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, 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.”

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 8

One of my favorite Nick stories—and I’ve mentioned it here before—is how he was homeless when he first came to New York, and slept on a park bench in Bryant Park. Many years later, Val bought a Bryant Park bench and had a brass plaque reading “Nick Ashford Slept Here” affixed to a corner.

A few years back, when CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Nick and Val, they taped a segment at the bench. They filmed Nick as he walked to the bench, but when they got there—and I’m quoting myself, now–“a rather filthy homeless person was sleeping on it”—much, perhaps, as Nick himself had done. That homeless person, upon closer inspection after he “woke up,” was none other than Yours Truly–much to Nick’s surprise and delight.

Exactly a year ago Bob Merlis and I went to the bench and took pictures of each other napping on Nick’s bench, then posted them. We thought it was the coolest thing, and it was. But it took me almost exactly a year to come up with the idea of a Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page, where everyone can go and post their own pictures of themselves and the bench. My hope, of course, is that it will become a tourist attraction, on par with, say, the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty—which is only as it should be: Nick Ashford wasn’t as big physically, maybe, but he was definitely statuesque and no less monumental.

And no one, no thing, was more New York.

Anyway, I only yesterday thought of creating the Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page, and quickly got way ahead of myself. First of all, this website has been under reconstruction for a couple weeks, and  today, out of necessity, I finally figured out how to add another post. Second, I haven’t even figured out how to change my profile pic on my own FB page, let alone put up a background, and when I clicked on the “Create Page” link, just to see where it would take me, I ended up creating the page without actually wanting to—I mean, I wanted to, but not so fast!

I quickly called Val to make sure she was okay with it. My guess is she was either too amused or confused to say no. Then I couldn’t for the life of me find the pics of me and Bob on the bench, so I rushed out first thing this morning and took a selfie—and I hope I never use that God-forsaken word again—of me on the bench, and a background shot of the bench, and managed to get them both up okay. Then Bob found the originals and posted them, but for some reason they wouldn’t show up unless you clicked on the post—until I accidentally figured you could make them visible by clicking on the “Highlights” button and changing it to “Posts by Others.”

In other words, I have absolutely no fucking idea what I’m doing! As if you didn’t know….

Anyway, the hope remains that people will use the page to post their own photos, reflections, thoughts on the most wonderful Nickolas Ashford–and by extension, the most beautiful Valerie Simpson—and all that the magical Ashford & Simpson represent.

And thanks, Val, for the bench. I go there often.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 7

Yes, she lived with a very deep man.

Just two nights before the show, at a prominent music publisher’s Christmas party, a prominent music publishing friend took me aside and marveled about Valerie Simpson. “I don’t know how does she do it?” she said. “Neither do I,” I replied.

It was the day after the ASCAP Foundation Awards, where for the third year in a row, Val presented the “Reach Out and Touch” Award in honor of Nick Ashford, which she established in his memory to advance the careers of promising songwriters by providing financial assistance for professional recordings of their work.

And now, Saturday night, in the small LeFrak Concert Hall at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts in Queens College, she was performing for not even a half-full house, thanks to the first big snowstorm of the year.

Shit. It took me two and a half hours to get there from Chinatown. I took the Q uptown as far as it went, to 57th Street. Then waited for the N and took that to Lex and 59th when I realized I needed the R, then waited forever for the R and took that as far as it went, to 71st and Continental Ave. in Forest Hills. It really was like a can of sardines.

Then I waited in the snow with a million others for the Q64 bus and was lucky to get on the first one that came. There was little visibility, and I didn’t know where I was anyway, so I asked the bus driver how many stops to Kissena Boulevard and Jewel Avenue, where the Queens College website said to get off. He didn’t know.

At least he said he’d call out the stop, which he didn’t. I smeared the moisture off the window in the nick of time to see the sign for the stop lit up on the bus shelter, then got lucky again in guessing the right direction for the one-block walk to the campus entrance. But there was no signage there, no one in sight to direct me to the Kupferberg Center, so I walked around the dark, silent, snowed-in campus for half an hour before finding it just 15 minutes before showtime.

But what a show it was.

“Anybody here tonight came here out of love!” Val said, which most certainly was true, and traditional: Anybody who ever came to an Ashford & Simpson show came out of love, which is what Ashford & Simpson was always all about.

“What brought you here tonight?” Nick would shout out during Nick & Val’s performances of “The Boss.” A full house would always scream back, “Love!”

I remember one time at Radio City he tried to materialize it.

“I wish I could take all the love I have and ball it up,” he related, with his hands packing a big, invisibile mass into an imaginary snowball, “and throw it out over all of you.” And then he mimed an upward toss of the  big snowball of love into the top of the middle of Radio City, and I’ll be damned if everyone there didn’t see it break open at the top into thousands of shiny golden pieces that gently landed on everyone there and left them warm and aglow.

