I've decided to bullet some recent happenings in pop culture and inside of my reality. The last week and change has been filled with spontaneity, adventure, and fun. As Anthony and I acclimate to living under one roof, we too have had the luxury of being out and about in the city. We find ourselves running into all kinds of folks --- left and right, and gaining organic and inspired accesses that have us learning new things along the way. I'll "bullet" a few of those here:
* While dining at Isabella's Restaurant (www.nyc.com/restaurants/Isabellas_Restaurant.54131/editorial.aspx), Anthony and I happened to be seated next to Conan O'Brien. As we nibbled on peppercorn steaks and crabcakes, I couldn't stop looking over. Normally, if I have something pointed and profound to say, I will speak to a celebrity. I'm not usually starstruck. But I couldn't really think of anything to say without having what Tracee Ellis Ross recently called "the celebrity tick" when someone recognizes you and out of their mouth comes the first thing that comes to mind. In her case, they sometimes come up and yell: "DIANA ROSS!!!!". Though the 2nd eldest daughter of the legendary songstress (who recently celebrated her 63rd birthday) has a name, she acknowledges that sometimes people just don't know what to say. To avoid my "celebrity tick" with Conan, which might have been: "CONAN O'BRIEN!!!!!" (AWKWARD LAUGH), I continued to stare and stalk from the distance, kinda' like I do with Diana, though I have met her a time or eight.
* Meanwhile, Ross has been out and about lately in preps for her upcoming stateside and European tour. This past weekend, she escorted Muhammad Ali into his CELEBRITY FIGHT NIGHT XIII, after which she gave a showstopping performance under the musical direction of David Foster. Muhammad Ali honored Sharon Stone with the “Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award,” Donald Trump with the “Muhammad Ali Entrepreneur Award,” Steve Nash with the “Muhammad Ali Sports Achievement Award” and John Elway with the “Muhammad Ali Sports Legend Award.” This black tie event begins with cocktails and a silent auction with dinner, a live auction and entertainment on the back end of the evening. The Celebrity Fight Night Foundation established The Muhammad Ali Awards as a way to acknowledge leaders in the sports, entertainment and business communities who best represent the qualities associated with the Champ and his fight to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Each year dozens of celebrity guests attend the event that has raised more than $38 million dollars in twelve years. *Back to my reality, I took a meeting last week with Broadway newcomer Q Smith. This multi-talented woman with a mohawk and I met during Black History Month when I was asked to moderate a MTV panel on which she was a panelist. She says she was so impressed with how I asked my questions and engaged the participants and the audience, she wanted to pick my brain a little bit over coffee. This, before she went on stage to perform her matinee of "Les Miserables" (for which she is a "swing girl" - meaning there are eight women's roles she can play and understudies on any given day, depending on who is in and who is out. That's daunting and impressive, if you don't know) (www.lesmis.com/). Q is also a teaching artist and is currently working on a book about the contributions of contemporary African American women to the art as well as the craft and business of theater. Check out her bio/background at www.qperstar.com. Afterwards, she took Anthony and me backstage at the The Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street (Btw. Broadway & Eighth Ave.). She gave us a comprehensive tour that led from the stage to backstage with the costumes to my good friend Norm Lewis' dressing room. Norm, who was also on that MTV panel where Q & I met, is Javert (and that morning had just performed with the cast for Rosie's birthday party on "The View"). With his rich baritone voice and charming smile, Lewis has become a favorite of critics and audiences alike, working steadily in New York for nearly a decade. Major credits include Side Show, Miss Saigon, Dessa Rose and Chicago. And he's getting ready to leave Les Mis to go on the road (stops including Denver over the summer) to star in "The Little Mermaid". Norm, who I met through actress friends Kimberly Jajuan and LaChanze, is the nicest guy you can know and when he saw who his surprise guest was (me), he was elated. He, Q, Anthony, and I fooled around backstage - shoptalking, watching public access TV (for laughs), and trying on some of his costumes (like the wig he placed on my head for laughs). It was an unexpected post-script to our afternoon that led to much delight and laughter. Thanks Q & Norm!!!
* One of our other casual days that week, Anthony and I got the chance to preview the many new NIKE Athletic wear and footwear offerings for 2007. I met a young lady named Maggie Mahler in Chicago (at GLAMOURAMA, a Macy's- sponsored event I attended with Beyonce's "House of Dereon" as the featured designer). She's a friend of a friend. And she is a media relations manager for Nike.
