Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the chorus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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