May 09--The Blues Foundation will start construction June 1 on a $2.5 million Blues Hall of Fame that enlarges Memphis's trove of music-related sites and tourism attractions.
A ceremonial groundbreaking at 421 South Main on Friday was announced during Thursday night's annual Blues Music Awards, to more than 1,300 people at Memphis Cook Convention Center.
The announcement follows this week's approval of city funding for a separate endeavor, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, in the upper level of a new Hard Rock Cafe planned for 126
The new halls would join a musical heritage slate that is considered a significant part of the city's 60,000-employee hospitality industry.
"Music heritage is clearly one of the strongest foundations of our tourism and hospitality product. It's one of the things that make us unique to visitors from around the world," said longtime foundation supporter Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Along with Beale Street and Graceland, the heritage slate includes Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Sun Studio.
"Orlando has theme parks. Memphis is the home of music destinations," said Blues Foundation chief executive officer Jay Sieleman.
The Memphis-based foundation raised more than $2.7 million for the hall.
Memphis' collection of music halls of fame and museums may one day grow large enough to even silence a civic lament about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame choosing Cleveland over Memphis in the 1980s, museum backers said.
"I wasn't here then, but people still bemoan the loss of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Cleveland," Sieleman said. "Well, the Blues Hall of Fame is in Memphis."
Planning for the hall of fame began when the organization was founded in 1980. Ever since, the hall has existed only on paper and, more recently, in cyberspace.
Sieleman said the significance of the groundbreaking is that after years of discussion, "It's official. It's really coming.
If construction stays on schedule, the museum would schedule its grand opening next May, during the Blues Music Awards and Blues Hall of Fame inductions, Sieleman said.
The reality of a bricks-and-mortar museum represents a turnaround for the foundation, which was in debt and briefly flirted in 2002 with moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
It dug out of the hole by bringing in new management, ramping up membership and special events and attracting corporate heavy hitters to the board.
Memphis philanthropists, led by the Assisi Foundation, combined to contribute about $850,000. Blues fans gave the remainder. A donor list at blues.org shows money poured in from blues societies from around the globe, as well as rock and roll artists such as George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers, Bonnie Raitt and Steve Miller.
A guitar signed by the Rolling Stones raised $38,000 at auction on one of the twice-a-year Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises organized by supporters, Sieleman said.
Once it opens, the hall will house interactive exhibits and allow for proper display of memorabilia intended to draw a steady stream of blues fans from the United States and throughout the world.
Design 500, the exhibit designer, has projected the museum will draw 20,000 to 30,000 people in its first year.
Items for display include classic posters promoting concerts and recordings by the likes of Bessie Smith and Slim Harpo, guitars signed by blues musicians and rock stars and a whimsical plaster impression of Rufus Thomas' face.
Sieleman said fundraising is ongoing to make sure there's money to continue adding to the artifact collection.
The collection includes recordings, instruments, articles of clothing and writings associated with the Hall of Fame members.
Companies with a large hand in the museum project include Germantown Contracting, exhibit fabricator; archimania, architect; and Grinder, Taber, Grinder, general contractor. Foundation offices will move to 546 South Main during construction.