Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Beale Street Dynasty

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Beale Street Dynasty (Norton, 2015).

I really envy Preston Lauterbach's talent. He seems to immerse himself so totally in his research and has a ball sharing stories. The problem with Beale Street Dynasty, inasmuch as there's a problem at all, is that so much of what he has to share this time around just wasn't fun to read. That's not his fault in any way, but man, an awful lot of innocent blood was spilled to make Memphis the city it is today. I wasn't able to read more than forty pages at a stretch without wanting to go back in time with a baseball bat and hit somebody.

This is not a light read. I was expecting something breezy about the blues and barbecue, but Memphis is much heavier and deeper than that. Lauterbach builds the narrative around Robert Church and his son, Robert Jr. After the Civil War, the senior Church moved into the gambling houses and whorehouses and drinkin' houses on Beale Street and outshone all his rivals in the world of vice. He became a millionaire - very probably the first black millionaire in the South - while surviving race riots, assassination attempts, and crooked cops.

The incredible contradictions in Church's life make for an amazing story. He made his money from prostitution and gambling and funneled it into real estate and civic life and the arts. Blues pioneer W.C. Handy benefited from Church's patronage. Handy came to Memphis in 1909 and was quickly commissioned to write an election jingle for the politician E.H. Crump on the eve of his first mayoral race. Handy turned that tune into one of the era's biggest hits, "Memphis Blues," and Church's son, who took over his father's businesses after his death in 1912, spent the rest of his life in a very awkward and uneasy relationship-of-mutual-benefit with Crump, who spent years in charge of the town as its political boss. Church Jr. got black voters around Tennessee's Jim Crow laws by paying poll taxes for hundreds of people and kept Crump, and all of his subordinates, in office for decades.

It's an incredibly interesting story, and often an infuriating one. If you're curious about Memphis, but are also the sort of guilt-ridden sort who gets incredibly aggravated by how aggressively awful, racist, and bloodthirsty our ancestors so frequently were, then you probably need to read some other book to find out about Sun Records, B.B. King, Jim Neely, and that funny pyramid building that used to be the basketball arena. But if you like seeing history come alive and really detailed anecdotes about the lovers and fighters of the day, then Lauterbach's worth digging into, even if you'll want to smack some of these awful people in the face with that shovel before you're finished with it. Recommended to read with some period music on YouTube for a soundtrack.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.


Dave said...

Sounds like a good book Grant, I went ahead and pre-ordered it from Amazon. Looked for an affiliate link on your blog but didn't see one.

I lived in Memphis in the late sixties and early seventies. The evening Dr. M.L. King was assassinated, I was 3 blocks deep on foot collecting a debit insurance route. Managed to get out with out getting robbed or hurt and home before martial law was declared.

Even in the time period I was there, Memphis politics was to say the least unusual The police were comprised of a low of hard cases. I had a friend that was a Lt. on the forces, his nickname was "Skull," he earned it by busting skulls with a slapjack while breaking up fights in Black juke-joints in South Memphis.

Grant Goggans said...

Thanks for writing! Actually, just clicking the image of the book's cover on any of the posts here should take you straight to a place to order it - Amazon (where I'm an affiliate), 2000 AD's online shop, etc.