In memoriam, 2014

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

The sad dates of the year began early, January 3, with the passing of Phil Everly. I met Phil once, briefly, at a Nashville Songwriters Association Awards banquet in Nashville. But I was lucky enough to see the Everly Brothers live twice. Whatever their personal relationship, on stage they remained perfection.

A week or so later Amiri Baraka, too, was gone. I had his classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America, published under his former name LeRoi Jones. But aside from his influence, it should also be noted that he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and was in fact a 9-11 truther. At the other end of the humanitarian spectrum was Pete Seeger, whom I knew a bit, as did probably a million others. I had his phone number, which I used on occasion. A few weeks after he died, Leo Kottke told a wonderful and representative story of how Pete had drawn a map to his house for him, he was that accessible.

Frank Military was another great guy, a music publisher and song-finder for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I sat with him and Tony when the New York chapter of the Recording Academy presented him with a “Heroes Award.” Tony was on my right, Ahmet Ertegun, who was presenting the same award to Tom Silverman, on my left. Always drawing, Tony drew a portrait of Ahmet, handed it to me to pass to him. Ahmet was thrilled.

I didn’t know Christian music A&R luminary Norman Holland, but everyone in that end of the business loved him. Much loved, too, were rock photog Leee Black Childers and singer-songriter Jesse Winchester.

And I didn’t know Loudilla Johnson well, but a lot of old-line country stars like Loretta Lynn did, since Loudilla and her sisters Loretta and Kay, set up her fan club operation, and then IFCO, the International Fan Club Organization.

Jerry Vale, of course, was a quite well known 1950s pop vocalist, while Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo,” was a rare black country singer and actor, who also sang jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington. Calypso singer Maya Angelou I did know, but as Dr. Maya Angelou—thanks to Ashford & Simpson, with whom she recorded, performed, and emceed the poolside entertainment at their fabled July 4th “white parties.”

I used to say hi to my favorite pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was part of the house band. I never met Gerry Goffin, but I did meet his ex-wife/writing partner Carole King. And Cajun country/Opry star Jimmy C. Newman was a dear friend, for whom I wrote CD liner notes.

Bobby Womack and Tommy Ramone were both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the latter was a friend, in fact, of all the Ramones, he was probably the nicest and most respectful of me—having been a friend of the band since the beginning of my writing career and author of the first book on the band. I stayed in touch with Tommy throughout his later career as a bluegrass musician, and can’t get over the fact that all four of the originals have now passed on.

I met Elaine Stritch once. When I told her I was a writer, she immediately demanded that I write something about her, which I did the day she died. Shortly after seeing Johnny Winter’s last birthday performance at B.B. King’s, I wrote about him, too, with help from my friend Jon Paris, who played bass with him for many years.

I knew the beloved country music agent Don Light, but not the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who died the same day as New Orleans studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Opry star George Hamilton IV I knew very well as one of the nicest guys, like Jimmy C., that you could ever hope to meet.

I met the Indian mandolin maestro U. Srinivas, but not Howard Stern Wack Packer Eric the Actor—though I was an equal fan of both. I never met Paul Revere, but know Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay and put them all into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon. And I never met Jan Hooks, but was a huge fan of hers since she was the breakout star of Atlanta Superstation WTBS’s Tush—the great Bill Tush being a dear friend.

Studio musician, projects coordinator and freelance A&R Ann Ruckert, too, was a dear friend, not just to me but to probably everyone in the entire New York music scene, and for decades. I didn’t know the great Morells/Skeletons bassist/vocalist/songwriter Lou Whitney well, but always loved talking to the “the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll in the Midwest,” who was also very much loved by fellow musicians. I think I met Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser, and definitely met Cream’s Jack Bruce—both extremely important in their respective pop-jazz vocal and rock genres.

I was a huge fan of Mr. Acker Bilk, England’s esteemed “trad jazz” clarinetist, whose 1962 pre-Beatles instrumental “Stranger On the Shore” was the first British recording to top the charts in the rock era. I liked Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame better than his younger brother David Ruffin of The Temptations. I was inspired to write about Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was 12, when it made me reconsider my youth and own mortality.

I wrote about Claire Barry, who with younger sister Merna were the Yiddish pop singing duo the Barry Sisters, because I knew they influenced Neil Sedaka, who gave me a quote. Likewise, I knew Stanley Rashid of Brooklyn-based Arabic music/video supplier Rashid Sales could say a few words on “incomparable” Lebanese singer of Arab pop, classical and folk music Sabah.

Most everyone knew rock greats Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—both of whom I met—who died within a day of each other in December. Most everyone should have known about Dawn Sears, Vince Gill’s wonderful backup signer, who also sang in Nashville swing band the Time Jumpers.

I loved “Wind Beneath My Wings” co-writer Larry Henley, but more so for his “Bread and Butter” falsetto screech as lead singer of ‘60s vocal group The Newbeats. And we all loved Joe Cocker, who died on Dec. 22. I’m glad I got to interview him and meet him.

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.