Elvis Presley performed Club Handy an historical interlude. This is what happened
on Beale Street one winter evening on January 1954. The weather was cold, a wet, icy cold that seeped right through the heaviest of coats and cut straight to the bone. The young man loitering on 195 Hernando Street wasn't wearing a coat, and was obviously
freezing. He paced back and forth in front of a small doorway, swinging his gangly arms back and forth, trying to ward off the cold.
He was wearing a bright pink suit
that clashed terribly with his pale blue complexion. The pink suit seemed two sizes too big, giving him the look of a scarecrow. His belt and shows were white patent leather, and the shoes showed all the signs of having spent many an evening walking the hard,
unforgiving pavement of Beale Street.
The few other people on the street that particular evening stared openly at the pink suit, even more intently when they realized
that the young man in it was white, some kind of jive asshole standing near the corner of Beale and Hernando, freezing his tail off, not even wearing an overcoat.
pacing was obsessive, faster and faster, in time with the wad of gum he was chewing. His hair was slicked back, and a lock of the greased pompadour kept falling across his eyes. He pushed it back in place without seeming to notice.
Finally, the small door opened and a caramel-coloured face peered out into the cold. "Elvis", the black man said into the gathering dark. "Elvis, goddammit boy! Are you ready or not? C'mon, boy". Elvis Presley
quickly spat the gum into the gutter of Hernando Street and hurried over to the black man at the door. He pushed the slicked hair back into place for the umpteenth time, and his angular face broke into a wide grin.
"I'm sorry", said Elvis Presley. "I guess you caught me just dreamin' some, trying to keep warm". He was earnest, apologetic. "You don't watch out, boy, you get both our butts in the Memphis City Jail", the proprietor
said. It was against the law for a white man to enter a black entertainment establishment (and even more against the law for a black man to enter a white entertainment establishment). Separate but equal was the byword, the way go keep the black men away from
the white women, god forbid, and vice versa. The proprietor looked up and down the street, which was practically deserted in the evening
chill. "C'mon", he said, pushing Elvis Presley ahead of him
up the narrow back staircase, "C'mon in".
The two went up the back stairs, into the Club Handy through the emergency exit. Although the night was still relatively young,
the joint was already cooking, the steamy heat of moving bodies absorbing the winter cold. The feature attraction that night was just the house band, a group that usually fronted for local rhythm and blues singer Bill Harvey, and they'd worked the crowd into
a white heat.
Elvis Presley entered the club, and a ripple of indignation moved through the crowd. There were special expressions, special masks, reserved for white people,
and the majority of the faces slipped automatically into those expressions - smooth brown masks, neither frowning nor smiling, eyes that soon turned away. A few of the faces registered resentment, disgust. Another white boy, the faces said, come here to our
ground to look and steal what he can, maybe leave tonight with a sleek brown woman on his elbow; ought to keep his white ass off Beale Street. The other faces showed amusement; eyes met and exchanged secret signals, totally lost on the young man in the pink
suit. Look at him, the eyes winked back and forth, poor little white boy who wants to be a nigger.
Elvis Presley blinked in the smokey room, licked his lips and cleared
his throat. His body, betraying his uneasiness, began moving to the music. The proprietor left his side and walked over to the bandstand, where he corralled the bandleader between numbers. There was much whispering between the two, with a few gestures and
strange glances back at Elvis Presley, who waited quietly by the rear door. Finally the bandleader laughed and motioned for Elvis Presley to come over to the bandstand.
the bandleader said to the attentive audience, "we got us a special treat tonight. Mr. Elvis Presley here, who go to works for Mr. Sam Phillips over at Sun Records, is gonna sing us a couple of songs. C'mon up here, boy!". Elvis Presley smiled and waved, and
the crowd responded with thunderous applause and laughter. "Thank you very much", Elvis Presley said, turning to the band. "Let's sing some blues here. You boys know Sleepy John Estes' "Milkcow Blues Boogie".
The bandleader snorted, and before Elvis Presley turned around, the band dug into a hopped-up version of the blues standard. The band was puzzled. Elvis Presley wasn't singing what they were playing, at least not the right way.
The beat was not the same - he was singing ahead of the jazzed-up blues beat, moving his body to punctuate the rhythm in his head. The band shifted tempo a bit, but something was still wrong, strangely, undefinable wrong.
The crowd sensed that the band and the singer were not together, but they were already moving to the white boy's new rhythm. It was somehow more fierce and less worldly than the dance music they were used to,
more akin to the frantic honky-tonk blues than the classy Club Handy. Elvis Presley finished up to a scattering of applause. He was flushed, cocky, looking down from the stage into a sea of eyes and teeth. He pushed his hair back from his sweating face and
sneered at the audience.
"Thank you thank you", he said. "Let's do some Big Boy Crudup now. Boys", he said to the band, "follow me now". The band fumbled around, blind
men looking for the new beat. It was almost as if he couldn't sing rhythm and blues. His body jerked as the song poured out, leaner and meaner than anything Big Boy Crudup ever imagined. The crowd moved with the new beat, hypnotized by the swaying figure in
the pink suit, looking deep into a pink crystal ball showing a pink vision of the future, a pink and white vision of the future.
The band stumbled again, reaching for
the beat. The band members were consummate professionals, veterans of a million hours in a million smokey clubs, but this music was something different, so close to what they were used to playing that it made playing if difficult. The fingers want the old
The applause after the sone was uneasy, but Elvis Presley couldn't feel it. The music in his head went round and round, and he knew in his heart and
in his soul and in his guts that it was the music of the future, if anybody would just listen to it. He would find a way to make Mr. Sam Phillips understand if it took the rest of his life, because he knew he had the power. He knew that he, a white nigger
from Tupelo, Mississippi, had the beat. Just like the crowd at Club Handy knew, down in their guts, that they'd just seen someone step on their graves.
Beale Street, Elvis Presley began listening late at night to Gene Nobles and John "John R' Richbourg, who broadcast out of Nashville and played rhythm and blues tunes.
CLUB HANDY / PANTAZE DRUG STORE NO. 2 (JOYCE COBB'S CLUB) - ca. 1884. 195 Hernando Street / 209-211 Beale Street. With its windows recessed slightly from the facade to simulate the appearance of columns, this building used to
have a cornice at the tops. Ita window heads are cast-iron. From 1896 through the 1960s, it was a drug store, first of George H. Battier, then beginning in 1929, the Pantaze Drug Store No. 2. Abe Plough, who founded Plough Pharmaceuticals in 1908, became the
proprietor of Battier's Pharmacy around 1914. In 1920 he marketed the popular brand name St. Joseph's Aspirin.
Battier's and the Pantaze remained open 24 hours to accommodate
the community. They also acted as an emergency room for victims of Beale Street's violence.
Around the corner at 195 Hernando Street was the entrance to the second and
third floors. For years it had been used as a rooming house until the late 1930s, when it became the Coloured Citizens Association. In the mid-1940s, Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell opened a hotel on the third floor and used the second floor as a lounge.
Mitchell helped entertainers, like Little Richard and Roy Brown, who were stranded in Memphis from lack of work. Musicians stayed in the hotel and were charged a nominal fee for a bowl of
chili, a feast fondly remembered by Beale Street regulars. The second floor lounge began as a place for jam sessions where local and out-of-town musicians played.
one time it was called the Domino Lounge and after W.C. Handy died, renamed the Club Handy. Jazz and blues performers, such as Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter, among many others, performed there. Bill Harvey, the guru
of Memphis musicians, led the house band in the late 1940s. B.B. King eventually took over the band. B.B. had played in Mitchell's Lounge beginning in the early 1950s.