Beale Street Caravan began its sixth season this month. And it's putting an exclamation point on the new year with a special taping this Friday night at B.B. King's featuring Austin boogie pianist Marcia Ball. According to the show's executive producer Sid Selvidge, Friday's event will serve as a showcase for potential funders and as a thank-you party for those who have supported the program.
But the Caravan crew has even more reason to celebrate this year, as this season also serves as a recovery from a rocky fifth season, which saw the show undergo some dramatic transitions. Though segments are now taped most Thursday nights at B.B. King's, ownership changes kept the Caravan out of the club last year, and the withdrawal of substantial funding from Gibson Guitars and Northwest Airlines spurred a decision to partially sever the program's ties with its parent organization. Beale Street Caravan, once produced by the Blues Foundation, became Beale Street Caravan, Inc., a non-profit corporation with its own board. The show is still produced in conjunction with the Blues Foundation and the show's staff continues to work out of the foundation's offices, but now Selvidge rents the space and funding streams are entirely separate.
"In July of last year a decision was made by the major stakeholders in the radio program to spin it out, mainly because we had lost funding from Gibson and Northwest. That was, bang-bang, two big funding sources gone," says Selvidge. "The Blues Foundation has a national board and has several agendas and constituencies and couldn't devote the time to fund-raising efforts that were necessary to keep the funding afloat."
John Pontius, treasurer for the Hyde Family Foundation and now a board member of Beale Street Caravan, Inc., agrees with this assessment. The Hyde Foundation had provided initial seed money for the show and currently supports the show with a $50,000 contribution per season. Pontius says that Hyde worked with the Blues Foundation to spin the show out into a separate entity because they felt Beale Street Caravan would be more viable under the new structure.
"The mission of the Blues Foundation and the mission of Beale Street Caravan, while similar, attracted different donors. And it was just more efficient to work with potential funders of the program on a separate basis than it was on a combined basis," Pontius says.
Last year's funding crunch and severing the show from the Blues Foundation kept Caravan from recording the blues festivals that provide so much of its content. Being out of B.B. King's for the season only compounded the problem, causing the program to run off of catalogue for virtually all of its fifth season.
"Part of the focus of the program is to feature Beale Street," producer and co-host Daren Dortin explains. "With the Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Center City Commission being funders of the program, they thought it was important that we maintain a Beale Street address. We were fortunate last year that we had so much catalogue to run on. We were obviously limited in what we could do in featuring new music, but we had been recording festivals since 1996, so we had four years of that in addition to what we had previously recorded at B.B.'s. It gave us the opportunity to put some old stuff in a new perspective."
Embarking on a "best of" season, the Caravan crew wrote new scripts for old material, featuring artists who had died over the course of the show's run and revisiting some of the show's highlights: "There was a recording we did of Johnny Copeland at the Beale Street Music Festival in 1997, shortly before he died. Shemekia Copeland, who was then an unknown, 16 or 17 years old, came out and did a few songs before her dad came out. At the time it was an afterthought: 'Yeah, she was pretty good.' And then three years later, she's the biggest thing in the blues."
Selvidge offers another example of the program's sparkling back catalogue: "We have the last live recorded performance of Charles Brown, a beautiful performance at the Eureka Springs Blues Festival. We'll play that from time to time as long as we're on the air. Some things are so good that you want to keep revisiting them."
Beale Street Caravan, the most widely distributed blues radio program in the world, was born in 1996, partly out of the ashes of another syndicated blues radio program, Blues Stage. The New York-based, NPR-distributed Blues Stage had lost its funding in 1995. Selvidge, a folk and blues artist who had been a performer on the program, didn't want to see it go away and thought it would be a natural for Memphis.
A civic group including Selvidge, developer Henry Turley, Archer-Malmo CEO Ward Archer Jr., Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane, WKNO radio director Dan Campbell, and then Blues Foundation executive director David Less was convened to try and move Blues Stage to Memphis. An offer was made with the provisions that the program be folded into the Blues Foundation and be based out of Memphis, a proposal that wasn't acceptable to the producers of Blues Stage.
"The Blues Stage idea died," says Selvidge, "but the interest here remained and partial funding was in place, so the Blues Foundation decided to go ahead and start their own program and David [Less] asked me to come aboard as producer." That was February of 1996.
