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.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 2

If we’re lucky, there are people in our lives who influence us in a big way, in a good way, in the best kind of way.

Maybe it’s a parent, older sibling, another family member or family friend. A teacher, social worker, therapist, member of the clergy.

I had Mrs. Schmidt, a junior high school guidance counselor, who meant a lot to me. Some social workers, psychiatric nurses, nurses’ aides and hospital orderlies afterwards. An occupational therapist. A physical therapist.

I remember a teacher or two, certainly Miss Nottested–and I know I’m misspelling her name–for teaching me how to type (not spell) in high school and taking an interest, too, in what I typed, which was mostly high school alienation ramblings.

But for me it was mostly musicians.

The Beatles first, foremost and forever. Dylan, of course, though his influence post-high school and Blonde On Blonde has long since faded. Corky Siegel and The Siegel-Schwall Band. Laura Nyro, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Johansen, Tony Bennett. Most of them I got to know and was further inspired personally.

John Mellencamp, too. He agreed with me that people respond to the music, at least first, not the words. For me it’s melody, rhythm, voice, instruments and then the words—and usually I can’t make them out anyway, and if I can I don’t have the attention span to stay with them so I have to have them in the CD booklet in front of me to make any kind of sense out of.

So I don’t care so much about the words–except for a few songwriters. I actually have a book of Hal David lyrics, which really are poems without Burt Bacharach’s music, glorious as it is. Likewise, there’s way more to the words of Kris Kristofferson than “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford.

It’s hard to top The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or even better, “All You Need Is Love.” But Nick equaled them at the very least on “Reach Out and Touch.”

“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was Diana Ross’s debut solo single after leaving The Supremes. It was released in April 1970, and only made it to No. 20 on the pop charts (No. 7, R&B). But it was a centerpiece of her concerts, where people used to reach out and touch the hands of those near them.

Like so many Ashford & Simpson Motown era songs—“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love”—it has achieved immortality.

The much-covered call for caring and kindness made for an unforgettable moment at the 1985 Live Aid show in Philadelphia, when Ashford & Simpson—the only r&b act in the line-up–brought out Teddy Pendergrass for his first public appearance since his near-fatal car accident in 1982. Paralyzed, Pendergrass pointedly directed the stadium crowd to focus on the song’s inspirational words and message.

In 2005, Ross closed Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope with it, and it was her finale, too, at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Concert held in Oslo, Norway.

It was also the climax of Ashford & Simpson shows. Nick had this great bit where he’d announce that he was “departing from the program” and then ask bandleader Ray Chew to slow down the tempo in leading into it. Then he’d feign irritation at Ray for not slowing it down enough.

After many years of seeing the show many times each year, I finally went up to Ray after a show and said, “Ray. I’ve seen this show a lot of times, and I can never understand why you can never get the ‘Reach Out And Touch’ tempo right!” I’ll never forget the anguished look on his face and how he started to stammer that it was all a shtick until I busted up laughing.

Reach out and touch

Somebody’s hand

Make this world a better place

If you can

Me and Liz Rosenberg used to go to see them all the time. In fact, I became friends with Liz after it was suggested I contact her, by another record company publicist at the time, after I’d called him in 1983 after seeing Asford & Simpson the first time, at Radio City, and couldn’t stop talking about them. They were at Capitol Records, then, with the High-Rise album out. Liz had worked with them when they were at Warner Bros., long before she became synonymous with Madonna. We used to see them together all the time from that point on.

One time at Westbury, I had an aisle seat and Liz was next to me. Or maybe I was one in from the aisle and she was two in. Or maybe I was two in and she was three…. Anyway, Westbury Theater, or whatever corporate name it has now, is an in-the-round theater. So when they got to “Reach Out And Touch,” Nick went up one aisle and Val went up another, shaking or slapping hands with aisle-seaters as they sang. Nick was coming up our aisle, and when he got within two rows, Liz could no longer contain herself.

