Music Fades on Beale Street
January 2006, Courtesy Richard Jiman, Knight Ridder Newspapers
Beyond Elvis, the other big pop-culture draw in Memphis is Beale Street - five blocks of downtown
where some believe modern blues was born and where pre-fame Elvis was inspired to dress
like its street-corner hustlers.
What you've heard isn't necessarily what you'll hear when you're there.
About two dozen bars and eateries line the blocks west of FedEx Forum,
home of the NBA Grizzlies. Most nights, Beale swarms with generic revelers: It's
more commercial than authentic.
Beale was preserved in the late 1970s during a private-public revitalization push.
For a while, it worked: The Presley empire opened up a live-music venue as did
area native B.B. King.
But Elvis Presley's Memphis folded, and the rest of Beale Street's live music scene largely
evaporated. B.B. King's place is still there, but the long admission lines nowadays are
at disc-spinning dance clubs aimed at 20-somethings. This is partly due to Tunica,
says Bob Harding, owner of the Black Diamond, at 153 Beale St.
Tunica, just south over the Mississippi line, is going great guns as a gambling destination
and pulling away boomers and others most likely to pay to see quality live music on Beale.
Harding's club downsized from live-music venue to a narrow, funky lounge. Check the photos in the
entryway: Lotsa shots of him with rock celebs (including members of the Rolling Stones) who
visited the Black Diamond when it was larger.
Drop in; get him talking. Harding grew up near Clarksdale, Miss., close to the Jenkins
family whose son Harold Jenkins became a rockabilly and country-music legend under the name Conway Twitty. Let your ears guide you down Beale Street -- you may luck into a live catch.
One Saturday last spring, the Mini-Van Blues Van was running through some so-so Jerry
Garcia-type noodling at Blues City Cafe (142 Beale St.) Asked if they knew any rockabilly,
the musicians -- all Memphis natives -- easily shifted gears and punched out a solid set
of '50s material. Just took a little fishing.
Best bet? Blues City Cafe is also booking the Dempseys. (Schedule at www.bluescitycafe.com).
They're the best/only rockabilly group in Memphis and were the house band at Elvis Presley's
Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, (888) 633-9099; www.memphistravel.com.
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