The owner of the legendary Memphis bar is dead. By Anthony Wood.
Russell George is dead by his own hand, a victim of depression and cancer. His body was found upstairs on Monday September 9, at his Memphis bar, Earnestine & Hazel’s on South Main Street.
The area has been undergoing some gentrification in recent years but defying this trend, Earnestine & Hazel’s is a dive bar with an epic reputation. It does not just have a past, it has a history.
To say the bar is ‘shabby chic’ is selling it short. Time worn without artifice isd a better description. Downstairs there are photos and clippings, original black and whites now browned with age. Photos taken 40 to 50 years ago abound of Sam Cooke, James Brown, BB King, Otis Redding, Albert King and Tina Turner. It was also Ray Charles’s favourite Memphis spot. (The bar’s popularity was enhanced by its closeness to the magnificent Memphis Central Railway Station).
Many were playing the ‘chitlin circuit’ in the ‘50s and ‘60s during segregation, prior to Federal legislation. All visited to eat, drink, play and party. All are represented on perhaps the best-stocked jukebox on the planet. It is a jukebox with its own soul (as well as country and funk), known to start by itself at odd hours, playing tunes at will.
Russell lived upstairs for a while and often told of the jukebox pumping out tunes, without a soul on the house, without a slipped in nickel hitting the coin slot.
Earnestine and Hazel were two entrepreneurial black sisters catering in every sense for their customers and travelling artists, After the end of segregation it continued, through several ownership changes until 1993 when Russell George took over proprietorship.
Russell kept the long, narrow space just about as it was. His major change was not so noticeable, he immediately had the plumbing upgraded. (A visit to the WC is still an adventure!).
Step inside the seeming seediness and even in daylight hours there is an interior sepia toned soulful gloom. Against the sidewall there are still drawers, which hold pills and potions from its long ago days as a drug store. There is a well-worn, well-used pool table.
Wandering in during the day or early evening and you’d think the bar moribund, perhaps a couple of barflies or curious tourists. Return after 11.00pm and it is shoulder-to-shoulder, locals, blacks, whites, tourists.
The central spotless grill, cleaned with pickle juice, struggles much of the time to keep up with demand for the only item on the menu – The Soul Burger. It is regularly rated one of the Memphis’ finest burgers. Miller High Life is the drink of choice.
Sunday night’s there is live jazz. The house band is terrific. Various horn players take the central spot throughout the night in an order that seems pre-ordained.
Take the wonky stairs with the water pipe banister to the floor upstairs. Off the side passage is a row of single bedrooms, Russell’s office and a couple of bathrooms. There are cribbled messages on the walls, drooping plaster reaching down to the bare boards.
At the end of the passageway is a room with a piano, a bar and a few items of functional furniture. This is Nate’s domain, a late night bar within a bar. Nate is a septuagenarian black dude who encourages blow-in piano players but frowns on those still with their trainer wheels on.
From the upstairs window you look down on the fabulous Forties neon of the Arcade restaurant, one of Elvis’ favourites. The Arcade has featured in several films, including Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Earnestine & Hazel’s too has been a movie backdrop. You’ll see it in My Blueberry Nights, Elizabethtown, Hustle & Flow and 21 Grams.
Along the side street, G.E.Patterson Avenue, part of the ravaged building that is Earnestine & Hazel’s, are two spaces, one roofed, one not. These spaces are framed internally by creeper-clad brick walls and an uneven concrete floor.
Dinners, functions and musical treats take place here. There is a fine atmosphere looking at the Memphis sky, after dining on some of Russell’s splendid Southern cooking.
For the last several years in April, a loose group of Australians have met up at Earnestine & Hazel’s along with Memphians of their acquaintance, a day or two before the drive down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to the Juke Joint Festival.
Before arriving in Memphis they would receive an email asking for their dining choices – Southern specialties, all. Russell and his kitchen crew would then serve up these grand dinners. The diners all took along their own bottles of wine – the bar is beer only.
After dinner, Russell would tell snippets of Earnestine & Hazel’s long and colourful history, its visitors, its ghosts and its myths.
Before Russell took over the place, Mick and Keith supposedly ‘met a gin soaked bar room Queen in Memphis,’ inspiring not only ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ but also ‘Brown Sugar.’ Who knows?
Russell George was buried on Friday September 13. He was born in Memphis and truly loved his city. He was a practical, trusting humanitarian. Many employees, past and present, struggled with addiction problems. Russell didn’t believe in giving people a ‘go.’ He believed in giving them several.
As people mourn Russell’s passing, the big question is: what’s to become of Earnestine & Hazel’s?