Remembering Ron Grant
They often refer to the “Sugar Bar Family” in reference to the famous Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar’s Thursday Night Open Mic events, and Ron Grant, who died Dec. 9, was one of the most prominent regular attendees and performers who make up that close-knit family.
Tall and striking, Grant naturally stood out. But had he been tiny and plain, with his voice and style, he would have been no less noticeable. Names like Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross were dropped in the flood of social media tributes, and Grant was surely right up there with them. His only shortcoming was that unlike the rest, he wasn’t a household name.
“Ron Grant was singular among singers,” said Alec Shantzis, who as keyboard player in the Sugar Bar’s Thursday Night Open Mic gigs, accompanied him virtually every week.
“Not only was he blessed with the most incredible instrument--a huge vocal range--he had the rare taste to build the performance of a song into a musical journey of life-altering depth.”
Shantzis continued: “Ron approached the form of a song as a vehicle for improvisation. No other singer I have ever worked with did that. He would call key changes, extend sections, change things on the fly--so abruptly that if I wasn’t watching him like a hawk, I might miss his sudden left turn and get ‘the look.’ And he was very sensitive: If he wasn’t comfortable, he would just stop singing and end the song.”
Brooklynite Grant came from a musical family, his mother and grandfather having been gifted gospel singers. After an A&R stint at Sony Music, he became a celebrated host of his own open mic nights at numerous Manhattan venues--in addition to his own unforgettable performances.
“Ron knew who he was long before he became who he ended up being,” relates Shantzis. “ I began working with him at Honeysuckles in the 1990s. After that, Chaz and Wilson’s--in a band that had three keyboardists and a keyboard bass player. He worked as a lead singer in my band, and I worked as a keyboardist in his band. We performed at hundreds of private events together, and accompanied the likes of Bruno Mars, Nick Jonas and Pink.“
Stellar producer Russ Titelman (Eric Clapton, George Harrison) recalled meeting Grant years ago at a Sugar Bar Open Mic.
“Hearing him sing made me feel the way I did the first time I heard the Reverend James Cleveland--like being embraced by a benevolent, loving, beautiful spirit,” said Titelman. “His unbridled joy for music and his generosity made him a unique and beloved presence in our community.”
As Shantzis noted, Grant built a community of singers whom he’d mentored and “musically ministered to.”
On Facebook, singer/actress Cheryl Pepsii Riley struggled to articulate the personal nature of Ron Grant’s loss.
“We lost a legend!” Riley posted. “Ron Grant has impacted all of our lives to some degree!”
She looked back on co-hosting Open Mic shows with Grant since the 1990s, “from Chaz and Wilson’s to The Blue Angel and back to Chaz and Wilson’s and then to The Village Underground--with a bunch of Sony showcases and recording sessions in between. I’ve met and sung with some of the best singers and musicians, not just in our NYC music community but around the world, [and] Ron opened doors for all of us: Sessions, tours, gigs—[He] was the template for hosting Open Mics across the globe!”
Grant, noted Riley, was “a master vocalist, a musical sensei who connected us all—my brother in song! Your legacy will live forever as we all have been blessed to have known you and learned so much from you! We love you and this hurts—but God loves you best.”
Singer-songwriter/actress Kimberly Nichole, a star of The Voice’s Season 8 and recipient of The ASCAP Foundation’s prestigious “Reach Out and Touch” Award in Honor of Nick Ashford, likewise reflected on Grant’s influence on her career.
“I remember when I was fully coming into myself--into the woman you all know now,” said Nichole, also via Facebook. “Ron Grant was like, ‘Girl! Your evolution! What your voice has become is more than I even imagined.’ My first time singing out of the U.S. was because of him—in Japan! Yokohama! He brought me with him.”
“What a giant of a man--a human, a teacher, man of God!” added Nichole. “And that voice! I have such warm memories hearing him singing Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’--such a brilliant vocalist! I’ll never be able to hear that song without thinking about him.”
Shantzis reflected on a last-minute birthday party he threw for himself some years ago.
“I didn’t give people enough notice and very few people showed up,” said Shantzis. “But Ron came, and sang for my family. He was that kind of guy. We all must say a heartfelt goodbye to a one-of-a-kind friend and teacher.”
Countless other friends of Grant chimed in on Facebook, with maybe the best post coming from actress/singer-songwriter Toni Seawright: “Ron Grant is holding the Golden Gate Open Mic & Whitney, Michael, Prince, Teena Marie, Rick James, Teddy [Pendergrass] & James Brown have signed up!” This was followed by a second post: “This just in: Aretha didn’t have to sign up for Ron Grant’s Golden Gate Open Mic.”