Duo's Sugar Bar Is Sweet on Open-Mic Night
By Jim Bessman
Their own stature long established, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie
Simpson are encouraging a new generation of songwriter/artists
at the Sugar Bar, their restaurant/nightclub on New York's Upper
The SRO Thursday-night open-mic events, while open to all worthy
vocalists (even visiting superstars like Patti LaBelle and Chaka
Khan), have served as a steppingstone for aspiring singer/songwriters,
some of whom have earned their own solo showcases on other nights
at the Sugar Bar.
But Thursday nights also have attracted major music-industry figures
who see an opportunity to groom new talent in a unique setting.
"Where else in this city can emerging artists hone their
skills before a discerning audience that truly appreciates songs
and singers?" asks Cherry Lane Music Publishing president
Aida Gurwicz, whose company administers Ashford & Simpson's
"Nick and Val not only attract primo young and sometimes
not-so-young artists with big-time aspirations, but also audiences
not unlike themselves -- musically sophisticated people who appreciate
both quality and effort and who are not parsimonious with their
appreciation for either or both," Gurwicz adds. "We
have brought developing artists in to practice their craft."
Unless they are on the road, Ashford & Simpson are always
present Thursday nights at the Sugar Bar, which is located in
the same 72nd Street and West End Avenue building that houses
their Hopsack & Silk production and Nick-O-Val Music publishing
Simpson, in fact, leads the backup singing for all vocalists,
who are accompanied by a tight, professional house band ensconced
in a tiny alcove at the far end of the narrow first floor. Ashford
generally stays in an upstairs lounge, singing along with the
rest of the room to a projection of the proceedings on a wall
"It's like 'the New York thing,"' Ashford says. "If
you can make it at the Sugar Bar, you can make it anywhere, because
it's a tough crowd of intelligent, mature listeners who have heard
Indeed, a recent open-mic night found Queen Latifah and veteran
Warner Bros. Records publicist Liz Rosenberg in the house.
"If they can prove themselves on a Thursday, we approach
them about doing a whole night of their own," says Simpson,
who has herself performed new material at the Sugar Bar. She singles
out Vicky Natale, a school teacher and open-mic regular who went
on to win "Star Search" and then started writing her
"She was inspired to come back strong as a writer and had
her own show of her own material," Simpson continues. "Covering
somebody else is great, but they've got to come up with their
Simpson also cites singer/songwriter Ryan Shaw. "He wowed
us for over an hour and a half with original material," she
says. "We were in the aisles dancing."
Felicia Collins, guitarist in the CBS Orchestra (the house band
on "Late Show With David Letterman," led by Paul Shaffer),
also starred at a recent showcase, with original material "that
was slamming and radio-ready -- but radio isn't ready!" Simpson
says. Ashford adds that singer/songwriter Andy Roda, formerly
signed to Virgin and a "Next Big Star" runner-up, was
contacted by Motown after a Sugar Bar outing.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
Patrick Walker, a budding singer/songwriter who has showcased
at the club, hails the "royal opportunity" its open-mic
nights afford. "You can sing a cover song or bring charts
of original work and see how the band talent factors in for a
songwriter trying to hear how a song could sound, or you can sing
an original and let the band create accompaniment for you. That's
talent to learn from," he says.
The Ashford & Simpson track record as composers of Motown-era
classics like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and such
gems performed on their own as "Found a Cure" and "Solid"
looms large in the appeal of the Sugar Bar.
"A critical element is that the proprietors are professional
recording artists and songwriters," Walker says. "Feedback
and advice from them is a blessing that they do extend, and because
they have had successful recording careers, a host of industry
representatives are always passing through who also will extend
advice and sometimes even more."
Gurwicz concludes, "It's a hip throwback to a time when melody
mattered and songwriters were to be nurtured and revered for their