During our private tour, we got a real sense of the method behind the magic of NIKE (www.nike.com). One thing you can all look forward to is the new NikeSportsTee. They are billing it as the World's Largest Sports Tee. And as I sit in my orange take-away of the shirt, I can assure you it's a good look and fit. Some of the other sightings that floated our boat included the athletic/casual footwear that Nike offers with the "story" of the Historically Black College or University, including colors and tints of Black Greek organizations. Also, there's a collection of Negro League Baseball Nike shoes, including the "white elephant" which is based on a Denver-based team about which Anthony was intrigued, given his Colorado roots. THANKS MAGGIE! We look forward to breaking bread with you.
* Meanwhile, last Friday, Anthony and I got the chance to hang out with our friend Melony. She's from South Africa and has become Anthony's and my collective "Amazing Grace" (best girlfriend). We met her at our friend Jabu's birthday party last November. Monica, one of Nichole's New Rochelle's neighbors, brought Melony that night. And she, Anthony, and I hit it off from our end of the long table back in November. Since that time, we've had the chance to hang out with her and find out that she is loads of fun and full of heart. In that it had been a minute since we all got together, we decided to create an evening of drinks at Opia (www.opiarestaurant.com/). Then, we met our Nichole on 58th and 1st Street at yet another Rosa Mexicana for margaritas and a hearty meal (www.rosamexicana).
* We enjoyed catching up with the girls before we graduated uptown to Harlem to hook up with my friend Greg Dunmore who was in town for an Aretha Franklin birthday party at "Tavern on the Green" where I understand 50 or so of The Queen of Soul's intimates celebrated her with great food, drinks, and entertainment (provided by none other than Ashford & Simpson, who reportedly called Freddie Jackson on stage for some collabo). It's always good to see Detroit-based Greg, who works with me closely on the National Association of Black Journalists' Arts & Entertainment Task Force. We met him at Pier 2110 (www.pier2110.com/) after he - on this night - saw "A Chorus Line". While at this Harlem-based seafood restaurant and bar, we ran into my good friend from the New York Association of Black Journalists Georgia Scott. Though I hadn't seen Georgia in a minute, she never fails to amuse me with her goings-on. By day, she is an associate art director at "The New York Times". By night and flight, she is an author ("Headwraps: A Global Journey" - PUBLIC AFFAIRS BOOKS [www.publicaffairsbooks.com]). She's also a cultural anthropologist. And she's a globetripper. As she hosted a friend from her St. Louis, MO high school, she told me she's hosting a T SALON at Chelsea Market (75 Ninth Avenue [at 15th Street]) on April 26th from 7 to 9 pm. It's $40 and includes dinner, specially selected tea, and the "Globetrippin Vacation Guide"). For more information or reservations, call 917/860-5629.
* After all the small talk and catching up, Anthony, Greg, and a friend of his (Jarvis), had to segue to Herve's birthday party. You'll recall, I met Herve at a screening of "Dreamgirls", but had an inkling he was someone about whom Greg had told me (after Herve shared he had done a New-Jersey production of "Dreamgirls"). It turns out (with little exchanged) that he was the person - in fact - that Greg had referenced. Additionally, it turns out Herve, the actor, is also an "organizer" or - as he would deem himself - "a space architect" (www.organizemenyc.com). But as he organizes people's spaces and places, he stays connected to the performer that is he. He just recently played the lead in a play by Lynn Nottage called "Intimate Apparel". He says it's a piece of writing that reminds him of "The Color Purple" or "Sula". Also, in the "New York Living Magazine" (its recent issue on Harlem), you can read a story that features his point of view on Harlem along with other residents coupled with a cool picture. And his next stop is back into the studio with the producers of "The Miseducation of
Lauryn Hill" for further production of his full album "The Seven Seeds of
Love". BUSY! CREATIVE! EXPRESSIVE! POWERFUL! HERVE! Though we missed the bulk of his set at his Harlem brownstone, we saw the many eclectic and exciting people as they left with smiles on their face (and a little disappointment that they were missing us as we came in). With that, we made our own after-set with Herve. He was a gracious host, despite his fatigue from having emptied his place of dozens of guests only to have four more come and not know how to go home. It's a laugh, thinking back. But it's also a good picture. SEE....?
