The vacant lot at 500 Beale Street has stories to tell. The site of a skating rink-ballroom called the Hippodrome, it was the scene of many a wild night. It figures significantly into The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll as the career launch pad for Johnny Ace, known as rock ‘n’ roll’s first casualty. First, about those wild nights.
A.C. “Moohah” WIlliams, longtime Memphis educator and WDIA radio personality, wrote an entertainment column in the weekly African-American newspaper the Memphis Tri-State Defender. In January 1952, he previewed the next weekend’s entertainments in period patter– elipses and parantheses are his:
“What Ho, Kokomo. Let’s go before the snow. You’re bound to win, so tell me where you been and I’ll tell you where to go… HIPPODROME…Owooo Look out, it’s the Howling Wolf moving in this payday (Saturday) nite and man is that cat hot. Did you know that he’s got two records on Downbeat’s parade of the top ten for last month?… A cat asked me “Say Moohah,” What makes the Howlin’ Wolf so popular????… Well here’s my version… you know a lot of us are straight from the rurals, and I do mean country!!!… and out there on ‘Sadday’ Nite they have what they call suppers… you take your gal and “glow” on over and buy your fill of fish, barbecue and amber liquid right from the barrell… Usually there is an orchestra composed of one guitar player who plays the music all nite between sips from a gallon jug (of water, of course)… You dance by “Rounds” … a “Round” lasts anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes and it costs you about 10 cents per round. After the round is over, the floor (and sometimes the ground) is cleared and you pay another dime and start all over… You say that sounds square???? Don’t laugh man it’s fun, and you don’t know how much unless you’ve experienced it…Then too Brother Muddy Waters and Brother Howlin’ Wolf are coining much “lute” because many of us are now in the city…but the country is still in us…ME…I ain’t even trying to get it out!…So that’s what makes the Wolf so popular [...] but don’t take my word, just jump on down to the “Hipp” and pick up on the “Howlin’ one this Saturday Nite then make up your own mind about what makes him “HIT.”
An old-timer who’d partied at the Hippodrome told me a tale of promotional gimmickry gone rogue there. The joint’s first operator was a retired sportsman of German descent, whose family owned an interest in a local brewery. Well, he threw a Free Beer Night at the club. This was before solo cups and the widespread use of aluminum cans, so said free beer was served in glass bottles. As a rhythm-and-blues orchestra honked, people skated around the rink, and everybody–the place was jam-packed–tanked up on that free beer. Naturally, a brawl blew up around midnight. Glass and punches flew, the orchestra ducked and covered, people sucker-punched roller skaters. My informant, who was not a drinker, and therefore survivied the night and lived to tell about it 60 years later, saw a wheelchair-bound soldier in the eye of the storm, and he rushed in to help. He grabbed hold of the wheelchair handles, started to push, but then the soldier stopped, swung around toward this Good Samaritan, and punched him in the nuts. My man crumbled, then dragged himself out the door, attempting no more good deeds along the exit.
By summer 1952, Memphis was established as a black music hotspot: B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, and Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (aka Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm) had all recorded chart-topping r&b hits here.
August 23, 1952, a rising star debuted, headlining on a big stage for the first time, Johnny Ace. His “My Song” had just begun climbing the national R&B charts. He had two powerful men in his corner, Duke-Peacock Records owner Don Robey, and local promoter Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell. The latter booked the unproven Johnny to headline the Hipp to help inflate the artist’s rep. His timing proved uncanny: “My Song” hit #1 a month after this gig. Johnny became a sensation like few the black pop world, with a strong of hits culminating in his dramatic death by gunshot wound on Christmas night 1954, backstage at the Houston City Auditorium. To this day, it is widely believed that Johnny’s accidental death was orchestrated. His story, with a fresh examination of this mystery, makes up a major plotline in The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll.
By the fall of 1955, the Hipp changed names and owners, with Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell taking over and renaming it Club Ebony. Mitchell had already made a name for himself as owner of Club Handy downtown at the corner of Beale and Hernando, and in 1962 would open the “South’s leading nite spot” Club Paradise.
Club Ebony became the Hippodrome again as our friend Johnnie Currie took the helm in around 1961 for a five year run.
It’s not clear what happened to the Hippodrome from there, though I can tell you what’s left of this monument to the heyday of rhythm and blues, and quite possibly the golden age of black America: