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.
“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.
There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.
I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.
By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.
I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.
After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”
Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.
But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.
This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”
My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.
“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”
But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”
Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”
I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.
But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.
And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.
Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.
But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.
But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”
Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.
But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.
You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.
If you follow me on Twitter you know how I like to post YouTube videos relating, usually loosely, to trending celebration days-everything from National Donut Day (June 2), say, to Spirit Day, which occurred just last week (Oct. 20). As for Spirit Day, though, I didn’t know what it was when I started looking for Spirit’s 1968 hit “I Got a Line on You” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In the Sky.”
Before posting them, luckily, I learned that Spirit Day, instituted in 2010, recognizes united opposition against bullying and shows support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, with Spirit Day observerse wearing purple–the color representing “spirit” on the rainbow LGBT flag. The day is a big enough deal to have it’s own special Twitter purple ribbon symbol for hashtags.
Clearly, “I Got a Line on You” and “Spirit In the Sky” weren’t appropriate for Spirit Day, not that I always let political correctness always stand in the way. But I was sensitive enough this time to the significance of LGBT concerns to seek a better video, and the perfect one came to mind instantly: “Born This Way.”
No, not the vastly inferior Lady Gaga song-that was a total rip from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” as everyone–including Madonna–knows! No, I mean Ashford & Simpson’s emotionally powerful and empowering “Born This Way,” with Terry Lavell singing, which they hastily released digitally early in 2011 when Gaga announced her upcoming single of the same title and somewhat similar, if decidedly vainglorious, theme.
Ashford & Simpson’s “Born This Way,” which was written in 2006 for a musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel Invisible Life about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, was the first recording for Lavell, who was then starring as Mercedes in the hit Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles.
“Never in my life did I think I’d record a song with the most legendary songwriters ever!” he told me for examiner.com. “I love it, and everyone who’s heard it loves it.”
Indeed, it was a fabulous song and dramatic performance by a guy who clearly understood the lyric, as related by a young man who knew he was different since he was “a little baby boy,” ignored by his mother and beaten by his father, who prayed he could change but woke up every day the same—and finally discovers self-acceptance:
For those just like me who don’t always seem to fit
We’ve got a right to be
We’ve got to stand up to it
The time is now, this is it
Look at this big beautiful world and all its varieties
Each living thing has its purpose
We’re all in His image
What could be better
We’re supposed to live and love together.
And the chorus:
I was born this way
It’s not your problem, it’s not your fault
God made me and it’s okay
So don’t try to change me
I was born this way.
Lavell, a New Orleans native who had previously toured in Hairspray and Smokey Joe’s Café and appeared on TV in Sex and the City and The Dave Chappelle Show, had spectacularly introduced “Born This Way” when it was a key song in producer showcases for Invisible Life. He reprised his electrifying performance at Ashford & Simpson’s September,
2008 shows at Feinstein’s when he stunned audiences by coming out from the wings unannounced to sing it with them and for that moment, at least, all but steal the show: “The sassy long-legged beanpole,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “appeared out of nowhere to zigzag across the stage like a bolt of lightning.”
“They came to see La Cage and afterwards said they wanted to record it,” said Lavell of Nick and Val. “Their version is just as good [as Gaga’s]. It’s different and more of an anthem song.”
And while Nick and Val didn’t write “Born This Way” expressly for him, Lavell felt a personal connection with it.
“It’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve had something that feels like it was written for me,” he said. “The crazy part is that it wasn’t! But it just feels like verbatim, it’s the story of my life–like I lived this.”
He added: “I want so much to do work that means something, and ‘Born This Way’ is a celebration of being exactly who you are. Of course you understand it’s about a guy being gay, but so many people can relate because it’s just telling an individual story about being whoever you are, and is more a celebration song–in the great Ashford & Simpson dance tune style.”
I also spoke with Nick and Val when “Born This Way” was released.
