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McClatchy-Tribune  04/25/2014 9:08 PM ET
Peters spreads gospel of iconic Beale [The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn. :: ]

April 25--EDITOR'S NOTE -- The Commercial Appeal special report on Beale Street continues with daily profiles of entrepreneurs. Last Friday, our online report included an interactive map showing the majority of the businesses in Downtown's premier entertainment district are concentrated in the hands of a few owners. Already profiled have been Preston Lamm, James Clark, Malcolm Burt and Ty Agee.

B.B. King's Blues Club president Tommy Peters has a slightly different view on the oft-repeated lament that there's not enough authentic blues music on Beale Street.

"The whole thing to B.B. King's is the music," Peters said. "People from around the country and around the world want to hear Memphis music. They want to hear blues and soul. They don't want to hear a blues band from Texas."

By blues, Peters means the blues of B.B. King, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Not to say there isn't traditional blues. Musicians including Blind Mississippi Morris have regular gigs there. But Peters is adamant. "I want to offer something everybody will like. If we were straight blues we couldn't be in business."

It's part of a formula that has served club owners well, leading to expansion to Nashville, Orlando and West Palm Beach, with plans for St. Louis on the drawing board. The lone hiccup was a failed venture at Universal City Walk in Los Angeles.

Like any good tourist attraction, B.B. King's Blues Club and Itta Bena restaurant make customers exit through the gift shop, B.B. King's Company Store. Peters estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the clientele are out-of-town residents looking for authentic Memphis food and music.

Back in 1991, B.B. King's president Tommy Peters, 59, was a former Touche Ross senior CPA and investment company owner who invested primarily in aircraft parts. He was among investors recruited by Beale Street developer John Elkington, who had been trying to get B.B. King to lend his name to a nightclub since the city-owned entertainment district opened.

Peters knew nothing about restaurants, and Elkington handled everything from management to construction.

"Nobody wanted to invest in Beale Street at first. Everything other than Rum Boogie had failed," Peters said. "It was a crazy opening, and we lost money for the first few months."

Peters wasn't involved in club management from 1995 to 2001 but the company enjoyed a growth spurt after he returned.

B.B. King's Nashville opened in 2003, after developers offered a Second Avenue site at an attractive rent. Orlando and West Palm Beach landlords were the primary investors for those clubs. "They had been to Memphis and liked the concept," Peters said.

He hopes to open a club on Grand Boulevard near St. Louis University next year. "It would be a tax credit deal where the developer puts up all the money," he said.

Peters reopened the Bon Ton Cafe on Monroe as a breakfast and lunch spot, and he's working on an Overton Square club, Lafayette's Music Room.

He has offices Downtown in the Cadre Building, historically home to Boyle Mortgage, and operates a special events facility there.

Peters said he has a "minuscule" stake in the A. Schwab building with Terry and Jake Saunders.

B.B. King's on Beale just went through "the worst four months in history," he said. Cold weather hurt, "but the economy's not good."

"We're basically cheap entertainment; you've got to stay affordable. It's not easy. I hope we can continue to attract out of towners. When Overton Square opens, I don't think it's going to take a lot of business away from us."


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