The program launched in October of that year with Memphis Horns Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love as hosts. Selvidge was hoping to launch on 40 stations, but due to some publicity on the popular NPR program Fresh Air, Caravan actually launched on about 75 stations, growing to over 100 in the next quarter. The program is currently broadcast on 292 stations nationwide, which, with so many public radio stations concentrating on classical and/or talk, may be something of a domestic plateau for the program. "Each quarter we'll shift a little. Some will drop us, some will add us, but our carriage is pretty stable now," Selvidge says.
According to Kathy Gronau, a Los Angeles-based radio consultant who has been involved with Beale Street Caravan from the beginning, the loss of Blues Stage left a natural market for the show, with program directors looking to fill the void left by a program that listeners clearly missed.
Beale Street Caravan is available for download twice a week on NPR Worldwide, which also makes the show available to Armed Forces Radio. In addition to extensive coverage in Europe, the station broadcasts in Japan on 810-AM The Eagle and on New Zealand's national radio, Radio NZ. The station's most recent market analysis estimates 1.4 million "impressions" a week domestically, and Selvidge thinks Caravan probably reaches another million listeners a week internationally. Of the 2.4 million listeners who hear a portion of the program each week, Selvidge estimates the core listenership -- people who listen to the program beginning to end each week -- at up to 500,000. The show broadcasts 40 new shows from October to June, with shows from the catalogue running through the summer.
According to Selvidge, Caravan has a presence in seven of the top 10 American markets, 17 of the top 25. "We've got a huge presence in New York on WBGO-AM," Selvidge says. "They deliver about 44,000 people a week to us and we're on there Sunday nights at 10 p.m."
Most production for the show is done in-house, thanks in part to a $15,000 First Tennessee Bravo grant that Caravan used to enhance their office studio. Other production is done locally at Cadre Studios, owned by Tommy Peters, who also owns B.B. King's. Dortin and Selvidge are Caravan's only paid employees -- everyone else, such as co-host Pat Mitchell and field engineer Tommy Dills, works for the show on a contract basis.
"We're a pretty lean operation," Selvidge says. "Mountain Stage [another popular public radio music program] has a staff of around 16 and God knows how many people [Prairie Home Companion host Garrison] Keillor's got. I hope our funders feel like they get a lot for their money and I hope our city does too. It's just like everything else in Memphis -- we have to do a lot with a little."
Selvidge credits the success of the program to the niche it fills in providing live concert performances. "Where we run into trouble," Selvidge says, "is that there are local programmers who think they can -- and often do -- do a good job with blues programming, playing records and that sort of thing. But what we bring is the live aspect, and I don't think anyone else can afford to do that except us. What Beale Street Caravan brings to noncommercial stations more than anything is the ability to record live performances."
Live performances are the crux of Beale Street Caravan. Dortin and Dills travel to several blues festivals each year -- the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival, the Telluride Blues Festival, and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena this year -- to record a seasons' worth of performances. A typical program is bookended with a live performance from the Caravan's weekly B.B. King's tapings, which also include artist interviews conducted from the club's stage. The middle portion of the program is a festival performance from a different artist. A couple of pairings used so far this season were Joe Louis Walker at B.B. King's and the North Mississippi Allstars at Kansas City for the season's second show and Eric Gales at B.B. King's and Sean Costello at Kansas City for the season's third show.
As a buffer between these live segments, Caravan includes magazine-style feature segments, with celebrities and scholars discussing different aspects of blues culture. The first quarter of this season has food historian Jessica Harris exploring the role of food in blues history. Another series of segments this season will likely be Cybill Shepherd highlighting great female blues performers.
This aspect of Beale Street Caravan suffered a blow recently when longtime features host Richard Hite, the former bassist for blues revival band Canned Heat and a renowned blues scholar, died last month of cancer. Caravan taped a tribute show to Hite last week at the Center for Southern Folklore, which Dortin says will likely run in December.
Past Beale Street Caravan featured hosts have included performers Tracy Nelson and Alvin Youngblood Hart and, perhaps most notably, seminal producers Sam Phillips and Jerry Wexler.
"The Sam Phillips stuff is wonderful," says Selvidge. "We've had Sam talk about the blues artists he recorded prior to Elvis. Sam's got great stories and the nice thing about working with Sam on the radio is that Sam can talk. He's a radio guy. The stuff he did with us is really important historically, I think. Jerry Wexler was the same sort of situation. Those are exciting, but it's hard to get stuff like that."
