KWEM Radio, an historic West Memphis radio station that influenced the course of modern music, has returned to the airwaves as a streaming Internet station.
Mid-South Community College operates the Web-based station and owns the numerous artifacts related to its rich musical history. The college has also created a campus-based replica of the KWEM studio which was originally located at 231 Broadway Street in downtown West Memphis.
KWEM, which gave unknown or little-known Memphis-area artists the opportunity to perform live, aired its first broadcast on February 23, 1947. In 1954, the station added a second studio at 64 Flicker Street in Memphis.
Originally broadcasting on 990 kilocycles, the station offered an enticing concept to musicians. Anyone who could pay the $15 to $20 fee (or find a sponsor), could play their music live. Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Albert King, Scotty Moore, and others stepped up, paid up, and performed their magic on KWEM. People listened and loved what they heard.
In the 1940s, the legendary musicians who shaped the blues and created many of the first rock and roll records followed the winds of change and lust for fame to the back alleys of West Memphis. They found something not available to them on Beale Street – a wide-open, raucous town ready for entertainment – “the Las Vegas of the South,” as Memphis musician Rufus Thomas described it.
From the late 1940s until the early 1960s, West Memphis featured more than 30 all-night clubs with dancing and blues. On weekends, hundreds of people flocked from the surrounding countryside and from Memphis. During those years, West Memphis played host to Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, Little Junior Parker, James Cotton, Phineas and Calvin Newborn, Willie Mitchell, Hubert Sumlin, Albert King, Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Bobby Blue Bland, Willie Love, Roscoe Gordon, Willie Nix, Tuff Green, and others. By night, they honed their craft in the honky-tonks and juke joints that dotted Broadway. By day, they appeared on KWEM to promote themselves to a much larger audience in hopes of being discovered.
Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy became regulars with their expanded radio shows that included almost all of the blues greats as performing guests. Whether in studio or at KWEM’s Saturday Night Jamboree, black blues artists performed side by side with white country artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio, Reggie Young, Eddie Bond, John Hughey, Barbara Pittman, Warren Smith, Tommy Smith, Jim Stewart, Texas Bill Strength, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Larry Manuel, Bud Deckleman, Stan Kessler, Smokey Joe Baugh, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and many others.
Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, became one of many regular KWEM listeners, and when he heard Howlin’ Wolf’s radio show in 1950, he said, “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.” The rest is pop-music history. Phillips’ recording of Howlin’ Wolf was followed by his signing of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and others. Their music went on to influence thousands, who went on to influence millions.
More than 200 artists took advantage of the opportunity to perform on the West Memphis station, and many went on to sign recording contracts with major labels.
KWEM also played an important role in the creation of Stax Records. Jim Stewart of the KWEM Radio House Band, the Snearly Ranch Boys, started Satellite Records in 1957. In 1958, Estelle Axton, Stewart’s sister, entered the partnership, and Satellite Records became Stax Records. KWEM alumnus Albert King signed with Stax in 1966. His electric guitar style significantly impacted some of the world’s greatest performers – Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Walsh, and Jimi Hendrix – to name a few.
When KWEM Radio closed its doors in 1960, its mark was clearly made on music history. KWEM is listed on the National Historic Buildings applications for Sun Studios and Graceland as having been a major influence on Elvis Presley and the Memphis area in the birth of rock and roll.
KWEM Radio has been granted an LP-FM license and began broadcasting on June 1, 2015 on FM 93.3. The terrestrial station and the internet streaming station will share the story of rock and roll’s conception, to introduce future generations to the people who nurtured it, to pay tribute to the radio station that influenced the face of American music forever, and to let the world know…it happened in West Memphis.
In addition to broadcasting the sounds of the original KWEM, MSCC is incorporating the station into its Digital Media program to provide students the opportunity to participate in the historic effort.The station’s music includes old and new selections, all featuring some connection to the original KWEM performers and will include diverse genres – blues, soul, R&B, country, rock-a-billy and, of course, rock 'n roll.