From the James Beard Award-winning author of Bitters and Amaro comes this poignant, funny, and often elegiac exploration of the question, “What is the last thing you’d want to drink before you die?” Last Call is filled with timeless stories, bartender profiles and portraits, and 40+ cocktail recipes. This excerpt takes us to Earnestine & Hazel’s, one of Memphis’s most historic dive bars.
EARNESTINE & HAZEL’S
Memphis, Tennessee | Karen Brownlee
“I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride”
—The Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Women”
The last time I walked into Earnestine & Hazel’s I stepped headfirst into a gathering of a dozen people standing in a circle. I thought I had stumbled upon a church group caught mid-prayer or maybe an anonymous meeting of some sort, but it turns out this was just one of the many local ghost tours making the rounds at Earnestine & Hazel’s, one of Memphis’s most historic dive bars,
and also the most haunted.
The unassuming two-story building on the corner of South Main Street and GE Patterson Avenue that eventually became Earnestine & Hazel’s was built in the late 1800s and sits kitty corner from the retro neon-decorated façade of the Arcade, where Elvis Presley’s favorite booth remains a popular tourist attraction. “If you look at it from the outside, and if someone didn’t tell you about this place or you didn’t read about it, you’re not going to come in here on this corner,” says Karen Brownlee, who has been tending bar at Earnestine & Hazel’s for over seventeen years. “It looks like an old dump. You probably wouldn’t walk in the door. This place is pretty much word of mouth. If you’re outside looking in, you’re not coming in here.”
The building was first used as a church, and in the late 1930s, it became a sundry store and a pharmacy run by Abe Plough, who would go on to build a national corporation, acquiring St. Joseph baby aspirin, Coppertone suntan lotion, and Maybelline cosmetics. In the mid-1950s, Plough sold the building to two black sisters, Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones, who were beauticians at the beauty parlor on the second floor. Plough had partnered with Mitchell’s husband, who went by the name Sunbeam, to open Club Paradise, a nearby music venue that became a popular stop for such black musicians as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, B.B. King, Ray Charles, and Jackie Wilson traveling through the segregated South. The sisters turned the pharmacy into Earnestine & Hazel’s, a soul food café with live music downstairs and a brothel upstairs, with the eight second-floor rooms rented out to prostitutes.
“The musicians would play Club Paradise, then come here and eat and then stay upstairs for a while before going to the Lorraine Motel,” says Brownlee, motioning toward the location of the former motel two blocks away where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and where the National Civil Rights Museum now stands. After a two-decade run, Club Paradise was boarded up in the 1970s, and Earnestine & Hazel’s lingered on through the 1980s. But as the sisters grew older, the spark behind the popular café dimmed.
Enter Russell George, who took over Earnestine & Hazel’s in 1992 and whose imprint on the venue is still felt by the hundreds of weekly visitors to the bar. George’s first claim to fame was at age ten, when he was the only white kid who entered a James Brown dance contest at the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum. It was judged by James Brown himself, and George took home the first prize. At age fifteen, he ran a speakeasy out of an apartment and then moved on to gigs as a restaurateur, music promoter, and a backup dancer for the Icebreakers. A friend convinced him to put in an offer on the space, and with the sisters’ blessing, he turned Earnestine & Hazel’s into a full-time bar. “The brothel upstairs was long gone, but there were still women hanging around in here that he had to run out. He made this place what it is today,” says Brownlee.
I met Russell George on my first visit to Earnestine & Hazel’s around 2010. He greeted me as he had thousands of visitors before, and as my Soul Burger sizzled away on the flattop, he talked about the history of the bar, pointing out his favorite photographs and memorabilia on the walls, the original pharmacy drawers and cupboards, the handwritten menus of the café listing daily specials of hog maw, neck bones, and fried chicken and fish, and the various TV shows, movies, and music videos that had used the bar as a filming location.
The Soul Burger was George’s invention and is the only food served at Earnestine & Hazel’s. He experimented with multiple toppings until he settled on the simple formula of bun, burger, American cheese, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, sautéed onions, and “soul sauce” (don’t even think about getting any answers about what’s in the squeeze bottle) served on a waxed paper–lined red plastic basket accompanied by a snack-size bag of Golden Flake Thin & Crispy potato chips. On weekends, the place typically sells up to three hundred burgers, which take eight minutes to cook per order, between the hours of midnight and 3:00 a.m.
