The genius of Hank Williams, Jr.–who didn’t go to Harvard

I’m not sure anyone could have followed Hank Williams, Jr. after his unceremonious dumping by ESPN (or as he claims, his quitting) after his now infamous Obama-Hitler analogy, but I’m sure Barry Sanders wasn’t the guy, gal or group I was going to give up Lawrence O’Donnell Monday night to watch.

But just because I’m an MSNBC fan doesn’t mean I’m not a Hank, Jr. fan. I’ve said it before–many times–and I’ll say it again: I’ll take Hank, Jr. over Sr. any day–and I ain’t alone, and it ain’t just rednecks and good ole boys who will stand with me on this one, and trust me: I could name names, but I don’t have all day.

This doesn’t mean I agree with Bocephus politically, or won’t call him out for gross insensitivity, at the very least. But if agreeing with people’s politics was a prerequisite for appreciating their art, well, I’d be listening all day to Woody Guthrie–instead of just a good chunk of the day.

So I’ll take Junior at his word, as expressed Tuesday on The View. When Joy Behar suggested that maybe Hitler wasn’t the best analogy for him to use in relation to Obama, that Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun would have brought Hank little condemnation, he played it dumb: “I didn’t go to Harvard, I’m not smart enough to know the difference. It was the first word [Hitler] that came out.”

He’s a genius songwriter, but true, he didn’t go to Harvard. Not smart enough? But he then trotted out a Harry Truman quote (“Never kick a cow turd on a hot day”), then a Spanish-American War reference–though neither really made a whole lot of sense other than the Spanish-American War being “history,” he said, an analogy, and here an appropriate one, for his termination and/or resignation from ESPN and Monday Night Football.

But Hank’s real failing–and it’s one he shares with just about everyone who gets into this kind of public relations mess–is that he just couldn’t leave it at that. Asked by Elisabeth Hasselbeck if he’d wished he’d used a different name than Hitler “at this point,” he paused, then answered “at this point, I really don’t”–though Behar coaxed him into agreeing he should have served up “Stalin.” Whoopi Goldberg finally went all the way and directly asked if he was comparing Obama to Hitler–to which he emphatically said no. But he still fell back on his rant on Fox News about that golf foursome (Obama, Biden, Boehner and Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich) and their “inappropriate [and] absurd…juking and jiving and high-fiving” as an excuse, before once and for all conceding that using Hitler as an analogy was a bad idea.

“I just grabbed it,” he admitted, uncharacteristically sheepishly.

So the View gals got a begrudging admission out of him–to their credit and his. That Hank, who famously supported Sarah Palin during the last election (and whose catalog includes, as Jon Stewart noted in defending Hank, the Southern culture-promoting “If The South Woulda Won”), would appear on the left-leaning kaffeeklatsch was even more remarkable, except that Goldberg and Behar, both unabashed liberals, had his back from the beginning.

“Hank is a musician, and he’s always been provocative,” Goldberg said on the show, echoing Stewart. “He could have chosen his words more wisely, but as someone who steps in it quite often, we all do it. Those among us who are without sin, cast the first stone.” [Here she also echoed, unknowingly, no doubt, the line in Hank’s great duet hit with Waylon Jennings, “Leave Them Boys Alone”: “If you don’t like the way they sing, who’s gonna cast the first stone?”]

“Whoopi and Joy understood what I was saying,” Hank responded on his website.  “After watching the clip of their show, I knew I needed to talk to them first.  Who knows Whoopi may run for president and I’ll be her vice president…now that will really stir it up!”

It will indeed, considering that Goldberg’s a lot closer in politics to Obama than Palin, or Cain–whom Hank’s expressed support for. Then again, everything’s topsy-turvy with Hank all of a sudden: His hastily written new single “Keep The Change” garnered 150,000 free downloads in just over one day.

“The Williams’s can write songs, and it didn’t take long for me,” Hank told The View. More shocking than his songwriting speed, though, is how he went after Fox as well as ESPN in the lyrics:

So Fox & Friends
Wanna put me down
Ask for my opinion
Then twist it all around
Supposed to be talkin’ about my father’s new CD
Well two can play that “Gotcha Game” just wait and see
Don’t tread on me.

