Chattanooga’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is a bustling area with craft breweries, bars, restaurants, and other businesses.
But more than 40 years ago, it was known as Ninth Street, an African American community that most folks called ‘The Big 9.”
Locals old enough to remember will tell you about getting lunch or dinner at Pete’s Casa Lomo or a treat at Frozen Joy or shopping at the L&G Five and Dime Store.
But what most people will tell you about is the music.
Chattanooga’s Ninth Street was an entertainment mecca
Famous jazz, blues, and soul acts like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and others would play at Memorial Auditorium to mostly white audiences. Then they’d come down to Ninth St. and play in the small, bustling music clubs like the Nightcap, the Brown Derby, and the Whole Note to packed crowds with some of Chattanooga’s most seasoned musicians. The historic Martin Hotel was always their first choice for accommodations, the largest Black hotel in the south.
It was home, at least for a time, to music greats like Bessie Smith, Clyde Stubblefield, Jimmy Blanton, The Impressions’ Fred Cash, and Sam Gooden, Valaida Snow, and others.
From the late 1800s to the late 1960s, Ninth Street thrived with black-owned movie theaters, grocery stores, and nightclubs that lined the street, giving Chattanooga’s Black community a place to live, work and play during the south’s period of segregation. It rivaled Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Memphis’ Beale Street as the mecca for Black entertainment.
Learn about Chattanooga’s Black musical heritage
As you drive or walk down Martin Luther King, Jr, Boulevard now, you’ll see murals that celebrate the area’s legendary musical past. A few of the old brick facades that once housed clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters still remain.
Oh, if those walls could talk…
If you want to learn about the history of Chattanooga’s Ninth Street, Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum is the place to do it, with two exhibits, “The Big 9” and The Impressions: From the Big 9 to the World Stage.
Preserving the history of the Big 9
"The Big 9” is a Songbirds exhibit that chronicles the music history and legacy of Ninth Street, with in-depth storytelling, interviews with musicians who played there, and photos and memorabilia from the neighborhood’s roots in the late 1880s to its eventual decline in the 1980s.
“Chattanooga isn’t known as a music city, and we feel that the time to be recognized as one is way overdue,” says Reed Caldwell, Executive Director of Songbirds. “While Nashville and Memphis are touted as Tennessee’s only contributors to America’s rich musical legacy, Chattanooga is right up there. But Ninth Street’s legacy as a national music mecca, as well as a giant in Black business and commerce, has been lost due to whitewashing and flat-out racism.”
With “The Impressions: From the Big 9 to the World Stage,” Songbirds showcases one of the world’s most influential soul groups from their start in Chattanooga to become the soundtrack of America’s Civil Rights Movement. Ninth Street played a significant role in inspiring Sam Gooden and Fred Cash, as well as fellow Chattanoogans Richard and Arthur Brooks to form The Roosters, which would eventually become The Impressions with Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler.
“The Impressions were an important part of America’s Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—their music inspired people to keep fighting for equality,” says Caldwell. “Fred, Sam, and Curtis were pioneers, and they took a risk singing those songs. We can never do enough to honor this group and celebrate their message of hope and togetherness. I hope this exhibit can help people understand the importance of this band and their music.”
Songbirds also touts other exhibits featuring STEAM-based, interactive activities:
The History of the Electric Guitar - Take a journey through the past 80+ years to see how the electric guitar helped shape pop culture as we know it.
The Science of Sound - Become a guitar god in our interactive exhibit for all ages that features music-focused STEAM activities.
Of course, Songbirds still has its collection of rare and vintage guitars with instruments owned by Roy Orbison, Duane Allman, Chuck Berry, Loretta Lynn, and more!
Songbirds is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., and is located at 35 Station Street inside the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for children ages five to 12 years old, and kids four and under are free.