Opinion » The Rant

The Rant (April 30, 2015) ...

On Itta Bena, Beale Street, Overton Square, Stax Music Academy, and Memphis Cool.



Memphis always seems to me to be on the brink of something. Sometimes it's on the brink of something bad, like this insane and cowardly new mob attack trend. Sometimes it's on the brink of something mediocre,like the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain opening a location here (did that ever happen?) and making front-page news.

And sometimes it's on the brink of something very cool, like the focus now on development in Midtown between Overton Square and Cooper-Young and the possibilities being discussed to finally do something more productive with Mud Island, now that Bass Pro in the Pyramid is expected to draw a lot more people to the west entrance to the city and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Boo Mitchell at Royal Studios - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Boo Mitchell at Royal Studios

And who can dispute the cool factor in Bruno Mars and company recording "Uptown Funk" at Boo Mitchell's Royal Studios, one of the most hallowed spots in the world because, simply, that was the House That Al Green Built. And Ann Peebles and Donald Bryant and Otis Clay and so many others under the tutelage of the great Willie Mitchell. The fact that it is still a working, thriving recording studio is something of which Memphians from all walks of life should be immensely proud.

The other night, I had one of the coolest Memphis moments I've had in a long time. If you've never been to Itta Bena, the sign-less, almost hidden restaurant on the third floor of B.B. King's Blues Club at Beale and Second, you are really, really missing out. It's dark and clubby and has blue-tinted windows, through which the neon lights from Beale Street flood in once the sun goes down. It has a very special feel, great food, and great service. I was having dinner there the other night with someone from out of town (from way up Nawth) who is moving to Memphis pretty soon, and I couldn't have scripted this one any better.

After we finished dinner, we made our way down the secret stairway that leads to the second floor of the club. When I opened the door, there was a singer on stage whose name, I think, was Angela Atkinson. I was appalled that I wasn't familiar with her, because, well, you know how cool I think I am. Anyway, B.B. King's was packed wall-to-wall (and this was a weeknight), and she was busting into a version of "Proud Mary," much more along the line of Ike and Tina Turner's version than the original by Creedence Clearwater Revival, not that there's anything wrong with that version.

So I just stood there trying not to embarrass myself by dancing, and it was a surreal, spontaneous experience that made me think Memphis had passed the point of being on the brink of something cool; it had happened and couldn't have been any cooler. And it couldn't have been more "Memphis."

I got separated from the people I'd been having dinner with and figured they were fine, as two of them were Memphians and they had the out-of-town guest in tow. So I just sauntered down Beale Street alone, smoking cigarettes and watching the Beale Street Flippers and all of the tourists and listening to music being played on outdoor stages and coming out of the windows of bars. All I could think was, Wow, why are there not any residential apartments upstairs from the clubs on Beale Street and how could I possibly get one? Yes, it would be kind of noisy, but that kind of noise would be fine with me. I'm a massive fan of the French Quarter in New Orleans, where people do live upstairs from the bars, restaurants, and clubs, and Beale was giving me that same feeling — at least on that night. No, it's not perfect and I have no clue why some of the clubs play country music, but still, it's a place I would like to live, or at least have an escape pad to shack up in from time to time.

And this weekend, I walked around the corner from my house to Overton Square, where there must be 10 patios that are regularly filled with people, chilling. I walked over there to see the Stax Music Academy's Spring Concert. Yes, I am a little biased about that academy because I work there by day, but I gotta tell you that you could've cut the energy in the air with a knife. Hundreds of people came out to support those talented kids, and, again, it was just a pure Memphis thing.

And speaking of the incomparable Ann Peebles, she was in the audience with her husband, the aforementioned Donald Bryant, and when the students and their music teachers brought Ann up on stage, the crowd went crazy. The "I Can't Stand the Rain" icon had to be feeling all that love for her. And when the students performed one of her songs, she had to be thinking that she made a difference in the world that's not going away any time soon.

I know sometimes I drone on and on about Memphis being the coolest city in the world, and every time anyone says anything to the contrary, I just wonder how they could be so miserable. They need to have dinner at Itta Bena and quit whining.

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