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Twilight for Bill's

African-American literary heritage site demolished.



On Thursday, August 27th, demolition began on the modest pink building located at 723 North Parkway. By Friday afternoon, there was nothing left but a rectangular patch of dirt where Bill's Twilight Lounge once stood.

Bill's, an African-American literary heritage site and occasional hub for Memphis' jazz and hip-hop scenes, had been empty for years. It was recently purchased, along with the adjoining property formerly operated by Gator's discount store, by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. St. Jude now owns all the property on the south side of North Parkway between Danny Thomas and the strip of buildings housing Cozy Corner restaurant.

Bill's Twilight Lounge has been quiet for some time, but in the mid-1970s, it was home to a community of writers and performing artists who honed their craft with the help of celebrated poet Etheridge Knight. Knight, whose well-documented struggles with heroin and morphine began after he was wounded during the Korean War, came to Memphis where he received methadone treatments and chose the bar as the site for his Free People's Poetry Workshops.

T.C. Sharpe, a 26-year teacher in the Memphis City Schools and an actor who has been featured in Craig Brewer films The Poor & Hungry and Black Snake Moan, compares the scene that grew up around Bill's to the Harlem Renaissance. He says the workshops themselves were like an open-mic night and a block party combined.

"It was so safe, because there was never any anger there," Sharpe says, recalling his frequent visits to the club. "Etheridge wouldn't allow any kind of conflict. ... It was a place where black militancy gave way to flower power and the strength of poetry."

Knight had been inspired by the tradition of toasts, an African-American oral tradition in which the speaker describes street life in a theatrical manner. His presence attracted radio personalities, as well as actors from Levi Frazier's Beale Street Repertory Company and from the Mid-America Mall Theater. It attracted dancers like Harry Bryce, who worked with Alvin Ailey and helped co-found the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre.

According to Sharpe, the energy and momentum from that scene inspired the creation of spinoff events and brought Memphis' black artistic community into contact with playwright Douglas Turner Ward, poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonia Sanchez, and TV writers for shows such as Good Times and Sanford & Son.

"We all knew that Etheridge had his problems," Sharpe says. "He'd look after us like a mother hen, and we'd look after him. It was an electrifying experience."

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