Like Nashville, Memphis, Tennessee is famous for its music; while Nashville is renowned as the home of Country music, Memphis lays claim to being the home of the Blues and Rock ‘n Roll. While other places in Dixie have hoppin’ music scenes equally vibrant, it seems that Memphis has a long and venerable history on that score. So it should come as no surprise that along with its musical heritage come more than a few ghosts and haunts.
If there is one place in Memphis which epitomizes this dual heritage it is an old brick building which houses the “Best Dive in Memphis”—some claim its the best dive in the United States: a place called Ernestine and Hazel’s. Now you may not think being a dive is any claim to fame, but the regulars at E&H—living and deceased—would give you an argument on that score.
Built sometime before the end of World War I, the old two story brick building has had many previous lives before becoming a dive bar. It was originally a pharmacy; in fact some of the pharmacy drawers where old time drugs were kept are still intact behind the bar. According to some, this old drug store was where St. Joseph’s Aspirin for children was invented. Later on it became a dry goods store; then a seedy hotel/brothel, then finally a Blues night club.
After World War II, there grew up what was called “the Chitlin’ Circuit.” Because of segregation, black folks couldn’t go to white night clubs, so they frequented a series of black clubs where one could hear “race” music: the Blues. Ernestine and Hazel’s became one of the most famous of these night clubs and in its heyday one could listen to all the legendary bluesmen; by all accounts, this is also where Rock ‘n Roll was born. Upstairs from the club male patrons could also enjoy less reputable entertainment as well.
Although the night club closed as integration took hold in the 1960’s and both races could mingle and enjoy “race” music together, in recent years Ernestine and Hazel’s was reopened and has undergone a revival. In its heyday legends like Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Howlin’ Wolf and others all visited its haunted hallowed halls and played or stayed there. So today, the spirit of the Blues is alive and well and rockin’ on in the same place. But the new owners and patrons of the old dive have found that some of the place’s long dead patrons have decided to hang around way past closing time.
For one thing, the old time juke box seems to have the uncanny ability to read people’s mental states and play the appropriate song. Although the songs are supposed to play in random order, more than one patron has found it playing a tune eerily in keeping with what their own thoughts are. Coincidence? Perhaps, but that’s not the only eerie thing that goes on there.
Male and female apparitions have been seen in the bar and on the stairs leading up to the old cat-house; one of the phantoms’ face has even been caught on film. The bar has also become a favorite haunt of ghost-hunters because the place is so psychically active and more than a few evp’s—ghost recordings—have been captured, although none of them were singing the Blues at the time.
There are various theories as to who haunts the old pharmacy turned flop house, turned night club, turned cat house and now legendary dive bar. But for the curious, perhaps a visit to the old haunts of the legendary bluesmen would be the best way to see for yourself whether Ernestine and Hazel’s is indeed as haunted as they say; and while you’re there, enjoy a “soul burger.”
For more on the haunted history of the legendary dive, read Chapter 25 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; and if your radio starts playing an old Blues song for no apparent reason as your read—well, you were warned.