Most Memphis musicians have learned that, in order to be successful, they need to be able to adapt and wear several hats. Sam Phillips ran sound for the Memphis Chicks baseball team even after he had started Sun Records; Rufus Thomas worked at the American Finishing Company after he had hit records. Making it in Memphis music is never an easy task.
"Memphis is the crucible of music in this country."— Sid Selvidge
Sid Selvidge was a musician, songwriter, anthropologist, record label owner and radio producer. A slight man gifted with a honey sweet voice, he was woven into the fabric of Memphis music on a multitude of levels, influencing a generation of aspiring artists.
Born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1943, he was among the first group of white teenagers listening to and playing black music. Selvidge saw the birth of rock and roll and developed a unique and personal style that incorporated blues, folk and rock.
"It was Maybellene that busted me loose."
Music always seemed to be a part of his life. As a child, he considered singing to be a part of playing cowboys and Indians. He recalled:
From about five or six on, I had my own record collection which was mostly cowboy records. The music was integrated into it. Singing cowboys … the music was to me as important as the cowboy story. When we played cowboys, I would sing as I rode.
The older brother of one of my friends that was in high school at the time got Chuck Berry’s Maybellene. And I can remember listening to Maybellene and just being, that was it. I got my first guitar at thirteen from Sears and Roebuck. That period made me want to be a musician just like every other kid in the world. But it was Maybellene that busted me loose.”
At age 14, he began a job as a disc jockey in Greenville that developed into a lifelong love of radio.
It was a big deal for me when I won a contest when Elvis hit and the musical revolution was happening. WDDT was playing what the station manager, John Gibson, would call ‘toe tapping music.’ But in an attempt to get the young market, they had a contest for a teenage disc jockey. And so I auditioned for that and I won it.
Saturdays, I would go down there and one of the disc jockeys … said to me, ‘You can be a real disc jockey. Your voice at fourteen is mature. I will come by and pick you up every morning an hour and a half before the station opens … and I’ll teach you how to do cold reads and I’ll teach you how to cue records and do tapes.’ And he taught me how to breathe with my diaphragm and how to modulate by looking at the VU meter. He taught me how to do radio.”
Above: ASCAP President Paul Williams (right) presents the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award to BSC Host Pat Mitchell-Worley and Executive Producer Sid Selvidge, for outstanding print, broadcast and new media coverage of music.
But Sid Selvidge’s path would take him into a long career as a musician before he returned to radio in 1996 as executive producer of the Beale Street Caravan radio show, a position he held until his death in 2013. Despite his many accomplishments as a musician, he may be best remembered for his pivotal role in the development of that radio program. He produced BSC from its inception and saw the show carried on hundreds of radio stations in the U.S. and overseas.
Cancer struck the Selvidge household when his father died at the age of forty-five in 1955. With an older brother and an ill mother, Selvidge had to grow up fast. He left for military school at age 16 to pursue an academic path that he thought would lead to a career in psychology. At military school, his electric guitar was deemed too loud for the dormitory, so he switched to an acoustic guitar, which he closely identified with throughout his career.
He developed an interest in anthropology and eventually received an undergraduate degree from Southwestern (now Rhodes) College and a masters and Ph.d from Washington University in St. Louis. At Southwestern College, he met Horace Hull and the two formed an acoustic duo that led Sid down the path to folk music.
I never considered myself a blues musician. I heard no blues at all (growing up). When I came to college I was a folk singer. I didn’t consider myself a rock and roller. I knew who the rock and rollers were. They were the kids in the neighborhood that played the parties and … had electric guitars. They looked like Sonny Burgess and … Johnny Cash. I looked like a little skinny blond headed kid.”
His talent was unmistakable, and while still a college student, he began performing around town and making records. Music was everywhere in Memphis in the 1960s, and studios and independent record labels flourished. During this time, he met lifelong friend and musical collaborator Jim Dickinson at the theater that Dickinson had started in the early 1960s.
Horace and I were playing our sophomore year, and in the summer, Horace had left for Europe. Jim had the Market Theater in Crosstown,” reflected Selvidge. “My first real interaction with Jim in performing and that sort of thing was there. I can remember feeling real lonesome sitting up on the stage by myself without Horace.”
But the epicenter of the nascent folk and blues scene was perhaps the Bitter Lemon Coffeehouse. The tiny brick building at the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Humes Street was ground zero for hipsters, blues aficionados and the rising underground culture of 1960s Memphis. The blues revival was beginning and older traditional African American musicians were performing for the first time in years for appreciative audiences of mostly young white kids.
Excerpted from Sid Selvidge Live at Otherlands on Archer Records
My major recollection of the Bitter Lemon was Furry Lewis. It was an epiphany. I remember Furry playing one night … I had never seen him before and I saw his act. He played slide and I had never seen anybody do that in person … What Furry did with a slide and with his voice. I think of Furry as a great, great singer… but what he could do with the voice he had was so melodic and where he went with it. And that he could do it and play guitar at the same time. At that point when I saw Furry, I wanted to be Furry Lewis. And that was probably the biggest change musically in my life.”
Through his time hanging out at the Bitter Lemon, Selvidge got the opportunity to record and immerse himself in the local music scene. Although he continued his academic career and taught at Southwestern College for a short time, the die was cast: Sid Selvidge had become a Memphis musician.
