CF43

My dear friend Ann Ruckert died Saturday night. I posted an appreciation yesterday at examiner.com, but I left out anything personal.

If you want to know about Ann, here’s the link. Otherwise, May Pang summed things up nicely: “For all who knew her, she was a fixture in our music community and had a very big heart.”

I sent the link to the friend that I mentioned early in this series, whom I ran into, to my great surprise and chagrin, at that first day at the cancer radiation clinic. Still not naming name, he’s another fixture in our music community, thereby another dear friend of Ann’s.

He recalled being included in “that rarified air” of Ann’s famous Sunday “salon” brunches at her West Side apartment, where he got to meet one of his idols, Ann’s close friend and songwriting legend Gene McDaniels (he wrote “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” a big hit for Ann’s friend Roberta Flack) in the dining room.

“I wanted to tell him how much his recordings and songs meant to me but that can be daunting sometimes so it might have been left unsaid,” my friend said. “The only lesson I can take away from this moment is this: Don’t wait. I can’t say I remember if I told Ann how much I admired her passion and strength. A few of my friends have died recently and I don’t know if they knew how much they meant to me.”

Well, my friend, that goes double, triple, quadruple for me. Ann was as much a friend to me as she was to everyone, yet I let my own health and other problems overwhelm me to the point where I fell out of touch and didn’t realize how ill she was, hence never got to tell her how much I, too, admired her passion and strength–and how much she meant to me.”

It’s a lesson I should have learned with Nick Ashford, Steve Popovich, Al Goldstein. Apologies to you all, wherever you are.

At least I know it had to be tacitly understood.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 12

Well, Nick, it’s been three years today. Even if it only seems like three days.

Of course, we all think about you every day so it’s not like you’ve been gone. And talk about you: I bring you up all the time, in any kind of conversation, and learn again how many people were affected by you that even I didn’t know about.

I want to say today that you would be so happy—and not at all surprised—how well your family is doing.

Val continues to preserve the Sugar Bar–which she didn’t want but grew to love as much as you. And she continues your career through hers.

Nicole remains the most wonderful, sweetest young lady, always a joy to be near, like you.

And Asia, you’d be so proud to see what your baby girl has become. Self-assured on stage and off, spontaneous as ever and fearless, like you, in being her own person and speaking her mind. Always comes up to a group and says, “How are you, beautiful people?”–sometimes even making us feel beautiful!

And as for the rest of us? Well, I won’t say that you’re not sorely missed—even after being gone just three days. But it still rings so true, what George Faison, who eulogized you so beautifully, told me a few months later as he jumped into a car after another great night at the Sugar Bar: “Who could believe that Nick Ashford could be gone?”

The answer, we all know, is no one. Then again, you aren’t gone. Not from our hearts.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 11

I was pressed into service this afternoon at Nick’s Bench, a.k.a., The Bryant Park Bench That Says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Apparently, it was my turn to protect it from vandals.

I was meeting with Sandrine Lee, a wonderful commercial/art photographer, a.k.a., Will Lee’s wife. She knew the bench well.

The first attack came without warning: Suddenly I saw whitish liquid splatter on my khaki cargo shorts, a fraction of a second after I felt a massive wad drop on my forearm. Stunned, Sandrine reached for a handkerchief to help me wipe off the bird shit.

Nick was such a spiritual being. I’m the exact opposite, so I gave no thought that maybe he was upset at me for that joke I played on him years ago, when CBS Sunday Morning was shooting a segment of a great Ashford & Simpson feature at the bench. When Nick and Val and the camera crew arrived, they found it was occupied by a homeless man, fast asleep as Nick had once been there when he first came to New York, homeless and alone. Upon closer inspection, that bum on the bench turned out to be…me.

But had I been spiritual, I might have had second thoughts half an hour or so later, when I felt a second massive wad land hard a couple inches left of my right earlobe on what little hair I have left. This one, Sandrine said as she dabbed me with her handkerchief, was a different color.

