James 'Biddy' Wood

Retired jazz promoter was Pennsylvania Avenue legend who managed acts and had been married to singer Damita Jo DeBlanc

  • James "Biddy" Wood
James "Biddy" Wood (Baltimore Sun )
October 11, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

James "Biddy" Wood, a retired music promoter and well-known personality in Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue jazz scene, died of respiratory failure Friday at Harbor Hospital Center's hospice unit. He was 87 and lived in Bolton Hill.

Born in Lexington, Ky., he was the son of Francis M. Wood, an educator who was director of segregated, or "colored," schools in Baltimore, and Nellie Hughes, a home economics teacher. The family lived in Catonsville, and "Biddy," as he was known because he was a small child, graduated in 1940 from Frederick Douglass High School.

He served in the Army during World War II and completed a fine arts degree at Howard University in 1949. He was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.

In 1946, he married Frances "Frankie Lou" Murphy, the daughter of Afro-American newspaper president Carl Murphy. He became an Afro reporter and covered the White House during the Eisenhower administration. He was also a manager of the paper's Richmond division and later became the Afro's city editor.

After divorcing, he went into the music promotion business. In an autobiographical sketch, Mr. Wood recalled serving as a disc jockey in Philadelphia and co-founding a gospel-themed night spot, the Sweet Chariot Club at 26th and Broadway in New York. He also had an ownership in Biddy's, a bar at Fulton Avenue and Baker Street, and marketed a racetrack tout sheet, the Soul Express. Friends said he loved the Maryland thoroughbred racing scene.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Wood married jazz singer and recording artist Damita Jo DeBlanc, whom he managed. She recorded a hit single, "I'm Saving the Last Dance for You." He went on her extensive tours, including stops at Grossinger's Catskill Hotel, the Copacabana and Club Harlem.

"Biddy was a walking encyclopedia. He was a jovial guy who was articulate," said Carlos Johnson, a saxophonist and friend who led Damita Jo's band for 17 years. "He was always looking for new talent to help."

Mr. Wood later promoted singer Brook Benton, dancers Gregory and Maurice Hines, singer Joe Tex, the Four Tops, Sallie Blair and Erline Reid.

"Biddy had a way of searching out talent. He could spot talent that nobody else paid any attention to. He would hear a musician and introduce them at the Casino or the Sphinx," said "Rambling" Rosa Pryor-Trusty, a close friend who lives in Reisterstown. "No one else could have done it. Most came for just expenses or pro-bono. He could talk the musicians and entertainers into going on stage for him."

She recalled him as a character, a people person, with a reliable memory for names, phone numbers, places and dates. He also enjoyed singing.

Friends said Mr. Wood spent time at the Sphinx Club on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he handled his jazz promotions and was a part-time manager. He also booked musical dates in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, as well as at the old James Brown Motor Inn at Franklin and Paca streets in downtown Baltimore.

"He had ties to musicians in every state in the union," said Randy Tilghman, who owned the Sphinx Club after the death of his father, Charles Tilghman. "Biddy had been around the world when he was promoting Damita Jo and he had a great memory for names. He kept in touch with everybody."

In his free time, he enjoyed playing cards with friends at Maceo's Lounge in West Baltimore. He also enjoyed reading and solving crossword puzzles.

"He was a great personality and knew a lot about the music business," said Ernie Andrews, a jazz and blues singer based in Linwood, Calif.

Services will be at noon Friday at the Freedom Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 900 Church St. in Brooklyn Park. Mr. Wood's friends will perform a jazz tribute to him from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the church.

Survivors include two sons, Dr. James E. Wood Jr. of Baltimore and John Jeffrey Wood of Oakland, Calif.; three daughters, Dr. Frances M. "Toni" Draper of Baltimore, Susan Barnes of D'Iberville, Miss., and Stephanie Shelton of Bethlehem, Pa.; 15 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren. His wife of 40 years died in 1997.


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