The death of James “Biddy” Wood marks the end of an era, when jazz was hot and Pennsylvania Avenue was alive and jumping with nightlife, featuring live entertainment, house bands, and nightclubs. Biddy Wood was in the forefront and background of “all that jazz.”
Biddy was born in 1924 in Lexington, Ky. to Francis Marion Wood, the first Superintendent of Baltimore City Colored Schools, and the former Nellie Hughes. His family moved to Baltimore in 1925 making Biddy a true “native son.” Biddy’s family stressed the importance of education in the family, which produced Biddy’s late siblings John “Junkie” Wood, Albert Bowen Wood and Iona “Sis” Collins, all educators. Biddy was a proud graduate of Douglass High School, graduating in 1940. After graduating, Biddy became a “soldier boy,” serving in World War II. After the military, Biddy entered Howard University graduating with a degree in Fine Arts. This increased his thirst for knowledge, his love of orator Paul Robeson, his eloquence in speaking and his ability to write a story that placed the reader mentally in the story. Biddy later worked with the Afro American Newspaper as a managing editor and an award-winning journalist for his story on Tunnel Joe’s attempt to escape from jail. Biddy received an exclusive interview from Tunnel Joe who would only talk to Biddy.
Biddy was a “man of all seasons” with jobs as a disc jockey, White House correspondent and an entrepreneur. Biddy was owner and founder of clubs in New York and Baltimore including Biddy’s Place, affectionately called Fulton & Baker, an upstairs lounge showcasing live jazz. He was also part of the managing team for The Ritz, formerly the Playboy Club with his son-in law Andre Draper and later the “Short Stop.”
Biddy will always be remembered as Charlie Tilghman’s right hand man, confidante and member of the Sphinx Club board of directors. Biddy helped make the Sphinx a strong fixture on The Avenue, a place where at any moment international artists like Gloria Lynn, Billy Eckstein, Jimmy Witherspoon, Red Foxx, Slappy White, Ora Reed, Carmen McRae, Richard Groove Holmes, Ernie Andrews, Jimmy Smith, and of course his love Damita Jo would stop in to perform or just hang out with Biddy.
I met Biddy in the early 70’s while a student at Coppin State. I was introduced to him by Frances & Charlie Tilghman and quickly became a member of the Sphinx Club family and a lifelong friend. I have so many fond memories of my friend but the one that had the most impact on my life was after my accident when I vowed never to go out again. However, Biddy had other plans. One Friday night I received a call from Biddy inquiring about my health and why I hadn’t been to the club. After what I thought was a legitimate reason, in Biddy fashion he said well get ready, a cab is on its way to bring you to the club. Unbeknownst to me, Biddy and Charlie had arranged a coming out party for me and I walked into the club to a standing ovation, and I haven’t stop.
Biddy‘s talent also extended to the world of horse racing where he was the first to have a tout sheet called the Soul Express at the major racetracks. I remember Biddy inviting me to lunch at Laurel Racecourse; the maitre d’ was waiting for us to arrive. Biddy had made all the arrangements. When we walked to the table there was Biddy and Mr. Hi de Ho, that’s right, Cab Calloway.
Biddy was known internationally as a promoter and theatrical manager to Gregory Hines, The Four Tops, Damita Jo, Brook Benton, Joe Tex, Sallie Blair and Johnny Brown. His travels took him throughout the world where he made lifelong friends. Beta Dotson, former Sphinx Club barmaid, remembers Biddy calling the Sphinx Club and telling her to “pour the liquor” for the customers until she got off. That was so Biddy, so generous; a thousand miles away in England still remembering his friends at the Sphinx Club. Biddy’s generosity was legendary; if he had a dollar, you had fifty cents.
It was a joy being friends with Biddy because you got to meet people like Aretha Franklin, Carmen McRae, Ora Reed and Redd Foxx and gain back stage access. They all loved and adored Biddy and would ask about Biddy and Damita. Just recently, when we saw the legendary Jimmy Heath in Martha’s Vineyard he asked about Biddy.
When Biddy’s son Jimmy called international singer Gloria Lynn to inform her of his death her immediate comment was “Biddy and I were friends from the beginning to the end.” Funeral entrepreneur Sonny Stinson of Detroit was grief stricken to learn of his longtime friend’s death.
I talked in length with Jimmy about the impact his dad had on him. He said, “When I was young I couldn’t understand why my dad was not at home like Miles’ father, Dr. Harrison,” or his uncles Junkie and Albert who filled in for his dad. As I got older, I realized the impact my dad had on so many people and his involvement in the early civil rights movement, including his friendship with Thurgood Marshall, his political campaigns for Dwight Eisenhower, Parren Mitchell and Clarence du Burns. The special relationship he had with Ossie Davis who said, “The impact that Biddy had during the movement is why Ruby and I are where we are today.”
“May the work I’ve done speak for me.”
Biddy made an impact here in Baltimore with the jazz musicians and club owners like Dante Daniels, owner of Maceo’s Lounge who said he will be forever indebted to Biddy for keeping jazz alive in Baltimore and bringing it back to Maceo’s.
“Give me my flowers while I can smell them.”
Biddy’s impact among his peers, family members, friends and people from all walks of life is undisputed. People all over Baltimore have a Biddy story on how he helped them or how they idolized him and wanted to be like Biddy. Biddy never forgot a friend and never made a promise he couldn’t keep. As Beta said, he could handle any situation.
When his daughter, Toni, was asked in a news article years ago to describe the one thing her dad did best, her response was “he taught us how to treat ourselves and others with pride and dignity. He constantly reminded us to be the best that we could be in whatever we chose to pursue; he was very, very supportive.”
Biddy instilled that in all of us during his final days. Biddy the writer, the lyricist and the teacher was teaching us all how to die with dignity. When Frances Tilghman and I visited him and asked how he was doing, he said, “If it wasn’t for grease and straightening combs none of my girls could come out tonight.” Humorous ‘til the end.
His legacy and memory will be cherished by his sons, Dr. James “Jimmy” Wood , John “JJ” Wood (Berkley, CA) and daughters the Rev. Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, Susan Barnes (Biloxi MS), Stephanie Shelton (PA), sons-in-law Dr. Lance Barnes and Andre Draper, daughter-in-law Robin Wood and a host of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
“Nights are long since you went away. I long to hold you each and every day, my buddy, your buddy misses you.”
Biddy would often say he talked to Charlie last night. We know Charlie is dressed in his tuxedo telling everybody “Biddy Wood is on his way.” He’s planning a homecoming with the old gang. Billy Johnson, McRae and Doc Fraling are at the door. Squeezebox got the accordion, Chico on the Hammond B3, Al Brown is doing the Madison and Damita Jo’s singing “I’ll save the last dance for you.”
Each night Biddy would close the Sphinx Club walking from guest to guest singing Nat King Cole’s song. “For all we know we may never meet again, before you go make this moment sweet again. We won't say good night until the last minute, I'll hold out my hand and my heart will be in it.
For all we know this may only be a dream. We come and go like a ripple on a stream. So love me tonight; tomorrow was made for some, tomorrow may never come for all we know.
Travel light Biddy, but don’t forget your “black drawers.” Until we meet again!
Services for Biddy Wood will be as follows:
Family hour, Friday, Oct 14, at 11 a.m., with a noon service and repast to follow at the Freedom Temple AME Zion Church, 900 Church St., Brooklyn Park, MD 21225 where Biddy’s daughter the Rev. Dr. Frances M. Draper is pastor. A private burial will occur the following week at Garrison Forest.
Expressions can be sent to the family c/o Rev. Dr. Frances M. Draper, Freedom Temple AME Zion Church.