They had it in for me, the birds. I know. The bench was clean. Sandrine was clean.

The only explanation I can come up with is that they regard me as unworthy, either of sitting on Nick’s Bench next to Sandrine, or sitting on Nick’s Bench, period—or both. Sandrine, I can’t argue. But Nick? Nick found everyone worthy of sitting at his table in the Cat Lounge at the Sugar Bar, and surely wouldn’t bar me or anyone else from sitting on his bench in Bryant Park.

So I’ll be back on the bench tomorrow morning, birds. But with a box of Kleenex and a hat.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 10

Val’s sax player Todd Schefflin invited me to a JT Project gig tonight in Harlem, and maybe I’d have gone except that I’m heading out to Westbury this afternoon to see Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman—The Turtles–and their annual Happy Together Tour.

I was in Bryant Park when I got Todd’s Facebook invite, directly across the park from Nick’s bench, in the shade and plugged into a power outlet. I wrote back to Todd that I’ve known Mark and Howie as long as I’ve known Nick and Val.

It made me stop for a second to take in the fact that I always refer to Nick in the present tense—that I always relate to him as if he’s still here.

I guess that means he is.

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.

Tales of Bessman: Ronnie Milsap at the Dane County Coliseum

I choked up when I saw the news that my old pal Ronnie Milsap will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I thought of the first time I met him, in the late 1970s at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin. I had just started writing around then, for The MadCity Music Sheet, mostly about country music and punk rock.

The show at the Coliseum was incredible. I held my breath with everyone else as Ronnie did this blind man shtick where he got up from his piano bench and walked out to the edge of the stage, stopping just before walking off and falling into the audience.

He did another bit where he introduced the band except for his drummer, who was black. When everyone complained—the drummer included—Ronnie apologized and said that it was so dark back there that he couldn’t see him.

I hung out with Ronnie after the show and roared with laughter as he related how he went out driving with some friends, getting behind the wheel and doing what they told him to do. He had a blast telling it.

He did a country version of “Honky Tonk Women” that night. The next time I went to Nashville—it must have been for Fan Fair—I  brought along my copy of Let It Bleed, which featured the Stones’ countrified version of the song, retitled “Country Honk.” Ronnie wasn’t aware of it, as I discovered when I presented it to him personally. But he vividly remembered meeting me at the Coliseum—and has never forgotten it all this time later.

I think this was my second trip to Nashville, after going there on a vacation from my typing job at the State of Wisconsin. It’s too long a story for now, and I may have written it up elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that I met my Cajun country music hero Jo-El Sonnier–though it was “Joel” at that time—and when I returned to Nashville this time, I had left the State job to focus on writing.

I took the Greyhound and Jo-El and his then manager Earl Poole Ball—back then he didn’t use the “Poole”—picked me up at the station. I’d also met Earl at the Dane County Coliseum, when I saw him playing piano in Johnny Cash’s band and recognized his name from Jo-El’s publicity stills.

I slept on the floor of Earl’s 16th Avenue South Wall-to-Wall Music Publishing office. Jo-El had the fold-out couch. It was one of the grubbiest periods of my life, though not that much removed from today.

Leaving out the sleaziest parts—like me living for three days off free popcorn at a Fan Fair booth—one of the coolest was listening to Earl and Jo-El talk about music, Ronnie’s in particular.

I loved the records as a listener and fan, but Earl and Jo-El marveled at their production value, Jo-El constantly referring to it as “on top.” I didn’t know then, and don’t know now, exactly what he meant, other than that it had to be as good as it gets, and definitely the best then coming out of Nashville.

“His sense of hearing must have been so sharp that he could make such sonically super-sounding recordings,” Earl recalled yesterday. “Also, I think maybe he owned his own studio and could take his time in the mixing.”

Many years later, after I’d moved to New York, I learned that Ronnie’s initial success as a recording artist came in New York at Scepter Records, the ’60s home of The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson and B.J. Thomas, among others. The young Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were staff writers there, and their composition “Never Had It So Good” made it to No. 19 in 1965 on the R&B chart for Ronnie, and was his biggest hit for the label.

