Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

Me and Miss Tee

Such a weird day of broken traditions.

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.

Vintage Dr. Bop & the Headliners

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.

Ferret playing sax, Cleveland on keys

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.”

A New York City Thanksgiving tale

I was sitting yesterday morning, Thanksgiving, around 9:30 a.m., on a stone bench in front of the main library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, watching a pigeon amble over to my cup of coffee.

At the same time, an adorable young black girl stood, almost frozen, two feet away from another pigeon, inching slowly toward it, almost imperceptibly, catlike. Don’t know what she would have done, but before I could laugh out loud, her mother broke off the hunt by demanding that she come along and head over to Sixth to watch the parade. She was followed within moments by an equally adorable Asian girl, who went through the same routine until her mother dragged her off—though not before mom and I exchanged chuckles.

By now my pigeon was reading the cover of The New York Post between me and the coffee cup. Running alongside a photo of the Snoopy balloon screamed the headline, “Protesters out to stop parade…PLOT AGAINST SNOOPY.” Beneath it was the tease, “EXCLUSIVE: Anarchists emboldened by NYPD cops backing off as protesters stopped traffic this week after the Ferguson, Mo., ruling are planning to disrupt the Thanksgiving Parade, featuring Snoopy and other balloons.”

The pigeon, clearly, wasn’t impressed. Neither was I.

After all, the parade apparently went off without a hitch—with only seven arrests. Whatever the Snoopy-plotting “anarchists” quoted in the inside “BALLOON-ATICS!” story had in mind–“emboldened,” no doubt, by NYPD cops whom they knew wouldn’t shoot them on sight–they were no match for the Greatest Country in the World-affirming performances by KISS and Sting and AFLAC Duck. Either that, or on this one day, at least, New York’s Finest did a pretty damn fine job.

Not that the NYPD hasn’t taken its own deserved lumps of late, what with last week’s accidental killing of an unarmed black man by a rookie cop during a vertical patrol in a housing project stairwell. But my experiences with Midtown Manhattan cops have been nothing but courteous and helpful, my age and skin color notwithstanding.

The difference, of course, is Midtown Manhattan. I live on 45th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, the heart of Hell’s Kitchen—though they try to call it Clinton, now, to get away from the negative connotations and rugged history of Hell’s Kitchen. My building super is Israeli, there’s a Latino on my floor, black man below me. I don’t know where the homeless lady down the block is from, but she mutters in an accent and the falafel truck she sleeps across from is Arab, so are the corner deli operators. There’s a 24-hour body shop and an all-night tire repair place within 100 yards or so, both staffed by no one who looks remotely like they were born in Milwaukee like me.

It’s been a good 20 years since I worked out of an office, but when I did, all the doormen were black and not always African-American and I expect it’s not much different. I don’t have to tell you where the cab drivers are from, mainly because I couldn’t hazard a correct guess. And Hell’s Kitchen’s kitchens are Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cuban—any and all –ese and –an suffixes.

Such is the wonder of Midtown Manhattan that when there’s a Ferguson-like incident, it’s probably not gonna be here. People from all over the world, every color, creed, nationality, sexual preference, all crammed into a situation where we have to get along with each other to get to work and make it work. Maybe at the end of the day we go back home to our segregated neighborhoods and kill each other, but generally not here in Midtown. No one has time.

So sorry New York Post, and your sorry headline today: “SNOOPY SAVED!: Cops bust anarchist bid to wreck parade.” And okay, if you want to credit New York’s Finest for holding the line yesterday and “saving Snoopy and company by busting seven demonstrators,” go right on ahead.

Just leave me, two adorable young girls of color and their moms, and one thirsty pigeon out of it.