Bemo Prince is an unusual character in the unraveling, worn tale of country music and its stars. In the 70s, Nashville grew into the hottest, little town, bursting with sequins, smiles, and steel guitars. It shone bright, west of the smokies, with honky-tonk tunes echoing miles away. It's always been an attractive place, a music mecca for artists who've tasted fame and want more.
Bemo Prince was the hungriest. Read our story on Bemo's journey to Music City and his fall from grace of not quite reaching center stage—that is until now. Has Been That Never Was: The Bemo Prince Story is by David Travis Bland. Parts of this story originally appear in Jasper Magazine.
Ten Percent Talent, Ninety Percent Persistence
Bemo Prince got together a dollar and some change and headed out of Eau Claire, South Carolina, passing the floating Coca-Cola sculpture that topped the bottling plant at the edge of Cottontown. The North Main Street line ran straight to his destination—the movie theatre in downtown Columbia. Your Cheatin’ Heart was on the marquee. The poster promised, “unforgettable moments of the immortal Hank Williams.” Hank’s tunes held Bemo in his seat with a force he’d never known. He hid away in the aisle to see every showing that day, waiting with a throttled heart at each final scene, when the crowd stands up to sing “I Saw the Light” at the pronouncement of the extolled country singer’s death.
“I really had a change of my life, a purpose, if you will,” Bemo says, thinking back to that day in 1965 when he was fifteen years old living outside of the Palmetto State’s capital. “It was a strong moment for me, where my point was on music.”
Bemo Prince is sixty-eight now. A fellow decked-out in aviator glasses and a beard, who prefers to wear various shades of black, aside from the pale snakeskin boots from under his dark, crisp denim. He likes fresh coffee from IHOP on Assembly Street, a main thoroughfare in the heart of Columbia. The State House’s corinthian columns and copper dome rises just outside the diner’s windows. Bemo looks, and drinks the hot brew like a worn troubadour. Despite his seasoned appearance, it’s not a wild declaration to say most people haven’t heard of a Bemo Prince song, but Bill Anderson’s name has reached ears. Writing country chart-toppers since the late 1950s and joining the Grand Ole Opry the next decade, Bill Anderson transcends Nashville Cat status and enters the realm of the town’s legends. The Music City hit-maker had some advice for Bemo Prince when they met in 1976.
“He said I had tremendous talent but that to succeed in this business it takes about ten-percent talent and ninety-percent persistence,” Bemo says.
Bemo held onto that idea for sixteen years throughout the late 60s and into the 80s, staying true to his determination to be a singer-songwriter. He made steps toward success, but always found some nagging hindrance halting his ambitions. Then, in 1984, an opportunity came that he knew would make good on his persistence, that all the years of working and waiting, filled with a stubborn hope, would pay off. Bemo found that in the music business, sixty seconds can change everything.
“Opportunity is there sometimes, and you don’t know it. All of a sudden, that little fluke happens and bam,” he says, “Then, it’s hard to get it back—hard to get it back.”
Wondering What My Whole World's Coming To
Growing up in Eau Claire, South Carolina, an early suburb on the north-side of Columbia, in the 1950s and 60s, Bemo had a bit of a reputation for being odd. The son of a preacher, left-handed, and with the name Bemo Prince, “It’s kinda hard to be normal at that age,” he says. He started working early, around twelve years old, getting dollars from a paper route and spending that dough exploring downtown. His fateful trip to the movie theatre, coupled with an infatuation with smirking country-songwriter Roger Miller, ignited a new idea about the career that would keep Bemo on the up-and-up. He decided on a life of guitar chords and down-on-your-luck lyricism.
“At sixteen, seventeen, doing Roger Miller stuff that no one heard, I was the man,” he says, smiling as he recalls how he’d impress people in his old neighborhood.
His impersonation and resolute air must have been pretty good because about a year later he was hitched, both him and his wife eighteen years of age. Then in 1968, Bemo cut his first forty-five. A song called, “Wondering What My Whole World’s Coming To.” His world became music.
“My dad was 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.”
Columbia might as well have been Salina, Kansas for a person with Music City ambitions. But, with a new wife and the grind of scratching-it-out at the end of the month, Bemo was stuck in his hometown. Despite circumstances, his optimism was strong in those days.
“I just loved the lifestyle. It was such a rewarding moment when you would cross paths with someone like Dolly Parton or Porter Wagoner—I was there in my mind. I was living the moment.”
Bemo started pitching songs to Nashville artists and publishing houses, trying to get backstage to play his tunes to any country star who would come to the Township Auditorium, Columbia’s oldest venue. He played folk tunes at hotel gigs to earn some scratch, despite his country leaning; yet, music couldn’t keep his two daughters fed, not even close. Bemo took up various jobs, clerking at gas stations, becoming a nightclub operator, then driving a truck for Marietta Bread.
“I had a purpose, a sense of who I was. I had an identity,” he says. “I’m not a route salesman. I’m a songwriter.”
Slinging loaves wouldn’t do, he was a songwriter and kept finagling his way to the greenroom of the Township, until one night Bemo found a sympathetic ear with Bill Anderson.
“I never got that connection,” with people who could help, 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.’”
After befriending Anderson and getting a good word in Tennessee, calls started coming in, asking him to perform on Nashville showcases. Rumor had it that one of Bemo's songs was on Glen Campbell's short list, and Anderson got Bemo to shake hands with the heads of MCA Records and Tree Publishing, a premier country song-house at the time. The company’s VP, Don Gantt, one of the movers-and-shakers of 70s Nashville, saw a serious contender in Bemo.