But a Ronnie B-side, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (co-written by Nick and Val with former Ikette “Joshie” Jo Armstead), became their ticket to Motown when Ray Charles heard it, covered it, and sold a million copies of his version. When Ronnie played a rare club gig in New York in the ’90s at the Bottom Line, Nick and Val sent him a bouquet with the message, “We never had it so good!”

Incidentally, Val, and maybe Nick, likely sang backup on Ronnie’s Scepter recordings. And when I spoke with Ronnie a few weeks ago about his new album Summer Number Seventeen, the first thing he said was how he remembered meeting me at the Dane County Coliseum.

Here’s Ronnie’s version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned”:
 

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 9

We move so fast through life, whether or not we’re particularly active.

And it never gets easier.

It’s Tuesday already and only now am I looking at notes and reliving Friday night’s Valerie Simpson show at B.B. King’s and after-party at the Sugar Bar.

Of course I went with Liz Rosenberg.

Like Val always says—and wrote it in a dedication on the Ashford & Simpson double CD of hits and remixes that came out a few years ago, Liz and I should just have gone ahead and done the A&S shows for them, since we’d seen it so many times we knew it better than they did.

Before meeting Liz outside B.B.’s, I spent an hour by the Nick Ashford Bench at Bryant Park. I felt it was only fitting. The bench that says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.”

Someone else was on the bench when I got there, and I was fine with that–though I wondered if he knew it was a sacred site. I probably should have told him. After he left I sat on it for a few moments and then hobbled over to B.B.’s.

Five days earlier I damn near busted my fucking big left toe stumbling on the stairs up to my apartment. It turned purple and looked like the time maybe 10 years ago when I busted my big right toe in a martial arts mishap. There’s nothing they can really do with a broken toe, I learned then, other than tape it to the toe next to it and tell you not to walk and give you a stiff-bottomed shoe since you have to.

Luckily, the left toe wasn’t broke, but the right one that was now has arthritis and I expect the same eventually with the left one.

Anyway, I limped over to B.B.’s. We stood in line while a somewhat arrogant guy who had no idea how important we were, shit, that we knew Val’s show better than she did, made us wait in line. But really, he was only doing his job. I was actually glad we had to wait because it meant that the place was packed.

When we got downstairs Tee was there. Tee Alson. Miss Tee. Nick and Val’s assistant forever.

I could say she’s the most extraordinary human being on the planet but that still  wouldn’t do her justice.

She’s always pissed off at me for one thing or another. This time it was because I hadn’t called her back. Of course I didn’t know I was supposed to. Of course that’s no excuse.

I hope she doesn’t read this. But I really should write a book about Tee. I’d tell you Tee stories right now but she’d be pissed off at me if I did, even though they’re all great. She really is the most extraordinary human being on the planet and that still doesn’t do her justice.

Being with Liz and part of the A&S family, as it were, has always been the pinnacle of my career. Of my life. And so much of it is thanks to Tee.

And it’s not just me. Everyone who’s ever been in the A&S orbit I know feels exactly the same way and would say exactly the same things.

And I hope I don’t come off sounding conceited or suggesting that I’m worthy. Nick and Val and Tee never said no to anybody or anything, obviously. That’s why B.B.’s was packed with friends, family and fans, all virtually indistinguishable and interchangeable.

As I write this I’m also writing a partial review of the show for examiner.com, partial because the focus is really “Dinosaurs are Coming Back Again,” and how transcendent Val’s performance of it was this particular night. All I’ll add about the show here is that it really certified that she has become a solo performer without peer, as she had been a duet partner without peer together with the peerless Nick Ashford. And that for the encore, “I’m Every Woman,” she called up all the singers in the audience to join, among them, Alyson Williams, Joshie Jo Armstead, Felicia Collins, Ebony Jo-Ann, and of course, Asia Ashford, now so poised and adorable—exactly as she was the first time I saw her on stage, the first time she ever was on stage, at the end of an A&S Radio City Music Hall show when without Nick & Val’s planning, the then maybe two-year-old Asia was passed up to the stage, where she stood, dumbstruck, then smiled and started dancing.