“It’s weird how the same ideas and thoughts can float into the universe and emerge from different minds and different places,” Val said, referring to Gaga’s song. “I think there’s enough love in the world for Lady Gaga and Terry Lavell,” said Nick–as only Nick would.
Nick and Val wrote 20 or so songs for the Invisible Life musical, which, wrongly, was never produced. But I vividly remember that they’re all great–having twice seen the run-through for producers. Regarding “Born This Way,” Holden lauded it as “a high-powered dance number,” and like so many Ashford & Simpson classics, it does in fact build in drama and intensity to a huge chorus—“that big A&S sound!” as Nick once put it, when I interviewed him and Val many years ago for Billboard.
That big A&S sound. What was so big about that big A&S sound was the structure of gospel music–the tradition that they came out of–that they brought to secular music, which worked particularly well in the theatrical context of Invisible Life. A&S fans, of course, can point to their masterpiece 1982 experiment in R&B theater with their Street Opera album, the entire B-side of which was a mini-Porgy and Bess suite of songs depicting the hard if not harsh realities of urban Africa-American working-class life—though never lacking in the love and hope that A&S more than anything represent.
What’s especially sad about Invisible Life is that “Born This Way” remains the only song from it that’s ever surfaced. Nick and Val themselves recorded another key song from the Invisible Life compositions, the stirring, climactic “God Has Love For Everyone,” its title pretty much telling you everything. I still hear the chorus ringing triumphantly in my mind.
But I’d almost forgotten about the “Born This Way” video! The clip mixes studio footage of Lavell recording the song with performance footage shot at a Thursday Open Mic show at Nick and Val’s fabled Sugar Bar restaurant/nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
It may have been the last video shot of Nick. If so, well, it couldn’t have been more fitting, with him singing with the background singers, generously giving the spotlight up for another artist like he–and Val, in the video playing piano–did all the time.
It started innocently enough when Nellie McKay asked me, after we’d seen Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City, what I thought of Bob Lefsetz, the long-winded music industry newsletter pundit famed—in the comparitvely small but ever growing circle of aging, mostly bitter ex-music industryites, all of whom are equally grumpy—for the newsletter he sends out to his email list once or twice daily.
No, I don’t read him, I said. One, he’s full of shit. Two, he’s a shit writer. Three, he writes the same shit over and over again.
Yes, I know this sounds a lot like I’m talking about myself–and I hastily admitted as much to Nell—especially #3. After all, I told her, I’m sure people go, “Gee. All he ever writes about is Nellie McKay! Doesn’t he like anyone else?” That answer, I conceded with the same haste, was for the most part, no.
We really should start a feud, Nellie suggested. It would be good for both our careers.
No, I told Nellie, my career is unsalvageable. And I definitely don’t want to risk yours. For the most part I don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t want it in my obituary that I took down the career of the most talented music artist of her generation.
[Editor note: Nellie’s career, actually, is fine. She was off the next night to play with her band at Deerhead Inn at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsyvlania, and is readying her most brilliant cabaret piece from two years ago A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, about the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine, but when he died in 1989, was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives, for upcoming repeat performances. But, no, she’s not doing the Super Bowl halftime show.]
Then why does everyone read him, she asked, returning to Lefsetz. That answer, I said, was easy: Everyone reads him because everyone else does.
This led me to Bob Dylan—somewhat ironically in that Nellie does about the best Dylan impression of anyone out there.
Just announced Nobel Prize aside, why does everyone consider Dylan the greatest songwriter ever? I asked rhetorically. Because everyone else does! Don’t get me wrong. I was a huge Dylan fan—as a kid. “Blowin’ the Wind”—especially Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Times They are a-Changin’”—these and so many other early Dylan songs woke me up to the 1960s. I knew Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde inside-out. But after he went Christian—great songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” and the great Gospel Tour of 1979-’80 that I saw in Madison notwithstanding, I started having second thoughts that carried over into a reexamination of his earlier work: Suddenly the lyrics to formerly beloved songs like “Desolation Row” and “I Want You” seemed like so much surrealistic baloney, to mangle–and I throw it in here gratuitously, much as those lyrics now appeared to be written–a favorite phrase from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 horror film classic The Black Cat, where Bela Lugosi says to nemesis Boris Karloff, in response to a comment that the occult is little more than “supernatural baloney,” “Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not.”
