“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.
I was lucky to have her as long as I did.