Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the attraction at yesterday’s closing plenary session of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) APAP|NYC+ 2021 trade conference, which like the panels, showcases and exhibition hall set-ups that preceded it, was held virtually online due to the pandemic.
Ma’s session took the form of an informal chat with APAP board member Renae Williams Niles, who heads Renae WN Consulting. She saluted Ma for his service as a UN Messenger of Peace, and being both the first artist ever appointed to the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees and a recipient of the Fred Rogers Legacy Award.
She also noted that “most impressive,” Ma has been married to the same woman for over 40 years.
“My wife is still putting me on yearly leases!” Ma responded, noting that every year she either renews it “or I’m out!” But he acknowledged that he is usually at home only one-third of the time, the other two-thirds spent “visiting APAP presenters—and it’s like I’m married to them as well!”
Niles, citing Covid and social upheaval–and the performing arts world’s tragic “loss of family, touring, and sense of community”–asked Ma how he’s been impacted.
“My life is no different than anybody else’s right now,” said Ma, who is indeed working from home like most everybody else. In fact, he “went to emergency mode” after March 10 of last year—the last time I played live in the States.”
He then thanked Niles for mentioning Mister Rogers.
“He was a role model! He used to say that his mother used to say, ‘Whenever there’s a crisis, you can always look for the helpers.’”
“Helpers,” Ma noted, “respond to need.”
“Helpers give hope,” he said. “Helpers give succor to those in need. In whatever way, all of us can help in one way or another.”
In Ma’s case, being a musician, he tries to “Zoom into private hospital rooms or vast tents [of Covid patients],” perform for health care workers, and “go out on a flat bed truck with my buddy [classical pianist] Emanuel Ax” and play for high school or college students and “people graduating without ceremonies that they’re aching to enjoy.”
“There is a place for music,” Ma maintained.
Niles noted that last year’s APAP conference theme was “Risk and Reslience,” and said that she’s never heard the word “resilience” more frequently than during the last nine months. Another word being frequently used now, she added, is “hope.”
Here Ma realized that being in the year 2021, in 2100—79 years from now—his youngest grandchild will be 79: “I’m suddenly thinking, my goodness, I’ll be long dead, but what world am I leaving for my grandchildren?”
Reflecting on the “authenticity” sought and demanded by young people, Ma noted that funding generally comes from older ones, idealism from the young.
“There’s so much work to be done, so much to fix and repair,” he said. “Can’t we bring those two most precious resources together and accelerate the process by giving custodial responsibility to younger people way sooner, and with us just listening–and when appropriate, helping?”
Relating that he himself is 65, Ma wondered how to best spend his remaining years.
“We need to solve some near-term, midterm and very long-term problems,” he said, conceding that he likely won’t be around to see the long-term ones through.
“But someone who is young can easily go half-a-century and work for presenting organizations,” he said, directly addressing them as “scouts for society” who can find artists “who are saying something important for us.”
“You can see over the ledge and see the dangers ahead–or beautiful things ahead,” said Ma. “What can you report back to our communities?”
Asked by Niles about “the disease of perfectionism,” Ma forwarded a lesson taught him by theater director Peter Sellars: “You don’t need to deliver the whole package signed and sealed and wrapped beautifully, but have to ask someone to complete it. It’s a big, big lesson: Don’t complete the whole thing, becuase the magic we’re all looking for is people meeting you halfway–the communal moment that we want to have and remember and hold on to and come back to later.”
“So perfection, no! Communication of something aspirational, absolutely!” He added: “I love when a string breaks at the beginning of a concert. Why? The damage is done–and everybody realizes that that happens.”
As the talk had transitioned to what Niles called “true collaborations when entities really do come together in unity and shared space to do something they don’t do independently,” she asked Ma to speak of The Bach Project, his two-year journey begun in 2018 and involving his performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world. The suites were among the first music he ever learned when starting cello at age four, and he was motivated, too, by Bach’s ability to speak to shared humanity at a time when civic conversation is often focused on division.
Niles noted how Ma used the Bach suites as a tool to learn from others—and other cultures, including indigenous tribes in Taiwan via a virtual visit in November. Niles herself had also experienced a cultural connection with a Taiwanese indigenous group.
“What happened with you and that indigenous group is the ultimate gift,” said Ma. “They let you in, and that is the crux of any artistic experience: Not watching through the window looking at Tiny Tim and seeing what happens next year, but being invited in–and you were invited in. I hope this is what all presenters are doing–not just presenting something but allowing the community to welcome a new member and new guest as a template for what we all do.”
Ma mentioned working with celebrated indigenous Taiwanese songstress Abao, who includes indigenous words from her tribe in her pop songs. He also recalled meeting a Hawaiian who had sailed throughout the Pacific solely via celestial navigation and was training younger people.
“They have a lot to teach us,” he said of indigenous peoples. “I met so many groups during The Bach Project, in Canada, the States, Australia, New Zealand. They hold a lot of wisdom that can help us stay resilient.”
Closing with a solo cello performance blend of the Shakers song “Simple Gifts” and Dvorak’s “Goin’ Home” theme from his New World Symphony, Ma said, “The meaning of life is actually very simple: It comes from the very simple things we do, and simple gifts, and in terms of simple kindnesses—treating the next human being the way we would like to be treated.”
