In Memphis, there are only two reasons to go to a juke joint full of blues: because you feel good or because you feel bad. Beale Street is a reliable source seven nights a week, and your visit to Memphis wouldn’t be complete without checking out its scene. But if you want to sneak away from the tourist crowd and catch some homegrown talent, check out a real Memphis juke joint. Live music is typical on Friday and Saturday nights and sometimes Sunday, but it gets scarce during the week. Generally music starts late (11 p.m.) and finishes early (3 a.m.). Don’t be surprised if the person you’ve engaged in conversation sitting next to you gets called to the stage sometime during the evening and delivers a beautiful song.
Remember that it’s in the nature of things for these clubs to come and go. The following listings were current as of this writing, but they are always subject to change.
- Wild Bill’s (1580 Vollentine St., 901/726-5473): A legendary club in Memphis. The Patriarch himself passed away in the summer of 2007, but what he established will still carry on. The quintessential juke joint. Small, intimate, an open kitchen serving chicken wings, and ice-cold beer served in 40-ounce bottles. Home to Ms. Nikki and the Memphis Soul Survivors.
- CC’s Blues Club (1427 Thomas St., 901/526-5566): More upscale. More mirrors. But a great dance floor, and don’t you dare come underdressed. Security guards patrol the parking lot.
- Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall (182 Beale St., 901/528-0150): New Orleans has Preservation Hall. Memphis has Handy’s Blues Hall. Everyone bad-raps Beale Street and its jangly tourism scene, but if you catch it on a good night when Dr. Feelgood warms up his harmonica and you look around the room at the memorabilia on the walls, you could be in a joint at the end of a country road in Mississippi.
- The Blue Worm (1405 Airways Dr., 901/327-7947): When a legendary juke joint band gets old and disintegrates, this is where it ends up. The Fieldstones have been the band in Memphis since the early ’60s. Now it’s down to Wilroy Sanders, the Last Living Bluesman. The house band can get behind anybody and make them a superstar, for one glorious song.
- Big S Bar and Grill (1179 Dunnavant Ave., 901/775-9127): They say blues is a feeling. The Big S doesn’t have live music, but if you want to sink into the atmosphere of a bar that’s dark with mystery and history plus the warmest vibe in town, come on home. Blues DJ on Sunday nights, and the jukebox is a veritable encyclopedia of blues.
- The Boss (912 Jackson Ave., 901/522-8883): Thursday nights only. Ever heard the overused phrase “best-kept secret in town”? Jesse Dotson on piano. Leroy Hodges on bass. Roy Cunningham on drums. An array of singers like Preacher Man, O. T. Sykes. Now you don’t have to wait for the weekend.