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VOL. 125 | NO. 134 | Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Back on the Air

Historic KWEM returns to airwaves

MITCH McCRACKEN | Special to The Daily News

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After being silent and nearly forgotten for more than 50 years, the radio station that helped launch the careers of such music pioneers as B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Albert King – and even Elvis Presley – is back.

Founded in West Memphis in 1947, KWEM featured live performances by more than 200 artists during its heyday. Now the station is broadcasting worldwide to a much larger audience via the Internet.

“KWEM is literally the most important radio station in history,” said Dale Franklin, station owner and CEO. “KWEM gave birth to the ‘electric blues’ and started the rockabilly revolution that would lead to rock ’n’ roll and the Memphis sound.”

The station returned to the air last year as a part of the Live 365 Radio Network, one of the largest radio networks in the world, joining Disney Radio, Rock.com radio station and others.

It is a Web-based global broadcast station with programming that includes the historic music that started the station – vintage and modern blues, rockabilly and the electric blues.

It is also one of two Internet stations to broadcast the Beale Street Caravan.

“I knew about KWEM but most people are not aware of the extent of its importance in Memphis music history,” said David Fleischman, co-owner of AllMemphisMusic.com and past vice president of rock promotion of MCA Records. “KWEM is a story waiting to be told.”

Practically every artist who entered the doors of Sun Studio and Chess Records from 1950 to 1954 came directly from playing live on the air at KWEM.

Sam Phillips listened to KWEM on a daily basis looking for talent. Jim Stewart, who founded Stax records, got his start on KWEM. Several years later Stewart’s first record featured KWEM DJ Fred Bylar.

“There would probably not have been Memphis music if it had not been for KWEM radio,” said Dean Deyo, president of the Memphis Music Foundation. “It was on the cutting edge of Memphis music then and it is once again with its newly launched Internet version. KWEM helped put Memphis music on the map and we are glad that it is back and helping to keep it there.”

KWEM is now joining Beale Street, Sun Studio and Graceland as a foundation of the historical musical explosion that took place in Memphis and West Memphis in the early 1950s.

Mark Hoffman, author of “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” said, “Howlin’ Wolf got the biggest break of his career in 1951 thanks to KWEM.”

Franklin stumbled on KWEM while doing research for a documentary on the history of West Memphis. He discovered that B.B. King got his first radio exposure not on WDIA, as he believed, but on KWEM. Through his research he also found that Sonny Boy Williamson II was a disc jockey at KWEM as was his brother-in-law Howlin’ Wolf. The story of KWEM’s importance and its history grew from there.

Franklin then decided he wanted to return the station to the air and bring the KWEM story to light. It is not only important to the story of the music scene in West Memphis, but with the addition of the Memphis studios on Flicker Street in

1954, it is also important to the Memphis sound.

KWEM is now based at the Franklins’ home; however, a museum is being planned and a fundraising effort is under way for a permanent location for the station, which will operate live as it would have in 1950.

A 50-year-old reel-to-reel tape of the first radio broadcast of Cash, which took place at KWEM, was discovered in 2003 by Cash’s estate. This recording has been made into a CD and is being made available to sponsors of KWEM and is being offered to the public.

The recording was made by a new hire at KWEM, George Klein, in September 1954 and features a very young Cash just prior to being discovered by Phillips at Sun Records. In fact, the tape of the radio broadcast was used by Cash to get an audition at Sun.

Tune into KWEM at www.kwemradio.com. A new book on the history of KWEM is being written and due to hit the streets this fall.

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