Beale Street Boogie 

The dispute that outlasted the Herenton administration is scheduled to go to court next March.

If it goes to trial, I pity the judge who has to figure out who owes what to whom on Beale Street.

I'm not at all sure that John Elkington himself knows that.

"We're not the managers of Beale Street, we're the owners of Beale Street. We have a long-term lease," he told me in a telephone rant last week. We being him and Performa Entertainment Real Estate. It being Beale Street. Which is news to me and some other people in Memphis.

Elkington and I have crossed paths and, sometimes swords, for 27 years. I came to Memphis and The Commercial Appeal in 1982 about the time Elkington & Keltner was selected as the city's development partner. What I knew about Beale Street you could have written on the head of a pin, but I started to pick up things. There was nothing simple about it. "I don't like you," Furry Lewis growled in a song about old Beale by Joni Mitchell, and, indeed, a famous Memphis musician once refused to do an interview when my employer would not pay for it.

I remember walking down the street that year while bricks were being laid. The bricklaying company had the same name — Madewell — as the interim mayor of Memphis, Wallace Madewell, who succeeded Wyeth Chandler and preceded Dick Hackett. The deal with Elkington & Keltner was struck during the interim. Okee dokee.

I thought then, and still think now, that developing Beale Street, much of which was in ruins, was like cleaning out the Aegean stables and that Elkington and the club owners who stuck with it deserved a lot of credit for making it a success, whatever the financial backstory may be. No out-of-town relative or guest of mine has ever shown much interest in that, and all of them have had a good, safe time clubbing on Beale. If you're a tourist, that's what matters.

The backstory could not be ignored, however. By 1988 or so there were scores of lawsuits against Elkington, and in 1994 the city launched an audit that continues to this day. Elkington wrote a book on Beale Street last year and asked me to read it in the advance stages. Curious to see what he might reveal, I did (at no charge, because he is a newsmaker) and redlined 20 or so errors and misspellings, several of which made it into the final version anyway.

He didn't reveal much of anything. I told him I thought the book had potential but was skimpy on important things and included too many verbal butt-pattings and gentle gibes at bureaucrats long forgotten. Ironically, the cover blurb comes from Willie Herenton, who is quoted as saying "John Elkington has done a phenomenal job moving Beale Street forward."

The most glaring omission was anything about the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the far-reaching agreement made in 1982, or any enlightenment about the dispute between the city and Performa that has been going on for 15 years. Not so much as a page about how he became "owner" of one of the most famous streets in the American South. Chandler is mentioned once; Madewell not at all.

So I am not surprised that the dispute outlasted the Herenton administration, or that millions of dollars have been spent so far on lawyers unable to resolve it, or that Elkington was pissed off at me. I was surprised, however, to hear that he owns Beale Street. I look forward to hearing what he says under oath in a courtroom about that. Underscore in court, under oath, with documentation. That could be phenomenal.


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