Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

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.

Election Eve at the Beacon

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 17

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 “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.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 15

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.

Concert Highlights–The Fab Faux at City Winery, 12/28/15

“We’ve been doing this since 1998 and we’re still trying to get it right,” said Will Lee early in the Monday night Book of Paul show at City Winery, which followed Sunday’s opening night’s Book of John and preceded Tuesday night’s Book of Harrison, Wednesday’s Rubber Soul album in its entirety, and New Year’s Eve’s early show of The Beatles at Shea Stadium and late show of mixed Beatles favorites.

After what, 17 years of doing this?, the Fauxs constantly come up with ways to make it fresh. Then again, as anyone who was with me in streaming Beatles albums over Christmas–when they first became available for streaming, finally!—The Beatles always sound fresh, and there’s always something new to learn from listening for the millionth-plus time.

Jimmy Vivino once likened listening to The Beatles to archaeological science, saying something to the effect that there’s always more to learn, always more “information” becoming available. That explains how Fab Faux somehow keep sounding better and better—that, of course, and the fact that they’re some of the top players in the world, who have studied The Beatles catalog like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A few from a full evening of highlights from Monday’s show:

“Paperback Writer” replicated the Beatles’ great layered harmonies, and after an outstanding guitar break from Vivino in which he even threw in a guitar bit-—maybe even the backward solo from the 1966 two-sided single’s flip “Rain”–Lee asked the sold-out audience, “Don’t you just love the versatility, the dependability?”

Indeed, I was thinking the exact same thing. Every time I see Vivino–and I’ve been seeing him in differnt groupings for decades–I’m even more astounded by his versatility and dependability.

“Blackbird” had Lee and electric guitarist Frank Agnello switching to acoustic guitar, drummer Rich Pagano clicking sticks, and keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli coming out dancing and blowing into a bird whistle–with Pagano also whistling along. And when Agnello sang “We Can Work It Out,” I remembered that it really was a McCartney/Beatles song and not Valerie Simpson’s—since she’s made it her own in closing out Thursday Night’s Open Mic events at the Sugar Bar with her own touching take on it.

For “Yesterday,” Lee and Vivino both played keyboards. Petruzzelli wailed so hard on “Oh! Darling” that everyone in the room was on their feet, same with “Get Back,” so thoroughly researched by the Faux that both the lead guitar and piano parts sounded right off the record player–the only difference being vocalist Vivino’s brief cuts to “All Right Now,” “Satisfaction” and “I Can See for Miles” while Lee traipsed around the room while playing bass, returning to the stage in the nick of time for Vivino to get back to “Get Back.”

Lee, by the way, always astounds with his singing, since you never got to hear much of it when he was on Letterman. But as he related after the show (and Valerie Simpson avouched the next night at the Sugar Bar, where Lee’s Letterman band mate Felicia Collins held court), he sang on tons of jingles back in the day (as did Val), including Stroh’s Beer. And while Vivino acquitted himself very well on McCartney fare, he got the night’s biggest laugh by confessing that he always favored Lennon, who was “much closer to the Italian guys we like—Dion and Elvis Presley.”

Incidentally, though he’s not tributed with his own special night during this run, Ringo has been given the encores, Monday night’s being “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.”

But really, it was the show’s opening song that renewed my appreciation for Paul McCartney, as I’ve never forgotten the thrill of opening the White Album in 1968 and putting on Side One of the first disc and hearing, for the first time, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Even now I think it’s the most revolutionary song in rock ‘n’ roll history, matched maybe by “God Save the Queen.”

When I got home I went straight to Wikipedia. Sure enough, it said how The Beatles had been “officially derided in the USSR as the ‘belch of Western culture,’” while at the same time “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was seen in the U.S. as pro-Soviet, particularly by anti-communist groups.

“It was a mystical land then,” McCartney said when he arrived in Russia to perform in 2003. “It’s nice to see the reality. I always suspected that people had big hearts. Now I know that’s true.”