Palling around with liberals and putting down the bastion of anti-liberalism/intellectualism would hardly seem to be Hank’s way. Then again, at least on the intelligence side, he’s a brilliant lyricist–if not always correct politically. Again, from “Keep The Change”:

This country’s sure as hell been goin’ down the drain
Yes, we all agree on that.
We know what we need
Yeah, but I’m not sure we agree on it.
We know who to blame
You blame me. I blame you.
United Socialist States of America
Don’t ya just love that name?

Say what?

“Bocephus thinks we are headed for socialism? If only!” wrote one Facebook friend who used to work with Bo during his Warner Bros. Records days.

If it were my song I’d call it the United Fascist States of America–except then I’d be straddling that same line Bocephus crossed with the Hitler analogy.

No, I’ll stick with Hank’s inclusionary classic “Young Country,” where “Old Waylon” peacefully and respectfully co-exists with “Van Halen.” Or better yet, “I’m For Love.”

But I’m for love and I’m for happiness
And I’m for “if you don’t like it can’t you just let it pass.”

Now if only I could get Hank on O’Donnell….

 

[You might also like “Hank Williams, Jr. and the Obama-Hitler analogy” at  http://www.examiner.com/local-music-in-new-york/hank-williams-jr-and-the-obama-hitler-analogy]

Tiger’s Nike commercial and Jay Leno’s stupid question

The dumbest question ever asked of a celebrity is also, for some dumb reason, the most celebrated.

“What were you thinking?” Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant when he appeared on the Tonight Show following his 1995 bust for a publicly lewd act with a prostitute. Leno was probably the only man in America who didn’t know what Grant was thinking when it occurred to him that not only did he want a blow job at that specific moment, but that he had the money on hand to pay for one.

And now Tiger Woods is asked, by way of his long dead father, “Did you learn anything?”–which along with the rest of Tiger’s ghastly, ghostly new Nike commercial, is right up there in stupidity.

The question is prefaced by Old Man Woods, speaking offscreen in the austere tone of a psychologist, stating the objectives of his inquiry, most significantly, “I want to find out what your thinking was….”

Again, obvious. The well-media coached Boy Tiger said it himself, in his mid-February speech: “I thought only about myself…I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”

And what do I think?

The commercial shows that Woods and Nike will stop at nothing, exploiting the dead to prolong the commercial life of a terminally discredited brand. And note how Tiger never changes his blank, cadaverous expression, offering no answer, not even a facial tick of response to the billion-dollar endorsement question, Did you learn anything?

“I think you know in life what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing, and I did a bad thing. And there you have it,” was the way Grant answered Len–and it was a dumb answer to a dumb question.

But at least he said something.

God is great

Awful fucking night.

First time, maybe in 25 years, I wasn’t in Nashville for the CMA Awards. Couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t afford going to Nashville once this year when I used to go at least three times. That’s what happens when you work in a dead business with a dead medium. [Once again, I shamelessly implore any readers here to subscribe to my page there and click every time they alert you to a story. You don’t have to read it. Just click on it. They pay by the page view!]

What made it worse than having to sit at home and watch the CMAs on TV last night (actually, I watched it on DVR, since I was at a screening of the God-awful rock movie “Pirate Radio”) was having to also miss the BMI Awards dinner the night before, when Kris Kristofferson was given the BMI Icon Award. Kris and his wife Lisa are the most wonderful people in the world. I’ll always feel that my CD booklet notes to “The Essential Kris Kristofferson” (2004) is one of my career highlights; just knowing this great singer-songwriter/humanitarian is a top career achievement in itself.

I walked into one of the neighborhood deli’s that night to buy a bag of discounted chips and grimaced when the Arab owner asked, “How are you, Brother?,” then feigned a smile and asked how he was. “Life is good, God is good,” he smiled. The newspapers he sold were still full of the Fort Hood massacre. The suspect reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar!” —”God is great”—before opening fire. Many in the papers wanted all Muslims kicked out of the military.

“Thank you, my Brother,” I said as I took my change and headed home to watch “House of Bamboo,” Sam Fuller’s 1955 crime drama in post-war Japan, which shows cooperation between American and Japanese anti-crime forces in dealing with a vicious American criminal gang.