And rather than “compose like me,” Ma urged plenary attendees to “listen to what’s around.”
“Let’s listen to voices of younger people and what they see ahead–and let’s do it together.”
APAP’s new CEO/president Lisa Richards Toney closed the 2021 virtual APAP conference by noting that it had been an “agenda-setting conference.”
“This is not the end,” she declared. “We are not returning to business as usual. This is the beginning: to engaging more equitably in advancing the field as the richly diverse ecosystem that we are; to building forward with anti-racism as our lens; to addressing the climate crisis as the sea level rises that affects us all; to centering the voice of Blacks, indigenous and all people of color; to better visa and immigration policies; to outdoor programming; to resilience and mental health; to recovering in an altered touring landscape; to public health and reopening; to the art of going virtual–and HEPA [High-efficiency particulate air] filters!”
“We’ve got work to do, but we have imagination to uncover and promises to uphold,” Toney concluded. “We are just getting started!”
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.”
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.
As all harmonica players and fans know, the 10-hole diatonic harmonica is the simplest instrument to get music out of, while offering limitless possibilities for professional virtuosity.
And now, at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, that harmonica is at the center of the virtual Harmonitrees exhibit at the university’s Hand Art Center gallery.
The latest in composer/installation artist/oboist Sky Macklay’s “sound sculpture” art installations, Harmonitrees involves eight sonic, kinetic and inflatable sculptures that resemble pine trees and employ the artist’s “deconstructed” harmonicas in producing musical sounds. The exhibit runs tomorrow (Oct. 17) through Oct. 23 at the Hand Art Center website.
Macklay earned a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in composition from Columbia University, and began creating her sound sculptures six years ago after seeing an inflatable, dancing tube person in front of a car dealership. Each of the sculptures at her Stetson set-up includes suspended harmonicas (Hohner Blues Band models) with their cover plates and draw (inhale) reeds removed, exposing the metal reed plates and blow (exhale) reeds, and plastic combs (into which a player blows or draws air in vibrating the reeds and producing sound).
The deconstructed harmonicas are then affixed to the transparent plastic “walls” of the Harmonitrees structures.
As diatonic harmonicas come in different keys, the sculpture on display in the Hand Art Center’s foyer will have harmonicas in G and D keys. The seven sculptures displayed in the gallery will have the tonic major chord of each key: F, G, A, B-flat, C, D and E.
Macklay spends at least three days constructing each sculpture, which is formed by the transparent plastic sheets and between eight and 12 harmonicas. Other materials include zip ties, wire, a high-powered fan in a wooden box, and foot-button with power chords and smart plug.
The height of each Harmonitree is between five and 10 feet, making for visual variety as well as varied “sonic envelope,” or sound as it changes over time from beginning to end.
When the fan is turned on, it fills the structure with air and creates pressure that pushes air through the harmonicas and vibrates the reeds to create a drone sound—essentially mimicking the effect of a harmonica player blowing into the instrument. Virtual viewers are then able to observe how the sound and vibrations are created, as the air blown upwards by the fan escapes through the deconstructed harmonicas, which have been intentionally affixed to the plastic at air-escape points.
Macklay selected the harmonica after considering nonhuman ways to play wind instruments. Harmonicas belong to the free reed instrument family, which means they freely vibrate with only air and don’t require a specific embouchure, or lip-shaping, in order to generate sound. Hence, a very simple robot, or fan-generated air current, can play them.
She also loved the harmonica’s timbre after experimenting with many harmonicas that were playing together. The experiment led to her first installation, Harmonibots—a sonic and kinetic construct of inflatable harmonica-playing robots–at the Waseca Art Center in Waseca, Minnesota, in 2015. The sound sculpture won the Ruth Anderson Prize from The International Alliance for Women in Music.
“The Harmonitrees exhibit is unique and innovative because of the inclusion of motion into a three-dimensional sculpture, and the incorporation of the viewer and their role in the sculpture’s performance,” says Hand Art Center director James Pearson. Adds Macklay: “I hope my installation creates a joyful experience for everyone. It is tempting to be nihilistic during a global pandemic, so I want to counter that by making people smile, and perhaps inspire them to think more broadly about sound, music and art–along with being more creative in their own lives.”
Stetson’s assistant professor of digital arts Chaz Underriner secured funding for a one-week residency for Macklay as a visiting artist and composer.
“Sky Macklay is an excellent composer and interdisciplinary artist who creates whimsical and interesting work,” says Underriner. “Her exhibit will provide virtual viewers with a fun installation that combines bright, musical sounds with inflatable sculptures. The installation is a breath of fresh air that I think we can all use right now.”
Underriner will moderate a free livestreamed artist talk with Macklay via Zoom on Oct. 20. An improvised concert featuring the inflatable sculptures (also including seven beach ball-shaped inflatables filled with air by Stetson’s Sculpture II students), to be performed by Stetson School of Music faculty and students, will be recorded and made available at Hard Art Center’s website at a later date, with Macklay playing oboe and Underriner on electric guitar.
Last week’s release of NRBQ’s In • Frequencies was the climax of an extraordinarily fruitful year for the band, pandemic touring shutdown notwithstanding.