Even in the darkest days of The Cold War, that’s how I figured it. Sure enough, in the mid-‘80s I met some Russian TASS correspondents based in New York who have remained lifelong friends.

And no surprise, they loved The Beatles as much as we did.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 13

I’ve been thinking about Nick a lot lately, but then again, it’s that time of year.

It was a month or so ago when Darlene Love played B.B. King’s and did her wonderful tribute to Marvin Gaye, whom she’d sung behind back in the day. Two of the songs are classic Ashford & Simpson compositions: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” the latter featuring one of my all-time fave A&S couplets in “There’s no looking back for us/We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough.”

Sure ‘nough, that’s enough.


Why can’t I write something so complete?

Full context:

I will go where you lead
Always there in time of need
And when I lose my will
You’ll be there to push me up the hill
There’s no, no looking back for us
We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough
You’re all, you’re all I need to get by

Compounding it all, Dionne Warwick was there. Reminded me how Nick and Val had hosted a party for her at the Sugar Bar years ago, for an album release. I don’t remember the year, but I remember the day, December 8. I brought my friend Beefy—the legendary Troy Charmell of Dr. Bop & the Headliners, who always loves going to the Sugar Bar, and then we made our annual Dec. 8 walk over to nearby Strawberry Fields to observe with joy and song the death day of John Lennon, who gave us the Nick-like “All You Need is Love.”

And now I’m in the air nearing L.A. and get an invite to the Sugar Bar to attend a showcase Aug. 22 for Lili K, described by her publicist—who knows how I love the Sugar Bar—as “Chicago’s jazz infused ‘throwback soul’ songstress.”

August 22. A date like December 8, the day Nick died, in 2011. Ironically, on that day four years ago I was flying back from L.A., and upon landing, headed directly from Kennedy to Nick and Val’s house, in shorts and t-shirt carrying my bags. Such a sad occasion, yet even then, somehow full of the joy and song and life that was Nick then and now.

And on this Aug. 22—Saturday night—it’s the annual Bessman Bash—a wonderful backyard party thrown by my pal Bob Merlis at his house in Larchmont. There will be plenty of great people and music and fun, as it always was at the Sugar Bar, whenever Nick was there. Or anywhere that Nick was.

Nick will be there, of course. As he always is.

Here he is, in one of his last performances, singing, with Val, “You’re All I Need to Get By”:

Adventures with Billy Gibbons

Billy Gibbons discusses African art with fellow collectors at Sotheby's.
Billy Gibbons discusses African art with fellow collectors at Sotheby’s.

Look. I admit I don’t know shit about art beyond that I like Vermeer and Turner, like everyone else. And Richman’s “Pablo Picasso.”

And when it comes to African art, well, I very much appreciate the Sugar Bar décor—very African village and full of fabulous art collected by Nick Ashford—but I can’t tell you the difference between a $700 piece and a $700,000 one.

“Seven hundred thousand dollars for a statue!” said Billy Gibbons. “Can you believe it?”

Billy F Gibbons, unbeknownst maybe to you and most ZZ Top fans, is a major collector of African art.

I’ll never forget years ago when he was in New York and called me up and told me to meet him at the hotel and walk over with him to Christie’s for a preview of a major auction the next day. We got on the elevator and everyone was excited—but not because he was Billy Gibbons, rock superstar. To them he was Billy Gibbons, African art maven.

Everyone there knew him and loved him, just like the rest of us. We got off the elevator and everywhere you looked there were waiters in tuxes holding trays of champagne among the most amazing—and expensive—pieces of African art. And again, everyone knew Billy, African art maven.

He told me once how he got into it. Way back in Dallas, when he bought a loft and didn’t know how to decorate it. A friend took him to a flea market and they found some African pieces, and that started it; he made more African art acquisitions to place in the doorway of his recording studio “as an energy booster.”