“It’s okay, we’re going to party anyway!” said Val.

She started with “Nobody Knows” from Ashford & Simpson’s 1979 album Stay Free–and such a classic Nick theme.

Nobody knows the inside

That’s where all your little secrets hide

Nobody knows the inside

Maybe you, you got too much pride

And nobody knows the inside

Oh, I ain’t got no magic mirror

Nobody knows the inside

That’s why, that’s whi I can’t get no nearer.

“That’s why, that’s why I can’t get no nearer!” That’s pure Nick Ashford poetry! The genius of Nick Ashford.

We wanna hear what it’s all about

Try to, tell somebody, tell somebody

Go on and get it off, get it off your chest…

Nick always wanted to get to the core, get to the real. Yes, Val lived with a very deep man.

I’m thinking now of their great 1983 single “It’s Much Deeper.” But Val followed with the no less deep “It’ll Come, It’ll Come, It’ll Come,” the lead track and single from their 1976 album Come As You Are. God, she was digging deep.

I know you had a hard time

It’ll come, it’ll come, it’ll come.

He was always so supportive, encouraging, caring.

She is always so supportive, encouraging, caring. And God bless her, she did “The Boss.”

I was so right

Thought I could turn emotion on and off

I was so sure

But love taught me who was the boss.

It brought us here tonight.

She brought out Felicia Collins to play guitar and sing on my favorite “Found A Cure,” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” I ran into Felicia again a week or so later, at a Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top guitarist) gig at City Winery, with her fellow Letterman band star Will Lee. She was still raving about Val, overwhelmed that she had asked her to sit in at her show and gave her so much room. Pretty much the sort of conversation, with minor personal modifications, that one has with anyone about Val.

For the record, Val’s show also included “One More Try” from Come As You Are, which they never performed on stage, and was co-written by Val’s brother (and Village People lead singer) Raymond Simpson and featured Felicia’s dynamite rock guitar play; Val’s classic pre-A&S solo single “Silly, Wasn’t I” (“so short,” she said, “that before people started to like it, it was gone!”); and the titletrack of her current solo album, “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again”—another wondrous Nick Ashford conceit.

She prefaced “Dinosaurs” with a bit of positive seasonal reflection/instruction: “As time marches on, you need to think a little more about yourself. It’s up to you to make yourself a priority, to be what you want to be.”

Again, the old A&S affirmation, the perfect lead-in to the Motown foundation of their songwriting.

“There’s a deepness and density of the A&S catalog,” she said, noting how hard it was to choose just a few of the songs for the set. “It’s a nice problem to have: [Figuring out] which songs you might want to hear as opposed to saying, ‘I only got two.’”

“I think there’s that depth,” she explained, “because I lived with a very deep man—Nick Ashford. But if I start talking about his story, it’s a whole nother evening!”

She chose “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and introduced it, like she has done since Nick died, by relating how its meaning has changed. Hence, she starts it off slow and solemn:

I got your picture hangin’ on the wall

It can’t see or come to me when I call your name

I realize it’s just a picture in a frame

She played the piano as Nick’s portrait flashed on the screen above her, the one that’s on the wall to the left of the bar at the Sugar Bar, with his head leaning against his right hand and seeming to look back you, so sweetly, kindly.

Standing away from the piano, she followed with “You’re All I Need,” clearly, by the way she gestured outward and around with her hands, singing to the audience. And sure enough, she thanked her many friends in the crowd for being all she needs to get by, but really, she’s just allowing those of us who love her to feel that we’re helping her, when of course, it’s the other way around.

Felicia came back out to sing on the encore “I’m Every Woman,” and Val ended the show with “Street Corner,” in which she coaxed daughter Nicole to come up and sing backup, thereby joining her sister Asia and Clayton Bryant. Ray Simpson came up, too. The rest of Val’s band was the usual greatness: pianist/conductor Pete Cannarozzi, keyboardist/vocalist Valerie Ghent, bassist Eluriel “Tinker” Barfield, drummer Bernard “Pocket” Davis and saxophonist Todd Schefflin.

Luckily, I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar in the band van. Val looked after me as she always does, as she always does everyone, but in my case, at the restaurant, because I’m vegetarian, making sure I had plenty to eat.

I left a little earlier than everyone, but around midnight nonetheless, tired from trudging through the snow earlier.

I stopped for a moment at the end of the bar, by the door, looking at the picture of Nick, now encircled by a string of Christmas lights. Saint Nickolas.

Something about it that makes Nick look particularly adorable, almost cute, which he most certainly was. Then again, you could use so many words to describe Nick, many of them opposite: He went from cute to rugged, soft to tough. Everything fit him, and he fit everything.

