Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.

I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.

By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.

I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.

After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”

Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.

But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.

This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”

My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.

“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”

But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”

Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”

I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.

But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.

And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.

Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.

But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.

But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”

Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.

But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.

You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.


Election Eve at the Beacon

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.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 16

It started innocently enough when Nellie McKay asked me, after we’d seen Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City, what I thought of Bob Lefsetz, the long-winded music industry newsletter pundit famed—in the comparitvely small but ever growing circle of aging, mostly bitter ex-music industryites, all of whom are equally grumpy—for the newsletter he sends out to his email list once or twice daily.

No, I don’t read him, I said. One, he’s full of shit. Two, he’s a shit writer. Three, he writes the same shit over and over again.

Yes, I know this sounds a lot like I’m talking about myself–and I hastily admitted as much to Nell—especially #3. After all, I told her, I’m sure people go, “Gee. All he ever writes about is Nellie McKay! Doesn’t he like anyone else?” That answer, I conceded with the same haste, was for the most part, no.

We really should start a feud, Nellie suggested. It would be good for both our careers.

No, I told Nellie, my career is unsalvageable. And I definitely don’t want to risk yours. For the most part I don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t want it in my obituary that I took down the career of the most talented music artist of her generation.

[Editor note: Nellie’s career, actually, is fine. She was off the next night to play with her band at Deerhead Inn at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsyvlania, and is readying her most brilliant cabaret piece from two years ago A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, about the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine, but when he died in 1989, was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives, for upcoming repeat performances. But, no, she’s not doing the Super Bowl halftime show.]

Then why does everyone read him, she asked, returning to Lefsetz. That answer, I said, was easy: Everyone reads him because everyone else does.

This led me to Bob Dylan—somewhat ironically in that Nellie does about the best Dylan impression of anyone out there.

Just announced Nobel Prize aside, why does everyone consider Dylan the greatest songwriter ever? I asked rhetorically. Because everyone else does! Don’t get me wrong. I was a huge Dylan fan—as a kid. “Blowin’ the Wind”—especially Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Times They are a-Changin’”—these and so many other early Dylan songs woke me up to the 1960s. I knew Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde inside-out. But after he went Christian—great songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” and the great Gospel Tour of 1979-’80 that I saw in Madison notwithstanding, I started having second thoughts that carried over into a reexamination of his earlier work: Suddenly the lyrics to formerly beloved songs like “Desolation Row” and “I Want You” seemed like so much surrealistic baloney, to mangle–and I throw it in here gratuitously, much as those lyrics now appeared to be written–a favorite phrase from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 horror film classic The Black Cat, where Bela Lugosi says to nemesis Boris Karloff, in response to a comment that the occult is little more than “supernatural baloney,” “Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not.”

It all came to a head in 2007, when I chanced to meet a reporter for ABC News at some showcase, and talk turned to Dylan. She was amazed, if not appalled, when I told her that I considered his post-folk period lyrics largely “gibberish”—and quoted me saying it in a piece around the release of Todd Haynes’ bizarre Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which Cate Blanchett, in another instance of convincing female male impersonation, turned in the best Dylan portrayal).

Having slaughtered another sacred cow, I wanted to share my favorite lyricists with Nellie, starting with—who else?–Hal David.

I was so lucky to know Hal very well. In fact, he called me up once, a few years before he died, to say that he’d been mulling over writing a memoir and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him. Duh, I replied, then he said he wanted to hold off until everyone else was dead and of course, they all outlived him.

But go to any of his songs—as but one easy example, take “One Less Bell to Answer.” Even just the title is poetry, and when I say poetry, I mean you can take Hal’s lyrics apart form Burt Bacharach’s beautiful music and they stand alone as poems concerning contemporary relationships:

One less bell to answer
One less egg to fry
One less man to pick up after
I should be happy
But all I do is cry
.

Indeed, I actually have a book of Hal’s lyrics—and you really don’t need the music.

I’ve also known Kris Kristofferson very well, and wrote liner notes on a two-disc KK compilation. Two famously immortal lyric examples will suffice: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “There’s nothing short a’ dying/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” (from “Sunday Morning Coming Down”).

I’ve written liner notes on two David Johansen CDs, and need go no further than the opening verse of “Frenchette” in which he pares down everything fake to the real core: “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette/I’ve been to France, so let’s just dance.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford, which is why we’re gathered together here again in the first place. No one was more real than “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Gimme Somethin Real” Nick Ashford.

