Blues Travelin’: Part I – The Best Kept Secret

Just walkin’ in the rain
Getting soaking wet”

–The Prisonaires

Because a family of ducks lives on the roof, and because the ducks are trained to ride the elevator down to the lobby thirteen floors below and waddle the length of a red carpet to the fountain in the lobby’s high-ceiling’d center, the Peabody Hotel on Union Street in Memphis, Tennessee is world famous. It is a lovely building, having been resuscitated, like many other buildings in the city, from the twin devastations of an economic recession and an ill-advised urban renewal program in the 1970s that together nearly emptied the downtown of business. Two blocks south, Beale Street had fallen by that time into such decay and abandonment that few would have recognized it as the home of the blues. Among the few businesses that were hanging on by the skin of their teeth were a family hardware store that had been run by the Schwab family since it was founded a hundred years earlier by Abraham Schwab, and a barbecue joint called the Rendezvous that specialized in what they call a “dry rub” in those parts, as opposed to a wet barbecue sauce.

Welcome to Memphis' finest.

Of course that was then, and though the economy is ailing again now, the hotel is (indeed all three businesses are) reaping the rewards of having stuck it out through the worst of times. Busloads of tourists arrive to witness the March of the Ducks at 10 o’clock every morning, the lobby chairs and sofas are full of guests every evening enjoying the bar until late in the evening, crisply liveried staff members smile and greet you in the halls and ask you how you’re doing, the taxis come and go, the doorman in a bright red coat and a black tophat opens the door for you, and the guestrooms are clean and cheerful. The Peabody seems to be the center of Memphis again. It was the location for a convention of technical writers that I attended last week. I’m fixin’ to tell you all about it. We’ll take it in chunks.


I was tired when I landed in Memphis, the kind of tired that catching planes all day and two-hour delays on the runway at Salt Lake City make you. But worse, I was hungry. We don’t have time to dwell on this and everyone has had bad flying days, so enough already. When I landed in Memphis the airport was shutting up its pizza and burger joints for the night, and all I’d eaten all day was tiny bags of peanuts. My head was buzzing and I was having trouble making decisions, staying focused. I had been warned ahead of time by the concierge at the Peabody that TennCo, the airport shuttle, was unreliable. She would never recommend them for going from the hotel to the airport because half the time they don’t show, but I was willing to give them a shot getting from the airport to downtown. I was already late, there was nothing to miss. I called the number but got an automated message instructing me to leave my number and a message, they’d call me back. I left my number and a message that I wanted a ride to downtown, then went to find a taxi. I asked the security man where the shuttle would be if it came, and he pointed and said, “That looks like one of their cars there!” I thanked him and ran out to a black SUV.

"Old Beale Street is coming down..." This photo was taken by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1974. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, TN-60-3.

The shuttle man was loading up the luggage of one Mrs. Fairchild when I approached him, and it turned out he was on the lookout for me. TennCo never called me back, but they called their shuttle driver and told him to keep an eye out for me. I got in next to Mrs. Fairchild, who I quickly found was one of those good-natured, long-sufffering people who make you just really happy to be an American and have them as your countryman. She was bearing up under a terrible day with a self-deprecating air of half-hearted exasperation that lacked any sign of anger or resentment. After a flying day that resembled mine, she’d gotten into the wrong airport shuttle by mistake, and when that company had figured out she was supposed to be in someone else’s rig — I guess it was a prepaid arrangement — they circled back, instead of just dropping her off at her hotel as a courtesy, and dumped her at the airport, which is where our shuttle man, Greg I think his name was, eventually found her on his second time through looking for her. Good for him, good for her, good for me.

We headed to town while Greg cooed soothing words to Mrs. Fairchild in his kind southern accent, how they should have taken her to her hotel, how a good night sleep would do her good, and when we dropped her at the Marriott he shouted to the doorman, whom he knew by name, that “this is Mrs. Fairchild, you take good care of her now.”

On the way to the Peabody Greg and I talked about old buildings. I was so hungry I could barely think. Greg pointed out his favorite building in the city, the Lincoln American Tower. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Twenties?”

The celebrity waddle. The Peabody Ducks exit the elevator and head for the fountain. The Duckmaster is in a red coat behind them.

I checked in, missing the restored grandeur of the hotel in my light-headedness, tossed my bag in a room with high ceilings and Hermitage yellow walls, and went out in search of food. It was raining but warm. I hesitated to eat at T.G.I.Friday’s right across the street from the hotel when there was surely more authentic local fare nearby, but I’ve learned the hard way, repeatedly, that when my tank is empty I get stupid, and I start trying to do too much, save money, eat healthy, eat more creatively, and I go in circles of indecision and prolong the disaster. I tore into a chunk of salmon in a sweet mango sauce and the largest florets of broccoli I’d ever seen, and left Friday’s feeling restored. I was tired, as I said, but I was not sleepy because on top of Daylight Savings Time going into effect that morning I had moved two time zones closer to the beginning of time. So I was actually three hours younger than the clock said I was. I headed to Beale Street.

Beale Street, the famous home of the blues (it was originally named Beale Avenue but it’s name was changed after the success of W. C. Handy’s hit song “Beale Street Blues”) was empty*. I heard a local woman later say that Memphians don’t go out in the rain. I guess they’re not memphibious. Seattleites don’t have a choice, we can’t “wait it out”, so here I was, ready to walk on one of the most famous streets in America and hear some authentic Delta blues. The colors of the many neon signs bled in the reflections off the wet pavement. I thought it was actually quite fetching.

