For maybe the first Thanksgiving Day in almost 40 years in New York, I didn’t have brunch with my friend Karen’s big family at the Silver Star on the upper East Side, after fighting my way across 6th Ave. just ahead of the Macy’s Parade. And I didn’t go over to another friend’s house for dinner in the afternoon.
And I didn’t call Mom, who died last month. And I didn’t call Miss Tee Alston, Ashford & Simpson’s “assistant,” for lack of a better word for someone who did everything for them and everyone who knew and loved her, who died in August.
I really didn’t do much of anything, so it wasn’t a whole lot different than any other day since March and the start of the coronavirus shutdown, though I did get together for brunch at the Flame on 58th and 9th Ave. with J.B. Carmicle. My old friend Jabes was the one who hired me at Cash Box a month or so after I came to New York in 1981. I used to have Thanksgiving dinner with him for the first couple years or so, until he moved to L.A. and became a school teacher for 27 years at Hollywood High, then came back to NYC a couple years ago where he now tutors at movie/TV productions while conceiving any number of side gigs. We went over the many people we knew way back when, most of whom are long gone.
The big thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, of course, is that at least we–you and me–are still alive after so much death this year, and then think back at those we’ve lost. For me, there is Tee and Mom, and before them, another dear friend, the beloved producer and Saturday Night Live music director Hal Willner, one of the quarter-million Americans who died of “the Rona.” And Ol’ Ned.
Ned Engelhart, the Ferret de Monte Christo of Dr. Bop & the Headliners, a.k.a. Mister Elegance. Ferret and Mister Elegance were both handles bestowed upon Ned by Mike Riegel, a.k.a., Dr. Newt Bop, the Madison-originated nonpareil show band’s leader and co-founder, who died in 2005.
Both Newt and the Ferret (presumably a made-up title belonging to upper crust French nobility, here attached to either the Italian island or premium Cuban cigar or both) were geniuses, Ned particularly being one of the most astute musical minds I’ve ever known. And he was such a great friend: He’d call every few weeks or so to see how I was doing, and tell me how he was handling the downturn in his business—and how he struggled to adapt to it. Ever since I met him, he was always coming up with ideas–much like Jabes–on how to go with the flow and had always somehow managed to do it, that is, until Larry “Third Degree” Byrne, a.k.a. late-period Dr. Bop keyboardist/guitarist Cleveland St. James, found him dead one August morning at home in Northern Wisconsin.
And while researching, I only learned yesterday of the passing, also in August, of the great guitarist/bandleader Bryan Lee, a.k.a. The Blind Giant of the Blues and Your Braille Blues Daddy, who, like Cleveland, hailed from Two Rivers, Wis.
I used to see Bryan when he played Madison regularly, with my pal West Side Andy Linderman playing harmonica for him. The last time I saw him was maybe 15 years ago, when he ruled the Old Absinthe House roost in the New Orleans French Quarter, and Cleveland was his keyboardist.
Someday I hope to do Ned and Dr. Bop justice here. I really need to. We spoke about the band—me and my old Madison pal Chuck Toler—when he called me Wednesday night. Chuck, who now lives in Milwaukee and works with the renowned record producer/engineer/photographer Terry Manning, and like Ned, is remarkably resilient, managed Dr. Bop along with Ken Adamany, their artist roster notably also including Cheap Trick. After the conversation Chuck sent over some photos of a 1971 performance by Chuck Berry at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, with Ken playing keyboards in Berry’s traditionally local backup band—and Dr. Bop opening!
Like brunch with Jabes, Chuck and I talked about Ned and the many others we knew and are likewise long gone—and how grateful we are to have known them. Ned did so much for me (he had me write a column in Dr. Bop’s monthly newsletter, called “Bez Sez”), and as long as my heart continues to beat, he’ll have a special place in it. This puts him up there with the likes of Nick Ashford, who also did so much for me—and so many others.
I also spoke with Nick’s youngest daughter Asia Wednesday night—and it really hit home then what a loss this year has been. Not just Tee, who was a second mother to Asia, but the darkest realization that a whole year has gone by and I haven’t even seen Asia, her sister Nicole, and mother Valerie at all this year! In fact, the only time I’ve even spoken with Val was when she called me to tell me Tee died.
As you can imagine, this was an emotional call. I’ve written on this site many, many times about the immense influence on me of Ashford & Simpson, Nick and Val. But I’d never really spoken about it with Asia. I told her how I first saw her that night at Radio City, when I’d flown back from Nashville in time for an Ashford & Simpson show, and during the encore, someone—it had to be Tee—came up to the front carrying maybe a two-year-old Asia, lifted her to the stage, and then, with her mom and dad watching lovingly but intently, she looked at them, then the SRO audience, then smiled and started dancing!
Summing up the rest of the conversation, it mostly centered on our mutual love for her family, both blood and extended–and the sharing of our mutual sense of immeasurable loss.
But I left out something that Nick once said to me, sitting on the steps leading to the third floor outside Tee’s second-floor office at the Sugar Bar.
“You know,” Nick said, softly but profoundly. “I thought that when I got to be this old, things would get easier.”
And then yesterday, Thanksgiving, came a tweet from the account of one of my other dear departed heroes, Muhammad Ali: “I am grateful for all my victories, but I am especially grateful for my losses, because they only made me work harder.”
Wear a white shirt, you’re going to spill coffee on it. There’s one thing I know ahout life and that’s it.
Still, I’m grateful to the checkout guy at the EVEN Hotel in Omaha for offering me a free cup from the machine at 6 a.m., Nov. 5. Lucky it had cream or something and was very light instead of black–as I generally take it–and it was an old well-worn off-white and yellowed t-shirt commemorating Ernest Tubb Record Shops’ 50th anniversary–which had to be at least 20 years ago–and the stain was unnoticeable for the most part, mostly on “the original ET”’s jacket and maybe a bit of his guitar. I’d met him in Nashville outside his Grand Ole Opry outlet in a previous life, after his post-Opry Midnite Jamboree radio performance just before he hopped on his bus heading out with his Texas Troubadours on some gig somewhere.
I think I got on that same bus some years later, outside the Lone Star when it was on 42nd Street, when Asleep at the Wheel was using it, after their gig. In this incarnation it was thick with marijuana smoke, with Ray Benson relating how they’d been stopped by the highway patrol somewhere out West, and they brought a dope-sniffing dog on board. There was so much pot either stowed away or smoke-infused in the fixtures or both that the dog went insane and they had to let the band go. I went so insane that I got lost walking the five blocks up Broadway to my office building, then spent an hour walking around in circles in the seventh floor elevator bay.
None of this is meant to diss ET, of course, and I’m confident he’d be okay with it. Maybe there wasn’t a nicer guy in all of country music—and beyond. Hugely influenced by country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb so impressed Rodgers’ widow that she lent him her husband’s signature guitar, the back of which was emblazoned with the word “THANKS” in big block caps, such that ET’s gratitude could be expressed whenever he flipped it. He really was the coolest.
The last time I’d been to Omaha was before I’d started writing, and I think this was the first time I’d spent the night in Omaha–but I might have stayed over that last time I was there, also the last time I was in Nebraska. Like I said, it was before I started writing, which I think was in 1977 or ’78–my memory’s too limited and I’m too lazy to figure it out. I would have still been working as a clerk/typist at the State of Wisconsin in Madison, a block South of Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down.
Instead of going to hear live music every night, as I soon would, I was attending a Taekwondo school a couple blocks from where I lived, three blocks east of the State Capitol and a five-minute walk to work. In two years I’d only achieved green belt in our system–up from no belt, white and yellow. I’d been in one tournament—in Madison—and won my first fight and lost the second. I’d driven in a carload of guys from the school to participate in my second and final tournament, in Omaha, where I lost my only fight but somehow managed to place in the forms competition. We either drove back that night or stayed over at someone’s house.
Otherwise, I would have spent a little time in Omaha before visiting my mom’s cousins there on our way to or back from Lincoln, where she was born and grew up, an hour or so southwest of Omaha.
The last time I was in Lincoln had to be 1967, to bury her dad, my grandfather. Sadly, it was the day of Bobby Kennedys funeral. I loved Bobby, and was crushed by his killing. Having to drive from Madison to Lincoln–10 hours, as I recall–meant I missed all but the end of his funeral train trip from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried just up the hill from his brother.
My grandfather was a big deal to the family—the family patriarch–but I don’t remember him very well. I would have been 15 when he died, some years after his wife, my mother’s mother. All I remember from the funeral was a cousin walking over to me, and in an angry shout-whisper admonish, “You’re standing on Grandma’s head!”
And now it was Mom’s turn. She made it to 97, but her last years marked a steady decline in faculties to the point where we finally, against her will, put her in a hospice. She’d suffered from increasing dementia for years, and when I’d gone back three months earlier in July to see her, every 10 seconds she’d ask me the same question I’d just answered. She’d also kept asking when her older sister Selma would show up–Selma having died in 2007 at 89. She also once asked where my dad was, forgetting that he was in Arlington, since 1994, when he died at 85.
His burial was quite something, right out of President Kennedy’s. I, my mother, brother and sister stayed in a hotel near the cemetery in Virginia. I’d been doing some writing for USA Today at the time, so I went over to the paper’s headquarters nearby in McLean to visit the guy I worked for, then into D.C. to hang with some dear Russian journalist friends at the TASS News Service bureau. Walking back to the train to get back to the hotel I noticed that Marie Osmond was starring in the lead role of Maria in The Sound of Music at a theater a couple blocks from the station.
I was a big Marie fan, and had met her annually in Nashville at the opening Country Radio Seminar party at the Opryland Hotel, as she was signed to Curb Records there. I always said hi to her and figured she’d remember me. But I tried the box office first, and to my surprise was able to talk myself, as a Billboard correspondent, into a pair of tickets for the night’s performance. It was great, and afterwards I hung out at the backstage door and got her to sign my poster of the show.
My father was buried the next day at 9 a.m. in Arlington. It was a beautiful spring day, ironically, the same day of Nixon’s burial in California in a similar but grander ceremony. Dad had served nobly in both World War II and the Second Nicaraguan Campaign of the early 1930s (an early forgotten Vietnam), meriting a burial with military honors. This meant he had a horse-drawn caisson, flag-draped casket, drum-and-brass corps, and rifle party firing a three-volley salute prior to a lone bugler’s taps.
The right thing to do, I figured, was to smoke a fat one just before leaving the hotel. My sister drove the rental, and when we got to the cemetary we were instructed to follow the caisson, which was moving steadily but slowly. But she hadn’t smoked a joint, and when we reached Bradley Drive she lost it, as our father had served in WW2 with Gen. Omar Bradley. Much to my shock, Mom asked me to take the wheel.
I was wasted, but I somehow managed to stay in line behind the horses, and when they stopped near the gravesite, so did I. We got out of the car as the honor guard detail carried the remains some 50 yards up the hill to the site, where enough chairs for us and the Army representatives were set up. It was a beautiful service, but I have to admit I had to bite my tongue not to laugh hysterically over an incident that happened just as we got out of the car.
Like I said, it was a beautiful spring morning, Dad’s site was within sight of the Pentagon. It was also, fitting for a cemetery, very quiet, peaceful, still. That is, until one of the horses, I will always believe deliberately and with disdain, chose this most solemn moment to let loose with the longest, loudest piss, maybe in history, resounding among the fallen and otherwise eternally sleeping, splashing an equine “Fuck you” on the pavement. The steamy urine stream continued until we reached our seats.
To this day I humbly respect that horse.
The service itself was brief, and when the uniformed pallbearers folded the flag and the Army rep brought it over to my mom, leaned over and handed it to her with the traditional, “On behalf of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation [for your loved one’s] honorable and faithful service,” I, too, finally lost it.
And now we were returning Mom to Lincoln and her family, on the day, November 4, after the election. She’d died a week before in Madison, from where my sister and her daughter—my niece—had driven to Omaha and were to pick me up at the airport.
