Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 19

Honest. I didn’t go there to get shoes.

I just went to the Sugar Bar last Tuesday night to be with the family. The Sugar Bar Family. The Ashford & Simpson Family.

We were out in full force to be part of Valerie and daughters Nicole and Asia’s giveaway of Nick’s shoes—92 pairs, to be exact.

Nick, of course, dressed like the celebrity king that he was. As I’d noted a couple weeks earlier in my centerline.news post on the giveaway, at his funeral Val revealed that if he walked out of the house and made it to the corner without being noticed, he’d turn around and go back and change. And now, closing on six years later, she had all those shoes and didn’t know what to do with them, so instead of giving them to Goodwill, she and the girls decided to give them away to Nick’s fellow “dreamers,” Nick having himself been a dreamer when he came to New York from Willow Run, Michigan, in 1964, with little else besides his dream of making it in the big city: In fact, he spent months homeless and sleeping in Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park before famously meeting Val at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, and with her, eventually becoming one of the most revered and beloved songwriting/performing teams in popular music history.

I got to the Sugar Bar a few minutes after the event’s designated 5 p.m. start. Mr. Ken was already there—Kenneth Williams, legendary “hairstylist to the stars,” who’s based in L.A. and always called “Mr. Ken.” He’d arrived in town early and had already picked out his pair.

“It’s really hard to fill Nick’s shoes,” he said, “but I’m trying.”

He added that he’d go anywhere and do anything for Nick and Val, and he was speaking here for all of us.

Val and the girls—and the shoes—were in the small dining room in the back, behind the stage and the kitchen. As soon as Val saw me she asked, “What size do you wear?”

Eleven-and-a-half, I told her. “Clown Shoes,” they used to call me in Junior High.

I knew from my Centerline piece that the sizes ranged from 10 1/2 to 11 1/2, but I didn’t know I’d be eligible—I mean, I hadn’t written a note, and I’m really not much of a dreamer: I never could ever have dreamed, in fact, that I, Jim Bessman, from Madison, Wisconsin, who grew up listening to Ashford-Simpson compositions on the radio, would some day get to know them, let alone get to try on Nick’s shoes.

David Sugar was there, another friend of the family. He was wearing a vest beneath his jacket, made out of tiny golden chain link that resembled the one Nick used to wear on stage. Val was gently scolding him for handing in a 20-page treatise on why he qualified for a pair, when she only wanted a line or two. Like the kids say, “TL, DR”—”too long, didn’t read.”

But David said he’d actually edited it down to 20 pages, and Val gave him two pairs for his effort. Then she asked me for my shoe size. Honest, I was a bit taken aback: As noted, Nick was a star, and dressed like it. Me, I’m a free-lance writer, who usually wears shorts and t-shirts and sneakers designed for severe over-pronators—with prescription orthotic inserts. In other words, Nick’s shoes were for the most part way too dressy—and classy—for me, though I did spot an ultra-cool pair of black-and-white two-tone loafers that were totally rockabilly, but too small.

And most of the shoes were, as was stated on the Sugar Bar website, size 11. So I didn’t figure on finding anything my size, let alone social status. But I did try on a pair of dark brown ankle-high boots that except for the thin round laces could pass for black, and to my surprise, they felt great. I turned to Asia, who said they looked “spritely.” “Said by a sprite!” I said, to which she smiled and replied, “I have my days.”

This would certainly be one of them, I thought, then went upstairs to run them past Miss Tee, Nick and Val’s forever loyal personal assistant/office manager. She loved them–just as I loved Nick’s grey leather riding pants that she was sporting with typical flair. Nicole liked them, too.

My line from that point, much repeated the rest of the evening, was, “I can only hope that somehow Nick’s greatness flows upward from my feet.”

But David Sugar had a better one. He said he’d gladly give up his newly acquired Nick shoes and walk barefoot from Wall Street to Harlem for five minutes more with him.

Someone else said, per Val, something that might have topped both of us: “Nick’s soul is in the shoes.” Whether or not it was a pun, it was beautiful.

For Nick was “a special man,” as Val said to a guy who walked in, who had seen the announcement of the shoes giveaway on the Sugar Bar website. His was the Cinderella story of the night, as he was the one who tried on Nick’s two-tone slippers and found a perfect fit.

I was now sitting on a barstool next to Val when Scott Bomar arrived. Scott’s at the new BMG Books, whose first title The “Odesssey”—The Zombies in Words and Images, is just out. He also is co-host of Songcraft: Spotlight on Songwriters, a monthly podcast of in-depth interviews with noteworthy songwriters, and was hoping to meet Val and get her on the show.

I made the intro, but by then I’d downed enough Black Label on the rocks to have lost all inhibitions—or at least enough to sing the chorus of Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” (after explaining that keyboardist/bandleader Rod Argent remains one of the original Zombies) to the woman I consider as great a female vocalist—let alone songwriter–as any.

It wasn’t good for me and I know it wasn’t good for her.

