A Memphis Friday night

Though he’s a native Arkansan who still lives in Forrest City, he does the pregame and postgame shows on the radio network that carries Ole Miss football.

He’s also one of the most popular sports talk radio personalities in Memphis.

And he works for one of the nation’s famous old AM radio stations.

He’s Brett “Stats” Norsworthy, and he came by his nickname honestly. He can spit out more sports trivia, history and statistics than anyone I know.

On Friday night, he hosted Kane Webb and me for a delightful evening in Memphis. Brett has long enjoyed Kane’s writing, and who doesn’t? Kane is, after all, one of the best writers in our state. Brett wanted to meet Kane, and so we set this trip up many weeks ago.

We started in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. Where else are you going to start in Memphis?

It’s the place where the Delta begins, according to Greenville writer David Cohn. And the Peabody lobby is still the place to see and be seen in the Mid-South. Hundreds of people crowded the lobby on this Friday afternoon for the 5 p.m. march of the Peabody ducks.

I enjoy visiting the lobby of the Peabody Little Rock, but it simply cannot compare to the history and charm of the original in Memphis.

From the Peabody, we walked over to the Rendezvous for dinner.

From the Rendezvous, we headed to the Fed-Ex Forum to see a much-improved Memphis Grizzlies team defeat the New York Knicks.

Brett began his Memphis radio career back in 1992, helping Memphis sports legend George Lapides (once the sports editor of the late Memphis Press-Scimitar, which was the city’s afternoon newspaper) host his radio show. Brett has worked on a number of shows in the market since then, currently hosting “Sportstime Extra” each morning on WHBQ.

WHBQ, which was long owned by RKO before being sold to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988, was the home of Dewey Phillips. He was the DJ who first played a recording of “That’s Alright Mama” by an unknown singer named Elvis Presley. It was the first time an Elvis recording had been on the radio. The year was 1954.

Phillips hosted an evening show known as “Red, Hot and Blue” that attracted both black and white audiences, something that was rare in those days.

RKO DJs who would later become famous — people such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale — would get their start at WHBQ before moving own to bigger RKO markets in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

I love what the call letters stood for — We Have Better Quartets.

Now, it’s all sports and no music on WHBQ. And Mempis residents love their sports.

As we walked down the alley toward the Rendezvous, I could see that the line was out the door. I worried that we would be late for the game. I should not have worried. At the Rendezvous, they all know Stats.

“Come on, we already have a table,” he said.

We were immediately seated in a corner, and the food started coming without us having to place an order — sausages and cheese with that wonderful Rendezvous dry rub to start. The ribs came later.

It was 1948 when Charlie Vergos was cleaning the basement below his diner and discovered a coal chute. That chute gave him the vent he needed to do barbecue. Since then, the basement in downtown Memphis has become a legend.

There are those who will tell you that the Rendezvous is too much of a place for tourists. And, yes, I will tell you that my favorite dish in Memphis is still the barbecue spaghetti at Interstate Barbecue down on South Third Street. But I still enjoy the Rendezvous. I like the history, I like the downtown location, I like the vibe and I like the fact that they have waiters who have been there 30 and even 40 years.

On the Rendezvous website, you can read about those waiters. Robert Sr. has been around for 45 years. Big Jack has been there since 1969. Albert, known as Red, started in 1973. Percy started in 1970. Geno, known as The Fixer, has been around for 34 years. Robert Jr. has been there 24 years.

One after another, managers and waiters stopped by our table to talk college and professional sports with Brett.

And we still made it to the Fed-Ex Forum in time for the 7 p.m. tip.

After the game, Brett headed to the interview room to work. Kane and I took a stroll down Beale Street. The place was hopping. It was good to see an active downtown on a Friday night.

Like the downtowns of many Southern cities, downtown Memphis has had its problems. After years of progress that began in the early 1980s, the recession has slowed or killed a number of downtown development projects. The Belz family, for instance, has halted construction on the Peabody Suites in the former Peabody Place Retail & Entertainment Center next to the hotel. For now, the focus is on a massive expansion of the Peabody Orlando Hotel. And one of my favorite downtown Memphis restaurants that was in that location — Encore — closed last fall. The Muvico cinema is also gone.

The Belz family usually does things right, however. So when the project goes forward, I have no doubt it will be a classy development.

One piece of good news is that the empty space on Beale Street that once held a franchise location of the New Orleans bar Pat O’Brien’s will soon be the home an expanded location of the Memphis version of Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. The original Ground Zero is in Clarksdale, Miss. The Mississippi location opened in May 2001. The Memphis location, which was a block off Beale, opened in May 2008.

The two-hour trip from Little Rock to Memphis remains an easy and fun getaway. There’s still plenty to do just over the bridge in downtown. My recipe — meet in the Peabody lobby, have dinner at the Rendezvous and attend an event at the Fed-Ex Forum. And, if you like sports, listen to WHBQ-AM, 560, on the way over and back.

Thanks, Stats.

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8 Responses to “A Memphis Friday night”

  1. Mike Dugan says:

    I would like to suggest one change to your recipe for a great trip to Memphis. Skip the Fed-Ex forum which only hosts basketball, any southerner can tell you this is not a real sport. Instead head over to Autozone Stadium for a Memphis Redbirds game, have the Rendezvous Nachos-yes they have their own stand and then return home happy. If you stay an extra night head over to Germantown for a visit to Owen Brennans for dinner.

  2. rexnelson says:

    Mike: Stats and I have already set a home-and-home deal.

    He comes to Dickey-Stephens Park with me on a Friday.

    I go to AutoZone Park with him on a Saturday.

    They are two of the best ballparks in America — Rex

  3. Chris Babb says:

    I would suggest another change to your next trip.

    Hire a driver who will drive you over for no charge so you don’t have to split time looking at the road while fiddling with the radio dial searching for late baseball games.

    If you want to do that, call me first, I think I could find a volunteer.

  4. Kane Webb says:

    I like the idea of a driver. And Auto Zone. We could do Rendezvous before the game and Owen Brennans after … then pass out from gluttony.

  5. Rick Fahr says:

    I’m a cue fan, no doubt, but I’m hard pressed to figure out why you’d leave the Peabody.

    One word: Kobe.

    I agree that the lobby is the place to be, if for no other reason than to be close to Lansky’s great selection.

  6. rexnelson says:

    Rick: No one should pass on the opportunity to visit with Mr. Lansky when he is in the store.

    What a legend — Rex

  7. Jim Brewer says:

    Rex,
    I love the Rendezvous and Interstate BBQ (the Southaven location is excellent), but you haven’t done Memhis without a plate of fried chicken from Gus’s. Next time you’re in Memphis, check it out.

  8. rexnelson says:

    Jim: I love to go to Gus’s. Fried chicken is another thing I cannot get enough of

    I second your motion on that one — Rex

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