Tales of Bessman: Jeff Walker, Fan Fair, Bob Merlis, Phil Spector and Bahnee’s Beaneruh

This one really woke me up this morning: “Industry Executive Jeff Walker Passes.” It was a tweet from musicrow.com.

Jeff was everywhere whenever I was in Nashville, either as an artist or event publicist, or general industry hang-out guy. Two memories stand out.

The first came during my second trip to Nashville, 1976 or 1977 or thereabouts, a year or so after my first trip to Nashville. I’d met my hero Jo-El Sonnier then (when he was still Joel), and started writing about him—and music in general—a few weeks after returning. Sometime within the following year I met his manager Earl Poole Ball (he didn’t use the Poole then) at a Johnny Cash show at the Dane County Coliseum, as Earl was John’s keyboard player. I knew Earl’s name from Jo-El’s publicity stills, and Earl knew who I was from the first Sonnier piece I’d written in The Madcity Music Sheet and forwarded to Jo-El.

My first trip to Nashville was with a high school buddy and his girlfriend (now wife), during a vacation from my job as a typist/secretary at the State of Wisconsin. This time I took the Greyhound to Nashville. Earl and Jo-El picked me up at the station and I stayed in Earl’s Wall-to-Wall music publishing company office in Music Row on 16th Avenue South. Jo-el slept on the fold-out couch and I slept on the floor.

It was the first week of June, and scorching. The office had no air conditioning; worse, it had no shower, so it was pretty much bird baths in the bathroom sink for a week. About as grubby as I’ve ever lived, and that’s saying a lot. And as usual, I had no money.

And it was Fan Fair Week. Now the humongous CMA Music Festival held all over downtown Nashville and Nissan Stadium and drawing upwards of 75,000 fans, Fan Fair had begun in 1972, when it brought 5,000 fans to Municipal Auditorium, where Roy Acuff, Tom T. Hall, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and others performed. It moved to the Tennessee Fairgrounds in 1982, by which time I was living in New York and working for the music trade Cash Box—and had become a Fan Fair regular. I made the move with it to downtown in 2001, but it was nothing like that first one, when I survived for three days on popcorn pilfered from the Con Brio Records booth when no one was looking.

Con Brio was active in the late ‘70s and was founded by Jeff and his father Bill Walker, an Australian-born American composer and conductor who had worked with such country stars as Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins and Eddy Arnold, and was musical director for TV’s The Johnny Cash Show. Con Brio’s biggest name artist was Jan Howard, who had sung on Cash tours with the Carter Family. But their priority artist at Fan Fair was Terri Hollowell, who charted five singles during her brief tenure at Con Brio, then retired to focus on family.

I remember meeting Terri, but more memorable, aside from having desperately needed a hot meal and a shower, was seeing “Ragin’ Cajun” Doug Kershaw—the reason I became a writer in the first place. He had recorded Jo-El’s “Cajun Born,” and I went to see him–and interview him–at an outdoor rock show in Oshkosh opening for Chilliwack, Muddy Waters and headliners J. Geils. At Fan Fair, I saw him sing his signature hit “Louisiana Man” at the auditorium with brother Rusty, the first time in years that the two performed together, and maybe the last time; he originally recorded “Louisiana Man” with Rusty–who died in 2001–as Rusty & Doug.

I also met my lifelong pal Bob Merlis during Fan Fair Week. Maybe a month or so earlier—or a year, but in the spring—Warner Bros. Nashville had provided two then baby acts, Con Hunley and Margo Smith, for a free outdoor fan appreciation day show near Madison put on by the local country station WTSO. I met the WB/Nashville publicist Bonnie Rasmussen, who was just wonderful, by the way, and asked her if she knew Doug Kershaw, who at the time was signed to Warner Bros. She immediately informed me in no uncertain terms that I had to get in touch with Bob Merlis, since he was also a huge Cajun music fan.

