In memoriam, 2014

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.

The sad dates of the year began early, January 3, with the passing of Phil Everly. I met Phil once, briefly, at a Nashville Songwriters Association Awards banquet in Nashville. But I was lucky enough to see the Everly Brothers live twice. Whatever their personal relationship, on stage they remained perfection.

A week or so later Amiri Baraka, too, was gone. I had his classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America, published under his former name LeRoi Jones. But aside from his influence, it should also be noted that he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and was in fact a 9-11 truther. At the other end of the humanitarian spectrum was Pete Seeger, whom I knew a bit, as did probably a million others. I had his phone number, which I used on occasion. A few weeks after he died, Leo Kottke told a wonderful and representative story of how Pete had drawn a map to his house for him, he was that accessible.

Frank Military was another great guy, a music publisher and song-finder for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I sat with him and Tony when the New York chapter of the Recording Academy presented him with a “Heroes Award.” Tony was on my right, Ahmet Ertegun, who was presenting the same award to Tom Silverman, on my left. Always drawing, Tony drew a portrait of Ahmet, handed it to me to pass to him. Ahmet was thrilled.

I didn’t know Christian music A&R luminary Norman Holland, but everyone in that end of the business loved him. Much loved, too, were rock photog Leee Black Childers and singer-songriter Jesse Winchester.

And I didn’t know Loudilla Johnson well, but a lot of old-line country stars like Loretta Lynn did, since Loudilla and her sisters Loretta and Kay, set up her fan club operation, and then IFCO, the International Fan Club Organization.

Jerry Vale, of course, was a quite well known 1950s pop vocalist, while Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo,” was a rare black country singer and actor, who also sang jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington. Calypso singer Maya Angelou I did know, but as Dr. Maya Angelou—thanks to Ashford & Simpson, with whom she recorded, performed, and emceed the poolside entertainment at their fabled July 4th “white parties.”

I used to say hi to my favorite pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was part of the house band. I never met Gerry Goffin, but I did meet his ex-wife/writing partner Carole King. And Cajun country/Opry star Jimmy C. Newman was a dear friend, for whom I wrote CD liner notes.

Bobby Womack and Tommy Ramone were both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the latter was a friend, in fact, of all the Ramones, he was probably the nicest and most respectful of me—having been a friend of the band since the beginning of my writing career and author of the first book on the band. I stayed in touch with Tommy throughout his later career as a bluegrass musician, and can’t get over the fact that all four of the originals have now passed on.

I met Elaine Stritch once. When I told her I was a writer, she immediately demanded that I write something about her, which I did the day she died. Shortly after seeing Johnny Winter’s last birthday performance at B.B. King’s, I wrote about him, too, with help from my friend Jon Paris, who played bass with him for many years.

I knew the beloved country music agent Don Light, but not the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who died the same day as New Orleans studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Opry star George Hamilton IV I knew very well as one of the nicest guys, like Jimmy C., that you could ever hope to meet.

I met the Indian mandolin maestro U. Srinivas, but not Howard Stern Wack Packer Eric the Actor—though I was an equal fan of both. I never met Paul Revere, but know Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay and put them all into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon. And I never met Jan Hooks, but was a huge fan of hers since she was the breakout star of Atlanta Superstation WTBS’s Tush—the great Bill Tush being a dear friend.

Studio musician, projects coordinator and freelance A&R Ann Ruckert, too, was a dear friend, not just to me but to probably everyone in the entire New York music scene, and for decades. I didn’t know the great Morells/Skeletons bassist/vocalist/songwriter Lou Whitney well, but always loved talking to the “the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll in the Midwest,” who was also very much loved by fellow musicians. I think I met Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser, and definitely met Cream’s Jack Bruce—both extremely important in their respective pop-jazz vocal and rock genres.

I was a huge fan of Mr. Acker Bilk, England’s esteemed “trad jazz” clarinetist, whose 1962 pre-Beatles instrumental “Stranger On the Shore” was the first British recording to top the charts in the rock era. I liked Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame better than his younger brother David Ruffin of The Temptations. I was inspired to write about Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was 12, when it made me reconsider my youth and own mortality.

I wrote about Claire Barry, who with younger sister Merna were the Yiddish pop singing duo the Barry Sisters, because I knew they influenced Neil Sedaka, who gave me a quote. Likewise, I knew Stanley Rashid of Brooklyn-based Arabic music/video supplier Rashid Sales could say a few words on “incomparable” Lebanese singer of Arab pop, classical and folk music Sabah.

Most everyone knew rock greats Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—both of whom I met—who died within a day of each other in December. Most everyone should have known about Dawn Sears, Vince Gill’s wonderful backup signer, who also sang in Nashville swing band the Time Jumpers.

