At nineteen, in 1975, I was selling advertising for the OSU college paper, The Lantern, and submitting stories and getting published in the student “fringe” paper: Our Choking Times. The one where I won their respect as a budding radical, then went flying over the lines of professionalism to date Gil Scott-Heron.
I not only wrote about the older and otherworldly genius radical rapper, I threw caution in my hometown wind, hit the road with him, and well, you know. Ditching college for nearly a week, I boarded a tour bus with Gil, soaking up his celebrity and smiling a smug smile, when other girls stared with hungry eyes. Mostly I watched him read and read and read.
Now I knew why his lyrics were so intriguing. He devoured news magazines and books, speed-reading, thoughts on fire. I tried to be ready with an intelligent comment or witticism, while keeping the goal of my article in mind.
“I like talking to you,” he once said approvingly, eyes smiling as he looked up from U.S. News and World Report. And well my heart did little flips as the bus clipped along.
In 1976, I would have flashbacks of our recent time together: Gil, handsome, angular-faced and charmingly disheveled sat backwards on a chair across from me, as I lay robed in his hotel bed and dreamily drank wine. He enthusiastically entertained his enraptured audience of one. I alternated between laughter and awe, as he tossed off brilliant dialogue and humor with an upturned finger, woven in with his trademark political rhapsody and a wacked, uncombed, uncared-about afro.
My merriment only slightly dimmed by an shadowy sense of foreboding when Gil made a point of taking frequent “artistic time-outs” to do copious lines of cocaine from an album cover on The Holiday Inn hotel dresser. Credit to him, he didn’t corrupt me with his coke, which I had turned down the first day. I was still terrified by cocaine–then. And he let me stay happily “in my cups”, replenishing my drink stash at every rest stop. Back in that day, a man who never let my drink run out, was the epitome of a gentleman to me, which made it hard to focus on diamonds and more upscale amenities.
Wrenching myself away from that rendezvous for a season, I became the sometimes-faux, oft-times truly-dedicated student again and dove into my college classes for another year or so.
Mostly I wrote from the soul, without getting intimately involved–all in preparation for my coming career in broadcast journalism. That is until I got sidetracked again, but by this time I was twenty-one. Hey, I was grown! But my grown self was running a semester behind my scheduled graduation date. My degree had to wait for spells of heavy drinking, the local party scene and manic depression hovering in the wings.
At least school was out for a season, because it was the smoking-hot Summer of 77″!! A friend of a friend, a concert promoter, borderline dirty old man. (he was late 40’s which at 21 seemed pretty ancient.) This guy submitted my name to a contest, then told my friend that I’d be perfect with some coaching and could probably win.
It was a beauty contest, but sort of an invented one for publicity to launch Lionel Richie and The Commodores’ concert tour and promote the hit record du jour. The song soaring up the charts was “Brick House”–helping to make The Commodores one of Motown’s hottest groups. The contest was for Miss Columbus (Ohio) Brick House.
The winner at the national level it was promised, would also snag a movie role with the exceedingly cool, Billy Dee Williams in his next movie. I was jazzed beyond rhythm-and-blues. Fifteen girls competed at “Ciro’s”, the popular Columbus dance club, sort of Miss America style, in swimsuits and heels and then revealed their “intellect” or “wit” when asked a serious question.
To be honest, there was a girl who was a Brick House bombshell, with a sensational eye-popping figure, judging by the collective stares of the men in the audience, but the dear bombshell appeared dumb as a bag of hammers! (She wasn’t, just shy.) I was pretty adept at stringing a sentence together, and she fumbled over her name. Since they wanted a kind of spokesmodel winner, I won.
Sandi, the Bombshell, became the runner-up and we became fast friends, because at that point, The Commodore’s management closed down the contest and picked the two of us to go on Tour with the group.