The CMA Awards fell on Veterans Day. Big military presence on the show—lot of thankyou’s from artists to “our soldiers.” Presumably, no one wondered what they’re doing or why. Those questions, however, were voiced Monday night at the Riverside Church memorial for Mary Travers, which I attended—when I should have been in Nashville at the SESAC Awards dinner. I wrote about it for examiner.com (and implore you again to go there and click on it. You don’t have to read it!). But I will tell you that the big song that night was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” that God was not mentioned once as a justification for killing innocents of any pursuasion—nor was he/she thanked for siding with an award winner. And I got to personally thank George McGovern, a decorated World War II hero, for his service to the country (didn’t get the chance to do the same to John Kerry and Max Cleland, who also attended and spoke).

The CMA’s opened bad. Everything I hate about award shows. An arena full of bored music buzzers and screaming fans/shills wildly cheering TV network celebrity presenters, artificial artist matchups, poorly scripted co-host drivel and fake banter, and typically overblown production numbers.

It all worked against the night’s big winner, Taylor Swift. Her “Forever & Always” opener—a news show interview start followed by the silliness of her throwing chairs and sliding down a pole and into a Madonna floor pose—sounded bad and was surprisingly low energy, especially considering it was shamelessly trying to ape the MTV Awards vibe. She took this to the extreme when she returned to do “Fifteen” while swarmed by young teen girls waving themselves at her; then again, that’s her audience, not ornery old men like me who grew up listening to Conway Twitty, when country songs really were about “real people with real life feelings that make them truly timeless,” as Brad Paisley told his co-host Carrie Underwood before they joined in some tiresome song parodies of in fact truly timeless country songs like “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (a predictable slap at Kanye West) and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (okay, Brooks & Dunn are splitting up—I get it).

Maybe if Brad and Carrie stopped goofing and smelling each other up they could have fit in a few more country classics. And no, I don’t mean “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” that the Zac Brown Band covered. Even though they pulled out all the stops, the music bizzers looked rightly bored (give it up for Kris and Lisa, though: They stood up and cheered at the end and I know it was genuine). I don’t mean “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” either. I’m happy enough for Barbara Mandrell’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, even though she was never a Loretta or Tammy or Dolly. Indeed, her kind of country was pretty bland for the most part. But “IWCWCWC” did give Martina McBride a chance to sing, and a second chance to the perennial George Strait, whose earlier performance of “Twang” was one of the few true twang moments of the night.

And it was wrong that Mandrell got to speak and fellow new inductee’s Charlie McCoy (who did get to play harmonica on “IWCWCWC”) and Roy Clark (who wasn’t even there) didn’t. Wronger was that Strait and the always wonderful Vince Gill were the only Hall of Famers who got to perform (not counting Little Jimmy Dickens, whose comic Kanye bit with Brad and Carrie was the only one that worked, and Kristofferson, who at least got to co-present).

Speaking of Gill, his duet with Chris Daughtry was surprisingly good–even if Gill can do no wrong. Also among the older guard, Reba McEntire was solid, and it was great to see The Judds again–if just as presenters. And speaking of presenters, the most important ones were clearly “Good Morning America”’s Robin Roberts and the clueless stars of “The Middle” (“This award show totally rocks!” said the woman)—whoever they were, whatever the show. They were all from ABC-TV, and that’s all that matters when it comes to “country music’s biggest night.”

But Kid Rock actually was an appropriate presenter. He’s shown more love for traditional country music than any of them, and returning to join Jamey Johnson on “Between Jennings and Jones” made perfect sense.

And the rest of the performances? Nothing memorable in the trumped-up “once in a lifetime” Kenny Chesney-Dave Matthews duet on “I’m Alive.” Billy Gibbons’ teaming with the retiring Brooks & Dunn was okay—which is about the best that can be said for the young country artists, though Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice” was one of the best songs of the night, if marred by too-busy camerawork and constant flashing lights. And Keith Urban’s “‘Til Summer Comes Around” was quite good, if more of a nod to the Eagles than Alabama. Same with Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar,” though its tunefulness and her performance had greater impact.

But Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy” is the song that really resonated with me—all things considered. Not because it’s such a great song or he’s such a great singer, but because of the timeliness of its all-encompassing line:  “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.”