This being the sixteenth in my continuing Reflections on Nick Ashford series, obviously I could go on and on about Nick, as human being and here, as songwriter. One of the things I love so much about his songwriting is the way he made poetry out of vernacular: “We got love/Sure ‘nough, that’s enough” fro “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “She wanna live in a high-rise” from “High-Rise”–you get the picture. But even better, the way he cut deep to the core of human beings and humanity—but ever so tenderly. I come now to Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” the enduring hit for Diana Ross, what I love to call the greatest song of all time.

First, it’s not “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)—Or Else!” or “You Must Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand.” Nick was never judgemental, never demanding: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand—make this world a better place if you can.” The italics are mine, but the gentle suggestion is Nick’s. It’s “if you can,” not “of course you can!”

Nothing authoritarian, either, as in “I command that you reach out and touch sombody’s hand!” No, Nick never forces an issue: He always kindly leaves kindness up to you.

And then he delivers what I consider one of the most extraordinary anthropomorphisms ever in a song, that is, of course, if I have any idea what anthropomorphism means.

Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own?

Again, he’s not saying, “You are a stone,” or even insinuating it, just rhetorically asking.

And “to share a problem that’s not your own”! Ruminate on that for a moment, maybe even two.

I’m really at a loss for words now. How seemingly simple yet so enormously poetic in anthropomorphizing a stone in bringing us around to see our failings in caring about others—this from the most creatively caring songwriter maybe ever.

Sorry if it took so long to get here. So many roads, sometimes circuitously, lead to Nick.

[Editor’s note: Bob Lefsetz and Bob Dylan deserve an apology. Nothing said was inaccurate, but any negativity towards another is inappropriate and uncallec for in anything relating to Nick Ashford.]

Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

bessgaither
For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 15

It’s been five years now, since Nick died. August 22, 2011.

It was while I was flying back from L.A. I knew he was going in the morning, and when I landed in New York, Liz had left a message to come straight to the house. I did, with shorts on, some dumb but clean t-shirt, ball cap, laptop bag and carry-on.

Nick would have loved it.

I recounted this story to J.B. Carmicle over breakfast last week at the Red Flame. He comes to New York from L.A. for a few days every year this time, meeting up with his brother Donnie, who still lives in their Louisville hometown. We talked a bit about Muhammad Ali’s funeral–Ali being right up there with Ashford in personal significance and public greatness.

J.B. hired me at Cash Box when I came to New York in 1982, when he ran the East Coast office. He got us tickets to Ashford & Simpson at Radio City shortly after I started there. The experience was life-changing.

There were four of us altogether, but I don’t remember the other two. I do remember the seats were about two-thirds the way back on the floor, center aisle. I also remember that there might have been four other white people there, it being the High-Rise album and R&B hit single tour, which places it in 1983–ahead of Nick and Val’s pop breakthrough with solid the following year.

Someone had a joint. We smoked it in our seats before the band started and the curtain went up to expose a tall stage prop in the shape of a skyscraper, if not the Empire State Building. The band struck up,and the top half of the building unfolded down into a staircase, much like a small commuter prop plane’s door. There at the top of the stairs, in all their splendor, were Nick and Val. I don’t know if the reefer had anything to do with it, but it had the effect on me of witnessing live one of those Renaissance paintings of the Ascension–no matter that Nick and Val then descended the steps to entertain their worshipful throngs.

Did I say “life-changing”?

At Nick’s funeral, among the many names mentioned in reference and reverence, was Jesus. Nick, the speaker said, was “the black Jesus.” Made me think of the many times Liz Rosenberg and I would sit stoned, if not at his feet, in front of him, seemingly looking up, eyes open wide, mouths agape, hanging on every word he spoke to us upstairs at the Sugar Bar like we were disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

Nick was so deep.

The day after Radio City I called Elliot Hubbard, an Epic Records publicist who was one of the few press contacts I’d made in my short time then in NYC. I was so blown away by A&S that I had to talk to someone. He was close to Liz and said I should call her, since she was such a huge fan of Nick and Val, having worked publicity for them at Warner Bros. Records when they were signed to the label. So I called her cold, having no idea who she was, and when I mentioned Nick and Val we became instant forever best friends, who saw their shows so many times together over the next three decades that when the two-disc A&S compilation The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities came out in 2008, it had an essay by Val in which she thanked us and said we should just do their show for them, since we knew it better than they did–which was not untrue.

