Maya Angelou: An Appreciation

I didn’t know Maya Angelou that well, but even those who did most always referred to her as Dr. Angelou, out of the respect that she didn’t so much demand as command. Mostly, of course, I knew her from Ashford & Simpson-related events.

What stands out in my memory was Dr. Angelou’s immense presence. She had an appropriately regal bearing and gait, and every word she uttered, stated softly but with full conviction, had weight and purpose.

Not to say that she was always austere. At Nick and Val’s famed Fourth of July “white parties” at their Connecticut residence, where everyone had to wear all white, she was the emcee for the pre-dinner poolside entertainment, culminating always with Nick’s hysterical entrance (he was once carried out on a throne, like an Egyptian pharaoh). She was always very funny herself, if no less measured in her speech.

Being a poet, she also spoke musically. Then again, she was also a musician, having started out as a dancer and calypso singer: Her 1957 album Miss Calypso—released on Scamp Records—was reissued in 1996, the same year as Been Found, the extraordinary album mix of her spoken word and Ashford & Simpson music.

She’d met Nick and Val through their great choreographer George Faison, and had invited them down to her annual Thanksgiving celebrations at her home in North Carolina.

For Billboard, Nick told me how at one point he had decided to go downstairs to “mess around” with a piano in the basement. But he felt lonely after a while and shouted for people to come down and join him.

“I told Val to play piano and Maya to add something,” he said. “We started singing, and something started to happen—and they didn’t know I had a tape recorder going underneath the piano. But me and Val are always spontaneous. It was a new experience for Maya, but she loved the idea of instant feedback.”

The tape contained the foundation for the Been Found track “I Remember All.” Nick said that they initially envisioned Dr. Angelou as a guest artist on one song for what they intended to be an Ashford & Simpson album, but that she was so excited about it that they continued the collaboration—though with a slight adaptation to the A&S songwriting process.

“She taught us not to go into a room and close the door and be afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “When you write in a spontaneous way, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, because whatever comes out of your mouth a lot of times is stupid. But she’d have people come in and sit around like an audience while we worked, and it became like a seminar.”

Dr. Angelou especially loved being part of the intensely romantic quality of Ashford & Simpson’s songs.

“So many people have decided that sexuality goes out by the time you’re 55,” she told me (at the time she was 68). “I don’t believe it, and I’m trying to keep romance alive well past 65. By doing [the album], I’m refuting that much-bantered-about idea that ‘old’ means ‘cold!’”

Dr. Angelou performed on seven of the 11 songs on Been Found–essentially her highbrow hip-hop to the trademark A&S secular gospel music and chorus, its titletrack finding glorious salvation in love. It certainly made all the sense in the world that these two spiritually creative forces would find each other.

“What I like about this album is that it gives us a fresh feeling,” Nick said. “We’ve been a duet so long, it’s a shot of adrenaline to work with a genius like Maya Angelou.”

“As much as people love you, everybody’s so jaded,” Val added. “A new A&S [album] comes out, and people say, ‘Okay.’ But this gives them more interest to put it on instead of putting it aside and getting to it later.”

Dr. Angelou gave Ashford & Simpson a shot of adrenaline in concert staging, too. The New York concert they did together featured the kind of artfully spectacular sets Nick and Val used to have back when I first saw them in the early ‘80s, i.e., a skyscraper from which a ramp folded out for them to descend down onto the stage at the beginning of their High-Rise show.

But my lasting image of Dr. Angelou is in the house in Connecticut, after the fireworks, after nearly everyone but family had left. She was sitting in a room, surrounded by a dozen or so children, enrapt at her feet.

I felt too old to sit down with them, so I don’t know what she was saying. But I watched from the next room, enrapt, too, and in my own way, childlike in her presence.

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