Valerie Simpson, Patti LaBelle and Andre Smith perform at the Sugar Bar's famous Thursday Night Open Mic
It’s been 21 years since her late husband, songwriting and performing partner Nick Ashford opened the Sugar Bar in 1996--ironically without her blessing. Now, however, Valerie Simpson is belatedly and happily celebrating not only that milestone but the 20th anniversary of New York’s legendary West Side music and dining spot’s main attraction—along with the food, of course.
For on Thursday night Simpson is officially observing 20 years of the Sugar Bar’s world renowned Thursday night Open Mic events, for which she sits at a table kitty-corner from the stage and fields a team of backup vocalists in supporting anyone who signs up to sing in front of all-star house band.
Indeed, singers and instrumentalists from all over the globe have seized the opportunity to perform with such royalty, many becoming Sugar Bar regulars, some eventually achieving their own measure of stardom.
“We’ve seen so many over the years go on to do great things,” says Simpson. “One time Quincy Jones called and asked if we knew anyone who could audition for the part of Shug Avery in the Broadway production of The Color Purple. We thought of Elisabeth Withers, who sang here and had that ‘it’ quality, and even though she’d never acted before, she got the part and was nominated for a Tony Award!”
Another Sugar Bar alumnus, Jermaine Paul, went on to win the second season of The Voice and a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in a collaborative work with featured artist Alicia Keys. Likewise, regular Kimberly Nichole’s early Sugar Bar spots were noticed by none other than fashion maven Andre Leon Talley, who put her in Vogue prior to her Top 5 finish in Season 8 of The Voice and success on the iTunes and Billboard charts for her rock covers.
Sophia Urista was another high-placing contestant on The Voice (Season 11), while Vickie Natale, after being approached at the Sugar Bar by a Star Search casting director, won the 2003 Star Search Adult Competition.
“Besides her own career, she’s a vocal and piano coach and brings her students to the Sugar Bar now,” says Simpson. “So it comes around full circle!”
Nick Ashford’s concept for the Sugar Bar came out of late Sugar Bar regular—and Ashford & Simpson collaborator on their 1996 album Been Found—Dr. Maya Angelou’s home hospitality.
“She’d gather people together and make them comfortable, and that inspired Nick,” recalls Simpson. “There was the give-and-take of good conversation and music and spontaneity. People weren’t afraid and were able to just go for it. We do that, too, at the Sugar Bar: It’s a small enough spot to feel protected enough to get up there on stage and do something. And it’s a great thrill for the audience to be that close to creation, which you can feel as opposed to being at a concert and a prepared show and have that distance. It’s almost skin-to-skin.”
The couple, who first came to fame in the 1960s as the Motown songwriting team responsible for such pop/R&B standards as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need To Get By,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” before making it as artists themselves with hits like “Found a Cure” and “Solid,” had previously owned and operated another restaurant/music venue, 20/20 (it’s address on W. 20th St.).
“It was a much bigger space and we had a lot of big artists, but it was very hard to sustain a 240-seat restaurant outside of music nights—and it wasn’t our primary business,” says Simpson. “But Nick just loved people coming over--having a home party atmosphere and a place to go where you could feel at home. But we were never joined at the hip in our aspirations! It was his dream to have his own place. I said, ‘After all we went through the last time, I can’t believe you want to do it again!’ But the saving grace was that we owned the building and nobody could kick us out!”
A collector of African art, Ashford decorated the Sugar Bar with pieces from his collection.
“I wanted to nail everything down, but it’s all still there!” laughs Simpson. “And as much as I fought it—and had nothing to do with the inspiration or décor—it allowed us the opportunity for him to have his dream come true, and I have more fun there than anybody!”
The Sugar Bar—to be proper, Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar—had no music when it opened.
“But people would always call and ask what the music was, because it was our club,” says Simpson. “So we had to have music because people were asking for it.”
She credits the late singer Andre Smith with conceiving the Thursday night Open Mic shows, which he hosted until his death in 2015.
“We designated Thursday nights because [stellar Sugar Bar vocal regular] Ron Grant had the biggest one at Village Underground on Sundays, so we thought Thursday would be far enough removed for it to be successful. It turned out that our stage brought in all kinds of people: Artists who came through New York, like Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan and Ledisi, and those who live here like Freddie Jackson, feel more relaxed and can be themselves at the Sugar Bar, and we never pressure anybody to perform. And other celebrities are comfortable, too, like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, who live in the neighborhood. She even brought her mom!”
Ashford himself instituted and hosted a second open mic night, the blues-oriented “Nuttin’ But The Blues,” in 2010, but with a monthly featured artist opening the night with a short set before opening it up to sign-ins.
“It started with the famous actress and wonderful, authentic blues signer Ebony Jo-Ann, but has also attracted younger people discovering the blues and singing form their personal experiences,” says Simpson, adding that jazz takes over on Wednesday nights. “But there’s music every night Tuesday through Saturday: Someone gets up there doing something live.”
The Sugar Bar, Simpson continues, “gives a platform” for young artists who “have to get started somewhere”—one of the reasons why she’s kept it going since her husband died in 2012.
“I’m not a quitter and I felt that this was his vision, so I had to keep it going and not pull the rug out—but I’m surprised we’re still here!” she says.
“But I do enjoy spending time at the Sugar Bar, and have an allegiance to our staff and the people who depend on it for their livelihood. It means a lot to know we’re helping the economy in some small way and bringing enjoyment to the world--when there’s not much to cheer about--with wonderful music and life to help you get through whatever it is you’re dealing with.”
And she credits daughrer Nicole Ashford for Sugar Bar’s day-to-day operations.
“I’m there Tuesday and Thursday nights and maybe another night, so she makes sure things are running smoothly—and that it’s protected.”
So Nick Ashford’s Sugar Bar legacy, like Ashford & Simpson’s classic song catalog, remains intact—just one more cause for celebration Thursday night.
“We believe in celebrations!” says Simpson, noting how virtually every Open Mic Thursday observes at least one birthday among the “Sugar Bar Family” regulars.
“I can’t tell you how many birthday cakes we’ve gone thorugh over the last 20 years, and at least two couples who met here got married. But we celebrate divorces, too: If it ain’t working, get out of it and do something else. Get a job, get promoted, come here and celebrate what’s happening in your life and have a real moment and get a chorus of ‘amens.’”
And if that’s not enough, there’s table tennis.
“I redecorated the office, and realized I didn’t need a desk—but I like to play ping-pong,” says Simpson. “I have a table at home, so I put one in the Sugar Bar office as an extension. If you’re a good player you can come in and hit a few balls, though at one or two in the morning, we’re all a little unsteady. But we hit them anyway!”