Tales of Bessman–The Fifth Beatle

Fucked-up times, the Sixties. The Beatles, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, all intertwined. I think about my own fucked-up time growing up in the Sixties and how much Ali meant to me and helped me–and so many millions of others like me–get through it. And when the not unexpected announcement of his death came in around 12:20 AM Saturday, I rightly tweeted that a lot of people my age would be thinking back a lot over these next few days.

I was right, of course.

I’m thinking now, the day before his funeral, of the first time I saw him in person–almost. It was during his exile from the ring from Marc, 1967 to October, 1970 after he’d refused induction into the Army for not having no quarrel against them Vietcong and was stripped of his title and denied the ability to fight and thereby make a living–during his athletic prime. So he started going around and giving speeches. I and one of my two best junior high school buddies, Don, drove from Madison to Milwaukee to hear him, but by the time we got there, the venue had sold out and they were putting the overflow into a room with a TV monitor.

I don’t remember the speech very well, but it was great to be in the same building with Ali, at least. As for Don, well, we were playing around with needles a lot back then. He ended up going through at least three livers before finally croaking a few years ago. Could just as easily have been me.

Same with Greg, my other best friend in junior high and high school, who hung himself around the same time as Don died. Some insane argument with his sister about the cat getting out.

Greg was with me at the Dane County Coliseum on October 30, 1974 to see the Ali-Foreman fight on closed-circuit. Few people gave Ali much of a chance, and there weren’t more than a few hundred there. As I’ve written before—at least once–when he dropped Foreman at 2:58 of the eighth round, as Foreman went down, everyone in the small Coliseum crowd stood up simultaneously, and when I sat down again, after the knockout’s count-out, I was in a different row. I was so high on joy that I levitated myself into the row behind me.

It was the culmination of my wishing, imagining every single day since he was stripped of his title that he would come back and wear the crown once again. For I was that invested in him as a role model, a man of such great courage and creativity and so fun and full of life–truly the Fifth Beatle. The counterculture as one man.

Probably some time in the mid- to late-1980s, some years after moving to New York, I finally saw him in person for the first time. It was very much like how George Vecsey in The New York Times a few days ago recalled his first sighting, “circa 1968, while Ali was suspended for refusing to enter the military draft, uttering the famous line, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel against them Vietcong.’”

For Vecsey, it was a sunny midday in Chicago, “one of his cities–heck, a lot of cities were his in those heightened times.” Perhaps the Champ was just out for a stroll, Vescey, then a young baseball writer, surmised: “I had never seen Ali in person, but geez he was beautiful, big and limber and smiling, and it didn’t look like he had much else to do but walk down State Street, collecting black people and white people and brown people and young people and old people, surely not everybody in America, for he was a draft dodger and a Muslim and whatever else you wanted to call him, but he was the champion of State Street that day, the once and future champ.”

I was somewhere on Broadway in the 50s, near my office at 57th and Broadway. I saw a crowd and was curious—then saw they were following the Champ and growing in size. In seconds they’d grown by one more—me–who wiggled his way close enough to get an autograph. He stayed with it mindlessly until it dissipated when the leader got into a car and left.

Here’s another account from a few days ago, from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg, one of the few journalists to agree to call Ali Ali when he changed to it from Cassius Clay: “I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones–Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.”

The next time I saw Ali was at Madison Square Garden, at a Roberto Duran title fight. I don’t remember the year or who he fought; all I remember is Ali’s entrance just before the ring introductions, and joining everyone in the arena in shouting “Ali! Ali!”

Some years later I became friendly with Ali’s longtime photographer and closest friend Howard Bingham. I did a piece on him for Photo District News, and through him got a few quotes for an Ali piece for Billboard—though I can’t remember what it was about. And at one time I was friendly with HBO and got invited to boxing press events. They had one at their office with Ali and his biographer Thomas Hauser, for which I brought along my friend, profesional Muay Thai kickboxing champ Edge Brown. As Ali walked in he spotted Edge ad held up his fists, knowing just by looking at him that he was a fighter. It was the biggest thrill ever for Edge.

There was another HBO event, a screening, I think, at the main public library. I brought my friend Rena, a photographer, and she brought a Polaroid. So I was able to get a picture with Ali and have him sign it. Then, before the “Rumble in the Jungle” documentary When We Were Kings came out, I got invited to a private dinner with Ali and his wife Lonnie and maybe a dozen or so others, at a restaurant on 57th Street near my office—neither of which still exists. The invite was either through Howard or another friend, David Sonenberg, the successful manager then of acts like Joan Osborne and The Fugees, and a producer of the film. Ali was already well into his Parkinson’s disabilities and hardly spoke, but it was here, I think, that I told him what I said here earlier, that there wasn’t a day gone by from the time he was stripped of the title to when he got it back that I didn’t dream about it happening.

