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This episode came from an idea in a book I saw at Novel, our wonderful locally owned and operated bookstore. While browsing in the Local Memphis section, I saw this book, “Memphis Castles – Former Homes and Stories of Prominent Memphians.” And as I was flipping through the pages, I saw my sister’s house. I immediately took a picture and sent it to her and she was extremely excited her house was something special. And I was jealous.
So why is her home special?
Well, it was once owned by a man named Lorenzo Pacini, an immigrant from Valdottavo, Italy. He arrived in Memphis in 1887, after hearing stories his father told about the city. His father, Amanze, had been through Memphis in the 1840s and described it as a grand, romantic place. Lorenzo knew he had to go to Memphis. So, after he got out of the Italian army, he made his way here.
When Pacini arrived in Memphis, he needed a job, like ya do. And he found one at Pee Wee’s Saloon on Beale Street.
Fun fact, the sign outside Pee Wee’s said P. Wee’s because the sign man misspelled it.
Pee Wee’s was owned by Vigelio (I’ve also read Virgillo or Virgelio or Vigello) Maffei, a man who stood about 4.5 feet tall, nicknamed Pee Wee. He arrived in Memphis from Italy, via New York City in the 1870s. He started out working as a bartender at the Gallina Exchange.
Let’s tangent to the Gallina Exchange Building for a moment.
Charles Gallina was a 31 year old judge in Shelby County with a love of horse racing. Apparently, he won so much money betting on horses, he decided to use that money to build a magnificent building on Beale Street. The three story building would house a saloon and gambling hall, a second floor courtroom, a 20 room hotel, and his family would occupy the third floor. The saloon was open 24/7, so patrons could have fun all day and night. The business thrived for years but eventually, Gallina would pass away and the building would go to family members. When it was sold, it became various shops until a fire broke out and destroyed the inside. And then a windstorm took down all but the front. You can now find the facade of the Gallina Exchange Building, supported by metal beams, outside of Silky O’Sullivans.
Alright, back to PeeWee… according to legend, he started out with only a dime in his pocket and managed to gamble his way to make enough money to open his own saloon in 1884. The original location was the corner of Hernando and Beale, but eventually moved to 317 Beale. Naming the saloon after himself, Pee Wee’s was THE hangout for musicians and gamblers at the time, as it was also open 24/7.
Along with the actual bar up front, in the back there were billiards and card and dice tables, as well as a cigar stand. Even though most saloons on Beale had gambling, there were still periodic raids by the police. In an effort to protect themselves, Pee Wee set up a warning system. He had a front doorman who was a lookout with a buzzer under his shirt. If they saw anyone suspected of being the fuzz, they alerted the staff. He also had men that played dominos all day watching out as a backup. Pee Wee’s was, in fact, raided one time, but they ended up letting everyone off the hook.
After Pacini had worked for Pee Wee for a while, he found his way into the family business by marrying Pee Wee’s daughter (I’ve also read sister, but it makes more sense that it was his daughter) and he ended up running the saloon with his brother Angelo. Eventually, Pee Wee headed back to Italy in 1913 and he let the brothers continue his legacy.
Originally called Beal Avenue (Beal without the ‘e”), what we now know as Beale Street, was created in 1841 by Robertson Topp, a former military man. The west end of the street had merchant shops and the east end was residential. The middle part of the street was where you’d find the saloons and brothels, some venues more seedier than others, giving rise to the nickname “the underworld”. People would come up from working on the River, and patronize the shops and saloons on Beale. The area began attracting musicians, mostly African American acts, to perform.
In the late 1870s, Yellow Fever hit Memphis and those who didn’t die from the disease, fled the city. We lost so many people, Memphis lost its charter and became a tax district. (hold tight for episodes on the Yellow Fever, they are coming)
But after 1878, thanks to Robert Church, a former slave, Memphis got its charter back and we became a city again. Church bought up numerous businesses on Beale and the surrounding area and he became the South’s first African American millionaire (fear not, there will be a lengthy episode on him too). Church renovated buildings, started the first bank for African Americans and owned by African Americans, built the First Baptist Church on Beale (the first church built for and by African Americans), and built Church Park, an auditorium where numerous musical acts played and politicians would frequent to speak to Memphians.