We won gift certificates and free travel, limo rides, meals, money for clothes. We stood behind barricades in record stores in swimsuits, high heels and fake furs and signed autographs, along with The Commodores. I always wore a pair of slacks over my swimsuits in public when offstage, because I didn’t want to look sluttish. I was actually aiming for something sophisticated, sexy and upscale. Years later, Beyonce’ pulled it off.
Sandi and I roomed together, giggled, gossiped and drank champagne while we traveled to Philadelphia, Hartford, Connecticut, Boston, and made a pit stop in Dayton before the tour was to have a huge concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
It was at a packed arena in Philadelphia that I was “crowned” the official stage dancer on tour and I was ecstatic to be onstage with Lionel Richie and The Commodores.
“She’s a Brick House–she’s mighty, mighty!” they sung in snug, glittering military-style suits–a vision for testosterone-deprived eyes. And I’d do a wham-bam funky yet feminine, hip thrust as I wound my provocative dance to position myself in between Lionel Richie and William King.
“A-A-O-O-W”, I would think while William Orange actually sang it.
I was developing a serious crush on Lionel, but would try to reign it in whenever his pretty wife, Brenda, stage left, arms folded, looked at us, sullen from the sidelines. I was told by the road manager, she had been doing that for the last two years, but now it seemed definitely directed at me. That angst and heady excitement became a combustible mix that changed the show’s routine it seemed during one concert.
The routine was that Sandi would dance solo from stage right and I’d dance solo from stage left. Once during a concert the air charged with anti-matter, the routine was interrupted at the pit stop in Dayton. There was a rustling, a din, and then complete clamor and chaos.
Suddenly a “boo” erupted from the back. What had started as a tiny disturbance, quickly became something monstrous. 10,000 people packed in the arena began booing in a huge roar for almost a full, tortuous minute.
I was mortified, spinning dizzily as I finally stumbled offstage when the song was over, almost tripping over my sky-high heels. Try hiding wearing a neon-orange bathing suit. I ran into a photographer who was stage side, who became one of my best friends over the years.
“Why did they boo?” I broke out in little-girl sobs, heaving in-between blurted words, “I was thinking I did my best Chaka Khan dance moves,”
“I was in the back of the arena earlier,” Chuckie laughed, “and I heard a loud, crazy protest, people complaining—Miss Brick House is white! Miss Brick House is white!”. Then everyone started booing, not even knowing why they were booing,” he said. “Just really stupid.”
“But I’m not white!” I wailed, “I’m a black woman, a light-skinned black woman.” (African-American was not yet in vogue.)
“Oh, of course I can see that,” said Chuckie, “but wa-a-ay in the back with bright lights washing out your skin tone and the fact that you sometimes wear that straightened Farrah Fawcett-looking hairdo—well, I guess they just couldn’t tell.” Tears of laughter brimmed Chuckie’s eyes and he wiped them away with his knuckles.
I found it hard to laugh with him or even chuckle. To be booed by 10,000 people in a roar of disapproval back then, made me wish the earth would quake, open up and consume me quickly, no matter what the reason.
The next morning on the road again, I had washed and curled and frizzed my hair, letting it dry naturally. But I continued to whimper about the night before. Yet it seemed to disturb nobody but me, which I found amazing. I thought they would send me home. Then I remembered the performer’s mantra:
“The show must go on.”
I also thought of Lionel Richie’s smile. Did I care he was married? Only when I examined his wife’s face did I feel a wave of guilt. She seemed so unhappy about the nightly crush of women. Yet I wasn’t a groupie, I sniffed to myself. ‘Hey, I’m Miss Brick House! I’m not only with the band, I’m in the show!’
That sense of entitlement combined with the bitter-sweetness of an early hallway smile beamed in my direction. And light conversation between Lionel and me–and I only cared for my own selfish joy.
That summed up a 21-year old woman-child, with a dusty Bible and a neon orange bathing suit strutting nightly onstage with a supergroup, led by a friendly, incredibly talented, rich and famous man. I was dancing a dream and anything seemed possible. And so I danced.