Luckily, David came by and he and Val continued the banter about the length of his note. A couple came in and gave Val a big hug. “What’s your size?” she responded, and off they went to the back, Scott tagging along. Alas, his feet were too small, but he was lucky, too, in that he came back in time to meet Joshie Jo Armstead, Nick and Val’s collaborator on songs like “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and one of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue’s early Ikettes, as she walked in.

I had another Black Label on the rocks. I was well into my third round of maudlin.

I wish I had a tape recorder every time I talked with Nick, I told Val. I always tell her that when I get to this blood alcohol level.

She asked if I’d spoken with Liz. That’s Liz Rosenberg, publicist to the stars–Madonna, Cher, Stevie Nicks, etc., and Ashford & Simpson when she and they were with Warner Bros. Records when I came to New York in 1982.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve told Val this story, but I added one more. I’d actually told it to Tee a couple weeks before, so it came even more readily.

Nick and Val were doing their 1983 High-Rise album show at Radio City. I was the retail editor at the now long-defunct music trade magazine Cash Box, and my boss got us tickets to the show. I don’t think there were a dozen white people there—and we were two of them. We had pretty good seats on the floor, a bit more than halfway back, and someone had reefer, which of course I smoked—though it would have been life-changing anyway.

I was so blown away, in fact, that the next morning I called about the only friend I’d made so far in the music business in New York, a publicist at Epic Records, Elliot Hubbard. I probably was even less coherent trying to describe the Ashford & Simpson experience to him than I had been at the show.

But Elliot got it, told me to call Liz Rosenberg at Warner Bros., that she was also a huge A&S fan. So I called her cold, but I was with Cash Box, so she took the call, her voice quite professional until I told her why I was calling. And as Nick and Val have done for so many others, they brought me and Liz together, gushing and forever in Ashford & Simpson.

Me and Liz saw Nick and Val so many times together, in fact, that as Val told Scott, we could just as well have done their show for them, since we surely knew it better than they did. I mentioned how indelible in my memory the opening to that Radio City High-Rise show was, how the lights went down, the curtain came up, and their was this Empire state Building-like skyscraper in the middle of the stage, with the middle folding out downwards into a staircase, Nick and Val in all their glory perched at the top. I was practically in tears just thinking back on it, and I’m getting chills again now just writing about it.

Val, of course, thought it was kind of dumb. But what about the set at the Pier show? I asked. This one must have been a couple years or so later, when they played the old venue at the pier across from the Intrepid. There was this big round pillbox, for lack of a better way of describing the set piece, and the top lid slowly slid down to reveal what appeared to be Nick and Val asleep in bed. The crowd started roaring and they woke up, sat up, rubbed their eyes and marveled at the whole thing before getting up and starting the show.

“We almost suffocated in there waiting for the show to start!” said Val. But the talk of me getting high at Radio City made her think of all the times me and Liz went upstairs at the Sugar Bar to do the same with Nick—and she cracked up recalling how we’d come back down practically speaking in tongues.

But that’s what Nick was like to us, I told Val—for the millionth time, at least. It was like we were his disciples, looking up at him, mouths agape, as if on some hill in Galilee, listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Though it may all be lost in a marijuana haze, my mouth is agape again now as I try to piece this all together.

Val, of course, just laughed.

“He respected your writing,” she said, “and he felt comfortable with you and Liz.”

So now, overcome by her comment, I told her how I can never speak of Nick in the past tense, that it just doesn’t make sense to. And it’s not that I can’t deal with him being gone, it’s that I can’t even comprehend it–that someone so huge in our lives could be gone.

Val, of course, understood, as did Nicole, when I said the same thing to her.

And really, what more is there? What more is there besides Nick’s shoes?

There were maybe a dozen pairs left by the time I stumbled out into the night, stopping off at the bus shelter at 72nd and West End to change back into my 11.5, 4E Brooks Beasts, saving Nick’s shoes for the most special occasions. Besides, if I had them on when the clock struck midnight, I’m sure I would have turned back into a pumpkin.

Walking downtown on West End I thought of something that Nicole had said before I left.

Her father’s shoes, she said, were so fabulous that some people who were size 9 when they walked in could leave with a pair of Nick’s size 11s.

“He had so many different styles,” she added. “There were some shoes we didn’t even know he had! But if he liked them, they fit him.”

Then Nicole revealed a heretofore unknown magical aspect of Nick Ashford.

“And now we know he had shape-shifting feet!” she said.

“I hope mine now shape-shift, too, to fill his shoes!” I responded.

And, again, that somehow Nick’s greatness flows upward from my feet.

Epilogue: Two days later I had lunch with Liz and recounted as much of this as I could still remember, particularly the part on how we met. She picked up her phone and called Tee, who chewed her out lovingly for not being there.

Liz asked if there were any shoes left, because she wanted a pair.

“I’m not going to wear them,” Liz explained. “I just want to look at them.”

I can report that the conversation ended happily. I can further report that I am now looking at my own pair of Nick’s shoes.

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