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Giving Beale the Blues

New policy could restrict Beale Street clubs to play only blues music outdoors.

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Bluesy vocals from Ms. Zeno, the self-professed "Louisiana Mojo Queen," waft over Beale Street as she performs on Silky O'Sullivan's patio. Further down the street on a recent Thursday afternoon, a blues band is playing at Handy Park's outdoor stage. Up and down Beale, blues music drifts over multiple outdoor speakers.

Though the policy has not been finalized, it seems Beale Street club owners already are attempting to appease Performa, the entertainment district's management company. Performa announced earlier this month that it wants Beale Street's bars and clubs to play only blues music on its outdoor speakers and patios.

Representatives from Performa did not return repeated phone calls, but Onzie Horne, executive director of the Beale Street Merchant's Association, confirmed the group is negotiating the new policy with the management company.

"I think Performa's intent is to have a more consistent theme of music on the street," Horne said. "Personally, I think it's inappropriate to restrict it to blues music."

Horne said most of the street's bars and clubs only play Memphis music outside, but music is not limited to the blues.

"It'd be absurd to deny the merchants the ability to play the music of Elvis, the music of Stax, and the music of Hi Records," Horne said. "We believe those things are an important part of what we present as the entertainment and cultural history of Beale Street."

Paul Sonerson, a tourist visiting from Massachusetts, agreed.

"Are they trying to kill Memphis culture? There's a lot of good music out here," Sonerson said as he dined on the King's Palace Café's patio. "Memphis is supposed to be about all kinds of music."

Although Club 152 is known for playing pop and rap music inside its three-story dance club, management said they mostly play blues over their outside speakers. But they're hoping the rule will be extended to all Memphis music because they occasionally broadcast music from local bands such as the Dempseys.

King's Palace Café management said they generally only have blues acts perform on their outdoor patio.

Silky Sullivan, owner of O'Sullivan's on Beale, said he couldn't comment on how the rules would affect his business since he had not received a memo from Performa. But Verlinda Zeno, who performs as Ms. Zeno on O'Sullivan's patio, thinks the blues requirement is a great idea.

"Beale Street was becoming too commercial, and now we're trying to recapture Beale Street's history," Zeno said. "Last year, we had a lot of tourist complain about Beale not having enough blues. Now we're giving the tourists what they came for."

But B.B. King's employee Janvon Nolan, who grew up listening to soul, blues, and R&B on Beale Street during the late 1960s, doesn't agree with the genre restriction.

"I think we should play all kinds of music out here, as long as it's not hardcore gangster rap with profanity," Nolan said.

Horne said the association will continue to negotiate the proposed policy with Performa.

"I'm not authorized to say what we're willing to accept or not accept, but I don't think most of the venues would have a problem with some content input by Performa," Horne said. "But if it's restricted exclusively to blues, I can tell you there's big resistance to that."

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