NWA Profile: Music lover and nonprofit leader Orson Weems aims to build up the music industry in Arkansas

Orson Weems and his Uncle Al have a vision to make a thriving music entertainment industry in the state of Arkansas. They’re starting with education, appreciation and workforce development through The

“Orson is a selfless person. He is the essence of a gentleman. That’s why I respect and love him so much. He’s the type of person who helps people. I do it in the music industry and Orson is like that, that’s why we work so well together. We think in harmony.” — Al Bell, legendary music, entertainment icon and founder of Stax Records

(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
“Orson is a selfless person. He is the essence of a gentleman. That’s why I respect and love him so much. He’s the type of person who helps people. I do it in the music industry and Orson is like that, that’s why we work so well together. We think in harmony.” — Al Bell, legendary music, entertainment icon and founder of Stax Records (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Orson Weems has always loved and appreciated music. From the time he was a young boy, he admired his dad's impressive new stereo system with big speakers -- but then again, so did the rest of the neighborhood.

On Sundays in the early 1970s, Weems' mother and dad loved to sing. His mom would put on Leontyne Price -- one of the most influential sopranos of the century, among the first African American singers to reach worldwide recognition -- or Aretha Franklin's "Amazing Grace" album. Then she would open the front doors of the house with the wrap-around porch where they lived with Orson and his three brothers to let the beautiful tracks float through their Pine Bluff neighborhood.

"Most of the folks around us could hear this incredible album that I still love to this day," Weems says while sitting on a porch of a very different sort. This one fronts a humble blues shack made of cypress and tin.

Called the Juke Joint, it once stood in the Clinton Library and Museum, but a lot of folks missed seeing it because it arrived there shortly before the covid pandemic shutdown began. Last spring it was transferred to the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History in Fayetteville as a donation to The Music Education Initiative, a nonprofit organization that cultivates the state's music industry by providing music and entertainment education, career paths and opportunities. Weems is its executive director and co-founder.

Since the Juke Joint arrived in Northwest Arkansas, it has hosted many performing artists, including iconic Blues artist Bobby Rush and DK Harrell, 2022 B.B. King/King of the Blues Award winner, along with many others who brought jazz, blues, poetry, Indian Carnatic music performances and oral stories of music history.

The exhibit was only planned to be here a few months, but it has remained in place for more than a year due to its success and alignment with the nonprofit organization's mission to educate and inspire people with music.

Orson Weems has had a lot to do with that. Prior to heading the nonprofit, he worked as chief operating officer for legendary music, entertainment icon and former chairman and owner of Stax Records Al Bell and his artist development company, Al Bell Presents.

"Orson is a selfless person," Al Bell says by phone. "He is the essence of a gentleman. That's why I respect and love him so much. He's the type of person who helps people. I do it in the music industry, and Orson is like that, that's why we work so well together. We think in harmony."

Bell says Weems has played a hands-on role with him as they work to build and create a desire for a music industry in Arkansas, while resurrecting other types of music that are less common now.

"Our mission is to engage, educate, elevate and prepare the next generation of professionals in the music industry," Bell says. "We're focusing on causing those active in music entertainment to know each other and understand (that) they can work together out of the state and develop throughout Arkansas."

The Juke Joint "is such a cool location ... they've presented all kinds of programs there," says Gail Papermaster, a key adviser to the Music Education Initiative and Weems' friend. What has served the new nonprofit well, as it got its legs throughout the early pandemic, was to be open to other lines of thinking and doing things.

"Orson reaches out across the community and pulls things together and gets things done," Papermaster says. She works with a variety of nonprofits and sees Weems' publicity prowess as a huge, unique strength. "He's good at publicizing results, which is absolutely essential ... to raise money."

Lisa Allen, former executive director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, says she was honored to become a founding board member for the Music Education Initiative and has been impressed with its early success.

"I'm proud we made it through the pandemic and all the challenges for a brand new organization," Allen says. "Orson led us, we thrived through it, because so much work was getting done. And as soon as things reopened, we had public programming" like that at the Juke Joint.