The Election Day result, as we know, was still far from decided. I’d put in an exhausting 17-hour day (5 a.m.-10 p.m.) working the poll a block away, this following nine days straight of grueling early voting poll work at Madison Square Garden. I was able to get in a two-hour nap before heading out at 2:30 a.m. for LaGuardia, which isn’t so easy during the pandemic—as I would find out the hard way.
As usual, the big problem was me. I thought the trains were back to running all night again. But I went down into a neighborhood subway station on Monday—the day before Election Day and the day after Early Voting ended—and asked the booth clerk, to make sure. He either assured me that they were running, or I misunderstood him, for when I went down to the station at 8th Ave. and 42nd Street a little before 3 a.m. (my flight was at 6:30), it was closed. So I went to 7th Ave.—the heart of Times Square—and as some workmen were pushing some equipment out of a door at the station between 7th and Broadway, I slipped in, only to be told by two other MTA guys at the clerk’s window that it was closed, too, until 5 a.m.
Now I was frantic. I didn’t have the money for a cab.
“How the fuck am I supposed to get to LaGuardia?” I yelled at the Brothers.
“LaGuardia?” one answered. He had no idea. Neither did the other guy, nor the woman in the booth behind the glass. Hardly comforting. But I gotta give them credit: As I approached them, they whipped out their phones and started trying to figure if I could do it by bus.
I’d come there to take the E to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and then board the Q70 bus to the airport—but obviously, that was out. My only hope was to get to 125th Street in Harlem and take the M60 to LaGuardia, but how would I get there. Luckily, the guys found that the M104 was leaving from 8th Ave. and 41st in 13 minutes, an easy walk—or so I thought: I was so disoriented when I got to 8th I crossed over to Port Authority thinking I’d catch the bus on that side of the street. After freaking out a couple minutes I realized I was on the wrong side and crossed back over—but I couldn’t find a bus stop at 41st and started walking down a couple blocks with no luck. So I turned back and realized there was a bus stop on 41st and 8th—but for a different bus.
I should say now that my Hell’s Kitchen nabe has become pretty scary since the pandemic, especially after dark. As I was out at 3 a.m., I’d normally be carrying a weapon, except I was going to the airport. I remember one summer I’d thrown on a pair of shorts without checking, and when I got to the airport and reached into my pockets to empty their contents into a tray in the metal detector, my hand came out with a knife….
Standing at the wrong bus stop and looking down 8th for approaching buses, a big, clearly unfriendly guy came over to me and asked for money. The one thing going for me now is that even though I was hindered by two shoulder bags—and because of health issues knew I wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight—with long hair, scraggly beard, missing teeth and menacing glare, I looked more like a toothless, bearded hag than easy prey, plus I was jangling the keys hanging from a subtle black C-shaped fistload like a threatened snake’s rattle. He was either drunk, drugged, mentally ill or a combination, and came close but backed off when I barked that I didn’t have anything.
But I was getting desperate. I looked around, and there was a “NOT IN SERVICE” bus parked around the corner on 41st Street. I went over and waved the driver to open the door, then asked how to get to the M60. He told me to hop in. This is where I was supposed to go to catch the #104, and in fact, this was the #104, which took me up Broadway to 106th Street, where after a 15-minute wait I transferred to the M60. I got to LaGuardia in plenty of time—even having to catch a shuttle to Terminal B when I got off at D after hearing the bus driver wrong. It was smooth flying to O’Hare and then Omaha, as I slept all the way. My sister and niece were right there when I hit the street.
Weaving in and out of consciousness during the hour or so drive to Lincoln, I drifted back and forth between the election results and long-ago memories of that interminable 10 hours from Madison to Lincoln. The worst part—driving (after crossing the Mississippi) through Iowa, which seemed to last forever, from Dubuque—then the shittiest looking town imaginable, but probably a wonderful place now—to Council Bluffs, all on undivided two-lane highways. (But I must say this about Dubuque: We stopped off at some joint to get something to eat–must have been 1967–and out of a bin full of 45 r.p.m. singles I found and bought The Troggs’ 1966 hit “I Can’t Control Myself.”) From Council Bluffs we crossed the Missouri River to Omaha, and then to Lincoln.
Momentarily awake in 2020, I looked up on the right and saw a series of blue Trump-Pence signs–reminiscent of the old sequential Burma-Shave (shaving cream) proverb signs (example: “Keep well/To the right/Of the oncoming car/Get your close shaves/From the half pound jar/Burma-Shave.”) that used to dot highways back then—and I recalled the desolation of that drive and the scenery. Nebraska is the center of the Great Plains, where the Coen Brothers shot much of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in what was a very long production in the state’s western Panhandle region. I’d emailed Ethan in the middle of it, asking if he was having any fun. “Are you insane?” he replied.
Half an hour out of Lincoln, I texted him and said that I myself was now in Nebraska, “home of Buster Scruggs.” “Canvassing?” he wondered. “Didn’t help.”
Yeah, Nebraska is a red state–though Grandpa was a socialist, and my family was always blue. I can never forget the state’s slogan “Go Big Red!” from when I was a kid, and the University of Nebraska was always one of the top college football teams, while the Wisconsin Badgers, at that time, were always one of the worst. But we did somehow manage to beat them 21-20 when they played us at home in early 1974, a slight detour on their way to a Sugar Bowl victory. I’ll never forget the disbelief and dejection of my Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty, who traveled to every Cornhuskers game as their team went down to shocking defeat. That night bonfires were lit on State Street, between the UW campus and State Capitol, as they had been in 1969 when we finally won a game after losing 23 straight.
And now I was at the cemetery where Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty were buried in the same row as Grandpa in the family plot, Mom being lowered the next row down and a few sites to the left. Leo was her brother. Her sister Ruth, who died at 34 of MS before I was born, was there, too; she played the harp in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with the likes of Buddy Rich and behind the likes of Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra—who showed great kindness to her and the family when he learned that she was sick.
Also there was my cousin Joe Hill, whom I barely knew, but liked a lot. He was an actor, went by the name of Joseph GillGoff. I remember he was good friends with fellow Nebraskan Sandy Dennis, and died at 28.
It was just me, my sister, brother and niece, and our cousin Gary, Joe’s brother, who still lives in Lincoln, also a lady who was a tour guide at the State Capitol, who met my mom when she brought people there for tours, and became good friends. And two men from the funeral home. If I didn’t step on Grandma’s head this time, I certainly stood on everyone else’s, since it was all a pretty tight fit.
Unlike the rest, I didn’t wear a black facemask, rather, a colorful but toned-down one made up of postage-stamp sized portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I figured Mom would have approved.
There was no horse. There also wasn’t a lot of time. My brother had to leave immediately to move to a new city and job. I had to get back to New York early the next day in order to avoid a two-week quarantine required of anyone returning to the city without being tested within three days of the trip–by getting back within 24 hours. As it turns out, I only had to fill out a form, and there’s been no follow-up so far.
There’s not much more to say about it, really. We’re a small family, and because of COVID, there could be no funeral in Madison, and no other relatives or friends able to make the trip to Lincoln if they had so desired. Gary made some very nice remarks, and it was over by early afternoon. But before returning to Omaha, I wanted to revisit two of the four places in Lincoln we used to go to when I was a child. As it was November, there was no point in going to the outdoor municipal MUNY Pool, though when I looked it up I found that it had closed in the ’70s.
But I also learned that some African-American boys were found wading in the unfinished pool in the 1920s, after which came calls to drain the water. According to a 2013 article in the Lincoln Journal Star about a move to declare the still existing bathhouse a historic site, the boys were then denied admission when the pool opened. According to a newspaper report, one of the fathers, Trago T. McWilliams, protested to then-Mayor Frank Zehrung that “there was an element of injustice in barring negroes who were good citizens in every respect.” The mayor agreed, “but pointed out that there were comparatively few colored people in Lincoln and that a much larger number of white people would feel that it was unjust to permit negroes to use the pool.”
But McWilliams kept at it—for decades—and finally, in the late ’50s (after a “street shower” had been installed in the city for Blacks), the policy was changed.
On the contemporary bigotry front, cousin Gary had been involved in establishing the Nebraska Holocaust Memorial, located in another cemetery nearby, so that was our first stop after the funeral. As my cousin Murray, who grew up in Lincoln and is six days older than me, said by phone the next day, “What else do you do after a funeral but go to a Holocaust memorial?”
From there we went to Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens, a dug-out 1.5-acre multi-level garden that’s been a mid-town attraction since 1930 and the only Nebraska garden listed in the “300 Best Gardens to Visit in the United States and Canada” by National Geographic Guide to Public Gardens. Warm as the day was, it had snowed the week before, and the season’s annual plants had already been removed. I did run up to a higher-level garden and got a picture of the Reveille statue, and then we were off to Pioneers Park Nature Center.
Since Mom died—and I realized it would be possible to attend her funeral after the election—I was obsessed with Pioneers Park Nature Center: 668 acres of tallgrass prairie, woodlands, wetlands, wildlife and a stream–and right next to it, a golf course! I had vague memories of visiting it (without the golf course) on more than one occasion after it opened in 1963, and as it turned out, my main memory—of there being an immense statue of Buddha—was ridiculously false (and I’ve been unable to find it anywhere online). There was however, a big statue of a Native American sending out smoke signals, which took so long for us to find that my young niece, whose supreme disinterest in her aged uncle’s ungainly need to relive his childhood was, even to him, completely understandable, brought me to the brink of giving up until I stepped out of the car in a parking lot adjoining a picnic area, turned to my left, and voila, there it was!
The other thing I remembered—and this proved to be real—was that there were wildlife exhibits in the park, and we did come upon one with a few bison. They were ‘free-range,’ for lack of a better way to put it, and looked bored as shit. Reminded me of one of the great lines from Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (which I’d just seen for at least the thousandth time), where Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) says to Josey (Clint), “I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”
The only other site I remember of Lincoln was, of course, the 400-ft. tall State Capitol building, a National Historic Landmark and the second-tallest state capitol next to Louisiana’s. There was no need to go there since it’s visible from almost anywhere.
We were all beat when I got back to the EVEN, which brings me, next to Mom’s death, to my one regret of the trip: I didn’t make use of the hotel. Then again, I’d never even heard of the chain—which I hereby heartily endorse. When I got to my room—and figured out how to turn on the lights—I noticed an unusually large area between the bed and the bathroom, with a wooden pole of sorts against the wall with half a dozen lugs, upon one of which hung a braided, double-handled fitness tube. Neatly stored in a box on the opposite wall was a sanitized yoga mat and yoga blocks, and in the space on the floor next to the TV were two large blocks which I took to be leg rests—but I was wrong.
The blocks were also exercise equipment, as I learned when I turned on the TV and it immediately went to one of at least a score of in-room workout videos. It turns out that the all even-numbered rooms “hotel brand concept” opened its first location in 2014 with the goal of incorporating wellness and productivity into their clientele offerings; there were videos for the equipment in my room, with other paraphernalia, including Pilates, probably available in other rooms or from the front desk–and all accompanied by instructional videos.
The only problems were that the pole for the fitness tube placements was on the same wall as the TV, such that I couldn’t watch the videos while trying to do the workouts—this and the fact that I couldn’t watch them anyway, since I was stuck on MSNBC for the first night of continued ballot counting after Election Day.
When I came down the next morning to check out and the guy at the front desk gave me the cup of coffee that I spilled on Ernest Tubb, I looked up as I was about to leave and saw that the glass-walled second-level fitness room overlooking the lobby even had a heavy bag! I hadn’t been able to hit a heavy bag since the start of the pandemic, and even the gyms that have them still won’t let you use them for the time being (though I think I’ve found one that will if you bring your own gloves).
As the return flight to O’Hare took off–and just before dozing off–I thought of Larry, the Omaha airport shuttle driver, who thanked me for the conversation on the way to the airport. It helped him start his day, he said, and I thanked him for helping me start mine.