I remember Miss Tee saying how when you walk past this particular picture of Nick, his eyes seem to follow you. Christmas lights flashing, I remember how he was called “the black Jesus” at his funeral.

He never did understand how I idolized him.

“We did it again, Boo-Boo,” Miss Tee said to the picture the night President Obama was re-elected.

I walked out into the snow, leaving behind a room full of people who had come to Nick’s Sugar Bar out of love, like any other night.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 6

August 22nd and I’m flying to L.A.


Two years ago on this day I was flying back from L.A. I was somewhere looking down on flyover country when Liz left a message that Nick had left us.

I’ve written about it before, how I got off the plane and went directly to Val’s, shorts and t-shirt and carry-on bags. Today I would join her at the bench in Bryant Park that says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.”

Val bought the bench some years ago to commemorate the sleeping arrangements of the then homeless Nick Ashford, come to New York from Michigan with the dream of being a dancer. So many of our dreams came true because his didn’t—and because, with Val, he found something so much bigger.

Please, people. Go there for me. It’s by the carousel on the 40th Street side. Lie down on the bench that says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Have a picture taken and post it (I’ve got one of me on my Facebook page). Celebrate Nick! And go back there whenever you’re in the area when you seek the solace of an Ashford & Simpson song.

Better yet, tonight go to the Sugar Bar. Give Val a big hug for me. Shed a tear or two. Than laugh out loud and love the music that Nick, again thanks to Val, is still giving us.

The Sugar Bar, as a showcase for music and the community that music creates, was one dream of Nick’s that did come true.

And as it was throughout his life, it was his dream to share it with all of us.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part Five

Christians have Lent, and Jews have any number of solemn holidays. Muslims have the month of Ramadan.

I have August.

Today begins the second August without Nick Ashford. I think of him all the time, as I’m sure everyone who knew him does. He died August 22, 2011.

I was coming back from L.A. that day. I’ll be in L.A. again this year on Aug. 22. But I’ll think of him then, as I do now.

I thought of him a lot last Thursday when I brought Corky Siegel to the Sugar Bar, along with Barry Goldberg. They were in town for a screening the next night at Lincoln Center of Born In Chicago, the acclaimed documentary that tells the story of the pioneering middle class white kids in Chicago—Siegel, Goldberg, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, among the most famous–who learned to play and live the blues directly from its most legendary practitioners like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Bob Merlis, himself a legend as a veteran music business publicist, moderated a panel discussion following the screening, speakers including Siegel and Goldberg. A big friend of the Sugar Bar who’s there whenever he’s in town, Merlis had accompanied the pair there the night before, and at the panel noted that when they sat in with the house band for a little Thursday Open Mic night blues bit, it was “déjà vu all over again” in that once again, they were performing at a predominantly black music club, sitting in with all black musicians.

If only Nick were there.

He would have loved it so much, and loved Barry and Corky. Indeed, Nick loved the blues so much that he started the Tuesday night Nuttin’ But The Blues open mic series, and even hosted it himself.

Of course, there was nuttin’ Nick—and Val–wouldn’t do to help other musicians, other people. And God bless Val for keeping it all going.

It’s raining today, August 1st. Otherwise I’d run out to Nick’s bench at Bryant Park, the bench with the plaque “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Me and Bob went there a couple months ago and took turns taking pictures of each other sleeping on the bench next to the plaque. I always remember the time a few years ago, when CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Nick and Val, and taped a few minutes at the bench. Then were filming Nick as he walked to the bench, but when they got there, a rather filthy homeless person was sleeping on it—much, perhaps, as Nick had done when he first came to New York.

Roused from his sleep, the bum rolled over and sat up—and Nick almost fell over laughing. It was me.

So it will be a sad month, somewhat, full of reflection. But as we enter it, the Israelis and the Palestinians are talking again for the first time in years. John McCain is suddenly working with President Obama. And the Pope asks, in regard to gays, “Who am I to judge?”

Back in May, the Pope even declared, “The Lord has redeemed all of us … even the atheists.”

I don’t believe in God, I like to say, but I do believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I’m reminded of a song you’ve probably never heard, since it was part of the songs Nick and Val wrote for An Invisible Life, the unproduced musical based on E. Lynn Harris’s novel about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, from which “Born This Way” was released as a single (with the great Broadway star Terry Lavell singing) just ahead of the Lady Gaga hit of the same title.

The song was to have been the show’s “11 o’clock number,” an intense gospel-like showstopper with “that big A&S sound,” as Nick once described a key Ashford & Simpson song characteristic to me.

The song was, “God Has Love For Everyone.”

Nick Ashford, too, had love for everyone. That is what I will think of most for the rest of this month, and hope to keep it in my heart, with Nick, every day thereafter.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part Four

I once gave in to the embarrassing but understandable urge of asking Ethan Coen if he ever went back and watched his movies and just busted out laughing.