It all came to a head in 2007, when I chanced to meet a reporter for ABC News at some showcase, and talk turned to Dylan. She was amazed, if not appalled, when I told her that I considered his post-folk period lyrics largely “gibberish”—and quoted me saying it in a piece around the release of Todd Haynes’ bizarre Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which Cate Blanchett, in another instance of convincing female male impersonation, turned in the best Dylan portrayal).
Having slaughtered another sacred cow, I wanted to share my favorite lyricists with Nellie, starting with—who else?–Hal David.
I was so lucky to know Hal very well. In fact, he called me up once, a few years before he died, to say that he’d been mulling over writing a memoir and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him. Duh, I replied, then he said he wanted to hold off until everyone else was dead and of course, they all outlived him.
But go to any of his songs—as but one easy example, take “One Less Bell to Answer.” Even just the title is poetry, and when I say poetry, I mean you can take Hal’s lyrics apart form Burt Bacharach’s beautiful music and they stand alone as poems concerning contemporary relationships:
One less bell to answer
One less egg to fry
One less man to pick up after
I should be happy
But all I do is cry.
Indeed, I actually have a book of Hal’s lyrics—and you really don’t need the music.
I’ve also known Kris Kristofferson very well, and wrote liner notes on a two-disc KK compilation. Two famously immortal lyric examples will suffice: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “There’s nothing short a’ dying/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” (from “Sunday Morning Coming Down”).
I’ve written liner notes on two David Johansen CDs, and need go no further than the opening verse of “Frenchette” in which he pares down everything fake to the real core: “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette/I’ve been to France, so let’s just dance.”
And then there’s Nick Ashford, which is why we’re gathered together here again in the first place. No one was more real than “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Gimme Somethin Real” Nick Ashford.
This being the sixteenth in my continuing Reflections on Nick Ashford series, obviously I could go on and on about Nick, as human being and here, as songwriter. One of the things I love so much about his songwriting is the way he made poetry out of vernacular: “We got love/Sure ‘nough, that’s enough” fro “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “She wanna live in a high-rise” from “High-Rise”–you get the picture. But even better, the way he cut deep to the core of human beings and humanity—but ever so tenderly. I come now to Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” the enduring hit for Diana Ross, what I love to call the greatest song of all time.
First, it’s not “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)—Or Else!” or “You Must Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand.” Nick was never judgemental, never demanding: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand—make this world a better place if you can.” The italics are mine, but the gentle suggestion is Nick’s. It’s “if you can,” not “of course you can!”
Nothing authoritarian, either, as in “I command that you reach out and touch sombody’s hand!” No, Nick never forces an issue: He always kindly leaves kindness up to you.
And then he delivers what I consider one of the most extraordinary anthropomorphisms ever in a song, that is, of course, if I have any idea what anthropomorphism means.
Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own?
Again, he’s not saying, “You are a stone,” or even insinuating it, just rhetorically asking.
And “to share a problem that’s not your own”! Ruminate on that for a moment, maybe even two.
I’m really at a loss for words now. How seemingly simple yet so enormously poetic in anthropomorphizing a stone in bringing us around to see our failings in caring about others—this from the most creatively caring songwriter maybe ever.
Sorry if it took so long to get here. So many roads, sometimes circuitously, lead to Nick.
[Editor’s note: Bob Lefsetz and Bob Dylan deserve an apology. Nothing said was inaccurate, but any negativity towards another is inappropriate and uncallec for in anything relating to Nick Ashford.]