As I write this I’m back in L.A., where I saw Nick and Val a couple times, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair. It was always great to see them outside of New York, and see how loved they were away as they were at home.

I’ll still be out here Monday, August 22, when I’ll think back on the five years since Nick’s been gone–though it never really feels that way. In fact, it’s very hard for me to think, speak, or write about Nick in the past tense.

I’m thinking now of a year ago last April, at the funeral of Andre Smith, who had hosted Nick and Val’s Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 hears. The service was at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by the same close-knit Sugar Bar family that made up so much of Nick’s funeral audience at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Of course I couldn’t help but think about Nick at Andre’s funeral, what with Andre being, next to Nick and Val, the face of the Sugar Bar as its famous Open Mic host. As I walked to the church from the 145th Street A-Train stop I also thought of Val’s Aunt Bea’s funeral, which I didn’t know then was the last time I would ever see Nick. He hadn’t been to the Sugar Bar on Thursday night for probably a couple months at least then, and he entered the room just as the service started and immediately left just as it ended.

So the last time I saw Nick I didn’t even get the chance to say hi. I remember I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar afterward with Val and Tee and Nicole and Asia, and telling Asia that I was mad at her for getting the big
tattoo on her back of her parents before I did.

I thought of all this again as I walked back to the subway after Adre’s service, trying to figure out how to get from the A to the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd & Broadway and the Sugar Bar–again for a post-funeral celebration. Luckily
I heard my name called out from an RV with an extra seat next to fellow Sugar Bar regular Anita Parker Brown. Shinuh, a singer who plays and works at the Sugar Bar, was in the front, and I didn’t know the driver–but we
all shared exactly the same thought of Nick that we expressed on the drive to the Sugar Bar: That it’s impossible to accept the fact that Nick is gone.

Yes, it’s been five years now. But I still say stuff like, “I’m friends with Nick and Val,” or, “Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.” Depending on the awareness of whom I’m talking to, maybe, I’ll then add that Nick is no longer living. But I never start out a reference to him or to Nick and Val in any way that recognizes that he’s gone.

It’s like how George Faison, the Tony-winning choreographer who was close to Nick and Val and created their classic dance routines, said to me one Thursday night after Open Mic, shortly after Nick died.

“Who would ever imagine that Nick Ashford could be gone?” George said to me as we walked out of the Sugar Bar, probably in the neighborhood of 2 a.m.

“No one ever could,” I replied. Nor should anyone, now or ever. Like I tweet every August 22, Nick Ashford lives.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 14

Like I always say–and told him many times—I wish I’d have carried around a tape recorder whenever I spoke with Nick. Then I wished I ‘d transcribed it all onto rolls of parchment and hidden them in caves along the Dead Sea—though I never told him that.

Someone called him The Black Jesus at his funeral and it was only fitting, for he had the look and the kindness and the love–and the wisdom. Me and Liz Rosenberg would essentially sit at his feet and look up as he passed it down to us supplicants.

For sure Nick would have been the final word on Adele, after I stirred up the Sadducees by trashing both the “Hello” song and video on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure he’d have liked Adele okay, and appreciated where she’s coming from. But I doubt he’d have been carried away by all the hoopla over “Hello.”

At least Alec Shantzis, keyboardist for the Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic shows, sided with me.

“I have to chime in here,” Alec wrote on my ever-widening Adele Facebook thread. “As a keyboard player I have performed and/or recorded with Ashford & Simpson, Ben E King, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, and a host of other artists. Adele is ok, she meets my minimum standard for ok, that’s all. Nothing more.”

“On that list for sure!” I replied, meaning, compared to those names, okay is all–list of those meeting minimum standards. I added, “You know who really would have been able to put her in perspective, of course: Nick!”

“No doubt, Jim, Nick would have said one sentence that ended the discussion lol,” responded Alec, sagely. “Oh, and that was my short list too, I left a lot off because my point was made.”

“I sat with him one night in the [Sugar Bar’s] Cat Lounge and he discussed the relative merits of the great female vocalists,” I said. “It was like listening to a college professor!”

“As a songwriter, creating vehicles for singers, and with his experience, he was as expert as could be,” answered Alec. “We could sure use some creative experts in the music business now.”