Somewhere along the line, I think my senior year, I ran into Don Nix at the Bitter Lemon. John Fry opened up his studio at some point. We all started working over at Fry’s together. Nix was there as a producer. Dickinson was there as a producer. Later Terry Manning. Mostly John was behind the console.”
Those recordings culminated in his first album, recorded in 1969 for Enterprise Records, a subsidiary of Memphis-based Stax Records. The album, called “Portrait”, was an attempt at popular music and featured Sid in a band setting. He had another chance to work with Don Nix as a producer in 1971.
Nix got a deal with Elektra. And he came to me and he said, ‘I’ve got a production deal. Do you want to make another record?’ And I said if we can write the songs together and also we can do some more folk and blues and stuff like that because Elektra/Asylum is a hip label. (But) it didn’t come out right.”
Before the record was available, Elektra Records was sold to Warner Brothers and several acts, including Selvidge, were dropped from the roster. The record was not released, though he had quit his job teaching anthropology at Southwestern to tour in support of the new record. He began playing live and found a home at a club called Procape Gardens. Playing Monday-Wednesday, Selvidge honed his act and solidified the amalgam of styles that would form his musical identity.
In 1975, Selvidge was approached by a local music entrepreneur who was starting an R&B label and wanted to sign him. He declined to sign to a label dedicated to R&B but offered to join in a separate startup label to be called Peabody Records that focused on folk music.Photo: William Eggleston
Excerpted from Sid Selvidge Live at Otherlands on Archer Records
And so we cut this record in early winter of 1975 at Ardent with Jim Dickinson producing and it was my folk act. It was kind of the culmination of my Bitter Lemon folk act. And then the fellow that owned the label as we were pressing the records decided he didn’t want to be in the record business anymore.
And he said, ‘Well we’ve got all these records pressed.’ We had designed the label as a Peabody label and he said, ‘They’re yours.’ And I started off with, I guess, 1,000 Cold of The Morning LPs and I had a record company.”
Sid Selvidge could not stay out of music long; he began a long-term residency in a downtown club called Jefferson Square and then in its sister restaurant, The North End. In the 1970s, he formed the Memphis super group Mudboy & The Neutrons with his old friends Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker and Jimmy Crosthwait.
Mud Boy and the Neutrons was basically Jim’s idea. Jim was making headway in the music business at the time as a producer. He had produced Ry Cooder by this point and he was dealing with major labels out on the west coast. … So he had some connections with Warner Brothers (and) he had a development deal.
He called me up and it was real sweet, and he said, ‘We’re all stars,’ and he had been with the Dixie Flyers. He had played on a bunch of hit records at this point. ‘So let’s form a band and we’re all stars. Everybody is on equal footing.’”
When the recording for Warner Brothers didn’t pan out, Mud Boy and the Neutrons became a live band that Bob Dylan is quoted as calling “that great band that nobody can find.” Their recordings are sparse, but the band continued to perform in Memphis until the Lee Baker's death in 1996.
The concept that we’re trying to drive mystically was if we played together right, Mudboy would rise up out of the Mississippi and everybody would be happy. And that’s the concept we carried around in our head when we played for the audience was that the music had to be so good that Mudboy would actually rise up out of the river.”
"To me art is the rooster or the dog before the earthquake."
The spirit of the music is here. Memphis is a real paradox and it’s one of the things that has always endeared me to this town - is that when music happens in Memphis especially back then, racially I felt comfortable with all of the people who lived in this city … At the time it expressed what the country was feeling. And I look at art … To me art is the rooster or the dog before the earthquake. And it tells you what’s going on down under there. It tells you what structural changes are getting ready to happen in your society. And I think that’s basically what the coming together of the cultures into rock and roll and the continuation of the blues and the evolution of soul music allowing African Americans an avenue towards affluence and towards integration within a larger cultural context and into an American context rather than an ethnic context. I think you saw this first with the music. Memphis is the crucible of music in this country.”
Excerpted from Sid Selvidge Live at Otherlands on Archer Records
Sid Selvidge died in May 2013 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Beale Street Caravan is still heard weekly on hundreds of radio stations around the world. His impact on the next generation of Memphis musicians was clearly seen at a tribute concert at the Levitt Shell held that summer in his memory. As his guitarist son Steve Selvidge said, “It was an opportunity for everyone to play him home.”
There will never be anyone like Sid.
He is so missed.
Sid was the true southern gentleman ,a musician extraordinaire , and I am proud to say, a friend of mine
Thank you for a lovely tribute. Our family is so happy he is honored in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. I think Sid did so much to promote our special musical legacy in this region. He recognized the importance of the blues before it was mainstream cool and worked his whole life to let the rest of the world know about it. Love it that I can listen to his beautiful voice anytime. Always in our hearts, Sid!
[…] Wants to Give Its Heart to You” was written hours before the funeral of his beloved friend, Memphis folk-blues legend Sid Selvidge. With such Memphis influence and experiences, the soul of Memphis music will definitely be on […]
Sid was a great natural talent. Sid’s spirit is now moving in the deep currents of Memphis music.
I didn’t know Sid has passed away until I tried to look him up on line today to see if he was reachable to ask a question about “the old days” in Memphis. A great artist and a friendly acquaintance of very long ago. I will always remember the first time I heard him sing.
I was fortunate to see Sid 3 times live in NYC. I spoke to him and had him sign my copy of “Beale Street Saturday Night” on vinyl. He was a very sweet man. He answered my questions and spoke to me as if he’d known me forever. I really miss him.