For what it’s worth, Larry is African-American, as was the EVEN front desk clerk. Both couldn’t have been nicer, same with everyone we interacted with on the trip—the funeral guys, the Sunken Garden workers, the Pioneers Parkers who gave us directions to the statue. It didn’t matter, but I wondered who they all voted for in this still-red state where we’d just buried our mother and where the Coen Brothers filmed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Maybe that has something to do with why I dreamed last night of running into Tim Blake Nelson, whom I’ve met a couple times at Coen screenings, who was so great as Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and in the title role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I breathlessly told him that he should have won an Oscar for his performance in the latter.
As for Mom, I was glad it worked out that I could be at her “farewell party,” to use the title of an old country song, a big hit in 1979 for Gene Watson, even if it was a bitter love song not lyrically applicable to Mom, whom Cousin Gary correctly lauded for her thoughtfulness and kindness. More than anything, I’m glad she got to vote, even if she didn’t get to celebrate its outcome.
I realize that this piece is nominally about my mother’s funeral–and my father’s–and that I haven’t said a whole lot about them and have made it all about me. I want you to know that I do feel guilty about this.
In all honesty, I was a rotten kid. Called into the principal’s office on the loudspeaker every morning. Hung out with the hoods. Peddled dope in the halls. One of those.
And our parents were way older than us. Too old, even, to even like The Beatles. But I’ll say this about my mom: She ended up liking one of my best friends, Don Smock, and I name him because he’s been dead quite a while, now, gone through at least three livers by my count, maybe four. Hepatitis, if I remember, from needles. I got off lucky in that respect, just thrombophlebitis at one point, and lots of missing veins.
Lots of my high school and post-HS friends have been dead a long time. O.D.’s, suicides, at least one murder and a few naturals. Many were bigtime drug dealers and did prison time. Don got a tattoo when we were in junior high, “J.D.,” for juvenile delinquent. Mom always pointedly pronounced his name “Shmock,” but he was a loyal friend, kinda turned his life around to where he became a private investigator, and was so considerate about my mom that she eventually grew to like him: When his body gave up and he was hospitalized in a coma, she actually went to visit him, and when he died, she asked me if she should go to his funeral. I assured her it wasn’t necessary, that after 30-plus years I had no idea who–if anyone–would be there, and if anyone were, they’d likely be fellow former, if not present, dopers and dealers.
And now, a brief aside, but first, a musical interlude!
I first saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in Madison at the Great Hall of the Student Union in 1972, I think, five or six years before I started writing about music. Pictured second from the left next to him is Keith Whitley, who was with him then, and would later become a huge country star, whom I got to know, before drinking himself to death. I knew Ralph, too, and have always been grateful that he did a radio commercial for Obama’s first presidential campaign–extraordinary, in that he came from and represented deeply conservative political and musical territory–and let me interview him about it.
But that’s not the aside I pointed to. It’s this: Unlike most of my articles, which I post links to on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, I’m giving this a “soft open”; you’ll only see it if you stumble upon it, or if one of my hundred or so subscribers sends it to you (and yes, I know it says 2,000-something, but that’s total horseshit, some kind of technical error or bots attack that I’d have to spend a lot of money to correct). It’s just way too personal, and I don’t know what my siblings would think. And last time I posted parental passings on Facebook, it brought me unimaginable grief: First came last June when I cut-and-pasted Rob Reiner’s tweet in quotes announcing his father Carl’s death and attributing it Rob, and over a hundred Facebook friends read it to mean I was somehow announcing my own father’s death and expressed their sincere but misdirected condolences. Same thing happened in September when I did the same thing with Diana Rigg’s daughter’s announcement of her mom’s death. Everyone somehow thought I was sharing my mom’s death! Total, unbearable fucking fiasco.
And besides, as Murray said to an emotional friend of his mother (Aunt Selma) when she called to console him when Selma died at 89: “Lady! She was 89!”
Anyway, I thought of all this on the plane, and I thought of the scene at the beginning of The Chinese Connection, where Bruce Lee, overcome with grief, jumps into the grave of his teacher at his funeral. And had to laugh at my brother’s offer–tongue in cheek, presumably, yet with due reverence–should I have decided to follow suit in Lincoln, that he’d do the shoveling. I had considered it for a moment, maybe, then decided against it. Maybe, if I’d been reverently wearing my Ernest Tubb t-shirt, even with a coffee stain. I’m confident he’d be okay with it.
One last photo:
And in honor of “the original E.T.,” Ernest Tubb:
And here’s a rare glimpse of Aunt Ruth with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra!:
The happiest day of my life was November 4, 2008—the day Obama was elected.
I was at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar that night, sitting with Nick and Val and Miss Tee, their do-everything assistant, who wasn’t sitting so much as scurrying around the room excitedly, waving a small American Flag in each hand.
I could only stay an hour or so after California put Obama over the top at 11 p.m. our time, since I had to fly out early the next morning for Louisiana. I took the subway from 72nd and Broadway to Times Square, then hung out for a few minutes with hundreds of other joyful celebrants behind the police barricades as cars honked past, tears streaming down my face. I got home in time to watch Obama’s wonderful acceptance speech before packing and heading out to the airport.
I was a poll worker when Obama was reelected in 2012, but was done in time to go to the Sugar Bar and watch the returns. It wasn’t as crowded this time, and more subdued. Nick had died in 2011 (Obama sent Val a condolence note), and I sat with Val and Tee at the foot of the bar, next to the huge black-and-white photo of an adorable, somewhat pensive Nick. We didn’t stay late, and when Tee went upstairs to pack up, she turned to the photo and said to it, “We did it again, Boo Boo. We did it again.” I kissed my fingers and touched his cheek.
I wrote a long piece on this site after Trump won in 2016. I won’t say it was the worst day of my life, but when I got off poll work and had walked halfway to the Sugar Bar—around 57th Street and 10th Ave.—I knew it was going bad, and suddenly felt my body going into physical shock. It was only the second time that happened: The first was 9/11.
The Sugar Bar’s been closed during the pandemic, and I’d been called out of town the day after Tuesday’s election–which followed 10 days straight of eight-hour-plus early voting poll days and 17 hours on Tuesday. I got back Thursday and I was exhausted, if not in shock again over the undecided election. From that point on, the TV was stuck on MSNBC day and night until Pennsylvania finally put Biden over.
Unlike Obama’s elections that were both decided quickly the night of the election, it was a beautiful sunny and warm autumn Saturday, with the election call late in the morning meaning everyone was up and awake and ready to party. No sooner had the announcement been made than the joyous shouts and banging on pots and pans and horn honks began, all reminiscent of the five minutes of noise that erupted every evening in the first weeks of the pandemic, a weird way then to honor first-responders, I thought, but totally understandable now. It was like this huge weight had been lifted off our backs, or to borrow a timely metaphor, deadly knee off our necks.
Then commenced hours of intermittent weeping, first at home while I watched the early celebrants begin to fill the streets of New York and everywhere else, then when I joined many of them at Columbus Circle—having been notified by email the night before that the Working Families Party was gathering there in support of the by-then obvious winner Biden.
I took a call from my sister in Wisconsin before I left, and my friend Bob Merlis in Palm Springs, where he’d just run up the flagpole an American Flag that he’d refused to fly the last four years. I put on my yellowed 23-year-old Ernest Tubb Record Shop 50th Anniversary t-shirt (its fresh coffee stain barely discernible), a Ruth Bader Ginsburg face mask, and a blue flannel long-sleeve shirt and headed north on 10th Ave., Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday” playing in my head (even thought it was Saturday) and alternating with the Rascals’ “A Beautiful Morning.”
The cars were honking constantly when I got over to 9th and 59th, and saw an out-of-practice, pandemic-rusty/weary bunch awkwardly wondering if they should hug each other, then trying to remember how exactly to do it. The tears restarted.
The weird thing is, I really don’t cry that much: when I’m moved by movies, sometimes, like To Kill a Mockingbird, or some songs, like Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” And always during opera curtain calls—and marches, when I’m overwhelmed by the goodness of people standing up against unmitigated evil.
By now Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was playing in my head, as I hung out a bit on the pedestrian island with the subway station entrance in the middle of Broadway, in between the Time Warner Center and the Trump Hotel tower. Traffic was now slowed to a trickle, cars honking, passengers sticking their heads out of windows and sunroofs and waving or taking pictures of us waving or taking pictures of them. It was the perfect time to cross over to the Southwest corner of Central Park, where I was surprised that a guy my age asked if he could take my picture.
“Ernest Tubb and RBG! Two of my favorites!” he explained. I really was with my people.
I took a few more pics, including one of Sing Out, Louise!—a group of Gays Against Guns who’ve been writing Trump-related song parodies (“in the key of F-You”) since his election. I stuck around long enough to hear “Everyone Knows It’s Rudy” (to the tune of The Association’s “Windy”) and 3 Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” (“Dirty Donny was an asshole!”) before splitting with my filmmaker friend Ethan, both of us concerned about the “covidity.”
We walked over to 5th Ave, which was entirely shut down to cars, and Ethan posed me for a pic with the cursed Trump Tower—or, as I prefer calling it, the Devil’s Building—in the background. I then returned to the site of my final 2008 celebration—Times Square—and more revelers. Even Trump supporter Naked Cowboy got in the act, as did a Trump Baby balloon sent skyward into exile. A guy sitting on a folding chair on the sidewalk was blasting Diana Ross’s Ashford & Simpson-penned and produced “The Boss.”
“Joy to the World”—the Dog version—was in my head as I walked home, where I turned on the TV to watch more celebrations from around the world. The wonderful victory speeches that night from Biden and Harris jerked more tears—proving that my supply was inexhaustible, so long as I stayed hydrated. But I was somewhat anxious through the whole thing: It didn’t look to me like they were behind a bulletproof barrier (if there really is such a thing anymore). I always remember my Kennedy-Johnson Secret Service agent friend Bill Carter telling me how easy it is to kill the president….
And then the popping sound of the confetti bombs. Biden seemed a bit startled, and I read later that Harris’s husband definitely was. The big Secret Service man who left the stage with Biden at the end didn’t look happy, but he wasn’t supposed to.
I tweeted my fears and found that I hadn’t been alone. I was always amazed that Obama survived his presidency, but it’s a different country now—more guns, and people who have been allowed, if not encouraged, to think they have the right to use them with neither care nor consequence.
I woke up Sunday pinching myself. It wasn’t a dream after all–the second-happiest day of my life. I started with “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, remembering how thrilled I was to meet the late Hawkins one night at the Sugar Bar. And of course I thought of Nick—and Tee, who had joined Nick upstairs in August.
“We did it again, Boo Boo,” I said to the photo of me and Tee on the shelf above my computer, clicking on Ashford & Simpson’s version of their Diana Ross hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” on YouTube.
One thing about this pandemic, it’s given me a lot of time to reflect.
I thought about Merle Kilgore a few weeks ago, at the height of the George Floyd protests and the ensuing removal of Confederate/racist-related flags and statuary throughout the country. And I thought of him again more recently when the Country Music Association announced that Hank Williams, Jr. was being inducted into the Counry Music Hall of Fame.
Merle Kilgore, if you don’t know, wrote, with June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He also wrote David Houston’s big 1962 country crossover hit “Wolverton Mountain,” and one of my favorites, Tommy Roe’s “The Folk Singer.” He was an inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, but by now he was best-known as Hank, Jr.’s longtime manager—having famously carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar long before.
Merle, who died at 70 on February 26, 2005, was a big, cuddly bear of a man, with an oversized jovial personality to match. As Brenda Lee said at his funeral, he “brought laughter to every room he entered—we all know that—and he was friend to all within the reach of my voice. He challenged all of us to remember–and this is so important–he challenged us in the industry to remember the dream that brought us into this industry that he so passionately loved.”