* Meanwhile, I would like to shout out someone who has been really helpful to me over the last few weeks. I mentioned I was working on a Luther Vandross tribute for UneQ Magazine (www.UneQMagazine.com). It will come out this summer. In my quest for voices who may have known, I was led to a man named Terrance Russ. He's Chairman and President/CEO of
The Russ Group of Companies, a unit of
New Origin Communications. He tells me he had been reading "A DAY IN THE LIFE OF RILEY" as a referral from an employee who thought he would find it informative,entertaining and enlightening. He says he did. Moreover, once we spoke, he thought and thinks there can be some synergy given the projects I work on (including this blog) and the many things he does. The parent company,New Origin Communications is a firm which manages and/or consult's NFL ,NBA player's,motion picture and music producer's as well as book author's. Late last year, he devopled the new media leg, The Russ Group of Companies. The companies starting projects are a series of music and film
/video ventures with "Uptown Magazine" (www.uptown-magazine.com/), the first being "Terrance Russ Presents Uptown: Music and Vision" series. There may be an opportunity for me to put my singing vocals on wax via this project, says Terrance. The other is "Looker", a music album companion disc, inspired by the novel of the same name and written by actor, playwright, motion
picture director Stanley Bennett Clay, who too is co- composer on a number of Ashford-and-Simpson songs that are to be included in the upcoming "Invisible Life" Broadway musical. Stanley Bennett Clay is one of the people who contributed his testimonial to my "Luther" piece.
* Also, R&B singer and actress Alyson Williams contributed. Terrance led her to me. She will be doing
some songs on the aforementioned "Terrance Russ Presents Uptown: Music and Vision" series. She too is currently starring in the musical " My Brother Marvin" produced by Marvin Gayes sister Viola Gaye and features vocalist /actor Keith Washington and directed by actor
Clifton Powell. I talked to her about more than Luther and here's a little of what she shared with me:
"A DAY IN THE LIFE OF RILEY": I've had the opportunity to see you so many times over the years. You always give A+ performances... in the pocket! And you're always generous to include with anything that you're currently working on that song, "Just Call My Name" and it always makes us so happy.
"ALYSON WILLIAMS": Thank you! You're kind!
"A DAY IN THE LIFE OF RILEY": You're also on the road working in "My Brother Marvin", portraying Marvin Gaye's mother. Correct?
"ALYSON WILLIAMS": Yes! Alberta Gaye!
"A DAY IN THE LIFE OF RILEY": ... tell me about that project. There's a lot of buzz about it.
"ALYSON WILLIAMS": We are in the middle of a tour right now. We did our trial run in December of '06 and started our tour in Philadelphia with a two-week extension. We are now in Memphis, TV. It is headed to New York City... and it is the story of Viola Gaye's brother (Marvin) through her eyes. And it touches on the family aspect. The backstory. It gives closure to a lot of the questions and puts an end to a lot of the rumors, since most people don't know what culminated that day (when he was killed by his father). It's unthinkable to think that someone can come to the end of their life at the hand of a parent. This lets us know what the dysfunction was, how it came to be, how it is something that had culminated over the years. It's headed to the New York/New Jersey area in May and the west coast too. We're looking to be on the road through June.
"A DAY IN THE LIFE OF RILEY": As we think about who you are and what you've represented to this industry over these years, I remember reading some quote from you where you always wanted to approach your artistry from the music and not so much from trends. How easy could it be for a seasoned woman of your character to be an "ex-disco diva", if you chose. But you've always chosen with integrity and chosen for the music. How do you describe the brand that is Alyson Williams and the way that you want the industry and your fans to see you. What does that look like to you?
"ALYSON WILLIAMS": Ever-evolving and consistent. I don't ever want to be an ex-anything. Something you don't want to be anymore. I want to be a newer version of or the best of whatever that is because there's always a demographic of people who want to bask in what they like. If "disco balls" are what they like, they should go and find all of that and turn the light on and let the light shine as possible. If it's "50s/doo-wop", they should go find that. If it's R&B and classic soul, they will go and find that. When they want a mixture of what is classic R&B & soul, jazz with a flair for the theatrics & cabaret, then they will come and find me, Alyson Williams.
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