Posts Tagged ‘soul’

For Etta: Farewell, Miss Peaches

January 20, 2012

Etta James

January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012

Just five days before her 74th birthday, music icon Etta James has passed on. After battling multiple illnesses and the demons of addiction, leukemia and its complications took her body. But her spirit, her voice, will be with us forever through a catalog that spans 5 decades and every genre of music: blues, jazz, pop, soul, R&B, even hip-hop.

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles, but discovered in San Francisco, becoming a star on the Chess records roster in the ’50s. Her Bay Area roots intersected with mine in 1989, when a green, wide-eyed intern got the opportunity to work for her manager of 30 years, Lupe DeLeon at DeLeon Artists, where Etta’s name topped the roster. Working for Lupe meant working for Etta: going over her contracts with a fine-toothed comb, making sure her rider was adhered to without fail, booking her travel, and my sweet reward: watching her enthrall audiences the size of small clubs and festival arenas with her potent mix of sweetness and surliness, playing with emotions as she bent a line or growled a riff.

I am so grateful for the boldness, fire and utter passion for expression that Etta modeled for me. Etta James worked so hard, laughed so wisely, and commanded so much respect, it was an honor for her to chew me out because Lupe was wrapping up a call. She would boom, “you tell Lupe I don’t care who’s on the phone, ’cause I’m on it now!” Ironically, she’s a big part of why you can’t just talk to me any way you feel like it. Just carrying her messages made me feel important. She was music royalty, and had the hits (All I could Do Was Cry, Sunday Kind of Love, Something’s Got A Hold On Me, At Last and so many others), The Grammy Awards (six) and inductions into the Blues Hall of Fame, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to show for it. I know I said thank you to her for her music, but in the years that followed, I never crossed paths with her to thank her for all the ways my time working with her helped me through the ups and downs of my career.

In life, on stage–didn’t matter; she never held her tongue, never held back. Through song, her pain became our healing balm. Her sway gave us raw sensuality that defied stereotype. Her voice was her gift. Her fearlessness was her power. Her refusal to be silenced in a time when a Black woman artist’s personal freedom was far from guaranteed is her legacy.

Etta James and her family request that in lieu of flowers, you make a donation to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation to honor Etta’s memory. You can do so at

Farewell, Mr. Ashford: Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing

August 25, 2011

Nickolas ‘Nick’ Ashford


Anger bubbled inside me upon learning that one of the world’s seminal soul and pop music voices was silenced by throat cancer at the age of 70 on August 22, 2011. Nickolas ‘Nick’ Ashford truly wrote the words that made the whole world fall in love. And I was literally pissed off that the same disease who claimed the earthly life of my mother had taken also taken his.

And then, I had to take a moment and rethink my reaction. Nick Ashford spent his life providing everyone within the reach of his pen, the sound of his voice–with an experience of deep, complete, soul-stirring love. Whether it was love identified with Marvin & Tami’s “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, the power of love recognized on Diana’s “The Boss”, love for the human race extended with “Reach Out And Touch”, or unshakeable love affirmed with “Solid”, the smash hit he and his lovely wife Valerie Simpson performed, Nick Ashford let us know that love was possible, attainable, and ultimately, all that really mattered. And he didn’t just write these songs. He truly seemed to feel like there was no mountain high enough to keep him from Valerie, who wrote, sang, grooved, and stood by his side for 38 years of marriage. He lived those lyrics, and the life they shared seemed to fill his heart. “Whatever it is/love’ll fix it/Found a cure.”

Solid As A Rock

So what business did I have allowing anger to cloud my memory of this music legend?

As a songwriter, he and Ms. Simpson were totally unselfish. They were hitmakers (see: “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan) and starmakers, catapulting Ross to solo mega-success with multiple hits, something that eludes many an artist breaking away from a popular group. Nick and Valerie knew this all too well. So much so, they created their own incubator for artist development and live performance called The Sugar Bar. Veterans and emerging artists shared a stage that may have been tiny, but was deep, wide, rich with the history and sweat of those who graced it. Free of ego and full of good judgment–the kind that empowers artists as they hone their craft.

In a tweet exchange between myself and singer-songwriter-producer Sandra St. Victor, I learned just how much Ashford’s humility touched her:

“@putyrdreams1st I did their radio show back in the day. Val played piano, Nick sang BG while I sang “Misty Blue.” Talk about an honor. WoW.”

