In honor of B.B. King’s memorial, we’d like to share Memphis Type History’s book chapter entitled “Behind the Neon Lights of Beale Street at B.B. King’s.”
We hope you enjoy and are inspired by the words people shared of B.B. King as much as we were.
Behind the Neon Lights of Beale Street at B.B. King’s
Beale Street gave him his big break and a world-renowned name. Decades later he would lend that name back to a struggling city, in an effort to preserve the history of the blues. The King of the Blues was born Riley B. King in 1925, on an Itta Bena, Mississippi, plantation in the heart of the Delta. As a young man, he played for tips on the street corner and had gigs in juke joints, sometimes playing in as many as four towns a night. Finally in 1947, at age 22, he hitchhiked his way to Memphis. His cousin, Bukka White, was the well-known blues musician who taught King the blues.
He eventually landed a regular show called “King’s Spot” on WDIA, the first radio station with programming by African Americans for a black audience. His popularity demanded a DJ-worthy nickname. He was known for a time as, “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which developed into, “Blues Boy King,” and finally settled into, “B.B. King” – a name that stuck for the rest of his life. King started recording in 1949 and had a hit single, “Three O’ Clock Blues,” that landed at number one on the 1951 R&B charts. With another hit the following year, King launched into a demanding tour schedule that did not slow until recent years. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His influence over thousands of musicians is arguably greater than any other artist’s.
Beale Street dates back to 1841, long before B.B. ever set foot there. It began as a mostly white commercial street with a row of antebellum mansions on the eastern end. The blues came in from the Delta at the turn of the century, causing Beale Street to gravitate towards entertainment. “[Blues] put down roots on Beale Street,” says Memphis Jones, a regular musician at B.B. King’s club. Beale was dubbed Negro Main Street of America in the 1920s, and it was said to eclipse New York City’s Harlem. In 1924, a grocery store which doubled as a tobacco shop with fine cigars inhabited the buildings that now house B.B. King’s club and store. A liquor store settled there in 1935. At some point the original building was torn down and rebuilt. Numerous African American doctors, lawyers, dentists, real estate agents, and other professionals, kept office space on the second floor of the new building. Beginning around the mid-1940s, people referred to it as the Colored Business Exchange Building.
Beale Street floundered until the city of Memphis asked Thomas Peters to open the flagship B.B. King’s Blues Club in 1991. “At that point in time nobody was going to Beale Street,” Peters recalls, “Everybody thought I was crazy.” Beale endured fifteen years of club failures that could not accomplish what this blues club did – turn Beale Street into the state’s top tourist destination. The club’s success jumpstarted a Beale Street revival. In 2008, the “speakeasy” restaurant, Itta Bena, opened above the club, and serves classic Southern dishes to tourists and locals alike. Next door to the club, the B.B. King Company Store offers blues fans all manner of merchandise related to the King of the Blues.
The storefront of B.B. King’s Company Store says, “Established in 1945,” which refers to the year B.B. came to Beale. Sarah Wright, who has worked behind the gift shop counter for the past two and a half years, hears the stories of countless blues fans. Because of B.B.’s popularity in Europe, she often gets foreign currency from tourists, which she always enjoys. She meets famous musicians and athletes who make the pilgrimage to the club, but the regular Joes inspire her most. “My favorite stories are from people who’ve never been to Memphis before. They barely have the means to get here but somehow they make it. That’s always the people I’m always drawn to because they have fun stories,” she says, remembering one customer in particular whose story stuck with her. “I’ve met a terminally ill man named Bob from Minnesota who was eighty-something years old, never been to Memphis, and was just so tickled that he got the chance to come.” She gave him a little memento so he could remember his trip and further recalls, “I cried my eyes out in the gift shop later on that night.”
Thomas Peters carried out King’s mission in every way possible, from the club’s atmosphere to the scheduled acts. “He [King] basically wants us to be as authentic as we can and preserve the blues,” Peters says. For Sarah Wright, there could be no better way than to do that than under the name of B.B. King. “Even though there are plenty of other blues musicians from Mississippi and the Delta area, he represents the blues for everybody… On top of that, I always have fans who come in and say ‘I saw him two years ago, ten years ago, or fifty years ago.’ And they’ll say when they met him afterwards that he’s such a humble man. I’ve heard so many stories about how humble he is and I think that’s why people want to support him and come here.”
As she greets customers and hears their stories, Wright hears the club’s music float through the narrow doorway. Twice a week the multi-talented Memphis Jones shares the history of blues and Memphis music with audiences at B.B. King’s. “We’re telling the history behind this amazing song they’ve been singing all their life and then we play it, and play it with excellence,” Jones says, describing the show he and his bandmates stage.
Jones loves the history of both the music he plays and the history of the street where he plays it. “When B.B. King went down to Beale Street as a young man, they laughed him off the street. He said everybody on the street could play better than he did. So for him to be the one to get his name in lights on that street… that’s bigger than a bar, bigger than a performance hall, bigger than a restaurant. There’s a human aspect there that I really love about that place,” Jones says, “It is his legacy.” Every night the bright red light of B.B. King’s name shines down on music lovers around the world who visit Beale Street. “The only Delta bluesman that ever had his name in neon on Beale Street,” Jones concludes.
The blues forever altered the Beale Street vibe. To illustrate that fact, Jones quotes singer and entertainer, Rufus Thomas, “If you were black for one Saturday night and on Beale Street, never would you want to be white again.” Jones explains the impact Beale had on Thomas, “He said when he was a kid, he could only go to the zoo one day of the week, on colored days. He could only do this, he could only do that… The world was closed to him as a young black man. But he said every Saturday night on Beale Street he could be exactly who he wanted to be and he was surrounded by a couple thousand other people who were having the exact same experience. He said it was the only place he could really be free. That’s way deeper than barbecue or blues, that’s a person’s life. So I’ve got a lot of respect for Beale Street.”
Jones also talks about the atmosphere when tired tourists head back to their hotel rooms and the locals own the street. “Memphis still comes out and South Memphis still comes out. The rap music is turned up and people are doing just weird stuff,” he says with affection. “It still is Beale Street.” For B.B. King, Beale Street always represented Memphis. In fact, he once said, “I didn’t think of Memphis as Memphis. I thought of Beale Street as Memphis.” As long as people like King, Peters, and Jones continue to respect and preserve the history and rhythm of the blues, this sentiment is likely to be shared by visitors and locals alike.