One thing I passionately loved about Merle Kilgore was that whenever I saw him, he’d greet me with “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” Of course I made a point of seeing him whenever I was in Nashville, usually with another big Kilgore fan, Los Angeles-based Bob Merlis, who was then Warner Bros. Records head of publicity.
Bob and I were in Nashville in June, 1998, for our annual hang at what was then called Country Music Fan Fair, then held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds–from where it moved three years later to Downtown Nashville. Bob had just emceed the noon Warner Bros. label show at the Fairgrounds Speedway, and we’d walked up the hill to the exhibition buildings, where hundreds of country artists had meet-and-greet booths.
One of the biggest artist booths, not surprisingly, was Hank Williams, Jr.’s. It was comparatively huge, actually, stocked full of all kinds of merchandise. There holding court behind the counter was Merle Kilgore.
“Jim Bessman! America’s most-beloved music journalist!” he bellowed, then saw Bob.
“Hey! I got something for you guys—but you have to wear them!” he said, reaching down below the counter for what must have been his special stash. When his hands resurfaced, each held a bold blue garment, one of which he tossed to Bob, the other to me. We then unfolded, to our horror–and Merle’s boisterous chuckle—Confederate Flag gym shorts!
“Jim Bessman! Make sure you wear them at the gym when you get back to New York! You’ll get a big reaction!” Merle exclaimed, laughing louder. I’m sure he would have been right, had I worn them at the gym. I don’t remember what I did with them when I got back to New York, but I do know I never wore them to the gym.
But I remember one other thing about that Fan Fair stop. Merle asked if I’d heard about Jack McFadden. Jack was another bigtime manager I always visited when I was in Nashville.
I’d first met Jack when he managed Keith Whitley to country music stardom. Thanks to Jack, I’d even got to hang with Keith (whom I’d first seen at the University of Wisconsin Student Union Great Hall back in the early 1970s when he and Ricky Skaggs were in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys) and his wife Lorrie Morgan when they taped something together at a studio in New York.
Big thanks to Jack, I also became friendly with Buck Owens, whom Jack had managed forever. He also managed Billy Ray Cyrus, and I’ve always remembered what Jack said when Travis Tritt got into trouble at Fan Fair in 1992 for criticizing “Achy Breaky Heart.” In response, Jack said, “I think Travis is feeling the heat from our afterburner.”
Sadly, Jack was now in a coma, Merle told us. He wouldn’t last the day. But they were reading messages to him, so when I got to a phone I called his office and made sure they read a loving one from me.
Usually, though, Bob and I would visit Merle at his office in Music Row (he had another one in Paris, Tennessee, where Bocephus–Hank, Jr.–was based). His Music Row office was just around the bend from the Country Music Association headquarters (Merle was a longtime CMA officer), in the same building that once housed the Cash Box Nashville bureau when I worked for the long defunct trade magazine I came to New York in the early 1980s. We got there once when he was just pulling up in his immense boat of an SUV (in the same parking lot where I once spent a cold winter night in my rental car) that even then couldn’t fit his even more immense personality.
I’m laughing now recalling how another dear departed friend, Steve Popovich (founder of Cleveland International Records, Steve ran PolyGram Nashville in the 1980s, where he signed the likes of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), always referred to Merle, in conversation or in person, as “The SENATOR!,” for he was in fact an honorary Tennessee State Senator. Certainly, he was politically diplomatic.
I put Merle’s diplomacy to the test one year when Bob and I were in Nashville in October for the Country Music Awards. I have an unfortunate tendency not to conform with consensus, i.e., Bob Dylan’s the greatest songwriter ever, Aretha Franklin’s the greatest singer ever, etc., etc. Politics and big gun/big game-hunting obsessions aside, I’ve also always contended that Hank, Jr. was better than Hank, Sr.—always a good conversation-ender, if not longtime friendship.
I must have mentioned this to Bob, then said we had two country music authorities close at hand that we could trust for an expert opinion.
First we went to Tony Pipitone, who like Bob, was a top executive at Warner Bros. in L.A. (he headed the label’s “special products” division charged with catalog compilations), a big country music fan, a regular at Fan Fair and the CMA Awards, and another friend of Merle’s.
“I’d have to say Hank, Jr.,” Tony said, when we asked him to choose between Sr. and Jr. One down, we then went over to Bob and Mary Oermann’s, where I was staying, and asked Bob—arguably the most important country music journalist of our time—for his vote. He said exactly the same thing. Neither of them had given it a second thought.
My third and final expert was the guy who carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar and managed Jr.
I think it was at the PolyGram CMA Awards after-party, though it might have been at MCA’s. Whichever, he was standing at the bar when I arrived.
“Merle,” I said, “you know how much I love Bocephus. I know it’s considered sacrilege, but I’ve always maintained he’s better than his father. I’ve even asked Tony Pipitone and Bob Oermann, and they both agree. But if anyone would know, it would obviously be you.”
The SENATOR looked down at me, considered the question for a few seconds, then leaned back and said, “Junior is more versatile. But Senior was more focused.”
He could have changed it around. In fact, maybe he did. But either way, he diplomatically declared it a draw.
By the way, when I said Merle was standing at the bar, I should mention that he’d been sober then some 20 years. One day in his office he’d told me and Bob about his drinking days. Bob says he said, “I drank because it made me funny.” I remember him saying, “I drank because it made me happy.” Again, both work. Even without alcohol, Merle Kilgore was both happy and funny.
I did see him outside Nashville on a couple occasions, the first time when Hank played the Nassau Coliseum.
One thing that I loved about Merle was how much he loved Bocephus. Whenever I was at a Bo show and backstage or even on stage, Merle would be in the wings standing up and singing along the entire set like a cheerleader, just loving it. After the Nassau gig we went on Hank’s bus and while we waited for him, I asked Merle what Junior felt about Chet Flippo’s then recently-published Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams.
Another now dear departed friend, Chet Flippo was responsible for expanding Rolling Stone’s country music coverage in the mid-1970s, when I first got to know him. He later authored several books, most notably two on the Rolling Stones and his 1981 Your Cheatin’ Heart, which blended fact with fictionalized dialog and scenes, some of them intimate.
“Chet Flippo!” shouted Merle, who had actually spent time with Hank, Sr. “Yeah, Chet Flippo was there, all right! He was hiding in the hay with his tape recorder!”
Then there was a day in late May, 2003, when I approached the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue and saw a man who looked very much like Merle Kilgore waiting for the “Walk” sign. As I neared him it dawned on me: Ain’t no one who looks like Merle Kilgore who ain’t Merle Kilgore, and sure enough, it was Merle Kilgore.
“Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!”
Merle was on his way to Radio City, where Junior was rehearsing his performance at the ABC-TV network “upfront” showcase of its fall schedule for advertisers and media. Hank was going to sing his Monday Night Football theme remake of his 1984 hit “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight”—“All My Rowdy Friends are Here on Monday Night”—and I was thrilled when Merle invited me to the real thing later in the day.
When I got there I went straight to Hank’s dressing room, where he was already in all his stage splendor, particularly a fabulous cowboy hat with a number emblazoned on the front. I asked him about it, and he said it was the uniform number of a Black college football star who had died tragically a short while back, whom he had been very close to.
But there was another person whom both Hank and Merle had been close to who had just died—June Carter Cash, on May 15. I asked them about the funeral, and especially Rosanne Cash’s eulogy, which I’d seen or read, which was stunning in its beauty and eloquence.
Rosanne’s speech was so good, in fact, that when Merle turned to Hank right after and said, “Go up and say something,” Hank told him, “I can’t go up there after that. You go up and say something!”
Merle then said, “I can’t follow her either!” And then, in the row behind them, Kris Kristofferson leaned over and whispered, “Shit! Now I can’t go up and say anything!”
I suppose it was inappropriate, but I had to laugh out loud at these three legendary country music songwriters, who couldn’t go up and say anything in honor of their dear fellow legend after Rosanne took all of them to school!
Searching YouTube for a video or two to illustrate this tribute, I happened upon footage of Merle’s own funeral, co-hosted by a couple other friends: Travis Tritt, whom me and Bob had run into sitting in a darkened corner of a bar in Nashville the night that his Billy Ray Cyrus brouhaha erupted, and Marty Stuart, who was likewise finally going into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank, Jr. When they called up Bocephus, he wept uncontrollably.
“Well, you’ve done it this time, Brother,” Hank finally managed to mutter. “I went to the office today…and found that you weren’t there. But the more that I searched, I realized you were everywhere: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, Millenium, too–there were so many pictures, so many memories. Together, me and you. You carried Dad’s guitar in Shreveport, you were my link to him. Like a brother, like a father, and always, always, no matter what, my friend.”
Then they showed some great video of Merle telling stories, taken from a Country Family Reunion program, including a great one about how he lived with Faron Young when he was going through a divorce and after Bocephus had fallen off the mountain in 1975—and before he quit drinking.
Both Merle and Faron were raised in Shreveport, where Merle had carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar at the famed Lousiana Hayride show when Faron was a rowdy high school student in a class taught by Merle’s mom. Faron used to sing country songs in the hallways, so to get him to behave, she told him that Merle would walk him backstage at the Hayride if he calmed the class down. He did.
Years later in Nashville, Faron owned a mansion, and offered Merle a cheap rental on the bottom half. Faron was a great cook, Merle recalled, and they were like “the original Odd Couple.”
One afternoon Faron called Merle at Nashville’s Hall of Fame bar and asked when he’d be home, since he was making his favorite dinner—Shake ’N Bake pork chops. Merle said he’d be home around 6:30.
“Don’t lie to me, now!” said Faron.
Merle got another call from Faron—about midnight.
“You think I [don’t] slave over that hot stove cooking you Shake ’N Bake? Don’t even think about coming home on an empty stomach! Better stop at Waffle House because [the neighbor’s dog] Fluffo is getting your meal! Good night!”
The ast time I saw Hank, Jr., four years ago when he did a show at SiriusXM here in New York accompanied by his new manager (and another old friend) Ken Levitan, I mentioned how much I missed Merle.
“I talked to him last week!” said Hank, explaining that he’d visited Merle’s grave. “I told him I missed him, and he said he was proud of me.”
Now I can’t vouch for the veracity of the conversation, but I don’t necessarily doubt it. After all, I can still hear Merle saiying, “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” I don’t even mind that I overheard him calling someone else America’s most beloved music journalist, even if to my mind, at least, he was nowhere near as belovable.
But Merle always was.
“He was more than a big man with a big heart,” Brenda Lee said at his funeral. “He was a huge man with a big, big, big heart. If riches can be counted in the legacy of the lives he touched and the hearts that will never forget you, look around this room today and it tells me Merle Kilgore indeed did just fine.”
Twitter is fast, and sometimes (not often percentagewise since I tweet so much) I’m too fast for Twitter—meaning I’m too fast for my own good.
Usually it’s a matter of tweeting or retweeting before all the facts are in, like if suddenly someone is trending because of reports of his or her death and it turns out to be prior to confirmation or worse, a prank. Or the time a few weeks back when I fell for a fake report that Colin Kaepernick was getting signed to Buffalo or somewhere—because I wanted so much to believe it.
I had an itchy Twitter finger Monday, and after a retweet, unknowingly proceeded to make an unusual series of mistakes culminating in an amazing revelation that didn’t fully sink in until I’d already begun writing this piece.
It all started with my retweet of Chely Wright.
I retweet Chely all the time. I’ve known her and loved her since meeting her in Nashville in 1994, the year her debut album Woman in the Moon was released. The Academy of Country Music named her Top New Female Vocalist the following year, and she had a No. 1 hit two years later with “Single White Female.”
Then, in 2010, Chely became one of the first major country music artists to come out as lesbian, and published a moving memoir, Like Me : Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, released simultaneously with a terrific Rodney Crowell-produced album, Lifted Off the Ground.
