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Miss Brick House
At the age of nineteen, in 1975, I was selling ads for OSU’s college paper, The Lantern, and submitting stories and getting published in the student “fringe” newspaper: Our Drowning Times. The one where I earned their respect as a young radical, then went flying over the lines of professionalism to meet Gil Scott-Heron.
I not only wrote about the oldest radical rapper and otherworldly genius, I threw caution to the wind in my hometown, I went with it and well, you know. Giving up college for almost a week, I hopped on a tour bus with Gil, soaking up his celebrity and smiling a smug smile as the other girls stared at him with hungry eyes. I mostly watched him read, 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 wit, keeping in mind the purpose of my article.
“I like talking to you,” he once said approvingly, his eyes smiling as he looked up from US News and World Report. And well, my heart did a little flip as the bus pulled away.
In 1976, I would have flashbacks of our last time together: Gili, handsome, angular-faced and charmingly undressed sat back in a chair across from me while I lay clothed on his bed hotel and drank wine in a dream. He enthusiastically entertained his enthralled audience of one. I alternated between laughter and awe as he toe-tipped dialogue and brilliant humor, woven with his signature political rhapsody and a tousled, unbrushed, unkempt afro.
My enjoyment was slightly tempered by a vague sense of foreboding when Gil decided to take frequent “art time-outs” to make copious lines of cocaine from an album cover on the dresser of The Holiday Inn. To his credit, he didn’t bribe me with his Coke, which I had refused on the first day. I was still terrified of cocaine – then. And it let me stay happily “in my cups”, refilling my drink supply at every rest stop. Back in the day, a man who never let me finish my drink was the epitome of a gentleman to me, which made it hard to focus on diamonds and higher end gear.
Leaving that appointment for a season, I became a fake student again, often really devoted, and crammed into my college classes for a year or so.
I mostly wrote from the spirit, without getting intimately involved – all in preparation for my future career in broadcast journalism. That was until I got tilted again, but by this time I was twenty-one. Hey, I grew up! But my grown-up self was a semester past my scheduled graduation date. My degree had to wait for periods 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, a borderline dirty old man. (he was in his late 40’s, since he was 21 (year old seemed pretty ancient.) This guy submitted my name to a contest, then told my friend that with some practice I’d be perfect and maybe win.
It was a beauty pageant, but somewhat concocted for publicity to launch Lionel Richie and The Commodores’ concert tour and promote the hit record du jour. The chart-topping single was “Brick House” – helping to make The Commodores one of Motown’s most popular groups. The pageant was for Miss Columbus (Ohio) Brick House.
The national winner, as promised, would also snag a movie role with the super cute Billy Dee Williams in his next film. I was jazz 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 “mind” when asked a serious question.
To be honest, there was a girl who was a bombshell in Brick House, with a sensational figure that was eye-catching, judging by the collective looks of the men in the audience, but the darling bombshell looked dumb as a bag of hammers! (She wasn’t, just shy.) I was pretty good at stringing a sentence together, and she jumped on her name. Since they wanted some kind of model winner, I won.
Sandi, the Bombshell, was runner-up and we became fast friends, because at that point, The Commodore’s management closed the contest and picked us both to go on tour with the band.
We won gift certificates and free trips, limo rides, meals, money for clothes. We stood behind barricades in record stores in swimsuits, high heels and fake fur and signed autographs, along with The Commodores. I always wore a pair of slacks over a bathing suit in public when off stage because I didn’t want to look uptight. I was actually aiming for something sophisticated, sexy and rich. Years later, Beyoncé achieved it.
Sandi and I hung out, laughed, gossiped 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 arena in Philadelphia that I was “crowned” as the tour’s official stage dancer and was thrilled to be on stage with Lionel Richie and The Commodores.
“She’s a brick house—she’s mighty, mighty!” they sang in comfortable, glittering military-style costumes—a vision for testosterone-deprived eyes. And I would do a nice, but feminine, hip hop as I did my provocative dance to position myself between Lionel Richie and William King.
“AAOOW,” I would think as William Orange sang it.
I was developing a serious crush on Lionel, but I would try to reign it in whenever his beautiful wife, Brenda, left the stage, arms folded, looking at us, frowning from the side. The road manager told me, she had been doing this for the past two years, but now it seemed like it was definitely directed at me. That giddy anxiety and excitement became a combustible mix that changed the routine of the show that seemed during a concert.
The routine was that Sandi would dance solo from stage right and I would dance solo from stage left. Once during a concert the air was charged with anti-matter, the routine was interrupted at the pit stop in Dayton. There was a rustle, a whoosh, and then a whoosh and utter chaos.
Suddenly a “boo” erupted from behind. What had started as a minor inconvenience soon became something monstrous. The 10,000 people packed into the arena began to scream in a loud roar for almost a full minute and to and fro.
I was devastated, spinning around in a daze as I finally walked off the stage when the song ended, almost tripping over my high heels. Try hiding by wearing a neon-orange bathing suit. I ran into a photographer who was on the scene who became one of my best friends over the years.
“Why did they say hello?” I burst into little girl sobs, blurting out, “I was thinking I did my best Chaka Khan dance moves.”
“I was in the back of the arena earlier,” chuckled Chuckie, “and I heard a loud, crazy protest, people complaining—Miss Brick House is white! Miss Brick House is white!”. Then they all started screaming, not even knowing why they were screaming,” 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 fashionable.)
“Oh, sure I can see that,” Chuckie said, “but whoa-a-ay in the back with bright lights washing out your skin tone and the fact that you sometimes wear that straightened hairdo with the look of Farrah Fawcett—well, I guess they just couldn’t tell.” Tears of laughter filled Chuckie’s eyes and he wiped them away with his knuckles.
I had a hard time laughing at him or even laughing. Cursed by 10,000 people in a roar of disapproval at the time, it made me want the earth to shake, split open and consume me quickly, for whatever reason.
The next morning back on the road, I had washed, curled and curled my hair, letting it dry naturally. But I kept crying about the night before. It didn’t seem to bother anyone but me though, which I found amazing. I thought they were going to 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 if he was married? It wasn’t until I examined his wife’s face that I felt a wave of guilt. She looked so unhappy about women’s night love. However I was not a band, I smelled myself. ‘Hey, I’m Miss Brick House! I’m not only with the group, I’m also in the show!’
That sense of entitlement combined with the bittersweetness of an early hallway smile shone in my direction. And the light conversation between me and Lionel—and I cared only for my own selfish joy.
It summed up a 21-year-old woman-child with a dusty Bible and a neon orange bathing suit streaming the night away on stage with a supergroup fronted by an affable, incredibly talented, rich and famous man. I was dancing a dream and everything seemed possible. And so I danced.
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