Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Beale Street Talks, Again

A new book recounts the history of "Negro America's Main Street."

By Mark Jordan

MAY 26, 1998:  The recent spate of Memphis music books has produced a lot of detailed information on some surprisingly underexplored aspects of our musical heritage – Stax, Sun, and the forgotten scene of Memphis in the ’70s – but there have been precious few volumes that strongly appeal to both the serious and casual fan. Beale Street: Crossroads of America’s Music, the “official commemorative book” of Memphis’ biggest tourist attraction, has something to appeal to both those camps.

Since the book is a commissioned souvenir from the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Center City Commission, Northwest Airlines, a number of Beale merchants, and Beale developer Performa, it, understandably, is not a highly critical work. And there is more than a little back-slapping going on, particularly on Performa’s part. But you don’t buy a book like this for a serious examination of the problems and benefits of urban-renewal projects and tourism development.

Beale Street was written by William S. Worley, a research associate for Kansas City regional history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. And as his title would suggest, Worley is no expert on music or Memphis and the Mid-South. He is also not, it should be pointed out, a particularly good writer; the book is filled with platitudes and cliches, i.e., the opening line: “Beale Street. The very name conjures up images of music, commerce, food, and drink.” Right, and so does Jack in the Box.

But the one thing Worley obviously does know how to do is research, which he does masterfully well here, weaving together tidbits from a variety of sources both well-known and obscure. The result is a surprisingly in-depth and detailed account of Beale from its early days as the main drag in the suburb of South Memphis (with a name of surprisingly mysterious origin) to its status today as a major cultural and tourist attraction. Along the way, we learn about such Beale luminaries as the Rev. A.D. “Gatemouth” Moore and Nat. D. Williams as well as lesser-known characters such as the well-dressed blind man who begged for money at the corner of Beale and Hernando for years in the ’60s. Furthermore, it is all presented in easily digested and well-organized chunks that’ll appeal to casual readers.

But the real treasure here, and the thing that makes this book stand out from other such efforts, is the photography, which most notably includes the work of legendary Beale Street chronicler Ernest Withers. Withers has been fortunate and savvy enough to be present at some of the most significant events in the black cultural life of the city over the past 50 years. And the small sampling of his photos collected here – from the early days of Elvis and B.B. King to his portrait of the first black men ever sworn in as Memphis police officers – raises Beale Street: Crossroads of America’s Music to a level above other souvenir books.

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