They had a big screening of When We Were Kings at Radio City, which I went to with Tim White, the late Billboard editor and my dear friend. Tim had actually hung out with Ali years earlier at his training camp in Pennsylvania for a Rolling Stone feature, I think. At the after-part we got the chance to have a few moments with Ali and Lonnie, who remembered me from the dinner a short while earlier. Again, he couldn’t say much, but she was wonderful.

That was the last time I saw Ali, but incredibly, not the last time I spoke with him. Ali was about to come out, and Howard was in town for a screening at the Ziegfeld and got me in. I hooked up with him when I got to the theater, and moments later he was warmly greeted by Angelo Dundee! So I sat with Howard, Angie, and a guy who was with Angie, who turned out to be the former No. 1 middleweight boxer Michael Olajide, Jr.–a wonderful guy, who had acted as technical advisor on the film and is now a dear friend, not to mention successful gym operator (Aerospace NYC).

I had remained friendly with Ali’s assistant, Kim Forburger, and the next day I called her at Berrien Springs, Michigan, where they were based at the time. They hadn’t seen the movie yet, and she was thrilled to get my advance rave review.

She then told me to hold on for a second, and when the second was up, her voice was replaced by the soft, unmistakable voice of Muhammad Ali, whispering, “So did you like the mooovie?”

I ecstatically stammered for a few moments about how good it was, how great he was, how thrilled I was, and let him go—then thanked Kim profusely.

When the Alis moved to Arizona I lost touch with Kim, and sadly, in the last few years I lost contact with Howard. Angelo is gone, with The Beatles, Don and Greg, and now Muhammad.

The fucked-up Sixties were almost 60 years ago. That great line, “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there,” is a cliché—but a valid one. I’ve forgotten plenty, much of it just as well. But I haven’t forgotten who brung me here, my friends, my idols.

Today I rail a lot about the overuse of the word “icon.” I’ve even written about it here. But Muhammad Ali, more than anyone, defines the word. Everyone else is second at best, if not trivial.

Thinking back to Don and Greg, I’m sorry they didn’t live long enough to outlive Ali, if for no other reason than we’d all still be together now in spirit watching his funeral tomorrow.

There will always be so much to think back on for those of us whom Muhammad Ali touched so deeply, who loved him back so deeply for all the love he gave us just by being. But a simple summation comes to mind, thanks to the four other Beatles: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

The Bessman Sideshow: ‘Billboard.’ How Could You?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all averse to bad-mouthing Billboard. Not only for the way they unceremoniously dumped me after over 22 years of being on the masthead as a contributor, editor and Special Correspondent, but for the changes since my time there in the way they cover the business.

But except for a few angry tweets—my protest for their disgusting, belittling, inconsequential headline for the monumental world music pioneer Ravi Shankar’s obit, “Ravi Shankar–Idol of George Harrison, Estranged Father of Norah Jones–Dead at 92,” comes to mind—I haven’t said much in writing about my experiences there and feelings about it, except hinting at it in the first entry in this series.

So now another headline causes me to castigate the magazine I devoted most of my career to. From yesterday’s billboard.biz: “Dorothy Carvello Shares: Ahmet Ertegun ‘Felt Me Up,’ Wu-Tang Scares Germans and More”—this followed by a link to a Billboard story with the same title.

I don’t want to further dignify this other than to say I’d never heard of the person making the accusation, who’s doing so in an effort to “shop around” a memoir. I will say it should be no business of Billboard’s to help shop it, and especially to help smear the memory of one of the most important—and I can’t think of anyone more important—people in the history of the music business, who is no longer living and can’t defend himself, not that he should have to defend himself, to Billboard or any other magazine, for that matter.

I can’t say I knew Ahmet well, but I did know him, and for a long time. In addition to his talent, in public he was always the classiest of men, and I always felt humbled to be in his presence, as well I should have.

I’ll never forget—how could I?– sitting at a banquet table in between Ahmet and Tony Bennett. Ahmet was presenting the New York Recording Academy chapter’s “Hero Award” to Tom Silverman, sitting on his other side, Tony was presenting to the late music publishing legend Frank Military, on his other side.

During the dinner, Tony was glancing frequently at Ahmet, then looking down and drawing in his sketchbook. After dinner he tore out the page, handed it to me and asked me to pass it to Ahmet. It was a pencil drawing of Ahmet, who was thrilled, of course. Such are giants.

Tim White, then Billboard’s editor, was given a “Hero’s Award,” too, that night, and deservedly so. No one was closer to Tim at Billboard than me.

But Tim made mistakes. One of his biggest was his decision to axe “Inside Tracks,” the back-page column written forever by John Sippel. It reported rumors and gossip concerning music business executives—nothing ever personal or really damaging, mainly who was said or thought to be going wherever. It was easily the most popular editorial feature of the book, the back page that everyone turned to first.