“One time [Gantt] said to me, ‘Bemo, how old are you?’ I told him, ‘Twenty-eight, but I feel forty,’” Bemo says sipping his 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.”
“I thought, ‘Man, I just want one song,’” he says, wrapping his hands around his cup. “I just want one song.”
You Can Be A Star
Bemo needed that one song more than ever. He was separated from his wife and kids, living in Atlanta and working up to ten hour shifts at a service station for sixty days straight at times. As he convinced his reluctant spouse to come to Georgia, he found some stability with a new job—another route driver position, this time with Borden Ice Cream. With his life floating in this damning circle of failure and unsatisfying jobs, Bemo doggedly held onto his music; but when the 80s came around, even his once supportive father began to doubt him.
The 80s also brought Bemo the shining gift of a chance—a shot at being seen on 20 million television screens and the potential to land a deal with MCA. It was 1984, in Nashville, when bars on Broadway were brimming with talk of You Can Be A Star, a TNN television show that brought songwriting hopefuls on air to compete for a recording contract. The show would later help launch the careers of Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson. Bemo sent an audition tape and was picked for their second season.
“Everybody was just on me. My last opportunity, my last chance was this [show].” Bemo packed up the wife and kids, Mama too, 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.”
Ten minutes of audition time with the band, some rearrangements to his song, and Bemo felt good, confident, like fifteen years of working was about to break him from the realm of foolish hope and land him in a new reality. 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.’”
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 Whole World’s Coming To.” The cameras and American households focusing on him. After thirty seconds, the song crumbled; Bemo stammered on the lyrics while the band marched over him. He tried to catch up, but the best he could do was hum a wordless melody. He never got back on beat.
“When I walked backstage, I couldn’t get eye contact with anybody.”
Bemo asked the stage manager if this had ever happened before? “Not in the 104 episodes I’ve tapped,” he said and put back on his headset.
“It was a moment that I did not recover from.” Bemo found himself plummeting to depths he never imagined—decades of hope undone in a minute.
“I came back to Columbia and self destructed,” he says. “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.”
Don't Let Your Songs Die With You.
That lack of purpose hit his work life like a twenty pound sledge hammer. After nine years of driving a truck for Borden, his depression-induced apathy got him fired. His wife stayed with him, but he lived with the guilt of not being the provider he always wanted to be. The only thing that kept him sane was a new stint at the South Carolina State Museum building exhibits. A job Bemo found, that for the first time, gave him a minimal sense of accomplishment. He fell into your average working man’s drudgery, 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.
The job he credited with keeping his sanity in tact got swept up in a series of layoffs. Two years after the new millennium, and then in his mid-fifties, Bemo found employment opportunities for a man his age weren't exactly flush. The heart attack came only a couple years later and they kept coming over the months. Instead of ridding him to the bed, 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 The Restoration, a history-focused musical collective based in Columbia. Bemo shared some demos of his old songs with Machado and the Columbia musician was hooked, ready to produce a full length, making the album Bemo always wanted—that is, if his ticker 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.”
Knocking off the dust and diving into the memories, “More bad than good,” he says, of his old songs, Bemo found himself pulling up to the studio for the first time since 1968. He thought nerves had him short of breath, but when the sticks clicked the tune in and playback came through the headphones, he forgot all about his rattling chest. In two days, he laid down the songs he’d tried to record for two decades.
Has Been That Never Was came to life, a title from an elbow-jab his wife would frequently say that he took with a bit of pride. And that trouble breathing he had outside the studio, his doctor let him know that was a minor heart attack that his internal defibrillator caught.
“Everything that happens from this point out is just icing on the cake. Everything else from here on out is just something that I never did imagine.”
Inching toward seventy years old, Bemo’s still hopeful for that one song to break the Top 10 country charts. He might not be there yet, but he feels damn good about what he’s got.
On January 14, Bemo took to the stage at the Congaree Room in South Carolina’s State Museum, the same place that laid him off more than a decade ago. With Machado and a group of eager musicians, Has Been That Never Was officially entered the world. He stood in front of a crowd of about 300 friends, family, and potential fans. The feeling in that room is one he’ll never feel again. When he leaned into the mic to sing, “Wondering What My Whole World’s Coming To,” he joked with the audience that the song ruined his career. Bemo got through it just fine. He turned what was the most heart-shattering moment of his life into the pride that always eluded him.
“If you watch the original tape [of You Can Be A Star], at the end of it you’ll hear me say, ‘Wondering what my world’s coming to’ then I say, ‘after this,’” he says laughing. “That’s not part of the song.”
With tunes laid on tape for his family to hear for years to come, and for any others who dig for music, Bemo has a different story to tell, one that doesn’t end with trashed pride and a busted heart; instead, he found what Bill Anderson said he would need all those years back—persistence—the stubbornness to believe his songs and the life that went into them, can last longer than a gravestone. With his heart trouble, Bemo sees the place the stone marks. Before he goes, he has a new song he hopes to write.
“I’m so aware of death that I’ve grown to accept it,” he says. “When I buy a tube of toothpaste I wonder if it’s my last tube.”
“I feel completed. I feel like I was in a time warp and all of sudden now I’m here. Here in the past six months, melodies, and lines, and words are just flowing in my head at seventy, wanting to be creative again. It’s just that dream being realized.”—DTB.
You can download Bemo Prince's Has Been That Never Was on iTunes and follow him on Facebook @bemoprincemusic.
Photos by Michael Dantzler and Thomas Hammond.
David Travis Bland is a cultural journalist and writer in the American south. You can find his work in South Carolina's Free Times, or on Twitter @dtravisbland.