So I took my thoughts to the many times I’d seen Mr. Ashford striding down the streets of New York City. Sometimes he’d smile wide, other times exude cool confidence. Always regal and feline in his movement, like a lion, complete with jet black mane and black leather pants, some manner of sheer or billowy shirt, and accessories befitting the rock star showman he was. Never flanked by handlers, fabricating a scene or inconvenienced by those who would greet him with admiration or gratitude. Nick Ashford was a star, not a celebrity. His glow came from within, not from external adulation. As a writer and lover of words, I’m just glad I got to shake the hand that gave us five decades of beautiful music, love in sonic form.

I have to agree with Sandra when she tweeted, “This loss is simply shattering. I think Nick brought the earthquake when he touched the sky.” -Sandra St. Victor

My prayers and gratitude go to Ms. Valerie Simpson. As a wife in her 14th year, doing the work of creating a happy marriage, I can say that I looked to Ashford & Simpson with stars in my eyes before I even knew what marriage was about. Throughout the carefree 80s and me-me-me 90s, they made Black love look (and sound) fabulous. Enviable. Amazing. For this, I thank them both.

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

What I Learned From Gil Scott-Heron

May 29, 2011
Rest In Power, Master Teacher

Gil Scott-Heron

Artist * Poet * Activist * Musician * Author


Gil Scott-Heron was called home Friday, May 27, 2011. An iconic creative spirit who left an indelible mark on Black music and indeed the entire world, you’ll read obits about his public accomplishments and contributions. He is indeed a revolutionary. He is the Godfather of Spoken Word. But this piece is about what this amazing Master Teacher taught me during the three years I worked on his behalf.

Gil’s music used to pump at full volume in my home. My parents and he went to Lincoln University, and his albums remained in heavy rotation. To me, Gil Scott-Heron was larger than life: big smile, big beard, booming voice that could have been on the corner or at my holiday dinner table breaking down injustice with his unmistakable cadence. He spoke the truth without fear on his records. And the instrumentation was incredible: insistent, fierce, soulful. Bass lines that made neck hairs stand up. Flutes and keys that insisted you move along with them. Gil was the man who brought it to The Man. So when an internship came up at a place that represented him, I made it my mission to get the gig. Knowing who he was and what he sang at my age made me a shoo-in, especially when most teens were all about hip-hop.

I was 19 when we met. In real life, his beard and voice were as big as they seemed on his records, but he was also tall, lean, witty and charismatic. The internship was at DeLeon Artists, the booking and management agency that also represented Willie Colon, Etta James and many other luminaries of soul and jazz. Eventually, his agent (and my mentor) Bruce Solar would leave De Leon and start Absolute Artists, taking me with him to be the office  and contracts manager. Because Bruce kept Gil on the road booking him hundreds of dates across the globe, Gil went with him to Bruce’s new company. “I want to be on the road 320 days a year,” he told us. Bruce made sure of it.

Upon Gil’s death, I realize that much of what I practice and impart to others in the entertainment industry comes out of working with and on behalf of Gil:

Be concerned with honesty over popularity.

Gil Scott-Heron said what he wanted to say, 100% of the time. How you took what he had to say was on you. Now, this is risky enough in life. In art, it’s everything. His indictment of the system and observations of how they affected people on the margins made him popular. Authenticity was a hallmark of Gil’s.

Make great music and you can tour forever.

Gil went for years at a time without releasing new music, and yet he was always in demand as a performer or lecturer. Artists with a substantive point of view that they can express in their music or in a discussion will always have income.

Keep your publishing, even if it’s a portion. The checks are worth it.

Gil would have his entertainment life handled through the agency. His publishing checks came to the office. They were especially big after the first quarter of each year, because Gil’s music was a Black History Month staple (and still is). Had he surrendered all his publishing, he would not have had that supplementing his tour income.

Addiction is evil.

I admired Gil to no end as an artist, and never imagined I would meet him, much less have the distinct honor of working with him. I also never imagined I’d see him consumed by the haze he used as a forcefield around him, as armor against all he knew but could not control. I don’t know how he died, but I do know that between working so much and abusing his body, he looked more like 82 than 62. I can only imagine the pain it caused those close to him. Bruce and I were always waiting for the worst news. Ironically, it never came; he lived longer than even Gil said he would. Gil used to tell Bruce and I that if he made it to 50 he’d kill himself; he’d say it with complete seriousness as he chuckled. When he didn’t, we were surprised and relieved because Gil usually meant what he said. Substance abuse is a hard demon to confront, much less vanquish. So many greats are gone from losing that battle. I submit that Gil would have been with us longer had he not engaged that war. It reminds me that compassion for those we love is paramount, especially when we don’t love what they’re doing to themselves.

Thank you, Gil, for all you gave us–and all you taught me. You will forever be loved, in all your complexity.

May the peace he sang and worked for be his at last.