One aspect of programming a blues radio show, it would seem, would be making decisions about what constitutes blues and what doesn't. "As far as trying to define what blues is -- we don't," says Dortin. "We want to put out good music, that's more how I think about it. Sometimes you may have to strain to make the connection. When people hear the Eric Gales show, which ends with him doing [Jimi Hendrix's] 'Foxy Lady,' some may be scratching their heads. But he's a Memphis musician, and if you listen to the interview and trace his roots back, it's a logical progression."
"One thing we try to do with the show is present a broad definition of the blues," Selvidge agrees. "I don't want to get into an intellectual discussion with anyone on the show about what the blues is or is not. To me, American music is blues-based with European tie-ins. And in Memphis, we're definitely blues-based. But we've had be-bop acts on, we've had rockabilly, lots of R&B."
"The buzz word today is 'roots music,' meaning music that's derivative of the blues in one way or another," says Dortin, who contends that spinning off from the Blues Foundation has freed the program to be more musically flexible. "[Spinning off] gave us the ability to expand the program's palette a little bit. Memphis music is an even more important aspect of the show now, especially since so much of the funding is coming from Memphis-based organizations."
In terms of content, Beale Street Caravan has made only two major changes in its history. One was moving to B.B. King's as a home base; the other was the move away from celebrity hosts.
According to Selvidge, the move to B.B.'s was made in part to add some excitement to the top of the show. "I don't know if it helps us or hurts us," Selvidge says. "With NPR being so conservative and older, there's some trade-off. Instead of sounding like the guy at the golf match, here we are screaming from the corner of Second and Beale." The move also obviously enhanced the show's status as a local showcase, a facet not lost on local sponsors.
"The move to B.B.'s has been a tremendous asset," says Kevin Kane of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. "That adds the element of being able to promote one of our largest attractions, the Beale Street entertainment district. That really gives us an added advantage in promoting the city."
The Convention & Visitors Bureau has been a key sponsor of the show from the beginning and currently gives the show $40,000 per season.
"I think, given the reach of NPR for our investment -- I don't think I could get that kind of exposure in any better way. It's just an enormous reach for us, and it's every week, so it's reaching a consistent audience and reinforcing the message -- inspiring people to visit Memphis and experience the product for themselves," Kane says. "I thought from day one that it would be a tremendous opportunity to promote the city in a very nontraditional and subtle way. That's why we immediately invested in the program. We don't look at it as a donation; we see it as an investment."
And the Memphis connection works both ways, according to Gronau: "Because Memphis is known for its blues, I think that's really helped the show succeed. It gives the show a more authentic feel."
"We mention Memphis and Beale Street about a million times a program," says Selvidge. "We're very conscious of trying to sell our musical culture to the world." The show also makes a point of featuring local artists. "To me one of the cool things about this program is being able to expose local musicians," Selvidge says. "I hear a lot of talent from all over, and I'm telling you, there's a lot of good local talent."
"If it's good, it's good," says co-host Pat Mitchell. "In other places, it's nice to hear people say, 'I heard the show. That's a Memphis artist? I want to know more about him.'"
The show's homegrown hosts -- Dortin, 31, and Mitchell, 30 -- represent a departure from the show's initial philosophy. Both were hired to work on Caravan in 1996, Dortin as an associate producer and Mitchell in a similar support capacity. Both came to the job with prior radio experience. Mitchell had worked for commercial blues and alternative stations locally. A Cincinnati native, Dortin was pursuing his master's degree in communications at the University of Memphis when Caravan came calling. Mitchell is now manager of communications and PR for the Blues Foundation in addition to her Caravan duties. Dortin -- also a drummer who has played with Alvin Youngblood Hart and Billy Lee Riley -- has risen to producer of the show, with Selvidge moving up to executive producer.
But when Beale Street Caravan began, neither would have seemed to be likely hosts. "Going back to Blues Stage," says Dortin, "Ruth Brown was the host and there was a celebrity-host mentality then. When the show started, one of the initial directives from the funders was that they wanted to have celebrity hosts. They thought that was an important way to get people interested in the program, especially since it was new. You couldn't put out a new show like this with a couple of no-names. So the celebrity host aspect was important at the time. The Horns were great musicians, but that didn't necessarily translate to being great radio hosts."
The Memphis Horns were followed by Sam the Sham and Joyce Cobb, but when that team left, Selvidge decided the show was embedded within the public radio system enough to get more professional and diverse, if less well-known, hosts and promoted from within.