Weems also arranged a screening of Martin Shore's movie "Take Me To the River," about older recording artists mentoring younger ones, shown at the Roots Festival in 2018 with Al Bell speaking to the crowd afterward. It was so successful that they ran the program a second time at the Meteor Guitar Gallery. That time they brought four Grammy winners and an Oscar winner on stage for discussion and then musical performance, including Blue Mitchell, Al Bell, William Bell, Bobby Rush and Frayser Boy, with Hank Henderson moderating.

While some nonprofit organizations struggled with a lack of resources or an inability to shift gears quickly and had to shutter doors the last few years, Allen says it's Weems' savvy that helped carry them through.

"I'm so proud of Orson and (cofounder) GT," she says. "They were still fervently working so that the organization had connections and funding and resources to move forward."

Weems harnessed his genuine passion for the mission of education and inspiration of music and the arts. Then he got the word out to others who could support it.

"Orson is an amazing storyteller ... and has such a love of people's different backgrounds and cultures," Papermaster says. That plays naturally into his role of introducing other musicians, artists, styles of music, and types of job opportunities they could easily train for, she says.

Weems has personal experience gathering folks of all walks of life. He and wife Karen have long hosted something like a salon at their home, inviting high school jazz quartets, classical pianists, visual artists and more to play music and have discussions.

"Everyone is treated warmly and respectfully, regardless of the reason for their visit or whether they have a title," she says. "Any excursion accompanying Orson, whether it's a business meeting, social gathering or attending a cultural performance, his exuberance and his way of being such a magnanimous and generous host is infectious."

SURPRISING DISCOVERY

As a child of the 1960s, Orson grew up in a lively house that was full of his football playing brothers and good spreads of food. Both his parents were excellent cooks, his father a professional one at the Pleasant Valley Country Club in Little Rock, where they lived in his earliest years.

When it came to football for himself, it's not so much that Orson Weems chose football as it chose him. As he remembers it, he was playing with Tog'l building blocks when his older brother Wyatt came in to fetch him.

"He said, 'You're going to play football,' and I said 'I don't know what that is,'" Weems laughs at the recollection. He must have been about 6 years old when he started.

Once their parents got promotions as the first Black managers for the Dillard's department store -- his father over the men's department and his mother over the women's -- the family moved to Pine Bluff. Weems entered first George Washington Carver Elementary and later Merrill Junior High School and arrived just as Pine Bluff schools were integrating.

By sixth grade, Wyatt was dragging Orson along to the community football team and advocating to their parents that he needed to be a part of it, so the family headed down to the field on Saturday.

Wyatt, playing spokesperson, told the coach that Orson was going to play tackle. One look at Weems, who was already 5-foot-11, and the coach simply agreed. It was a big deal in town to get fitted for a football uniform, but Orson didn't have any trouble. Kell's Sporting Goods decked him out in the very best, handing him the high quality stuff since they knew this player was going all the way.

Out on the field, it didn't take Weems long to figure out his strengths.

"I didn't like guys hitting me, so I started releasing these incredible responses to them," Weems says. "I was very aggressive; my brothers would kid me. I didn't care for a lot of people then. I would do my own thing, but if they provoked me, I (would) finish it real quick."

As Weems continued to gain incredible height and understanding of the game, he made varsity team in only seventh grade. The coaches ran punishing drills and promised Orson and the rest of the team that they would continue to run until they got tired just from watching.

By the time the Weems family moved back to North Little Rock, Orson was an eighth grader who measured 6-foot-3 inches. At Northeast High School he found good folks, good teachers and wild success as a tackle. Through 10th, 11th and 12th grades, he earned all kinds of accolades and awards, including All State, All City and All American.

FEROCIOUS NO. 79

Weems had grown accustomed to living the football life, but it was a life in action. He didn't watch much football on TV, and he hadn't been to a Razorbacks game himself. So when, during his junior year, someone came to Orson's classroom with a message for him that he was wanted in the office, the last thing Orson could have guessed was that it was a recruiter from the Arkansas Razorbacks.