Bob ran national Warner Bros. Records publicity out of L.A., and when I got home I mailed him a few clippings as an intro. He put me on the mailing list—which at the time I didn’t know existed—and I started receiving WB album releases. Then when I showed up at the label’s Nashville office one morning during Fan Fair, I surprised Bonnie, who like everyone else had a Bloody Mary in her hand, much as I did a moment later. After all, it was Fan Fair, and everyone was celebrating. But I wasn’t the only out-of-towner, and when I asked Bonnie if Bob might have been there as well, she said that indeed he was, as a number of top WB/L.A. execs always came in for Fan Fair.

She brought me to him and there he was, middle of June in a lightweight sport coat and bow tie. He knew who I was from our correspondence and we talked a bit about Cajun music, all the while holding up a cassette tape recorder which was clearly recording our conversation. After a few minutes I gave in to curiosity and asked if he was recording us. Yes, he said, he was recording all his conversations while he was in Nashville. Why, I asked. “Because when I get back to L.A. I’m going to edit them!” Bob Merlis replied.

I thought about this for a second or two, then decided I would be his disciple for the rest of my life.

Many years later I was talking with Jeff and somehow Con Brio came up and I mentioned how I’d eaten all its popcorn that long ago Fan Fair. Jeff laughed, and when I asked whatever happened to Terri Hollowell, he laughed again and reintroduced me to Terri, who was now his wife—and the reason she retired to spend time with her family.

Many years later, too, I took my first trip to L.A. I was now a contributor to Billboard, which paid my air fare, since I was there to help cover their annual music video conference. I rented a car and stayed with a friend living on the beach in Playa del Rey. Bob hosted the first of what would become the annual Bessman Bash at his house; last Saturday night there were maybe 100 or so partiers in attendance for Bessman Bash 2015.

The first Bash, however, had at most a dozen guests. Bob was close with Phil Spector,and I had met Phil myself toward the end of the preceding year when he showed up in Nashville during CMA Week to pick up a BMI Award for the country chart-topping 1987 cover of his 1958 Teddy Bears pop hit “To Know Him is to Love Him” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, from their Trio album.

Through Bob I knew some people in Phil’s entourage, and as he was leaving with them via the underground entrance to the parking lot, he walked by me and I was introduced. He didn’t even look at me and just walked by, with his people, until he reached the doorway, then abruptly turned around—as did everyone else—and sauntered back over to me and Art Fein, host of L.A.’s longtime cable rock’n’ roll talk show Art Fein’s Poker Party, who was also close to Phil and part of his crew.

“So who’s the guy with the beard?” Phil asked Art, upon which I practically jumped onto him to shake hands and identify myself. When we were planning that first Bessman Bash, I asked Bob to invite Phil, and a couple hours into the party, the doorbell rang. Our friend Tom Vickers went to get it, and came back to me, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. “There’s someone at the door for you,” he said.

It was Phil. He was all alone. I effusively thanked him for coming and ushered him into the vestibule, where he stood for two hours. Didn’t even remove his coat. It was just him and me for the first half hour or so. I offered him a drink and he accepted water, but that was it. No food, no alcohol. Never left his spot. Eventually everyone came over to him and shy and uncomfortable as he was, he couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. He would come to many Bessman Bashes over the following years, often bringing his lovely daughter Nicole. We’ll never forget his many kindnesses.

Jeff Walker was the major promoter of country music videos back then, and I ran into him at the video conference. A few of us went out do dinner that night, including Billboard’s then managing editor Ken Schlager. We went to some trendy place that was a big celebrity hang, expensive and with a fancy menu. Jeff was not impressed.

“Don’t they have any buguhs, like at Bahnee’s Beaneruh?” he asked impishly, his Aussie accent distorting both “burgers” and “Barney’s Beanery.”

Barney’s Beanery? I said, clearly indicating that I’d never been there, if in fact I knew what it was—which I didn’t, until I was reminded it was illustrated on the classic album cover of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s classic 1968 album Cheap Thrills. Schlager’s eyes suddenly lit up as his lips formed a mischievous grin. Without a word he closed his menu, set it down, and stood up. The rest of us did the same and followed him out of the eatery as all the beautiful people looked at us in disgust.

Half an hour later Jeff, who was a great guy and a great friend and a major figure in the Nashville music community until his sudden death yesterday, was biting into his buhguh at the famous Bahnee’s Beaneruh.

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