Music to Our Ears
By Laura K. Blanton ′05
Photography by Justin Fox Burkes
Rhodes alumni circulate Memphis music worldwide.
Every week, listeners on more than 300 public radio stations around the world can transport themselves for one hour to a place where the barbecue is always hot and the music never dies. Beale Street Caravan, a noncommercial radio program, is the brainchild of two of Rhodes’ own—Ward Archer ’74 and Sid Selvidge ’65.
Just east of the muddy Mississippi, Memphis’ musically fertile atmosphere yields a matchless conglomeration of music—rap, r&b, folk, jazz, blues, country and rock. Locals can enjoy various types of live music with relative ease, stopping at a coffee shop or heading to Beale. But for those not fortunate enough to live in Memphis, the radio may be their only way to tap into such a constant flow of music. By combining their years of experience and passion for music, Selvidge and Archer have created an outlet for music lovers worldwide.
From acoustics to anthropology to albums
For Sid Selvidge, music has been a constant thread in his life, starting in his teenage years as a disc jockey in Greenville, MS.
“My voice was mature at that point, so they trained me,” Selvidge recalls. “I’d work every afternoon after school and a regular shift in the summertime. Then I was shipped off to military school, and that was the end of that for a while.”
The change of scenery did not stunt Selvidge’s growth as a musician. Because he was not allowed to play his electric guitar in the dorms at school, he shifted gears to playing acoustic.
“I worked up an act, came to Memphis with it in the 1960s and started playing at coffee houses,” he said. “And I have been pretty much doing that ever since.”
Nurturing his love for radio while he was in bands, Selvidge worked with KWAM radio in Memphis during his time at Rhodes. He graduated in 1965, and went on to receive his master’s degree in anthropology from Washington University. In 1969, he released his first album, Portrait, on the Stax-subsidiary label Enterprise. Then when he made his second album, The Cold of the Morning (1976), he found himself on another playing field.
“I was making a record for a fellow who was starting a new label,” Selvidge said. “The record got pressed and the guy said he didn’t want to be in the record business anymore. He handed me a couple thousand albums and I was in the record business.”
And Peabody Records was born. He produced several records including Alex Chilton’s Flies on Sherbert (1976). Meanwhile, he was a full-time assistant professor of anthropology at Rhodes from 1969-74. After working with Paul Craft and Cybill Shepherd, among many other musicians, Selvidge decided that six years in the independent record business was enough.
In between live performances, Selvidge was a part of the band Mud Boy and the Neutrons in the ’70s and ’80s, along with Jim Dickinson, Jimmy Crosthwait and Lee Baker. He has also played several times with his son Steve, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall for a series called Family Tradition. Selvidge’s sixth solo CD, A Little Bit of Rain, came out on Archer Records in 2003.
In the past eight years, however, something else has been brewin’. With the partnership of another Rhodes alum, Selvidge has boomeranged back to radio to share his love of Memphis music with the world.
Coming full circle
As Selvidge was leaving Rhodes in 1974, Ward Archer was also on his way out. Graduating that year as an English major, Archer was in a band and had planned to go into the music business after graduation.
“I started a small studio, and that was where I should’ve stopped,” Archer joked. “But then I built Cotton Row Recording with another Rhodes alum, Nikos Lyras ’78. After 10 years or so, we were doing a lot of for-hire recording and that was kind of like chopping rock.”
An avenue for his creativity opened up when his father, the late Ward Archer Sr. ’39, who had started the ad agency now known as archer>malmo, wanted to leave the agency to start the Memphis Business Journal. Since Ward Jr. had worked at the agency as a copywriter, he didn’t want to see the company disappear—so instead, he took it over. In two decades, archer>malmo became the largest ad agency in Tennessee and was recently named the second-best small company to work for in America by the Society of Human Resource Management.
“I didn’t even own a suit when I took it over,” Archer said. “I didn’t dream that it would be as successful as it is.”
After 25 years in the business, Archer decided once again to switch careers.