"I think [Daren and I] brought some energy to the program that had been lacking and were more tuned in to the music than the other hosts had been," Mitchell says. "They really didn't know who all the artists were, but we're out there talking to people and listening to music. With the interview segments, our interest comes through. I know Daren's excited about that Richie Havens interview coming up and I look forward to getting up there and talking with Shemekia, who people think is shy but is really so bubbly and energetic. I think we're more affected by the artists and that comes across when you're listening to the show."
"The celebrity of the hosts became secondary to their ability to deliver in a radio-friendly way," Selvidge says. "I think it sounds more professional now, and we still have our celebrities as feature hosts."
Beale Street Caravan enters this season with close to full funding, with support coming from a variety of city-based organizations and private donors. But Selvidge says that the program's $300,000 a season operational budget is strictly bare bones, just getting-on-the-air money. Selvidge would like to be able to travel to more than the three festivals that Caravan will visit this year. "We'd like to go to more so we can sift through and get the best quality," Selvidge says. He'd also like to record some international festivals for the show, especially ones that feature Memphis artists.
But beyond funding, Caravan seems to have two other goals for this season. One is to expand the show's market internationally. "There doesn't seem to be a huge market for the blues, but we seem to have penetrated that market as deeply as we can," Selvidge says. "Our steps now, in terms of carriage, are incremental. Overseas is the real challenge now."
Caravan would also like to see its weekly B.B. King's tapings become more of a local event -- to let one of the city's best-kept musical secrets become a secret no more.
Caravan's Thursday night tapings this season have included some big names: Stax legends Eddie Floyd and Rufus and Carla Thomas, zydeco king Chubby Carrier, guitar-slingers Kenny Neal and Eric Sardinas. Upcoming performers include Texas music master Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and folk icon Richie Havens. It may be the most reliable and star-packed weekly show in town. So where's the crowd?
"Memphis as a city is a little apathetic about the local talent," says Dortin. "People are used to it, used to having great music here and to be able to go see something good any night of the week. And that's something we have to fight, the attitude of 'Well, I'll just go out there next week.' Getting more of a local crowd out would really be nice. A lot of time the crowd is dependent on what else is going on -- is there a big convention in town? A football or basketball game?"
"Who wouldn't want the opportunity to sit around and listen to someone like a John Hammond or Bobby Bland or Chubby Carrier talk about where this music came from?" Mitchell asks. "And then they back it up with their performances. It's exciting."
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Memphians can get a taste of Beale Street Caravan in two different ways: by listening to the finished product on local radio and by attending program tapings at B.B. King's Blues Club. Beale Street Caravan currently broadcasts four times weekly on three Memphis radio stations. The show can be heard Saturdays at 9 p.m. on WKNO-FM 91.1, Tuesdays at noon and Thursdays at 9 a.m. on WEVL-FM 89.9, and Wednesdays at 6 p.m. on WUMR-FM 91.7. Highlights of upcoming broadcasts:
Week of October 16th: Memphis guitar phenom Eric Gales at B.B. King's; young guitar hotshot Sean Costello at the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Fest.
Week of October 23rd: Memphis music royalty Rufus and Carla Thomas at B.B. King's; the godfather of the Austin blues scene, W.C. Clark, at the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Fest.
Week of October 30th: Stax legend Eddie Floyd ("Knock On Wood," "Raise Your Hand") at B.B. King's; Multiple Handy Award nominee Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater" from the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Fest.
Week of November 6th: Atlanta-based road-warrior Tinsley Ellis at B.B. King's; Kansas City act Don Shipps and his Titanic Blues Band from their hometown Kansas City Blues and Jazz Fest.
Week of November 13th: A full show devoted to Baton Rouge's Kenny Neal performing at B.B. King's.
Week of November 20th: West Coast blues-rock from Eric Sardinas, recorded at B.B. King's; unique Denver bluesman Otis Taylor from the Telluride Blues Festival.
Week of November 27th: A full show of Zydeco master Chubby Carrier at B.B. King's.
Beale Street Caravan tapings occur most Thursdays at B.B. King's Blues Club, with an 8:45 p.m. start time. Upcoming scheduled performances:
Thursday, October 18th: Memphis diva Reba Russell.
Friday, October 19th: A special Friday night taping with Austin pianist Marcia Ball.
Thursday, October 25th: The eclectic master of Texas music, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
Thursday, November 1st: Chicago blues harpist Carey Bell.
Thursday, November 15th: Sixties folk-revival legend Richie Havens.