“Nick!” she shrieked, then got up and vaulted over me and anyone else who might have been between me and Nick as he reached out his free hand to touch hers. Of course, she landed, not too gracefully but appropriately, at his feet.

Take a little time out of your busy day

To give encouragement

To someone who’s lost the way

Nick would also preface “Reach Out And Touch” in concert with the story of how he had fallen asleep one night while Val was watching the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but woke up when she suddenly started screaming: “Reach Out and Touch” was being used as an Olympics theme! Before an estimated TV audience of 2.5 billion people! He wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming….

Or would I be talking to a stone

If I asked you

To share a problem that’s not your own

We really blew it, we Americans, in taking the easy, nationalist music route after 9-11. We essentially permitted Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to lead us into two wars, not to mention forever pervert Major League Baseball by supplanting “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” for the Seventh Inning Stretch theme.

As I wrote in Billboard, two weeks later (September 24, 2011): “But as we return to the semblance of normal, I suggest moving beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare. How about Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive ‘This Land is Your Land,’ or better yet, Ashford & Simpson’s ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’? As the next line of the compassionate latter title implores, Make this world a better place, if you can.”

If you see an old friend on the street

And he’s down

Remember his shoes could fit your feet

Try a little kindness you’ll see

It’s something that comes very naturally

We can change things if we start giving

Ashford & Simpson songs covered other topics and themes, of course, but they all come back, essentially, to giving, something that for Nick came so very naturally. In person, and in song.

I went even further in my appreciation of Nick, written for examiner.com, the day after he died: “Then again, ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ goes beyond anything Ashford & Simpson–or any other writer–has accomplished. In simply instructing everyone to ‘reach out and touch somebody’s hand’ and ‘make this world a better place if you can,’ Ashford essentially set to music what he in fact practiced throughout his entire life.”

Such a simple lyric. The best kind of influence.

Reach out and touch

Somebody’s hand

Make this world a better place

If you can.

For me it was musicians.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 1

I’m flying back to New York from L.A. this morning as I write this on November 20, 2011, thinking back some three months to the last time I flew back from L.A., Monday afternoon, August 22, 2011—a date which will live in infamy in my life and others, no doubt, very many others.

Infamy, says Merriam-Webster: evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal, shocking, or brutal. Fitting for Pearl Harbor, as FDR so historically proclaimed.

Evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal. And while I knew it was coming, it was still so grossly shocking, brutal beyond words and comprehension, to this day and for all days.

The death of Nick Ashford.

I knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when. But no one really did, at least not until Monday morning, when Liz Rosenberg called. She had only found out he’d been seriously sick a week or so earlier. I’d known pretty much from the beginning, but didn’t know exactly what it was—or that it was going to end like this.

So I kept it quiet. I asked Val about him regularly, and thought whatever it was, he’d get better and it would be okay. I had no reason to think anything worse.

It couldn’t have been much more than three months that I’d spent time with him last, hanging at the Sugar Bar on a Thursday night Open Mic. He was fine then, at his center table upstairs in the Cat Lounge, watching the performances on the wall monitor, graciously receiving friends and fans, posing for pictures with anyone and everyone who asked.

There’s always a rose, now, in a vase on the table. Sometimes a glass of champagne.

The last time I saw him was at Aunt Bea’s funeral, Valerie’s aunt who died a couple months before him. Aunt Bea always made the greatest cakes that us lucky ones got to taste after everyone else left at the day-long “white parties” Nick and Val hosted on the Saturday nearest July 4, when they had their place in Connecticut. Everyone wore white, everyone ate and drank and lounged around the pool and enjoyed the wondrous A&S vibe–and a few of us had our Aunt Bea’s cake and ate it, too.

Nick came late to Aunt Bea’s funeral and left early and I didn’t get to speak with him but he looked great. He always looked great.

So I thought he was okay, and hadn’t kept up the way I should have, overwhelmed by my own problems. When Liz called frantically I called Val immediately for an update, and while she didn’t say it was good, she also didn’t let on that it was almost over. But I don’t think she knew that, either. I’m sure she didn’t.

