Valerie Simpson and Sugar Bar staffers getting ready to cut the Thursday Night Open Mic's 20th anniversary birthday cake, as viewed on the upstairs Cat Lounge monitor.
The word “celebrate” took on many meanings Thursday night at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar, where Valerie Simpson celebrated the 20th anniversary of the restaurant/nightclub’s world-famous Thursday night Open Mic shows.
There were typically stellar performances and appearances from “Sugar Bar Family” Thursday Night Open Mic regulars like Ron Grant, Alyson Williams and Felicia Collins, and an enormous Sugar Bar 20th birthday cake big enough for most everyone to enjoy a slice.
But as anticipated, it was left to Simpson to sanctify the evening with observations, that to borrow from the title and titletrack of Ashford & Simpson’s 1973 debut album, gave everyone “something real.”
“Twenty years later here we all are,” she said, giving special props to Sugar Bar management, kitchen, wait and door staff: “You don’t know how much goes into make you happy!”
She turned to a big photo of her late husband and songwriting-performing partner Nick Ashford on the wall to the right of the stage, and to one of late Open Mic host Andre Smith on the left: “You all wouldn’t keep coming on Thursday nights if the music wasn’t great.”
Simpson sang a bit of Chic’s “Good Times” before settling into Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” With help from the regulars she then commenced extemporaneous recall of magical moments from the Open Mic’s 20 years, the best, perhaps, being Coretta Scott King and Dr. Maya Angelou together “having a cocktail!” She also shouted out past celeb attendees including Nina Simone, Quincy Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Ledisi, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Howard Stern, and could have continued into next week had not daughter Asia Ashford interrupted her and queried, “What about Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson? What place are we in?”
A place unlike any other, as anyone who’s ever been to the Sugar Bar can attest. Where else could a joyous party meet a solemn church in a single performance? On this night of all nights it was “Time”--the ballad from Gimme Something Real--with its lyric “Time, all I have is time--time is the space between me and you,“ that Simpson spontaneously transitioned into a modified “Abraham, Martin and John.“
“Has anybody here, seen my old friend Andre?“ sang Simpson, following it even more poignantly with “Has anybody here, seen my old friend Nick? Can you tell me where he’s gone?“
“Any moment any one of us can be gone,” she said. “So while we’re here, let’s celebrate the love in these walls...of the 20th anniversary of being here together.”
The long show ended, as it always does, with Simpson and the singers still present joining together on “We Can Work It Out,” all taking a verse. And as she has since her husband’s passing, Simpson, who had recorded the classic Beatles hit on her 1971 Motown debut album Exposed, slowed her verse, the bridge “Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend…,” to an intensely wailed, heartbreaking crawl.
It was well after 3 a.m., and the remaining partiers moved upstairs into the Cat Lounge--where Nick Ashford held court on Thursday nights—to continue partying on into the Sugar Bar’s 21st year of Thursday Night Open Mics.