It followed the recent limited edition CD release of NRBQ at the Ardmore Music Hall 2015, a live set recorded in 2015 at the Ardmore, Pa. rock venue with current members of the venerable “Q” and guests including Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson. Q-related titles out so far this year also include the band’s early lead vocalist Frank Gadler’s first album Cause of You, and a reissue of the legendary Shaggs’ second album Shaggs Own Thing (1982), which NRBQ’s Terry Adams produced.
Still to come before the end of the year are a new album from NRBQ’s current guitarist Scott Ligon and bassist Casey McDonough’s band Flat Five; original Q guitarist Steve Ferguson’s Blue Ice of Winsted; a vinyl reissue of Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson’s 1992 album Johnnie B. Bad, and a new Sun Ra Arkestra album.
And to top it off, Spanish publisher La Produktiva Books—new literary sister company to La Produktiva Records—has issued the first-ever book about NRBQ, ¿Quiénes son NRBQ?: La banda que toca lo que le da la gana.
But the new In • Frequencies is the centerpiece of NRBQ’s remarkable run of releases, and the latest in a steady series of original and reissue Q titles on Omnivore Recordings—notably including reissues of the band’s self-titled 1969 album and 1977 fifth album All Hopped Up, and the five-disc 2016 High Noon–A 50-Year Retrospective. Setting it apart, In • Frequencies is the first-ever collection of rare NRBQ tracks and outtakes—in the words of liner notes writer M.C. Kostek, “great lost songs from a lifetime of music.”
Indeed, the 16 choice tracks on In • Frequencies provide a perfect companion piece to the High Noon set in spanning the entire 50-plus years’ existence of the singular band whose acronym stands for New Rhythm & Blues Quartet.
“When our friends at Omnivore asked for a ‘rarities album,’ we readily agreed,” says the venerable band’s leader, keyboardist and founding member Terry Adams—the only original member still in the band.
“There were no studios open because of the virus–but there were plenty of good-sounding NRBQ recordings on the shelves already. So when these songs surfaced on the tapes, I had to say, ‘What’s a nice song like you doing on a tape like this?’”
Nice songs, for sure, and full of the fun that has marked The Q live and on record since the beginning—and has made the band, in all its configurations, treasured by fans and peers alike. The live version of Elvis Presley’s chart-topping hit “Too Much,” which was taped at the Pyramid Arena in Memphis in 1994, even garnered astonished respect from none other than Presley’s celebrated lead guitarist Scotty Moore.
“It was a lot of fun,” recalls Adams. “It was a big Elvis Presley tribute show, and every time I settled on a song to do, they said it was already promised to another artist. I’d planned on doing ‘Mystery Train’—with some added mystery–but had to think of another song. So on the way there, just two hours outside of Memphis, I got an idea for an arrangement for ‘Too Much’: making it a duet, and honoring Scotty’s solo.”
It was an occasion where the quartet was augmented by a horn section.
“My brother Donn [a trombonist who has served The Q as part of its occasional Whole Wheat Horns section] and I always laughed like crazy for Scotty’s solo on the original [which opens with thick, rapid-fire chording]. I called saxophonist Jim Hoke and asked him to score that solo for three horns—Jim, David Gordon, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Tyrone Hill: Jim had to rush to catch a bus from Nashville and scored it on the way to Memphis. When Scotty himself heard it he came over shaking his head and laughing, and said, ‘Well, it took three of you to do it.’ It turned out that he had always been embarrassed by it, and that Elvis used to tease him about it.”
Adams also cites “We’ll Make Love,” a live NRBQ gem written by guitarist Al Anderson that somehow never made it on an album until now, via a performance recorded in 1976 at Trinity College.
“I remember having more fun than anything playing it on stage,” says Adams. “We always had a lot of fun back there while Al was singing his song.”
As for bassist Joey Spampinato’s “Love Came to Me,” which appeared as a studio recording on the 1999 album NRBQ, the track was performed that year during a live morning radio show at WDET-FM in Detroit, and as Adams rightly notes, “it’s too good of a song to only have one version of.”
Another noteworthy live performance on In • Frequencies is “It’s a Wild Weekend,” which comes from a 1987 soundcheck at the famed Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, R.I. Featuring the band’s lyrics and an original bridge to the Rockin’ Rebels’ 1963 hit instrumental “Wild Weekend,” a studio take of the modified tune became the titletrack of The Q’s 1989 Wild Weekend album.
But an especially fun recording for Adams is “Orioles,” which was suggested by an NRBQ fan who knew that the Baltimore Orioles might need a song. Both Adams and Spampinato submitted a song, with Spampinato’s, “Baseball in Baltimore,” surfacing in 2002 on the Music’s Been Good to You album.
“Recording it was fun,” recalls Adams. “When I did the vocal part of calling out names of players, Joey could hardly take it because it wasn’t literal. He wanted the names of players who were actually on the team instead of others like Willie Mays and Don Drysdale—and Frankie Gadler and Joseph Spampinato! It was fun for me though, and besides, I don’t think anyone stays on any team anymore. Baseball fans have to be careful who they’re loyal to.”
NRBQ fans, on the other hand, have been rewarded for their loyalty throughout the long and extraordinary history of a band that continues to surprise with every performance and release.