Ethan did his best to graciously reply that no, he never did. “I mean,” he said to me pointedly, “do you ever go back and read any of your stories?”

Fuck, no! As I’m sure is painfully obvious, I can barely stand proofreading them!

So forgive me if you’ve heard this one before, about how people who had never met Nick Ashford were blown away by the experience—and instantly.

And as I wrote in my “Appreciation” piece in the day after he died, “a hug from Nick Ashford made the short stand tall as he was.” I thought back on this after listening to my buddy Beefy talk about Nick at dinner—as recounted in the preceding installment of this series.

My radiologist pal Eric Gandras likewise remembers his first Nick encounter.

“Ashford & Simpson were playing a free outdoor concert in Brooklyn along with Teddy Pendergrass in the summer of 2002.  It was a great opportunity to finally catch their act as I was working at a hospital close to the venue.”

Eric worked at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn at the time. Like anyone else, I had pumped him up with A&S as long as I’d known him.

Nick and Val were opening for Teddy at Wingate Field, right across from the huge Kings County Hospital. We got there and it was filled with thousands of people. Like the first time I saw A&S—at Radio City in 1983—we were the lightest-skinned black people in the crowd.

Eric recalls the moment early in the show when Nick asked if anyone knew their first hit. How I said, too audibly, “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” upon which everyone in the vicinity of the first five or six rows—we were in the VIP section–looked at White Boy and glared.

Upon which Nick said, since no one answered correctly, “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” and everyone suddenly looked at me with respect. No one even looked back to complain when Nick got to the part where he and Val locked themselves in the room to write songs for “Mr. Gordy” at Motown, and I muttered, “Chinese food came in, Chinese food went out” along with Nick.

Eric, of course, didn’t know who they were–and would never forget.

“The musical performances were stirring, but as fabulous as the show was, the highlight was getting to meet Nick and Val backstage and hang out. When Jim introduced me to Nick, he smiled widely and gave me a big hug, as if I had known him forever.”

Touching as this is, it’s pretty standard. I’ve heard it many times, in more or less the exact same words.

“I was deeply moved by his graciousness to a stranger. He was the embodiment of brotherly love and he immediately made me feel as if I was a member of his family. He was so cool, along with Val, and charming and funny. I recall that a fan had painted an enormous eight-foot-plus portrait of the couple that he or she wanted to deliver in person. Nick jokingly suggested to Miss Tee [Nick and Val’s assistant] that they should mail it to their house as there was no way they would be able to fit it in their car. Val playfully scolded him to accept the gift gracefully, face-to-face, as it was from the fan’s heart. Of course he did, and he embraced them, like he did to me, as if we were all one big family. That was the vibe he projected–the real deal, genuine, no pretense or bullshit. A life-force whose energy and love I was fortunate enough to have basked in.”

As were we all, Eric. I really couldn’t have said it better, and I was there. Except I forgot all about the painting!

Like I said, I heard similar stories expressed similarly many times. One that stands out came from Lydia Hutchinson, in an online piece she wrote just after Nick died.

Lydia, who was the publisher/editor of the successful Nashville magazine Performing Songwriter, was in New York in 2005 for the SESAC Pop Awards dinner.

“At 10:00 p.m. [I] announced that someone had to take me out so I could celebrate my May 6 birthday when the clock struck midnight,” she wrote. “Jim Bessman from Billboard said I was going with him to The Sugar Bar, a venue owned by songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. So we hopped a bus and headed to West 72nd Street where the Thursday night open mic was already in full swing with Valerie sitting by the stage clapping and singing along.”

I’d completely forgotten about this.

“Jim and I made our way upstairs where Nick was holding court with all of the regulars who had become family at that point. He flashed his 1000-watt smile at Jim and gave him a big hug, and when he found out my birthday was an hour away he laughed and said his was yesterday–May 4. What followed was a big singing and dancing Taurean love fest.”

Pause here while I look up Taurean.

“At midnight Nick sent a bottle of champagne to my table and then grabbed me to dance with him and sing along to ‘What a Fool Believes.’ It was a perfect night and a fitting celebration of life.”

Lydia ended her beautiful piece by noting that “the mere mention of Nick Ashford’s name caused a big smile to take over my face. He embodied and radiated joy.”

Observing that the world lost that smile when it lost Nick, she pointed to his “legacy of music, love and laughter,” left by “someone who believed in the importance of a song to be a living, breathing thing that bristled with energy and soulful emotion.”

Just like Nick, she concluded, so correctly. As for Taurean, I’m probably the only person who didn’t know it pertains to Taurus, the second sign of the zodiac, Lydia’s sign. And Nick’s.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part Three

I’m ashamed I haven’t written a Reflection On Nick Ashford in so long, especially as I started two of them that remain, for the moment, unfinished. “More pressing matters got in the way,” and I put that in quotes to indicate how ingenuine it sounds—and that I recognize it as such.