For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams
It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.
The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!
But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.
All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.
But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.
I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.
And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”
But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.
But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.
But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.
The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.
I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.
“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.
The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.
Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.
Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”
But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.
For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.
It’s been five years now, since Nick died. August 22, 2011.
It was while I was flying back from L.A. I knew he was going in the morning, and when I landed in New York, Liz had left a message to come straight to the house. I did, with shorts on, some dumb but clean t-shirt, ball cap, laptop bag and carry-on.
Nick would have loved it.
I recounted this story to J.B. Carmicle over breakfast last week at the Red Flame. He comes to New York from L.A. for a few days every year this time, meeting up with his brother Donnie, who still lives in their Louisville hometown. We talked a bit about Muhammad Ali’s funeral–Ali being right up there with Ashford in personal significance and public greatness.
J.B. hired me at Cash Box when I came to New York in 1982, when he ran the East Coast office. He got us tickets to Ashford & Simpson at Radio City shortly after I started there. The experience was life-changing.
There were four of us altogether, but I don’t remember the other two. I do remember the seats were about two-thirds the way back on the floor, center aisle. I also remember that there might have been four other white people there, it being the High-Rise album and R&B hit single tour, which places it in 1983–ahead of Nick and Val’s pop breakthrough with solid the following year.
Someone had a joint. We smoked it in our seats before the band started and the curtain went up to expose a tall stage prop in the shape of a skyscraper, if not the Empire State Building. The band struck up,and the top half of the building unfolded down into a staircase, much like a small commuter prop plane’s door. There at the top of the stairs, in all their splendor, were Nick and Val. I don’t know if the reefer had anything to do with it, but it had the effect on me of witnessing live one of those Renaissance paintings of the Ascension–no matter that Nick and Val then descended the steps to entertain their worshipful throngs.
Did I say “life-changing”?
At Nick’s funeral, among the many names mentioned in reference and reverence, was Jesus. Nick, the speaker said, was “the black Jesus.” Made me think of the many times Liz Rosenberg and I would sit stoned, if not at his feet, in front of him, seemingly looking up, eyes open wide, mouths agape, hanging on every word he spoke to us upstairs at the Sugar Bar like we were disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount.
Nick was so deep.
The day after Radio City I called Elliot Hubbard, an Epic Records publicist who was one of the few press contacts I’d made in my short time then in NYC. I was so blown away by A&S that I had to talk to someone. He was close to Liz and said I should call her, since she was such a huge fan of Nick and Val, having worked publicity for them at Warner Bros. Records when they were signed to the label. So I called her cold, having no idea who she was, and when I mentioned Nick and Val we became instant forever best friends, who saw their shows so many times together over the next three decades that when the two-disc A&S compilation The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities came out in 2008, it had an essay by Val in which she thanked us and said we should just do their show for them, since we knew it better than they did–which was not untrue.
As I write this I’m back in L.A., where I saw Nick and Val a couple times, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair. It was always great to see them outside of New York, and see how loved they were away as they were at home.
I’ll still be out here Monday, August 22, when I’ll think back on the five years since Nick’s been gone–though it never really feels that way. In fact, it’s very hard for me to think, speak, or write about Nick in the past tense.
I’m thinking now of a year ago last April, at the funeral of Andre Smith, who had hosted Nick and Val’s Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 hears. The service was at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by the same close-knit Sugar Bar family that made up so much of Nick’s funeral audience at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Of course I couldn’t help but think about Nick at Andre’s funeral, what with Andre being, next to Nick and Val, the face of the Sugar Bar as its famous Open Mic host. As I walked to the church from the 145th Street A-Train stop I also thought of Val’s Aunt Bea’s funeral, which I didn’t know then was the last time I would ever see Nick. He hadn’t been to the Sugar Bar on Thursday night for probably a couple months at least then, and he entered the room just as the service started and immediately left just as it ended.