I vaguely remember that conversation in the Cat Lounge. I recall volunteering that I didn’t care much for Mariah Carey or Beyonce or even Whitney Houston—in fact, I gave Whitney a lukewarm review at best back in the 1990s when I reviewed her show at Madison Square Garden for The New York Post, prompting Donnie Ienner, then second-in-command at Arista, to take me aside at a label function and respectfully chew me out. But I don’t recall that Nick disagreed with me, or my contention that neither sang with the soul, say, of Val and Aretha.

“My Val?” Nick asked, making sure I didn’t mean a different Val, whereas there could be no other Aretha, of course. I always loved how he said “my Val.”

Aretha, of course, was in a class by herself, though besides Nick’s Val, whom I always put ahead of everyone as the most soulful and spontaneous singer I’ve ever seen, we mentioned Patti LaBelle, obviously, and probably Patti Austin. I don’t think I thought of Darlene Love, or some of the 50s and ’60s r&b vocalists other than those mentioned, or Laura Nyro.

If he were here now I’d ask him to assess the likes of Katy and Rhianna and Miley and especially Taylor, and guess he’d be most supportive of Katy as a vocalist, Miley, maybe, as an artist. I’d love to hear his take on Rihanna.

But there was one female vocalist who stood out among all of them for Nick, and she wasn’t a soul singer as such. In fact, he could hardly talk about Barbra Streisand without losing it.

Nick really adored Barbra, and she knew it. He told me how Val had bought him a ticket to a VIP meet-and-greet with her after a show in Vegas, and how he went–but he pretty much stood bashfully against the wall. Very un-Nick.

“Does she know how you feel about her?” I asked.

“She does,” he said. “But she doesn’t know I’m weak.”

Before he died, Liz got him a Streisand live DVD. I met a Mattel person at Toy Fair and got him a Barbara Streisand Collector Barbie Doll.

Concert Highlights–Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project featuring Valerie Simpson, Jaguar Wright & Charenee Wade at B.B. King’s Bar & Grill, 10-8-2015

It’s no secret that I’d go just about anywhere just to hear Valerie Simpson clear her throat—even if I had to walk. Luckily B.B. King’s is within walking distance, and Val was doing three songs as part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul jazz-meets-R&B show, featuring Jaguar Wright and Charenee Wade in addition to Val.

And I would have written something anyway or at the very least tweeted it up bigtime—which I did—but when I popped into the dressing room before the show to surprise her, she said, “Make sure you write something good—even if you don’t like it!” Like it somehow could have been bad, it being a program put together by Carrington (who was busy working on her laptop and not at all annoyed by my dressing room disruption) in support of her new album, a second Mosaic Project, following the first, 2011’s The Mosaic Project, which won a Grammy for best jazz vocal album.

Carrington, of course, is the jazz drummer-composer-singer extraordinaire. The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul album, she explained at the start of the B.B. show, “upped the ante” from its predecessor in employing 40 women, almost doubling the 21 on the first one. For the gig her band was made up of female players (besides herself and her guest vocalists) on alto sax, trumpet, percussion and keyboards; the guitarist, bassist, and second keyboardist (the prolific keyboardist-composer Raymond Angry) were male.

“Some of the musicians I’ve never met,” she said matter-of-factly, “so we’re really winging it.” Wish I could work so effortlessly with family members: Every number was a highlight in terms of Carrington’s confident jazz band arrangements and the individual virtuosity of the musicians. As for the singers, I’ll single out Wade for her rendition of Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” from her new Offering album tribute to Heron and Brian Jackson (I always respected the lyric “Home is where the needle marks/Try to heal my broken heart/Home is where the hatred is/And it might not be such a bad idea if I never, if I never went home again.”

Coming out for her star turn Wright, an okayplayer artist, turned back to Carrington and then back to the audience. “There’s no greater peace and joy than to be about to sing and I look at this woman, because I know I never have to look in back of me. I can look forward at you.”

Yes, Carrington is that much in control—and dependable.

But I was there to see Val, of course, and even following Carrington’s awesome instrumental portion and the two preceding female vocal stars, Val could not disappoint.

