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.

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