Oh. I should also mention that Val gave a speech about how she relied on all her friends to pull her through the period following Nick’s death, when in fact, it was Val who pulled all of us through.

At the Sugar Bar after, she gave another speech, after a terrific set by the JT Project—the band that recently started a third open mic night at SB, this a jazz one, on Wednesday nights, featuring the house band co-fronted by Val’s young, fabulous sax player Todd Schefflin, who co-starred with her at B.B.’s on “Dinosaurs.”

She said how Nick had created the Sugar Bar essentially to provide a home for all of us, a place where we could go, not only to enjoy the music that was so much a part of our lives, but a place where we could all come and hang and just be ourselves, no matter the people we had to be in our jobs and families and restricted lives outside the Sugar Bar’s welcoming and safe environs.

Liz and I were busy being ourselves in the Sugar Bar’s back Garden Room. Tee was there. So was Ken Simmons, an old friend who currently books talent at WBLS.

Ken knew about Nick’s Bench, from all my Twitter postings and recent creation of the Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page. He plans on going, so I told him to make sure he takes a selfie and posts it on the page.

He asked where it was, and I said by the Carousel.

Liz wanted me to give him more than that, i.e., what street it’s near.

The first time I went to Nick’s Bench, I didn’t know where it was. I started with the bench closest to 6th Ave., on the 42nd St. side, then worked my way around the lawn clockwise until I found it by the Carousel. It couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, and it was kind of like going to Mecca, I would guess.

There was a waitress at B.B. King’s, incidentally, named Mecca. She worked the table of Carmela Kasoff–Liz’s Warner Bros. Records’ pal back in the Ashford & Simpson WarnRecs days—and was very nice, but too young by at least three decades to know the Gene Pitney classic “Mecca.”

I asked Richard Thompson once about Mecca. He’d already made the pilgrimage. I asked him what it was like, walking around the Kaaba and beholding it. “It’s really yourself,” he said, quietly.

The journey to Nick’s Bench isn’t as long and far away as Mecca, yet I didn’t want to make it so easy to find without at least a minimal effort. And I like to think that besides the spirit of Nick that symbolically resides there, you get to see a little more of yourself in relation to it by visiting it.

It’s definitely a shrine, a people’s shrine, a place to pause and catch a breath and moment of rest from moving so fast through life.

And as Nick and Val’s daughter Nicole leisurely descended the steps leading from the Garden Room upstairs to the Cat Lounge, I thought of something Nick once told me, as we were sitting on the steps between the building’s second and third floors.

“You know,” the Great Sage said, “I thought it would get easier when I got older.”

Then he smiled and said, “But it didn’t.”

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 8

One of my favorite Nick stories—and I’ve mentioned it here before—is how he was homeless when he first came to New York, and slept on a park bench in Bryant Park. Many years later, Val bought a Bryant Park bench and had a brass plaque reading “Nick Ashford Slept Here” affixed to a corner.

A few years back, when CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Nick and Val, they taped a segment at the bench. They filmed Nick as he walked to the bench, but when they got there—and I’m quoting myself, now–“a rather filthy homeless person was sleeping on it”—much, perhaps, as Nick himself had done. That homeless person, upon closer inspection after he “woke up,” was none other than Yours Truly–much to Nick’s surprise and delight.

Exactly a year ago Bob Merlis and I went to the bench and took pictures of each other napping on Nick’s bench, then posted them. We thought it was the coolest thing, and it was. But it took me almost exactly a year to come up with the idea of a Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page, where everyone can go and post their own pictures of themselves and the bench. My hope, of course, is that it will become a tourist attraction, on par with, say, the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty—which is only as it should be: Nick Ashford wasn’t as big physically, maybe, but he was definitely statuesque and no less monumental.

And no one, no thing, was more New York.