She prefaced the Ashford & Simpson classic “Somebody Told a Lie,” which she sings on Love and Soul, by noting how Carrington “takes a song you’ve written and hands it back to you—and you get to hear it all over again.” Sure enough, Carrington essentially deconstructed the song and reassembled it—with Val’s full support and appreciation. Val then pulled out the stops on “God Bless the Child,” then took over a piano, and this being B.B. King’s, performed the bluesy Ashford & Simpson (with Joshie Jo Armstead) classic composition, “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”

Carrington encored with a Charlie Parker bebop, and for the record, there was an inordinate amount of hugging in the dressing room after the show. No doctor needed.

9-11 ruminations

Every year I feel this awful ambivalence on 9-11. I understand and appreciate the need to feel unified as a country and “NeverForget,” as the Twitter hashtag says. Then again, never forget what? The horror of that morning? Not to worry, it’s indelibly imprinted in the minds of all who were conscious that day—not to mention those of us who live in New York City. But after that it all kind of falls apart.

Never forget how great we are—as so many of today’s #NeverForget tweets demand? How resilient and unbending? How about, How nationalist and vengeful?

But loved this one: “#NeverForget that 1.57 billion people were forced to accept blame for the actions of the few,” this accompanied by a pie chart estimating Al-Qaeda with less than 10,000 members, the Taliban with 36,000 out of all 1.57 billion Muslims.

Or better yet, “#NeverForget God is in the business of disarming violence, not escalating it,” with a link to the Patheos Progressive Christian Newsletter entry “Things to #NeverForget on 9/11” by Episcopalian priest David R. Henson. An excerpt:

“But on this day, as a Christian, there are some other things I want us to never forget about 9/11 and the retaliatory War on Terror that happened in response.

On 9/11, 2,977 innocent Americans were killed by terrorists.

In the 14-year war on terror, 5,280 American soldiers were killed because of our country’s response to the 9/11 attacks.

Conservatively, reports estimate the War on Terror claimed 1.3 million lives in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Our war killed 5 percent of the Iraqi population, people who had zero ties to what actually happened on 9/11.

Our war killed at least 465 people for every person who died on 9/11. Some estimate we killed 670 or more per person.

Our war displaced 3 million Iraqi people.

Our war created 2.5 million Afghan refugees.

I posted a couple songs. Here’s the first–Alan Jackson’s No. 1 country hit, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning):

I always thought this was the best of the 9-11 song lot, far and away. Nothing vengeful or nationalist about it, unlike so many other country artists who would pull a trigger with little regard as to what gets hit. No, Alan’s just a simple man, asking simple yet profound questions:

Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Or go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on I Love Lucy reruns?

To me the chorus was so beautiful:

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell
You the difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.

Elvis Costello took me to task for favoring Alan over Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” which for me was so overwrought and symbolic. But I could understand his reasoning, that Alan, like so many Americans, should be knowledgeable and responsible enough to at least know the difference between Iraq and Iran.

I was at Billboard on 9-11, the music publishing editor then. Besides the predictable dusting off of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic chestnut “God Bless the USA,” the big song of the moment was “God Bless America.” I wrote a column about it, in which I suggested that as we returned to “the semblance of normal,” we also move “beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare.”

Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive “This Land is Your Land” made sense, but Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” made the most–then and now.


Reach out and touch somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place, if you can.

And the greatest is love.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 13

I’ve been thinking about Nick a lot lately, but then again, it’s that time of year.

It was a month or so ago when Darlene Love played B.B. King’s and did her wonderful tribute to Marvin Gaye, whom she’d sung behind back in the day. Two of the songs are classic Ashford & Simpson compositions: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” the latter featuring one of my all-time fave A&S couplets in “There’s no looking back for us/We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough.”

Sure ‘nough, that’s enough.

Shit.

Why can’t I write something so complete?

Full context:

I will go where you lead
Always there in time of need
And when I lose my will
You’ll be there to push me up the hill
There’s no, no looking back for us
We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough
You’re all, you’re all I need to get by

Compounding it all, Dionne Warwick was there. Reminded me how Nick and Val had hosted a party for her at the Sugar Bar years ago, for an album release. I don’t remember the year, but I remember the day, December 8. I brought my friend Beefy—the legendary Troy Charmell of Dr. Bop & the Headliners, who always loves going to the Sugar Bar, and then we made our annual Dec. 8 walk over to nearby Strawberry Fields to observe with joy and song the death day of John Lennon, who gave us the Nick-like “All You Need is Love.”

