Concert Highlights–Valerie Ghent at Joe’s Pub, 5/1/14

As longtime backup singer/keyboardist for Ashford & Simpson, I’ve been seeing and admiring Valerie Ghent for years. But her Muse CD release party last week at Joe’s Pub was something else.

The big surprise was that much of the time she got up and away from the piano, leaving the keys in the capable hands of veteran New York blues pianist Dave Keyes. She later credited Simpson, actually, for convincing her to leave the safety of the keyboard bench and move to the stand-up mic—where she was flanked by her own terrific backup singers Keith Fluitt and Dennis Collins.

Ghent seemed completely comfortable in her new role of stand-up singer moving about with ease and singing with equal authority—or so it seemed. She said after that she’d been sick for weeks and that her mid-range was weak, though her low and high ends were okay.

It all sounded fine to me. Then again, as she also pointed out later, we never really got to hear her lows and mids when she sang with A&S—or now with Simpson–since she sang only high parts.

At Joe’s Pub Ghent hit the highs on “groove” songs like the chugging A&S-inflected “Wheels On a Train” from her previous album Day to Day Dream (2012) and really let loose on the titletrack, climaxing with catlike squeals. But as it was an album release party for Muse, the centerpiece of the show came after she dismissed her hard-funk band and brought out cellist Dave Eggar and violinist Katie Kresek to accompany her on piano.

Muse, she explained, is a very different album–12 piano/vocal ballads that bring her back to her musical roots, in that she started in music playing cello at age five. The intimate piano-and-strings setting of new album songs like “You’re My Star” focused on her vocal range before she returned to the hotter groove tunes with the full band.

Ghent made special note of a couple songs co-written with her husband Tom Bisio—a renowned martial artist/Chinese medicine practitioner with whom she has also collaborated in teaching and instructional texts. I’ve actually taken one of their seminars, and applauded loudly.

At his table, Bisio smiled sheepishly and said that he had told her not to mention it.

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 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.