Anyway, I only yesterday thought of creating the Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page, and quickly got way ahead of myself. First of all, this website has been under reconstruction for a couple weeks, and  today, out of necessity, I finally figured out how to add another post. Second, I haven’t even figured out how to change my profile pic on my own FB page, let alone put up a background, and when I clicked on the “Create Page” link, just to see where it would take me, I ended up creating the page without actually wanting to—I mean, I wanted to, but not so fast!

I quickly called Val to make sure she was okay with it. My guess is she was either too amused or confused to say no. Then I couldn’t for the life of me find the pics of me and Bob on the bench, so I rushed out first thing this morning and took a selfie—and I hope I never use that God-forsaken word again—of me on the bench, and a background shot of the bench, and managed to get them both up okay. Then Bob found the originals and posted them, but for some reason they wouldn’t show up unless you clicked on the post—until I accidentally figured you could make them visible by clicking on the “Highlights” button and changing it to “Posts by Others.”

In other words, I have absolutely no fucking idea what I’m doing! As if you didn’t know….

Anyway, the hope remains that people will use the page to post their own photos, reflections, thoughts on the most wonderful Nickolas Ashford–and by extension, the most beautiful Valerie Simpson—and all that the magical Ashford & Simpson represent.

And thanks, Val, for the bench. I go there often.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 7

Yes, she lived with a very deep man.

Just two nights before the show, at a prominent music publisher’s Christmas party, a prominent music publishing friend took me aside and marveled about Valerie Simpson. “I don’t know how does she do it?” she said. “Neither do I,” I replied.

It was the day after the ASCAP Foundation Awards, where for the third year in a row, Val presented the “Reach Out and Touch” Award in honor of Nick Ashford, which she established in his memory to advance the careers of promising songwriters by providing financial assistance for professional recordings of their work.

And now, Saturday night, in the small LeFrak Concert Hall at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts in Queens College, she was performing for not even a half-full house, thanks to the first big snowstorm of the year.

Shit. It took me two and a half hours to get there from Chinatown. I took the Q uptown as far as it went, to 57th Street. Then waited for the N and took that to Lex and 59th when I realized I needed the R, then waited forever for the R and took that as far as it went, to 71st and Continental Ave. in Forest Hills. It really was like a can of sardines.

Then I waited in the snow with a million others for the Q64 bus and was lucky to get on the first one that came. There was little visibility, and I didn’t know where I was anyway, so I asked the bus driver how many stops to Kissena Boulevard and Jewel Avenue, where the Queens College website said to get off. He didn’t know.

At least he said he’d call out the stop, which he didn’t. I smeared the moisture off the window in the nick of time to see the sign for the stop lit up on the bus shelter, then got lucky again in guessing the right direction for the one-block walk to the campus entrance. But there was no signage there, no one in sight to direct me to the Kupferberg Center, so I walked around the dark, silent, snowed-in campus for half an hour before finding it just 15 minutes before showtime.

But what a show it was.

“Anybody here tonight came here out of love!” Val said, which most certainly was true, and traditional: Anybody who ever came to an Ashford & Simpson show came out of love, which is what Ashford & Simpson was always all about.

“What brought you here tonight?” Nick would shout out during Nick & Val’s performances of “The Boss.” A full house would always scream back, “Love!”

I remember one time at Radio City he tried to materialize it.

“I wish I could take all the love I have and ball it up,” he related, with his hands packing a big, invisibile mass into an imaginary snowball, “and throw it out over all of you.” And then he mimed an upward toss of the  big snowball of love into the top of the middle of Radio City, and I’ll be damned if everyone there didn’t see it break open at the top into thousands of shiny golden pieces that gently landed on everyone there and left them warm and aglow.

“It’s okay, we’re going to party anyway!” said Val.

She started with “Nobody Knows” from Ashford & Simpson’s 1979 album Stay Free–and such a classic Nick theme.

