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Billboard Magazine

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 West Side.

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 catalog.

"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 companies.

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 TV.

"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 a lot."

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 own songs.

"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 own hits."

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.

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 talent."