So the last time I saw Nick I didn’t even get the chance to say hi. I remember I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar afterward with Val and Tee and Nicole and Asia, and telling Asia that I was mad at her for getting the big
tattoo on her back of her parents before I did.
I thought of all this again as I walked back to the subway after Adre’s service, trying to figure out how to get from the A to the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd & Broadway and the Sugar Bar–again for a post-funeral celebration. Luckily
I heard my name called out from an RV with an extra seat next to fellow Sugar Bar regular Anita Parker Brown. Shinuh, a singer who plays and works at the Sugar Bar, was in the front, and I didn’t know the driver–but we
all shared exactly the same thought of Nick that we expressed on the drive to the Sugar Bar: That it’s impossible to accept the fact that Nick is gone.
Yes, it’s been five years now. But I still say stuff like, “I’m friends with Nick and Val,” or, “Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.” Depending on the awareness of whom I’m talking to, maybe, I’ll then add that Nick is no longer living. But I never start out a reference to him or to Nick and Val in any way that recognizes that he’s gone.
It’s like how George Faison, the Tony-winning choreographer who was close to Nick and Val and created their classic dance routines, said to me one Thursday night after Open Mic, shortly after Nick died.
“Who would ever imagine that Nick Ashford could be gone?” George said to me as we walked out of the Sugar Bar, probably in the neighborhood of 2 a.m.
“No one ever could,” I replied. Nor should anyone, now or ever. Like I tweet every August 22, Nick Ashford lives.
Like I always say–and told him many times—I wish I’d have carried around a tape recorder whenever I spoke with Nick. Then I wished I ‘d transcribed it all onto rolls of parchment and hidden them in caves along the Dead Sea—though I never told him that.
Someone called him The Black Jesus at his funeral and it was only fitting, for he had the look and the kindness and the love–and the wisdom. Me and Liz Rosenberg would essentially sit at his feet and look up as he passed it down to us supplicants.
For sure Nick would have been the final word on Adele, after I stirred up the Sadducees by trashing both the “Hello” song and video on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure he’d have liked Adele okay, and appreciated where she’s coming from. But I doubt he’d have been carried away by all the hoopla over “Hello.”
At least Alec Shantzis, keyboardist for the Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic shows, sided with me.
“I have to chime in here,” Alec wrote on my ever-widening Adele Facebook thread. “As a keyboard player I have performed and/or recorded with Ashford & Simpson, Ben E King, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, and a host of other artists. Adele is ok, she meets my minimum standard for ok, that’s all. Nothing more.”
“On that list for sure!” I replied, meaning, compared to those names, okay is all–list of those meeting minimum standards. I added, “You know who really would have been able to put her in perspective, of course: Nick!”
“No doubt, Jim, Nick would have said one sentence that ended the discussion lol,” responded Alec, sagely. “Oh, and that was my short list too, I left a lot off because my point was made.”
“I sat with him one night in the [Sugar Bar’s] Cat Lounge and he discussed the relative merits of the great female vocalists,” I said. “It was like listening to a college professor!”
“As a songwriter, creating vehicles for singers, and with his experience, he was as expert as could be,” answered Alec. “We could sure use some creative experts in the music business now.”
I vaguely remember that conversation in the Cat Lounge. I recall volunteering that I didn’t care much for Mariah Carey or Beyonce or even Whitney Houston—in fact, I gave Whitney a lukewarm review at best back in the 1990s when I reviewed her show at Madison Square Garden for The New York Post, prompting Donnie Ienner, then second-in-command at Arista, to take me aside at a label function and respectfully chew me out. But I don’t recall that Nick disagreed with me, or my contention that neither sang with the soul, say, of Val and Aretha.
“My Val?” Nick asked, making sure I didn’t mean a different Val, whereas there could be no other Aretha, of course. I always loved how he said “my Val.”
