Sam Lovullo–An appreciation

I always read the obituaries, mainly because the last thing I ever want to do is ask how someone’s doing and find out they’ve been dead since January–like I just did now.

I hadn’t seen my dear friend Sam Lovullo in a long time, but always called him when I visited L.A. as he lived in Encino, even though both our hearts were in Nashville. Sam, of course, was the longtime producer–24 years–of Hee Haw, while I was a longtime fan–24 years–of Hee Haw, and for the last dozen or so years up until its end in 1991, a friend.

Indeed, I was a regular on the set during its annual October and June tapings during those years, since I was in Nashville for the October “CMA Week” of Country Music Association and music performance society awards shows and June’s Country Music Fan Fair. As I was also a backstage Grand Ole Opry regular (Hee Haw was taped at the Opry House, in a studio behind the Opry backstage dressing rooms, with Sam and the production staff in a trailer just outside the building), I got especially friendly with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, the Hager Twins and Buck Owens, but I knew most everyone there, at least a bit.

And it really was thrilling, to get to be so close to my favorite country music stars–and actually stand in Kornfield Kounty! In fact, I was visiting John Hiatt one night in the dressing room at the Bottom Line, and he was blown away by my Hee Haw golf shirt and told me his dream was to be in Kornfield Kounty. Next day I got on the phone with Sam, explained who John was, and to his undying gratitude got him in a Kornifeld Kounty segment–and my picture taken with him there.

But I knew Sam best of all. The last time I actually saw him had to be one of the last times I was in Nashville, several years ago. I ran into him backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during an Opry show there. Charley Pride and Roy Clark were in the house, and they greeted each other warmly and exchanged complaints about their latest physical ailments.

I bet I was down there for CMA Music Fedstival–what Fan Fair evolved into. I was hoping to see Sam and sure enough he was there backstage, Roy being the longtime Hee Haw co-host with Buck. He told me there was a Hee Haw reunion show the next day–maybe it was a taping for a special–and I went and hung out with him and the surviving Hee Haw family members one last time.

In the last few years I’d either call Sam when I was in L.A. or when I wanted a memorial quote from him on a newly deceased Hee Haw cast member. We’d inevitably commiserate about how the business had changed and our respective places in it. He didn’t have to explain his regrets, nor did I have to explain mine.

And we’d reminisce a lot about the good old Hee Haw days, of course. He’d fill me in on the lives of those who were still alive, I’d let him know when I heard from Kathie Lee Gifford as I was lucky to get to know her, having been a huge fan ever since discovering her on Sam’s short-lived but brilliant Hee Haw sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys.

People always think that country music is made by and for politically and socially conservative Americans, not without reason, obviously–think of Richard Nixon seeking refuge at the Grand Ole Opry House on its grand opening at the height of Watergate and taking a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff, whom I also knew from the Opry and the Hee Haw set–but as my own career began covering country music back in the late 1970s, I knew it was never so black-and-white.

Maybe my fondest memory of Sam was when I told him that when I first met him and the Hee Haw gang, my hippie-length hair was down to my shoulders. He was actually stunned, and couldn’t remember that at all. Not to suggest that he was or would have been prejudiced by my appearance, for he couldn’t have been more proud when I told him how I had met John Henry Faulk.

Texas folklorist, humorist, lecturer, and civil rights activist Faulk, friend of Alan Lomax and mentor to Molly Ivins, first found fame after World War II. He’d served as a medic and started writing radio scripts, and had his own radio shows in New York featuring his folksy characterizations. This led to TV appearances in the early ’50s, but he had also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and was blacklisted later in the decade. He then won a libel suit in 1962 after being labeled a communist by an organization led by my own Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

He was a semi-regular on Hee Haw from 1975 to 1982, starring in the “Story-tellin’ Time with John Henry Faulk” segment surrounded by most of the cast seated in an old country store setting.