On Twitter, she’s gay, liberal, Christian, kind, and fearless. I’m always looking at Twitter trends to see what’s going on, and when I clicked on “Monkey,” Chely’s tweet was one of the first I found:
“Let’s be clear here—@realDonaldTrump heard clearly that someone in his audience yelled out ‘MONKEY’ when he mentioned @BarackObama. Trump says, ‘Let’s be nice’ and then makes a joke about it. This is where we are. Racists are emboldened by this president. VOTE.”
Chely’s tweet was also a “quote tweet” in that it accompanied and built upon a retweet, in this case one from Ken Olin, another prolific and influential liberal tweeter.
This was Olin’s quote tweet: “After @realDonaldTrump mentions @BarackObama’s name someone yells, ‘monkey.’ A few seconds later Trump laughs and makes a joke. It’s inconceivable in 2020 that a despicable comment like this would be treated lightly. The President is sickening.”
I saw the Chely/Ken Olin combo tweet, assumed it was accurate—why wouldn’t I?–and didn’t think twice before retweeting it and copying it on Facebook.
Returning to Twitter maybe an hour or so later, I saw I’d received a notification, meaning someone had liked, retweeted, or commented on one of my tweets. Sure enough, it was a comment on the Chely/Olin tweet, from someone identified only as Byron, and with a profile picture showing a young man in camo uniform next to another guy who was casually dressed and wearing a ball cap.
Byron was replying to my retweet of Chely’s tweet/quote tweet, which may sound confusing if you’re not on Twitter, but will seem pretty clearcut compared with what’s to come.
“Yes. Let’s be clear,” Byron tweeted. “I heard him yell spygate.”
Taking Byron at face value, it did seem clear to me that his “Let’s be clear” was a sarcastic response to what Chely wrote—which wasn’t a big enough deal for me to get worked up over.
But I did get worked up enough over the next sentence—“I heard him yell spygate”—because I wrongly–no, very wrongly–didn’t realize that he was honestly commenting, that he really did hear someone yell “spygate.”
I figured, entirely mistakenly, that this was just another right-wing nutjob (RWNJ) who was mocking Chely and me by taking the opportunity to hurl the totally fake-news construct “spygate” as a means of promoting common anti-Obama RWNJ racism, much in the same manner as yelling out “Benghazi.”
So I did something I rarely do. I responded.
“As would any racist,” I tweeted back at Byron.
Like I said, I rarely respond. It only opens the floodgates for RWNJs.
I remember one time in particular, years ago. I don’t remember my tweet that started it, but I got scores of insulting RWNJ responses, the worst one being, “You look like Bozo the Clown!”
I didn’t hold back.
“What a vile, disgusting thing to say!” I tweeted back, then apologized to Bozo the Clown.
Like most RWNJs, this Bozo not only hadn’t use his real name, but put up a phony profile pic as well. I could only presume now that Byron was my new guy’s real name, and that one of the two guys in his pic was him.
Then I did something I almost never do. I blocked Byron—after clicking on his Twitter page and looking at his tweets and deciding that while I couldn’t be 100 percent sure that he was in fact a right-wing nutjob (they did seem to lean conservative enough), he still seemed to have attacked me with the bullshit “Spygate” epithet.
And that probably might have been the end of it, though I did notice for the next hour or so an increasingly bad taste in my mouth. So when I returned to Twitter and saw that “Monkey” was still trending (now joined by “Spygate”) I reopened my own personal investigation and soon realized that there was in fact a faction that was certain that it wasn’t “Monkey” that had been yelled out, but “Spygate.”
If this were true, of course, it changed everything, and put me in a hot spot should I have cared–and I did care.
I scrolled down a ways until I found video evidence, i.e., tweeted tape of the moment in question. I gave it repeated listenings, and sure enough, I could hear it both ways. But I surely would have ruled in favor of “Spygate.”
If it was “Spygate,” obviously, Trump was no less racist. But just as obviously, Byron could not be called racist at all, and I was absolutely wrong in my response to him. I immediately dug into my Twitter settings and unblocked him. What I should have done was apologized outright then and there, and that probably might have been the end of it.
So I just let it go, though I felt bad enough that I decided that I was going to write this piece. Just a few graphs. I didn’t know then how far and long it would take me.
Now I haven’t mentioned that when I went to Byron’s Twitter page the first time I found that he was following me. I get unfollowed and unfriended all the time—always a likelihood when you’re honest and outspoken. But I really hate pressing that button myself, especially when it’s a Twitter follower—though I had no idea why, based on my meager understanding/misunderstanding of his politics, Byron would want to follow me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I woke up yesterday, checked Facebook, and found a direct message from one Byron Lee Bess…, a profile pic beneath his cut-off surname in the small lower right-hand corner message box showing a handsome young man holding up an adorable baby.
“Call me a racist?” the message from Byron Lee Bess… read. “You know nothing about me. I hope you figure out one day how judgmental you are.”
This had to be before coffee. It took me a moment to realize it was Twitter Byron. And I’m not sure I clicked on his name to go to his page to learn anything further about Byron Lee Bess…—though I would later.
“My bad,” I quickly messaged back.
“No grudges held,” Byron Lee Bess… came back just as quickly. “Debates lead to results sometimes.”
Pretty decent, I thought, especially since I’d clearly struck a nerve.
Technically, of course, I didn’t call him a racist, not directly. But he certainly could have interpreted it that way, and I certainly suggested it.
Again, that probably might have been the end of it. But a few hours later I got another Twitter notification.
This time it was from someone who liked a tweet I was mentioned in–a tweet from Byron that I somehow hadn’t seen.
“Its all good,” he had tweeted, presumably as part of a response and thread.
“We have to stand up to it. @JimBessman blocked me and called me racist. Happens all the time. They just can’t see past their own hate, to be able to see what’s real and what isn’t.”
I was just about to start writing this roundabout mea culpa, and now I had this new notification to consider. I was going to take off the gloves and defend myself thusly: “Since I’ve been called out publicly now, I admit to being hateful—as it relates to bigotry, injustice, white supremacy, nationalism, religionism, militarism, inequality, desecration of the planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants…and I do not love any who support and promote such behavior.”
But I caught hold of myself this time, knowing that if I had posted, there probably might have been no end to it.
I did, however, post this: “As I told you elsewhere [meaning Facebook], I was wrong–though it was an honest mistake. As you told me elsewhere, you don’t hold grudges. I made an incorrect assumption based on your tweet. Now you’re doing the same. I also unblocked you. I’m not the only one with a problem.”
I did have another problem, though, in that I without any doubt owed Byron an apology.
But now came the shocker.
I went back to Byron’s Twitter profile pic—the thumbnail of the young man in camo next to the guy with the ball cap. This time I clicked on it, bringing me to his Twitter page—and a slightly enlarged pic. I clicked on it once more, and voila!, the guy with the cap was now recognizable as Gary Sinise, a fine actor, big veterans supporter, and a Reagan/McCain/Romney conservative Republican who refused to support Trump in 2016—by today’s standards, a RINO, and one I can respect.
But it was the guy standing next to him in uniform—U.S. Army combat uniform, urban camo, its nameplate all caps, now enlarged enough to read: BESSMAN.
Stunned, I clicked over to Facebook, and Byron Lee Bess…’s message from early morning. This time I clicked on his profile pic in the little box, which took me to his page…and there he was, Byron Lee Bessman, Jr. Dallas, Georgia. Born September, 1984. Lovely wife and kid.
I guess seeing “Byron Lee Bess…” in the little box that morning before the coffee kicked in had gone right past me. Or maybe I thought it was some Facebook trick to get through to me, though I have seen the “Bessman” name pop up on Facebook now and then, that was neither mine nor my sister’s. I even saw another Jim Bessman on Facebook some years ago, though this was an impersonator using my name and profile picture.
Coincidentally, I discovered all this last night while watching New York’s Metropolitan Opera stream of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, the historic 2015 production featuring the late Siberian legend Dmitri Hvorostovsky in his triumphant return to the Met, in the role of the villainous Count di Luna, following treatment for the brain cancer that would shortly take his life. The plot revolves around the abduction of the Count’s brother by a gypsy when both were babies, and I switched between it and a modern tragedy, the Republican Convention.
I didn’t mistakenly kill my brother as in Il Trovatore, though I symbolically offed my Facebook impersonator by informing Facebook authorities. Recalling this, I suddenly remembered I did also once find a James Bessman–who wasn’t me–from somewhere down South, maybe a relative of Byron’s, who was deceased.
Bessman isn’t a common name, but I doubt I’m any relation to Byron, for I think I would have known. He’s a religious person, which I’m not, but he might like my Facebook page photo with my Southern gospel luminary friend Bill Gaither, also the one with Kris Kristofferson, a Christian and true living saint.
I’m not a militarist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and support the military. Byron might also appreciate that my father was a retired Army officer who earned the Distinguished Service Cross in World War II and also served as a Marine in the Second Nicaraguan Campaign of the early 1930s, when the U.S. occupied the country while fighting the revolutionary guerilla leader Augusto C. Sandino. (Sandino was assassinated in 1934, thereby paving the way for decades of ruthless dictatorship—his name living on in the Sandinista movement that eventually ousted the dictatorship in the late ’70s.)
I was well into writing this piece last night when I had one final Twitter exchange with Byron Lee Bessman, Jr.
“No grudge held,” he wrote, replying to my preceding post, which in all honesty, now seems rather petty. But this is all about being honest.
“That was right after you blocked me,” Byron continued. “So more of a reaction, than a grudge. I’ll delete it if you’d like.”
“No, man, you’re good. I figured that,” I replied. “You may not know that I’m a writer and I’m writing this whole thing up, part explanation, part apology–which I definitely owe you. The weirdest thing is, I got started on it, but had to go back and look everything up…and only then discovered your last name! Hope you’ll enjoy it, but it definitely is apologetic. An honest mistake, but definitely my mistake.”
“Much appreciated,” Byron responded. “I’ll definitely read it. You’re as much entitled to your opinion on everything as the next person, and I respect that. Keep doing what you do. Thank you for following back up.”
I thought he was being too good about it.
“As are you, of course,” I said. “It really stems from my innocent misunderstanding. All best!”
Yes, it was my innocent misunderstanding, and not one of my better Twitter moments. I wish I could promise it won’t happen again, but I know myself better.
I’m glad Byron is so gracious. There are a lot of people on social media who wouldn’t be.
Having begun this with my friend Chely Wright, I’ll end with another friend and a classic song he wrote and performed during a contentious time much like this one.
Here’s the great Jim Post, and the song he wrote and performed in Friend & Lover.
“There are people who are so much a part of you that when they leave they take a huge chunk of you with them. In the case of ‘Miss Tee’ Alston, Ashford & Simpson’s longtime assistant, all the love she gave us filled that hole many times over. You remain with me always, dearest Tee.”
So I tweeted Thursday, August 6, a day after Valerie Simpson called me to let me know that Tee had died. I could immediately tell by the tone of her voice when I picked up the phone that something bad had happened, so I was ready for the worst when it came seconds later.
Val was very strong—“one of the strongest people I have ever known,” Liz Rosenberg told Val in a condolence email–having gone through these saddest calls many times now. I’ve been on the other end of some of these calls. Still I blubbered like a beached whale.
For what it’s worth, Tee’s first name was Altamese. I did know this, but I’m not even sure I’m now spelling it right–though I did see it written that way on a website that had her listed in the credits as coordinator of Ashford & Simpson’s 1984 Solid album. That album, of course, yielded their biggest charting pop record in the titletrack single. It was before I really knew them: I remember they showed up at some function then, and I told them how thrilled I was that they had such a major hit: Nick, amazed and ever humble, said, “So are we!”
I somehow doubt Tee was.
Altamese Alston passed away at 82—but it’s a safe bet that if anyone knew her first name (let alone her age) no one ever used it. For everyone knew her as Tee Alston, “Miss Tee,” really, or just—lovingly—Tee. For she had been Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s assistant throughout their career, even extending back before Ashford & Simpson. She was a little older than Nick and Val–who were so young even at Motown and prior to that–yet she always had more youthful energy than any of us.
