Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.

I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.

By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.

I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.

After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”

Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.

But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.

This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”

My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.

“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”

But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”

Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”

I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.

But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.

And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.

Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.

But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.

But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”

Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.

But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.

You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.


Election Eve at the Beacon

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 17

If you follow me on Twitter you know how I like to post YouTube videos relating, usually loosely, to trending celebration days-everything from National Donut Day (June 2), say, to Spirit Day, which occurred just last week (Oct. 20). As for Spirit Day, though, I didn’t know what it was when I started looking for Spirit’s 1968 hit “I Got a Line on You” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In the Sky.”

Before posting them, luckily, I learned that Spirit Day, instituted in 2010, recognizes united opposition against bullying and shows support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, with Spirit Day observerse wearing purple–the color representing “spirit” on the rainbow LGBT flag. The day is a big enough deal to have it’s own special Twitter purple ribbon symbol for hashtags.

Clearly, “I Got a Line on You” and “Spirit In the Sky” weren’t appropriate for Spirit Day, not that I always let political correctness always stand in the way. But I was sensitive enough this time to the significance of LGBT concerns to seek a better video, and the perfect one came to mind instantly: “Born This Way.”

No, not the vastly inferior Lady Gaga song-that was a total rip from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” as everyone–including Madonna–knows! No, I mean Ashford & Simpson’s emotionally powerful and empowering “Born This Way,” with Terry Lavell singing, which they hastily released digitally early in 2011 when Gaga announced her upcoming single of the same title and somewhat similar, if decidedly vainglorious, theme.

Ashford & Simpson’s “Born This Way,” which was written in 2006 for a musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel Invisible Life about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, was the first recording for Lavell, who was then starring as Mercedes in the hit Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles.

“Never in my life did I think I’d record a song with the most legendary songwriters ever!” he told me for examiner.com. “I love it, and everyone who’s heard it loves it.”

Indeed, it was a fabulous song and dramatic performance by a guy who clearly understood the lyric, as related by a young man who knew he was different since he was “a little baby boy,” ignored by his mother and beaten by his father, who prayed he could change but woke up every day the same—and finally discovers self-acceptance:

For those just like me who don’t always seem to fit
We’ve got a right to be
We’ve got to stand up to it
The time is now, this is it
Look at this big beautiful world and all its varieties
Each living thing has its purpose
We’re all in His image
What could be better
We’re supposed to live and love together.

And the chorus:

I was born this way
It’s not your problem, it’s not your fault
God made me and it’s okay
So don’t try to change me
I was born this way.

Lavell, a New Orleans native who had previously toured in Hairspray and Smokey Joe’s Café and appeared on TV in Sex and the City and The Dave Chappelle Show, had spectacularly introduced “Born This Way” when it was a key song in producer showcases for Invisible Life. He reprised his electrifying performance at Ashford & Simpson’s September,
2008 shows at Feinstein’s when he stunned audiences by coming out from the wings unannounced to sing it with them and for that moment, at least, all but steal the show: “The sassy long-legged beanpole,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “appeared out of nowhere to zigzag across the stage like a bolt of lightning.”

“They came to see La Cage and afterwards said they wanted to record it,” said Lavell of Nick and Val. “Their version is just as good [as Gaga’s]. It’s different and more of an anthem song.”

And while Nick and Val didn’t write “Born This Way” expressly for him, Lavell felt a personal connection with it.

“It’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve had something that feels like it was written for me,” he said. “The crazy part is that it wasn’t! But it just feels like verbatim, it’s the story of my life–like I lived this.”

He added: “I want so much to do work that means something, and ‘Born This Way’ is a celebration of being exactly who you are. Of course you understand it’s about a guy being gay, but so many people can relate because it’s just telling an individual story about being whoever you are, and is more a celebration song–in the great Ashford & Simpson dance tune style.”

I also spoke with Nick and Val when “Born This Way” was released.

“It’s weird how the same ideas and thoughts can float into the universe and emerge from different minds and different places,” Val said, referring to Gaga’s song. “I think there’s enough love in the world for Lady Gaga and Terry Lavell,” said Nick–as only Nick would.