Aretha, of course, was in a class by herself, though besides Nick’s Val, whom I always put ahead of everyone as the most soulful and spontaneous singer I’ve ever seen, we mentioned Patti LaBelle, obviously, and probably Patti Austin. I don’t think I thought of Darlene Love, or some of the 50s and ’60s r&b vocalists other than those mentioned, or Laura Nyro.
If he were here now I’d ask him to assess the likes of Katy and Rhianna and Miley and especially Taylor, and guess he’d be most supportive of Katy as a vocalist, Miley, maybe, as an artist. I’d love to hear his take on Rihanna.
But there was one female vocalist who stood out among all of them for Nick, and she wasn’t a soul singer as such. In fact, he could hardly talk about Barbra Streisand without losing it.
Nick really adored Barbra, and she knew it. He told me how Val had bought him a ticket to a VIP meet-and-greet with her after a show in Vegas, and how he went–but he pretty much stood bashfully against the wall. Very un-Nick.
“Does she know how you feel about her?” I asked.
“She does,” he said. “But she doesn’t know I’m weak.”
Before he died, Liz got him a Streisand live DVD. I met a Mattel person at Toy Fair and got him a Barbara Streisand Collector Barbie Doll.
It’s no secret that I’d go just about anywhere just to hear Valerie Simpson clear her throat—even if I had to walk. Luckily B.B. King’s is within walking distance, and Val was doing three songs as part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul jazz-meets-R&B show, featuring Jaguar Wright and Charenee Wade in addition to Val.
And I would have written something anyway or at the very least tweeted it up bigtime—which I did—but when I popped into the dressing room before the show to surprise her, she said, “Make sure you write something good—even if you don’t like it!” Like it somehow could have been bad, it being a program put together by Carrington (who was busy working on her laptop and not at all annoyed by my dressing room disruption) in support of her new album, a second Mosaic Project, following the first, 2011’s The Mosaic Project, which won a Grammy for best jazz vocal album.
Carrington, of course, is the jazz drummer-composer-singer extraordinaire. The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul album, she explained at the start of the B.B. show, “upped the ante” from its predecessor in employing 40 women, almost doubling the 21 on the first one. For the gig her band was made up of female players (besides herself and her guest vocalists) on alto sax, trumpet, percussion and keyboards; the guitarist, bassist, and second keyboardist (the prolific keyboardist-composer Raymond Angry) were male.
“Some of the musicians I’ve never met,” she said matter-of-factly, “so we’re really winging it.” Wish I could work so effortlessly with family members: Every number was a highlight in terms of Carrington’s confident jazz band arrangements and the individual virtuosity of the musicians. As for the singers, I’ll single out Wade for her rendition of Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” from her new Offering album tribute to Heron and Brian Jackson (I always respected the lyric “Home is where the needle marks/Try to heal my broken heart/Home is where the hatred is/And it might not be such a bad idea if I never, if I never went home again.”
Coming out for her star turn Wright, an okayplayer artist, turned back to Carrington and then back to the audience. “There’s no greater peace and joy than to be about to sing and I look at this woman, because I know I never have to look in back of me. I can look forward at you.”
Yes, Carrington is that much in control—and dependable.
But I was there to see Val, of course, and even following Carrington’s awesome instrumental portion and the two preceding female vocal stars, Val could not disappoint.
She prefaced the Ashford & Simpson classic “Somebody Told a Lie,” which she sings on Love and Soul, by noting how Carrington “takes a song you’ve written and hands it back to you—and you get to hear it all over again.” Sure enough, Carrington essentially deconstructed the song and reassembled it—with Val’s full support and appreciation. Val then pulled out the stops on “God Bless the Child,” then took over a piano, and this being B.B. King’s, performed the bluesy Ashford & Simpson (with Joshie Jo Armstead) classic composition, “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”
Carrington encored with a Charlie Parker bebop, and for the record, there was an inordinate amount of hugging in the dressing room after the show. No doctor needed.