Walter Cronkite

I was a CBS Evening News junkie growing up and remained so through the troubled Dan Rather news anchor regime. He and his predcecessor Walter Cronkite were my heroes, along with Eric Sevareid, and later, Bob Simon.

I highly recommend renting Good Night, and Good Luck to learn about the great tradition of CBS News—a tradition that is sadly long gone. It focuses on the legendary Edward R. Murrow, the man who virtually built the CBS broadcast news division. Murrow recruited the iconic Cronkite, who would host the network’s evening news from 1962 to 1981 and become known as “the most trusted man in America.”

I saw him in person three times.

The first time was at a record store signing of a box set of vinyl LPs that he was involved in, historic moments of the 1960s, I think. The second was a press promotion for a home video documentary about the first moon landing. He spoke about the 1969 event–which he covered, of course—and said something to the effect that it was the most important story he had ever covered, or the one he was proudest of, or the one that was his favorite.

I was deeply disappointed.

I tried to track him down after his presentation to complain but to no avail. But luck struck some time later, when I attended what must have been Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner’s 40th birthday party, in 1986.
I didn’t know Jann and I wasn’t invited. But he had the good sense to hire my friends Beausoleil, the premiere Cajun band, to perform, and I went in with them. It was at some trendy restaurant downtown that didn’t have any outer signage saying what it was or even the address. I was way out of my element.

All the big record company people were there, and the literary likes of Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe. I was very excited to meet the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza there. And to get a second crack at Walter Cronkite.

I went up to him and introduced myself and told him I had seen him at the moon landing home video press gathering. I told him how he had been such a hero, such that I could not accept his citing the moon landing over his momentous coverage of Vietnam (his famous commentary expressing doubts about the chances of winning the war, which he made on camera in 1968 after returning from a trip to Vietnam, was a major turning point in popular opinion) and the Middle East (he brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat together to launch the peace process).

His response was unforgettable, if to this day enigmatic.

“Well,” he said, pausing. I think he was embarrassed. I probably should have been.

“Asking what my favorite story is, it’s kind of like asking, ‘What’s your favorite soup?’”

Good Morning Ameri-Can Idiot

I’ve always regretted never seeing Green Day live except for seeing them do “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Teenage Lobotomy” when the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Having authored “Ramones—An American Band,” I can say with some degree of authority that no band of this era is more worthy of wearing the Ramones mantle.

That said, I’m glad I got in at their SRO show at Webster Hall Wednesday night—one of several small-venue appearances in New York last week to kick-off their new album “21st Century Breakdown”—though I didn’t get to see much standing in back of people in the balcony. But I heard plenty.

The Ramones. The Clash. All the great punk bands everyone compares them to are indeed credible comparisons. And I did at least see a packed room of fans ranging from Green Day’s contemporaries to music business veterans my age mouthing the lyrics to socially-conscious, politically-charged hits like “American Idiot” and “Minority” and current “Know Your Enemy” that make the band the only one of its time that I can pretty much guarantee will make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its own right. All this, and encoring with the Isley Brothers’ “Shout”!

I mentioned this gig at Joe’s Pub the next night to my contemporary James Mastro, the versatile guitarist, formerly of The Bongos, who now plays with everyone from Ian Hunter to Iranian-American singer-songwriter Atoosa Grey (James was playing in her band at Joe’s Pub). He had asked the ever-dreaded question, “Is there anything you like now?”

“You know, I believe them,” he said, in response to my praise of Green Day. He then added, his tone as jaded as my own, “That’s all I want from music these days.” Incidentally, his 15 year-old daughter Lily was also a believer–and excited about seeing Green Day for the second time the following night.

Howard Stern being off on Fridays, I forced myself to watch “Good Morning America” to get a televised view of the band as they opened this year’s Walgreens-sponsored “GMA Summer Concert Series” in Central Park.

When I tuned in, it was in the middle of an apparent regular feature, “Americ-Cans Making a Difference”—or some such feel-good shite. No, I don’t mean to slight the story of the homeless vet who has a place to live thanks to the contractor who was supposed to tear down the house but fixed it up instead. Or the Florida State student who raised money to save the professor’s job. Or the other haves helping the have-nots.

