- Jim Bessman
Miss Tee Alston--An appreciation
Miss Tee doing what she loved--serving people
Usually Manhattan’s Upper West Side home of joyous musical celebration, Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar observed a sad occurrence Thursday night (Aug. 6) at the start of its world-famous weekly Open Mic event, one that is currently programmed virtually via Facebook Live due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Altamese Alston had passed away the day before at 82—but it’s a safe bet that if anyone knew her first name, no one ever used it. For everyone knew her as Tee Alston, “Miss Tee,” really, or just—lovingly—Tee. For she had been Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s assistant throughout their landmark career, even extending back before Ashford & Simpson.
“It was before there was a Nick-and-Val,” Simpson told Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman. “I was playing piano for a gospel group in Harlem. Tee and her friends were walking by and they stopped in because they heard the music. I told her she had great shoes. And that was it.”
True, Tee was known for her love of music and great shoes.
But she was more known for her devotion to Ashford & Simpson professionally and personally, both behind the scenes and out front as their loudest cheerleader. And she was more known, too, for essentially holding her own court Thursday nights at the Sugar Bar, where her work ethic was legend.
For it was Miss Tee who made sure that everyone--regulars and newbies alike--was well taken care of and having a great time. This meant seating luminaries at the last moment, buying and serving birthday cakes for all who chose to celebrate birthdays at the Sugar Bar, and keeping an ever-vigilant eye on her nominal employers.
For one example, one Thursday night, while sitting at the bar at the upstairs Cat Lounge, she ordered a Heineken, then asked the friend sitting with her to walk it over to Ashford, who was sitting at the opposite end. Dumbstruck, Ashford said, “I was just about to order another!”
“I know,” Tee told her friend when he repeated Ashford’s reaction. “I was timing it.”
Then again, Ashford once noted that should he spill a drop on his stage garb before a concert, Tee would have the spot cleaned before he could even realize it.
Tee would stay at the Sugar Bar working in her office long past Open Mic’s early morning closing, sometimes as late as 4 a.m. She’d then take home as many as four heavy bags full of paperwork (and shoes) home with her. Friends knew they could call her up until 3 a.m.—and that they’d best not call her again before 11 a.m.
“This is really a hard time for me,” Valerie Simpson said from her home at the start of Thursday’s Virtual Open Mic. “Yesterday rocked my world and my family’s world: We lost the beloved Miss Tee.”
“Anybody who knows Ashford & Simpson knows what Miss Tee meant to me and my family,” she continued, noting that her phone hadn’t stopped ringing with condolence calls from the likes of Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack, Nile Rodgers and Gayle King.
“I’m here because her spirit is here. This is the night she looked forward to: She’d always call me at the end of Virtual Open Mic and tell me who really rocked it.”
On Facebook, Sugar Bar house band drummer Bernard Davis was one of many heartbroken “Sugar Bar Family” members hailing Miss Tee as “Mom to so many of us.” For music attorney Judy Tint, she was “a force of nature, with the sharpest mind and biggest heart.”
“It’s hard to think of Ashford & Simpson without thinking of Tee Alston,” said Karen Sherry, who worked closely with them for years while vice president at the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
“She was like the third member of the team—always fiercely dependable and upbeat with her warm smile and gentle ways, and as much a part of our industry as anyone I know. She was the silent but strong partner, working tirelessly in handling every detail to hold it all together for Nick and Val, and while she wasn’t on stage, she made it all possible.”
Sherry added that Tee was inconsolable when Nick Ashford died in 2011.
“But she was there for Val and their daughters with absolute devotion, and helped them get through it. It will be hard now to enter the Sugar Bar and not see her running about doing whatever needed to get done—or greeting Valerie backstage and not seeing Tee by her side.”
Distinguished music publicist Liz Rosenberg, who worked with Ashford & Simpson when they recorded for Warner Bros. and remained close with them ever after, recalled what “an extraordinary friend she had been to me for all these years.”
“I feel truly honored and lucky I got to spend time in her company,” said Rosenberg. “I forgot to thank her for all the pina coladas she made for me at Ashford & Simpson parties, and the joy I felt every time I walked into the Sugar Bar and saw her smiling face at the end of the bar or behind her desk. She was always a whirl of energy with files flying about, but she kept it all together and always welcomed me with a kiss and hug and made me feel like I was a visiting dignitary or rock star. She did that for everybody, of course, but it still made me feel special.”
Rosenberg wishes she could have “one more conversation with her about Manolo Blahniks.”
“How many birthday cakes did she buy, cut up and serve at the Sugar Bar?” she also wondered, “and was there a day that she didn’t spend making everyone else happy? Not likely!”
And Rosenberg loved watching Miss Tee “cheer on every performer at the Sugar Bar and quietly sing along.”
“I loved and deeply respected her devotion to Nick and Val, her girls--and all of us who surrounded them and worshipped at the altar of A&S. She was a treasure to all of us, and the loss of her to my world is so much more than she would ever imagine.”
Certain that Miss Tee is now “serving birthday cakes to her fellow angels,” Rosenberg is “so, so grateful that she was with us for a while”—a sentiment echoed by Simpson Thursday night.
“We all think we’re going to be here forever, but it isn’t so,” Simpson said, adding, “When I think of Tee, I think of a life well-lived. All I could ask for is more time—and that’s what everybody I spoke to today was asking for: more time with Miss Tee. But let me just say, How could she do us like this?”
People, “if they’re going to make an exit, they get sick, or give you a signal,” Simpson explained. “But I told this to a friend, and she said, ‘No. Miss Tee did it right. She put on her high heels and exited.’ All of us have to make our exit, but she made the grand exit: She didn’t want to worry anybody!”