Nick and Val wrote 20 or so songs for the Invisible Life musical, which, wrongly, was never produced. But I vividly remember that they’re all great–having twice seen the run-through for producers. Regarding “Born This Way,” Holden lauded it as “a high-powered dance number,” and like so many Ashford & Simpson classics, it does in fact build in drama and intensity to a huge chorus—“that big A&S sound!” as Nick once put it, when I interviewed him and Val many years ago for Billboard.

That big A&S sound. What was so big about that big A&S sound was the structure of gospel music–the tradition that they came out of–that they brought to secular music, which worked particularly well in the theatrical context of Invisible Life. A&S fans, of course, can point to their masterpiece 1982 experiment in R&B theater with their Street Opera album, the entire B-side of which was a mini-Porgy and Bess suite of songs depicting the hard if not harsh realities of urban Africa-American working-class life—though never lacking in the love and hope that A&S more than anything represent.

What’s especially sad about Invisible Life is that “Born This Way” remains the only song from it that’s ever surfaced. Nick and Val themselves recorded another key song from the Invisible Life compositions, the stirring, climactic “God Has Love For Everyone,” its title pretty much telling you everything. I still hear the chorus ringing triumphantly in my mind.

But I’d almost forgotten about the “Born This Way” video! The clip mixes studio footage of Lavell recording the song with performance footage shot at a Thursday Open Mic show at Nick and Val’s fabled Sugar Bar restaurant/nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It may have been the last video shot of Nick. If so, well, it couldn’t have been more fitting, with him singing with the background singers, generously giving the spotlight up for another artist like he–and Val, in the video playing piano–did all the time.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 16

It started innocently enough when Nellie McKay asked me, after we’d seen Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City, what I thought of Bob Lefsetz, the long-winded music industry newsletter pundit famed—in the comparitvely small but ever growing circle of aging, mostly bitter ex-music industryites, all of whom are equally grumpy—for the newsletter he sends out to his email list once or twice daily.

No, I don’t read him, I said. One, he’s full of shit. Two, he’s a shit writer. Three, he writes the same shit over and over again.

Yes, I know this sounds a lot like I’m talking about myself–and I hastily admitted as much to Nell—especially #3. After all, I told her, I’m sure people go, “Gee. All he ever writes about is Nellie McKay! Doesn’t he like anyone else?” That answer, I conceded with the same haste, was for the most part, no.

We really should start a feud, Nellie suggested. It would be good for both our careers.

No, I told Nellie, my career is unsalvageable. And I definitely don’t want to risk yours. For the most part I don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t want it in my obituary that I took down the career of the most talented music artist of her generation.

[Editor note: Nellie’s career, actually, is fine. She was off the next night to play with her band at Deerhead Inn at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsyvlania, and is readying her most brilliant cabaret piece from two years ago A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, about the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine, but when he died in 1989, was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives, for upcoming repeat performances. But, no, she’s not doing the Super Bowl halftime show.]

Then why does everyone read him, she asked, returning to Lefsetz. That answer, I said, was easy: Everyone reads him because everyone else does.

This led me to Bob Dylan—somewhat ironically in that Nellie does about the best Dylan impression of anyone out there.

Just announced Nobel Prize aside, why does everyone consider Dylan the greatest songwriter ever? I asked rhetorically. Because everyone else does! Don’t get me wrong. I was a huge Dylan fan—as a kid. “Blowin’ the Wind”—especially Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Times They are a-Changin’”—these and so many other early Dylan songs woke me up to the 1960s. I knew Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde inside-out. But after he went Christian—great songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” and the great Gospel Tour of 1979-’80 that I saw in Madison notwithstanding, I started having second thoughts that carried over into a reexamination of his earlier work: Suddenly the lyrics to formerly beloved songs like “Desolation Row” and “I Want You” seemed like so much surrealistic baloney, to mangle–and I throw it in here gratuitously, much as those lyrics now appeared to be written–a favorite phrase from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 horror film classic The Black Cat, where Bela Lugosi says to nemesis Boris Karloff, in response to a comment that the occult is little more than “supernatural baloney,” “Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not.”

