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    Selvidge was key contributor to evolving history of Memphis music

    Photo by Brad Luttrell

    His voice — a rich, crystalline howl — was a pure expression of his soul, but the purity in Sid Selvidge was not limited to his art. Selvidge, a veteran Memphis musician, producer of the “Beale Street Caravan” radio show, and a cultural force in the Bluff City for five decades, died early Thursday morning at Methodist University Hospital after a long battle with cancer, according to his family. He was 69.

    From his days as a teenage disc jockey, to his time as a student and champion of the folk/blues revival in the 1960s, to his work as record company owner in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to his continued efforts as a producer, performer and musical proselytizer Selvidge was a critical contributor to Memphis’ evolving cultural history.

    For most, though, Selvidge was first and foremost a peerless singer. Over the course of a long, if sporadic, solo career, he created a compelling folk music catalog — a run of records dating back to the 1969 Stax/Enterprise release Portrait. He would follow with minor masterpieces like "The Cold of the Morning" in 1976 and "Waiting for a Train" in 1982 (both released on his own Peabody label), and LPs like "Twice Told Tales" for major label Elektra in 1993. Selvidge’s last few efforts — including his 2010 swan song "I Should Be Blue" — were released on the local Archer label to critical acclaim.

    “His voice was obviously a rare instrument: It made me want come back to see him play week and after week, and seek out his records, which were transcendent,” said author, filmmaker and Memphis music historian Robert Gordon. “His voice took you to the other side; it was heavenly. In a way, his life’s work was to make other people feel where music could take them.”

    Born in Greenville, Miss., in 1943, Selvidge’s father died when he was still a child, and he spent much of his youth caring for his mother. Entranced by Southern blues and roots music, and the mad hatter vision of iconic deejay Dewey Phillips, Selvidge began his professional career on radio, spinning records on Greenville’s WDDT and later on West Memphis’ KWAM.

    In the 1960s, Selvidge would become one of the great champions of the old forgotten bluesmen, helping midwife the comeback of Memphis great Furry Lewis. Selvidge helped promote and record Lewis during those years, becoming a surrogate son to the singer. “(Furry) was probably the most important man in my life, aside from my father and grandfather … and that’s a lot to be said,” Selvidge would recall in a videotaped oral history of his life.

    Selvidge graduated from Southwestern at Memphis in 1965, and did his masters studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He later taught anthropology at Southwestern, now Rhodes College.

    A man of multiple talents — he was a gifted photographer as well — Selvidge was part of a rich artistic demimonde, the wild Midtown Memphis scene of the ‘70s, which would pass into legend, due in part to the 1995 publication of Robert Gordon’s vivid underground history, “It Came From Memphis.” Along with his friends and fellow musicians, Jim Dickinson and Lee Baker, Selvidge, would form the deconstructionist blues band Mud Boy and the Neutrons; the band became a quasi-mythic outfit for its rare and memorable live performances throughout the city.

    In 1976, Selvidge founded his own independent record label, Peabody. He was instrumental in the recording and release of Box Tops/Big Star leader Alex Chilton’s first official solo album, 1979’s "Like Flies on Sherbert" — now considered a bizarro classic of the alt-rock genre. Over the years, Selvidge would explore various creative avenues, producing jazz albums for Memphis celebrities like Cybil Shepherd and Tim McCarver, and later writing an opera about the 1927 Mississippi flood.

    For much of the past two decades Selvidge had been focused on spreading the gospel of blues and roots music across the world with his “Beale Street Caravan” radio show. Originally launched under the auspices of the Blues Foundation, and later an independently operated program, Selvidge took a job running the show in 1996, thinking it would last only a few months. He remained at the helm, as the program’s executive producer and guiding light, for the next 17 years, until his passing.

    “Sid was the lifeblood behind the ‘Beale Street Caravan’ from the very beginning,” said Pat Mitchell Worley, the show’s longtime host. “The wealth of knowledge that he had about roots music was so deep. He could tie together what was happening in the now with something that happened 100 years ago, and tell you why it was important.”

    “He really was an anthropologist; he saw music as historical experience, a cultural experience, a social experience. He got that and shared that understanding with the people he worked with and knew.”

    The program would eventually air on 300 stations domestically, on NPR international throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and on networks in Australia and New Zealand, attracting about 2.4 million listeners per week worldwide.

    “That show brought a lot of opportunities to artists who would not have otherwise had that kind of exposure,” said Gordon. “Sid didn’t just recycle and regurgitate. He was constantly seeking new voices and giving them a platform to be heard.”

    In 2010, while touring in support of "I Should Be Blue," Selvidge discovered he had cancer of the tongue; later a secondary cancer developed in his lymph nodes. He underwent surgery and a program of radiation and chemotherapy. The treatments affected Selvidge physically and musically, dramatically altering his familiar 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 noted in an interview with The Commercial Appeal in the fall of 2011. “At the same time, I like this voice I’ve got … for certain things.”

    That September, Selvidge was asked to perform as part of “The 78 Project,” a web series-cum-feature film documentary that used folklorist Alan Lomax’s field recording technique to capture contemporary artists. Using a 1930s Presto direct-to-disc recorder and a single microphone, Selvidge recorded a first-take, straight-to-acetate performance with his guitarist son Steve backing him on the session. Selvidge revealed 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,” he would recall bemusedly.

    His final public performance came last November, when Selvidge learned that the Beale Street Caravan was being honored by performing rights organization ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) with one of its prestigious Deems Taylor awards. Selvidge attended the ceremony in New York City and performed “Kassie Jones” as part of a tribute to Furry Lewis, bringing his musical journey full circle.

    Selvidge is survived by his wife of 47 years, Shirley Selvidge; his sons Sidney Davis Selvidge III and Steve Selvidge; stepchildren Kathy Bridges, George Spivey and Edith Davis; and his brother Roy Selvidge.

    Plans for services have not yet been announced.