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.

Ren Grevatt

I hadn’t seen him in several years, and I knew he was way older than he looked, and sure enough Ren Grevatt was 94 when he died Saturday—though I didn’t find out until yesterday, and no one else seemed to know either. Ren was an ironically soft-spoken, quiet guy even when he was in his prime as a music publicist, but when word of his death finally did come out, he made a lot of noise among the many writers, clients and staffers whose lives he touched, personally and professionally, in his many years in the biz.

It was mainly because of the kind of guy he was, in addition to the job he did.

“The man behind the scenes sometimes made the scenes happen—and got the word out when they did,” wrote Nitty Gritty Dirt Bander John McEuen via email. “Cordially, smoothly, always the pro, Ren–or as Steve Martin called him, Reverend Grevell–brought the press to many acts that would have been ignored otherwise, and to many they might not have otherwise reached. You always felt like you were his most important client, and he was excited about things that got done. A fine skier, cordial host, friendly guy everyone liked and proud loving father, music lover Ren was always good to see, whether working for you or just coming to hang out.”

Ren handled the Dirt Band and many, many other acts and companies over the years, notably including the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Alice Cooper and Irving Plaza—and I’m forever grateful that he got me a VIP card that enabled me instant entrance there any time. I also felt a kinship with him in that we both worked for Billboard, though he was there long before me—whether or not he looked it.

Bob Merlis, himself a music business publicity legend, at Warner Bros. Records and independently, recalls: “He was one of the first indie publicists I got to know. Very kind, even-tempered guy who made me realize you don’t have to look or act ‘hip’ or be like the artists you rep to be effective. One’s credibility might, in fact, be proportional to how different your affect is from that of your client’s. He was on retainer from Warner Bros. Records before they established their own New York-based publicity department and, as such, handled the Grateful Dead and invited me to a reception for the band at Max’s Kansas City where I got to spend some quality time with Jerry Garcia. He was a dignified guy in an undignified business.”

Indeed, Ren was a good, decent person, qualities that were reflected in his staff, many of whom went on to great things in and out of the business. A role model, for sure.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part Five

Christians have Lent, and Jews have any number of solemn holidays. Muslims have the month of Ramadan.

I have August.

Today begins the second August without Nick Ashford. I think of him all the time, as I’m sure everyone who knew him does. He died August 22, 2011.

I was coming back from L.A. that day. I’ll be in L.A. again this year on Aug. 22. But I’ll think of him then, as I do now.

I thought of him a lot last Thursday when I brought Corky Siegel to the Sugar Bar, along with Barry Goldberg. They were in town for a screening the next night at Lincoln Center of Born In Chicago, the acclaimed documentary that tells the story of the pioneering middle class white kids in Chicago—Siegel, Goldberg, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, among the most famous–who learned to play and live the blues directly from its most legendary practitioners like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Bob Merlis, himself a legend as a veteran music business publicist, moderated a panel discussion following the screening, speakers including Siegel and Goldberg. A big friend of the Sugar Bar who’s there whenever he’s in town, Merlis had accompanied the pair there the night before, and at the panel noted that when they sat in with the house band for a little Thursday Open Mic night blues bit, it was “déjà vu all over again” in that once again, they were performing at a predominantly black music club, sitting in with all black musicians.

If only Nick were there.

He would have loved it so much, and loved Barry and Corky. Indeed, Nick loved the blues so much that he started the Tuesday night Nuttin’ But The Blues open mic series, and even hosted it himself.

Of course, there was nuttin’ Nick—and Val–wouldn’t do to help other musicians, other people. And God bless Val for keeping it all going.

It’s raining today, August 1st. Otherwise I’d run out to Nick’s bench at Bryant Park, the bench with the plaque “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Me and Bob went there a couple months ago and took turns taking pictures of each other sleeping on the bench next to the plaque. I always remember the time a few years ago, when CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Nick and Val, and taped a few minutes at the bench. Then were filming Nick as he walked to the bench, but when they got there, a rather filthy homeless person was sleeping on it—much, perhaps, as Nick had done when he first came to New York.

Roused from his sleep, the bum rolled over and sat up—and Nick almost fell over laughing. It was me.

So it will be a sad month, somewhat, full of reflection. But as we enter it, the Israelis and the Palestinians are talking again for the first time in years. John McCain is suddenly working with President Obama. And the Pope asks, in regard to gays, “Who am I to judge?”

Back in May, the Pope even declared, “The Lord has redeemed all of us … even the atheists.”

I don’t believe in God, I like to say, but I do believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I’m reminded of a song you’ve probably never heard, since it was part of the songs Nick and Val wrote for An Invisible Life, the unproduced musical based on E. Lynn Harris’s novel about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, from which “Born This Way” was released as a single (with the great Broadway star Terry Lavell singing) just ahead of the Lady Gaga hit of the same title.

The song was to have been the show’s “11 o’clock number,” an intense gospel-like showstopper with “that big A&S sound,” as Nick once described a key Ashford & Simpson song characteristic to me.

The song was, “God Has Love For Everyone.”

Nick Ashford, too, had love for everyone. That is what I will think of most for the rest of this month, and hope to keep it in my heart, with Nick, every day thereafter.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 1

I’m flying back to New York from L.A. this morning as I write this on November 20, 2011, thinking back some three months to the last time I flew back from L.A., Monday afternoon, August 22, 2011—a date which will live in infamy in my life and others, no doubt, very many others.

Infamy, says Merriam-Webster: evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal, shocking, or brutal. Fitting for Pearl Harbor, as FDR so historically proclaimed.

Evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal. And while I knew it was coming, it was still so grossly shocking, brutal beyond words and comprehension, to this day and for all days.

