From Beale Street to Overton Square, Memphis music venues singing the blues over business lost to pandemic

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An iconic Memphis business was hit hard by the pandemic and then rocked by tragedy. That was the reality for the company that owns B.B. King’s Blues Club, which at one time employed 1,000 musicians and restaurant workers.

At the top of historic Beale Street in downtown Memphis sits the original and iconic B.B. King’s Blues Club, where musicians like Marquis “Tank” Hodges feel their blues and soul are almost like a religious experience to heal the soul.

“We’re not just a blues club. We will take you to church. We will have you crying,” said Hodges, regional music director at B.B. King’s.

For 30 years, this is where the good times rolled. Until last year.

“A lot of friends and family were not knowing where they were going to get their work from, can’t perform and they were trying to do the virtual thing,” Hodges said.

A band plays at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale.

On the office walls of Tommy Peters, the president of Beale Street Blues Company and B.B. King’s, are a “who’s who” of music royalty that have performed or just hung out in the famed club.

Peters says 2019 was a record year for his company, with clubs in five cities. But then the pandemic hit turning their world upside down.

“For the first time we didn’t have a huge drain on our company like we’d always had in the past, and boom! We go to March from doing really, really well to zero,” he said.

Three of 12 locations of B.B. Kings are closed, Peters said.

Live music and customer capacity were scaled back dramatically as health directives shutdown bars and restaurants — some even boarding up.

“Having to tell 80-plus people that you don’t have a job is a very hard thing to do. A lot of them still reach out to me for help with unemployment,” said Nelson McNeal, B.B. King’s general manager in Memphis.

Some of those out of work included employees at Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square.

“I had to contact every last member of my team members and tell them they no longer had a job,” said Lafayette’s manager Julien Salley, who remembers the heart-wrenching conversations.

“Many of these guys aren’t college kids. They have families. They’re worried about their future. Worried about how to pay their bills and make their rent and make their mortgage,” Salley said.

And then came another devastating blow to an already horrific year.

Tommy Peters received a phone call early Christmas morning from a manager at the B.B. King’s Club in Nashville.

A huge bomb went off in the heart of Nashville and reduced a historic part of the city to rubble. Nobody was hurt at B.B. King’s, but its front walls were blown out and there was water damage.

If 2020 were a musical genre it might be a country or blues song.

But Peters says he’s hopeful his clubs and employees will prevail.

And with health directive’s loosening up, musicians like Hodges are ready to let the good times roll again and take fans back to church with their feel-good music.

“I can’t wait for the world to heal so we can get back to doing what we do best and that’s giving Memphis music to these people, man,” Hodges said.

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