Returning the Blues Tradition to Beale Street and Memphis by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 8/23/2010 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) The following open letter is being written by the author to the members of an advisory committee which Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton has assembled to help determine the future of Beale Street. After over 20 years of the street being managed by John Elkington and his company, Performa, a new era is about to begin. Although it cannot be denied that Mr. Elkington was instrumental in the revitalization of the street, the city did not receive a dime of rent for over 20 years and decided that they could do better without Mr. Elkington's "help" so they will now manage the properties on the street, all of which are owned by the city.

Photographs: These black and white photographs were taken by Vicki Forrest, wife of my best friend and guitarist for over 25 years, Memphis Mike Forrest. They were taken during the rebuilding of the buildings on Beale Street in the early 1980's, likely before there were many clubs on the street. All that remained of some of the buildings was a facade and the few businesses that remained were a handful of pawn shops and A. Schwab's, the only original Beale Street business, which has remained open since 1876.

In the photo above, The Beale Street Wampus Cats...Mike Forrest, the late Tom Jansen, drummer, the author, guitarist Rod Norwood, the late Richard Hite, bassist and singer, former member of Canned Heat.

The Wampus Cats rummage through the bricks at Nathan's Pawn Shop
Elvis bought his first guitar here at age 11.
This is now the Blues City Cafe.

Dear committee member:

I have played music all my life and done nothing but play music since 1991.

I played on Beale since the 1980's, playing for tips in Handy Park when there were precious few clubs in which to play. I now play the blues I learned in my home town all over the world.

You have a rare opportunity to be an advocate for all of us. I would sincerely appreciate your passing along any of the following ideas that you feel might be of merit.

In front of the historic Old Daisy Theater built in 1917, where we played many nights

Observations of Beale Street Then and Now

Watching the reemergence of Beale in the 1980's, I saw a growing scene replete with traveling blues acts and some of our finest musicians. The introduction of outdoor loudspeakers and outdoor bars began the metamorphosis of the street from “a magical, musical experience to an alcohol experience that could be duplicated anywhere” as Jim Dickinson aptly stated it.

One day, I could no longer hear the bassist in my 5 piece band over the stentorian blare of the speakers across the street despite the fact that we were inside behind a closed door. Soon thereafter, that music club closed.

Almost overnight, the pay diminished all over the street as if a plan were being rolled out. Musicians became a commodity to buy as cheaply as possible with little interest in the quality of the music. The band musician was devalued.

The gig money we played for in 1985 has roughly half the buying power in 2010, but the wages have actually decreased as well. $100 pay we got in 1985 is now only worth $50 and gas and parking are now a significant expense. In Memphis at this time, most band musicians are paid less than a toilet attendant or a bar back.

Today, 5 piece bands playing one of the landmark clubs are paid $200, $40 per man. The club owner states that this is the budget, take it or leave it. Our tax dollars are used to funnel traffic to Beale by providing free Beale Street advertising. These club owners,who tout Beale Street as the largest tourist attraction in the state of Tennessee, are simply leveraging their position to drive down musicians' wages.

Beale Street dentist's office sign still remained before the renovation.
It was one of the last uses of the Gallina building before it became Silky Sullivan's.

Replacing Full Time Memphis Musicians with Beggars

Beale Street grossed $44 million dollars on the street in 2005 but the musicians did not share in the success. Indeed they got a pay cut. In some venues, musicians receive little or no wages whatsoever, existing on tips(begging). Those who are paid actual wages receive around $50-$80 for four hour performances, about minimum wage after expenses. Despite Beale Street's success, it is unusual to find a musician making over $100 per performance.

Despite the fortunes made on the backs of the musicians who filled their clubs, the job, “full time musician” has all but disappeared. Call it benign neglect or capitalism, the net result is the same. Our best musicians often do not participate “for peanuts” or have abandoned the notion of playing in Memphis, only playing out of town.

The Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock and Roll experience that we promise in our
worldwide advertising is often being fulfilled by musical beggars and the most desperate of our profession, hardly who you would want to represent our city's tradition of excellence. Karaoke, dj's, Elvis imitators playing to boom box tracks and loud urban music pounding through outdoor speakers are now a big part of the Beale Street experience.