But a few nights ago I had dinner with Beefy.

Beefy, as his old friends call Bob Kenison—Robert Kenison, as he used to intone on his bank voicemail when he worked for a bank as a computer guy of some sort. He’d always answer, “Systems,” when you got him live on the phone, and no one I know ever knew what that meant, Systems: I asked Beefy about it once and he just started laughing.

Beefy was a huge Beatles freak, which is pertinent on a number of levels, but for our purposes here, it relates first of all to laughing. At dinner I reminded Beefy, who brought along his lovely daughter Emily, how I took him years ago to a Ringo Starr record store CD signing, and had his publicist introduce us.

To put Beefy’s Beatles idolatry into greater perspective, let me back up to several years earlier, when McCartney did a press-only afternoon Q&A/gig at some Times Square theater, before doing a promo gig there a few hours later. I brought Beefy along, and after we both got ourselves soused at a bar across the street, we went to the event. I left afterward, but Beefy tried to hide out in the men’s room so he could stay for the second show. He climbed up on a toilet when they came in to make sure no one was there—but they found him anyway and kicked him the fuck out.

Besides his real name Bob Kenison, Beefy is also known to legions of Dr. Bop & The Headliners fans as Troy Sharmel, guitarist of the legendary Midwestern oldies show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners. Much has been written about Beefy and the band—most, if not all, by me—including the story of that Ringo in-store.

Like I said, Beefy and I were introduced to Ringo, upon which Ringo cracked up over something Beefy said. Just what it was that Beefy said that made Ringo laugh, however, neither of us can remember, in fact, Beefy and I had both forgotten what Beefy said probably within 10 seconds of him saying it.

Beefy blames me, not without reason, as I am a reporter, sort of, in a manner of speaking. I do remember the night I took Beefy to this hot party Madonna threw for k.d. lang at some outdoor space near Radio City, where k.d. was playing. Hot because it was a scorching mid-summer night.

“Who’s the blond?” Beefy asked, as paparazzi flashes popped away at the blond.

“That would be Madonna, Beefy,” I answered. Then Tony Bennett came in, pushing a wheelchair upon which regally sat Peggy Lee.

“That would be Peggy Lee, Beefy,” I said, cutting him off at the pass.

Beefy dutifully leaned over to Miss Lee and blurted, “Love your music!,” one superstar to another.

I wasn’t much better.

“Uh, uh, I’m a friend of Barbara Pepe!” I myself blurted, to a terribly unimpressed Martina Navratilova. Barbara was a wonderful former publicist for RCA Records who had introduced me years earlier to Billie Jean King. I was a little high here, but wouldn’t have done much better straight.

But Beefy is one of the greatest music minds I know, as Dr. Bop & The Headliners was one of the greatest bands. As Emily is now in college, we started talking about Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar as a place she should go, now that she was living in the Village.

Beefy remembered the night that he was at the Sugar Bar with me and Liz Rosenberg, and Nick took us upstairs to a studio apartment used for small gatherings.

Me and Liz had been up there with Nick countless times, partaking in the sacrament. We would sit there, at Nick’s feet, essentially, mouths agape, eyes open wide, looking up in reverence as the great saint spoke down to us.

Luckily, this time, Beefy was there, to remember, sort of, what he said.

But just as Beefy is one of the greatest music minds I know, Nick was probably the greatest. Easily up there with Paul Simon, whom I spent an illuminating afternoon with in the studio years ago as he mixed Rhythm Of The Saints—his 1990 Latin American follow-up to Graceland, for which I was brought in to write the bio.

Easily up there, too, with Elvis Costello, every word from whom is loaded with musical genius. And right up there with Ned Engelhart, the Ferret de Monte Christo of Dr. Bop & The Headliners, who is right up there with Beefy.

But Nick—and Val—lived music. I first noticed this a million years ago when they had Twenty-Twenty, their first restaurant/nightclub, at 20 West 20th. They would sit together at a center table upstairs overlooking the stage and sing along and dance in their seats to whomever was performing. No one enjoyed music more, no one enjoyed other performers more. Surely no one was more supportive.

At the Sugar Bar, Nick would sit at the center table—his table—upstairs in the Cat Lounge, reveling in the music while watching it on the wall monitor. If it was good—and it usually was—he would wave his arms to the rhythm, as would Val when she joined him (when she wasn’t downstairs singing backup).

It was just so wonderful.

I sat with Nick a lot. I talked with Nick a lot. If I had only written down everything he said. Or better, taped it.

He talked about life. He talked about music.

“He was just talking music and songwriting, and he started talking about arranging voices,” said Beefy. He had that special glow in his eyes that everyone gets when they talk about Nick.

