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: Ray Sadecki, Harmon Killebrew and Henry Aaron…AARON

Nothing like the death of a baseball star from your youth to make you reflect on your own mortality and what you wished would have been.

Ray Sadecki died Nov. 17 at 73. He won 20 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964, when the Cardinals won in the World Series—and the British Invasion began. And I was 12.
He died from complications of blood cancer. I’m being treated for prostate cancer.

But he also had a ballplayer’s name. A real baseball player’s name. Made me think back on Harmon Killebrew, who died back in 2011, or Henry Aaron, who’s still alive.

Playing center field and batting cleanup, No 44, Henry Aaron…AARON.

Hank Aaron. Like I said, a real baseball player’s name, like Harmon Killebrew. Both were really special, on and off the field.

Killebrew’s death brought forth a slew of nostalgic reminiscences from Facebook friends and tributes from sportswriters everywhere. I, too, got into the act, with a piece I wrote for examiner.com, in which I noted that as great a hitter as he was, he was apparently as great a human being. Phil Mushnick, the great sportswriter for The New York Post, picked up on both aspects in his tribute: “Was there ever a man with a more appropriate name than Harmon Killebrew? A fellow named Harmon Killebrew could not have been a spray hitter or middle reliever. He could only have been a big, bald, friendly guy from Payette, Idaho, who hit 573 home runs. And Killebrew didn’t use steroids or HGH, just a bat.”

But the death of Killebrew evoked deeper emotions in those of us who were kids when he was at the height of his career. The death of any boyhood hero will have an effect on the boy who still resides inside the man.

Playing first base, No. 9, Joe Adcock…ADCOCK.

Joe Adcock was first baseman for the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, the only Milwaukee Braves team to win the World Series. I was five-years-old in Milwaukee, but his, Aaron’s and so many other names (Eddie Mathews…MATHEWS, Warren Spahn…SPAHN, Lou Burdette…BURDETTE, Andy Pafko…PAFKO, Del Crandall…CRANDALL, Billy Bruton…BRUTON) are indelibly etched in boyhood memory from hearing the County Stadium announcer repeat each name twice–then reading about what they all did that night in the next day’s papers.

Then there was Earl Gillespie. The voice of the Braves from 1953 to 1963, Gillespie was an excitable radio sportscaster who drove my father crazy with his theatrics–which I loved. He always used to shout “Holy cow!” whenever there was a spike in the action (this carried into his broadcasts of University of Wisconsin-Madison football games, i.e., “Holy cow! What a boot!” to make vivid a long punt). His signature home run call went something like this: “Here’s the pitch to Henry Aaron. [Excitedly] It’s a swing and a drive way back into center field! This could be…IT IS! A home run for Henry Aaron!”

Other things I think I remember but I’m not sure. I think we had the great Braves reliever Don McMahon come visit us once at an Indian Guides meeting (the Indian Guides were a father-son YMCA program for kindergarten through third grade) but it might have been a different Brave. But I’m certain I saw Sandy Koufax hit his first homer–he only hit two–off Spahn at County Stadium in 1962, beating the Braves 2-1 (he laughed as he rounded the bases, like he couldn’t believe that he did it and was embarrassed, as he was a terrible hitter); I also remember seeing the Chicago White Sox’ Nellie Fox hit two homers in one game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and remember seeing someone hit an inside-the-park home run (I think it was the Cubs’ George Altman).

But what I really remember is fantasizing Earl Gillespie reading my name off a Braves’ lineup–Jim Bessman…BESSMAN–and feeling an awful letdown. Bessman…BESSMAN just didn’t have the authentic baseball ring of Aaron…AARON, Adcock…ADCOCK or Bruton…BRUTON. And besides, I sucked at baseball. To this day I’m haunted by my ineptness.

I couldn’t hit worth a shit. Invariably struck out. Dropped fly balls, that is, if I got anywhere near them. Grounders went through my legs. Never got any better at sports.

But now and then I can hit a fairly decent golf ball–when I don’t slice it into the next fairway. Talk about finding water, I once found water playing in the desert in Scottsdale!

But what always bothered me is I could never hit it very far–seeing as though I’m a good 20-30-40 pounds overweight at close to 200. God knows I’m heavy enough to hit a baseball out of the park.

It must be a wonderful thing, hitting a home run. That’s why all these contemporary players just stand there and admire themselves while they watch their drive way back into center field invariably hit the wall–if it goes that far–and then they’re stuck with a single when if they’d run it out, like they did back in Killebrew’s day, like any kid knows how to do, they’d have made second, easy.

God, I’d love to see if I could do it.

Some years ago I walked the field of the Tulsa Drillers minor league ballpark when I was there for a Beach Boys concert. Tried to figure if I could hit one out. Didn’t think I could.

I mentioned this to my old music business friend Steve in Nashville. Steve’s tall and lanky, a great athlete, who played college ball and earned a tryout with a minor league team, until he got busted for pot–cruelly ending his big league ball dreams. Now he was playing in some serious summer leagues and coaching his son’s little league team (“Shake a hand, make a friend,” he instructed his kids, as they shook hands with the opposing team after every game. How quaint!).

“We have a game tomorrow afternoon,” Steve said one day in June when I was in town on country music business. “Come on down and I’ll pitch to you.”

Okay. It was a just a little league park. But it had a fence and everything. It was the chance I’d been dreaming of for some 40 years, probably.

Now Steve had long explained to me that weight has little to do with home run power. It’s bat speed, really–in golf, club head speed. It’s a simple matter of physics–if physics is a simple matter. Steve also tried to explain that the way a power hitter swings the bat is that one hand pulls, the other pushes, and there’s a real snap to it. Of course I had no idea what he was talking about and was going to have to just swing a bat stupidly with both hands.

At least I remembered to step into it. But I hadn’t swung a baseball bat since I started wearing glasses–and that felt odd. But, hey, this was my big chance.

I also hadn’t taken into account my hands blistering, and even though I train in Filipino stick fighting, my hands swelled up and tore up pretty quick. I was making solid contact, but mostly line drives and grounders. But I finally got one up and away, way back, and IT WAS! A home run for Jim Bessman…BESSMAN! And yes, it was the thrill of this boy’s lifetime.

We ended on that high note, and Steve asked me to throw a few to him. He hadn’t hit in a while, and I hadn’t thrown in a lot longer and could barely get it anywhere near the plate–let alone in Steve’s strike zone, big as it is.
I don’t know what’s harder, hitting a ball or throwing one, but I finally served up one that Steve could chase down, lean over, and essentially scoop up and launch like a rock out of a catapult over the fence, over a building, on and on until it soared out of sight. I’m not sure that it ever came down. My mouth is gaping open now just remembering it.

The glory of sports. The joy.

That’s how I remember Harmon Killebrew. Hank Aaron.

The 1960s Green Bay Packers. And as he slows down to his inevitable stop, Muhammad Ali.

Thanks for the memories, Ray Sadecki.