At 531 South Main Street in Memphis, on the corner of West Calhoun Avenue, stands Earnestine & Hazel’s. Even though some would call it a dive, the bar is known for good music and an even better burger. In fact, the Soul Burger is often voted the best burger in Memphis. But while the façade is run down, and the interior is eclectic, it’s what is rarely seen that brings many to this century-old establishment.
In the 1930s, sisters Earnestine and Hazel had a sundry store on the bottom floor which sold inexpensive non-perishable goods to the neighborhood residents, while the upstairs was a hotel and boarding house. Since the sisters would rent the rooms by the hour and not ask questions, the hotel soon became popular with ladies of the evening. With the building’s proximity to the railroad tracks and thousands of World War II era soldiers passing through on a daily basis, it wasn’t long before a booming brothel was in operation. As most brothels aren’t known for their law-abiding ways, it’s said that this one could get a bit rough as well, and several murders are rumored to have occurred during this time.
The 1950s saw the sundry store change to a restaurant, and the soldiers gave way to traveling artists. More than one struggling musician is said to have taken advantage of the cheap rooms at Earnestine & Hazel’s, and legend has it that Wilson Pickett and guitarist Steve Cropper crafted some of their better music there, namely "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour," athough others say "In the Midnight Hour" was written at the nearby Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder.
Russell George purchased the property in 1992, and he lived upstairs for a couple of years while he turned the bar into the place it is today. A couple of years, however, were all George could handle.
Sound asleep in his room upstairs after a busy night in the bar, George was jolted awake one day by the sounds of a party in the hallway. As he made his way to his door, George clearly heard glasses clinking, women laughing and people dancing. He jerked the door open to put an end to the frivolity but found … nothing.
George stumbled back to bed, confused, and was just about to doze off when he heard the noises again. He started to rise, once more, to check out what was going on, but this time he found it impossible to get out of the bed. He was being held down by the hands of numerous giggling, but invisible, women.
His experience with the party girls isn’t George’s only one. He claims to have personally had over 30 run-ins with the building’s ghosts, including the spirits of the sisters, and said other employees and customers have dozens more stories to share. The one haunting thing that seems to puzzle George the most, however, is the jukebox.
Earnestine & Hazel’s jukebox contains hundreds of songs, and they’re set to play randomly unless a customer pays to hear their favorite. This particular jukebox, though, either has a mind of its own or is operated by one of the building’s ghosts. It turns itself on and off at will and plays songs based on what’s going on that night in the bar. For instance, a group of women entered the bar one night intent on celebrating the end of one lady’s marriage. As they sat down, the jukebox started playing Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.”
Whether you go to Earnestine & Hazel’s for the Soul Burger and stay for the ghosts, or head that way for the spirits and stay for the burgers, a visit may be in order if you’re in Memphis.