Robert Odell, Jr., is the senior video editor for the Take Me Back to Beale project, a 100-year chronicle of Beale Street History.
A young man who became "The King" and another young man who became "B.B. King" both survived one of the most cruel and unsympathetic crowds in the history of entertainment. If any entertainer could survive a showing at Amateur Night on Beale Street, they were then in the running to receive a one-way ticket to stardom.
Amateur Night at the Palace
Amateur Night at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street was a well-attended, festive occasion. The majority black Beale Street patrons stayed on the street day and night, 24/7.
Amateur Night attracted large crowds. During its heyday, if you had asked a black man to describe Memphis, he would have said Beale Street. To the black man, Beale Street was Memphis, and Amateur Night was an important part of it.
During its heyday, if you had asked a black man to describe Memphis, he would have said Beale Street.
A Big Break for Survivors
Starting in 1935, Amateur Night on Beale was considered by many to be the biggest talent show in the world. Held at the Palace Theatre, the show attracted every "dream-filled hopeful" looking for a big break.
Magicians, acrobats, jugglers, comedians, one-man bands, and any other talent you could name all came to Amateur Night on Beale, star-struck and looking for that "big break."
Hungry, Pleasure-Seeking Audience
If the unfortunate talent that flooded the Amateur Night stage was not pleasing to the hungry, pleasure-seeking audience, that talent would encounter anything and everything being thrown at them.
The crowd would "boo" persistently. It wasn't unusual for a weary reject to get popped in the face with a large paper ball.
Even worse than being gonged or hearing the roar of "get off the stage" was the act of being shot at. Often, a one-time firing from a thunderous, blank pistol would happen. Extremely terrible amateurs had the unfortunate consequence of being shot several times before being chased off of the stage in humiliation.
Amateur Night on Beale Began in 1935
Nat D. Williams started Amateur Night on Beale in 1935.
Nat D. Williams:
- Was the first black radio announcer in Memphis
- Began broadcasting for the Memphis WDIA radio station in 1948
- Wrote for a Memphis newspaper from 1928 until the early 1970s
- Taught at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis for 42 years
- Was co-founder of the Cotton Makers Jubilee on Beale Street in Memphis
- Was the announcer/MC for Amateur Night
The excitement of Nat D. Williams and Amateur Night on Beale is reenacted in a docudrama about the history of Beale Street.
More About Nat D. Williams, Host of Amateur Night on Beale Street
According to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Nat D. Williams received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Nashville at historically black colleges. After returning to Memphis, he took on a teaching job in 1930 at Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis. While there he:
- Taught history and social studies for four decades
- Edited the school paper
- Trained the pep squad
- Assisted with senior speeches
- Saw many of his students go on to serve in the state legislature (One, Judge Benjamin Hooks, became national chairman of the NAACP)
Many Started Dirt Poor
Many entertainers who became rich and famous started dirt poor, performing at Amateur Night on Beale.
Among those were: Elvis Aaron Presley (aka "The King") and Riley "Blues Boy" King (aka B.B. King), both of whom survived the ruthless crowds of Amateur Night on Beale.
Winners Were Chosen by Audience Applause
The contestants who were not booed and chased off of the stage were paraded back at the end of the show so the winners could be established by audience applause.
The winner of the show received $3 and the second place winner received a $2 prize.
On one occasion, the winner of the fastest inner-tube tire pumper contest received a $5 prize. It was very easy to identify the winner of the contest after his tire burst in an earth-shaking explosion.
As time went on, all participants who survived Amateur Night received $1.
The Real Prize Was a Big Break
From 1935 to the 1970s, Amateur Night on Beale Street was the place where every entertainer with a dream could come and sharpen their talents. If you could survive the harsh, unsympathetic crowds, you were destined for stardom.
It was often stated that if you could make it on Amateur Night, you could make it anywhere. Many entertainers considered Amateur Night to be the "big break" that they needed.
Anywhere from $1-$5 may have been a lot of money when Amateur Night on Beale first got started. The real prize, however, was the coveted "big break."
© 2015 Robert Odell Jr
Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on January 22, 2020:
I am glad that you enjoyed the article.
Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on June 29, 2017:
Thank you very much. Memphis has a colorful history and I am pleased to know that you enjoyed reading about it.
Carolyn Yancy on June 22, 2017:
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Hub. Excellent, creative work, as always, your trademark.
Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on August 15, 2015:
Thank you for your comment. I am happy that you enjoyed the Hub and the tidbit of Memphis, Beale Street history.
Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on August 15, 2015:
That is a perfect leading photo to the Hub! - Seeing BB King so young makes me realize how old Elvis would be if he were living today, more so than just the number "80."