It all came to a head in 2007, when I chanced to meet a reporter for ABC News at some showcase, and talk turned to Dylan. She was amazed, if not appalled, when I told her that I considered his post-folk period lyrics largely “gibberish”—and quoted me saying it in a piece around the release of Todd Haynes’ bizarre Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which Cate Blanchett, in another instance of convincing female male impersonation, turned in the best Dylan portrayal).

Having slaughtered another sacred cow, I wanted to share my favorite lyricists with Nellie, starting with—who else?–Hal David.

I was so lucky to know Hal very well. In fact, he called me up once, a few years before he died, to say that he’d been mulling over writing a memoir and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him. Duh, I replied, then he said he wanted to hold off until everyone else was dead and of course, they all outlived him.

But go to any of his songs—as but one easy example, take “One Less Bell to Answer.” Even just the title is poetry, and when I say poetry, I mean you can take Hal’s lyrics apart form Burt Bacharach’s beautiful music and they stand alone as poems concerning contemporary relationships:

One less bell to answer
One less egg to fry
One less man to pick up after
I should be happy
But all I do is cry
.

Indeed, I actually have a book of Hal’s lyrics—and you really don’t need the music.

I’ve also known Kris Kristofferson very well, and wrote liner notes on a two-disc KK compilation. Two famously immortal lyric examples will suffice: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “There’s nothing short a’ dying/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” (from “Sunday Morning Coming Down”).

I’ve written liner notes on two David Johansen CDs, and need go no further than the opening verse of “Frenchette” in which he pares down everything fake to the real core: “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette/I’ve been to France, so let’s just dance.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford, which is why we’re gathered together here again in the first place. No one was more real than “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Gimme Somethin Real” Nick Ashford.

This being the sixteenth in my continuing Reflections on Nick Ashford series, obviously I could go on and on about Nick, as human being and here, as songwriter. One of the things I love so much about his songwriting is the way he made poetry out of vernacular: “We got love/Sure ‘nough, that’s enough” fro “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “She wanna live in a high-rise” from “High-Rise”–you get the picture. But even better, the way he cut deep to the core of human beings and humanity—but ever so tenderly. I come now to Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” the enduring hit for Diana Ross, what I love to call the greatest song of all time.

First, it’s not “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)—Or Else!” or “You Must Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand.” Nick was never judgemental, never demanding: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand—make this world a better place if you can.” The italics are mine, but the gentle suggestion is Nick’s. It’s “if you can,” not “of course you can!”

Nothing authoritarian, either, as in “I command that you reach out and touch sombody’s hand!” No, Nick never forces an issue: He always kindly leaves kindness up to you.

And then he delivers what I consider one of the most extraordinary anthropomorphisms ever in a song, that is, of course, if I have any idea what anthropomorphism means.

Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own?

Again, he’s not saying, “You are a stone,” or even insinuating it, just rhetorically asking.

And “to share a problem that’s not your own”! Ruminate on that for a moment, maybe even two.

I’m really at a loss for words now. How seemingly simple yet so enormously poetic in anthropomorphizing a stone in bringing us around to see our failings in caring about others—this from the most creatively caring songwriter maybe ever.

Sorry if it took so long to get here. So many roads, sometimes circuitously, lead to Nick.

[Editor’s note: Bob Lefsetz and Bob Dylan deserve an apology. Nothing said was inaccurate, but any negativity towards another is inappropriate and uncallec for in anything relating to Nick Ashford.]

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 15

It’s been five years now, since Nick died. August 22, 2011.

It was while I was flying back from L.A. I knew he was going in the morning, and when I landed in New York, Liz had left a message to come straight to the house. I did, with shorts on, some dumb but clean t-shirt, ball cap, laptop bag and carry-on.

Nick would have loved it.

