The Pretty Prince of Beale Street

Willie “Pretty Prince” Beaumont stood in the statue’s shadow, staring up at the glowing-copper glory of Memphis’ “Father of the Blues.”

“Prince,” said Leon. “You ok? Prince!”

Willie didn’t move. It was like he was looking into the eyes of God – like he was Moses on the mountain getting the commandments. He just stood there staring for a long while, so Leon just sat down to wait. He figured a man’s entitled to act a little funny when he first sees the world he’s been locked away from for 22 years. But the way he stared at the statue gave Leon an uncomfortable feeling. He wondered what was in Willie’s heart right then, and Willie's locked eyes and blank face gave no clues.

“I need a’ get some clothes,” Willie said suddenly, finally taking his eyes off the statue of W. C. Handy, the blues legend who started the whole thing there on Beale Street back in 1908. All kinds of folks look at his statue in Handy Park everyday, but Leon had never seen anybody stare at that man with his horn and double-breasted suit like the Prince was.

“Got a show tonight,” Willie said, still looking detached but more there than before.

“A show? What’chu mean a show?” Leon said.

“I mean a show. I’m singin’ tonight.”

“Prince, you just got out – ain’t been nowheres but to see this statue. Been starin’ at it damn near 30 minutes like it was the second-comin'. How you figure you singin’ tonight?”

“Just am. Friday night. I’m a free man, and I got 22 years ‘a pain and regret needs to get out.”

“I suppose you gonna just walk up in a club, grab a microphone and start singin’?”

“That’s exactly what I’m ’un do. Big Joe’s got a spot for me. I wrote him a few months ago – sent him my songs from the pen. He came and saw me; said he’d gimme the house band for one song – said I could come by any night. Said if I still had it, he’d bring me back for more. If you’d stop grillin’ me with all these questions, maybe we could get a move on to gettin’ me some decent clothes.”

The prince looked pretty shabby in the same wrinkled gray pants and white collared shirt he wore at the trial. Everything was too big for him now. He definitely wasn’t the same Prince coming out as he was going in. The black leather belt was cinched tight, the leftovers wrapped around to his bony hip. His hazel eyes and coy smile once charmed a loyal following of young girls, but the Pretty Prince of Beale Street wasn’t so pretty anymore. He had taken to shaving his head in the penitentiary, and this gave more attention to his eyes, which wasn’t exactly a good thing now. The kind eyes he used to be known for looked lost. They were sunk deep into him now, and when you looked in them, there was no end. And if you looked too long they might take you down inside Willie and show you things nobody would want to see.

“All right, Mr. Free-Man; don’t go gettin’ all uppity now. What kind ‘a clothes we talkin’ about? Where you wanna’ go?”

“Somewheres I can get a nice shirt be good. Ain’t worn nothin’ nice for a long time.”

Leon took Willie to the shop where he buys his church clothes.

"What's the softest shirt material you got?" Willie asked.

“Silk,” the man said.

“Got it in black?” 

“Yes, sir, and I believe I’ve got your size.”

Willie walked out, black from head to toe, save the zebra print around the base of the flashy Fedora. Leon thought he looked strange, like he was trying to dress the way he would before, when those clothes would look tight on him, when he was the Pretty Prince. But he looked alive in the clothes. He stepped out onto the street and looked around. A quick breeze pushed the thick Memphis air around him, and he smoothed the silk of the shirt against him and smiled. Leon hadn’t seen him smile like that in 22 years.

“Night’s comin’,” Willie said. “Time to be gettin’ to Big Joe’s.”

Big Joe’s has been around since long before Willie got locked up. It’s a big, wide-open rectangle-shaped club with a stage in front, a bar in back and tables all around. People come to Joe’s to drink and smoke and listen to the blues. Some pretty big names play Joe’s, and Willie used to be one of them. He played Big Joe’s the night before he killed a white man for what he did to Willie’s girl.

After Simone died, Willie was never the same. She was it for the Prince. He used to joke that she’d be the end of him as a blues singer: “How I’m s’posed to sing the blues if I ain’t got nothin’ to be blue about?” he’d say. Loosing Simone is what started Willie on the needle. He was in the courtroom the day they let the white man go free, and Willie couldn’t stomach it. He waited outside the man’s house one day, and when he came out, Willie put a knife in him – put it in him 17 times. When the police showed up, Willie was just sitting on the curb crying. There was no going free for the Prince.

Willie and Leon got to Big Joe’s around 5:30. When they walked in, Joe was sitting where he always is – in his favorite chair on the far wall past the bar. Most of the time these days, that’s where Big Joe stays. Being big’s one thing; being big and old is another. But when the Prince walked in, Joe’s eyes and mouth popped wide-open, bright as the sun.

