Robert Odell Jr. enjoys sharing the rich history and culture of Memphis, Tennessee, where he has lived and worked for several years.
Club Handy: Famous Memphis Destination
Club Handy was named for W.C. Handy, "the father of the blues." However, the establishment was run and operated by Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell and his wife, Ernestine.
Located on Beale Street, in Memphis, Tennessee, Club Handy was entered by climbing a stairway, which was around the corner at 195 Hernando Street. The entrance led to the second and third floors. Club Handy, housed on the second floor, attracted some of the biggest names on the "Chitlin' Circuit."
What Was the Chitlin' Circuit?
The Chitlin' Circuit was the name used to identify the network of clubs and cafes that had a loyal commitment to the furtherance of blues, and rhythm & blues music. During the years of United States segregation, before the civil rights movement, the Chitlin' Circuit was an ideal means for African American musicians, entertainers, and comedians to perform, hone their skills, and sustain themselves.
Sunbeam and Ernestine
In 1944, Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell and his new bride, Ernestine McKinney, leased two floors above the Pantaze Drug Store on Beale Street. Sunbeam and Ernestine used the space to open the Mitchell Hotel and the Domino Lounge. The Domino Lounge was later changed to Club Handy.
From 1945 to '58, Mitchell's Hotel, on Beale Street, was listed in local directories as a "colored hotel." Opening in 1944, Sunbeam Mitchell's Hotel was considered to be the leading "colored hotel" of Memphis.
Sunbeam's hotel was located on the third floor, above the old Pantaze Drug Store, on Beale Street. Mitchell used the second floor to house his Club Handy. The club was known for booking many headline acts. Many blues musicians considered Sunbeam Mitchell's hotel to be "home."
After renovation, the Pantaze-Mitchell building on Beale Street became the home of the Center for Southern Folklore. The center later moved into the old Goldsmith's building on Main Street, giving "Wet Willie's" the opportunity to move into the former Club Handy location. A marker, indicating the historical significance of the site, was placed in the area.
A docudrama depicts how Sunbeam Mitchell used his Club Handy on Beale Street to help up-and-coming musicians who often performed in exchange for their room and board.
Club Handy Was a Major Stop on the Chitlin' Circuit
The Chitlin' Circuit was a name given for the clubs and cafes that not only occasionally served chitlins, but also staunchly supported and promoted the performers of traditional rhythm and blues music. Sunbeam was notorious for housing, and helping to promote many up-and-coming, as well as, headline artists. As a result, it wasn't long before Club Handy became a major stop on the circuit.
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Why Was It Called the Chitlin' Circuit?
Chitlins (a.k.a chitterlings) are pork intestines.
In the past, chitlins were creatively and succulently cooked, served, and eaten by mostly poor Southern Blacks.
The term Chitlin' Circuit is still used today to refer to the venues, especially in the South, where contemporary African-American blues singers continue to appear regularly. Chitlins may or may not be served in these establishments.
Club Handy Attracted Big Names
Club Handy attracted some of the biggest names on the Chitlin Circuit, including:
- Ike and Tina Turner
- Nat "King" Cole
- Count Basie
- Muddy Waters
- Little Richard
- Roy Brown
- Lionel Hampton
- Dizzy Gillespie
- Elvis Presley
- Sonny Boy Williamson
- Little Walter
- Howlin' Wolf
- Fred Ford
- Stan Kenton
- Lou Rawls
- Denise Lasalle
- Joe Simon
- Albert King
- Tyrone Davis
- B.B. King (career launched in Memphis)
- Bobby "Blue" Bland (career launched in Memphis)
- Little Junior Parker (career launched in Memphis)
- Johnny Ace (career launched in Memphis)
The Doors Were Always Open
The doors of Club Handy were always open. Anybody and everybody that traveled the nationwide route of clubs commonly called The Chitlin' Circuit, were welcomed with a handshake and open arms at Sunbeam's Club Handy.
Sunbeam Helped Many Artists
The valuable advice Sunbeam Mitchell gave to up-and-coming artists helped to propel many of them into stellar careers. A young B.B. King, who frequently performed on Beale Street, received significant counsel and support from Sunbeam. A young man named Elvis also received valuable counsel from Mitchell which was instrumental in helping to launch his career.
An accomplished musician named Bill Harvey led the house band at Club Handy. Harvey was passionate about teaching and loved to share his knowledge of music with others. The guidance of Sunbeam along with the teachings of Harvey caused Club Handy to become recognized as the place where musicians could not only sharpen their skills but also receive valuable music and music industry instruction.
Musicians Played for Room and Board
Musicians played for Sunbeam in exchange for room and board. Lots of wayfaring musicians were given room and board for entertaining the crowds that gathered at Sunbeam's Club Handy. Sunbeam and Ernestine's place became the hot spot for musicians to obtain lodging and hone their skills.
Club Handy Was Well Known
Club Handy was well known for many things including:
- Giving musicians room and board
- Helping entertainers to be successful
- The place to perform via the "Chitlin' Circuit"
- The place to see many big-name acts
- Staunch support and promotion of rhythm and blues
- The place to see homegrown stars such as Bobbie "Blue" Bland and B.B. King
- The best bowl of chili you could possibly eat
Sunbeam's Club Handy had a reputation for not only housing up-and-coming musicians but also nourishing them with a bowl of his restaurant's famous chili. Some of the best chili in the world was stirred around in huge pots at Sunbeam Mitchell's Club Handy.
Take Me Back To Beale, Book II (During The Red Ball). Dir. Carolyn Yancy-Gunn. Edited by Robert Odell, Jr. Perfs. Arthur Smith, Tony Patterson, CFA Graduates. DVD. CFA Productions, Inc. Archives
© 2015 Robert Odell Jr