“As a member of the band, I get to hear an awful lot of stuff that other people don’t have access to,” says guitarist Ligon. “But I’m hearing most of these tracks for the first time.”
He singles out the lovely “Sho’ Need Love,” a 1970 song recorded by NRBQ’s offshoot band The Dickens, that was released in 1970: “It’s almost too good to be true! It’s also hard to believe that I had never heard Terry’s ‘Get Real’ [recorded in 1983 and previously unreleased] or ‘Let Me Tell You ’Bout My Girl’ [cut in 1974, during the brief time when both Anderson and the late Ferguson were in the group, and also unreleased]” until this collection came together.”
“You think you know a person!” Ligon continues, then adds, “But ‘April Showers’ is my sentimental favorite. The piano break is unreal. The singer ain’t bad either.”
The singer, of course, is Ligon, on the cover of the 1921 pop standard that The Q recorded for the soundtrack of the 2018 movie Change in the Air. One of its music directors, incidentally, was the late Hal Willner, the longtime music director for Saturday Night Live, and a beloved music producer whose eclecticism matched the band’s.
Willner enlisted NRBQ’s participation in his acclaimed That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films multiple-artist concept albums.
“NRBQ is the Mount Olympus of rock and roll,” he wrote in the At the Ardmore CD jacket, hailing the band as a national treasure and testifying that “they make me so damn happy!” In all the group’s configurations, he added, it “consistently discovers real musical light in the darkest of souls.”
“The live album should get your spirits up,” observes Adams, “but one thing I wanted to do with Omnivore and In • Frequencies was make sure it comes out before the election—in the hopes of inspiring people not to be so depressed, but get out and take action!”
“That’s not the reason why we do music, or what the music is about—but I hope there’s an undercurrent there.”
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.”
“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.
The Friday before Christmas is pretty much it, at least as far as I remember of the music business. Record companies probably start shutting down a week earlier, maybe Billboard, too, which ends the year a week early with a double issue and likewise takes the last week of the year off. Or it used to, at least.
Then again, the music business seems so long ago to me, yet here I was, the Friday before Christmas (Dec. 20), being let into the PlayStation Theater and given as good a seat as they have, almost like I was still a genuine (pronounced jen-yew-WINE) music bizzer, which really, I haven’t been in some 15 years.
Three nights earlier I’d walked past the PlayStation (near the corner of Broadway on 45th Street–1515 Broadway, the tower housing MTV, and years ago, Billboard) on my way to the Impeachment Eve March, which started at 6:30 in Times Square. My pal Tony was outside doing security, as always, and I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I stopped and said hi.
I used to see Tony all the time when we were both members of the West Side YMCA, where I’d been a member since I moved to New York in 1981 or ‘82 (I can never remember which year exactly, and I’m too lazy to do the math, but it was the day after Christmas, and I was able to get a great ticket to Elvis Costello–with NRBQ opening–on New Year’s Eve at The Palladium.
(Now begins a typically pointless four-paragraph digression. You can keep reading, or scroll down to get back on track.)
I’d been a member of the Y since I was in high school in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the few habits I’d picked up from my father–and likely the only good one. I belonged to Madison’s West Side Y in high school, which was new then, and near James Madison Memorial High School, which I attended, at the city’s edge when it opened in 1968, I think. Later, when I lived downtown and worked at the State, I joined the Downtown Y that my father went to, a block up from the State Capitol building on West Washington Ave.
My father was a federal bankruptcy judge, and a lot of the
Downtown Y membership was likewise lawyers and state, city and county civil
servants. I lived a couple blocks on the other side of the Capitol and worked
at the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson St. a couple blocks South
overlooking Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down while I was still
in high school.
But it was three or four years later now, maybe five, and I had very few high school friends left. One day I happened on one of them, Tory, now working at the Downtown Y, at the membership desk, handing out towels. I didn’t really have a lot of friends in high school, and while I always liked Tory–who was a bit of a character, as I recall–I didn’t know her that well, but I was soon going over to her and her husband’s place for dinner and dope. Then a year or two after moving here, I heard that she was a whole lot smarter than her job might have suggested: She somehow rose to a more powerful position of influence at the Y and got them to commit to building a new modern facility, as the current one was probably as old as the capitol itself. So they tore it down, then found out that Tory was either the ultimate scammer or totally insane and had made everything up—and understandably disappeared, leaving nothing but a deep hole in the ground where a venerable Y used to stand, not to mention that West Side Y, where I used to play paddle ball with my friend Greg, before he moved on to the newer sport of racquet ball.
Greg was quite good, by the way. Me? I went for a shot deep against the right sidewall, missed it, but in a most remarkable feat of uncoordination–and/or a very lame early suicide attempt–sliced open my left eyebrow in the follow-through and needed stitches. Greg eventually went on to hang himself (see preceding post, Three nights in L.A.).
Returning to the present, it was a great march. I took a lot of fab Instagram/Facebook/Twitter pics, and then the next day for some reason—maybe an email or Facebook notice—I saw that Samantha Fish was playing Friday night at the PlayStation, a 10-minute walk from my apartment.