I recounted this story to J.B. Carmicle over breakfast last week at the Red Flame. He comes to New York from L.A. for a few days every year this time, meeting up with his brother Donnie, who still lives in their Louisville hometown. We talked a bit about Muhammad Ali’s funeral–Ali being right up there with Ashford in personal significance and public greatness.

J.B. hired me at Cash Box when I came to New York in 1982, when he ran the East Coast office. He got us tickets to Ashford & Simpson at Radio City shortly after I started there. The experience was life-changing.

There were four of us altogether, but I don’t remember the other two. I do remember the seats were about two-thirds the way back on the floor, center aisle. I also remember that there might have been four other white people there, it being the High-Rise album and R&B hit single tour, which places it in 1983–ahead of Nick and Val’s pop breakthrough with solid the following year.

Someone had a joint. We smoked it in our seats before the band started and the curtain went up to expose a tall stage prop in the shape of a skyscraper, if not the Empire State Building. The band struck up,and the top half of the building unfolded down into a staircase, much like a small commuter prop plane’s door. There at the top of the stairs, in all their splendor, were Nick and Val. I don’t know if the reefer had anything to do with it, but it had the effect on me of witnessing live one of those Renaissance paintings of the Ascension–no matter that Nick and Val then descended the steps to entertain their worshipful throngs.

Did I say “life-changing”?

At Nick’s funeral, among the many names mentioned in reference and reverence, was Jesus. Nick, the speaker said, was “the black Jesus.” Made me think of the many times Liz Rosenberg and I would sit stoned, if not at his feet, in front of him, seemingly looking up, eyes open wide, mouths agape, hanging on every word he spoke to us upstairs at the Sugar Bar like we were disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

Nick was so deep.

The day after Radio City I called Elliot Hubbard, an Epic Records publicist who was one of the few press contacts I’d made in my short time then in NYC. I was so blown away by A&S that I had to talk to someone. He was close to Liz and said I should call her, since she was such a huge fan of Nick and Val, having worked publicity for them at Warner Bros. Records when they were signed to the label. So I called her cold, having no idea who she was, and when I mentioned Nick and Val we became instant forever best friends, who saw their shows so many times together over the next three decades that when the two-disc A&S compilation The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities came out in 2008, it had an essay by Val in which she thanked us and said we should just do their show for them, since we knew it better than they did–which was not untrue.

As I write this I’m back in L.A., where I saw Nick and Val a couple times, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair. It was always great to see them outside of New York, and see how loved they were away as they were at home.

I’ll still be out here Monday, August 22, when I’ll think back on the five years since Nick’s been gone–though it never really feels that way. In fact, it’s very hard for me to think, speak, or write about Nick in the past tense.

I’m thinking now of a year ago last April, at the funeral of Andre Smith, who had hosted Nick and Val’s Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 hears. The service was at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by the same close-knit Sugar Bar family that made up so much of Nick’s funeral audience at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Of course I couldn’t help but think about Nick at Andre’s funeral, what with Andre being, next to Nick and Val, the face of the Sugar Bar as its famous Open Mic host. As I walked to the church from the 145th Street A-Train stop I also thought of Val’s Aunt Bea’s funeral, which I didn’t know then was the last time I would ever see Nick. He hadn’t been to the Sugar Bar on Thursday night for probably a couple months at least then, and he entered the room just as the service started and immediately left just as it ended.

So the last time I saw Nick I didn’t even get the chance to say hi. I remember I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar afterward with Val and Tee and Nicole and Asia, and telling Asia that I was mad at her for getting the big
tattoo on her back of her parents before I did.

I thought of all this again as I walked back to the subway after Adre’s service, trying to figure out how to get from the A to the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd & Broadway and the Sugar Bar–again for a post-funeral celebration. Luckily
I heard my name called out from an RV with an extra seat next to fellow Sugar Bar regular Anita Parker Brown. Shinuh, a singer who plays and works at the Sugar Bar, was in the front, and I didn’t know the driver–but we
all shared exactly the same thought of Nick that we expressed on the drive to the Sugar Bar: That it’s impossible to accept the fact that Nick is gone.