Beale Street on a rainy Sunday evening. "Ribs here."

Beale Street is different today from what it used to be. In the early days of the 20th century it was a business district like many similar streets in other towns, but it was in clubs and restaurants along this thoroughfare (many negro-owned) that musicians developed the style that became known as the Memphis blues or Delta blues. By the time Joni Mitchell sized it up in the mid-1970s in her song “Furry Sings the Blues” the street and its music scene had long been in decline and many of its buildings had been knocked down. Those remaining were all boarded up, with the sole exception of Schwab’s. Preservation efforts saved just two long blocks and one short one, which are now again chock full of clubs such as Blues City Cafe, B. B. King’s, King’s Palace Cafe, Rum Boogie Cafe, W. C. Handy’s Blues Hall, and Silky O’Sullivan’s. But Beale Street is now a dream of itself, a tourist attraction built by a development company out of the ashes and rubble of the neighborhood. Some people for this reason don’t consider it to be authentic. I didn’t care. This is where one of the parents of Rock n’ Roll was born (the other being country music) and I wanted to appreciate whatever was left of it in whatever shape it came in.

A man in a brown, short-sleeved shirt and a rimmed felt hat and chinos called to me. “Hey, come on in!” He was standing just outside the doorway of a dark, dingy looking club, a narrow building with a bar along the right side and a band making some bluesy music in the back, and he was smoking a cigarette. I thought he was a barker, a man they paid to “pimp” the joint, as the saying goes.

“I’m just going up the whole street checking things out right now,” I said, by way of declining, then looked up at the neon sign above the door. “Where am I?”

“This is the Beale Street Tap Room,” he said. “Best kept secret in Memphis. Where you from?”

The best kept secret? Beale Street Tap Room.

I talked with him for a few minutes and then moved on. I took a few photographs because the street is so colorful at night. As I was walking back along the street the same man came out of a different place about half a block down, having just purchased a pack of cigarettes. I asked him where that taproom was, and he said he was going back there. I told him I don’t drink and asked him if he thought they had a cup of decaf coffee for me there and he said he thought they could probably fix me up. So I said I’d check it out and we walked back to the Beale Street Tap Room.

A man with dreadlocks was playing guitar and singing Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain”, backed by a drummer and a bassist. There were one or two people sitting near the door and a couple at the end of the bar playing a little gambling video machine. Two young men sat at one of the large tables near the band and a another couple sat at the other large table. The walls were old brick and the floor was of wide planks — this was one of Beale’s original old buildings. The band played “I Shot the Sherriff” next. I never liked Reggae much and in fact I have only recently become interested — mainly from a historic perspective — in the blues, but I noticed that this band was tight, and the bass player in particular was really earning his keep.

Vince on the harp. Surprise!

I asked the bartender for a decaf joe and she turned and said something to a young man working back there with her, then walked out from behind the bar, through the club and out the back door into the alley. A few minutes later she returned with coffee in a paper cup and a handful of creams.

After the band finished “I Shot the Sherriff” my friend from the front door who I thought was the barker took a stool in front of the band and started playing harmonica and belting out a powerful rendition of “Standing on Shaky Ground”, dragging on his cigarette between verses. I was impressed. When it was time for me to go I went up and asked him his name and he said Vince Johnson. I googled him up when I got back to the hotel and discovered that not only was he Vince Johnson, but he was Vince Johnson of Vince Johnson and the Plantation Allstars. YouTube has a video of Vince sitting on the same stool in the same venue doing a different song (here), though in that line-up the only member of the band that looks familiar to me is the drummer.

I don’t know if Beale Street Tap Room is really a secret, but for me it sure was a surprise.

To be continued…

*The full genius of the title of the 1980’s hit cop show “Hill Street Blues” just now hit me.


7 Responses to “Blues Travelin’: Part I – The Best Kept Secret”

  1. 1 Ami March 19, 2012 at 18:34

    I have to admit a twinge of jealousy. Memphis and Beale Street have been on my life list since I was a child, when my grandmother introduced me to the music of John Lee Hooker. Glad to see you soaked up the ambiance!

    • 2 Matt March 19, 2012 at 20:54

      Hi Ami,
      I’m sure you’ll get there. It wasn’t on my list but I’m sure glad of the experience. I had heard of Beale from Joni and from Marc Cohn, but I never had the impulse to look it up, and back then (70s and 90s) you couldn’t just google stuff, so it just became one of those vague associations.

  2. 3 Kip March 20, 2012 at 16:57

    I hope to get you there someday Honey! I was lucky enough to stay at The Peabody on my trip, and got to see the ducks! Can’t wait for the next part of the story….

  3. 5 Jana March 30, 2012 at 16:36

    I’m charmed by those ducks, the neon night and your blues scene description . Memphibious – LOL! Reading on . . .

  1. 1 Blues Travelin’: Part II – “Yo Bob…” « Just Wondering Trackback on March 21, 2012 at 21:25
  2. 2 Blues Travelin’: Part III – Kings « Just Wondering Trackback on March 29, 2012 at 22:44

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