Preston Lauterbach’s new book “Beale Street Dynasty” chronicles the history of a Memphis neighborhood whose rich multiracial culture helped birth both blues and rock ’n’ roll.

Share story

‘Beale Street Dynasty’

by Preston Lauterbach

W.W. Norton, 384 pp., $26.95

Memphis, Tennessee’s Beale Street is one of the most famous neighborhoods in African-American history. It served as a birthplace for the genres of both the blues and rock ’n’ roll.

It was where W.C. Handy earned the nickname “father of the blues,” but also where Elvis Presley bought the outrageous suits he wore on television that shocked a nation. Both in music, and in other aspects of culture, it was where blacks and whites mixed in ways that were rare in the South, anywhere in the nation.

Rufus Thomas, who himself would make a major contribution to music, once observed that Beale Street was a special place where the disenfranchised found their heaven. “I told a white fella,” Thomas once said, “that if you were black for one Saturday night on Beale Street, you would never want to be white anymore.”

Out of that rich milieu comes Preston Lauterbach’s “Beale Street Dynasty,” which tells the story of how the neighborhood gained its reputation, and what it represented to African-American culture, there and beyond. “Beale became,” Lauterbach argues, “the Main Street of Black America, a site of monumental innovations, thrilling promise and devastating tragedy….”

Lauterbach is the author of a previous history of “The Chitlin’ Circuit” and his reporting is fact-based, layered and detailed. His skill as a writer is to interweave historical facts with the stories of the characters that populated Beale Street and its surrounds.

And in “Beale Street Dynasty” Lauterbach has found quite a character in the story of Robert Church, who makes up the core of the book. The South’s first black millionaire, Church wielded tremendous power over Memphis, and particularly Beale Street, and profited enormously from selling sin to the masses. The subtitle of this book, “Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis,” only begins to hint at the many arenas where Church held sway.

Church was born a slave but after reconstruction found his fortune with gambling houses and brothels. He used those sin profits to bankroll some of the first pro-civil-rights politicians in the nation. Church even became an unofficial council to President Hoover on racial issues.

Church’s power began to wane, ironically, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt and a Democrat reform movement. Yet even a cleaned-up Beale today still draws thousands of tourists looking for a bit of that former magic, even if it’s in the decidedly mainstream Hard Rock Cafe.

But wherever you hear the blues, or the genres the blues influenced, you are hearing part of Beale Street.