I’d never seen Samantha, but I knew of her through my Madison pal Rockin’ John McDonald, who plays her now and then on his venerable I Like It Like That oldies show on listener-sponsored station WORTFM.org, since she’s one of the few contemporary artists who fits his 1950s/’60s rock ‘n’ roll format. But at this late state of my so-called career, there was no one I could call for a ticket or a pass. I mean, shit, I didn’t even know what label she was on.
Then I thought of Tony and figured he’d be happy to slide me in, and sure enough, he was. When I got to the venue we talked a bit about how bad everything is, namely the music and concert business, since there was nothing to bring me to the PlayStation in years, and Tony himself didn’t care about the music there–also the fact that the theater had been bought out and was shutting down at the end of the month, to be overhauled before reopening under new name and management and leaving him without a job.
And, of course, Trump. Tony was extremely depressed over the prospects of impeachment and the election. But he was happy to walk me in, handing me a ticket and wristband, and it was a great seat–in the best section in the house (first row, center aisle in the elevated section overlooking the floor). It was 7:10, so I had 50 minutes to kill before the opening act.
Now at my age and condition, I don’t want to waste any time, which I was about to do. But I’d come prepared, as always: two pens—one fountain, one ballpoint—and a fresh Portage Pocket Notebook (“for journalists, radio/TV reporters and law enforcement officers). The only thing I didn’t bring was any idea to write about, and my usually wandering mind was stuck on start.
But I was unusually filled with Christmas cheer. I’d had lunch earlier with two friends from the Russian News Agency TASS—Igor Borisenko, the current bureau chief, and Elya Polyakova, office manager.
Elya! Say it loud and there’s music playing….
Actually, it’s kind of a nickname for Elvira, which would be closer to “Maria” in West Side Story–the “i” pronounced “ee” as in “deer” I believe, but I’ve never heard her called that. Russian names generally have different forms according to relationships, as I’d learned after many years of friendship with New York and Moscow TASS staffers (Vladimir, for another example, can become Volodya, or Vova).
Back in the Soviet era I was actually under FBI surveillance (probably still am) but I’ve already digressed too much here to digress even further in recounting it now. I will say, though, that it had been a long time since I’d had lunch with TASS friends, let alone seen them at the end of the year, when years ago they’d have great office Christmas parties attended by the Consul General and head of New York’s Russian Orthodox Church, other Russian dignitaries and foreign press friends, not to mention Nina Khruscheva, Nikita’s great-granddaughter (!), noted author and professor of international affairs here at The New School. At the party, my dearest friend Volodiya Kikilo would always ceremoniously present me with a big, gift-wrapped bottle of premium vodka (I’d bring a big box of Bisco Latte biscotti, made by my neighborhood friend and baker supreme Holly DeSantis).
I’d return to the bureau on New Year’s Eve Day afternoon to listen to the Kremlin Countdown. So it was great to reinstitute my TASS holiday tradition, and Igor came through with a big bottle of Russian Standard.
So as I sat there at PlayStation, still a bit lit from lunch, I began to write down what I remembered from it, then jumping to other meandering thoughts, switching between pens depending on the need for speed (the fountain pen flows faster, but if I slow down I’ll switch to a rollerball or ballpoint, since I can’t retract the fountain pen nib and don’t want to keep capping it to keep it from drying, and clip it to my shirt pocket).
One thought that entered my mind, though, was, When was the last time I was at PlayStation? I wasn’t even sure I was at a show when it was called the PlayStation! I bet I hadn’t been at the 2,100-seat theater since it was called the Best Buy Theater before changing ownership and name in 2015.
I did remember seeing Elvis Costello there once long ago–which was unforgettable—or maybe it was the maybe more recent big Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star–but all I remember of that show was smoking a joint backstage with star Deadhead Bill Walton, which was great, for sure.
And suddenly it was 8 o’clock. Tony said he’d seen the opening act, Nicholas David, during soundcheck, and that he was excellent. Tony was right. Nicholas David, from St. Paul, looked like a young Dr. John, played and sang like one (though I was later told he’d never heard of Dr. John when he started approximating him) while leading a crack bassist and drummer—who was from Omaha, where we used to pass through on our way from Madison to Lincoln to visit my mom’s family when I was a kid. Of course he was way too young to know the most important cultural reference to Omaha…no! Not Peyton Manning’s famous “indicator word” for calling an audible at the line of scrimmage, but Moby Grape’s classic flop single “Omaha.”
Unbeknownst to me, David had been a finalist on the third season of The Voice, and was now the second artist I’d seen in two weeks that I hadn’t heard of that blew me the fuck away, the first being Shinyribs, the ultra-hot Austin show band that opened for Robert Earl Keen’s Christmas show at Town Hall. Switching between fountain pen (a trusty Lamy black Safari with black fine nib) and ballpoint (Retro 51 Elephant & Rhino Rescue, Series I) as David did a very soulful “Joy to the World,” I thought of St. Paul’s twin sister city Minneapolis, and the three great bands I knew from there: Sussman Lawrence, which turned into the Peter Himmelman Band; The Suburbs (the band, I always say, that died so that The Replacements could live) and The Wallets. David slid from ballads (great job on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) to funky originals, and when he was done, I headed out to his merch table to meet him and maybe impress him by dropping these names.
