At nineteen, in 1975, I was selling advertising for the OSU college newspaper, The Lantern, and I was submitting stories and getting published in the “fringe” student newspaper, Our Choking Times. In which I earned his respect as a budding radical, then flew over the lines of professionalism to date Gil Scott-Heron.
Not only did I write about the oldest and genius radical rapper from another world, I also threw caution into my hometown wind, hit the road with him, and well, you know. Dropping out of college for almost a week, I boarded a tour bus with Gil, soaking up his celebrity and grinning smirk when other girls looked on with hungry eyes. Mostly I saw him read and read and read.
Now he knew why his lyrics were so intriguing. He devoured magazines and news books, speed reading, thoughts on fire. I tried to be ready with a clever or witty comment, without losing sight of the point of my article.
“I like talking to you,” he said once approvingly, his eyes smiling as he looked up from the US News and World Report. And well, my heart skipped a beat when the bus moved on.
In 1976, I would have memories of our recent time together: Gil, handsome, angular-faced and charmingly disheveled, sat upside down in a chair across from me, while I lay on his hotel bed and drank wine dreamily. He enthusiastically entertained his enthralled audience of one. I alternated between laughter and amazement as he delivered brilliant dialogue and humor with a raised finger, interwoven with his trademark political rhapsody and a wild, disheveled, carefree Afro.
My joy was only tempered slightly by a vague sense of apprehension when Gil set out to take frequent “art breaks” to make copious lines of cocaine from an album cover on the Holiday Inn hotel dresser. Thanks to him, he did not corrupt me with his coke, which I had rejected the first day. He was still terrified of cocaine, then. And he let me stay happy “in my cups”, refilling my drink at every rest stop. On that day, a man who never let my drink run out was the epitome of a gentleman to me, making it difficult to focus on diamonds and the most exclusive amenities.
Walking away from that date for a season, I became the sometimes fake, often truly dedicated student again and immersed myself in my college classes for a year or so.
Mostly I wrote from the soul, without getting intimately involved, all in preparation for my next career in television journalism. That was until I strayed again, but at the time I was twenty-one. Hey, I was older! But my adult self was a semester behind my scheduled graduation date. My title had to wait for periods of binge drinking, the local party scene, and manic depression floating on the wings.
At least he missed school for a season, because it was the hot summer of 77 “!! A friend of a friend, a concert promoter, a dirty old man on the edge (he was almost 40, which at 21 seemed quite old man.) This guy submitted my name to a contest, then told my friend that it would be perfect with a little training and that I could probably win.
It was a beauty pageant, but a kind of publicity stunt to launch the Lionel Richie and The Commodores concert tour and promote the hit record of the day. The song that soared up the charts was “Brick House,” which helped make The Commodores one of Motown’s most popular bands. The pageant went to Miss Columbus (Ohio) Brick House.
The nationwide winner who was promised would also land a film role with Billy Dee Williams in his next film. It was 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 bomb, with a stunning, stunning figure judging from the collective stares of the men in the audience, but the beloved bomb looked dumb as a bag of hammers! (She wasn’t, just shy). I was pretty adept at stringing a sentence together, and she groped for his name. Since they wanted some kind of spokesperson model winner, I won.
Sandi, the Bombshell, became the runner-up and we became fast friends, because at that point, The Commodore management closed the contest and chose us both to go on the Tour with the group.
We win gift certificates and free rides, limo rides, meals, money for clothes. We stand behind barricades at record stores in swimsuits, high heels, and faux fur and sign autographs, along with The Commodores. I always wore a pair of pants over my bathing suits in public when off stage, because I didn’t want to look like a whore. Actually, he was aiming for something sophisticated, sexy, and exclusive. Years later, Beyonce ‘did it.
Sandi and I shared a room, laughed, chatted and drank champagne as we traveled to Philadelphia, Hartford, Connecticut, Boston and made a stop in Dayton before the tour had a big concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
It was in a packed stadium in Philadelphia that I was “crowned” as the official stage dancer on the tour and I was ecstatic to be on stage with Lionel Richie and The Commodores.
“She is a brick house, she is powerful, powerful!” they sang in tight, gleaming military-style suits – a vision for testosterone-starved eyes. And I’d do a funky yet feminine hip move, while winding up my provocative dance to position myself between Lionel Richie and William King.
AAOOW, I thought as William Orange sang it.
I was starting to fall in love with Lionel, but tried to dominate him every time his pretty wife, Brenda, to the left of the stage, arms folded, peeked at us from the sidelines. The highway manager told me that he had been doing that for the past two years, but now it seemed definitely aimed at me. That anguish and intoxicating excitement turned into a combustible mix that changed the routine of the show that seemed during a concert.
The routine was that Sandi would dance only from the stage to the right and I would dance only from the stage to the left. Once, during a concert, the air was charged with antimatter, the routine was interrupted at the Dayton pit stop. There was a whisper, a rumble, and then a complete clamor and chaos.
Suddenly, a “boo” erupted from the back. What had started out as a small disturbance quickly turned into something monstrous. 10,000 people huddled in the arena began to boo with a great roar for almost a full and tortuous minute.
I was mortified, spinning dizzy when I finally stumbled off stage when the song ended, almost tripping over my towering heels. Try hiding in a neon orange swimsuit. I ran into a photographer standing next to the stage, who became one of my best friends over the years.
“Why did they boo?” I burst into little girl sobs, gasping between the words she blurted out, “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 and crazy protest, people complaining: Miss Brick House is white! Miss Brick House is white!” Then they all started booing, not even knowing why they were booing, “he said.” Really stupid. “
“But I’m not white!” I cried: “I am a black woman, a light-skinned black woman.” (The African American was not yet in fashion.)
“Oh sure I can see that,” Chuckie said, “but wa-a-ay in the back with bright lights that wash away your skin tone and the fact that you sometimes wear that straightened hairstyle that looks like Farrah Fawcett. — well, I guess they couldn’t tell. ” Chuckie’s eyes filled with laughing tears and he wiped them away with his knuckles.
It was difficult for me to laugh with him or even laugh. Being booed by 10,000 people in a roar of disapproval back then, made me wish the earth would shake, open up, and consume me quickly, no matter the reason.
The next morning, back on the road, I had washed, curled and curled my hair, letting it dry naturally. But I kept whining from the night before. However, it didn’t seem to bother anyone but me, which I found amazing. I thought they would send me home. Then I remembered the interpreter’s mantra:
“The show must go on.”
I also thought of Lionel Richie’s smile. Did it matter to me that he was married? Only when I examined his wife’s face did I feel a wave of guilt. He seemed so unhappy about the nightly crowd of women. She wasn’t a groupie though, I smelled myself. ‘Hey, I’m Miss Brick House! I’m not just with the band, I’m on the show! ‘
That sense of entitlement combined with the bitter sweetness of an early smile in the hall radiated in my direction. And a light conversation between Lionel and me, and I was only concerned with my own selfish joy.
That summed up a 21-year-old girl, with a dusty Bible and a neon orange bathing suit strutting every night on stage with a supergroup, led by a friendly, incredibly talented, rich and famous man. I was dancing a dream and everything seemed possible. And so I danced.