Of course it all made sense. Billy pointed out that Picasso picked up his concepts for cubism from African art—and a hasty perusal of the heavy In Pusuit of Beauty–The Myron Kunin Collection of African Art catalog of the big Nov. 11 auction at Sotheby’s included an article that bore this out. Billy, of course, became one of the top Africa-derived blues-influenced rock guitarists. Like art, like music.

Billy was in town for a veterans benefit at the Highline the night before, with the solo band he brought to B.B. King’s and City Winery earlier this year. He and the band would play again that night at Brooklyn Bowl.

He had found out about the Sotheby’s auction after he arrived here, and decided to go in order to “show face.” No surprise how many were so happy to see it.

“Billy!” It was an ecstatic Indian man in the back of the auction hall, who hadn’t seen him in a long time. Then again, nobody had.

“See the guy in the pink pants?” Billy whispered to me. The gentleman was hard not to see.

“He’s from France. He sold me an unusual piece.”

It was an unusual and rather frightening Nigerian female Boki tribal mask. Billy, shall we say, leans toward the visual extremes, and came to the poor gal’s rescue and spared her from a certain life in the closet.

Two African men came over to say hi, then another took him aside and slipped a tiny bronze African whistle in his hand. Billy courteously declined it.

“I don’t really like bronze, or ceramic,” he told me afterward. But he did like the four and a-half inch Kneeling Power Figure carving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo–one of a handful of pieces enclosed in glass display cases in the room.

“I got a guy that’s quite similar, an interesting two-sided one,” he said, then went downstairs to buy the $55 catalog.

I just sat and observed the action while he was gone. The auctioneer was behind a lectern, and flanked by phone banks staffed by Christie’s executives taking orders from out-of-town clients. There were two more banks on the right side of the hall, and on the floor above them, private skybox-type rooms shrouded, unless the inhabitant opened a window, by curtains–though you could see through them enough from the floor to recognize movement, a phone and a computer.

The bidding was done in person, by phone and online.

In between the auctioneer and the phone bank on his right was a pedestal with an abstract wooden sculpture of a woman that was really quite striking.

Billy returned with the catalog. It had plates for each of the 164 pieces in the auction, along with their provenance, previous owners and exhibitions. It also had scholarly features on the nature of the works within the context of their regional and tribal origins, as well as an essay on the late Minneapolis hair-salon magnate Myron Kunin, whose African art collection was among the world’s best.

“Each plate is frameable,” Billy pointed out, paging over to the Kneeling Power Figure. “I just had to to have that little guy.”

That little guy eventually went for $480,000. But the big prize was the Senufo Female Statue, a late 19th Century/early 20th Century sculpture from the Ivory Coast—the one on the pedestal next to the auctioneer. The catalog said it was one of the most iconic and widely recognized African sculptures, and the bidding accordingly began at $4.9 million.

Senufo Female Statue
Senufo Female Statue

“It’s going so fast!” marveled Billy as the millions mounted. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars every 30 seconds.”

Indeed, each wave of the auctioneer’s hand signified another $100,000 bid.

“I’m severely tempted to raise my hand for everyone,” Billy said, “but I’m afraid the bidding will stall as soon as I do.”

I reminded him that his wife had told him befrore we left to keep in mind that he was trying to sell a warehouse full of stuff back in Texas.

As he explained it later, “An autograph-seeker distracted me at the last second, and I missed the $10.1 million closing bid by a mere quarter-mill.”

But Billy was kindly taking the fall.

“No, Billy,” I interjected, fessing up to my responsibility.

“We’d have made it if I hadn’t blown $250,000 yesterday at the track—and if I’d gotten paid on time for my last bio.”

“Fucking record companies!” I sniffed.

“What’s a record company?” Billy asked.

Tales of Bessman: Why I love Sara Watkins  

Certainly there are plenty of reasons to love Sara Watkins, starting with her immense talent and the fact that she’s simply adorable.

