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.

Tales of Bessman: Ronnie Milsap at the Dane County Coliseum

I choked up when I saw the news that my old pal Ronnie Milsap will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I thought of the first time I met him, in the late 1970s at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin. I had just started writing around then, for The MadCity Music Sheet, mostly about country music and punk rock.

The show at the Coliseum was incredible. I held my breath with everyone else as Ronnie did this blind man shtick where he got up from his piano bench and walked out to the edge of the stage, stopping just before walking off and falling into the audience.

He did another bit where he introduced the band except for his drummer, who was black. When everyone complained—the drummer included—Ronnie apologized and said that it was so dark back there that he couldn’t see him.

I hung out with Ronnie after the show and roared with laughter as he related how he went out driving with some friends, getting behind the wheel and doing what they told him to do. He had a blast telling it.

He did a country version of “Honky Tonk Women” that night. The next time I went to Nashville—it must have been for Fan Fair—I  brought along my copy of Let It Bleed, which featured the Stones’ countrified version of the song, retitled “Country Honk.” Ronnie wasn’t aware of it, as I discovered when I presented it to him personally. But he vividly remembered meeting me at the Coliseum—and has never forgotten it all this time later.

I think this was my second trip to Nashville, after going there on a vacation from my typing job at the State of Wisconsin. It’s too long a story for now, and I may have written it up elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that I met my Cajun country music hero Jo-El Sonnier–though it was “Joel” at that time—and when I returned to Nashville this time, I had left the State job to focus on writing.

I took the Greyhound and Jo-El and his then manager Earl Poole Ball—back then he didn’t use the “Poole”—picked me up at the station. I’d also met Earl at the Dane County Coliseum, when I saw him playing piano in Johnny Cash’s band and recognized his name from Jo-El’s publicity stills.

I slept on the floor of Earl’s 16th Avenue South Wall-to-Wall Music Publishing office. Jo-El had the fold-out couch. It was one of the grubbiest periods of my life, though not that much removed from today.

Leaving out the sleaziest parts—like me living for three days off free popcorn at a Fan Fair booth—one of the coolest was listening to Earl and Jo-El talk about music, Ronnie’s in particular.

I loved the records as a listener and fan, but Earl and Jo-El marveled at their production value, Jo-El constantly referring to it as “on top.” I didn’t know then, and don’t know now, exactly what he meant, other than that it had to be as good as it gets, and definitely the best then coming out of Nashville.

“His sense of hearing must have been so sharp that he could make such sonically super-sounding recordings,” Earl recalled yesterday. “Also, I think maybe he owned his own studio and could take his time in the mixing.”

Many years later, after I’d moved to New York, I learned that Ronnie’s initial success as a recording artist came in New York at Scepter Records, the ’60s home of The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson and B.J. Thomas, among others. The young Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were staff writers there, and their composition “Never Had It So Good” made it to No. 19 in 1965 on the R&B chart for Ronnie, and was his biggest hit for the label.

But a Ronnie B-side, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (co-written by Nick and Val with former Ikette “Joshie” Jo Armstead), became their ticket to Motown when Ray Charles heard it, covered it, and sold a million copies of his version. When Ronnie played a rare club gig in New York in the ’90s at the Bottom Line, Nick and Val sent him a bouquet with the message, “We never had it so good!”

Incidentally, Val, and maybe Nick, likely sang backup on Ronnie’s Scepter recordings. And when I spoke with Ronnie a few weeks ago about his new album Summer Number Seventeen, the first thing he said was how he remembered meeting me at the Dane County Coliseum.

Here’s Ronnie’s version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned”: