• Print

    'Beale Street Caravan' still rolling and picking up speed after 16 years

    Bob Mehr - The Commercial Appeal -

    Back in 1996, when he signed on to be the producer of fledgling blues radio show "Beale Street Caravan," singer-songwriter Sid Selvidge thought it was going to be a temporary gig.

    "When I took the job, it was wintertime, and it was slow for me musically," Selvidge said. "I thought, 'Well I'll take this for three months and make a little money and move along.' 'Cause I really didn't think it would fly."

    Sixteen years later, "Beale Street Caravan" is flying high, with Selvidge still at the helm as the program's executive producer and guiding light. Currently airing on 300 stations domestically, on NPR international throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and on networks in Australia and New Zealand, the show averages about 2.4 million listeners per week worldwide.

    Earlier this month, "Beale Street Caravan" kicked off its new season, and on Thursday, the program will celebrate its Sweet 16 birthday with a concert event at the Hi-Tone Café.Along with shows like "Mountain Stage" and "Jazz at Lincoln Center,"

    "Beale Street Caravan" remains one of the longest-running music programs in the United States."It's a tough business to break into with a syndicated show; it's almost impossible right now," Selvidge said. "But once you get entrenched, nobody wants you to go away. The listeners will rattle the bars if stations try and take you off."

    "Beale Street Caravan" was originally launched under the auspices of the Blues Foundation but has operated independently since 2000. Selvidge's unique résumé made him the ideal leader for the show. He began his career as a teenage disc jockey in Mississippi, and later became a student and champion of the local folk-blues revival in the 1960s, and a record company owner in the '70s. In the process, he developed a critically acclaimed career as a singer-songwriter, dating back to his 1969 Stax/Enterprise release Portrait and subsequent classics like 1976's The Cold of the Morning and 1982's Waiting for a Train.

    Funded by a combination of foundational organizations and private donors, Selvidge and associate producer Kevin Cubbins create 40 new programs each year, recording acts at blues and roots music festivals and concerts. Though the on-air personnel has changed a little over the years — the show has been hosted by Pat Mitchell Worley since 2002 — the formula for the show's success has remained consistent.

    "It's all about the music," Selvidge said. "We stay out of the way as much as possible. Generally, each hourlong program will consist of 8 to 10 minutes of intellectual candy, where an expert, a scholar or author, will talk about different topics in the blues. And we'll have a little bit from Pat, but basically, it's 90 percent music."

    While the program still travels to record at events like the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise and the King Biscuit Blues Festival, more and more, the show has been capturing its content in and around Memphis. "With the Levitt Shell and Hi-Tone and other venues we've got around town, we've been able to get a lot of stuff at home," Selvidge said. Those set to appear on upcoming episodes this season include local R&B band the Bo-Keys, Mississippi roots musicians Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and blues veterans like Johnny Winter and Duke Robillard.

    "Having so much of the show recorded locally and then broadcast all over the world really helps pump up the region," said host Mitchell, who also works as the development director for the Memphis Music Foundation. "Also, over the years we've developed quite an archive, recordings of a lot of people who've passed on — like Ruth Brown and Rufus Thomas — so there's a (preservational) aspect to the show as well."

    As the blues has been slowly affected by the deaths of so many older masters of the form, the demographics of the music have also changed. "In the '60s, when the blues broke out, it attracted a white audience, but the practitioners were primarily African-American," said Selvidge. "Now, about 45 percent of the acts we feature will be African-American, but the rest will be Caucasian or some combination of backgrounds. I think that's healthy, and it shows that the blues is evolving."

    This week's Hi-Tone show will highlight that evolution. The concert will feature several non-blues acts — including The Merry Mobile and Reemus Bodeemus — offering up their take on the genre. In a similar vein, "Beale Street Caravan" is readying an online video series called "Who's Got Your Blues?"

    "It's an experimental thing," Selvidge said. "The idea is for different acts to give their take on the blues and see if something interesting might pop loose." Cellist Jonathan Kirkscey's String Theory ensemble, contemporary R&B saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and jazz singer-songwriter Adam Levy are among those slated to appear as part of the filmed shorts.

    The program's efforts to maintain its mission while looking beyond the traditional parameters of the blues have not gone unnoticed. Just a few weeks ago, Selvidge learned that the show was being honored by performing rights organization ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) with one of its prestigious Deems Taylor awards.

    "I was sitting by my desk working, and a call came out of the blue saying, 'We'd like to give you the Deems Taylor award for radio broadcasting; can you come up to New York and get it?' I said, 'Shoot, yeah, I can.'"

    Selvidge will attend the awards on Nov. 14. He's also been asked to perform as part of the ceremony. It will mark his return to the stage for the first time in a year.

    In 2010, while touring is support of his most recent album, I Should Be Blue, Selvidge discovered he had developed cancer of the tongue. In August 2011, a secondary cancer popped up in his lymph nodes. He underwent major surgery and a program of radiation and chemotherapy that finally ended in January.

    The treatments have affected Selvidge physically and musically, dramatically altering his familiar crystalline tenor. "I'm sitting here without a tooth in my head, and I've got a baritone voice right now, so I've been kinda shy about getting out in public," he said. "At the same time, I like this voice I've got right now for certain things."

    In September, Selvidge was asked to perform as part of "The 78 Project," a web series-cum-feature film documentary by directors Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Wright. "The 78 Project" is a tribute to the work of folklorist Alan Lomax, with the pair using Lomax's field recording technique to capture contemporary artists. Using a 1930s Presto direct-to-disc recorder and a single microphone, songs are recorded as first-take, straight-to-acetate performances.

    With his guitarist son Steve backing him, Selvidge tested his new voice on a Frank Stokes song, "I Got Mine" and his own "Wished I Had a Dime." "I wound up sounding somewhere between Johnny Cash and Mississippi John Hurt," Selvidge said. "It was great fun."

    Since then, Selvidge has been trying to get himself readjusted musically. As part of his surgery, doctors had to sever a nerve in a shoulder muscle, which led him to "learn different guitar parts from what I've been doing lo these many years. And I'm being forced to change keys on the songs, to get 'em down to this new register. Some of them work, some don't, but it's been an interesting challenge."

    Doctors say it will be at least a year before Selvidge knows whether his old voice will return. "Every day I feel a lot better. There are some side issues involved as a result of the radiation and chemo, but, hey, I'm on this side of the grass. In that regard, I'm very grateful."

    ‘Beale Street Caravan’ Sweet 16 Concert

    Featuring Merry Mobile, Reemus Bodeemus, Ghost Town Blues Band. 8 p.m. Thursday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Cover is $10. Go to hitonememphis.com, or call 901-278-8663.

    For more information on “Beale Street Caravan,” go to bealestreetcaravan.com.