Beale Street in downtown Memphis, Tennessee runs approximately 1.8 miles from the Mississippi River to East Street. Created in 1841 and originally named Beale Avenue, it was immortalized in 1916 by composer, musician and bandleader W.C. Handy in his “Beale Street Blues.” By the middle of the century, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters and more had all played Beale Street, recognized as one of the nation’s foremost cradles of the blues. But by the mid-1960s, the legendary thoroughfare had fallen into decay. On May 23, 1966, the area between Main and 4th was declared a National Historic Landmark; in 1973, the Beale Street Development Corporation was founded to redevelop the area. Four years later, in 1977, Congress officially declared Beale Street “Home of the Blues.” Foremost at the efforts to redevelop this once-vibrant area was The Memphis Development Foundation, which purchased the historic Orpheum Theatre that same year. Around this same time, producer and musician James Luther “Jim” Dickinson (Big Star, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones) began curating the audio documentary that would be released in 1979 as Beale Street Saturday Night to benefit the Memphis Development Foundation. Omnivore Recordings has recently reissued this one-of-a-kind, ultra-rare aural document in a captivating new edition (OVCD-119).
The audio vérité-style release, a documentary in song and spoken word, offers raw, unfiltered and unvarnished Americana from the heart of the blues. Beale Street Saturday Night is a vibrant document of, and a transporting journey to, the Memphis underground of the time, and a celebration of its participants’ contributions to the fabric of American music.
Sid Selvidge, whose 1976 LP The Cold of the Morning has been previously reissued by Omnivore, provides the perfect opening with “Walkin’ Down Beale Street.” On this nostalgic reminiscence, his inviting drawl is melded to lively guitar, pounding piano, slyly wending saxophone, rollicking horns, soft strings and even a passionate choir. Recorded at Ardent Studios, it makes for the most accessible track on the album and the one you’ll likely want to revisit most often. Selvidge also appears with his band Mud Boy and the Neutrons – consisting of Selvidge, Dickinson, Lee Baker and Jimmy Crosthwait – on a loose, swampy tune embellished with brass called “On the Road Again.”
As sequenced by producer Dickinson, tracks seamlessly flow from one to the next. “Nowhere today could you see such a sight, walkin’ down Beale Street on Saturday night,” sings Selvidge. Dickinson follows through on Selvidge’s observation, taking listeners on a virtual tour with recordings made in various venues around Beale Street and environs. As Dickinson’s son Luther explained, “This is not a field recording. Jim produced these multi-tracked recordings in The Orpheum Theatre, at Ardent and Sam Phillips Studios, and in his home on his beloved Ampex 8-track. He loved the concept of a hi-fi recording of a lo-fi sound.”
Dickinson enlisted a diverse cast of characters, primarily Memphis cats but also including special guests like Ry Cooder. Numerous tracks, including Fred Ford’s jazz-blues saxophone piece “Hernando Horn,” are interspersed with fascinating, candid spoken-word recollections or testimonials from the artists. Thomas Pinkston, noodling at the piano, narrates “Ben Griffin was killed in the Monarch…,” a story of crap game murder, as well as the track “Mr. Handy Told Me Long Ago…” Violinist Pinkston was known as “the last man alive to have played with W.C. Handy,” the Father of the Blues himself.
Most of the recordings featured on this disc exist out of time; it’s nearly impossible to believe that white vaudevillian pianist Grandma Dixie Davis’ cooing Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” or Sleepy John Estes’ performing “Big Fat Mama/Liquor Store” were recorded in the 1970s! Davis, with her squeaky Mae Questel-esque voice, is one of the most welcome presences here, and she also closes the set with the appropriate “Roll On, Mississippi.” Prince Gabe, who opened the 1970s with his album Memories of Beale Street, effortlessly swings the brief “Ol’ Beale Street Blues.”
Dickinson also preserved the straight-up blues stylings of Furry Lewis. Born in 1893, Lewis’ recording career was in its sixth decade by the 1970s; the artist was beneficiary of a new lease on life thanks to the sixties blues revival. He even opened concerts for his fans, the Rolling Stones! A 1976 visit by Joni Mitchell to Furry’s apartment near Beale Street inspired her song “Furry Sings the Blues” which the elder bluesman reportedly disliked. He’s here with “Furry’s Blues” as well as “Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird.” Al Green’s frequent collaborator Teenie Hodges offers “Rock Me Baby” accompanied by his guitar; the single-named street musician “Alex” offers a primitive a cappella version, too. Johnny Woods, another venerable blues master, blows a mean harp on the train-track rhythms of “Frisco Blow.”
Omnivore’s reissue recreates the original cover featuring William Eggleston’s photograph of a dilapidated side street off Beale. The booklet, starkly designed in black-and-white by Greg Allen, features a number of vividly evocative photos by Pat Rainer as well as memorabilia images. Liner notes are by Stanley Booth and musician Jim Lancaster, who played on the album and shares his alternately poignant and amusing memories of many of the unorthodox recording sessions. Larry Nix has remastered the album for optimal clarity while preserving its lo-fi sound and feel.
Happily, Beale Street survived years of deterioration and today hosts cafés and clubs bearing the names of B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis, not to mention a Hard Rock; it’s a major destination for tourists and music fans alike. The Orpheum Theatre, which benefited from sales of the Beale Street Saturday Night LP, remains a grand showplace today for musicals and concerts. (Proceeds from the reissue go to the Beale Street Caravan, a non-commercial radio program.) This one-of-a-kind record shows the strength of music to make change, and preserves the rich legacy of artists, young and old, who helped define the sound of the Memphis blues. There’s no doubt that Sid Selvidge was right: nowhere today could you see such a sight – or hear such a sound! – as on a Beale Street Saturday Night.