Yes, it’s been five years now. But I still say stuff like, “I’m friends with Nick and Val,” or, “Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.” Depending on the awareness of whom I’m talking to, maybe, I’ll then add that Nick is no longer living. But I never start out a reference to him or to Nick and Val in any way that recognizes that he’s gone.

It’s like how George Faison, the Tony-winning choreographer who was close to Nick and Val and created their classic dance routines, said to me one Thursday night after Open Mic, shortly after Nick died.

“Who would ever imagine that Nick Ashford could be gone?” George said to me as we walked out of the Sugar Bar, probably in the neighborhood of 2 a.m.

“No one ever could,” I replied. Nor should anyone, now or ever. Like I tweet every August 22, Nick Ashford lives.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 14

Like I always say–and told him many times—I wish I’d have carried around a tape recorder whenever I spoke with Nick. Then I wished I ‘d transcribed it all onto rolls of parchment and hidden them in caves along the Dead Sea—though I never told him that.

Someone called him The Black Jesus at his funeral and it was only fitting, for he had the look and the kindness and the love–and the wisdom. Me and Liz Rosenberg would essentially sit at his feet and look up as he passed it down to us supplicants.

For sure Nick would have been the final word on Adele, after I stirred up the Sadducees by trashing both the “Hello” song and video on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure he’d have liked Adele okay, and appreciated where she’s coming from. But I doubt he’d have been carried away by all the hoopla over “Hello.”

At least Alec Shantzis, keyboardist for the Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic shows, sided with me.

“I have to chime in here,” Alec wrote on my ever-widening Adele Facebook thread. “As a keyboard player I have performed and/or recorded with Ashford & Simpson, Ben E King, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, and a host of other artists. Adele is ok, she meets my minimum standard for ok, that’s all. Nothing more.”

“On that list for sure!” I replied, meaning, compared to those names, okay is all–list of those meeting minimum standards. I added, “You know who really would have been able to put her in perspective, of course: Nick!”

“No doubt, Jim, Nick would have said one sentence that ended the discussion lol,” responded Alec, sagely. “Oh, and that was my short list too, I left a lot off because my point was made.”

“I sat with him one night in the [Sugar Bar’s] Cat Lounge and he discussed the relative merits of the great female vocalists,” I said. “It was like listening to a college professor!”

“As a songwriter, creating vehicles for singers, and with his experience, he was as expert as could be,” answered Alec. “We could sure use some creative experts in the music business now.”

I vaguely remember that conversation in the Cat Lounge. I recall volunteering that I didn’t care much for Mariah Carey or Beyonce or even Whitney Houston—in fact, I gave Whitney a lukewarm review at best back in the 1990s when I reviewed her show at Madison Square Garden for The New York Post, prompting Donnie Ienner, then second-in-command at Arista, to take me aside at a label function and respectfully chew me out. But I don’t recall that Nick disagreed with me, or my contention that neither sang with the soul, say, of Val and Aretha.

“My Val?” Nick asked, making sure I didn’t mean a different Val, whereas there could be no other Aretha, of course. I always loved how he said “my Val.”

Aretha, of course, was in a class by herself, though besides Nick’s Val, whom I always put ahead of everyone as the most soulful and spontaneous singer I’ve ever seen, we mentioned Patti LaBelle, obviously, and probably Patti Austin. I don’t think I thought of Darlene Love, or some of the 50s and ’60s r&b vocalists other than those mentioned, or Laura Nyro.

If he were here now I’d ask him to assess the likes of Katy and Rhianna and Miley and especially Taylor, and guess he’d be most supportive of Katy as a vocalist, Miley, maybe, as an artist. I’d love to hear his take on Rihanna.

But there was one female vocalist who stood out among all of them for Nick, and she wasn’t a soul singer as such. In fact, he could hardly talk about Barbra Streisand without losing it.

Nick really adored Barbra, and she knew it. He told me how Val had bought him a ticket to a VIP meet-and-greet with her after a show in Vegas, and how he went–but he pretty much stood bashfully against the wall. Very un-Nick.

