The Blues Foundation Story
By Steven Campbell
July 2007 – Memphis Downtowner
All your loneliness, I’ll try to soothe, I’ll play
the blues for you ... —Albert King
The story is almost as old as the currents of the Mississippi. Blues music defined our city, just as those currents defined the banks of the river that runs under its bluffs. And for as long as musicians have been congregating together here, they have been watching one another to find out who is the best, who to emulate, and who to look out for when it’s time for head cuttin’ (think Ralph Macchio and Steve Vai’s guitar duel in the 1986 movie Crossroads).
The camaraderie of the musicians, the musical heritage of Memphis, and the appreciation of the genre by fans the world over is why The Blues Foundation first decided to hold a competition in 1985 to find the best unsigned blues bands, soloists, and duos on the planet. This annual competition begins on a regional level at The Blues Foundation’s 160 affiliated organizations around the world. The winners of those regional competitions head to Memphis — the city that blues musicians call mecca — for the finals, held on historic Beale Street, where they compete for cash, prizes, and the chance to change the destiny of their careers. In the years since The Blues Foundation’s founding director, Joe Savarin, started the unnamed competition more than 20 years ago, it has grown to become the International Blues Challenge — the premier blues competition in the world.
The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau touts the IBC as a $1.6 million-a-year boost to the local economy, and that, says Jay Sieleman, executive director of The Blues Foundation, puts money in the pockets of the city of Memphis: “It’s The Blues Foundation that puts some currency into the Home of the Blues.” That currency, coupled with the drive of the artists and the dedication of the audience, is why the IBC is the foremost contest of its kind. Its beginnings were simple and true. Not financed or sponsored, Savarin first desired to hold the event as a means to help his cause of keeping blues alive on Beale. “Even though the area at that time looked like a bombing target, tourists were still venturing their way down,” he recalls. “And I just kept telling them: Stop looking at what you’re seeing, and start focusing on what you’re hearing.”
After he and his wife, Eleanor, incorporated The Blues Foundation as a 501(c)(3) in 1979, Savarin discovered there were 60 to 70 other blues societies around the world. He began making contacts with others who shared his love for the music and his desire to keep it alive. Through those contacts, Savarin began spreading the word of his notion to hold a competition to elevate the exposure of musicians playing the blues. “We had very little money and no real prizes,” Savarin says. “But the turnout was better than we ever expected. We were very encouraged by the reaction of the musicians and the fans.” That first year, the competition was held in Handy Park and at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale. Savarin says he was amazed by the desire of out-of-town players to interact with local street players. “When the artists came to town, I encouraged them to play with the blues players in Handy Park. You would think I had given them a million dollars!”
“The IBC has doubled in the number of participants during my tenure. There were less than 70 in 2004, about 95 in 2005, 120 in 2006, and more than 150 this year.” —Jay Sieleman, Executive Director
The Blues Foundation
What is essential to remember is that during the early years of the foundation, Beale Street was in despair. Managing the event and promoting the blues on Beale was no small feat. Without funding, The Blues Foundation, during its formative years, was more a labor of love than the now well-oiled management team of an established corporation. It was the efforts of Savarin and his recruits that helped secure a then-troubled Beale Street. “Every morning,” recalls Savarin, “I would wake those who had passed out in Handy Park, give them a dollar, and they would go on their way. That way, the tourists who did come down could feel comfortable.”
During the construction of what everyone knows as today’s Beale Street, Savarin was determined to keep the blues alive on the historic street and in cities and venues across the world.
“What prompted me to start all of this was that blues musicians here in town had a hard time getting gigs,” he says. “My hope was to draw attention to and create awareness of the art form.” With the help of volunteers and little to no financial backing, Savarin and his contemporaries started and nurtured a movement that not only reestablished blues in Memphis, but helped strengthen it internationally. “I never did thank them enough,” he says of those who volunteered their time, love, and energy. “They all meant so much to me. It could have never been done without each and every one of them.”
Today, those determined efforts have evolved into the power-packed, finely tuned International Blues Challenge. Now spearheaded by Sieleman, Joe Whitmer, and a throng of volunteers, the IBC has become a well-orchestrated annual event featuring the best of the best from the United States and abroad. And, Sieleman says, it is experiencing tremendous growth. “The IBC has doubled in the number of participants during my tenure,” he says. “There were less than 70 in 2004, about 95 in 2005, 120 in 2006, and more than 150 this year.” And that growth has increased the caliber of the acts finding their way to Memphis. “Even in the time that I’ve been coming to this event — and I came to this even before I was ever working for The Blues Foundation or involved in it — the level of competition has increased,” Sieleman says. “The quality of the performances has increased immeasurably.” The impressive constant about the IBC is that it also brings increased attention to participating acts, not only on the stages here in Memphis but in their respective communities as well. “What happens here in Memphis at the IBC is only the culmination of all the regional, city, or state competitions put on by the affiliates,” Sieleman explains. “Most of them run their own competitions, so it has the effect of increasing exposure of blues music in markets like Detroit, Tampa, and the state of Iowa.”
And the musicians finding their way to Memphis come from much farther distances, too. Acts from Japan, Scotland, and Australia have graced the stages of venues on Beale. Some of them haven’t even been able to speak the language except through their music. Jeff “Goose” Goss, general manager of Blues City Cafe on Beale, says that dynamic adds flavor to the event. “One year, we had a band from Japan, and when these guys were on stage, they sounded like they were from Mississippi!” Goss says. “Then when they came off stage, they couldn’t understand a word I was saying to them. So through their interpreter, I booked them to do late night sets the weekend they were in town for the IBC.” In addition to the national and international bands that Memphians and visitors to our city enjoy, Beale Street, too, enjoys an economic boost during a low revenue period — the winter. “The International Blues Challenge gives us a summer weekend in the middle of winter,” Goss says. “And that is a significant win for the hosting clubs up and down Beale.” International Blues Challenge 2008 is scheduled for January 31 through February 2 and will no doubt once again live up to the expectations of those involved with the event, ensuring its successful run here in Memphis. And, according to Sieleman, it will be an unprecedented entertainment bang for the buck for new patrons and returning guests alike.
“You can walk down there and for $10, you can wander in and out of 17 clubs and hear blues from all over the country and all over the world,” he says. “To me, that’s the Downtown thing: You can walk to this great music. And the IBC is one of the great Downtown weekends for a music lover — certainly for a blues music lover.”
The Blues Foundation, 49 Union, 527-2583,