924 Parade


 Schwabs - 1914

Schwabs - 1900s

Schwabs - 1900s

Beale Landing 1910    



The Blues and the Blues Musicians


In the 20th century, Beale was a bustling street, and music could be heard in the night clubs and in the churches. Night life was sometimes a dangerous mix of seedy characters, easy money and liquor. This was the atmosphere that gave birth to the
Music filled the air day and night at the turn of the Century.  Memphis, and Beale became a Mecca for young musicians.
The Blues and Gospel spirituals were rooted in the cotton fields of America and incorporated the harmonies and rhythms of Africa.  That, combined with the music of the church.  helped form a completely American form of music.  The juke joints and honky tonks of Beale had acquired a new sound, and the Blues was born.

in 1909, W.C. Handy wrote the first blues song.  It was actually a campaign theme for politician and Memphis Boss E. H. Crump called "Boss Crump Blues".  It was later published as "The Memphis Blues" and really caught on quickly in the clubs, in part, due to its unique sound.  Because many of the musicians were poor and couldn't afford traditional instruments, they improvised using household items such as washboards, kazoos, and Jews harps.  But the most unique instrument was "the jug".  Blowing into various size jugs would create a deep, hollow sound, similar to a bass guitar.  There were popular "jug bands" all over Beale Street. 


W. C. Handy

W. C. Handy





Jug Band - 1937             Jug Band Dixie Review Furry Lewis

"St. Louis Blues" came out in 1913, and Handy had created a revolution in music that resulted in the first uniquely American music style.  Handy and his band played at Beale's famous Pee Wee Saloon.  Other great Blues men followed in Handy's steps - Muddy Waters, Furry Lewis, Albert King, Alberta Hunter, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Memphis Minnie McCoy, and in the 1940's Riley "Blues Boy" King, whose stage name would come to be known as B.B. King.


B. B. King Memphis Minnie Rufus Thomas Muddy Waters

Ma Rainey

Albert King

Alberta Hunter

Bobby Bland


Robert Johnson

Bessie Smith

Howlin' Wolf

Memphis Gold


The Decline of Beale Street


"All good things must end."  In the 1930's, the Great Depression came to Beale Street and never left.   It hung on until the late 1960's, when talk of urban renewal favored bulldozing the entire neighborhood.  That almost happened.  Beale was on a downward spiral and the street was close to becoming a ghost town.  Some of the old buildings on the street were lost during this period.  And no one seemed to care.

By the 1960's, Beale became very run down and many stores closed.  In spite of being recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, Beale became a virtual ghost town.  Every building except Schwabs was boarded up. 

With each new building that was demolished, the residents lost a sense of place and pride.  Failed efforts  at redeveloping Beale in the past, had given them every reason to believe that the entire street would soon join the list of "Lost Memphis".


       See Old Daisy in background.

Pantaze Drug Store



New Daisy - 1983

Old Daisy

Silky O'Sullivan's

Beale Ghost Town


Harris Dept Store c.1970

Pantaze Drugs c.1970

P.Wee Saloon c.1970

First Baptist -1974


1974 Four photos of the back alleys of Beale - Photos, courtesy of Joe Spake




 The Redevelopment of Beale Street


In 1966 Beale Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  In the late 1970's the City of Memphis bought nearly all of the properties along three blocks of Beale Street, and the Beale Street Management Corporation was formed with the charge of creating an entertainment district. In 1982, John Elkington and his company became involved in the redevelopment of Beale Street. Their primary responsibility was to focus on the marketing, leasing and property management of Beale Street in addition to developing the entertainment theme through the selection of tenants.  This led to an economic revitalization with new clubs and attractions.  A complete renovation began taking place.  Community involvement and investment in the area helped in the development of new businesses - clubs, theater renovations, shops and restaurants, resulting in a wonderful entertainment district, changing once again from its past days of seediness back to glory.  When the renovations began, the developer took note of programs in other parts of the world, and saved the original building facades. 

In 1977 Beale Street was officially declared as the "Home of the Blues" by an act of Congress.

In 1983, the first new club reopened on Beale, and one by one, clubs and businesses moved into renovated spaces, producing the most vibrant streetscape and activity center in downtown Memphis and the Mid-South.


Beale Street ...Today


Today the Blues can still be heard on Beale Street, but there are also newer sounds to hear, like Reggae, Rock, Fusion Jazz, Soul, and Gospel as well. The entire downtown area of Memphis is undergoing an amazing, massive, and long-overdue renovation, all of which reflects positively on Beale Street.  This landmark remains a significant location in African-American history and the history of the Blues. 