“He started talking in general, and then he started talking about background voices and when you harmonize background voices and make them into chords depending on the chords of the song.”

My eyes were probably glazing over at this point, as I had downed two margaritas in relatively short order to catch up with Beefy and Emily, who had started drinking without me. And I wasn’t about to pretend that I understood what Beefy was talking about, let alone Nick. But I was glad Beefy apparently did.

“Alto, soprano, tenor—whatever,” Beefy continued. “His point was that the high voice on those chord harmonies should always be a little flat. I never heard that before—never. But for some reason, to his ears, it works. We were talking about male background voices, and I’m pretty sure he was saying the high voice.”

To be sure, I didn’t understand any of this. I wondered if Beefy did.

“I knew what he was saying, but not exactly why that would work in making it sound better,” Beefy said, then ruminated while gulping down another margarita. “But sometimes when you’re playing 12-string guitar…you have two notes on a 12-string that are basically the same note, but they tune one a little out of tune.”

I’m not a musician—though I know what a 12-string guitar is. But Beefy was still good enough to dummy it down.

“You have six pairs of strings,” he explained. “It’s not so much on the lower ones, but on the upper three strings—pairs–one will be in tune and the other slightly out of tune, because it gives a thicker sound. So maybe there’s something going on there in getting a similar thickness in background vocals from doing that—though that probably has nothing to do with anything that Nick was saying!”

But Beefy the Beatles Freak then put it in a Beatles context:

“Even Lennon used to de-tune his D-string on his guitar a little. He’d say to his Aunt Mimi, ‘When you hear Beatles songs, you know which guitar is mine because I always de-tune my D-string a bit.’ I guess he wanted his own sound.”

In all the years I knew Nick, which was close to 30, I never got over my awe of him—much, I know, to his amusement. Beefy had met him before at the Sugar Bar, but was no less overwhelmed.

“He took the time to talk to someone he really didn’t know from Adam, who for no reason could be considered in his league, about music,” Beefy recalled. “But he reached out to me as if it was just two guys talking, not as an equal, maybe, but including me without any sense of pontificating—one-on-one. He was a very inclusive guy.”

He sure was, Beefy.

“And he was so modest. Not at all full of himself. The fact that he would just sit there and talk to some local yokel! And he was into it, too! He wasn’t talking down to me! There was no pretension, not even for a such a super writer, musician, singer. He was just a regular, warm fellow.”

Yes, Beefy. That was Nick Ashford, all right.

So glad you remembered.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 2

If we’re lucky, there are people in our lives who influence us in a big way, in a good way, in the best kind of way.

Maybe it’s a parent, older sibling, another family member or family friend. A teacher, social worker, therapist, member of the clergy.

I had Mrs. Schmidt, a junior high school guidance counselor, who meant a lot to me. Some social workers, psychiatric nurses, nurses’ aides and hospital orderlies afterwards. An occupational therapist. A physical therapist.

I remember a teacher or two, certainly Miss Nottested–and I know I’m misspelling her name–for teaching me how to type (not spell) in high school and taking an interest, too, in what I typed, which was mostly high school alienation ramblings.

But for me it was mostly musicians.

The Beatles first, foremost and forever. Dylan, of course, though his influence post-high school and Blonde On Blonde has long since faded. Corky Siegel and The Siegel-Schwall Band. Laura Nyro, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Johansen, Tony Bennett. Most of them I got to know and was further inspired personally.

John Mellencamp, too. He agreed with me that people respond to the music, at least first, not the words. For me it’s melody, rhythm, voice, instruments and then the words—and usually I can’t make them out anyway, and if I can I don’t have the attention span to stay with them so I have to have them in the CD booklet in front of me to make any kind of sense out of.

So I don’t care so much about the words–except for a few songwriters. I actually have a book of Hal David lyrics, which really are poems without Burt Bacharach’s music, glorious as it is. Likewise, there’s way more to the words of Kris Kristofferson than “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford.

It’s hard to top The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or even better, “All You Need Is Love.” But Nick equaled them at the very least on “Reach Out and Touch.”

“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was Diana Ross’s debut solo single after leaving The Supremes. It was released in April 1970, and only made it to No. 20 on the pop charts (No. 7, R&B). But it was a centerpiece of her concerts, where people used to reach out and touch the hands of those near them.

Like so many Ashford & Simpson Motown era songs—“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love”—it has achieved immortality.

The much-covered call for caring and kindness made for an unforgettable moment at the 1985 Live Aid show in Philadelphia, when Ashford & Simpson—the only r&b act in the line-up–brought out Teddy Pendergrass for his first public appearance since his near-fatal car accident in 1982. Paralyzed, Pendergrass pointedly directed the stadium crowd to focus on the song’s inspirational words and message.

In 2005, Ross closed Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope with it, and it was her finale, too, at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Concert held in Oslo, Norway.