Nobody knows the inside

That’s where all your little secrets hide

Nobody knows the inside

Maybe you, you got too much pride

And nobody knows the inside

Oh, I ain’t got no magic mirror

Nobody knows the inside

That’s why, that’s whi I can’t get no nearer.

“That’s why, that’s why I can’t get no nearer!” That’s pure Nick Ashford poetry! The genius of Nick Ashford.

We wanna hear what it’s all about

Try to, tell somebody, tell somebody

Go on and get it off, get it off your chest…

Nick always wanted to get to the core, get to the real. Yes, Val lived with a very deep man.

I’m thinking now of their great 1983 single “It’s Much Deeper.” But Val followed with the no less deep “It’ll Come, It’ll Come, It’ll Come,” the lead track and single from their 1976 album Come As You Are. God, she was digging deep.

I know you had a hard time

It’ll come, it’ll come, it’ll come.

He was always so supportive, encouraging, caring.

She is always so supportive, encouraging, caring. And God bless her, she did “The Boss.”

I was so right

Thought I could turn emotion on and off

I was so sure

But love taught me who was the boss.

It brought us here tonight.

She brought out Felicia Collins to play guitar and sing on my favorite “Found A Cure,” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” I ran into Felicia again a week or so later, at a Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top guitarist) gig at City Winery, with her fellow Letterman band star Will Lee. She was still raving about Val, overwhelmed that she had asked her to sit in at her show and gave her so much room. Pretty much the sort of conversation, with minor personal modifications, that one has with anyone about Val.

For the record, Val’s show also included “One More Try” from Come As You Are, which they never performed on stage, and was co-written by Val’s brother (and Village People lead singer) Raymond Simpson and featured Felicia’s dynamite rock guitar play; Val’s classic pre-A&S solo single “Silly, Wasn’t I” (“so short,” she said, “that before people started to like it, it was gone!”); and the titletrack of her current solo album, “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again”—another wondrous Nick Ashford conceit.

She prefaced “Dinosaurs” with a bit of positive seasonal reflection/instruction: “As time marches on, you need to think a little more about yourself. It’s up to you to make yourself a priority, to be what you want to be.”

Again, the old A&S affirmation, the perfect lead-in to the Motown foundation of their songwriting.

“There’s a deepness and density of the A&S catalog,” she said, noting how hard it was to choose just a few of the songs for the set. “It’s a nice problem to have: [Figuring out] which songs you might want to hear as opposed to saying, ‘I only got two.’”

“I think there’s that depth,” she explained, “because I lived with a very deep man—Nick Ashford. But if I start talking about his story, it’s a whole nother evening!”

She chose “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and introduced it, like she has done since Nick died, by relating how its meaning has changed. Hence, she starts it off slow and solemn:

I got your picture hangin’ on the wall

It can’t see or come to me when I call your name

I realize it’s just a picture in a frame

She played the piano as Nick’s portrait flashed on the screen above her, the one that’s on the wall to the left of the bar at the Sugar Bar, with his head leaning against his right hand and seeming to look back you, so sweetly, kindly.

Standing away from the piano, she followed with “You’re All I Need,” clearly, by the way she gestured outward and around with her hands, singing to the audience. And sure enough, she thanked her many friends in the crowd for being all she needs to get by, but really, she’s just allowing those of us who love her to feel that we’re helping her, when of course, it’s the other way around.

Felicia came back out to sing on the encore “I’m Every Woman,” and Val ended the show with “Street Corner,” in which she coaxed daughter Nicole to come up and sing backup, thereby joining her sister Asia and Clayton Bryant. Ray Simpson came up, too. The rest of Val’s band was the usual greatness: pianist/conductor Pete Cannarozzi, keyboardist/vocalist Valerie Ghent, bassist Eluriel “Tinker” Barfield, drummer Bernard “Pocket” Davis and saxophonist Todd Schefflin.

Luckily, I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar in the band van. Val looked after me as she always does, as she always does everyone, but in my case, at the restaurant, because I’m vegetarian, making sure I had plenty to eat.