The street is now home to a chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

The street is now home to the "Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame - "...a tangible embodiment of the many talented people who put Memphis music and Beale Street on the world map".



Hard Rock Cafe - Lansky Brothers Clothing:  The Hard Rock Cafe is located at 126 Beale.  This was the home of Lansky Brothers Clothing until 1981.  The brothers started out with Army surplus clothing but changed to high-fashion menswear for musicians.  Soon their impressive list of clients included Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and B. B. King.  In 1952 a young Elvis Presley came in and made a small purchase, and was a frequent visitor after that.  In 1956 he came in and told Bernard Lanskey that he was going to be on the Ed Sullivan TV Show and needed something to wear, but "I've got no money".  Lanskey said "I'll float you".  From then on Elvis became a lifelong, loyal customer.  Today Lanskey Brothers is located in the lobby of the Hotel Peabody.

Hard Rock Cafe  



Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame


Since 1986 over 80 brass notes honoring musicians, DJs, songwriters, promoters, and other music supporters have been embedded in the sidewalks along Beale Street.  From Elvis to Will Shade & the Memphis Jug Band, from Isaac Hayes to the Rev. Herbert Brewster, the array of honorees include the well known and lesser known who constitute the rich musical history of Memphis and the Mid-South.   They are honored as "...a tangible embodiment of the many talented people who put Memphis music and Beale Street on the world map".  Among those who have been honored:  Alberta Hunter, Elvis Presley, Ma Rainey, B. B. King, Justin Timberlake, Ruby Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Furry Lewis, Memphis Minnie, and of course W. C. Handy.



Beale Street Music Festival


Part of "Memphis in May", the Beale Street Music Festival is the kick-off event which showcases a mix of local and national music acts.  Held the first weekend in May in Tom Lee Park, at the foot of Beale Street, it host 100,000 people for each of the first two nights.  Its history is traced back to the 1800's, when African American musicians throughout the South would come to Beale Street and perform. 



Mayor of Beale Street

In 1938, the editor of the Memphis World Newspaper conceived the idea of a "Mayor of Beale Street" and readers voted for the person of their choice.  Matthew Thornton, a well-known community leader, won the contest.  He retained this honorary position until he died in 1963 at the age of 90.  This honorary title continues to this day.


Mayor Thornton



Schwabs - Oldest business in Memphis


Established in 1876 by Abraham Joseph Schwab, the store is a local tourist attraction with two floors of shopping and, between the first and second floors, a small balcony which houses the Beale Street Museum, a collection of Beale Street memorabilia along with several items and records of the Schwab family, which has run the store throughout its lifetime.
A. Schwab's is the oldest surviving business on Beale and Schwab's has not changed much since it opened. Creaking hardwood floors and nickel candy are just part of its charm.


An eclectic variety of goods such as voodoo accouterments, underwear, walking sticks, and souvenirs plus the upstairs museum, make A. Schwab's one of Memphis' best free destinations.   The store motto is, "If you can't find it at Schwab's, you're better off without it." This of course assumes that you're looking for everything from 99-cent neckties to voodoo potions. The business is currently run by Elliot Schwab, Sam Braslow, and Marvin Braslow.                  

Note: In February 2011, the descendants of A. Schwab listed the store for sale.  In December it was purchased by a group of investors led by Terry Saunders and other Saunders family members of Piggly-Wiggly fame.




Handy Park

Handy Park is brimming with musical history, as it is named for W. C. Handy, "Father of the Blues."  The park was dedicated in 1931 and is now an outdoor performing arts park located in the heart of Beale Street in the Memphis, home of the blues, rock and roll and almost any other type of music you can imagine.   It thrives with regular and free live entertainment and some special performances.   In good weather, street musicians start wandering the area about noon.  The old Beale Street Market House from 1899 occupied this site, but was torn down to make room for the park.


Handy Park       



Beale Street Memorabilia


Lansky telegram to Elvis 1956

Elvis - Lansky Bros 1956

Moskovitz Tailors Tokens

Souvenir Tokens    


Zippo 1998

Beale Thimble

...Blues 1917


Epstein Loans

Epstein Loans entrance


Beale Development

1897 Envelope

Hippadrome Ad

1908 Monarch Saloon Ad


Handy Silver Charm

1867 Ad for Ice

1867 Ad for Guns


Shot Glass


 A very rare 1850s Beale item:  $10 Bank Bill with Advertising on the Back.

1940's Key Fob


1937 Scribners *        Liquor Jug Beale Streetcar c. 1900 Beale St Coke Tray

Beale St Blues 1945

* Amateur Night on Beale        





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The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commission, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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