Two Cities, One Beat
February 14th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
I was a White Station kid, so my stomping grounds were roughly bordered by Yates to the east, East Parkway to the west, Summer to the north, and Park to the south. Five or six guys in my mama’s Le Mans convertible – beige with wire wheels and spinners – could cover that in style in one weekend night on a buck’s worth of gas. Or in anybody’s car with, as Chuck Berry said, “no particular place to go.”
We were princes of the Poplar corridor.
The hamburgers at the High Boy were huge and cheap, a paper-thin patty cooked on a flattop grill and spread over a big bun with a couple of slices of processed American, and affording a fine view of the circling cars. Right behind Eastgate, you could take the alley all the way to Shoney’s on the north end – Slim Jims, Big Boys, and the occasional fight – and then cross the tracks to Tropical Freeze – their coconut shake defines my teenage years, gone but not forgotten. Actually, being arrested once at Shoney’s and one of those fights come to mind as well.
West on Poplar to the Toddle House, behind White Station, complete with curb service and phones to order. There were other Toddle Houses, and Gridirons, and Ohman Houses, but they didn’t have the requisite drive around, circling the possibilities component. West to East High’s territory and the Krystal on Poplar. There are people I still see today who I saw every time I went to that Krystal. North to the Shoney’s on Summer, and Monte’s, and Pat’s Pizza – great pizza, dangerous people, including the woman running the place – now crossing Central High’s boundaries.
The Cotton Bowl was on East Parkway. Fortune’s Jungle Garden was on Union. And just east of that on Union was the Pig & Whistle. Their onion rings. Damn. Thin, but not too thin, and a mound of them could keep a table at bay or impress a date for 50¢.
While we were doing that, my friend Howard Robertson was roaming through another city.
He hung at Harlem House – and there one everywhere he went, on Florida, on Lauderdale next to Booker T. Washington High, on Poplar across from Le Bonheur, on Chelsea by Douglas/Hyde Park, in Binghampton on Broad, by the New Daisy on Beale – waitresses who knew you, and a damn fine jukebox in every one.
And while we circled Shoney’s, he circled the Gay Hawk on Wellington (now Danny Thomas) and Clayborn’s on South Parkway. And he had hot dogs at Bradley's, on Park in Orange Mound – split open, cooked on the flattop, and served on a hamburger bun with a secret slaw concoction that would, quoting Howard, “make you chew your damn fingers off if you got some on them.”
He was a prince of Black Memphis.
We had the Summer Drive-In, he had the Bellevue Drive-In. We had the seats below and he had the seats way up top in The Malco. Same concessions, like the Cokes that would – accidentally, of course – be spilled on those below – occasioning the moving of seats ahead of the ushers.
And there was music everywhere he went. The music coming through our speakers, the beat that an explosion of white garage bands were trying to find, and changing how we moved, was being played right here, live and alive, and Howard went.
The Goodwill Review and the Starlight Review were the sold-out concerts in summer and winter, sponsored by WDIA at the Mid-South Coliseum. James Brown, The Temptations, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Jackson Five, the Commodores, Martha and the Vandellas. On and on.
Places like Currie’s Club Tropicana on Thomas St. (now Danny Thomas) in north Memphis featured famous acts like Bobby Blue Bland, the Chi-Lites, B.B. King and local acts like Big Ella and Ironing Board Sam (playing an organ he made with an ironing board as the base).
And, of course, Club Paradise, where three very white, very young teenagers went to hear Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters. I’ll add that night to the coconut shake, Shoney’s, and Pig & Whistle onion rings as defining.
And meanwhile, some guys at that Harlem House next to their school, Booker T. Washington, were about to capture our soul. David Porter, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. Jones were starting at Stax, and the White brothers, Maurice and Verdine, were about to become Earth, Wind & Fire. What a neighborhood.
That was then, and Memphis remains two cities today, but we have a common beat. Quoting Howard: “Laws and legislation can drive people together in the workplace and marketplace, but people typically socialize, pray and play together with those who look like them and with whom they have something in common. Memphis has always been racially-fractured, and I don’t know where we’d be without the greatest duct tape and Gorilla Glue in the world...music.”
As the kids on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand used to say, “It has a good beat, and I can dance to it.”
I’m a Memphian, and we need to listen for what we can share, and dance.
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