The death of Nick Ashford.

I knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when. But no one really did, at least not until Monday morning, when Liz Rosenberg called. She had only found out he’d been seriously sick a week or so earlier. I’d known pretty much from the beginning, but didn’t know exactly what it was—or that it was going to end like this.

So I kept it quiet. I asked Val about him regularly, and thought whatever it was, he’d get better and it would be okay. I had no reason to think anything worse.

It couldn’t have been much more than three months that I’d spent time with him last, hanging at the Sugar Bar on a Thursday night Open Mic. He was fine then, at his center table upstairs in the Cat Lounge, watching the performances on the wall monitor, graciously receiving friends and fans, posing for pictures with anyone and everyone who asked.

There’s always a rose, now, in a vase on the table. Sometimes a glass of champagne.

The last time I saw him was at Aunt Bea’s funeral, Valerie’s aunt who died a couple months before him. Aunt Bea always made the greatest cakes that us lucky ones got to taste after everyone else left at the day-long “white parties” Nick and Val hosted on the Saturday nearest July 4, when they had their place in Connecticut. Everyone wore white, everyone ate and drank and lounged around the pool and enjoyed the wondrous A&S vibe–and a few of us had our Aunt Bea’s cake and ate it, too.

Nick came late to Aunt Bea’s funeral and left early and I didn’t get to speak with him but he looked great. He always looked great.

So I thought he was okay, and hadn’t kept up the way I should have, overwhelmed by my own problems. When Liz called frantically I called Val immediately for an update, and while she didn’t say it was good, she also didn’t let on that it was almost over. But I don’t think she knew that, either. I’m sure she didn’t.

Really, we were all in denial. We all still are.

I called Miss Tee Sunday afternoon from the beach. Altamese Alston. Miss Tee. Ashford & Simpson’s longtime assistant. If I said she was the most extraordinary woman I’ve ever been around, I’d still be understating it.

I’d always call Tee from the beach in LA, just to check in—and give her the opportunity to joke about how well I must be doing, being that I’m calling her from the beach in L.A. She sounded glad to hear from me but didn’t say much, gave no indication of what was really going on—as I knew she wouldn’t. Val once said of Tee: “If you tell something to Tee that you don’t want me to know, don’t worry—I don’t know it.”

But I pretty much knew it anyway. I was staying with Bob Merlis, Liz’s longtime West Coast cohort at Warner Bros. Records publicity, and working out of his office. He was about to take me to the airport for the 1:30 p.m. flight back to New York when the call came in.

She hadn’t heard any word from Val or Tee in days, she said, and couldn’t take it anymore. She finally called the house.

Tee answered and said things weren’t good, that the paramedics were there.

I got an email from Liz an hour or so later on my Blackberry at LAX.

“You’ll be up in the sky… so perhaps you’re in a better position to talk to the man/woman above–should one be up there,” she wrote. “So say a lot of prayers and for now, we are not allowed to indulge in freaking out as we have to keep it together for them. But we will freak out to each other of course. Just when things couldn’t get better……”

Now one of my closest friends, Liz was Nick and Val’s publicist when they first came to Warner Bros. (long before Madonna) and remained close with them ever after. I became close to Liz within a year after moving to New York in 1982 and seeing Ashford & Simpson for the first time.

I saw them at Radio City and it remains one of the maybe five most memorable shows I’ve ever seen. It was their High-Rise tour, “High-Rise” being the name of their 1983 album—their second for Capitol after leaving Warner Bros.—and its hit titletrack single.

I was working at Cash Box magazine, a long gone record business trade. The man who hired me got four tickets; besides us, there might have been that many other white people in the full house.

I’ve never forgotten it and obviously never will: The stage had an Empire State-looking edifice in the middle, and when Ashford & Simpson’s crack backup band struck up the single, a hidden ramp unfolded and lowered from the center of it, revealing the beaming A&S standing there in all their glory.

Now reduced to the words of a novice concert reviewer, “the crowd went nuts” as Nick & Val descended the steps and progressed into a show I would eventually see with Liz so many times that in her booklet essay accompanying the 2008 two-CD Ashford & Simpson set The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities, Val said that Liz and I might as well just do their show for them, since we both knew it better than they did.

Waiting to board, I responded to another email from Liz that said “No news” in the subject, the message saying: “From A&S world. Safe travels. Love.” I keyed the Blackberry: “Thank you. I’m freaking the fuck out. Boarding in half hour. Love you so very much.”

I got on the plane and ordered the inflight Internet service. I had maybe four hours of battery on a full charge.

I did some work in those four hours, and kept checking emails with mounting dread. I was still a couple hours out of Kennedy when the laptop ran out of juice.

I looked out the window into the darkness–except for the flashing light on the wing tip. Should there have been a man/woman above, I’d likely be the last one he/she would want to hear from at this or any time—atheist sinner that I am. Rather I kept hoping to see the William Shatner gremlin form the classic Twilight Zone episode making faces at me and driving me into sheer madness or utter horror. Anything would have been preferable to the helplessness/hopelessness I was feeling now.

When the wheels touched down I powered up the Blackberry and held my breath as the afternoon’s emails steadily added up. The one I hoped against all hope not to see had been sent at 7:45.

Liz’s subject was “Our Nick has left us.”

The message was “E or call when you land. I’m at house.”

It was after 11 when I walked into Nick and Val’s East Side townhouse. I had on cargo shorts and short-sleeved cargo shirt, an Obama-Biden inaugural ballcap, and my luggage.

There were at least 30 people there. I hugged Liz, then Val.

“I lost my honey today,” said Val.