“Iz’dat da’ Great Willie “Pritta’ Prince” Beaumon’ in my bar?” he said, struggling to get to his feet. “My goo’ness, son, Iz good ta’ see ya’! We’come home, bwuy! We’come home!”

Willie and Joe hugged each other tight.

“Good ta’ see you too, Joe,” Willie said. “I' missed this place.”

They all took their time catching up for a minute before Willie asked if Joe had room in the lineup for him.

“Depends,” Joe said, “you gon’ sing ‘dat song we talk’ about when you was in ‘da pen?”

“Been waitin’ to sing it here a long time now,” Willie replied. “Had plenty’a rehearsals in my cell back in’a pen.”

“Te’ ya’ what, Prince; ‘this what I’m ‘on do – we got a big show ta’night. Band be here ‘bout half hour fa’ rehearsals. You show me what’cha got wi’ ‘dem, and I’ see wheres we ca' put’cha.”

“I ‘preciate it, Joe. That sounds good. Real good.”

It took the band a while to get the arrangement the Prince gave them. It was a long song. When it was done, Joe and Leon sat speechless. Everyone did. The band just rested their instruments, and silence hung for a few seconds.

“Well,” Willie said, “What’ch’yall think?”

“I think you ma’ closer ta’night, Prince.”

It was well past midnight when the Prince took the stage. The stage manager had been hyping him all night long, talking about how he had “a very special guest” for them – how they wouldn’t want to miss the last song of the night from a “Memphis blues legend.” Most of the crowd had no idea who the Prince was, but the ones who did talked him up. The house was thick with liquor and smoke and sweat, and the crowd was good and loose when the Prince went on. He came out to big applause – howls and whistles all around and hands and drinks raised in salute. One lady waited until it died down a little and yelled, “We’come home, Prince!” The Prince thanked the crowd graciously as he took a seat behind the microphone with his guitar.

“I’d like to play ya’ll a song I been singin’ for about 20 years now,” he said. “It’s been growin’ in me for about that long, which is prob’ly why it comes out a little different ever’time. It’s called ‘Black Heart Blues.’ I hope you like it.”

The Prince gave the band a foot-stomp countdown, and then his guitar led them gently into a slow rhythm. He started with a couple high chords and let them stretch while the bass and percussion gently filled the space between. The song started out like the instruments were just going on a nice walk together, and the crowd walked right along with them, taking their cues from the Prince as he bobbed and swayed in his chair. He and the guitar were slow-dancing up there for a while before he finally started to sing.

When he opened up, he told his story, starting with Simone. The whole song was a conversation with her. He sang the beginning part with that old soft, soothing voice of his. It told all about their love and how she was, “My Angel in the crowd / keepin' me away from / them Black Heart Blues.”

When the Prince got to the part about Simone’s murder, his guitar got quicker and dirtier, and the high notes were more pained than before. He wouldn’t let them stretch as much, and when he did they seemed to scream. His voice followed the guitar style, and the peaceful melody he started with was replaced by a high-low pattern: “Why’d you have to go, Bay-bay! / God took you away from me / left me here to wallow in / these black-heart Blues.” His voice trailed off on blues, and his guitar took off again. Leon couldn’t tell if he was crying then, but his face looked about like his guitar sounded. The crescendo kept-on and led him through the story of his revenge. He sang how he “killed that man with the black heart / I was tryin’ to make things right / but wasn’t nothin’ right again, Bay-bay! / ‘cause my heart turned black as night / And now I can’t stop singin’ / these BLACK-HEART, THESE BLACK-HEART, THESE BLACK–HEART–BLUES!”

By this time, the crowd knew they were watching something special, and the Prince played off their energy. He put down his guitar and stood up to sing. He wailed a beautiful, tortured climax all over the stage, taking the house deeper and deeper down with him. Not a soul in the club wanted the song to stop. It was the kind of song that grabs the heart and just won’t let go. It gave you that feeling of something higher than you could ever know anywhere else – like you were looking inside a man’s soul up there, and maybe seeing it helped you know something more about your own soul.

When the Prince had gone as high as he could go, the band brought it down quickly. The Prince leaned deep into his mic, and his voice got real soft again. “Oh my sweet Angel / I’m saved now because / My heart ain’t so black now / that I’m singin’ / these Black – Heart – Blues.” He stretched the last word out softly, and his eyes were shut tight as a brief moment of silence passed. He didn’t open his eyes until the house erupted. They were crazy for the Prince like no house had ever been crazy for him before. There wasn't a soul in the crowd that didn’t understand what they just saw. The Prince knew what he'd done too. He was smiling big, but it looked like there were tears in his eyes. And as the Prince stood there bowing and thanking the crowd, Leon thought to himself – that, right there, is how you sing the blues.