I left a little earlier than everyone, but around midnight nonetheless, tired from trudging through the snow earlier.

I stopped for a moment at the end of the bar, by the door, looking at the picture of Nick, now encircled by a string of Christmas lights. Saint Nickolas.

Something about it that makes Nick look particularly adorable, almost cute, which he most certainly was. Then again, you could use so many words to describe Nick, many of them opposite: He went from cute to rugged, soft to tough. Everything fit him, and he fit everything.

I remember Miss Tee saying how when you walk past this particular picture of Nick, his eyes seem to follow you. Christmas lights flashing, I remember how he was called “the black Jesus” at his funeral.

He never did understand how I idolized him.

“We did it again, Boo-Boo,” Miss Tee said to the picture the night President Obama was re-elected.

I walked out into the snow, leaving behind a room full of people who had come to Nick’s Sugar Bar out of love, like any other night.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part Five

Christians have Lent, and Jews have any number of solemn holidays. Muslims have the month of Ramadan.

I have August.

Today begins the second August without Nick Ashford. I think of him all the time, as I’m sure everyone who knew him does. He died August 22, 2011.

I was coming back from L.A. that day. I’ll be in L.A. again this year on Aug. 22. But I’ll think of him then, as I do now.

I thought of him a lot last Thursday when I brought Corky Siegel to the Sugar Bar, along with Barry Goldberg. They were in town for a screening the next night at Lincoln Center of Born In Chicago, the acclaimed documentary that tells the story of the pioneering middle class white kids in Chicago—Siegel, Goldberg, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, among the most famous–who learned to play and live the blues directly from its most legendary practitioners like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Bob Merlis, himself a legend as a veteran music business publicist, moderated a panel discussion following the screening, speakers including Siegel and Goldberg. A big friend of the Sugar Bar who’s there whenever he’s in town, Merlis had accompanied the pair there the night before, and at the panel noted that when they sat in with the house band for a little Thursday Open Mic night blues bit, it was “déjà vu all over again” in that once again, they were performing at a predominantly black music club, sitting in with all black musicians.

If only Nick were there.

He would have loved it so much, and loved Barry and Corky. Indeed, Nick loved the blues so much that he started the Tuesday night Nuttin’ But The Blues open mic series, and even hosted it himself.

Of course, there was nuttin’ Nick—and Val–wouldn’t do to help other musicians, other people. And God bless Val for keeping it all going.

It’s raining today, August 1st. Otherwise I’d run out to Nick’s bench at Bryant Park, the bench with the plaque “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Me and Bob went there a couple months ago and took turns taking pictures of each other sleeping on the bench next to the plaque. I always remember the time a few years ago, when CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Nick and Val, and taped a few minutes at the bench. Then were filming Nick as he walked to the bench, but when they got there, a rather filthy homeless person was sleeping on it—much, perhaps, as Nick had done when he first came to New York.

Roused from his sleep, the bum rolled over and sat up—and Nick almost fell over laughing. It was me.

So it will be a sad month, somewhat, full of reflection. But as we enter it, the Israelis and the Palestinians are talking again for the first time in years. John McCain is suddenly working with President Obama. And the Pope asks, in regard to gays, “Who am I to judge?”

Back in May, the Pope even declared, “The Lord has redeemed all of us … even the atheists.”

I don’t believe in God, I like to say, but I do believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I’m reminded of a song you’ve probably never heard, since it was part of the songs Nick and Val wrote for An Invisible Life, the unproduced musical based on E. Lynn Harris’s novel about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, from which “Born This Way” was released as a single (with the great Broadway star Terry Lavell singing) just ahead of the Lady Gaga hit of the same title.

The song was to have been the show’s “11 o’clock number,” an intense gospel-like showstopper with “that big A&S sound,” as Nick once described a key Ashford & Simpson song characteristic to me.

The song was, “God Has Love For Everyone.”

Nick Ashford, too, had love for everyone. That is what I will think of most for the rest of this month, and hope to keep it in my heart, with Nick, every day thereafter.