"They told me they were going to watch me," Weems says. "I had no idea" what that meant. But then he began to get recruiting letters from other major programs around the country, and with his older brother already at the University of Arkansas, Orson thought he might follow.

"I had a feeling to go where I knew someone, where people knew me," he says. "Why should I go other places -- San Diego, Oklahoma State, (etc)? Why should I go to another state when I want to stay and help Arkansas?"

Once Orson announced he would sign on to play for the Razorbacks, his older brother said he'd be there and increasingly more friends dropped by his house with flimsy excuses, curious about the attention he was getting.

Marcus Elliott was a football player at Little Rock Central High School at the time and though he didn't know Weems personally yet, he had met him and followed his budding career before they both wound up in Razorbacks jerseys.

"I thought he was a great player," Elliott says. "He was just gifted, a tall, strong, athletic, powerful person. He's a contradiction -- as a player he's ferocious -- a vicious hitter and player, but just as kind, caring and loyal off the field with everybody."

On signing day in early 1980, Orson's parents laid out a catering-style spread for Coaches Lou Holtz and Ken Turner's arrival. One look at the impressive assortment made the Razorback crew regret that Weems' house was the first stop rather than the last.

By July, Weems was in Fayetteville doing three-a-day workouts to get in proper, college football shape for the first game, Arkansas versus Texas, on Labor Day. The level of work he was doing was not what they'd told him to expect during recruitment. Orson called his mom to lament the many hills and bleachers he was running and wondered whether he should go back home.

At 6 foot 3 inches and 265 pounds, Weems was for the first time surrounded by guys more massive than he was, and everybody was an All American. He realized he was going to have to "get on board and do the right thing."

At first, Orson didn't make the Razorbacks travel team, but he and his brother Wyatt went to the game at War Memorial Stadium anyway and watched from the stands. That's where they were when they saw Jim Elliott, a senior from Fayetteville, sustain a serious knee injury.

Then Orson noticed one of the athletic trainers waving at him, so he waved back in friendly acknowledgement. The trainer was trying to signal Weems to come down onto the field. He sent an usher to clear a path and direct him to the locker room to take Jim's place.

Orson told Wyatt he'd see him after the game and stepped over the rail. He dressed out in Jim's number, and the Razorbacks went on to win.

LOU HOLTZ' SELF IMPROVEMENT CLASS

During his own turn in the spotlight, Weems had to get used to the coverage by sports commentators Paul Eells, Dave Woodman and many others. Athlete Ira Wells was also on the team and on occasion their names would get jumbled so that Weems would be mistakenly referred to as "Orson Wells." Rather than make a fuss, Weems played along by modifying the great's work, saying, "He would block no line before it's time."

But not all situations on the field were so easy to smooth over.

A game against Southern Methodist University, during which a referee's call had made Holtz "nuclear," ended in a tie, Weems remembers, and he and other athletes couldn't get to their locker room while media was swarming it. In the mayhem, Orson's glasses fell off and got broken, which complicated his return trip. But that still wasn't as dangerous as a game at Jackson Coliseum.

At first it was just an auspicious sign, Ole Miss's band playing "Dixie." But then it grew more hateful as people spat on the Razorbacks, cursed at them and called them names. The Hogs won, but Holtz directed them to skip the locker rooms and head straight to the bus. Weems and his teammates got on board and put their heads down as angry Ole Miss fans threw rocks at the bus -- and the police escort pretended not to notice.

Despite those experiences, spending a few years under the direction of Razorbacks Coach Lou Holtz was intense, positive and influential for his outlook, Weems says.

Holtz "is somebody who pushes you to do more than you think you can," he says. "The discipline and things he would expect from us really felt like we became one of his boys."

It went far beyond the drills and repetitions. After the usual duties of practices, workouts and games were Sunday evening classes about how to present yourself and handling yourself in tricky situations.

"I can still feel it and hear it," Weems says, admitting he wants to shout those lessons at certain athletes at times when they put a "bad product" on the Razorback football field.