More likely, he’d look at me like the old geezer I am, since he had to be way too young to have even heard of these bands. But the Suburbs’ keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist Chan Poling is still quite active doing all kinds of things—including the occasional ‘Burbs reunion gig and album release, while Jeff Victor, Sussman Lawrence/Himmelman Band’s genius keyboardist, is famous locally as the NBA house organist for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and guest organist for the Minnesota Twins, also among other things. As for The Wallets, they only had two albums, and their most brilliant founder Steve Kramer, a wonderful painter and accordionist who composed experimental polka music, died in 2013. Their fabulous 1986 album Take It was produced by Allen Toussaint, and whenever I saw Allen I’d stop him dead in his tracks by reminding him it was my favorite album of his, and was pleased I even knew it existed.
But before I could get to David’s merch set-up I got waylaid
at Samantha’s by Rounder Records’ Regina Joskow, a longtime publicist friend,
though I’m so out of it now I didn’t know that Samantha was on Rounder, let
alone had a new record out.
Regina was with Sam’s manager Reuben Williams, who brought
us both back to say hi to her before going on. When I told him I’d got hip to
her through Rockin’ John in Madison, he revealed that he was friends with my
junior high school buddy and future blues harmonica ace Westside Andy
“Let me take your name down,” I said to Reuben, wanting to have it handy next time I saw Andy during a Madison visit. Reuben laughed heartily and turned to the guy in the dressing room next to him and said, ‘Look, Howie! He’s taking my name down!” I only knew what came next would be embarrassing at the very least.
Sure enough, the guy, who looked a bit like a very young Al Wolovitch of Sussman Lawrence (bassist), started laughing, then introduced himself.
“I’m Howie Schnee! We’ve met many times—and you never
I was mightily embarrassed, indeed, and profusely
“Then you know me!” I said. “I always forget even who I am—and I get this all the time.”
Howie kept laughing.
“It’s okay!” he said, explaining that I’d told him all this before, and had subitted the surefire “I smoke a lot of pot!” as an excuse. He even remembered meeting me at a songwriters “In Their Own Words” show at The Bottom Line, starring Kris Kristofferson, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega and Victoria Williams, which I vaguely remembered myself—the show, that is, in 1994.
We said hi to Samantha, who’s from Kansas City but based in New Orleans—where she’d brought Nicholas David down to produce his own fab new album Yesterday’s Gone (on her Wild Heart Records label), then Reuben and I talked about Louisiana Cajun artists we both knew before he slipped me an “All Access” pass and I headed back to my seat by way of David’s merch table. This time he was there, and actually knew who Chan Poling was: One for three is not bad anymore, for an old man.
Speaking of old men, the only criticism I have of Samantha’s set, which was otherwise so much more than all I had hoped for, was that it was way too loud for a guy who has to have the TV on all night to drown out his tinnitus—maybe even as loud as John Fogerty, who I can never understand why he pushes it up so high. I used to always bring earplugs but I go to rock shows so rarely now, and those I go to are by artists pretty much as old and hearing-impaired as I am, so I no longer know where they are. Luckily I had an old Dunkin’ Donuts napkin decomposing in my jacket pocket—actually in better condition than the jacket—and managed to find just enough of it that was still solid enough to stuff into my ears.
“How are we doing, PlayStation Theater?” Samantha asked after “Bulletproof,” the down-and-dirty fuzz-toned lead track from her new, wonderfully titled album Kill or Be Kind. We were doing fine, I said to myself. Near-dead PlayStation Theater, not so much. But I did feel a little bad for her, since my seat was elevated just enough to look down on the floor, where I could see all the bald male heads except, fortunately, my own. I remembered the last time I saw Maria McKee in New York, at Joe’s Pub, many years ago, and she complained that her audience was always mostly middle-aged men—except it had to be worse for Samantha, because she’s only 30 and us then-middle agers were pretty much Maria’s contemporaries. And now that we’re all at least twice Sam’s age, we were all pretty sedate for such a high-energy show.
“We’re in some tough times,” said Samantha, as my balled-up
Dunkin’ Donuts napkin plugs decomposed some more, though at a slower rate than
me and my fellow baldies. “But live music makes it a bit better–at least for
me.” As Rockin’ John always says after announcing the local club gigs in the
middle of his two-hour show, “Go out and support your favorite bands. They’ll
appreciate it—and you’ll feel good about it.”
Samantha was leading into an older, ironically titled song, “American Dream”:
Blood on a street, it’s another new day Lost count of how many died, at least I’m doing it my way You’re the liberated, you are the free Free to cry and die disenfranchised, blessed as a country.”
After the encore I peeled off the backing of my All Access pass and went back to Samantha’s dressing room where Howie (See, Howie? I remember your name!) wondered about her name, i.e., its nationality, its ethnicity, since, he said, “a lot of Jews are named Fish,” or some variant with “Fish” in it.
“There are a lot of Fishes,” she said. But only one big one, I thought to myself–and kept it there.
I slobbered a bit and said goodbye, went home, broke open that big new bottle of Russian Standard and poured a stiff shot into my metal Robert Earl Keen “The Road Goes on Forever” shot glass and drank myself into a stupor so deep I didn’t need the TV on.