Beale Street was home to many black owned shops, restaurants, clubs, and of course, the Memphis Free Speech, our very own Ida B. Wells newspaper’s headquarters. Beale Street was a place where black people could thrive economically and equally in a time when there was so much racial injustice. According to famous Memphis historian, Jimmy Ogle, “It was a place where runaway slaves or free slaves could congregate. We were a sanctuary city.”
Many black Memphians lived, worked, and played on Beale Street.
But for many inhabitants of the area, having a good time did not entail frequenting the sort of saloons and clubs that gave Beale its reputation as “the underworld.”
In 1934, George W. Lee, a Civil Rights leader, wrote, “Beale is more than just a little street prowled by midnight marauders and seductive concubines. The working people are on parade, going nowhere in particular, just out strolling, just glad of a chance to dress up and expose themselves on the avenue after working hard all week.”
As you can tell, music was and still is paramount to Beale Street and it’s legacy.
Pee Wee’s was popular with black musicians. Pacini welcomed them in and let them use it like their headquarters. The musicians would store their instruments in the coat closets and used his phone, extension 2893, to book gigs. One of the more famous musicians to do his business at Pee Wee’s was orchestra leader, William Christopher Handy. He would sit at the bar and compose music. The first composed blue’s song was called, “Mr. Crump”, which Handy wrote as a campaign song for E.H. Crump. Apparently, Boss Crump never heard the actual lyrics to the song, which was probably for the best because the song did not really flatter him. Later on, the lyrics were changed and the song became “The Memphis Blues”.
W. C. Handy, now known as the “Father of the Blues” went on to compose numerous other blues songs, supposedly dedicating “The St. Louis Blues” to the Pacini brothers. Apparently, Pacini enjoyed Handy’s music so much, he helped him out financially when he needed it, so that he could continue to print and copyright his songs.
Handy wrote of Beale Street, “I’d rather be here than anywhere I know”, in his song “The Beale Street Blues”. Blues was born on Beale Street. Musicians flocked to the juke joints to play this new style of music. Since many of the musicians couldn’t afford traditional instruments, they played on what they could find, like washboards and jugs. If you’re not familiar with the instrument, by blowing across the mouth of a glass or stoneware jug, and buzzing your lips, you can get a deep, bass guitar-ish sound. The best popular reference for this would be Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas – a favorite from my childhood.
Many famous blues musicians got their start on Beale Street, in large part to Pee Wee’s Saloon. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey, Rufus Thomas, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Memphis Minnie McCoy, and of course, Riley “Blues Boy” King just to name a few.
While Handy and other blue’s artists were going on to success, Prohibition was looming over the saloons on Beale St. By 1920, the US had cracked down on alcohol and unfortunately that meant Pee Wee’s had to close its doors, for good.
Pacini did not dwell on his loss though, he and his brother joined with Anselmo Barrasso to run the Palace Theatre, just down the street from Pee Wee’s, at 324 Beale. The Palace became the largest African American Vaudeville theatre on the circuit. The shows were extremely popular, so much so that on Thursday nights, Pacini set up the Beale Street Ramblers. This was a special showing at midnight that was for white people. They could pay .75 cents and, in a turn of events, could sit in the balcony and listen to “black music”.
Nat D. Williams hosted a weekly amatuer night at the theatre in 1935. B.B. King participated in the contest, competing for $1.00. You’ll, hopefully, remember Williams from our First in Memphis episode. He was a high school teacher turned D.J. for WDIA, the first radio station programmed for African Americans.
Lorenzo Pacini passed away in 1939 but the Palace Theatre continued to thrive until 1962 when Beale Street fell into despair. In 1968, Beale Street was put on the National Registry of Historic Places. But it wasn’t until the late 1970’s and early 80s did Beale Street see it’s revival. In 1977, Congress passed an act officially naming Beale Street the Home of the Blues. In 1983, the Beale Street redevelopment group reopened its first club in almost two decades.
