Jim Bessman, a beloved journalist who freelanced for Billboard for more than 20 years, died Tuesday at age 68.
The cause of death was an aneurysm, according to publicist Bob Merlis, a longtime friend of Bessman’s. Bessman, who had gotten COVID-19 in December, had been in a Manhattan rehab facility for sacroiliitis but had been expected to recover.
Bessman was born in Milwaukee and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. A lifelong music lover, he began writing as a freelancer for Variety while still in Wisconsin before relocating to New York and working with now-defunct music trade Cashbox. By the mid-’80s, he was writing concert reviews, artist profiles, retail stories and more for Billboard. For a short while, he also helmed a column about songwriters, whom he revered, and publishers.
“Jim had a Zelig-like quality. Wherever you went, there was Jim, mingling with the biggest names in the business,” recalls former Billboard manager editor Ken Schlager, who worked closely with Bessman. “Once, in Nashville, Jim accompanied me backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. At the time, I knew no one. Jim knew everyone — and they all greeted him with open arms. Similarly, in New York, you could walk into the Bottom Line with Jim and he’d have hugged 10 music buddies before we ever got to our seats. He was truly a beloved figure. Jim was never on staff at Billboard, but as a longtime contributor he would take on any kind of assignment and deliver well-informed, insightful stories. As managing editor, I tried on multiple occasions to lure Jim into a full-time job, but he was never willing to exchange his independence for a taste of financial security. He would give me a sheepish smile — like he knew he was making a foolish choice — yet he just couldn’t cave to my repeated offers.”
Once Bessman fell in love with an artist’s music, he was a fan — and supporter — for life, regardless of the act’s commercial success or the ebb and flow of his or her career. He especially championed less mainstream music genres, including Zydeco (he loved his trips to Eunice, La., and would bring pralines back to New York to share), polka, opera and the blues.
“Bessman was the Affirminator,” says Merlis, who coined the name shortly before Bessman’s death. “He was a monster in terms of being a positive about the things he thought were important or that he loved. It manifested itself in his support for an artist over the long, long, long haul. We handle Carlene Carter. He was there in the beginning and still was. He just wrote a piece for Spin about her in the past year.”
Upon hearing of his death, Carter told Merlis, “I wish I had seen him one last time, I would have kissed him on the mouth and told him how cool he is.”
“Jim was the first person to give me a review in Billboard, a positive review for ‘Stay (I Missed You),’” says Lisa Loeb, a longtime friend.
Bessman’s friends and acquaintances were vast in the music industry, but outside as well. He would often drop a name in conversation — like golfer Jack Nicklaus or Clint Eastwood — and casually refer to a recent interaction. When the listener expressed awe, he would simply say, “When you’ve been around as long as I have, you know everybody.”
That played out at the annual Bessman Bash, a party Merlis held for the past 25 or so years at his home in Los Angeles to herald Bessman’s yearly trip to the West Coast. Attended by a who’s who in the music and entertainment world, guests over the years included Peter Asher, Loeb, David Mamet, John Mellencamp, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and, in earlier years, Farrah Fawcett and Phil Spector.
Though Bessman, who was self-effecting to a fault, seldom liked the focus to be on him, he was as much of a character as anyone he wrote about. He became very close to reporters working for Tass, the Russian news agency. “I remember he brought them to a party for Madonna when it was still the Soviet Union,” recalls Merlis. His association with the Soviets prompted a call from the FBI. His catchphrase — “It’s so important” — became a button sported by Warner Nashville staffers at Fan Fair (now CMA Music Fest) one year.
After Bessman posted on Facebook in June that he was in the hospital, his page became a steady torrent of pictures of him with visitors ranging from Grammy-winning producer Russ Titelman to former Madonna publicist Liz Rosenberg, Dr. Bop & the Headliners’ Troy Charmell and Lou Christie.
For the last 20 years, Bessman had worked with the Songwriters Hall of Fame, handling the backstage archival interviews at the annual gala and writing up the event. “We used him for a lot of stuff because he was a great historian,” says SHOF president Linda Moran. “He knew hidden facts about everything. He was a great fan of songwriters, he was a perfect fit for us. Everyone we inducted he has a history like Bill Anderson, whom Bessman went to see when he was 15. The writers knew him and trusted him.”
Bessman also wrote two books, The Ramones—An American Band and John Mellencamp —The Concert at Walter Reed.
He is survived by a brother and sister.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.