Really, we were all in denial. We all still are.

I called Miss Tee Sunday afternoon from the beach. Altamese Alston. Miss Tee. Ashford & Simpson’s longtime assistant. If I said she was the most extraordinary woman I’ve ever been around, I’d still be understating it.

I’d always call Tee from the beach in LA, just to check in—and give her the opportunity to joke about how well I must be doing, being that I’m calling her from the beach in L.A. She sounded glad to hear from me but didn’t say much, gave no indication of what was really going on—as I knew she wouldn’t. Val once said of Tee: “If you tell something to Tee that you don’t want me to know, don’t worry—I don’t know it.”

But I pretty much knew it anyway. I was staying with Bob Merlis, Liz’s longtime West Coast cohort at Warner Bros. Records publicity, and working out of his office. He was about to take me to the airport for the 1:30 p.m. flight back to New York when the call came in.

She hadn’t heard any word from Val or Tee in days, she said, and couldn’t take it anymore. She finally called the house.

Tee answered and said things weren’t good, that the paramedics were there.

I got an email from Liz an hour or so later on my Blackberry at LAX.

“You’ll be up in the sky… so perhaps you’re in a better position to talk to the man/woman above–should one be up there,” she wrote. “So say a lot of prayers and for now, we are not allowed to indulge in freaking out as we have to keep it together for them. But we will freak out to each other of course. Just when things couldn’t get better……”

Now one of my closest friends, Liz was Nick and Val’s publicist when they first came to Warner Bros. (long before Madonna) and remained close with them ever after. I became close to Liz within a year after moving to New York in 1982 and seeing Ashford & Simpson for the first time.

I saw them at Radio City and it remains one of the maybe five most memorable shows I’ve ever seen. It was their High-Rise tour, “High-Rise” being the name of their 1983 album—their second for Capitol after leaving Warner Bros.—and its hit titletrack single.

I was working at Cash Box magazine, a long gone record business trade. The man who hired me got four tickets; besides us, there might have been that many other white people in the full house.

I’ve never forgotten it and obviously never will: The stage had an Empire State-looking edifice in the middle, and when Ashford & Simpson’s crack backup band struck up the single, a hidden ramp unfolded and lowered from the center of it, revealing the beaming A&S standing there in all their glory.

Now reduced to the words of a novice concert reviewer, “the crowd went nuts” as Nick & Val descended the steps and progressed into a show I would eventually see with Liz so many times that in her booklet essay accompanying the 2008 two-CD Ashford & Simpson set The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities, Val said that Liz and I might as well just do their show for them, since we both knew it better than they did.

Waiting to board, I responded to another email from Liz that said “No news” in the subject, the message saying: “From A&S world. Safe travels. Love.” I keyed the Blackberry: “Thank you. I’m freaking the fuck out. Boarding in half hour. Love you so very much.”

I got on the plane and ordered the inflight Internet service. I had maybe four hours of battery on a full charge.

I did some work in those four hours, and kept checking emails with mounting dread. I was still a couple hours out of Kennedy when the laptop ran out of juice.

I looked out the window into the darkness–except for the flashing light on the wing tip. Should there have been a man/woman above, I’d likely be the last one he/she would want to hear from at this or any time—atheist sinner that I am. Rather I kept hoping to see the William Shatner gremlin form the classic Twilight Zone episode making faces at me and driving me into sheer madness or utter horror. Anything would have been preferable to the helplessness/hopelessness I was feeling now.

When the wheels touched down I powered up the Blackberry and held my breath as the afternoon’s emails steadily added up. The one I hoped against all hope not to see had been sent at 7:45.

Liz’s subject was “Our Nick has left us.”

The message was “E or call when you land. I’m at house.”

It was after 11 when I walked into Nick and Val’s East Side townhouse. I had on cargo shorts and short-sleeved cargo shirt, an Obama-Biden inaugural ballcap, and my luggage.

There were at least 30 people there. I hugged Liz, then Val.

“I lost my honey today,” said Val.