But I’ll forever remember when she, her brother Sean and Chris Thile were in town, at least 10 years ago and probably more, when they were surely still in their teens during the first run of Nickel Creek. And I know Sara was nowhere near drinking age when I told them at an early evening showcase at the Living Room, it being a Thursday, that if they weren’t doing anything later they should come to the Sugar Bar for Open Mic.

Much to my surprise, Sara seemed most interested, and took down directions. But I never expected I’d see her, and she wasn’t upstairs in the Sugar Bar’s Cat Lounge, where I told her I’d be, hanging out with Nick, of course.

I’m just glad I decided to go downstairs and look to see if maybe she was down there—which, in fact, and to my great amazement, she was, all alone. I was thrilled, and tried to get her to come upstairs, but she didn’t, I don’t think. She was happy standing in the back, all by herself, enjoying the music.

She wasn’t the only artist or music business person I successfully cajoled into coming to the Sugar Bar, not by a very long shot. But maybe the most memorable, and I thought of all this last Thursday night while watching her again, during the reunited Nickel Creek’s concert at Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park.

There’s always been something special about Sara. Inquisitive, fearless.

At once most interested and most interesting.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part Five

Christians have Lent, and Jews have any number of solemn holidays. Muslims have the month of Ramadan.

I have August.

Today begins the second August without Nick Ashford. I think of him all the time, as I’m sure everyone who knew him does. He died August 22, 2011.

I was coming back from L.A. that day. I’ll be in L.A. again this year on Aug. 22. But I’ll think of him then, as I do now.

I thought of him a lot last Thursday when I brought Corky Siegel to the Sugar Bar, along with Barry Goldberg. They were in town for a screening the next night at Lincoln Center of Born In Chicago, the acclaimed documentary that tells the story of the pioneering middle class white kids in Chicago—Siegel, Goldberg, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, among the most famous–who learned to play and live the blues directly from its most legendary practitioners like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Bob Merlis, himself a legend as a veteran music business publicist, moderated a panel discussion following the screening, speakers including Siegel and Goldberg. A big friend of the Sugar Bar who’s there whenever he’s in town, Merlis had accompanied the pair there the night before, and at the panel noted that when they sat in with the house band for a little Thursday Open Mic night blues bit, it was “déjà vu all over again” in that once again, they were performing at a predominantly black music club, sitting in with all black musicians.

If only Nick were there.

He would have loved it so much, and loved Barry and Corky. Indeed, Nick loved the blues so much that he started the Tuesday night Nuttin’ But The Blues open mic series, and even hosted it himself.

Of course, there was nuttin’ Nick—and Val–wouldn’t do to help other musicians, other people. And God bless Val for keeping it all going.

It’s raining today, August 1st. Otherwise I’d run out to Nick’s bench at Bryant Park, the bench with the plaque “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Me and Bob went there a couple months ago and took turns taking pictures of each other sleeping on the bench next to the plaque. I always remember the time a few years ago, when CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Nick and Val, and taped a few minutes at the bench. Then were filming Nick as he walked to the bench, but when they got there, a rather filthy homeless person was sleeping on it—much, perhaps, as Nick had done when he first came to New York.

Roused from his sleep, the bum rolled over and sat up—and Nick almost fell over laughing. It was me.

So it will be a sad month, somewhat, full of reflection. But as we enter it, the Israelis and the Palestinians are talking again for the first time in years. John McCain is suddenly working with President Obama. And the Pope asks, in regard to gays, “Who am I to judge?”

Back in May, the Pope even declared, “The Lord has redeemed all of us … even the atheists.”

I don’t believe in God, I like to say, but I do believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I’m reminded of a song you’ve probably never heard, since it was part of the songs Nick and Val wrote for An Invisible Life, the unproduced musical based on E. Lynn Harris’s novel about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, from which “Born This Way” was released as a single (with the great Broadway star Terry Lavell singing) just ahead of the Lady Gaga hit of the same title.

