Steps from the No. 1/2/3 subway at West 72nd Street, regulars and newcomers packed Sugar Bar, a cozy restaurant and bar owned by the soul music duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Professionally known as Ashford & Simpson, the married couple is responsible for composing legendary hits including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
Since Ashford and Simpson opened the homey haunt 10 years ago, it has become a favorite not only of their celebrity friends, but of West Siders, too. Patrons pack the thatched-roof space on Thursdays for its legendary open mic night, which has attracted the likes of Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli and Celia Cruz.
On the shoulders of those giants, Ben Cohen, 21, an aspiring musician and student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, sat behind the bar on a recent Thursday night, nervously anticipating his first performance on the legendary stage.
“That’s what I’m finding out now, what I’m getting into,” Cohen said after learning of the open mic’s pedigree. “I’ve never been at an open mic where everyone is consistently good.”
Andre Smith, a back-up singer for Roberta Flack who has hosted the open mic for 10 years, takes pride that all of the musicians are consistently up to par. But even though high wattage stars perform regularly, anyone who arrives early enough can secure a spot to sing.
“Whether you’re good or bad, we don’t determine that,” Smith said in a rear dining room decorated with African tribal masks. “But you will find out if someone’s good or if they’re bad. We leave it to the public.”
Awaiting the public’s approval was Christie Faith, 23, who traveled all the way from Australia to work on a forthcoming album and show off her chops at Sugar Bar.
Although she was accustomed to the limelight, she felt the adrenaline rush
“The nerves will hit upstairs where I’m waiting [to go on],” she said.
While the performers waited, Smith remembered a particularly special performance.
“I had a classically trained piano player come in because I knew Celia [Cruz] was coming,” Smith recalled. “I needed somebody to play ‘Guantanamera.’ He got up on the keyboard and just started playing, and she came right in with it. The whole place was illuminated, and everybody just started screaming. You thought you were at a rock concert.”
As the standing-room-only crowd waited for the performances to begin, Ashford and Simpson arrived to greet the audience. Waiters delivered desserts to diners, who turned their chairs toward the stage for a better view.
At 10 p. m., Smith, wearing a jaunty cap, took the stage and the four-piece band began to play.
“How y’all feeling tonight?” Smith sang.
The crowd of about 75 clapped, and Smith announced that the evening’s performers hailed from Dallas, Memphis, Tokyo, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.
“We’ve got to set up some rules and regulations for y’all,” he sang.
“You must know the melody of the song you’re going to sing. One song maximum: No one does his whole night club act. The third rule is,” Smith paused, “that you party!”
Simpson sat at a small round table next to the stage, holding a cordless microphone. She rose to address the crowd.
“This is the band, y’all!” she said. “All you singers, pull it up, y’all! Come up with a new trick.”
The first performer sang Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” The bartender sang along from her post, and waiters shuttled drinks around the tables.
Soon, it was Cohen’s turn at the mic. He performed “Adriana Weeping,” an original composition. The piano-driven melody was unlike the other performers’ mostly R&B and pop selections. Cohen’s vocals at the end of the piece had a rock feel reminiscent of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.
“A round of applause for Ben Cohen!” Smith said as he walked off the stage.
Though it took the audience time to warm up to the song, they awarded Cohen with hearty applause.
Faith performed next, shaking off her nerves and singing Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.” Her rich, lush vocals had a smoky quality. Halfway through the song, Simpson clicked on her microphone and started singing back up. Together, they soon had the audience swaying in their seats and singing along.
Faith finished her song to cheers, and retreated back upstairs so another hopeful singer could have his moment in the spotlight.
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