“It’s the kind of business where you have to have young energetic people who can go out and fight the battle,” he said. “When the same accounts start coming for the third time, then it’s just time to step aside.”
Without further ado, he stepped right back into the recording business.
“I didn’t really plan to start a record label,” he confessed. “I just wanted to do something with music.”
He rented a 1,000-square-foot studio and opened it up to artists. He began recording classical guitarist Lily Afshar, and when releasing her CD Possession in 2002, decided to go ahead and establish the Archer Records label.
“The hard part is trying to get exposure for artists,” Archer said. “Even if you get your song played on the radio, getting it played enough times to make a difference is a real challenge.”
Which is where Archer’s expertise in advertising comes in handy. His invaluable experience in both the music and business worlds combine to make him a virtual one-stop-shop for emerging artists.
So far he has produced CDs for jazz singer Kelley Hurt, a classical guitarist, the modern R&B funk band The Gamble Brothers Band and folk-blues singer Sid Selvidge.
“There are as many markets as there are genres of music, and you have to get to know what the media outlets are,” Archer said.
Now established as one of the five to 10 bona fide record labels in Memphis in releasing and marketing records, Archer Records looks to grow through cultivating the work of budding artists.
Before Archer Records became a part of the Memphis music scene and before Archer recorded Selvidge’s album on the label, the men crossed tracks in 1995 in a business deal that would ignite the explosion of Beale Street Caravan.
In 1995, Selvidge had been a performer on a NPR-syndicated radio program called Blues Stage.
“That year, NPR made the decision not to distribute blues-related programs anymore,” Selvidge noted. “I said, ‘Well, let me see if I can get you some funding.’”
David Less ’74, head of the Blues Foundation at the time, directed Selvidge to Archer, saying that he was interested in radio programs. Archer began negotiations with the Memphis-based Hyde Family Foundations. Several months and $100,000 of seed money later, Beale Street Caravan emerged, based out of Memphis.
In October 2001, Blues Stage and the Blues Foundation decided that the radio program would be better served as two separate organizations.
“It was a friendly split,” reassured Selvidge. “We’re still quite close with the Blues Foundation, the W.C. Handy Awards and the International Blues Challenge.”
With Archer as president and Selvidge as executive producer, the noncommercial Beale Street Caravan has become the most widely-distributed blues radio program in the world, engaging about 2.5 million listeners every week.
Forty of the 52 programs every year are original. The organization plays reruns from July to September while members tour around the country recording new shows. They contract with various festivals to record artists who are performing.
“Mostly it’s blues artists, but since we split off from the Blues Foundation, we now broadcast Memphis music and its derivative forms, which is just about everything,” Selvidge said.
Branching out into other genres of music allows the program to avoid repeating the limited number of artists in the blues world.
“We wound up chasing our tails a lot,” remarked Selvidge. “This way, we have a little bit more latitude.”
Usually, members of the Beale Street Caravan staff spend several days at a time recording four or five acts at various festivals and venues around the country. By the end of the season, they return with an abundance of artists. A typical broadcast includes two programs within a single program, with commentary by a featured host between segments.
“It’s strictly live music with some intellectual candy in between,” Selvidge explained. “Someone like the late Sam Phillips or Cybill Shepherd may do a 10-part series. It’s usually a person who knows the subject very well.”
Pat Mitchell has assumed solo hosting duties for the program.
The crystal ball says…
As if starting three businesses and building up a fourth wasn’t enough to satiate Archer’s entrepreneurial thirst, he and Selvidge are now toying with the future of Beale Street Caravan.
“Right now we’re exploring a format for television—how to structure it, how to convert the radio program to TV and how to distribute it,” Selvidge said.
They intend the program to be modeled after Austin City Limits, a public television show that has presented intimate, live concerts with talented musicians from every genre for 30 years.
“We have a demo that’s seven or eight minutes,” Archer said. “We wanted to see if we could film a radio show and that’s essentially what we’ve done. It doesn’t look like the Academy Awards or anything—it’s just about the music.”
