Best of the Beat Music Business Award: Maggie Warwick

The 2008 Offbeat Lifetime Achievement in Music Business is being awarded this year to Shreveport legend and the Chairman of the Louisiana Music Commission, Maggie Warwick. This certainly marks the first time a recipient in this category is as well known as a performer and a songwriter as a business person, but she has been a business trail blazer for over two decades.

Warwick was born in West Texas as Margaret Lewis, and she developed an early interest in country, rockabilly and R&B music. Her first break occurred in 1957, when a second place finish in a local talent show in Lubbock, Texas earned the 15-year-old an appearance on Shreveport’s famed Louisiana Hayride. At the time, the Hayride was a weekly Shreveport radio broadcast on 50,000 watt giant KWKH that helped launch the careers of Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Elvis Presley, Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash, among many others. It was the outlaw equivalent of the Grand Ole Opry, and it didn’t have the Opry’s prohibition of electric instruments or rowdy characters. Lewis appeared on it until it closed in 1960. It was at the Hayride that Lewis was introduced to Mira Smith, a local business person who ran a small record label and a studio called Ram (short for “Royal Audio Music”). She also doubled as a talented songwriter and guitarist.

Between 1959 and 1961 when the label stopped productions, Lewis cut several engaging singles which faired well in the Ark/La/Tex triangle, and an exceptional collection of Lewis’ Ram material can be heard on Lonesome Bluebird).

In 1964, Lewis signed with Capitol for a handful of singles before teaming up again with Smith to concentrate on writing songs. Their initial success was “I Almost Called Your Name,” which was a hit for Margaret Whiting, as well as David Houston’s “Mountain of Love.” The duo then decided to move to Nashville in 1966, a city that was already on the fast track to becoming the hub of the country music industry. Eventually, they signed on with Shelby Singleton’s new venture, SSS Productions, and provided massive hits for Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson (“Soul Shake”) Jeannie C. Riley (“Country Girl”) and Johnny Adams (the country soul classic, “Reconsider Me”). They also were responsible for Connie Francis’ hit, “Wedding Cake.” In all, Lewis has had more than 100 songs cut by artists including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and Lynn Anderson, and two of her songs are included on the 2005 Grammy-winning compilation of Nashville soul, Night Train to Nashville.

Lewis married Alton Warwick in 1981 and moved back to Shreveport where she sadly noted the city’s deteriorated music climate. Even the hallowed Municipal Auditorium, the home of the Louisiana Hayride, was in danger of a date with the wrecking ball as Shreveport’s infrastructure was rapidly crumbling around it. She and Warwick decided to make Louisiana Hayride central to their efforts to stimulate economic development in Shreveport and Bossier City, particularly for the music industry.

“People here always said Shreveport could have been another Nashville,” says Warwick. “They all talked about the city’s impressive musical history, but nobody did anything about it. It was originally the Grand Ole Opry that attracted the music industry to Nashville, but the Hayride was just as important as the Opry at one time. I was in Nashville when the Country Music Association (C.M.A.) got started and I learned a lot from them. They realized early that you need organization to attract the business community. That’s why I helped form F.A.M.E. (Foundation for Arts, Music and Entertainment of Shreveport-Bossier), because we needed a strong core group to connect with the Shreveport area’s business community.”

Warwick and F.A.M.E.’s first plan was to save the Municipal Auditorium and spur development in the immediate area. After a lot of hard work, they saved the historic structure, and F.A.M.E. was able to attract enough private funding and government grant money to begin renovations on the building and start reclaiming the immediate neighborhood. They also raised funds by staging concerts and conferences.

To follow-up on the tradition of fine songwriters that first found fame at the Hayride, Warwick and BMI are working to form a Louisiana songwriters organization. She also hopes to open a Louisiana Songwriters Hall of Fame in Bossier City, which will become part of a Southern American Music Museum. Most importantly, she and Alton Warwick hope to bring back the Louisiana Hayride one day, to once again air the show that was dubbed the “Cradle of the Stars.”

Warwick envisions the region and state’s musical heritage as a possible engine for economic development, something that can benefit musicians and make the Shreveport-Bossier City area, a popular heritage travel destination. A formal announcement concerning the project will be made early this year. We wish Warwick, and the Shreveport-Bossier area, much success with this exciting project.