No, I just very much resent the “Good Morning America” declaration that “the Ameri-Can spirit is all around us.” Like the vile Pepsi rip of the beautiful Obama “O” logo graphic, GMA co-opts the President’s winning “Yes we can!” campaign slogan, mixing it in with its irrepressibly self-promoting happy-talk. And talk about the anchors! These utterly clueless squares could never have ever listened to a band like Green Day—not that any of them ever would have wanted to. Like Diane Sawyer, the spineless celebrity interviewer and one-time Nixon assistant, listens to “Dookie” while lighting a doobie? I don’t think so! Or the whole lot of them singing along to the original version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” after the “Make Money in May” segment, and knowing it’s by Barrett Strong and not The Beatles? Shit.

Green Day were halfway through their first song when GMA disrespectfully picked it up after a commercial break, adding to the injury with intermittent sound trouble. The GMA team then cut in to hype an upcoming barbecue segment, break for the weather, and come back to ask Billie Joe Armstrong requisite morning network news show questions about whether they got any sleep the night before and if they were really awake.

Billie Joe took it a whole lot better than I did. He and the rest of the guys also took the dipshit-dressed-in-white’s inane exclamation, “There’s absolutely nothing cooler than this!” better than I did. Then again, they didn’t have to deal with the TV picture freezing, the dizzying camera zooms in search of the dumbest doofus crowd reactions (and any hint of moshing), the cutting in and out for commercials (whatever you do, don’t miss the “Here Come the Newlyweds” season premiere!).

Yet there was unintended joy in seeing the kids singing the heavily bleeped “Don’t wanna be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information nation of hysteria/It’s going out to idiot America.” And “Know Your Enemy”—the enemy being everything that “Here Come the Newlyweds” represents.

So here it is where Green Day actually beat the enemy: Beneath the banner of Walgreens, the band that steadfastly refused to censor “21st Century Breakdown” for Wal-Mart was accomplishing what its punk forebears could not even dream of, that is, getting the enemy to play their music. Not only that, showcase it!

There’s absolutely nothing cooler than that.

Sara Wasserman’s Leap of Faith

She was, as she says, born into music.

The daughter of renowned bassist Rob Wasserman and music producer Clare Wasserman, Sara Wasserman grew up in the company of such musical luminaries as the Grateful Dead, Lou Reed and Bonnie Raitt. It was surely just a matter of time before she started her own estimable music career.

A long time, as it turns out.

Her debut album “Solid Ground,” which the boutique jazz label Pacific Coast Jazz releases June 16 on its new That Other Label non-jazz line, was seven years in the making.

“I’ve been singing forever,” says the 27 year-old songstress, who hails from Mill Valley in Marin County, Cal. but now lives in New York. “But I didn’t want to sing [professionally] for a long time. In fact, I fought against it—because I wanted to find my own thing.”

That thing, for a while, at least, was acting. Sara moved to New York 10 years ago and studied acting, dance and musical theater at the Neighborhood Playhouse—having taken acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco since she was a kid. But she discovered that “when you act, it’s not your life,” and eventually returned to singing on her own terms.

“I started taking voice lessons seriously 10 years ago,” she continues (she’d been taking them since age 10), “and decided around then that I really wanted to sing.” The genesis of “Solid Ground” occurred three years later.

“My original intention was to make a demo,” she notes. “I was thinking of shopping it for a record deal and then decided to do it on my own because of the creative freedom and not having [record company] people tell me what to do.”

“Solid Ground,” then, reflects nothing so much as “my own intuition,” she says, referring specifically to the track “Leap of Faith,” which she wrote at “a time in my life when I needed to hold on to my own vision and have faith that I was on the right path.” It is a path resulting from many influences, as manifested by the album’s guest list.

On “Leap of Faith,” for instance, she’s joined by ace turntablist DJ Logic and Soulive drummer Alan Evans—and her father Rob Wasserman. Other noteworthy guests include the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Lou Reed, Aaron Neville, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins and jazz bassist Christian McBride. Together they bring out the many aspects of Sara’s work, from the gospel of “Leap of Faith” to the bluesy “Little Bird” to the soul/r&b of “I Am a Song” to the poignant love ballad “Fly Away” and the pure pop of Hall & Oates’ classic “Sara Smile.”