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The former brothel upstairs has a long association with paranormal activity and continues to draw ghost hunters from around the world. The fuse box at the base of the crooked stairway leading upstairs still displays the house rules, written out in George’s all-caps script: NO DOPE SMOKEN, NO CURSIN, NO FREE LODEN, E.H. (Brownlee laughs, noting that Russell was never much of a good speller.) The entire bar is a little smoky, dusty, and sticky in spots, but when you head to the second floor, the slanted and enchanted stairway leads to a dark corridor with peeling paint and scabs of hanging plaster and eight numbered rooms running along the righthand side. There’s a small eight-seat bar with an upright piano in the corner room at the end of the hallway that’s open on weekends. The bar-within-a-bar is run by Nate, a seventy-four-year-old retiree from Budweiser who plays records on the stereo and serves up simple mixed drinks to a devoted crowd of regulars. “Nothing fancy. Booze with club soda and tonic and throw a lime in it,” says Brownlee, noting that where the bar now stands is the room where “Ray Charles used to pop heroin and do prostitutes.”
As for the supernatural elements reportedly at play, Brownlee points out that, “It’s not like things flying around in the air or anything, but some weird stuff happens in here.” The encounters are typically sightings of floating orbs of light or transparent figures, and sometimes strange faces will appear on developed film. There are times when Brownlee is alone at the bar and she will hear the piano keys tinkling and people moving chairs around upstairs. “It’s hard to explain,” she says. “I don’t feel that there’s anything negative with the spirits here. If you don’t respect this place and take care of it, then you might have a negative experience. I’ve never had that. But one of my cooks got freaked out up there one night and he ran down them steps, through the bar, out the door, and all the way home. And he would no longer go upstairs by himself.”
I count myself as one of those who has experienced something—if not paranormal, then downright eerie—upstairs at Earnestine & Hazel’s. It was around 1:00 a.m. and I was there with the bar team from the Gray Canary, a nearby restaurant run by my friends Mike Hudman and Andy Ticer. We were ordering rounds of beer at the time and the Soul Burgers were stacking up on the bar, and as people started dancing, I wandered upstairs by myself. Being alone up there at that hour was unsettling enough, but made even more so as each creaky footstep was amplified like I was in a horror movie. I was about to turn around and head back downstairs when I noticed one of the hallway doors was slightly ajar and a beam of light was shining through the opening. I peered in and saw the back of a man’s head. He was in a chair punching numbers into an adding machine and speaking to someone on the phone, but his words were muffled. Assuming I was interrupting someone burning the midnight oil, I went back downstairs. Brownlee was our bartender that night, and I mentioned to her that I didn’t know someone was working upstairs and hoped I hadn’t bothered him. “There’s no one up there, baby,” she said, sliding a beer across the bar. When I later slipped back upstairs to check, there was now a padlock snapped shut on the office door. The sommelier from our crew overheard my conversation. “I wouldn’t go up there if you put a gun to my head,” he said. “You don’t mess around with ghosts. You don’t want to bring that shit back home with you.”
You’ll find only bottled beer and burgers at Earnestine & Hazel’s, with the exception of a bottle of Fireball kept behind the bar for the occasional shot. Brownlee is hard to miss with her red hair, and while I’ve caught her smiling on occasion, she often has a melancholic look on her face, a slight weariness of being witness to so much over so many nights behind the bar. Working in a bar that’s seen its fair share of deaths and hosts a cast of mournful spirits roaming the creaky upstairs hallway, you’ll forgive her for not wanting to pontificate on the finer details of the last drink she’d want to have before she died. She’s dealing with the dead every night she sets foot in the bar. But I have to ask, and without looking up from tending to a Soul Burger she says, “I just like cold beer. Bud Light is my go-to choice. That’s just me.” And in this case, that’s good enough for me.
The jukebox at Earnestine & Hazel’s is famous for its deep selection of soul, rhythm and blues, and funk, with some concessions to more contemporary musicians. But it’s also known for playing a song at random when no money has been put into the slot. The song that pops up is often eerily in sync with the mood of the room. Brownlee tells me about Tammy Wynette’s “D-IV-O-R-C-E” coming on out of nowhere when a woman stopped in to celebrate signing her divorce papers. Or the time she was talking with her fellow bartender about the death of James Brown and “I Feel Good” screamed from the speakers. “It’s due to come on here shortly,” says Brownlee, a hint of a smile on her face.
Near the end of our time together, I asked Brownlee about the circumstances of Russell George’s death, who on September 8, 2013, retired to his upstairs office and sometime around 5:00 a.m. shot himself, becoming the thirteenth person to die at Earnestine & Hazel’s. She says that the paranormal activity has died down since his death, but it’s far from settled.
“Russell loved this place. It was his heart. His soul. His life. Everything. He got really sick where he was fixing to go anyway, so he just figured he’d do it here where he could stay here, I guess. I don’t have answers. I never saw that one coming.” Just as Brownlee says this, the jukebox came to life. It was Little Anthony and the Imperials singing “I’m on the Outside (Looking In).”
“I’m on the outside looking in
I don’t wanna be, I don’t wanna be left on the outside all alone
Well, I guess I’ve had my day and you left me go my way
Now it’s me who has to pay”
“What did I tell you?” she says, taking a sip of her Bud Light. “If these walls could talk. If these walls could talk.”
Featured images: Last Call by Brad Thomas Parsons