This pandering to the lowest common denominator is enriching a handful and only providing
low paying work, primarily for musical hobbyists and others with day jobs. We could raise the level of musicianship and re-create the atmosphere that nurtured our fertile music scene simply by paying our best working musicians a living wage.

Rarely is a cover charge collected at the door to help remunerate the musicians. Ads from the Memphis Tourism folks actually promote the fact that, unlike most cities, music is available in Beale Street clubs without a cover charge. This is accomplished, again, on the backs of the musicians by keeping musicians' wages as low as possible.


Obviously, we need to create an atmosphere that will sustain the kind of band musicians that made Memphis a great music city, the home of Sun, Hi, and STAX.

The Eric Hughes band performs in front of the original STAX neon sign at Alfred's

Beale Street Blues Preservation Hall

I suggest that the city employ a successful grant writer to obtain funding for a new venture which would be housed in one of the Beale Street properties that the City owns. We have such an individual, a Memphian, Heidi Knochenhauer, who for years has garnered funds for the Arkansas Music and Heritage festival as well as many other entities.

This Preservation Hall could be set up as a non-profit. They would hire the city's finest musicians and pay them decently. Were they successful, perhaps the other clubs would be inclined to pay a decent living wage for talent. At the least, the older, established musicians could return to the scene and interface with the younger talent, assuring the passing down of the music, literally perpetuating the blues tradition. Tourists would be assured to hear legitimate Memphis music on Beale from it's finest players.

PILOT Program for Employers of Musicians

Memphis' use of payment in lieu of taxes should be expanded to include clubs or any venue that hires local Memphis musicians and pays them above a set minimum wage. Businesses would receive this tax break and other incentives if they complied with this requirement, thus endorsing and supporting the contributions of musicians to our economy. Music is our most valuable, most under-utilized resource.
Music is worthy to be nurtured by our city, not just by lip service, but where the rubber hits the road, the paychecks of our best musicians. What we are currently doing is not working and we are forcing our best musicians to leave town. If the city needs to underwrite the paychecks of musicians then that is what needs to happen to keep the culture alive and reverse the damage that has been done.

By providing tax credits and incentives to business owners they will not feel penalized by having to pay better wages to musicians, who they view as employees, and as a business expense. In this way our indigenous music can dovetail with business, increasing sales tax revenues to the city coffers and perpetuating a rich music scene in our city.

Other Suggestions:

Outdoor Loudspeakers creating Cacophony

The city should measure the sound pressure levels outside of each address using a decibel meter. Violators should suffer high fines, increasing with each occurrence. This is done in music districts in Austin, Texas, and many other municipalities. The loud volume contests detract from the experience and often make performing difficult, particularly with acoustic instruments.

Outdoor speakers could be banned after 6 PM every night and only live music allowed in clubs. This would foster the music scene, reduce the rampant loitering that drives away paying customers, and encourage visitors to enter the clubs. Exceptions could be made for the park and some patio performances that did not violate the sound pressure level regulation.

Inclusion of Working Musicians on the Music Commission

Rather than being run by groups interested in nurturing music, most of our local music committees are perpetually comprised of club owners and others who have business and self interests in mind rather than an interest in fostering our city's musical culture. Most of these entities have not one single working musician in their ranks despite music being their focus.

Within the past year, management from Mud Island, likely well paid employees of the Riverfront Development Corporation, sent out a public call for “free musicians” to entertain the crowds at that attraction. Again, the musician is purposefully undervalued, reduced to playing for free by what amounts to an arm, albeit a quasi- private one, of the city government. How could anyone in business compete against a competing service that was provided for free? I would love to see the Riverfront Development Corporation replaced by all volunteers.

Beale Street Belongs to Memphis

It behooves the city, if for no other reason than sales tax generated by musicians drawing crowds to Beale Street, to make certain that we can compete for tourism dollars by providing the high level of entertainment that we promise our patrons in ads. By allowing Beale Street to become a closed society run solely by business interests, the city has lost the continuity and vitality of its music scene. Our culture and music traditions can still return us to the vibrant music city that we once were, but not without guidance and support... and not without a flourishing community of musicians.

The author parks his beloved Cadillac behind Sonny's Loan Office at 166 Beale.
This address is now the Beale Street Tap Room.

2010-The author on Beale


© Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms, 2010
© Vicki Forrest, 2010

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