But to say she was Nick and Val’s assistant doesn’t do her justice. “Coordinator,” as in Solid, was far better.
Karen Sherry, who worked closely with Nick and Val for years while vice president at the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), put it best.
“It’s hard to think of Ashford & Simpson without thinking of Tee Alston,” she said. “She was like the third member of the team—always fiercely dependable and upbeat with her warm smile and gentle ways. For more years than I can remember, she was the silent but strong partner, working tirelessly in handling every detail to hold it all together for Nick and Val, and while she wasn’t on stage, she made it all possible.”
For sure, Tee did everything for A&S, from running their office and business operations to event planning and wardrobe maintenance. She was so efficient, as Nick once observed, that if he should spill something on his shirt, she’d have it cleaned before he could notice it—while he was wearing it.
Indeed, sitting at one end of the Sugar Bar’s upstairs Cat Lounge, Tee was once seen ordering a Heineken for Nick, then asking the friend sitting with her to hand deliver it to him.
Nick was dumbstruck. “I was just about to order another one!” he said.
“I know,” Tee told her friend when he relayed Nick’s reaction. “I timed it.”
But Tee’s service to others didn’t stop there. One night Nick and Val hosted a small get-together among close friends solely to honor Tee, where Val noted another trusty Tee trait. Spotting a pal in the group, Val extolled Tee’s ability to keep comments made in confidence confidential.
“Barbara,” she said. “If you ever told Tee something you didn’t want me to know, don’t worry. I don’t know it!”
The love and respect went both ways: Tee once told me how a pop superstar had once tried to steal her away, no doubt offering her untold riches—all deserved. But she knew that all the money in the world couldn’t buy her Nick & Val.
All this isn’t to say that Tee couldn’t let out a little steam now and then. More often than not, this is where I came in.
You see, Tee, was brilliant. Not in any scholarly sense, but in an uncommonly practical one. I, on the other hand, didn’t even know about black-eyed peas!
It had to be a good 10 years ago. I called Tee after Christmas to wish her a happy new year. She was in the office, of course, busy as ever, and about to rush out to deliver packages of black-eyed peas to friends.
Now I’m from Wisconsin, so I guess I could be forgiven for not knowing about the custom among Southerners of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck. It’s a tradition dating back to the Civil War (according to Wikipedia and the tripsavvy website). Apparently, black-eyed peas were frowned upon by Union troops, who considered them to be food suitable for animals and not humans–and took everything except them (and salted pork) when raiding Confederate Army food supplies. As for the Confederates, they were grateful to be left anything, and the peas have since symbolized luck: They’re traditionally served with mustard greens, which symbolize money; pork, which symbolizes “positive motion” (pigs root forward when searching for food); and cornbread, representing gold.
As the peas themselves swell when cooked, they suggest prosperity. But they were also given to the slaves, and were later regarded as soul food. Moreover, they were said to be all that the slaves had to celebrate with on January 1, 1863—the day when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Hence, they are always eaten on New Year’s Day.
As was my own rather unfortunate tradition with Tee, I naturally asked her why she was delivering black-eyed peas to her friends. My question was met with stone-cold silence on the other end of the line.
“Jim Bessman!” she finally barked, her tone of utter disbelief bordering on deep dismay. “All the time you’ve spent hanging around black people and you don’t know about black-eyed peas?”
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more embarrassed–no, make that ashamed: To think that I, Jim Bessman, from the Hill Farms of Madison, Wisconsin, was somehow not black enough to know about the New Year’s Day tradition of black-eyed peas!
I think Tee said goodbye before she hung up on me. But within three hours, there she was, at my door, with a customary look of supreme annoyance—and a monster bowl of black-eyed peas.
Tee had first met Nick and Val “before there was a Nick and Val,” Val told Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman the day after she died. “I was playing piano for a gospel group in Harlem. Tee and her friends were walking by and they stopped in because they heard the music. I told her she had great shoes. And that was it.”
I would have met Tee shortly after I came to New York—the day after Christmas, 1981—and a month later got a job at the record business trade magazine Cash Box. I first saw Ashford & Simpson perform at Radio City, and even though it was their High-Rise show and that album came out in 1983, I think the titletrack hit came out in 1982. I do remember I didn’t know Liz Rosenberg then, or even kn0w who she was. But I was so blown away by the show that I called one of the few record company publicity people whom I then knew well—Eliot Hubbard at Epic Records—to rave about the show. He said I should just call Liz cold and introduce myself, since she had done publicity for them at Warner Bros. (High-Rise was their first album for Capitol) and continued to do so informally ever after.
I did call Liz, and 25 years later—2008, I think—Val wrote in the CD booklet for Ashford & Simpson’s The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities that Liz and I should just go out and do their show for them, since we’d seen them together so many times that we knew it better than they did.
But also since the High-Rise show I started seeing A&S every chance I got: New York, Westbury, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. I wrote about them in Cash Box and Billboard, and got to know them—and Tee. Everyone touched by them wanted to spend as much time with and among them as possible, and I certainly was no exception.
At every A&S show and event, Tee would be there to usher me and Liz and other members of what came to be known as “The Sugar Bar Family” to our choice seats and the dressing room before and after. She always treated us like royalty—for she herself was The Queen.
“She was as much a part of our industry as anyone I know,” Karen Sherry recalled. “Although the public never knew her, anyone who worked with A&S was accustomed to Miss Tee and her absolute devotion to Val, Nick and daughters Nicole and Asia. It will be hard now to enter the Sugar Bar and not see her running about doing whatever needed to get done—or greeting Valerie backstage and not seeing Tee by her side.”
Whenever I went to Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar restaurant/music club for its famed Thursday night Open Mic show, instead of entering the downstairs dining/listening room, I went straight up the stairs to Tee’s office, and if she wasn’t still working (rare), dumped my jacket and shoulder bag and headed directly to the second floor Cat Lounge, where everyone watched the show on big TV monitors and Tee sat at her prime spot at the end of the bar. When Nick was alive he’d be at the center table, so I rarely bothered going downstairs at all.
I’d sit with Nick or at the bar with Tee, or if Liz was there we’d sit at one of the other tables and keep nagging at Tee to join us. Of course, if there was business to be done—and there always was—Tee would move about between the bar, her office, and downstairs, where she could always be found cutting the giant birthday cakes she’d order for anyone who was celebrating their birthday at the Sugar Bar—often as many as three or four at a time.
There were at a few occasions when one of them was mine. One was in 2012, and I got there relatively late—close to midnight—since I was downtown at Terra Blues on Bleecker seeing my pal Rick Estrin and his band The Nightcats. Tee had called me earlier in the day to see if I was going to be there, and I figured that she must have gotten wind somehow that it was my birthday, since I’m pretty quiet about it and don’t want to be bothered over something I can’t claim any real credit for.
I think I got to the Sugar Bar around 11:30 and immediately got chewed out by Tee for being so late, then was hastily called to the stage by Val, who serenaded me with the unique Sugar Bar Open Mic version of “Happy Birthday to You” (a mix of the traditional tune with Stevie Wonder’s) after a beautiful intro thanking me for all I’d done for her and Nick and the Sugar Bar, rightly embarrassing me since I should have been thanking them for all they’d done for me. If Nick had been alive he would have come down from the Cat Lounge–something he never did–to sing along, too.
“How many birthday cakes did she buy, cut up and serve?” Liz wondered. “A thousand by my calculation. Was there a day that she didn’t spend making everyone else happy? Unlikely.”
My birthday fell on a Thursday again a couple years ago. Of course I had to go to the Sugar Bar, but I didn’t want a fuss made about it. I just wanted to be with my Sugar Bar Family, and wasn’t going to tell anyone.
Then I started overthinking.
What if Tee should again find out it was my birthday. She was so full of great sayings, especially when one of us—me—got on her “last nerve.” Here’s a favorite, that suddenly gave me pause: First thing she’d say whenever I saw her or spoke with her is “How’s my sister [Liz]?,” then complain if Liz hadn’t called her back. “Tell her if she doesn’t call me, I’m going to come over and shoot her!” I well knew that whenever she told me to do anything, I better do it right away, and you can be sure that when I forwarded this message to Liz the next day, she called her immediately.
So I called Tee to tell her I’d be at the Sugar Bar that night, then gingerly told her it was my birthday (as I most certainly didn’t want her threatening to come over and shoot me for not telling her), but that I didn’t want her to feel she had to do anything about it.
“Don’t you start with me!” she bellowed, and I knew it was futile: Of course there was another big cake and presentation, and I felt stupid as ever. I mean, I had to be told about black-eyed peas, for God’s sake! I wasn’t worthy to be standing on stage with Valerie Simpson singing “Happy Birthday” to me–while Tee was busy cutting my cake!
But speaking of birthdays, the most memorable one celebrated at the Sugar Bar, for me, was Miss Tee’s own. I was there for at least a couple of them, and it was simply stunning.
At Open Mic Thursdays, Val is always downstairs sitting at the front table across from the stage, singing backup for everyone along with other singers at her table. Again, Nick and Tee (and me) would be upstairs in the Cat Lounge, but they were always singing along to the monitors. So I knew that Tee could sing. I just didn’t know that she could sang.
I might have known, though, just as I might have known about the peas. You see, Tee, like Nick and Val, came out of the church. In fact, I always used to say that Ashford & Simpson’s songs stood out in that they essentially secularized gospel music, with its swelling sense of uplift. I always remember interviewing them at SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) for Billboard, and hearing Nick suitably characterize their music as “the big A&S sound”–a sound deeply rooted in gospel.
So it being her birthday, Tee went down to the stage and sang “Mary Don’t You Weep,” the gospel classic by The Caravans with the great Inez Andrews singing lead. Never having seen her do this, I couldn’t believe it. She was so good, in fact, that I told her she should record it and the Sugar Bar should sell it as a single. She didn’t want to hear about it, of course, but I so wish I could hear it now.
Another similar thing about Tee was that she didn’t like having her picture taken. But one of the last times that she and Liz and I were together at the Sugar Bar (November, 2018), Liz did manage to coax her into making one with the three of us.
As you see in the pic, Tee was unquestionably the most fun person to be around, especially at the Sugar Bar.
“I loved watching her cheer on every performer at the Sugar Bar and quietly sing along,” Liz said in one of our many memorial phone calls, during which we traded our favorite Tee lines over the years, much as we did the next day after a Sugar Bar or A&S show hang. Like Nick and Val, Tee loved music—which is why Nick started the Sugar Bar to begin with: to give people a place to perform, and everyone else a place to enjoy. No one enjoyed watching others perform more than Nick, Val and Tee.
I’m thinking now of Ron Grant, the incomparable Ron Grant, whom Tee especially loved, as did I, as did everyone. The incomparable Ron Grant, who could have been and should have been up there with the greats, and I never did understand why he wasn’t when he died two years ago. We all used to cheer on the incomparable Ron Grant, though Tee cheered everyone on, that is, everyone who was good enough to take the Sugar Bar Open Mic stage and do it justice. If they didn’t, well, that was a different story!
Maybe that’s where I come in, I who was always on Tee’s last nerve. As extraordinary as Nick and Val were and are, in her own way, so was Tee. Talk about not being worthy!
Not that I let that stop me. I’d stay ’til the drunken end, well past the typical 1:30 a.m.—and often later—finish of the live music portion of Open Mic, followed by another hour or so of hanging out with Tee and the endless partiers to the piped music upstairs in the Cat Lounge.
“I loved when at 1:45 in the morning, when I told her I had to leave because I had to go to work the next day, she refused to allow me to exit with feigned outrage–and made me sit back down for one more drink!” Liz recalled. “I wish I could have one more conversation with her about Manolo Blahniks….”
Great music and great shoes—and holding her own court in the Cat Lounge. And a work ethic that never quit. She was always working, even when she wasn’t—and looking fabulous doing it. That was Miss Tee.
