Jim Bessman, a music journalist whose work appeared in Billboard for more than a quarter-century, as well as in Cashbox and Variety, died Tuesday morning at age 68 in New York City. The cause of death was an aneurysm.
Beyond the byline, Bessman may be best known within the writing community for his 30-year friendship with Bob Merlis, former Warner Bros. Records publicity head, who annually threw a Bessman Bash at his L.A. home, flying Bessman in from New York for the occasion. Among the many who showed up to pay tribute to Jim over the years were Jonathan Richman, David Mamet, Phil Spector, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter.
Born in Milwaukee, Wis., on July 19, 1952, Bessman grew up in Madison, dropping out of high school to write for the local alternative weekly in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and serving as a stringer for Variety at the time.
Bessman moved to New York in the early ‘80s, where he worked for Cashbox, then Billboard, writing a songwriting and music publishing column after being hired by the trade’s most legendary editor, the late Timothy White. As a freelancer, he wrote for Spin, Country Rhythms and started his own website blog, CenterlineNews.com.
Jim was beloved in the industry, with close friends including Sandra Bernhardt, Kris Kristofferson (for whom he once served as an impromptu security guard), Tony Bennett, Ledesi, Lisa Loeb, Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, the Ramones and Nancy Sinatra, who once praised Bessman at a backstage meeting “for doing so much for our family.”
Bessman also covered the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the organization’s in-house publication. Among his other writing credits were two books (“Ramones–An American Band” and “John Mellencamp–The Concert at Walter Reed”) and the liner notes for 80 CDs.
At the time of his death, he was in a rehab facility, learning how to walk again after becoming afflicted with sacroiliitis. Bessman had been diagnosed with COVID back in December, writing as he struggled to recover from that illness in his final blog post in January that one of the unexpected symptoms was uncontrollable weeping at the sound of the beautiful music he loved.
“His musical taste was so ecumenical,” noted Merlis. “He was versed in opera, Cajun music, southern Gospel and country. He had an encyclopedic knowledge. He was so enthusiastic about so many things, except himself.”
Bessman was a fixture at the Sugar Bar on open mic night, where he hung out with his good friends Ashford and Simpson.
Added Merlis, “I spoke to Jimmy once or twice a day for 30 years, and not just about music. He was well-versed in politics, and we attended both Obama inaugurations in Washington together. Everyone loved Jimmy.”
Bessman is survived by a brother and sister.