Just before I moved to New York, John Henry participated in a folk arts festival at Madison’s Capitol Square. I figured that he wouldn’t expect a Hee Haw fan at this particular event, let alone anyone asking him about his friend Peavine Jeffries, a frequent subject of his Hee Haw stories. So I approached him as a stringer for Variety, which I was, and with the catch phrase often uttered by one of the cast at the start of “Story-tellin’ Time.”

“Hey, John Henry! I’m Jim Bessman with Variety! How’s old Peavine Jeffries?”

John Henry’s whole face lit up. “Jim, sweet Jim!” he said, beaming, then went into a warmhearted Peavine story.

John Henry died in 1990. Roy Acuff’s gone, so is ‘Pa, Minnie, Buck and both Jim and Jon Hager. But I know I could have got a whole lot of loving comments about you by those who are left had I known back in January. My apologies to you, Sam, that the only ones I can come up with now are mine.

In memoriam, 2015

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

And that there are so many means there will only be that many more next year, for the older you get, the more you lose—unless, that is, it’s you who are lost.

It started early last year on Jan. 2 with Little Jimmy Dickens, whom I didn’t really know, but met a few times and was in his presence backstage at the Grand Ole Opry many, many more. Andrae Crouch came next: I didn’t know him either, but had seen him live at least once, on a Gaither Homecoming show.

Ervin Drake I did know quite well. And even though he died at 95, I was still surprised. I used to run into the Songwriters Hall of Famer (“It Was a Very Good Year,” “I Believe”) and his wife Edith a lot, at ASCAP and songwriters functions and at Christine Lavin shows–where he’d usually perform and always seem forever young.

As for the notorious Kim Fowley, I’m not sure if I ever met him, though I think I did, and I’m not sure I’d have been so kind to him had the piece by Jackie Fuchs—formerly The Runaways’ Jackie Fox–about being raped by him at 16, with band mates Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Sandy West allegedly looking on, come out before mine. But let me say also that I had problems with that piece and a more recent one where she talked about the impact of the first one, particularly the charges against Jett and Currie. I found both pieces then and now way too confusing—same with those who corroborated her. And admittedly and not unashamedly being a Joan fan, I didn’t feel she deserved the contempt and willingness among so many to summarily erase her positive contributions based on one person’s recollection of a horrible incident of which the only certainty I found was that it happened a long time ago when all but Fowley were teenagers, and if the other girls were there, likely not sober—though in no way does any of this absolve Fowley.

I did meet Dixie Hall, the great bluegrass songwriter–and wife of Tom T Hall, but never met Ernie Banks, though there was no one who did not love either—especially Mr. Cub, whom I followed as a Milwaukee Braves fan in the state next door. I was a huge fan of Ward Swingle’s Swingle Singers, and used to run into legendary New York TV talk show host Joe Franklin a lot—and will always regret never taking him up on his invitation to come visit him.

Not sure if I met Don Herron, but I hung out a lot on the set of Hee Haw and might have. Most definitely enjoyed his Charlie Farquharson newscaster bits. And most definitely did meet the great Rod McKuen, at a Songwriters Hall of Fame awards dinner.

I’d seen Don Covay, but knew him first from covers of his songs like the Stones’ “Mercy, Mercy” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” Lesley Gore, on the other hand, was such a dear, dear friend and music hero that when I learned of her death on Feb. 16 while at Toy Fair, of all places, I really did burst into tears. I wrote an appreciation piece for at examiner.com and then two more personal pieces here. She was “one tough broad,” as Lou Christie didn’t say, exactly, but surely meant. I know I’ll always be haunted by her loss.

Same with Bob Simon. Bob was my hero as a broadcast journalist for CBS, a poet of truth in the midst of blathering self-promotional idiocy. I actually wrote him a fanboy letter after he was captured and released during the Gulf War, and he responded.

I met him on the street once and he gave me his email. I tried for years to get him to feature Dengue Fever, and came close the second time I met him, at the secreening of a Bob Marley documentary the night of one of the Obama-Romney debates, which we watched together at a bar during the post-screening party. Bob had worked in Jamaica and Cambodia, not to mention Vietnam and the Middle East—where he earned much of his reputation. He was into Dengue Fever conceptually, and I was about to email him again about the band when he tragically—and ironically—died in a car crash on the West Side Highway, having survived decades of work in the world’s most dangerous places. Another irreplaceable loss to the world.

