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They said there’ve been 13 people who met their maker in Earnestine and Hazel’s in Memphis, Tennessee. But I’m here to tell you about their burger.
To understand the Soul Burger at Earnestine and Hazel’s, you need to understand Russell George. And to understand Russell George, you need to understand Earnestine and Hazel’s past. Its lure is its lore -- there are hundreds of stories floating around about the bar. I read every one I could find from sources credible and otherwise, and none seem to drive down the same street of logic. But let’s try and take its history for a spin.
When the building that houses Earnestine and Hazel’s at 351 South Main St was built in the late 19th century, it was originally intended as a church. In the 1930s, it became a dry goods store, and then possibly a pharmacy owned by Abe Plough, who went on to become a multi-millionaire pharmaceutical chairman, owner of Coppertone suntan lotions and one of the bigger philanthropists in Tennessee history. Supposedly, as he became more wealthy and his business expanded and everyone started putting suntan lotion on their backs and elbows, he was feeling generous and decided to hand the building over to the two cousins who ran the beauty salon upstairs, Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones.
Enterprising women that they were, they went with an old-school model of the shared workspace, turning the downstairs into a jazz cafe, keeping part of the upstairs for the salon, and renting the rest of the rooms to, shall we say, ambitious ladies of the evening. Earnestine’s husband, a man who went by the glorious street name of Sunbeam, was cool with the A&Rs and artists over at nearby Stax Records, and decided to open up a music spot called Club Paradise in the same area. Sunbeam’s connections and proximity to Stax helped him book huge acts (Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, etc.) and many of them would perform at Paradise and then make their way over to his wife’s cafe for the afterparty, so they could get down on food, drink, and, um, merriment before retiring back to the Lorraine (aka, where MLK was shot, now a Civil Rights Museum) two blocks over.
Then it became the '70s, and in the '70s Downtown Memphis was in disarray. Club Paradise had shuttered. Stax Records became insolvent and folded in 1975. Sunbeam likely picked up a more depressing cloud-based nickname. Through it all though, the cafe and brothel kept going. In the bar, I found a menu (pictured below), handwritten by Earnestine on Thursday, March 19th, 1983 advertising a Hog Maws Dinner for $2.89, and Fried Fish for $3.18. Neck Bones were a steal at $2.59. But by the early '90s things were looking bleak. Earnestine and Hazel were getting old. The brothel crowd scared regular folk away. Neck bone sales were down. The building needed someone to see it for what it could be, not what it was. That man was Russell George.
They said Russell George didn’t dance like a white boy. They said it was because his parents were hip to the good music, playing soul, blues, and jazz for him at a young age. They said Russell George took to it like a pig in shit. He had the moves, all of them. The camel walk, and the boogaloo; the funky chicken and the mashed potato; the splits. He could keep his torso upright and move his legs like a duck paddling beneath the surface, a twitch, as if his body was only having a seizure in his legs. James Brown-style blurred-feet-shuffle moves. And to prove it, George went to the Mid-South Coliseum on Early Maxwell Blvd to compete in the James Brown Dance Contest judged by the Godfather of Soul himself. They said he was the only white boy in the competition, but Brown saw something in the way he moved and picked him as the winner. He was 10-years-old.
They said Russell George didn’t dance like a white boy; Russell George just danced.
But dancing wasn’t George’s only passion. By the age of 15, he’d already opened a definitely not-legal bar out of an apartment, which he -- perhaps using hilarious teenager humor -- called Jefferson in the Rear. In his 20s, he helped open Murphy’s Oyster Bar on Madison Ave, and became band manager and a dancer with the R&B band The Memphis Icebreakers.
On a rainy day in 1992, a nightclub operator friendly with George took him by E&H and proposed he turn it into a bar. George had visions of the old days when B.B. King and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Bo Diddley used to come through, and decided to try and restore the building and see that through. So he kicked out the ladies of the night upstairs, and started fixing it up. George wasn’t interested in serving neckbones or hog maws or any sort of full menu, but did notice a perfectly good grill behind the bar. He’d have a one-item menu, something people could eat quickly after a full night of dancing the boogaloo and drinking beer. He’d call it the Soul Burger.
I walked into Earnestine and Hazel’s on a Thursday at 9pm with my childhood best friend, a tall, bearded man with impressively sturdy ankles named Casey Hurley. Casey and I had spent the previous three days eating burgers all over Tennessee per the Burger Quest dictums, and this was our final Memphis stop. Our stomachs hurt, and we were tired of talking to each other, so a crowded bar would prove a nice respite. Problem was, save for an older man in the back making empty threats about playing pool, Earnestine and Hazel’s was empty.
“We don’t really get going until midnight,” the bartender said apologetically, noting our awkward looks around the empty space. Her name is Karen Brownlee and she manages the bar. If you’d like context, she is the blurred woman in the Google maps image. With her infectious smile and symmetric looks, Brownlee’s clearly beautiful (there are pictures of her in the bar when she’s younger and arrestingly stunning) though years have given her face the worry lines of someone who has seen her share of last calls and tragedies and ghosts and secrets.
We ordered Soul Burgers and two Bud heavies, then I braved the jukebox to put on "Mary Jane" by Rick James and "Shotgun" by JR Walker & the All Stars and that Johnny Cash song where he fights his dad re: his feminine first name. Two songs in, just as Casey started to retell the story of his college intramural basketball finals, a man with a handlebar mustache I really want to say is named Pee-Wee finished cooking our Soul Burgers.
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