I loved “Wind Beneath My Wings” co-writer Larry Henley, but more so for his “Bread and Butter” falsetto screech as lead singer of ‘60s vocal group The Newbeats. And we all loved Joe Cocker, who died on Dec. 22. I’m glad I got to interview him and meet him.

Tales of Bessman: Fan Fair, Country Music, and Loudilla Johnson

Less than a month away from the 2014 CMA Music Festival, and I’m prompted, by the passing of Loudilla Johnson, to think back to when it was called Fan Fair and held at the dirty, dusty, magical Tennessee State Fairgrounds, for those of us who love country music and cover it, the best days of our lives.

It was a lot smaller, then, but still big, and each of the main Fairgrounds buildings was packed with country stars of every rank, from A-List to F, in their custom-designed  booths signing autographs and selling trinkets. I still have, somewhere, a little makeup mirror with a plastic case emblazoned with “For a Fan of Tammy Wynette,” though as much as I love him, I think I got rid of my glow-in-the-dark Confederate Flag Hank Williams, Jr. gym shorts even before returning to New York.

“Wear those at the gym when you get home!” bellowed Merle Kilgore, Hank’’s manager (not to mention writer of such classic country songs as “Wolverton Mountain,” and with June Carter, “Ring of Fire”), who thrust a pair into my hands—and those of my pal Bob Merlis. We both loved Merle dearly, but neither of us had the chutzpah to bring them home.

Fan Fair left the Fairgrounds for Downtown Nashville in 2001 and gave up the name in 2004. Dear Merle’s long gone—even if I can still hear him laughing loudly at us–and now so is Loudilla Johnson, 75, who with her late sister Loretta and surviving sister Kay, co-founded the International Fan Club Organization, or IFCO.

If one thing symbolized Fan Fair, and maybe by extension country music iself, it would likely be IFCO. It was the Johnson’s offshoot of the Loretta Lynn Fan Club, which they started in 1963 after Loretta Johnson, living at the family ranch in Wild Horse, Colo., began corresponding with Loretta Lynn.

Much of this last sentence, by the way, was lifted near verbatim from Peter Cooper’s obituary in The Tennessean. He’s such a good writer I couldn’t improve on it and didn’t bother trying.

“Them girls was my first official fans, the ones who started my fan club and stuck with me for years,” Lynn wrote in her memoir—and Cooper quoted. “Shoot, we started the whole week’s long event called Fan Fair together, even though none of us got the credit for it.”

Also quoted in Cooper’s piece, author/historian (and host of Fan Fair’s star-studded IFCO shows) Robert K. Oermann said, “The other stars saw how successful they were with Loretta’s club. Buck Owens’ sister, Dorothy, came to the girls and said, ‘You ought to form a fan club organization, because the other clubs could learn from you.’”

This was in 1965, when the Johnson Sisters formed IFCO. It consisted of 75 fan clubs working together in uniting country stars and their fans.

Four years before the first Fan Fair in 1972, IFCO staged its first multi-artist concert, during Nashville’s annual DJ Convention (long since known as Country Radio Seminar).

“The Johnsons were supporting the fans long before there was a Fan Fair,” Oermann told Cooper. “And from the beginning of what became the CMA Music Festival, they were intimately involved. Loretta, the sister who died in 2009, was sort of the spark plug that started the whole thing, but it was Loudilla who was the most business-minded of the three sisters. All three of them were zany and fun. They were devoted to country music. They were nothing but love.”

Nothing but love.

IFCO eventually worked with over 375 fan club groups, and showcased everyone from legends like Johnny Cash and Charley Pride to such stars of today as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival. I don’t know if that fabled bond between country music star and fan still exists, and if it does, to the degree it did that year, 1996, when Garth Brooks came unannounced to Fan Fair and stayed 23 hours and 10 minutes straight, signing autographs without taking a break. Or when fans from all over the world lined up at the booth of Australia’s LeGarde Twins—also know as Australia’s Yodeling Stockmen–as happy  to pose for pictures with them as with Trisha Yearwood in her fantastic recording studio booth, where her fans could actually sing along with her and come out with a tape recording of it.

But if the love affair between country stars and fans continues, give thanks to the Johnsons, who formalized it. Not for nothing were they presented with the Ernest Tubb Humanitarian Award at the 2002 R.O.P.E. (Reunion of Professional Entertainers) banquet, in that their IFCO Show concert proceeds always went to charities: The original E.T. would flip his guitar over at the end of his performances to show the word “thanks” in big block capitals on the back.

Unlike so many classic country songs, for Loudilla, Loretta and Kay Johnson, who were so devoted to country music, their love was indeed requited.

A performance by Lynn Anderson at a special 2009 CMA Music Festival show in memory of IFCO co-founder Loretta Johnson: