Sid Selvidge

Sid Selvidge

Sid Selvidge, a Memphis-based singer, guitarist and cultural treasure, and an ardent champion of blues and roots music, who helped launch and served as executive producer of the internationally syndicated Beale Street Caravan radio program, died May 2 at Methodist University Hospital. He was 69 and had been battling cancer.

Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Selvidge’s interest in music was sparked at an early age. He was a radio DJ on WDDT-AM, playing rock ‘n’ roll and jazz on his hometown Greenville, MS station while still in high school. Inspired by southern blues and roots music, he later immersed himself in the folk-blues revival scene in Memphis during the 1960s.

Selvidge became a friend and protégé of legendary Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis, whom he helped promote and record and whom he considered “probably the most important man in my life, aside from my father and grandfather.” At the end of the decade, Selvidge released the first of his own eight solo albums plus three with Mudboy and the Neutrons, a Memphis-based band that also featured Jim Dickinson.

A college anthropology teacher for five years, Selvidge’s academic background and training lent itself to his understanding of the music and how the past and present tied together.

As an artist, Selvidge performed and recorded an eclectic array of musical styles — ranging from folk, blues and traditional country to r & b and rock ‘n’ roll. He also had his own independent label, Peabody Records (named after the famed Memphis hotel) for a while, produced albums for other artists, and wrote an opera about the 1927 Mississippi flood.

Although approached by major labels, Selvidge eschewed commercial fame, preferring to remain connected to his roots and perform for small audiences. At one time, he noted: “You make a choice when you’re an artist, and you’ve got to learn how to say ‘no.’…I made a conscious decision that what I was doing was art.”

As noted on his website, Selvidge maintained “an atypical, almost studied indifference toward the spotlight over his decades-spanning career.” However, as a promoter of Memphis music, he helped to shine the light brightly on other artists. He left an indelible mark and brought exposure to many blues and roots musicians from Memphis and beyond through the broadcast of live performances and recordings on Beale Street Caravan. The hour-long radio program, which he helped to launch 17 years ago and with which he was involved until his passing, currently airs on some 300 radio stations in the U.S. and is heard throughout the world via NPR International.

A statement posted on the program’s website notes: “Sid has been the inspiration and intellect behind Beale Street Caravan since we first hit the air in 1996. His gentle, southern warmth, his deep musical instincts, and his profound perspective on the music and culture of Memphis, TN propelled our program to reach an international audience of 2.4 million worldwide weekly listeners on more than 400 stations around the globe.”

Selvidge learned that he had tongue cancer in 2010, while touring with singer-songwriter Amy Speace in support of his last release, I Should Be Blue, which features duets with her. The disease later spread to Selvidge’s lymph nodes as well.

“I was blessed enough to be invited to record an album of duets with Sid Selvidge in 2010 and then tour with him that summer,” said Speace, who was very saddened to learn of his passing. “A slender man, a gentle man, who was quick to laughter with a Memphis drawl as languid as a cool drink on Derby Day, Sid Selvidge had eyes that would light up with mischief and comfort all at once,” she noted. “His voice, a light as air high tenor that had an impossible weight settled in dirt underneath, like the angels and the devils both resided there,” she added.

Amy Speace and Sid Selvidge

Amy Speace and Sid Selvidge

“We drove up and down the east coast and west coast that summer,” Speace recalled. “He insisted I buy myself the Mickey Baker books for jazz guitar (I did). He encouraged me to do my first public guitar solo (I did). He introduced me to the music of Jesse Winchester, Furry Lewis, and Mississippi John Hurt. He met my father and they talked wood working and trees and farm equipment like old pals. I met his sons [Sidney Davis Selvidge III and Steve Selvidge, a guitarist with The Hold Steady] and his wife [Shirley], and they took me in like family. He was my friend. He was my mentor. He was my duet partner. For a very brief time of his long legacy life. But for enough time for me to deeply love him.”