If BSC successfully moves to television, Archer and Selvidge aren’t looking for a spot on the prime networks.
“Staying there for any amount of time is next to impossible,” Archer stated.
Even the market for public television is tougher than that of radio. Aside from NPR, which plays mostly classical, and college stations, there are about 400 general public stations left in the U.S. BSC is already on 300 of them.
“On the other hand, in the universe of public television stations, you’re going to have about 100 possibilities,” Selvidge said.
As far as a location to film the artists, BSC may create its own venue to bring musicians to them.
“Then we can have a controlled environment and we’re not in anyone’s way, so they can do their business and still be in front of a live audience,” Selvidge pointed out. “I’m not saying we won’t still do festivals, but it’s a lot more intrusive to film there than it is to record audio there.”
Archer will be the spearhead in formatting and marketing BSC on television.
“I would like to be able to get it to the market with enough programming to say that we’re going to be here a while,” said Archer. “I’d like to think we could make some significant progress on it within the coming year.”
Taking BSC to television doesn’t mean the show’s radio days are over. Rather, TV would provide another access point for its audience.
“What we have works and it’s real and it’s authentic,” said Archer. “It works on radio and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work on TV.”
As a city that attracts musicians like moths to a light, Memphis is perhaps the most appropriate place to broadcast a program like BSC.
“Memphis music is very cohesive,” Selvidge commented. “It’s more cohesive than a music capital like Nashville or New York, which are industry towns used to grinding out songs on a formulaic basis.”
The power of a city
Both men contend that it’s the unique culture of Memphis that gives the music its flare, the same culture that changed them upon their enrollment at Rhodes. For Archer, a series of college lectures called “Dilemma” was most influential in his understanding of politics and issues in Memphis.
Nationally-recognized speakers were brought in for the multi-day event. Because it took place around the time of the Vietnam War, the series invited speakers like Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame and poet Allen Ginsberg.
“In that day and age, bringing in Ellsberg would be like bringing in Michael Moore today,” Archer said. “The freedom of expression and questioning the administration is not unlike it is today. That really had a profound effect on me.”
For Selvidge, Memphis’ influence came through both his professors and the music. Emeritus professor of anthropology Dr. Jack Conrad mentored Selvidge and taught him about the trap of ethnocentrism, the belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group.
“He taught me about the integrity and uniqueness of cultures and how the individuals in cultures were created,” Selvidge remembered. “He really gave me a different perspective on the Memphis culture.”
Selvidge’s music has also been profoundly influenced by the Memphis sound. As a freshman, he sang Elizabethan folk songs and listened to records in the basement of Burrow Library. By his sophomore year, he was changed.
“I was out into the city running into musicians like Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker and Jimmy Crosthwait,” he said.
Before he knew it, the folk music he performed in coffee shops morphed into a revival of the seminal Delta blues music. He began playing at the Bitter Lemon coffee house, opening for Delta blues musician Furry Lewis.
“I adored the guy,” Selvidge confessed. “He taught me and a lot of other people that you could have a career in the music and record business without having to be a huge star.”
Fifty years ago when Elvis christened Memphians’ ears with his rock ’n’ roll song That’s All Right, he became an unrealistic icon of what life in the music business was like. Selvidge reveals the duality of musicians today. Sure, there are a few get-rich-quick types who don’t last in the business. Survival, however, warrants consistency and patience.
“The other types are married, buy their own houses and show up for work on time,” Selvidge said. “Especially in Memphis, there is a reputation that musicians are unreliable and lazy. It’s quite the contrary.”
Sharing the goods
“There is a Memphis sound and there remains a Memphis sound,” said Selvidge. “I can listen to my son play with Luther Dickinson, Jim Dickinson’s son, and I can hear in them Furry Lewis and all the people that I heard when I came to town.”
That sound is what Archer and Selvidge share with listeners every week and hope to impart to viewers as well. They help Memphis music reach radio waves worldwide. Welding their knowledge from the business, scholastic and music worlds, these men are doing their part to proliferate an appreciation of quality music—and Memphis, for that matter.