It was also the climax of Ashford & Simpson shows. Nick had this great bit where he’d announce that he was “departing from the program” and then ask bandleader Ray Chew to slow down the tempo in leading into it. Then he’d feign irritation at Ray for not slowing it down enough.

After many years of seeing the show many times each year, I finally went up to Ray after a show and said, “Ray. I’ve seen this show a lot of times, and I can never understand why you can never get the ‘Reach Out And Touch’ tempo right!” I’ll never forget the anguished look on his face and how he started to stammer that it was all a shtick until I busted up laughing.

Reach out and touch

Somebody’s hand

Make this world a better place

If you can

Me and Liz Rosenberg used to go to see them all the time. In fact, I became friends with Liz after it was suggested I contact her, by another record company publicist at the time, after I’d called him in 1983 after seeing Asford & Simpson the first time, at Radio City, and couldn’t stop talking about them. They were at Capitol Records, then, with the High-Rise album out. Liz had worked with them when they were at Warner Bros., long before she became synonymous with Madonna. We used to see them together all the time from that point on.

One time at Westbury, I had an aisle seat and Liz was next to me. Or maybe I was one in from the aisle and she was two in. Or maybe I was two in and she was three…. Anyway, Westbury Theater, or whatever corporate name it has now, is an in-the-round theater. So when they got to “Reach Out And Touch,” Nick went up one aisle and Val went up another, shaking or slapping hands with aisle-seaters as they sang. Nick was coming up our aisle, and when he got within two rows, Liz could no longer contain herself.

“Nick!” she shrieked, then got up and vaulted over me and anyone else who might have been between me and Nick as he reached out his free hand to touch hers. Of course, she landed, not too gracefully but appropriately, at his feet.

Take a little time out of your busy day

To give encouragement

To someone who’s lost the way

Nick would also preface “Reach Out And Touch” in concert with the story of how he had fallen asleep one night while Val was watching the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but woke up when she suddenly started screaming: “Reach Out and Touch” was being used as an Olympics theme! Before an estimated TV audience of 2.5 billion people! He wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming….

Or would I be talking to a stone

If I asked you

To share a problem that’s not your own

We really blew it, we Americans, in taking the easy, nationalist music route after 9-11. We essentially permitted Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to lead us into two wars, not to mention forever pervert Major League Baseball by supplanting “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” for the Seventh Inning Stretch theme.

As I wrote in Billboard, two weeks later (September 24, 2011): “But as we return to the semblance of normal, I suggest moving beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare. How about Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive ‘This Land is Your Land,’ or better yet, Ashford & Simpson’s ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’? As the next line of the compassionate latter title implores, Make this world a better place, if you can.”

If you see an old friend on the street

And he’s down

Remember his shoes could fit your feet

Try a little kindness you’ll see

It’s something that comes very naturally

We can change things if we start giving

Ashford & Simpson songs covered other topics and themes, of course, but they all come back, essentially, to giving, something that for Nick came so very naturally. In person, and in song.

I went even further in my appreciation of Nick, written for, the day after he died: “Then again, ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ goes beyond anything Ashford & Simpson–or any other writer–has accomplished. In simply instructing everyone to ‘reach out and touch somebody’s hand’ and ‘make this world a better place if you can,’ Ashford essentially set to music what he in fact practiced throughout his entire life.”

Such a simple lyric. The best kind of influence.

Reach out and touch

Somebody’s hand

Make this world a better place

If you can.

For me it was musicians.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 1

I’m flying back to New York from L.A. this morning as I write this on November 20, 2011, thinking back some three months to the last time I flew back from L.A., Monday afternoon, August 22, 2011—a date which will live in infamy in my life and others, no doubt, very many others.

Infamy, says Merriam-Webster: evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal, shocking, or brutal. Fitting for Pearl Harbor, as FDR so historically proclaimed.

Evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal. And while I knew it was coming, it was still so grossly shocking, brutal beyond words and comprehension, to this day and for all days.

The death of Nick Ashford.

I knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when. But no one really did, at least not until Monday morning, when Liz Rosenberg called. She had only found out he’d been seriously sick a week or so earlier. I’d known pretty much from the beginning, but didn’t know exactly what it was—or that it was going to end like this.

So I kept it quiet. I asked Val about him regularly, and thought whatever it was, he’d get better and it would be okay. I had no reason to think anything worse.

It couldn’t have been much more than three months that I’d spent time with him last, hanging at the Sugar Bar on a Thursday night Open Mic. He was fine then, at his center table upstairs in the Cat Lounge, watching the performances on the wall monitor, graciously receiving friends and fans, posing for pictures with anyone and everyone who asked.

There’s always a rose, now, in a vase on the table. Sometimes a glass of champagne.