Billboard is not about rumors and gossip!” I remember Tim barking to me, as he was prone to do in explaining something that he deeply believed in. At such times there was no reasoning with him. I’m sure it cost the magazine dearly, and they brought it back after he died, but by then it was too late: The Internet had taken hold, and readers had learned that they could get the inside track elsewhere.

But Tim would never have stood for “Ahmet Ertegun ‘Felt Me Up,’” which is a sleazy Page Six New York Post item at best. I don’t know that it’s slander, but it’s a most ugly smear on the memory of the type of man without whom there would be no music industry, let alone trade magazine to report and support it.

Bessman Sideshow: J.Lo’s ‘Billboard Icon Award’

I could never understand the Billboard Music Awards.

I mean, it’s all sales, airplay and downloads chart performance-related, right? So if you’re already No. 1, why are you getting an award for being No. 1?

And if there’s more to it, I never even watched the show, and I sure never paid any attention to the charts—which now that I think of it, kind of begs the question, Why did Billboard keep me there well over 20 years as a contributor to begin with?

I’ll answer that in another section on this site at some point. For now I want to note that the Billboard Music Awards has gone off-the-charts in inanity, what with the announcement that Jennifer Lopez will be honored with what Billboard calls “the prestigious Icon Award” May 18 at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards in—where else?—the world’s music capital of Las Vegas.

Say what? Icon Award? Prestigious?

Like I said, I never liked the BMAs—rhymes with VMAs and CMAs, by the way—to begin with. That includes the Billboard Century Award—“the magazine’s highest honor for creative achievement,” according to Wikipedia, and named for Billboard‘s centennial in 1994. Yes, I had to look it up on Wikipedia, but it sounds like something Timothy White said, and I’m pretty sure that Tim came up with it.

Tim, of course, was the acclaimed rock journalist/author, famed for his Bob Marley biography Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, who became Billboard editor in 1991 and pretty much gave me free reign. He appointed me to the posts of Special Correspondent–the first in the trade magazine’s history–and Music Publishing Editor.

I always say that when Tim died in 2002, he took me with him. I was gradually stripped of my titles and unceremoniously dumped. At the end I couldn’t even get the album review editor to return an email. In the immortal words of Red Buttons, I never got a dinner.

But no, this isn’t sour grapes. I never liked the Billboard Music Awards to begin with. It seemed like such a blatant ruse to exploit the Billboard brand, not so much in support of the trade, which would have been legitimate, but at the expense of it.

As for the Century Award, it was a nice enough gesture, but again, designed to elevate the brand with a self-important title tying in with superstars who, while certainly credible, were also entirely predictable. During Tim’s lifetime they naturally reflected his tastes: George Harrison came first, in 1992, and was followed by Buddy Guy, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Chet Atkins, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman and John Mellencamp. Like them or not, it’s hard to argue with their merits, same with those who came after Tim–Annie Lennox, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and Tony Bennett, up through 2006.

No Century Award was given from 2007 to 2010. The award was renamed the Icon Award in 2011—says Wikipedia—and according to a May 5 Billboard story on its website, is the Billboard Music Awards’ (they expand the acronym to BBMAs)—“ultimate honor.”

“The accolade recognizes lifetime achievement and an artist’s remarkable and enduring contribution to popular music,” the story said. “Lopez becomes just the fourth artist and the first woman, joining past winners include [sic] Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Prince.”

I’m sorry BBMAs, but grammar aside, that last line reads like a word relationship question on an aptitude test: “Which of these names doesn’t belong with the other three?”

“Jennifer Lopez is one of the most iconic performers of her generation,” commented Larry Klein, producer of the Billboard Music Awards, in the piece. “We are thrilled to honor her historic career with the 2014 Icon Award and will be on the edge of our seats lik [sic] everyone else when she takes the stage.”

Okay, we haven’t met, Larry—if I may call you Larry—and I’m sure you have no idea who I am—make that, was. But I contributed to Billboard every week for well over 20 years and I’m telling you now that I, for one, will not be on the edge of my seat “lik everyone else” when J.Lo takes the stage. I ain’t even gonna be watchin’! And I say this knowing full well—having read the article—that she’ll “grace the stage to perform with one of the night’s finalists Pitbull to premiere the official anthem of this year’s FIFA World Cup, ‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’ [and] give another debut performance on [sic] the night with a rendition of ‘First Love,’ a single lifted from her new studio album A.K.A., which is set for release on June 17.”

Please, people! I understand that these shows are all about ratings, and in the case of music awards shows, promotion. But like I always say about the Grammys, there’s plenty of other artists out there that are equally as good, if not better than, the ones they promote.

And no, this isn’t sour grapes, and I don’t mean to discount J.Lo’s huge commercial success–the elephant in the room–and maybe I’d still be at Billboard had  I cared more about that sort of thing. But iconic? On par with Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Prince? Please, Billboard!