The big influence, naturally, is her father. Because of him, Sara “pretty much grew up on a tour bus,” absorbing the many and diverse styles of the numerous groupings he was part of at one time or another. But besides his stellar musicianship, Rob is an accomplished songwriter: Five of his compositions grace “Solid Ground”–the titletrack (co-written with Traffic’s Jim Capaldi), “Hindsight” (she sang these two songs at her very first performance 10 years ago with Weir’s band RatDog—in which Rob played bass), “Little Bird,” and “I Am a Song” and “Fly Away,” these latter two co-written with Sara, the album’s producer Randy Emata and Aaron Neville.

The legendary Neville is the other key contributor to “Solid Ground,” musically and lyrically.

“He’s a great writer,” she says of Neville, whom she first met when she was eight (he was taping a segment of NBC’s “Night Music” and she joined him in swiping every single candy bar from the dressing rooms)–but she’s referring to his poetry. They met up again many years later at a pre-Katrina New Orleans JazzFest, where he gave her an unpublished book of poems and lyrics that he had written over the past 30 years.

“He thought I’d appreciate it as a writer—and I was inspired by his words and turned two of them into songs,” says Sara, whose own songwriting prowess is evidenced by the use of album track “Somehow Forever” on the TV sitcom “Girlfriends.” The next time she saw Neville was at JazzFest in 2004, when she and her dad went to his house and she played him a solo recording of “Fly Away.”

“It started as a solo ballad and he loved it,” she continues, recalling how Neville had listened intensely until the unforgettable moment when he started giggling when the wide-ranged soprano hit the sky-high notes on the bridge. He was so taken, it turns out, that he later asked Sara if she would write a similar song for him to sing with her.

“I was blown away!” she says. “But I didn’t want to write something that was the same as another song, so I called him when I got back home and asked if he’d do ‘Fly Away’ with me—since he already liked it.”

The duet is now a showpiece for a singer—and writer—who can hold her own with the great Neville both as vocalist and composer. But the whole of “Solid Ground” is a showcase, with every song having its own surprises (she even got Lou Reed, whom she’s known since her dad toured with him when she was a child, to play an acoustic guitar part when recording “Need to Know”—which is highly unusual in that he never plays acoustic guitar, let alone someone else’s guitar).

“Each song is very personal to me,” she notes. “I wrote almost everything except for the three songs my father wrote, and in seven years of collaborating with different artists, the album happened organically. It just took a while to find my vision and then follow it—but sometimes it takes time to find your own voice.”

And now that she’s found it, she’s satisfied her main objective in making “Solid Ground.”

“The most important thing about this project is that it has integrity,” she says. “It’s hard to explain, but to me, having longevity and people’s respect as an artist is the most important thing.”

She points to Bonnie Raitt, whom she first saw as a youngster when Raitt performed with her dad and Weir at a benefit, as a role model.

“I’m inspired by her music and how hard she works, and she’s one of the biggest influences on me as a vocalist and performer,” she acknowledges. “You hear her voice and know it’s her automatically, and she’ll be around forever–and that’s my goal.”

As she recorded two albums’ worth of material for her debut album (including “You Got Me,” a song that was played on an episode of the “Falcon Beach” TV series), Sara Wasserman is now full-speed ahead on a career that may have started tentatively, but is now firmly on solid ground.

Ashford & Simpson–The Real Thing

[Proclaimer: I wrote the booklet essay for the ““The Real Thing” live CD/DVD package.  I was there, too. Jumping up and down, screaming, going crazy with everyone else. Beyond that, though, I love Ashford & Simpson. No, make that I worship Ashford & Simpson. I get down on my hands and knees before them. The first time I saw them, at Radio City well over 20 years ago, it changed my life. And I’m not alone. Hardly. In fact, everyone who ever meets them wants to be near them at all times. Just to bask in their love and kindness. But I’m not biased. No. Not at all. How dare you think that? Don’t even go there!]

It was long in the making and now it’s long in the promoting.