Even when the Cat Lounge finally emptied, she’d stay in her office working, at least until 2 a.m. and usually closer to 3 and even 4. She’d then take home as many as four heavy bags full of paperwork (and shoes) home with her. Friends knew they could call her until 3 a.m.—and that they’d best not call her again before 11 a.m.
I’d stay with Tee on Thursday nights—er, Friday mornings—until the bitter end. This was my quality time with her, though I can’t vouch for the quality of the time I brought her—not so much because I’d had so much to drink by this time (though I most certainly had) but because I’m so hard of hearing that I often had to ask her to repeat herself ad nauseum—and still got it wrong. Inevitably I’d end up just nodding my head in agreement and carry those four heavy bags down the stairs and place them in her cab or livery car—for which she always generously tipped me, when it was I who should have tipped her for letting me do it.
The tip, of course, was a reflection of Tee’s work ethic, and respect for workers. She’d been a tireless worker her whole life, as far as I could tell, and felt a kinship with workers of all kinds, always tipping the Sugar Bar wait staff and bartenders and and many times explaining to me that if you were sitting at a bar and not paying for your seat, you had no business sitting in it.
I know she’d worked bars before in her past life in Florida (Tee was from Tampa), and in New York pre-A&S, she was a door-to-door salesperson, for Fuller Brush Company, I think. Lois, one of her dearest friends, long ago told me the wonderful story of how they met—which I’m laughing out loud now recalling: Lois answered the doorbell to find a pushy saleswoman peddling her wares, and Lois, not interested in the slightest, tried to shut the door on her. But Tee had her foot in the door—literally—and wouldn’t budge. They both would laugh heartily when recounting it.
Then again, I couldn’t say no to Tee, either, and can’t imagine how anyone else could—or why they would want to.
Around the turn of the millennium, I joined Lois and a few other friends of Tee in bar-hopping in Harlem—where Tee lived. It was such a blast. We’d always end up at the legendary Showmans Jazz Club on 1-2-5 Street, the club, in a prior location, having been home to the likes of Duke Ellington, Sara Vaughan and Pearl Bailey.
We were there to see another one of Tee’s faves, Jimmy “Preacher” Robbins, a great 1960s R&B singer and ace Hammond B3 organist, considered by fans to be the King of Harlem Soul and the nabe’s honorary mayor. Looking back on it now, it was as close as I ever got to what Harlem must once have been like, and it was a distinct honor and privilege being part of Tee’s entourage.
“I forgot to thank her for all the pina coladas she made for us at Nick and Val’s white parties in Connecticut,” Liz said, recalling how we made a beeline for Tee when we arrived at those legendary summer parties at their Connecticut retreat, attended by first names like Oprah and Maya and Luther and Teddy, everyone dressed in white.
“I forgot to tell her the joy I felt every time I walked into the Sugar Bar and saw her smiling face at the end of the bar or behind her desk–always a whirl of energy with files flying about, keeping it all together but always welcoming me with a kiss and hug and making me feel like I was a visiting dignitary or rock star. She did that for everybody, of course, but it still made me feel special.”
Liz was speaking for me, too.
“I forgot to tell her how much I loved her,” she added. “I did tell her–but definitely not enough times–what an extraordinary friend she was to me for all these years. I loved and deeply respected her devotion to Nick and Val, her girls–and all of us who surrounded them and worshipped at the altar of A&S. She was a treasure to all of us. The loss of her to my world is so much more than she would ever imagine.”
Karen Sherry noted how when Nick died, Tee was inconsolable, “but she was there for Val and her girls and helped them get through it.”
This time around, however, it was Val who helped me get through the loss to my world.
Like I said, her tone was strong and even when she broke the news to me, philosophical in her admitted shock.
“There’s nothing you can say. Nothing that can be said.”
She was right. I couldn’t say anything, other than that I couldn’t say anything—and I couldn’t even say that without my voice—and heart—breaking. I was stunned, so bad I don’t remember a lot of the conversation, which wasn’t long–there being nothing to say. It ended with “We were lucky to have her as long as we did.”
The next day was Thursday, and what is now Virtual Open Mic. I fumbled around on Facebook Live trying to find it and somehow lucked out in time to catch what I knew would be a heartening couple hours of words, photos and music dedicated to Miss Tee.
“This is really a hard time for me,” Val said from her home at the start. “Yesterday rocked my world and my family’s world: We lost the beloved Miss Tee.”
“Anybody who knows Ashford & Simpson knows what Miss Tee meant to me and my family,” she continued, noting that her phone hadn’t stopped ringing with condolence calls from friends including Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack, Nile Rodgers and Gayle King.
“I’m here because her spirit is here. This is the night she looked forward to: She’d always call me at the end of Virtual Open Mic and tell me who really rocked it.”
Then Val went deep, as only she can.
“We all think we’re going to be here forever, but it isn’t so,” Val said. “When I think of Tee, I think of a life well-lived. All I could ask for is more time—and that’s what everybody I spoke to today was asking for: more time with Miss Tee. But let me just say, How could she do us like this?”
People, “if they’re going to make an exit, they get sick, or give you a signal so you can prepare,” Val explained. “I told this to a friend, and she said, ‘No. Miss Tee did it right. She put on her high heels and exited.’ All of us have to make our exit, but she made the grand exit: She didn’t want to worry anybody!”
And that was it.
“I can’t talk anymore tonight!” Val concluded, and I knew exactly what she meant. So did Liz.
“I knew my loss was insignificant to what a profound tragedy it was for Val,” Liz said “What they meant to one another and the part they played in each other’s lives can’t be defined. But I’m so glad they had each other for so many years.”
Like Sugar Bar house band drummer Bernard Davis had testified on Facebook, Tee had been “Mom to so many of us.” For music attorney Judy Tint, she was “a force of nature, with the sharpest mind and biggest heart.”
“That she will be sorely missed seems an inadequate statement,” said Karen Sherry. “She was an angelic presence, a tonic for whatever ailed you, and I know that I, along with many, will never forget her.”
Liz even surmised that Tee was now “serving birthday cakes to her fellow angels in heaven–but here on earth she the brightest of lives and very, very loved.”
Echoing Val, she added: “I’m so, so grateful that she was with us for a while.”
True, we were lucky to have her as long as we did. She was bigger than life.
And, yes, she was 82, which is hard for me to fathom. Then again, I’m 68, and I can’t fathom that, either. Nick was 70 when he died on August 22, 2011, four days before Val’s 65th birthday. We were all so young once, and Tee kept it going as long as she could.
I think back to another night at Radio City, when Nick, dripping sweat and stripping down to his famous chain mail top, related how he was often asked why he sweat so much. “Because I’m giving you all I got!” he said, to loud audience acknowledgement.
“Wait a minute!” Val interrupted. “I’m giving you all I got, too!” And so she was and so they were, every single time, everywhere they went in everything they did, as Val does to this day, as Nick did until the end, and as Tee followed form.
“I can’t wrap myself around it,” Val told me on the phone. “She was fine yesterday….”
I’m sure Tee was working up until the very last second—giving it all she got. The only mystery, for Liz at least, was how she was “still able to walk in those shoes years after I could only wear sensible shoes! That’s always been a wonder to me.”
The shoes, of course, I couldn’t understand anyway. But really, everything about Miss Tee was a wonder to me. I used to tell people to go to the Sugar Bar, that it was a magic place that would change their life the way it changed mine, and by all means, to seek Tee out, because, I said, she was the greatest person they would ever meet.
In no way was I overstating.
And now I can no longer see the greatest person I will ever meet. As big a heart as she had, not even Tee, with all her drive and resourcefulness, could keep it beating forever.
The greatest night of my life was Nov. 4, 2008. Where else could I be but the Sugar Bar, sitting with Nick and Val, and sometimes Tee, who was scurrying around excitedly, waving a little American flag in each hand. I think it was during the Virtual Open Mic tribute that someone remembered her joyously exclaiming “In my lifetime! In my lifetime!” when California came through and put Obama over the top. I’m glad we all lived to see it. I just wish I had a picture.
I mentioned how she hated having her picture taken, and how she could be coaxed into it—at least by Liz. Then again, on the desk shelf above my computer monitor, next to my framed Washington, D.C. Metro farecard celebrating Obama’s first inauguration (I was there, with Liz), I have a little picture of me and Tee, at the Sugar Bar. I don’t know when it was taken, but Tee had it framed and gave it to me. So I know she’s watching over me as I write this.
She would say, in one of her cherished Tee-isms, that it was “cute with a ‘K’—maybe even “cute with two ‘Ks.’” I’d go so far as to give it an unprecedented cute with three Ks. Maybe even four.
Yesterday marked the ninth anniversary of Nick’s passing—August 22, 2011.
If I’m in town on that day I always head over to Bryant Park to sit on the bench with the shiny metal plaque that says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Val purchased it some years ago, to commemorate the fact that Nick did in fact sleep in Bryant Park when he first arrived in New York City from Michigan, as he was broke and homeless.
The last couple years I’ve been in Los Angeles on Aug. 22, but COVID got in the way this year. I checked in with Val Friday to see if she’d be there, as she usually is, with daughters Nicole and Asia–and of course, their longtime assistant Tee Alston. But Miss Tee had unexpectedly joined Nick upstairs two weeks earlier, and Val was still shell-shocked and understandably staying home.
So I decided to re-enact history—Nick’s and mine—and called my friend Hae Won Han to document it on her iPhone.
Nick’s history I’ve already cited. Mine is one of the funnest things I ever did.
I don’t know the date, but judging from its YouTube post in 2008, CBS Sunday Morning profiled Nick and Val at least 12 years ago, interviewing them at their home, the Sugar Bar, the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem where they met, and at Nick’s Bench in Bryant Park. I learned from Tee what time they were scheduled to do the Bryant Park taping and got there a good half-hour early.
Luckily, no one was already sitting on the bench. I promptly took over and lay down on the bench as if I were sleeping. Every few seconds I’d surreptitiously stick my head up to see if anyone was coming, and maybe 10 minutes or so later, Nick, Val and Tee, along with the camera crew, approached the bench—which is on the southern end of the lawn near the merry-go-round—from the northeast corner.
Nick was talking to the producer when he saw what had to appear to be a homeless hobo stretched out on his bench, dead asleep. Just as they were about to rustle me awake, I popped up on my own. To say I surprised the shit out of Nick would be a great understatement.
I must have looked really pathetic, because when Nick finally stopped laughing he said he felt so sorry for me that he was about to give me $50 to move off the bench for a few minutes! If only I’d waited…
I had Hae Won take a pic of me re-enacting my faked snooze on Nick’s Bench, itself a re-enactment of his real ones. She also took one of me wearing a Cleveland International Records ball cap, in tribute to another dear departed friend, the label’s founder Steve Popovich; a t-shirt honoring the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, and a “Good Trouble” mask in memory of John Lewis. I posted the pictures, along with one of me and Hae Won, on Facebook, where an old friend from Billboard, Paul Verna, kindly expressed his certainty that Nick was up there watching.
And, no doubt, “wanting to wake me up!” I replied.
I always read the obituaries, mainly because the last thing I ever want to do is ask how someone’s doing and find out they’ve been dead since January–like I just did now.
I hadn’t seen my dear friend Sam Lovullo in a long time, but always called him when I visited L.A. as he lived in Encino, even though both our hearts were in Nashville. Sam, of course, was the longtime producer–24 years–of Hee Haw, while I was a longtime fan–24 years–of Hee Haw, and for the last dozen or so years up until its end in 1991, a friend.
Indeed, I was a regular on the set during its annual October and June tapings during those years, since I was in Nashville for the October “CMA Week” of Country Music Association and music performance society awards shows and June’s Country Music Fan Fair. As I was also a backstage Grand Ole Opry regular (Hee Haw was taped at the Opry House, in a studio behind the Opry backstage dressing rooms, with Sam and the production staff in a trailer just outside the building), I got especially friendly with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, the Hager Twins and Buck Owens, but I knew most everyone there, at least a bit.
