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VOL. 126 | NO. 170 | Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Musical Milestone

Shell’s 75 years built on community support

By Andy Meek

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Mortimer Levitt was a businessman who built an empire of menswear stores around the country and who also had a deep love of the arts.

The Levitt Shell at Overton Park hosts a concert during Elvis Week to celebrate Elvis Presley’s debut there in 1954.  The Shell is celebrating its 75th anniversary this fall.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

So much so that Levitt, who died in 2005, also is the namesake of a foundation set up to fund arts and community-related projects around the country.

One of those projects was the re-launch in 2008 of the Overton Park Shell, which had been closed a few years prior by the city of Memphis after a period of inactivity and disrepair.

The $1.3 million renovation that resulted in the Levitt Shell at Overton Park kicked off a new era for the historic venue, which is where Elvis Presley gave his first paid concert in 1954.

The shell is blowing out 75 candles on its birthday cake this year. But its milestone anniversary has arguably only been made possible by steady community support – and the support of the Levitt Foundation that got the space going again.

The Shell has evolved into something of a cross between an intimate music venue and a communal gathering space that’s given it a unique place among outdoor venues in the city. As such, the Shell is part of a larger examination of those venues in the cover story of The Memphis News, sister publication of The Daily News, coming to newsstands Saturday, Sept. 3.

To get an idea of how much history the memorable-looking venue has seen, Elvis wasn’t even the main act on the bill for that summer ’54 show at the shell, which was built for less than $12,000 in the 1930s by the city of Memphis and the Works Progress Administration.

“It’s a pretty monumental thing that this venue in Overton Park has been here for 75 years, and that’s only because of the support it receives from the community,” said Levitt Shell executive director Anne Pitts. “So that’s a real important message for us this year.

“We’ve got a really exciting fall season. I’m pretty thrilled about it, because we’ve got a great mix of local talent as well as people coming in from all over.”

The Shell is undergoing some sprucing up to prepare for its concert season that begins Sept. 15.

The fall’s slate of shows includes acts ranging from Cyril Neville, a member of the famed Neville Brothers band, and folk singer Sara Hickman, who was appointed the 2010 Texas state musician. Exactly one month after kicking off Sept. 15, the Shell also is scheduled to play host on Oct. 15 to a 75th Anniversary Benefit.

“This is kind of the only year we can do this, so it’s pretty exciting,” Pitts said. “Our tagline for the event is ‘Party Like it’s 1936.’ We’ll have an orchestra with some of the best musicians in Memphis on stage, and then a series of special guests coming out and performing the songs of 1936.

“That means everything from Billie Holliday to Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. It’s going to be a wonderful celebration of 75 years of incredible music history at this beautiful venue in Memphis.”

Recent shows outside of the concert slate have included a free concert in July by Amy LaVere to tout her new album “Stranger Me.” That record was recorded and produced here in Memphis by Craig Silvey, who also mixed Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” for which the band won a Grammy.

In early August, British musician Pete Best – the Beatle who got bested by Ringo Starr, who replaced Best as drummer – played the Shell.

And there are still more big treats to come, full details of which are available at www.levittshell.org.

The second Jim Dickinson Folk Festival will be held at the Shell Sept. 19. The event is a free tribute to Dickinson, who died in 2009. He was a producer, musician and father of Luther and Cody, members of the North Mississippi Allstars.

The first time it was held in 2009, the festival brought about 4,000 people to the Shell. This time around, headliners will include the North Mississippi Allstars, Lucero, Mojo Nixon, Jimbo Mathis & Tri-State Coalition, Sons of Mudboy and Shannon McNally.

“It was something his sons Cody and Luther wanted to do, to put together to honor their father, so we got a lot of local musicians to come out and celebrate his legacy,” Pitts said. “We didn’t do it in 2010. It wasn’t intended to be a yearly event, but this year Cody and Luther came to us and said they had such a special time that year and that it’s been two years and they want to do it again. So what we’re going to have is basically four hours of just unbelievable music.”

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