“Does she know how you feel about her?” I asked.

“She does,” he said. “But she doesn’t know I’m weak.”

Before he died, Liz got him a Streisand live DVD. I met a Mattel person at Toy Fair and got him a Barbara Streisand Collector Barbie Doll.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 13

I’ve been thinking about Nick a lot lately, but then again, it’s that time of year.

It was a month or so ago when Darlene Love played B.B. King’s and did her wonderful tribute to Marvin Gaye, whom she’d sung behind back in the day. Two of the songs are classic Ashford & Simpson compositions: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” the latter featuring one of my all-time fave A&S couplets in “There’s no looking back for us/We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough.”

Sure ‘nough, that’s enough.

Shit.

Why can’t I write something so complete?

Full context:

I will go where you lead
Always there in time of need
And when I lose my will
You’ll be there to push me up the hill
There’s no, no looking back for us
We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough
You’re all, you’re all I need to get by

Compounding it all, Dionne Warwick was there. Reminded me how Nick and Val had hosted a party for her at the Sugar Bar years ago, for an album release. I don’t remember the year, but I remember the day, December 8. I brought my friend Beefy—the legendary Troy Charmell of Dr. Bop & the Headliners, who always loves going to the Sugar Bar, and then we made our annual Dec. 8 walk over to nearby Strawberry Fields to observe with joy and song the death day of John Lennon, who gave us the Nick-like “All You Need is Love.”

And now I’m in the air nearing L.A. and get an invite to the Sugar Bar to attend a showcase Aug. 22 for Lili K, described by her publicist—who knows how I love the Sugar Bar—as “Chicago’s jazz infused ‘throwback soul’ songstress.”

August 22. A date like December 8, the day Nick died, in 2011. Ironically, on that day four years ago I was flying back from L.A., and upon landing, headed directly from Kennedy to Nick and Val’s house, in shorts and t-shirt carrying my bags. Such a sad occasion, yet even then, somehow full of the joy and song and life that was Nick then and now.

And on this Aug. 22—Saturday night—it’s the annual Bessman Bash—a wonderful backyard party thrown by my pal Bob Merlis at his house in Larchmont. There will be plenty of great people and music and fun, as it always was at the Sugar Bar, whenever Nick was there. Or anywhere that Nick was.

Nick will be there, of course. As he always is.

Here he is, in one of his last performances, singing, with Val, “You’re All I Need to Get By”:

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 12

Well, Nick, it’s been three years today. Even if it only seems like three days.

Of course, we all think about you every day so it’s not like you’ve been gone. And talk about you: I bring you up all the time, in any kind of conversation, and learn again how many people were affected by you that even I didn’t know about.

I want to say today that you would be so happy—and not at all surprised—how well your family is doing.

Val continues to preserve the Sugar Bar–which she didn’t want but grew to love as much as you. And she continues your career through hers.

Nicole remains the most wonderful, sweetest young lady, always a joy to be near, like you.

And Asia, you’d be so proud to see what your baby girl has become. Self-assured on stage and off, spontaneous as ever and fearless, like you, in being her own person and speaking her mind. Always comes up to a group and says, “How are you, beautiful people?”–sometimes even making us feel beautiful!

And as for the rest of us? Well, I won’t say that you’re not sorely missed—even after being gone just three days. But it still rings so true, what George Faison, who eulogized you so beautifully, told me a few months later as he jumped into a car after another great night at the Sugar Bar: “Who could believe that Nick Ashford could be gone?”

The answer, we all know, is no one. Then again, you aren’t gone. Not from our hearts.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 11

I was pressed into service this afternoon at Nick’s Bench, a.k.a., The Bryant Park Bench That Says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Apparently, it was my turn to protect it from vandals.

I was meeting with Sandrine Lee, a wonderful commercial/art photographer, a.k.a., Will Lee’s wife. She knew the bench well.