And it really was thrilling, to get to be so close to my favorite country music stars–and actually stand in Kornfield Kounty! In fact, I was visiting John Hiatt one night in the dressing room at the Bottom Line, and he was blown away by my Hee Haw golf shirt and told me his dream was to be in Kornfield Kounty. Next day I got on the phone with Sam, explained who John was, and to his undying gratitude got him in a Kornifeld Kounty segment–and my picture taken with him there.
But I knew Sam best of all. The last time I actually saw him had to be one of the last times I was in Nashville, several years ago. I ran into him backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during an Opry show there. Charley Pride and Roy Clark were in the house, and they greeted each other warmly and exchanged complaints about their latest physical ailments.
I bet I was down there for CMA Music Fedstival–what Fan Fair evolved into. I was hoping to see Sam and sure enough he was there backstage, Roy being the longtime Hee Haw co-host with Buck. He told me there was a Hee Haw reunion show the next day–maybe it was a taping for a special–and I went and hung out with him and the surviving Hee Haw family members one last time.
In the last few years I’d either call Sam when I was in L.A. or when I wanted a memorial quote from him on a newly deceased Hee Haw cast member. We’d inevitably commiserate about how the business had changed and our respective places in it. He didn’t have to explain his regrets, nor did I have to explain mine.
And we’d reminisce a lot about the good old Hee Haw days, of course. He’d fill me in on the lives of those who were still alive, I’d let him know when I heard from Kathie Lee Gifford as I was lucky to get to know her, having been a huge fan ever since discovering her on Sam’s short-lived but brilliant Hee Haw sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys.
People always think that country music is made by and for politically and socially conservative Americans, not without reason, obviously–think of Richard Nixon seeking refuge at the Grand Ole Opry House on its grand opening at the height of Watergate and taking a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff, whom I also knew from the Opry and the Hee Haw set–but as my own career began covering country music back in the late 1970s, I knew it was never so black-and-white.
Maybe my fondest memory of Sam was when I told him that when I first met him and the Hee Haw gang, my hippie-length hair was down to my shoulders. He was actually stunned, and couldn’t remember that at all. Not to suggest that he was or would have been prejudiced by my appearance, for he couldn’t have been more proud when I told him how I had met John Henry Faulk.
Texas folklorist, humorist, lecturer, and civil rights activist Faulk, friend of Alan Lomax and mentor to Molly Ivins, first found fame after World War II. He’d served as a medic and started writing radio scripts, and had his own radio shows in New York featuring his folksy characterizations. This led to TV appearances in the early ’50s, but he had also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and was blacklisted later in the decade. He then won a libel suit in 1962 after being labeled a communist by an organization led by my own Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
He was a semi-regular on Hee Haw from 1975 to 1982, starring in the “Story-tellin’ Time with John Henry Faulk” segment surrounded by most of the cast seated in an old country store setting.
Just before I moved to New York, John Henry participated in a folk arts festival at Madison’s Capitol Square. I figured that he wouldn’t expect a Hee Haw fan at this particular event, let alone anyone asking him about his friend Peavine Jeffries, a frequent subject of his Hee Haw stories. So I approached him as a stringer for Variety, which I was, and with the catch phrase often uttered by one of the cast at the start of “Story-tellin’ Time.”
“Hey, John Henry! I’m Jim Bessman with Variety! How’s old Peavine Jeffries?”
John Henry’s whole face lit up. “Jim, sweet Jim!” he said, beaming, then went into a warmhearted Peavine story.
John Henry died in 1990. Roy Acuff’s gone, so is ‘Pa, Minnie, Buck and both Jim and Jon Hager. But I know I could have got a whole lot of loving comments about you by those who are left had I known back in January. My apologies to you, Sam, that the only ones I can come up with now are mine.
I always come out to L.A. around third week of August, so it’s no big coincidence that I’m on the plane now, 9:10 a.m. ET, Aug. 22, six years to the day that I was flying back from L.A., during which time Nick Ashford died.
I knew it was coming, since Liz Rosenberg had called me before I left with the news that it was imminent. I’ve written about my thoughts on the flight elsewhere in this series, I’m sure–meaning, I’m pretty sure–and how when I called my voicemail upon landing was instructed to come straight to the house, which I did, in shorts and t-shirt, luggage in tow.
Every night of Aug. 22 now I tweet “Nick Ashford lives,” only this night, nine hours ago as I write this, just after midnight, I was immediately echoed poetically by Nicole Ashford, for whom her father was “always there in some form, always there pushing me on, never forgotten never gone.”
Accompanying her post was a photo of a joyful Nick practically dancing ecstatically behind toddler Nicole, gleefully riding away on her tricycle–so Nick: never happier than when beholding the happiness of others.
My eyes are welling up now, having gone back to copy those lines of Nicole’s and contemplate the picture some more. It only stands to reason that I love being around Nicole, and her mom and sister, of course. And other Friends of Nick. Such a wonderful thing to have in common, to cherish. To share.
Me and Peter Himmelman have had this long-running joke since a few years after I came to New York in 1981 and he and his Minneapolis band Sussman Lawrence moved out here temporarily a few years later before becoming the Peter Himmelman Band after he signed with Island Records in 1985.
“You gotta make it big,” I told him then, “so I can ride your coattails.” Every time I’ve seen him since, he’s said, “The coattails are out! Hang on!”
Too bad he goes so fast I could never get a good grip, even though he’s never been the huge recording star he always should have been. He’s still done very well as a recording artist, singer-songwriter-performer, TV/film score composer and most recently, self-help book author (Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life).
I’ve had another joke running almost that long with Marty Stuart, after seeing him play Studio 54 with maybe six or seven others besides myself in the audience. I was writing for Music Row magazine then, and Marty asked me to report that there were several hundred in the audience. As my column was the wholly irreverent “Gotham Gossip,” I dutifully did in fact report as directed that there were several hundred at the Studio 54 show—-a number has that inflated exponentially with every successive Marty Stuart performance I’ve witnessed in New York to where his January, 2015 gig at City Winery drew 30,000 to the 300-seat room.
There’s one other fave artist I had a running joke with. I became friends with singer-songwriter Greg Trooper early on, too, before he took on Will Botwin as his manager–Will also managing the likes of Rosanne Cash and John Hiatt before cutting out for Columbia Records and eventually becoming president. I worked out of the same office as Will back then, and every year from then on, whenever Greg stopped by to visit, I’d say, “It’s the Year of the Troop!” It was a joke, yeah, but I meant it.
But the Year of the Troop never came, and with his death on Jan. 15, now it never will. And that’s just wrong.
Greg Trooper was special, as a singer-songwriter, entertainer and friend. All this came out in the Day of the Troop, at least, Saturday, at the Celebration of Life and Music of Greg Trooper at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, which brought together many of Greg’s New York area peers—the New Jersey native had lived in Nashville and Brooklyn—and fans.
They’d buried Greg’s ashes in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn the day before—most of them, at least. Greg’s wife Claire Mullally said they’d spread the rest later at various places that were dear to Greg.
He was “a beautiful man,” she said, a “decent, gentle human being” who would have loved the celebration. She yielded the stage to a succession of great artists and performances starting with his nieces Sadie and Louisa Holbrook, who sang lovely a cappella, as Claire said they do regularly at family functions—including funerals. Greg wanted to record them, Claire said; in fact, he did record Oona Roche, young daughter of David Roche, giving her her first and lasting taste of the studio. Oona sang splendidly with Greg’s son Jack Trooper, who not surprisingly looked and sounded so much like his father on his song “Inisheer.”
Oona’s father David sang Greg’s “Land of No Forgiveness” with her aunty Suzzy Roche, who related that both Roches had met their lives’ loves through Greg. And if Greg hadn’t introduced all of the program’s participants to their partners, he surely impacted them in equally significant ways.
For Mary Lee Kortes, who sang his “Everything’s a Miracle,” it was a sense of support, “nothing he said, just the way he was.” Willie Nile spoke of Greg’s “warm smile and welcoming heart,” and Amy Rigby said that he’d shown her the way to leave New York for Nashville and come back again; she also noted that Greg was “deep dark and funny in a way only a person from New Jersey can be,” then sang “his only funny song,” “So French.”
Austin’s Darden Smith had come up for the occasion and recalled how Greg was uncommonly “so willing and good and nonthreatening” for a collaborator—and told a funny story about how they were at a songwriting retreat where Greg took a few 11-year-old kids and made a song out of what they were saying. “Throw a Stone” was the best song of the retreat, Darden said, then sang it: “Throw a rock/Throw a rock/Not at your brother/Throw a rock.”
Laura Cantrell, who came to New York from Nashville in the mid-1980s, told a funny story about how she wasn’t sure she’d be a professional singer-songwriter when she interned a few years later at listener-supported Jersey City radio station WFMU, where Greg was performing and she brought him a glass of water—only to spill it on his guitar. While clearly not pleased, she said he was good about it, and later wrote a song with her, “Can’t Tell a Soul,” which she sang.
Multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell was everywhere, just like he’s been since I met him when he was in Greg’s band in the early ’80s–recording and touring with everyone from Bob Dylan to Levon Helm. Here he accompanied several of the singers, and with wife Theresa Williams sang Doc Watson’s poignant folk dirge “Your Long Journey.” He saluted Greg with another word that pertained to both his artistry and humanity: authenticity. And Greg’s authenticity was evidenced one last time, thanks to producer Stewart Lerman, who played two stunning songs from Greg’s forthcoming final album: “Way Too Soon,” which brought those in the packed room to their feet, and “Columbia Blue,” which featured Loudon Wainwright III on backup vocals.
Maura O’Connell, whom I first met when she recorded for Warner Bros. Nashville in the late ’80s, closed the program with Greg’s “Ireland” and the traditional Irish song “A Parting Glass.”
I hadn’t seen Maura, and many of the others, in years, if not many years. It took her a moment to remember me, in fact, but only another moment to tell me that she’s pretty much retired, the music business being what it is for us elders. I should mention that her last album Naked With Friends (2009), a cappella and star-studded with the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, was Grammy-nominated, but that’s neither here nor there anymore.
I told her that she wasn’t alone—meaning, me—but both of us weren’t alone, as I found out when I went over to Larry and Theresa, who have their second album together coming out, and laughed knowingly in considering its unlikely commercial prospects.
Andy York was there. At least he has semi-steady work leading John Mellencamp’s band. Willie Nile was excited about his forthcoming album of Bob Dylan covers, and Mary Lee Kortes has a terrific album project, The Songs of Beulah Rowley , produced by Hal Willner, awaiting release depending on marketing strategy, she said, neither of us knowing what that means anymore.
I hadn’t seen or spoken with Suzzy Roche since her sister Maggie died around the same time as Greg. She was holding up as good as could be expected and looking forward to her Mother’s Day show with daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche and guests at City Winery.
I also met Jack Trooper, though I had met him once before with his dad at an Outdoors at Lincoln Center concert, I think–the last time I saw Greg, I think, many years ago, I’m sure. I was surprised to learn that Jack isn’t a singer-songwriter like his dad, but a cook. I wasn’t surprised to learn what a nice guy he is.
I didn’t get to say hi to Laura Cantrell, who is far and away the best singer-songwriter today in country music, though you wouldn’t know it if you listen to country radio—meaning to say she’s so good country radio has no fucking idea who she is. But take out the word “country” and substitute any other genre and I could say the same thing about all of the singer-songwriters who performed, for there are none better anywhere on the radio dial.
And that goes double for Troops, whose coattails never came out for me to grab hold of and ride, even though 30,000 fans and friends filled St. Mark’s Church.
“It’s our duty to sing his songs now that he’s not here,” Joe Flood had said, before singing Greg’s “21st Century Boy” with Mary Lee singing backup. It had been the Day of the Troop, at least, and for me, at least, it will forever be the Year of the Troop.