I met Ken Burns in Central Park at a kickoff event for his 2009 The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, which included performances from Jose Feliciano, whom I was so excited to meet, and my friends Alison Krauss & Union Station. Peter Coyote, the series narrator, was there, too, and it was great to meet him: I was a huge fan of A Grande Arte (US title: Exposure), a 1991 Brazilian film directed by Walter Salles Jr. in which he learned knife-fighting; I was training in Filipino martial arts, and knew that its knife fight-training and fighting scenes were unusually realistic.
Peter was impressed that I knew the film, which to my knowledge never came out on DVD—despite my efforts to convince Criterion and other companies to do so. He said it was one of his favorites, too.
But Peter is also the voice of Ken’s 18-hour The Vietnam War series, which concluded it’s two-week premiere run two weeks ago on PBS. I watched it with a dread shared probably by everyone of my generation, knowing that if I hadn’t lost it by the time it got to Kent State, I surely would then. Sure enough, my eyes moistened and dripped during the eighth of the 10 episodes when the indelible scenes of the May 4, 1970 Kent State killings were replayed. It brought back the never-forgotten memories of my moist and dripping eyes after being smothered by clouds of tear gas on the University of Wisconsin campus during the Vietnam War protest years.
I’ll never forget running up the parking ramp next to the McDonald’s at State and Lake Streets just a couple blocks from State and Park at the foot of Bascom Hill after a canister of gas was tossed or fired in my direction by the National Guard. I ran all the way up to the top of the ramp, only to realize, to my breathless horror, that there was no stairway*, and that I had to run back down, now into the clouds of gas that were billowing upwards and out into the ramp.
But I had it worse one night when a can of pepper gas exploded right in front of me and into my eyes. I was a bit lower on State Street, and I knew that the Hillel Foundation a block north on Langdon was a treatment center. I got there somehow and they flushed it out of my eyes and I was back out on the street. Like every other night of the many nights of Vietnam War protests on campus, I’d get home after and shower the gas out of my long hair and back into my eyes before rinsing it all out.
Once the gas came, the massive demonstrations, which would start in twilight and center at State and Park, would break up in all directions.
One time I was in a big group walking up Bascom Hill into the heart of the university. It got dark and there were police everywhere, and a National Guard helicopter overhead with a searchlight beaming down on small groups of demonstrators and lighting the way for arrests and/or police brutality. I hid in the bushes on the shores of Lake Mendota hoping to not get spotted. We called it “bringing the War back home.”
The Vietnam War brought it all back home, all right, including, of course, the music. Much of the soundtrack was ‘60s anthems, many of them war-related, like famous Dylan, Baez and Beatles songs. The Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” was used, and it was one of the songs that blared out of dormitory windows as we marched by—even though the words are really about the lack of street-fighting men in “sleepy London town.”
The other song I remember blasting out of the dorms made perfect sense, and should have been in The Vietnam War: Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America”:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul.
Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation.
Many years later, downstairs at Radio City at a reception after a Jefferson Starship show, I told this to Grace Slick. She laughed and said she’d heard that from a lot of people.
Over the years I got to meet and sometimes know a lot of the artists whose songs were part of the Vietnam War soundtrack, most notably including Dylan, Baez, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. CSN&Y, of course, consecrated Kent State with their hit “Ohio.”
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Add songs from the aforementioned artists and talk about “the soundtrack of our lives.”
I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, for protesting the Kent State killings, along with 100 others. An underground paper called us “The Memorial 101.” I celebrated by getting tear gassed again downtown on campus that night.
There are four images indelible in my mind from Vietnam and I knew I’d see all of them in The Vietnam War.
First was the South Vietnames officer holding the pistol to the head of the Vietcong guy in Saigon and blowing his brains out.
Second was the little naked girl with her back burned off running down the road.
Third was the bodies lined up roadside in My Lai.
Fourth was the teenage girl, 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of the student shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, crying out in shock and anguish.
The dead boy was Jeffrey Miller. Killed, too, were Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Allison Krause. Like I always say, “the other Alison Krauss.”
Four dead in Ohio.
I remember their names like I remember James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—the three civl rights activists murdered by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964, and Viola Liuzzo, whose son I met in July in Milwauke at an Elvis Costello concert, she being the civil rights activist who was murdered by the Klan in Alabama in 1965. And now Heather Heyer.
A year earlier—the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nov. 15, 1969—I was at St. Paul’s University Catholic Church, on State near Park and Bascom Hill, for a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary, all of whom I would later get to know. In fact, it was at Mary Travers’ memorial in 2009 where I met George McGovern, as great a man who ever served his country.
I had gone to the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where McGovern was nominated, disastrously. Can’t remember the name of the park where all us demonstrators gathered and crashed, though one night I wound up in some cool place in Coconut Grove. At the park I hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Abbie Hoffman and Germaine Greer. And I went to a screening of the documentary F.T.A. starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (who were there) and the musicians and performers who accompanied them on their touring satirical revue staged at coffeehouse and parks near U.S. Army bases where soldiers against the war congregated–F.T.A. generally understood to mean “Fuck the Army,” or as was also stated in the film, “Free the Army.”