Ashford & Simpson’s “The Real Thing,” which came out in both CD and DVD format via Sony Music’s Burgundy label on January 27, was recorded live at Feinstein’s nightclub in New York in late 2007 after the legendary singing-songwriting-performing couple’s triumphant three-week stand there. It was their first release of new recordings since “Been Found” in 1996—not counting last year’s double-disc “The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities,” which included new remixes of their hits, many of which have resurfaced live on “The Real Thing” along with versions of their classic Motown compositions like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and the title-inspiring “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

But here we are at the end of April and the title is still being promoted. In fact, its promotion may be picking up in a textbook example of new marketing methodology.

“What I like about this project in particular is that it’s not wed to normal music marketing cycles,” says Jeff Rowland, “The Real Thing”’s executive producer/deal-maker, citing the unique nature of Ashford & Simpson’s music. “You can work on it and keep working on it because Ashford & Simpson’s music is timeless: Everybody knows it, so it isn’t wed to the normal cycles of hit radio airplay—and we could do anything we thought that was necessary, appropriate or possible to position to sell and continue to sell this record. We got into it knowing it wasn’t a ‘slam, bam, on to the next thing’ project.”

Rowland was himself perfectly positioned to handle all aspects of “The Real Thing,” from production to promotion. Having started out as a talent agent at ICM, he later worked at Metropolitan Talent and PolyGram Diversified Entertainment and was involved in entrepreneurial activities including artist management, independent record label operation, concert and event production and theatrical production.

He also was in charge of booking Feinstein’s, where Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson did an initial two-week stint in the fall of 2006.

“It was a great booking and we wanted to get them back,” continues Rowland. “Val had expressed interest in playing there again, but wanted to do something different and special and thought it would be great to make a record there. We met for lunch and they were such open and warm people—and the music was so good—that I decided to see if I could bring it about in an extracurricular way.”

In addition to his booking and production hats, Rowland’s Two Hands Entertainment company specializes in producing live entertainment and media deriving from it.

“When Val said she wanted a record deal, I found myself in the unique position to do something about it, and we thought we had a deal but a month before the taping the label dropped out and we thought all was lost,” says Rowland. “Then Val decided to fund the taping anyway just to have a record of it for herself. So I said, ‘If you do that, we’ll shoot in high definition and record it digitally and I’ll still go out afterwards and try to get a deal.’ They didn’t think it would happen and it took a year, but then I found Media Push.”

Media Push Entertainment  is a full-service marketing and distribution company focused on the development, acquisition, production and worldwide distribution rights for music and general entertainment content in a variety of forms including theatrical, digital cinema, DVD, TV, CD web, and wireless releases. As Tony Bennett’s manager/son Danny Bennett is a principal (the company’s name, incidentally, comes from the title of the 1974 album released by Bennett’s obscure band Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends), the company had a built-in relationship with Sony due to his father’s longtime label home at Columbia (Danny’s RPM Records label puts out Tony’s albums now via Columbia).

“The Real Thing,” then, is Media Push’s first release in a venture with Sony.

“We were fired up about it because they’d shot the program in HD and it was a great, quality product,” says Media Push president Steve Sterling. “We were also big fans of Ashford & Simpson, and figured that they’d never gotten all the credit they deserve–having written so many important songs that have touched so many hearts and minds. You might not know Nick and Val so well as artists, but you know their songs. So it’s one of the greatest untold stories in the entertainment business and they’re such wonderful people, so we’d been talking about doing something with them for quite a while and when they put the show together—that’s entirely hit-driven—we could finance the whole rights deal. So we said, ‘Let’s go for it!’”

As Sterling relates, Media Push is geared to serve as a “media rights marketing partner.”

“We can do things that people think only labels can do,” he explains. “You definitely need a big, powerful label pipeline to feed into, but at the end of the day it’s about marketing strategy and follow-through more than how big you are. So from that standpoint it’s a very exciting time: It’s a very level playing field right now in the music entertainment business, and all the traditional ways that artists used to be able to get projects put together have changed or disappeared so we see a real opportunity from an independent position to go to artists and managers and fund projects as media marketing partners. It’s very exciting because you have to think differently—but it’s good for everybody in the end.”

The key element of the marketing effort in support of “The Real Thing” was its rollout on New York metropolitan area PBS station WLIW21–the third most-watched public television station in the nation.

“We were releasing the CD simultaneous with the DVD, so the whole strategy relied on PBS pledge programming,” says Rowland. “Television sells, and PBS is a great utility in that if a pledge program is successful and people subscribe because of pledge programming, they’ll keep playing the program. It’s almost like MTV in the old days, only for an older demo.”

