published in Jasper Magazine, April 2017
by David Travis Bland
Bemo Prince won’t take to fist if you said to him, “Who the hell’re you?” Anybody that happened to walk into the IHOP where he’s sipping lukewarm coffee could get a shade of Bemo’s story from the various hues of black he wears, paled only by the white snakeskin on his boots and the trucker-like amount of cups he drinks, knowing the precise grin to convince a waitress to put on a fresh pot. But when Bemo, now 68 years old, thought of his grandkids not knowing his story he made an accounting. After seven decades on earth, he’s made his first album, Has Been That Never Was. The years and life it took to get this collection of songs on tape held the hot energy and tepid disappointment as the black brew he drinks.
“Everything else from here on out is just something that I never did imagine,” Bemo says.
His path started on North Main Street in 1965, hitting up a trip into downtown Columbia where he caught a flick, Your Cheating Heart, with the devilishly smooth George Hamilton lip synching the tunes of Hank Williams. It was the power of the music that kept Bemo stuck in his seat. “I really had a change of my life — a purpose if you will,” Bemo says, thinking back to that day more than 50 years ago. “It was a strong moment for me to where my point was on music.” He picked up a guitar and was soon enough impersonating country music’s sarcastic devil, Roger Miller. His charm found him married at 18, working at whatever jobs he could find until he found a way to make it as songwriter. He wasn’t sure how that’d work, but music became who he was.
“My dad was really a big supporter of what my dream was and wanted me to succeed at it,” Bemo says. “The challenge I had was just to be in the mix and part of that environment. I just loved the lifestyle … I was there in my mind. I was living the moment.”
He started pitching songs to Nashville artists and publishing houses. He played folk at hotel gigs despite his country leaning. But music couldn’t keep his two daughters fed. Not even close. Bemo took up various gigs — clerking at gas stations, nightclub operator, then driving a truck for Marietta Bread.
In Bemo’s heart, he was a songwriter and to get some skin on the inside he started finagling his way to the greenroom of the Township Auditorium when Music City stars came to town. He found little success in the strategy until one night Bemo found a sympathetic ear in Bill Anderson, the country chart topper and Grand Ole Opry member.
“I never got that connection,” with people who could help his career, Bemo says. “[Bill Anderson] said ‘I got time between shows. When do you want to do it?’ He shot a lot of my songs down, but one song, ‘I Wish I Had You Off My Mind,’ he said ‘I think we can do something with that, Bemo.’”
With his in, Bemo met the heads of MCA Records and Tree Publishing, one of the premier Nashville songwriting houses at the time. Don Gantt, VP at the company and one of the movers and shakers of the town, saw a serious contender in Bemo.
“One time [Gantt] said to me ‘Bemo, how old are you?’ I told him ‘28 but I feel 40,’” Bemo says, taking in a sip of coffee. “He said, ‘You’re going to be real successful in about ten years.’ Those words I didn’t want to hear. I wanted it now.”
By this time Bemo needed a break. He was separated from his wife and kids, living in Atlanta and working up to ten hour shifts at a service station for sometimes sixty days straight. While he convinced his reluctant spouse to come to Georgia, his life floated in this damning circle of failure and unsatisfying jobs, but he still doggedly held to his music. But when the ‘80s came around, even his once supportive father began to doubt.
The 80s also brought Bemo a chance at getting his music into 20 million people’s homes and landing a record deal with MCA. In 1984 Nashville, every bar on Broad Street was brimming with talk of You Can Be A Star, a TNN television show which brought musical hopefuls into competition for the MCA deal. Bemo sent an audition tape and the show picked him for their second season. Bemo packed up the wife and kids and headed to Tennessee.
“Here I am and I’m going to prove you wrong. I’m going to prove my daddy wrong. I’m going to prove my mama wrong. I’m going to show my wife that I am capable of achieving this dream I’ve been dreaming since we’ve been married. This is my moment.”
He waited for showtime.
“When I walked off from [the rehearsal stage], you could hear talk in the studio, ‘Did you hear that guy singing. That was his song.’” Then he got the “Go” sign. The band hit the first chord and Bemo took to the stage, strumming and singing in his twangy croon his song “Wondering What my World’s Coming to.” After thirty seconds the song crumbled. Bemo stammered on some lyrics and the band marched on. He tried to catch up but the best he could do was hum a wordless melody. He never got back on beat.
“I came back to Columbia and self destructed…My identity was no longer there…I didn’t know who I was…Everything in my life has been temporary until I made it in music.”
That lack of purpose hit his work life hard and marriage harder, and Bemo fell into your average working man’s grind, a routine that kept him busy for over a decade while his guitar sat in a closet gathering dust. But life wasn’t done kicking Bemo in the ribs.
Two years after the new millennium and now in his mid-fifties, Bemo found himself laid off. The heart attack came only a couple years later. They kept coming over the months. Instead of forcing him into an old man’s bed rest, Bemo found his mind wandering to things he’d left unfinished.
“None of us have as much time as we think we do,” Bemo says leaning into the table.
“The health issues caused me to realize that my grandchildren had no idea of my pursuit of music. That’s what kind of shook me up.”
It took a little time, but through a family connection Bemo eventually hooked up with Daniel Machado of history-focused musical collective The Restoration. He shared some demos of his old songs with Machado and the musician was hooked, ready to produce a full length and make the album Bemo always wanted — that is, if his ticker would let would let him.
“In my condition I did not think I was capable of recording an album.”
Bemo believed in a line Machado gave him. “Don’t let your songs die with you.”
Pulling up to the studio, he thought nerves had him short of breath, but when the sticks clicked in and playback came through the headphones he forgot all about his rattling chest. In two days he’d laid down the songs he’d tried to get recorded for two decades. That trouble breathing he had outside the studio? His doctor let him know that was a minor heart attack that Bemo’s internal defibrillator caught.
On January 14, Bemo took to a stage at the Congaree Room in the South Carolina State Museum with Machado and a group of Columbia musicians to officially bring Has Been that Never Was into the world. He stood in front of a crowd of about 300 friends, family, and would-be fans. The feeling in that room he’ll never capture again, Bemo says. When he leaned into the mic to sing “Wondering What My Whole World’s Coming to” he joked with the audience that this is song that ruined his career. Bemo got through it just fine. He turned what was the most heart-shattering moment of his life into the applause and acceptance he’d always wanted.
“If you watch the original tape [of You Can Be A Star] at the end of it you’ll hear me say ‘Wonder what my world’s coming to,’ then I say, ‘after this.’ That’s on the tape,’” he says laughing. “That’s not part of the song.”
Bemo’s got an answer for that now and a new story to tell.