The first attack came without warning: Suddenly I saw whitish liquid splatter on my khaki cargo shorts, a fraction of a second after I felt a massive wad drop on my forearm. Stunned, Sandrine reached for a handkerchief to help me wipe off the bird shit.

Nick was such a spiritual being. I’m the exact opposite, so I gave no thought that maybe he was upset at me for that joke I played on him years ago, when CBS Sunday Morning was shooting a segment of a great Ashford & Simpson feature at the bench. When Nick and Val and the camera crew arrived, they found it was occupied by a homeless man, fast asleep as Nick had once been there when he first came to New York, homeless and alone. Upon closer inspection, that bum on the bench turned out to be…me.

But had I been spiritual, I might have had second thoughts half an hour or so later, when I felt a second massive wad land hard a couple inches left of my right earlobe on what little hair I have left. This one, Sandrine said as she dabbed me with her handkerchief, was a different color.

They had it in for me, the birds. I know. The bench was clean. Sandrine was clean.

The only explanation I can come up with is that they regard me as unworthy, either of sitting on Nick’s Bench next to Sandrine, or sitting on Nick’s Bench, period—or both. Sandrine, I can’t argue. But Nick? Nick found everyone worthy of sitting at his table in the Cat Lounge at the Sugar Bar, and surely wouldn’t bar me or anyone else from sitting on his bench in Bryant Park.

So I’ll be back on the bench tomorrow morning, birds. But with a box of Kleenex and a hat.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 10

Val’s sax player Todd Schefflin invited me to a JT Project gig tonight in Harlem, and maybe I’d have gone except that I’m heading out to Westbury this afternoon to see Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman—The Turtles–and their annual Happy Together Tour.

I was in Bryant Park when I got Todd’s Facebook invite, directly across the park from Nick’s bench, in the shade and plugged into a power outlet. I wrote back to Todd that I’ve known Mark and Howie as long as I’ve known Nick and Val.

It made me stop for a second to take in the fact that I always refer to Nick in the present tense—that I always relate to him as if he’s still here.

I guess that means he is.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 9

We move so fast through life, whether or not we’re particularly active.

And it never gets easier.

It’s Tuesday already and only now am I looking at notes and reliving Friday night’s Valerie Simpson show at B.B. King’s and after-party at the Sugar Bar.

Of course I went with Liz Rosenberg.

Like Val always says—and wrote it in a dedication on the Ashford & Simpson double CD of hits and remixes that came out a few years ago, Liz and I should just have gone ahead and done the A&S shows for them, since we’d seen it so many times we knew it better than they did.

Before meeting Liz outside B.B.’s, I spent an hour by the Nick Ashford Bench at Bryant Park. I felt it was only fitting. The bench that says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.”

Someone else was on the bench when I got there, and I was fine with that–though I wondered if he knew it was a sacred site. I probably should have told him. After he left I sat on it for a few moments and then hobbled over to B.B.’s.

Five days earlier I damn near busted my fucking big left toe stumbling on the stairs up to my apartment. It turned purple and looked like the time maybe 10 years ago when I busted my big right toe in a martial arts mishap. There’s nothing they can really do with a broken toe, I learned then, other than tape it to the toe next to it and tell you not to walk and give you a stiff-bottomed shoe since you have to.

Luckily, the left toe wasn’t broke, but the right one that was now has arthritis and I expect the same eventually with the left one.

Anyway, I limped over to B.B.’s. We stood in line while a somewhat arrogant guy who had no idea how important we were, shit, that we knew Val’s show better than she did, made us wait in line. But really, he was only doing his job. I was actually glad we had to wait because it meant that the place was packed.

When we got downstairs Tee was there. Tee Alson. Miss Tee. Nick and Val’s assistant forever.

I could say she’s the most extraordinary human being on the planet but that still  wouldn’t do her justice.

She’s always pissed off at me for one thing or another. This time it was because I hadn’t called her back. Of course I didn’t know I was supposed to. Of course that’s no excuse.

I hope she doesn’t read this. But I really should write a book about Tee. I’d tell you Tee stories right now but she’d be pissed off at me if I did, even though they’re all great. She really is the most extraordinary human being on the planet and that still doesn’t do her justice.