The song was to have been the show’s “11 o’clock number,” an intense gospel-like showstopper with “that big A&S sound,” as Nick once described a key Ashford & Simpson song characteristic to me.

The song was, “God Has Love For Everyone.”

Nick Ashford, too, had love for everyone. That is what I will think of most for the rest of this month, and hope to keep it in my heart, with Nick, every day thereafter.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part Three

I’m ashamed I haven’t written a Reflection On Nick Ashford in so long, especially as I started two of them that remain, for the moment, unfinished. “More pressing matters got in the way,” and I put that in quotes to indicate how ingenuine it sounds—and that I recognize it as such.

But a few nights ago I had dinner with Beefy.

Beefy, as his old friends call Bob Kenison—Robert Kenison, as he used to intone on his bank voicemail when he worked for a bank as a computer guy of some sort. He’d always answer, “Systems,” when you got him live on the phone, and no one I know ever knew what that meant, Systems: I asked Beefy about it once and he just started laughing.

Beefy was a huge Beatles freak, which is pertinent on a number of levels, but for our purposes here, it relates first of all to laughing. At dinner I reminded Beefy, who brought along his lovely daughter Emily, how I took him years ago to a Ringo Starr record store CD signing, and had his publicist introduce us.

To put Beefy’s Beatles idolatry into greater perspective, let me back up to several years earlier, when McCartney did a press-only afternoon Q&A/gig at some Times Square theater, before doing a promo gig there a few hours later. I brought Beefy along, and after we both got ourselves soused at a bar across the street, we went to the event. I left afterward, but Beefy tried to hide out in the men’s room so he could stay for the second show. He climbed up on a toilet when they came in to make sure no one was there—but they found him anyway and kicked him the fuck out.

Besides his real name Bob Kenison, Beefy is also known to legions of Dr. Bop & The Headliners fans as Troy Sharmel, guitarist of the legendary Midwestern oldies show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners. Much has been written about Beefy and the band—most, if not all, by me—including the story of that Ringo in-store.

Like I said, Beefy and I were introduced to Ringo, upon which Ringo cracked up over something Beefy said. Just what it was that Beefy said that made Ringo laugh, however, neither of us can remember, in fact, Beefy and I had both forgotten what Beefy said probably within 10 seconds of him saying it.

Beefy blames me, not without reason, as I am a reporter, sort of, in a manner of speaking. I do remember the night I took Beefy to this hot party Madonna threw for k.d. lang at some outdoor space near Radio City, where k.d. was playing. Hot because it was a scorching mid-summer night.

“Who’s the blond?” Beefy asked, as paparazzi flashes popped away at the blond.

“That would be Madonna, Beefy,” I answered. Then Tony Bennett came in, pushing a wheelchair upon which regally sat Peggy Lee.

“That would be Peggy Lee, Beefy,” I said, cutting him off at the pass.

Beefy dutifully leaned over to Miss Lee and blurted, “Love your music!,” one superstar to another.

I wasn’t much better.

“Uh, uh, I’m a friend of Barbara Pepe!” I myself blurted, to a terribly unimpressed Martina Navratilova. Barbara was a wonderful former publicist for RCA Records who had introduced me years earlier to Billie Jean King. I was a little high here, but wouldn’t have done much better straight.

But Beefy is one of the greatest music minds I know, as Dr. Bop & The Headliners was one of the greatest bands. As Emily is now in college, we started talking about Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar as a place she should go, now that she was living in the Village.

Beefy remembered the night that he was at the Sugar Bar with me and Liz Rosenberg, and Nick took us upstairs to a studio apartment used for small gatherings.

Me and Liz had been up there with Nick countless times, partaking in the sacrament. We would sit there, at Nick’s feet, essentially, mouths agape, eyes open wide, looking up in reverence as the great saint spoke down to us.

Luckily, this time, Beefy was there, to remember, sort of, what he said.

