Club Handy, a Major Stop on the Chitlin' Circuit

Updated on February 27, 2018
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Robert Odell, Jr. is the senior video editor of the film, Take Me Back to Beale, a chronicle of 100 years of Beale Street history.

Club Handy attracted some of the biggest names on the Chitlin' Circuit, including the Ike and Tina Turner Review.
Club Handy attracted some of the biggest names on the Chitlin' Circuit, including the Ike and Tina Turner Review. | Source

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, Club Handy was entered by climbing a stairway, which was around the corner at 195 Hernando Street. The entrance lead to the second and third floors. Club Handy, housed on the second floor, attracted some of the biggest names on the "Chitlin' Circuit."

During the years of United States segregation, the Chitlin' Circuit was an ideal means for African American musicians to perform, hone their skills, and sustain themselves.

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 at Hernando in Memphis, Tennessee.

Sunbeam and Ernestine used the space to open the Mitchell Hotel and the Domino Lounge. The Domino Lounge was later changed to Club Handy.

Club Handy and the Mitchell Hotel were on the upper floors of the Pantaze Drug Store on Beale Street at Hernando in Memphis, TN.
Club Handy and the Mitchell Hotel were on the upper floors of the Pantaze Drug Store on Beale Street at Hernando in Memphis, TN. | Source

From 1945-1958, Mitchell's Hotel, on Beale St. at Hernando in Memphis, 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 St. 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."

Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell used his Club Handy to help and promote many wayfaring musicians.
Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell used his Club Handy to help and promote many wayfaring musicians. | Source

After renovation, the Pantaze-Mitchell building on Beale 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.

After the building was renovated, Wet Willie's moved into the former Club Handy location.  A marker indicating the historical significance of the site was placed in the area.
After the building was renovated, Wet Willie's moved into the former Club Handy location. A marker indicating the historical significance of the site was placed in the area. | Source
A
209 Beale St. Memphis, TN 38103:
209 Beale St, Memphis, TN 38103, USA

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Sunbeam Mitchell's "Club Handy" was located on the upper floors of the old Pantaze Drug Store on Beale St. at Hernando in Memphis, TN.

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.

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Chitlins are pork intestines.Boiled chitlins being prepared in onions and other spices.Fried chitlins at the annual Chitlin Strut in Salley, SC.Chitlins and vegetables.
Chitlins are pork intestines.
Chitlins are pork intestines. | Source
Boiled chitlins being prepared in onions and other spices.
Boiled chitlins being prepared in onions and other spices. | Source
Fried chitlins at the annual Chitlin Strut in Salley, SC.
Fried chitlins at the annual Chitlin Strut in Salley, SC. | Source
Chitlins and vegetables.
Chitlins and vegetables. | Source
Sunbeam Mitchell's Club Handy on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee was a major stop on the "Chitlin' Circuit."
Sunbeam Mitchell's Club Handy on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee was a major stop on the "Chitlin' Circuit." | Source

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 (whose career was launched in Memphis, TN)
  • Bobby "Blue" Bland (whose career was launched in Memphis, TN)
  • Little Junior Parker (whose career was launched in Memphis, TN)
  • Johnny Ace (whose career was launched in Memphis, TN)

Club Handy was known for booking many headline acts.
Club Handy was known for booking many headline acts. | Source
Club Handy was a major stop on the Chitlin' Circuit, which staunchly supported and promoted the performers of traditional rhythm and blues.
Club Handy was a major stop on the Chitlin' Circuit, which staunchly supported and promoted the performers of traditional rhythm and blues. | Source

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.

Right after World War II; Club Handy on Beale Street, which was run by Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell, was an important stop on the Chitlin' Circuit.
Right after World War II; Club Handy on Beale Street, which was run by Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell, was an important stop on the Chitlin' Circuit. | Source
The doors at Sunbeam's Club Handy were always open to anybody and everybody.
The doors at Sunbeam's Club Handy were always open to anybody and everybody. | Source

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.

A young B.B. King, with Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell, who owned and operated Club Handy and other establishments on Beale Street.
A young B.B. King, with Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell, who owned and operated Club Handy and other establishments on Beale Street. | Source

Club Handy...became recognized as the place where musicians could...receive valuable music and music industry instruction.

Source

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.

Musicians entertained and perfected their skills at Sunbeam's Club Handy
Musicians entertained and perfected their skills at Sunbeam's Club Handy | Source

Club Handy Was Well Known

Club Handy on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, 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 home grown stars such as Bobbie "Blue" Bland and B.B. King
  • The best bowl of chili you could possibly eat

Club Handy on Beale at Hernando was known for many things, including serving the best bowl of chili you could possibly eat.

Club Handy's Reputation

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.

Bibliography

Images of America: Beale Street

The Historic Hippodrome ... and Clubs Handy, Ebony, Paradise, Tropicana.

Lauterbach, P. (2006, July 01). Chitlin' Circuit.

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

Do You Think The Chitlin' Circuit Is Alive and Well Today?

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    © 2015 Robert Odell Jr

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