I knew Nashville photographer Alan Mayor. Sam Andrew I knew as guitarist in Big Brother & the Holding Company and then with Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band—the one and only Joplin being the first rocker I ever saw in concert.

I’d met the great jazz writer/producer Orrin Keepnews, and know his esteemed journalist son Peter quite well. I interviewed the pioneering “direct cinema” documentarian Albert Maysles several times over the years; he was the nicest guy.

I knew promoter/songwriter/record producer/artist manager/session drummer/record-label entrepreneur/bandleader/recording artist/music journalist Billy Block ever since he moved form L.A. to Nashville at least 25 years go and started writing for Music Row, where I had my notorious Gotham Gossip column. Billy went on to befriend just about everyone in the business and promote many of them by way of his weekly Billy Block Show/Western Beat Barn Dance.

I posted a fab video of The Chanteys performing their 1963 surf-rock classic “Pipeline” on The Lawrence Welk Show after their writer/guitarist Brian Carman died on March 1. I must have met beloved New York trumpeter Lew Soloff, but never really knew him. And I feel truly lucky to have met Michael Brown (March 19 at B.B. King’s, wehn he showed up at a show by the then recently reformed Left Banke. The creative genius behind the band’s landmark “Baroque Pop” 1960s recordings—among rock’s most beautiful ever–Brown was obviously in poor physical shape and had to be assisted to the stage to play keyboards on “Pretty Ballerina.” He left immediately, but I ran after him and caught him on the steps and told him who I was and how thrilled I was to see him and meet him and how much he meant to so many music fans everywhere. He thanked me and seemed genuinely touched.

The Bitter End’s Kenny Gorka was the most wonderful guy to New York musicians—and me. He always welcomed me with open arms—and a bottle of beer—whenever I came down to the club. And I’m forever in debt to Samuel Charters, not just for his important blues and jazz books but for producing my favorite Siegel-Schwall Band and other great acts including Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite.

I knew and loved Tony Bennett’s longtime pianist/bandleader Ralph Sharon, and we’re all indebted to him for giving Tony “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I’m indebted to May Pang for a lot of things, including introducing me to Cynthia Lennon. Percy Sledge needs no introduction.

Andre Smith was particularly sad in that he was only 57 and had been such a great host of Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 years. He had a wonderful gospel funeral send-off in Harlem.

Jack Ely, as the comparatively anonymous voice of The Kingsmen’s classic rock ‘n’ roll hit “Louie Louie,” is immortal. Ben E. King, too, had an immortal voice; I met him several times, with Allen Klein, and at parties in Lynnfield, Mass., thrown by Wes Reed, an old Dr. Bop & The Headliners fan who would bring the band in to play private parties, with his other hero Ben E. also on the bill.

I met B.B. King once, at a press gathering many years ago when his manager of over 40 years Sidney Seidenberg was still alive. I remember B.B. saying how they never had a cross word in all that time.

I must have known Ren Grevatt as long as I’ve been in New York, since 1982. I knew him as an indie publicist who worked with The Dead and handled PR for promoter John Scher. Such a nice guy, and even in his ‘90s, ageless. I knew the great record company executive Bruce Lundvall almost as long, and haven’t forgotten how he let me stay in his office while he took a call and tried to convince a prospective artist to sign with him.

I met the great Anne Meara once, at a Broadway show opening party, back in the early or mid-1980s. She was clearly lit, but I’m sure she’d have been just as sweet and friendly any time. What struck me was that when I introduced myself she immediately apologized that husband Jerry Stiller wasn’t there—as if I’d been their pal forever.

Like Sam Charters, Guy Carawan was an important music historian, in his case, of folk music. A major figure in the historic Greenwich Village-based folk music revival of the 1950s, he was also a folksinger and played a big part in bringing “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement.