But just as Beefy is one of the greatest music minds I know, Nick was probably the greatest. Easily up there with Paul Simon, whom I spent an illuminating afternoon with in the studio years ago as he mixed Rhythm Of The Saints—his 1990 Latin American follow-up to Graceland, for which I was brought in to write the bio.

Easily up there, too, with Elvis Costello, every word from whom is loaded with musical genius. And right up there with Ned Engelhart, the Ferret de Monte Christo of Dr. Bop & The Headliners, who is right up there with Beefy.

But Nick—and Val—lived music. I first noticed this a million years ago when they had Twenty-Twenty, their first restaurant/nightclub, at 20 West 20th. They would sit together at a center table upstairs overlooking the stage and sing along and dance in their seats to whomever was performing. No one enjoyed music more, no one enjoyed other performers more. Surely no one was more supportive.

At the Sugar Bar, Nick would sit at the center table—his table—upstairs in the Cat Lounge, reveling in the music while watching it on the wall monitor. If it was good—and it usually was—he would wave his arms to the rhythm, as would Val when she joined him (when she wasn’t downstairs singing backup).

It was just so wonderful.

I sat with Nick a lot. I talked with Nick a lot. If I had only written down everything he said. Or better, taped it.

He talked about life. He talked about music.

“He was just talking music and songwriting, and he started talking about arranging voices,” said Beefy. He had that special glow in his eyes that everyone gets when they talk about Nick.

“He started talking in general, and then he started talking about background voices and when you harmonize background voices and make them into chords depending on the chords of the song.”

My eyes were probably glazing over at this point, as I had downed two margaritas in relatively short order to catch up with Beefy and Emily, who had started drinking without me. And I wasn’t about to pretend that I understood what Beefy was talking about, let alone Nick. But I was glad Beefy apparently did.

“Alto, soprano, tenor—whatever,” Beefy continued. “His point was that the high voice on those chord harmonies should always be a little flat. I never heard that before—never. But for some reason, to his ears, it works. We were talking about male background voices, and I’m pretty sure he was saying the high voice.”

To be sure, I didn’t understand any of this. I wondered if Beefy did.

“I knew what he was saying, but not exactly why that would work in making it sound better,” Beefy said, then ruminated while gulping down another margarita. “But sometimes when you’re playing 12-string guitar…you have two notes on a 12-string that are basically the same note, but they tune one a little out of tune.”

I’m not a musician—though I know what a 12-string guitar is. But Beefy was still good enough to dummy it down.

“You have six pairs of strings,” he explained. “It’s not so much on the lower ones, but on the upper three strings—pairs–one will be in tune and the other slightly out of tune, because it gives a thicker sound. So maybe there’s something going on there in getting a similar thickness in background vocals from doing that—though that probably has nothing to do with anything that Nick was saying!”

But Beefy the Beatles Freak then put it in a Beatles context:

“Even Lennon used to de-tune his D-string on his guitar a little. He’d say to his Aunt Mimi, ‘When you hear Beatles songs, you know which guitar is mine because I always de-tune my D-string a bit.’ I guess he wanted his own sound.”

In all the years I knew Nick, which was close to 30, I never got over my awe of him—much, I know, to his amusement. Beefy had met him before at the Sugar Bar, but was no less overwhelmed.

“He took the time to talk to someone he really didn’t know from Adam, who for no reason could be considered in his league, about music,” Beefy recalled. “But he reached out to me as if it was just two guys talking, not as an equal, maybe, but including me without any sense of pontificating—one-on-one. He was a very inclusive guy.”

He sure was, Beefy.

“And he was so modest. Not at all full of himself. The fact that he would just sit there and talk to some local yokel! And he was into it, too! He wasn’t talking down to me! There was no pretension, not even for a such a super writer, musician, singer. He was just a regular, warm fellow.”

Yes, Beefy. That was Nick Ashford, all right.

So glad you remembered.