A vision came to Reverend John Wilkins in a dream. He was playing at the Starlite Revue, a prominent charity-driven gospel and blues concert hosted by WDIA through the 1960s. Unique, however, was that rising Midtown Memphis musicians joined him onstage. The idea shook Wilkins from bed, and he called Kevin Cubbins, executive producer of the Beale Street Caravan public radio show. Inspired, they rebirthed the festival last year. Now, as Beale Street Caravan celebrates its 20th anniversary, the Revue will return April 8th to the Orpheum's Halloran Centre. With performances from co-headliners Wilkins and Jimbo Mathus, as well as contemporary artists like the Bell Singers, the Revue will merge Delta veterans with up-and-coming musicians. The Flyer spoke with Cubbins about what he calls "the most infectious music on earth" and his plans for Beale Street Caravan's future.
The Memphis Flyer: How is preparing for the second annual Starlite Revue different from when you prepared for the first one?
Kevin Cubbins: I guess the biggest difference is that last year, me and Rev. Wilkins got inspired, winged it, and pulled it off by the seat of our pants. This year, it's better organized, and WDIA has come on as a supporter.
How has the Beale Street Caravan grown over the past 20 years?
Public radio, overall, has been a pretty exciting and innovative space in the last decade. Our growth lately is more about catching up and getting plugged in to where we need to be and continuing to deliver high-quality content that focuses on the amazing music that flows from Memphis and the Delta region.
BSC is unique and extremely lucky in that while there's plenty of programming dedicated to Americana, or whatever it's called these days, and indie-type stuff, we're basically the sole proprietors (on public radio) of gospel, blues, and soul. Which is fine by me because it's the greatest, most infectious, most evergreen music on earth. So I feel like we have a responsibility. It's our mission to evolve as the landscape evolves and get this stuff out there.
This will be Rev. John Wilkins' second time headlining. Why? And how did you decide who else would play?
The Starlite Revue is Rev. Wilkins' party. This is his vision. He called me one morning and said that he'd had a dream that night. A crystal clear dream. In that dream he was at the Starlite Revue, and he was playing with all of his friends just like he did back in the day. There were bands from Midtown playing, too. "White" bands.
He asked me to help him do this, and he said, "I know you know all those white kids in Midtown, and I know they probably don't go to church much anymore, but I bet they did when they were little, and they probably remember the songs. Get some of them involved and let's make this happen."
So I did. And that's why the Reverend is headlining — it's his vision. The other acts are longtime stalwarts of this absolutely unique, traditional gospel scene that thrives here and in North Mississippi and goes largely unnoticed by the mainstream. And we have some local Midtown favorites thrown into the mix, too, to bring their take to the show.
Where did the name Starlite Revue originate?
There was an annual concert in Memphis, put on by WDIA, that featured the best in local blues and gospel. It was amazing, by all accounts. What JazzFest is to New Orleans in this day and age, the Starlite Revue was to Memphis back in the day. WDIA played a very, very special role in the social fabric of this city in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. That station is an irreplaceable part of Memphis history, and I wish more people understood that.
Of all that Beale Street Caravan has accomplished, what are you most proud of?
That's tough. I mean, surviving for 20 years is a major accomplishment in public radio, and I have to credit our founders, who included Sid Selvidge, of course, for that. I'm always excited about what's next.
Heck, I'm super excited about [an upcoming] radio show featuring the Walker Family Singers that we recorded on the front porch of Shangri-La Records. We have some new productions and initiatives we'll be launching in the months to come — things that are pretty big steps for us. I'm definitely proud of that.
The Starlite Revue featuring Rev. John Wilkins, Friday, April 8th at the Orpheum Halloran Centre, 7 p.m. $23.