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Miss Brick House
At nineteen, in 1975, I was selling advertising for OSU’s campus newspaper, The Lantern, and submitting stories and getting published in the student “fringe” paper: Our Choking Times. The one where I earned their respect as a budding radical, then crossed the lines of professionalism to Gil Scott-Heron.
Not only did I write about an older and otherworldly genius radical rapper, I threw caution to the wind from my hometown, hit the road with him, and you know. Leaving college for almost a week, I boarded the bus with Gil, soaking up his celebrity and smiling smugly as the other girls stared with hungry eyes. I mostly watched him read and read and read.
Now I knew why his lyrics were so interesting. He devoured news magazines and books, speed reading, thoughts on fire. I tried to be ready with an intelligent comment or joke while keeping in mind the goal of my article.
“Nice to talk to you,” he said once in agreement with a smile in his eyes as he looked up from US News and World Report. And my heart turned a little when the bus arrived.
In 1976, I had flashbacks to our recent moments together: Gil, handsome, square-faced and charmingly disheveled, sitting back in the chair across from me while I lay in my robes in his hotel bed, dreamily sipping wine. He enthusiastically entertained his enthusiastic audience of one of them. I alternated between laughter and amazement as he tossed off brilliant dialogue and humor laced with his signature political rhapsody and disheveled, unkempt, sloppy afro.
My glee was only slightly dampened by a shadow of foreboding when Gil took an “artistic time-out” for a load of cocaine from the album cover on the dresser of the Holiday Inn. To his credit, he didn’t corrupt me with his coke, which I refused on the first day. I was still terrified of cocaine—back then. And he let me stay contentedly “in his cups” and replenished my drink supply at every rest stop. At the time, a man who never finished my drink was the epitome of a gentleman to me, so it was hard to focus on diamonds and fancier equipment.
I broke out of that meeting for a season, became a sometimes fake, often really dedicated student again, and immersed myself in my college classes for the next year or so.
I mostly wrote from my heart without getting intimately involved—all in preparation for my upcoming career in broadcast journalism. That is, until I got sidetracked again, but by then I was twenty-one. Hey, I grew up! But my grown-up self was running a semester behind my projected graduation date. My degree had to wait for spells of heavy drinking, the local party scene and manic depression hovering in the wings.
School was out for at least one season because it was a steaming summer of 77″!! Friend of a friend, concert promoter, borderline dirty old man. (He was in his early 40s, which seemed pretty ancient at 21.) The guy sent my name into the contest and then he told my friend that I would be perfect with some coaching and could probably win.
It was a beauty pageant, but a bit of a publicity stunt to kick off Lionel Richie and The Commodores’ concert tour and promote the hit record du jour. The song that climbed the charts was “Brick House” – which helped make The Commodores one of Motown’s hottest groups. The pageant was for Miss Columbus (Ohio) Brick House.
The national winner, as promised, would also land a film role with the exceedingly great Billy Dee Williams in his next film. I was excited beyond rhythm-and-blues. Fifteen girls competed at “Ciro’s,” a popular Columbus dance club, Miss America style, in swimsuits and heels, then revealed their “intellect” or “wit” when asked a serious question.
To be honest, there was a girl who was a bombshell from Brick House, with a sensational figure, eye-popping judging by the collective looks of the men in the audience, but the expensive bombshell looked dumb as a bag of hammers! (She wasn’t, she was just shy.) I was pretty good at stringing sentences together and she was fumbling for her name. Because they wanted some sort of speaksmodel winner, I won.
Sandi, The Bombshell, was runner-up and we became fast friends because at that point The Commodore’s management ended the competition and selected the two of us to go on Tour with the group.
We won gift cards and free travel, limo rides, food, money for clothes. We stood behind record store barricades in swimsuits, high heels and fake furs, signing autographs with The Commodores. Backstage in public, I always wore baggy pants over my swimsuit because I didn’t want to look leaky. I was actually aiming for something sophisticated, sexy and luxurious. A few years later, Beyonce pulled it off.
Sandi and I roomed, giggled, chatted, and drank champagne as we traveled to Philadelphia, Hartford, Connecticut, Boston, and made a stop in Dayton before the tour was supposed to have a huge concert at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It was in a packed arena in Philadelphia that I was “crowned” as an official dancer for the tour and was thrilled to be on stage with Lionel Richie and The Commodores.
“It’s a brick house—she’s mighty, mighty!” they sang in skin-tight, glittering military-style suits—a vision for testosterone-starved eyes. And I did a funky, but feminine, hip thrust as I wound up my provocative dance to put myself between Lionel Richie and William King.
“AAOOW”, I thought as William Orange actually sang it.
I had a serious crush on Lionel, but I tried to control it whenever his beautiful wife, Brenda, left the stage with her arms folded, looking at us sullenly from the side. The communications manager told me, she had been doing this for the past two years, but now it seemed like it was definitely aimed at me. Anxiety and heady excitement became a combustible mix that changed the routine of the show in what seemed like one concert.
The routine was that Sandi danced a solo from stage right and I danced a solo from stage left. Once during a concert the air became filled with antimatter, the routine was interrupted at a pit stop in Dayton. There was a rustle, a din, and then utter shouting and chaos.
Suddenly there was a “boo” from behind. What started as a minor glitch quickly became something monstrous. The 10,000 people crammed into the arena started screaming in a huge roar for almost a full, winding minute.
I was sorry and dizzy when I finally tripped off the stage when the song ended and almost tripped over my high heels. Try hiding in a neon orange swimsuit. I ran into a photographer who was on stage and who has become one of my best friends over the years.
“Why did they whistle?” I burst into girlish sobs and between words I thought I did my best Chaka Khan dance moves.
“I was in the back of the arena earlier,” chuckled Chuckie, “and I heard a loud, mad protest, people complaining— Miss Brick House is white! Miss Brick House is white!”. Then everyone started booing, they didn’t even know why they were booing,” 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, of course I can,” Chuckie said, “but in the back with the bright lights washing out your skin tone and the fact that you sometimes wear that straightened hairdo like Farrah Fawcett—well, I guess they just couldn’t tell.” Laughter filled Chuckie’s eyes and he wiped them away with his knuckles.
It was hard for me to laugh with him or even laugh. Being booed back then by 10,000 people in a roar of disapproval made me want the ground to shake, open up and quickly swallow me up, regardless of the reason.
The next morning on the road, I washed, curled and brushed my hair and let it dry naturally. But I kept whining about the night before. Still, it didn’t seem to bother anyone but me, which I found amazing. I thought they were going to send me home. Then I remembered the artist’s mantra:
“Show must go on.”
I also thought of Lionel Richie’s smile. Did I care that he was married? It wasn’t until I studied his wife’s face that I felt a wave of guilt. She looked so unhappy about the night’s crush among the women. Still, I wasn’t a fan, I sniffed for myself. “Hey, I’m Miss Brick House! I’m not just with the band, I’m in the show!”
That sense of entitlement combined with the bittersweetness of an early smile in the hallway beamed in my direction. And a light conversation between Lionel and me – and I cared only for my own selfish pleasure.
That summed up the 21-year-old woman-child with a dusty Bible and a neon orange bathing suit who tore through the stage every night with a supergroup fronted by a friendly, incredibly talented, rich and famous man. I danced the dream and everything seemed possible. And so I danced.
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