Johnny Gimble was one of country music history’s greatest fiddlers, while according to the American Folklife Center, no one was more important to the survival, appreciation, and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than ballad singer, songwriter, folksong collector, Fulbright scholar, and champion of the Appalachian dulcimer Jean Ritchie.

I’m so glad I got to interview Jim Ed Brown on the occasion of his last album In Style Again, and so glad he held cancer back long enough to complete it. I knew him from years of hanging out at the Opry, but always remember how he first put me off when I met him in the late ‘70s at a rural Wisconsin country music festival, when he thought I was a songwriter trying to pitch him a song after I told him I was a writer.

Ornette Coleman was so significant I had to write about him, whereas Patrick Macnee—one of my true TV heroes as The Avengers’ John Steed–I was lucky to meet and interview and find that he was as nice as his character.

Ernie Maresca was one of those unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, having had a hand in writing such landmark hits as Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” not to mention recording his own classic “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out).” Dave Somerville was also an obscure name, but his voice is cherished by doo-wop fans for leading The Diamonds on the huge hit “Little Darlin’,” and my personal fave, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom).”

I’m pretty sure I met Louisiana musician Jillian Johnson, but I know I’ll never forget her. She was one of two who were randomly shot to death (nine others were injured) by a hate-filled lunatic at Lafayette’s Grand 16 movie theater on July 23. My Cajun music pal Wilson Savoy’s words bear repeating: “She changed my life forever. She inspired me more than anyone else in my younger years, and I wish I had told her what an amazing person she was before it was too late. Before her show last Saturday, before she jumped on stage with The Figs, we stood together on the side of the stage at Blue Moon and chatted all about the past and the future, about her grand plans for projects, renovations, exciting new stuff. Never a dull moment with Jillian. I never said it in the past, but I’ll say it now. Thank You Jillian. I love you.”

I met the great country vocalist Lynn Anderson several times and especially loved her hit versions of songs by the late, great Joe South. I never met or got to see Cilla Black, but I sure wish I had—and was touched by the outpouring of love for her in England when she died.

I think I met Billy Sherrill, but I certainly knew his classic country music hit productions. Of course I knew indie publicist Jeff Walker, who was as much a part of the Nashville music community as Sherrill, closely for nearly 40 years.

I might have let Frankie Ford go out quietly had it not been for my pal Rockin’ John McDonald demonstrating on his Madison, Wis., WORT-FM show I Like It Like That that Ford was much more than a “Sea Cruise” one-hit wonder. My friend Billy Joe Royal, on the other hand, didn’t need Rockin’ John’s help, having shared with Lynn Anderson a goodly amount of Joe South’s hit songwriting catalog.

I’d run into Allen Toussaint now and then, especially after he moved to New York following Hurricane Katrina. He never really remembered me until I invariably brought up how my favorite production of his was Take It, the regrettably obscure 1986 album by genius Minneapolis no-guitar/keyboard rock-polka band The Wallets, upon which Toussaint, ever the refined gentleman, waxed sentimental.

Legendary songwriter P.F. Sloan’s death in November was a personal blow, even though I’d only met him once, when Donna Loren brought him to Bessman Bash 2015 in L.A. in August. Of course I was a huge fan of a songwriter so significant—and elusive—that none other than Jimmy Webb wrote a song about him. Turned out that not only could he not have been nicer, he seemed at least as humbled to be at the party as we all were having him there.

As for John Trudell, I only met the Native American activist/poet/recording artist twice and interviewed him once, but the effect was immense. One of the great artists/humanitarians I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and a real loss to the world. His album Wazi’s Dream was my No. 1 pick for 2015.

I was hoping John’s death would be the last, but it was only Dec. 8. Historic Aussie ‘60s rock band The Easybeats’ frontman Stevie Wright followed, and then Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead. I don’t think many in America knew of Wright, as The Easybeats’ had only one hit in the U.S., though “Friday on My Mind” is immortal. Remarkably, the intense love and grief for Lemmy, while deserved, was quite astonishing in that he was a heavy metal/punk rocker, from England, with limited mainstream success.