And today, you can find all kinds of nightclubs, restaurants, and gift shops, including A. Schwabs, the oldest business in Memphis, opened in 1876. Schwabs motto is “if you can’t find it at Schwabs, you’re better off without it.” They’re not lying. You can find clothes, food, gifts, an interesting assortment of head wear, milkshakes, and also see a collection of Beale Street memorabilia.
Beale is the only street in Tennessee you can legally drink on the street. So you can enjoy a Big Ass Beer while watching the Beale Street Flippers mesmerize you with their acrobatics before you head in to watch some blues music at the Juke Joint or the dueling pianos at Silkys.
Pee Wee’s Saloon is now Tin Roof, a music venue and restaurant. It was previously home to the Hard Rock before it moved down the street. There’s a historic marker outside the restaurant dedicated to the history of Pee Wee’s Saloon.
In true Unearthed: Memphis fashion, we found a little bit of haunted history surrounding the former Pee Wee’s Saloon. Supposedly, when construction crews renovated the building, they just took Pee Wee’s and shoved it into the basement. Now, I’m not sure if that means, they literally dropped the first floor into the basement and demolished the rest of it to rebuild or they just didn’t haul things off and put everything into the basement. Regardless, I can imagine that means that the spirits that may have been residing at the saloon, still do.
Why would there be spirits at Pee Wee’s? Because it was a saloon, things did get rowdy from time to time, like at pretty much any place you go where there is drinking and gambling. If someone ended up meeting their untimely demise, it was likely their body would be dumped in a nearby bayou. Like spirits do, I guess they just went back to the last place they enjoyed themselves.
So the haunting…well, at one point in the saloons’ history, it became a recording studio. Apparently, sound engineers would hear unexplained noises and see ghostly apparitions. And then after it became a restaurant and music venue, apparently patrons have been bumped into when no one was near, they’ve heard rowdy brawls, when there were no fights happening, or they’ve heard gunshots over the music. The gunshots though, I mean, it’s Memphis, that could actually be happening…
Needless to say, the building could very well be haunted. However, I have been to that location when it was Hard Rock, numerous times in the dining room and backstage, and have not felt any weird vibes, but I haven’t been to the basement, so maybe…we should venture down there and sneak a peek and see if we can find any Pee Wee patrons of the past.
I think that could be a lot of fun!
What a story! Big thanks to Tara’s sister, for unknowingly living in a house with a cool history. Well, the previous owner had a cool history, but it led us down the path of the birthplace of the blues and Beale Street. One of the most iconic streets in our history and I’m just going to say it, the world.
We hope you enjoyed this story we unearthed!
And as always…
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Check out our website at unearthedmemphis.com, Instag**Photos on this site are for informational purposes only and constitutes Fair Use under Section 107 of the US Copyright Law. We do not own the rights to these photos. **ram @unearthedmemphis, Facebook at Facebook.com/unearthed901, Twitter @unearthed901 or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to hear from everyone! Questions, comments, suggestions, corrections, or just chatter is appreciated and enjoyed!
Disclaimer: We are not historians, we are simply two people who are interested in memphis history. We have done research and are trying to provide accurate history as best we can. There is a possibility some of these statements are incorrect, but we have tried to verify all the info so that we are not putting out any untrue info. To the best of our knowledge, what we are saying is correct, but let us know if you have any things to add or correct. In the show notes, you will find links to the articles we used and book titles, etc to gather our information.
**Photos on this site are for informational purposes only and constitutes Fair Use under Section 107 of the US Copyright Law. We do not own the rights to these photos. **
McKee, M., & Chisenhall, F. (1993). Beale black and blue: Life and music on black America’s main street. Louisiana State University Press.
Dye, R. W. (2017). Memphis: Birthplace of rock and roll. Arcadia Publishing.
From Jim Crow to Gentrification: Race, Urban Renewal, Architecture, and
Tourism in the Urban South, Memphis, Tennessee, 1954-1991
Justin Micah Faircloth. University of Virginia