The last time I saw him was at Aunt Bea’s funeral, Valerie’s aunt who died a couple months before him. Aunt Bea always made the greatest cakes that us lucky ones got to taste after everyone else left at the day-long “white parties” Nick and Val hosted on the Saturday nearest July 4, when they had their place in Connecticut. Everyone wore white, everyone ate and drank and lounged around the pool and enjoyed the wondrous A&S vibe–and a few of us had our Aunt Bea’s cake and ate it, too.

Nick came late to Aunt Bea’s funeral and left early and I didn’t get to speak with him but he looked great. He always looked great.

So I thought he was okay, and hadn’t kept up the way I should have, overwhelmed by my own problems. When Liz called frantically I called Val immediately for an update, and while she didn’t say it was good, she also didn’t let on that it was almost over. But I don’t think she knew that, either. I’m sure she didn’t.

Really, we were all in denial. We all still are.

I called Miss Tee Sunday afternoon from the beach. Altamese Alston. Miss Tee. Ashford & Simpson’s longtime assistant. If I said she was the most extraordinary woman I’ve ever been around, I’d still be understating it.

I’d always call Tee from the beach in LA, just to check in—and give her the opportunity to joke about how well I must be doing, being that I’m calling her from the beach in L.A. She sounded glad to hear from me but didn’t say much, gave no indication of what was really going on—as I knew she wouldn’t. Val once said of Tee: “If you tell something to Tee that you don’t want me to know, don’t worry—I don’t know it.”

But I pretty much knew it anyway. I was staying with Bob Merlis, Liz’s longtime West Coast cohort at Warner Bros. Records publicity, and working out of his office. He was about to take me to the airport for the 1:30 p.m. flight back to New York when the call came in.

She hadn’t heard any word from Val or Tee in days, she said, and couldn’t take it anymore. She finally called the house.

Tee answered and said things weren’t good, that the paramedics were there.

I got an email from Liz an hour or so later on my Blackberry at LAX.

“You’ll be up in the sky… so perhaps you’re in a better position to talk to the man/woman above–should one be up there,” she wrote. “So say a lot of prayers and for now, we are not allowed to indulge in freaking out as we have to keep it together for them. But we will freak out to each other of course. Just when things couldn’t get better……”

Now one of my closest friends, Liz was Nick and Val’s publicist when they first came to Warner Bros. (long before Madonna) and remained close with them ever after. I became close to Liz within a year after moving to New York in 1982 and seeing Ashford & Simpson for the first time.

I saw them at Radio City and it remains one of the maybe five most memorable shows I’ve ever seen. It was their High-Rise tour, “High-Rise” being the name of their 1983 album—their second for Capitol after leaving Warner Bros.—and its hit titletrack single.

I was working at Cash Box magazine, a long gone record business trade. The man who hired me got four tickets; besides us, there might have been that many other white people in the full house.

I’ve never forgotten it and obviously never will: The stage had an Empire State-looking edifice in the middle, and when Ashford & Simpson’s crack backup band struck up the single, a hidden ramp unfolded and lowered from the center of it, revealing the beaming A&S standing there in all their glory.

Now reduced to the words of a novice concert reviewer, “the crowd went nuts” as Nick & Val descended the steps and progressed into a show I would eventually see with Liz so many times that in her booklet essay accompanying the 2008 two-CD Ashford & Simpson set The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities, Val said that Liz and I might as well just do their show for them, since we both knew it better than they did.

Waiting to board, I responded to another email from Liz that said “No news” in the subject, the message saying: “From A&S world. Safe travels. Love.” I keyed the Blackberry: “Thank you. I’m freaking the fuck out. Boarding in half hour. Love you so very much.”

I got on the plane and ordered the inflight Internet service. I had maybe four hours of battery on a full charge.

I did some work in those four hours, and kept checking emails with mounting dread. I was still a couple hours out of Kennedy when the laptop ran out of juice.

I looked out the window into the darkness–except for the flashing light on the wing tip. Should there have been a man/woman above, I’d likely be the last one he/she would want to hear from at this or any time—atheist sinner that I am. Rather I kept hoping to see the William Shatner gremlin form the classic Twilight Zone episode making faces at me and driving me into sheer madness or utter horror. Anything would have been preferable to the helplessness/hopelessness I was feeling now.

When the wheels touched down I powered up the Blackberry and held my breath as the afternoon’s emails steadily added up. The one I hoped against all hope not to see had been sent at 7:45.

Liz’s subject was “Our Nick has left us.”

The message was “E or call when you land. I’m at house.”

It was after 11 when I walked into Nick and Val’s East Side townhouse. I had on cargo shorts and short-sleeved cargo shirt, an Obama-Biden inaugural ballcap, and my luggage.

There were at least 30 people there. I hugged Liz, then Val.

“I lost my honey today,” said Val.