Whether or not Orson knew it then, he was internalizing the values and using them with his teammates long before he became president and majority shareholder of Land Improvement Company or served on influential boards, such as the Razorback Letterman's Club, the Arkansas Alumni Association, the Walton College of Business' Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board and the University of Arkansas Chancellor's Council on Diversity.

"I always saw him as a leader," says Marcus Elliott. "People enjoyed being around him, and for me, he was always such an encouragement."

When Elliott broke his leg as a freshman, he flew back to Arkansas and went into surgery. The next day he woke up to find Orson, who had rallied their teammates to the hospital to bring snacks and good company. In the decades since, he's seen that quality turn Weems into a facilitator, someone who loves to connect people who could benefit from each other's talents by working together.

"He's a builder and an encourager," Elliott says. "I'm proud that he touches their lives and makes it better. Orson is really special and selfless, and loves to see others succeed."

A SHARED VISION

The Music Education Initiative was the brainchild of Orson Weems and Greg "GT" Thompson, born of a vision they shared with Al Bell for building a music ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas. The three of them traveled together for years with work on Al Bell Presents and often discussed what they wanted to see, including more folks working in music and preservation of types of music that are in danger of dying off.

"Mr. Bell had music ecosystem building ideas he wanted to bring up here ... so we were trying to see which parts of that plan we could implement," Thompson says.

Their multi-phase plan starts with education, teaching songwriting in schools and other skills that will foster recording in the music industry too, not just the performance side. And all throughout is the continued work of exposing people to genres of music that are no longer mainstream, taking blues and jazz and bringing life to it.

Then there's fostering the behind-the-scenes work of venue management and training people in production and the necessary grunt work like moving equipment off large trucks ahead of shows.

"The music entertainment industry is very complex, convoluted and sophisticated," says Al Bell. "You've got to go phase by phase, step by step. As you move, it causes people to understand how the components connect."

The Music Education Initiative has focused lately on that workforce development with local workshops.

"From an economic and development standpoint, they get results ... through the technical training program," Papermaster says. "Orson has, through cultivating relationships throughout Northwest Arkansas and beyond, found locations to offer workshops. One day, afternoon or evening can give people a possible career in music without being a musician and be hired the next day."

Orson's superpower, Thompson says, is his memory and passion for people.

"The success of what we're doing with Music Education Initiative is that he knows everybody we cross paths with," he says. "He remembers everybody. He's a communicator and reaches out to them and checks in on how they're doing."

It works because it's genuine, Thompson says. "He's one of the few people who, if he can do something for you, he will. You do not have to ask twice. Just mention the situation, and Orson's going to be there."

  photo  "He's a builder and an encourager. I'm proud that he touches their lives and makes it better. Orson is really special and selfless, and loves to see others succeed." — Marcus Elliott, former Arkansas Razorback football player (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Orson Craig Weems

Date and place of birth: July 15, 1962, St. Vincent's Hospital, Little Rock

Family: Wife Karen, son Jordan (J Craig), daughter Lauren and grandson Jett

A typical Saturday night for me includes: Supporting other organizations, artists and/or nonprofits. Then relaxing later to watch HGTV. My wife and I love "Love It, Or List It," "Fixer To Fabulous" and "Married To Real Estate."

One of my all-time favorite concert experiences: Oh, my! Just one? Hard to share just one. Stevie Wonder in Memphis and The Rolling Stones in Little Rock at War Memorial Stadium.

My top five artists that I never grow tired of listening to: U2, Michael Jackson, B.B. King, Freddie Mercury and Aretha Franklin.

The best advice I've ever received: "Go where they know you" and "Don't depend on school for all of your education," from my dad.

People might be surprised to find out: I have never been to California.

Fantasy dinner guests: My loved ones that have passed — mom, dad, my brother Wyatt and the Messiah.

My greatest accomplishment is: my son and daughter.

I know I've done a good job within the Music Education Initiative when: I'll consider our program to be successful when it receives regional or national attention and is sought after as a scalable model by individuals and organizations alike.

My favorite place in Northwest Arkansas: Crystal Bridges!


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