No matter how brief your visit to Memphis, you should make time to walk down famous Beale Street — America’s official Home of the Blues. Beale Street has a history that dates back to the 1840’s. Businesses opened up here, to trade the goods that arrived on the Mississippi River. Black traveling musicians started performing here, and by the early 1900’s, Beale Street was filled with African-American owned clubs and restaurants. The street nearly died in the 1960’s, as businesses and people left. An economic revitalization that began in the 1980’s helped breathe new life into Beale Street — returning it to a center of entertainment, shopping and, of course, the blues.
B.B. King is probably the most famous name you’ll see here, but his club is just one of many. And, you don’t even have to go into a club to experience the blues. Music will be spilling out onto the street through open doors of restaurants and clubs, all along Beale.
Beale Street is a strange mix of re-created and real. As I walked down the street, I got the feeling that I was in a Hollywood-themed amusement park, and all the storefronts were merely facades, made as part of a movie set. But as I looked closer, beyond some of the obviously new additions to Beale Street, I began to realize that much of what I was seeing was, indeed, authentic.
A. Schwab is definitely one of the most “real” places on Beale. The store has been here since 1876…
… and so has much of the merchandise inside. Stacks of stuff fill the narrow aisles. It’s mostly junk…
… cheap souvenirs, mixed in with cheap imported decorative and craft supplies, some clothes, candy, and snacks. You don’t need any of it, but you’ll probably go home with some of it.
By the way, that’s an oversized pair of overalls hanging from the ceiling, with a cardboard sign proclaiming “We Have All Sizes.” Just for the record, I did not go home with a pair of overalls.
The reason A. Schwab is a real treat, is the historic building itself. If you’re old enough, probably at some point in your childhood, you were dragged to a store like this one — a store that was “downtown”, and probably should have closed decades before you were born. The floorboards squeaked as you wandered around, past wooden shelves and a mysterious staircase that went somewhere you weren’t allowed. The only difference is, at that store from your childhood, there wasn’t a huge crowd, jamming the aisles. At A. Schwab, there will be.
Alfred’s proclaims itself to be world famous. It’s one of the newer venues on Beale Street — arriving in 1986. Alfred’s has the largest collection of gold records in the U.S.
Other places along Beale appear to have more history attached to them, but the truth is, the Blues Hall opened in 1985…
… and King’s Palace Cafe opened in 1989. I don’t know if the signs date back further than that, but they sure look authentic… or maybe too authentic.
After my quick walk down Beale, I headed back.
Since parking was expensive near Beale Street ($5 or more for a space in a commercial lot), I chose to park a few blocks away, on Main Street. The short walk gave me a chance to admire the historic Orpheum Theater.
[tmt_info =””]The Orpheum was built in 1928, and underwent a major renovation in the early 1980’s. It’s now home to Broadway shows and concerts, and occasionally fulfills its original purpose — as a movie house.[/tmt_info]
Main Street is also one of three of Memphis’s trolley routes. You can make a loop by riding the Main Street and Riverfront Trolleys.
[tmt_info =””]To find Beale Street, get off Interstate 40 onto Riverside Drive (at the Pyramid and the welcome center). Drive south for just a few blocks — Beale Street is roughly parallel to the southern tip of Mud Island.[/tmt_info]
Before leaving Memphis, I should mention a few other attractions that you really should see, if you have the time. Of course, Graceland is at the top of the list (on Highway 51, south of Winchester Road). Sun Studio, where Elvis made his first recordings, is available for tours (on Union Avenue near downtown). The former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum (on Mulberry Street, just off Main, five blocks south of the Orpheum). The Memphis Zoo is only one of five zoos in North America to feature a giant panda exhibit (off McLean Blvd. south of US 64).
Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of my drive around Memphis: