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.

Tales of Bessman: Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara

The older you get the more friends you lose—and at a faster pace.

Bruce Lundvall died last week (May 19), a few days after Ren Grevatt (May 16), whom I knew better and wrote about here shortly after. Then Saturday Anne Meara died.

Ren and Bruce were old school music business guys, Ren in PR and Bruce in record label operations, mostly at prestigious jazz labels. I won’t say I knew him well, but we were very friendly and I knew he would always take my call, even when he was a record company president. But I only really spent quality time with him once, shortly after I came to New York and landed a job at Cash Box.

I’m pretty sure it was ’84, when he created the Manhattan adult-contemporary label and revived the historic Blue Note jazz label for EMI, but it could have been before that, after he launched the Elektra Musician imprint for Eletkra Records in 1982, after leaving CBS Records, which he had headed and signed the likes of Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock and Wllie Nelson. He would go on to work closely with other varied artists including Richard Marx, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Stanley Jordan, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, Rubén Blades, Wynton Marsalis and of course, Norah Jones.

In other words, Bruce was a big deal when I met him, and remained one long after. But he never acted like one, especially that day when I went to his office to interview him.

It was probably a general what-are-your-plans type story, and we were well into it when he was buzzed and decided to take the call. He started talking to the caller, and it became clear that it was an artist he was wooing. Feeling awkward, I waved at him and whispered that I could leave if he wanted to conduct business in private.

Bruce just waved me off. I just sat there, enrapt, listening to him tell the potential signee what he could do as the head of a small, independent label, who cared about his artists and could give them full and individual attention–unlike a huge, major label like CBS, from where he came. Sure enough, his entire career was marked by that kind of hands-on, personal commitment in support of his artists.

Anne Meara wasn’t a friend, but she made me feel like one the first and only time I met her.

I think it was around the same time as I met Bruce, or a little later, at a Broadway show opening party at a Midtown hotel. I recognized her immediately, having been a big fan from seeing Stiller & Meara on Ed Sullivan so many times.

She was effervescent, to use a word maybe for the first time. Starstruck, I introduced myself as an editor for the music business trade magazine Cash Box.

“Oh, Jerry couldn’t be here tonight!” she responded, almost apologetically—as if I’d been close pals of Stiller & Meara forever.

That was pretty much it, but when I saw from Howard Kaylan’s tweet that she had died, I felt like I had lost someone I knew that long and that closely.

“I can’t picture a world without her,” tweeted Howard. “Stiller and Meara/the Sullivan Show RIP sorry B”—“B” being Ben Stiller.

Ben Stiller, my co-star in While We’re Young—though the scene we were in, at the same coffee shop that I’m in with Naomi Watts and Adam Driver, but immediately after, was cut. Sorry B.

But I did see Anne one other time, at Mary Travers memorial in November, 2009. She recited “Conscientious Objector,” by Travers’ favorite poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem refuses to assist Death in taking other lives by violence (“I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death”).

The memorial ended with everyone–also including then Sen. John Kerry, George McGovern, Max Cleland, Pete Seeger, Whoopi Goldberg–singing along on “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It was an evening of unabashed liberalism, a throwback to when the word “liberal” was a badge worn proudly and sung loudly.

And I sang along with Anne Meara.

Click the link for my examiner.com appreciations of Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara.

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.