It was a wonderful film that was apparently yanked out of distribution immediately because Jane infamously went to Hanoi the same week it opened. I saw it again a few years ago when it came out on DVD and it really was great. It also starred folksinger Holly Near—whom I later got to know—and Len Chandler, the historic African-American folk/protest singer-songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene who influenced Dylan–and who I wish I’d gotten to know. He did an antiwar song in the film that I’ve searched all over for and can’t find, called “My Ass is Mine.” It went, as musicians often say, something like this:
First they draft your ass
Then they train your ass
Then they kick your ass
And then they kill your ass
Well they can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass.
I got drafted in 1971. They were using a lottery system and my birthday drew a low number, 100, I think, or maybe it was 90. I’d originally been given a 1-Y classification, meaning I was qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency. But I still had to get on a bus one morning with other draftees and ride to Milwaukee and take a physical exam. About all I remember is the shit box lunch they gave us and stooping down around in our underwear and doing the “duck walk.”
I was pretty confident of being disqualified for good, due to very real mental illness–not to mention bad asthma and feet flatter than a Vietnamese rice paddy. Sure enough, I was given the coveted 4-F classification–not acceptable for military service. Years later I was burning a big one with Ray Benson, the great frontman of the great western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He suggested someone write a book about how famous people got out of going to Vietnam. I don’t remember how Ray got out, but I did have a high school friend who put a bullet in his foot claiming it was a hunting accident—which was epidemic at the time among draftees—and another who passed his physical, then told the draft board that he was gay, which he wasn’t. They punched him hard in the jaw and told him to get the fuck out of there.
Had I not got my 4-F I would have applied for conscientious objector status, though if I told the truth that I was atheist I might have been denied. So I would have gone to Canada, or jail, or Australia: I’d actually researched Australia at one time as they advertised for migrants in the classified ad section of The New Republic, then a genuinely liberal magazine, and I had a fondness for kangaroos and The Easybeats.
But I can’t remember if it was after all this or before, when I either saw Jane Fonda again or for the first time. But either way, it was pretty pathetic.
She was speaking on campus at some big, packed lecture hall just off State Street. At the end she took questions, and I desperately wanted to ask her something, just to have a personal exchange. I meekly raised my hand, stood up and started asking, and halfway forgot who I was and where I was and what I was doing, let alone whatever it was I was trying to ask. She was so beautiful, still in the Klute gamin haircut, and I was so starstruck. But she was so good: She knew what I was trying to ask, finished my question and answered it.
But it only got worse. I couldn’t control myself, and trailed her and a handful of other activists all the way down State Street to the State Capitol, where they met with a representative or two who were also antiwar. I don’t think I said a word the whole time.
So I had to laugh out loud when John Musgrave, a Marine and maybe the most eloquent and thoughtful Vietnam veteran appearing in The Vietnam War, acknowledged how Jane Fonda was everyone’s fantasy, so much so that he hated her when she went to Hanoi and became “Hanoi Jane.” But after stating this, Musgrave, who eventually turned against the war himself after returning to the States, paused and smiled, in spite of himself: “She was our fantasy,” he said, and even now, 50 years later, she still is.
A number of other Vietnam War vets, family members and other functionaries participated in The Vietnam War, and while most of them likewise looked back with some degree of regret if not shame, a few also stood out. These included Carol Crocker, who also turned against the war after losing her older brother Denton W. Crocker, Jr., known now forever to me and probably everyone who watched as “Mogie.”
While Mogie and John Musgrave were fighting the War in Vietnam, I and so many others in Madison and the rest of the country were fighting against it. But it was marred in Madison by the Aug. 24, 1970 Sterling Hall Bombing, which was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center that was housed in the UW building, but unintentionally took the life of university physics researcher Robert Fassnacht—whose name I still remember.
I still remember the names of the four bombers, too—Karleton Armstrong and younger brother Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt. I met the Armstrongs after they were caught and released from prison, and met David Fine after he was caught and sentenced, and trained briefly at the taekwondo school I attended before beginning his prison term. Leo Burt was never apprehended.
I was surprised, many years later, that Ethan Coen knew the names of all the bombers, who called themselves “the New Year’s Gang,” having failed in an attempt to destroy the huge Badger Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Sauk County by means of dropping homemade explosives from a stolen small plane on New Year’s Eve, 1969. But the Coens were from Minneapolis and no doubt went through the same shit as I did growing up, and had also lived briefly in Madison when their dad taught a semester at the UW. Their lesser-known 2009 movie masterpiece A Serious Man, while not concerning Vietnam specifically, delivers much of the flavor of being a kid growing up in the ’60s in the Midwest, using Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, which I knew by heart, for much of the soundtrack.
As for growing up with the War, this was documented in The War at Home, a documentary film of the Vietnam War years in Madison. And it all came back home to me while watching The Vietnam War. Then again, it never really left.
As Phil Gioia, U.S. Army, put it so well in The Vietnam War: “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country in a way that it had probably never been polarized since before The Civil War and unfortunately we’ve never really moved far away from that and we never recovered.”
I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines, the last line, in fact, of one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales, in reference to The Civil War, which had destroyed his family and turned him into an understandably vengeful but not unjust outlaw: “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
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.