But well before the WLIW was set came an unforeseen development most extraordinary and auspicious.

“Throughout last summer as Nick and Val toured, they’d invariably get audience  participation on [their big 1985 pop hit] ‘Solid,’” says Rowland. “They were playing a show in California and Val handed the mic to a lady who changed the chorus on her own from ‘solid as a rock’ to ‘solid as Barack,’ which was a natural—though it had no relation with the rest of the song lyrically. But it caught on and then ‘Saturday Night Live’ picked up on it somehow and did a skit around the time of Obama’s half-hour primetime TV special just before the election. So we mentioned the phenomenon at a marketing meeting with Sony to position the record, and then suggested that Nick and Val record ‘Solid as Barack’ as a free ringtone to draw attention to it. But they were concerned that people might think they were making fun of Barack because of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit—and were also concerned that it didn’t make sense with the rest of the song. So Nick wrote new lyrics as a tribute to Barack and to reclaim it from the comedy sketch.”

They recorded the new version of “Solid” for the free ringtone and also made the full song available as a download coinciding with Obama’s inauguration—“which just happened be one week before the album release,” notes Rowland. “I wishI  could say it was a brilliant plan—it was!—but it was really a reactive plan. And it got an astounding amount of press: USA Today picked it up and Nick and Val performed on Larry King during inauguration week. Then they did Tavis Smiley’s show on PBS, and David Letterman. And after the inauguration the press transmogrified into the record and Ashford & Simpson and who they are. It was a great kick-starter.”

Then the PBS exposure kicked in.

“PBS was the perfect platform, so the next step was to get a PBS station involved,” says Rowland, lauding Ashford & Simpson’s wide-rangiing interview during WLIW’s initial pledge programming of “The Real Thing.”

“They did such a great job on WLIW that they’re editing it and rolling it out and distributing it to public TV stations across the country for pledge programming in May and June,” he adds, noting that “doing anything on public television is not as easy as you might think. It’s difficult figuring out which shows will be successful. But after they first aired it they were so happy with it that it ended up with six to eight prime time plays and it was very successful–so much so that they embraced it for national summer pledge distribution.”

Rowland says that while CD and DVD giveaways are the norm for PBS pledge drives, concert tickets have been found to be the most effective enticement for donations. So an exclusive Ashford & Simpson show has been scheduled for new WLIW members, thereby bringing “The Real Thing” around full circle.

“They’ll usually offer tickets to a pledge artist like Yanni or Sarah Brightman at Radio City or Madison Square Garden,” he says, “but these are advertised events for the general public. So we’re confounding the normal rules by having a special show at Feinstein’s only for people who become members of WLIW and not the general public. So they can’t get tickets directly from the venue or Ticketmaster.”

Ashford & Simpson are now set to return to Feinstein’s on June 7 and 8—a second night having been added after the first show for new WLIW members sold out immediately. “It’s at the place where we actually taped the CD/DVD show, so people who saw it on WLIW and were infused by the joy of the performance and how much fun the songs are now get the opportunity to go to the scene of the crime and relive it!” says Rowland. “And we’re now looking for different things in different markets this summer where we can similarly recreate the experience.”

An example may be Ashford & Simpson’s concert with The Temptations in Atlanta in August, for which the local PBS affiliate will be contacted, says Rowland.

“All told, this project has taken years now,” he concludes. “But it’s a good project: The show clearly delivers on every level—same with the CD and DVD.”

Incidentally, the DVD offers additional tracks including four new Ashford & Simpson originals written for a musical based on E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel “Invisible Life,” climaxing with the titletrack, “an anthem celebrating human diversity,” as New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote in his review—and as I quoted him in my liner notes! Quoting now from myself: “God is watching you,” Val concluded in the song’s love- and life-affirming message. “He expects you to be real to yourself!”

The point is, A&S have some 20 new songs from the musical in the can, and having seen a run-through of the show for Broadway investors I can say they’re all great! [No! I’m not biased! We’ve gone over this before!] Perhaps “The Real Thing” will lead into a real new Ashford & Simpson album. The audience is certainly there–as is evident in the CD/DVD package–and so are the songs.