Memphis
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Birthplace Of The Blues

By Robin Pease

Photos by Paul Kolnik

Memphis the Musical takes audiences to the underground dance clubs of the 1950s for a thrilling tale of fame and forbidden love, accompanied by the hometown music—rhythm 'n' blues. But how did Memphis become the home of the blues? It all started on Beale Street …

"There's a town that I call home
Where all the streets are paved with soul
Down on Beale there's a honky-tonk bar
So hear the wail of a blues guitar…

The blues sing softly in the air
Like a Sunday morning prayer…
That cheers you up, it sets you free
That's how Memphis lives in me."

–Lyrics from "Memphis Lives in Me." from Memphis

Beale Street

Beale Street, in downtown Memphis, was originally half shops and half residential. But in the 1860s, traveling black musicians began performing on the street. In the 1890s an opera house and park were added to the neighborhood and they both quickly became a place for musicians to gather. As the neighborhood grew, more shops, clubs and restaurants sprang up, bringing even more musicians to the street.

Father of the Blues

Then musician W.C. Handy came to Memphis and, in the early 1900s, in a bar on Beale Street, penned the first commercial Blues tune, "Beale Street Blues." Handy would become known as the "Father of the Blues." Many variations of African-American music came together in Memphis. Since some black musicians could not afford instruments, they often improvised on homemade items such as the jug, washboard, jaw harp and kazoo. The African-American musical styles of gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll and soul combined to make an innovative sound that everyone wanted to hear and dance to.

"Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night.
Everybody wants to jump back and feel their spirit take flight!"


– Lyrics from "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night," from Memphis

Other Musicians

Others followed in Handy's shoes to sing or play the blues. Beale Street Blues Boy King (later known as B. B. King), Alberta Hunter, Muddy Waters and Bessie King are just a few of the early musicians who played in Memphis. In 1966, Beale Street was declared a National Historic Landmark, and in 1977 an act of Congress proclaimed it to be the Home of the Blues.

Radio

Memphis radio station WDIA went on the air in 1947 playing a mixture of country music and pop, but it didn't do well. In 1949, WDIA hired the first black DJ to play rhythm and blues. WDIA had been about to go under, but Nat Williams turned the station around by having all-black programming. Soon, more DJs, such as B. B. King, began playing black music on the radio. WDIA became the number one radio station from Missouri to the Gulf Coast.

"So turn the volume up now!
Let the music have its say!
Ain't no use holdin' back …
The rhythm's gonna get you anyway!
We use it to jive, we use it to thrive!
And I came alive."


– Lyrics from "Radio," from Memphis

Originally published in the PlayhouseSquare Memphis Buzz Extra


SEGERSTROM HALL

Dates: November 6 — 18, 2012
Tickets: $20 and up
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