Being with Liz and part of the A&S family, as it were, has always been the pinnacle of my career. Of my life. And so much of it is thanks to Tee.

And it’s not just me. Everyone who’s ever been in the A&S orbit I know feels exactly the same way and would say exactly the same things.

And I hope I don’t come off sounding conceited or suggesting that I’m worthy. Nick and Val and Tee never said no to anybody or anything, obviously. That’s why B.B.’s was packed with friends, family and fans, all virtually indistinguishable and interchangeable.

As I write this I’m also writing a partial review of the show for examiner.com, partial because the focus is really “Dinosaurs are Coming Back Again,” and how transcendent Val’s performance of it was this particular night. All I’ll add about the show here is that it really certified that she has become a solo performer without peer, as she had been a duet partner without peer together with the peerless Nick Ashford. And that for the encore, “I’m Every Woman,” she called up all the singers in the audience to join, among them, Alyson Williams, Joshie Jo Armstead, Felicia Collins, Ebony Jo-Ann, and of course, Asia Ashford, now so poised and adorable—exactly as she was the first time I saw her on stage, the first time she ever was on stage, at the end of an A&S Radio City Music Hall show when without Nick & Val’s planning, the then maybe two-year-old Asia was passed up to the stage, where she stood, dumbstruck, then smiled and started dancing.

Oh. I should also mention that Val gave a speech about how she relied on all her friends to pull her through the period following Nick’s death, when in fact, it was Val who pulled all of us through.

At the Sugar Bar after, she gave another speech, after a terrific set by the JT Project—the band that recently started a third open mic night at SB, this a jazz one, on Wednesday nights, featuring the house band co-fronted by Val’s young, fabulous sax player Todd Schefflin, who co-starred with her at B.B.’s on “Dinosaurs.”

She said how Nick had created the Sugar Bar essentially to provide a home for all of us, a place where we could go, not only to enjoy the music that was so much a part of our lives, but a place where we could all come and hang and just be ourselves, no matter the people we had to be in our jobs and families and restricted lives outside the Sugar Bar’s welcoming and safe environs.

Liz and I were busy being ourselves in the Sugar Bar’s back Garden Room. Tee was there. So was Ken Simmons, an old friend who currently books talent at WBLS.

Ken knew about Nick’s Bench, from all my Twitter postings and recent creation of the Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page. He plans on going, so I told him to make sure he takes a selfie and posts it on the page.

He asked where it was, and I said by the Carousel.

Liz wanted me to give him more than that, i.e., what street it’s near.

The first time I went to Nick’s Bench, I didn’t know where it was. I started with the bench closest to 6th Ave., on the 42nd St. side, then worked my way around the lawn clockwise until I found it by the Carousel. It couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, and it was kind of like going to Mecca, I would guess.

There was a waitress at B.B. King’s, incidentally, named Mecca. She worked the table of Carmela Kasoff–Liz’s Warner Bros. Records’ pal back in the Ashford & Simpson WarnRecs days—and was very nice, but too young by at least three decades to know the Gene Pitney classic “Mecca.”

I asked Richard Thompson once about Mecca. He’d already made the pilgrimage. I asked him what it was like, walking around the Kaaba and beholding it. “It’s really yourself,” he said, quietly.

The journey to Nick’s Bench isn’t as long and far away as Mecca, yet I didn’t want to make it so easy to find without at least a minimal effort. And I like to think that besides the spirit of Nick that symbolically resides there, you get to see a little more of yourself in relation to it by visiting it.

It’s definitely a shrine, a people’s shrine, a place to pause and catch a breath and moment of rest from moving so fast through life.

And as Nick and Val’s daughter Nicole leisurely descended the steps leading from the Garden Room upstairs to the Cat Lounge, I thought of something Nick once told me, as we were sitting on the steps between the building’s second and third floors.

“You know,” the Great Sage said, “I thought it would get easier when I got older.”

Then he smiled and said, “But it didn’t.”