And now I’m in the air nearing L.A. and get an invite to the Sugar Bar to attend a showcase Aug. 22 for Lili K, described by her publicist—who knows how I love the Sugar Bar—as “Chicago’s jazz infused ‘throwback soul’ songstress.”

August 22. A date like December 8, the day Nick died, in 2011. Ironically, on that day four years ago I was flying back from L.A., and upon landing, headed directly from Kennedy to Nick and Val’s house, in shorts and t-shirt carrying my bags. Such a sad occasion, yet even then, somehow full of the joy and song and life that was Nick then and now.

And on this Aug. 22—Saturday night—it’s the annual Bessman Bash—a wonderful backyard party thrown by my pal Bob Merlis at his house in Larchmont. There will be plenty of great people and music and fun, as it always was at the Sugar Bar, whenever Nick was there. Or anywhere that Nick was.

Nick will be there, of course. As he always is.

Here he is, in one of his last performances, singing, with Val, “You’re All I Need to Get By”:

Talking to Myself Out Loud: Identifying with Rachel Dolezal

There’s a great Godfrey Cambridge line in the 1970 Ossie Davis-directed action comedy classic Cotton Comes to Harlem, “Is that black enough for you?,” which likely spawned Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough for You” 1973 follow-up to his signature “Me and Mrs. Jones”–itself sampled by Schooly D in the 1989 rap song of the same name.

Turns out that Dolezal really wasn’t black enough, not with her disingenuous defense of her trying to pass, not without success, for African-American, which didn’t bother me so much as her over-the-top defensive birther stance that there was no biological proof of her relationship to her parents.

Then again, I’m just as guilty, if not for trying to pass myself off as black–though I often do say, when the conversation turns to race, that I’m “light-skinned”–than for co-opting black culture, as has been done by now by virtually everyone in the world.

Somewhere long ago I read or heard how white boys wished they were black, or at least certain white boys, of which I most certainly was one, once I started listening to the blues back in Madcity Wisconsin. Early Bob Dylan brought me to the Madison Public Library, Bob Dylan, who himself embraced black music and culture so tightly that he recorded with Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams and by himself under the blues guise of Blind Boy Grunt. And when I started listening to the blues, besides all the country and folk blues records and Chicago blues records I checked out of the library, it was the Siegel-Schwall band, then made up of three white blues players and one black, that became my biggest and lasting influence.

I make reference here to the Born in Chicago documentary featuring Corky Siegel, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel and Nick Gravenities–all of whom learned the blues at the feet and amps of Chicago blues pioneers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, just as the Rolling Stones, Animals and Yardbirds were covering the same records in England.

So I can easily understand Rachel Dolezal, not to mention Caitlyn Jenner and anyone else who wishes they were born someone else or somewhere else. And as for listening to the blues and wishing I were black, well, it didn’t stop there. I went on to listen to and love country music, Cajun music, Russian, Indian, Arabic, going so far, at least in relation to country music, to affect what must be about the most blatantly phony Southern accent any guy that could never shake his Midwestern accent ever attempted, almost to the point of self-caricature.

As for being black, I always remember how I’ve enjoyed being among the few whites, er, light-skinned blacks at all black gatherings, like the first time I was in Jamaica and went to Trench Town, the Kingston neighborhood where the likes of Bob Marley gave birth to reggae, that was so dangerous and off-limits to whites that a number of residents had to be bribed to let me in. Or the first time I saw Ashford & Simpson at Radio City in 1983: It was a sold-out show, and I didn’t count more than half a dozen or so of us light-skinneds. Many years later Nick & Val’s assistant Miss Tee scolded me for not having black-eyed peas on hand for New Year’s–a Southern tradition.

“You’ve been hanging around black people so long, and you don’t have no black-eyed peas?” she asked, incredulously–then hand-delivered a big potful. It was up there with being called the “N-word” by one of the great white blues harmonica players, spoken–and taken–with great affection and respect. A fellow Rider in the Storm, he, too, had managed to leave the House in which he was born to become someone else he wanted to be.

I love how one of my dearest Facebook friends commented how race is “a social construct erected to oppress certain groups of people.”

“That is the only way in which it is a real thing–because truly at a basic atomic level there are no racial differences,” she explained. “But the social construct has made race real and has made the concept very powerful. It has been a scourge that persists too often today. Tragic and stupid….”