miss brick house

At nineteen, in 1975, I was selling advertising for the OSU college newspaper, The Lantern, and submitting stories and getting published in the “fringe” student paper: Our Choking Times. The one where 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 coolest, oldest radical rapper from another world, I put caution to the wind of my hometown, 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 in his celebrity and smirking as other girls watched hungrily. Above all I saw him read and read and read.

Now he knew why his lyrics were so intriguing. She devoured magazines and news books, speed reading, thoughts on fire. I tried to be ready with a clever comment or quip, keeping the goal of my article in mind.

“I like talking to you,” he said once approvingly, his eyes smiling as he looked up from US News and World Report. And well, my heart skipped a beat as the bus moved on.

In 1976, I would have flashbacks of our recent time together: Gil, handsome, angular-faced, and charmingly disheveled, sat back in a chair across from me, while I lay in my robe on his hotel bed and dreamily drank wine. He enthusiastically entertained his audience of one. I alternated between laughter and amazement, as he tossed out brilliant dialogue and finger-pointing humor, interwoven with his trademark political rhapsody and crazy, tousled, nonchalant Afro.

My joy was only slightly tempered by a dark sense of foreboding when Gil made sure to take frequent “art time outs” to do copious lines of cocaine from an album cover in The Holiday Inn’s boudoir. Thanks to him, he didn’t corrupt me with his coke, which I had refused the first day. He was still terrified of cocaine, then. And he let me happily stay “in my glasses,” replenishing my stock of drinks at each rest stop. In those days, a man who never let me run out of drink was the epitome of a gentleman to me, making it difficult for me to focus on diamonds and finer amenities.

Walking away from that date for a while, I became the sometimes fake, often truly dedicated student again and immersed myself in my college classes for a year or so.

I mainly wrote from the soul, without getting intimately involved, all in preparation for my next career in broadcast journalism. That was until I strayed again, but at the time I was twenty-one years old. Hey, it was already big! But my adult self was running a semester behind my scheduled graduation date. My title had to wait for periods of heavy drinking, the local party scene, and manic depression floating on the wings.

At least school was out for a while, because it was the hot summer of 77″! A friend of a friend, concert promoter, almost a dirty old man. (He was 40, which at 21 seemed pretty old.) This guy submitted my name to a contest, then told my friend that he would be perfect with a little training and could probably win.

It was a beauty pageant, but something made up for publicity purposes to launch the Lionel Richie and The Commodores concert tour and promote the hit record of the day. The song that rocketed up the charts was “Brick House,” which helped make The Commodores one of Motown’s most popular groups. The contest went to Miss Columbus (Ohio) Brick House.

The national winner was promised to also get a movie role with the extremely cool Billy Dee Williams in his next film. He was excited beyond rhythm and blues. Fifteen girls competed in “Ciro’s,” the popular Columbus dance club, in a 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 one girl who was a Brick House bombshell, with a sensational and eye-catching figure, judging by the collective stars 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 adept at putting a sentence together, and she groped for her name. Since they wanted some sort of spokesperson winner, I won.

Sandi, the Bombshell, came in second place and we quickly became friends, because at that point, The Commodore’s management closed the contest and chose the two of us to tour with the group.

We earn gift certificates and free rides, limousine rides, meals, money for clothes. We stood behind record store barricades in bathing suits, high heels and fake furs and signed autographs, along with The Commodores. I always wore a pair of pants over my bathing suits in public when I was off stage, because I didn’t want to look like a slut. Actually, I was looking for something sophisticated, sexy and exclusive. Years later, Beyoncé did.

Sandi and I hung out, laughed, gossiped and drank champagne as we traveled to Philly, Hartford, Connecticut, Boston and made a pit stop in Dayton before the tour had a big show at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

It was in a packed stadium in Philly that I was “crowned” as the official dancer of 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 skin-tight, gleaming military-style suits, a sight for testosterone-deprived eyes. And she would do a funky but girly wham-bam, hip thrust as I finished my provocative dance to place me between Lionel Richie and William King.

“AAOOW” I would think as William Orange sang it.

I was seriously falling in love with Lionel, but I tried to control him every time his beautiful wife, Brenda, on stage left, arms crossed, looked sullenly at us from the sidelines. The road manager told me that he had been doing that for the last two years, but now he definitely seemed to be targeting me. That heady angst and emotion became a fuel mix that changed the routine of the show 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 antimatter, the routine was interrupted at the pit stop in Dayton. There was a crack, a rumble, and then a clamor and total chaos.

Suddenly, a “boo” erupted from behind. What had started out as a minor disturbance quickly turned into something monstrous. The 10,000 people packed into the arena began booing in a great roar for almost a full torturous minute.

I was mortified, spinning giddily as I finally stumbled offstage as the song ended, nearly tripping on my sky-high heels. Try to hide by wearing a neon orange swimsuit. I ran into a photographer standing by the side of the stage who became one of my best friends over the years.

“Why did they boo?” She burst into childish sobs, gasping between words, “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 this crazy loud protest, people complaining: Miss Brick House is white! Miss Brick House is white!” So everyone started booing, not even knowing what they were booing for,” he said. “Really stupid.”

“But I’m not white!” I lamented, “I am a black woman, a light-skinned black woman.” (African American was not yet in fashion.)

“Oh, sure I can see that,” Chuckie said, “but on the back with bright lights that lighten your skin tone and the fact that sometimes you wear that slicked-back hairstyle that looks like 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 found it hard to laugh with him or even laugh at myself. Being booed by 10,000 people in a roar of disapproval back then, made me wish the earth would tremble, split open, and quickly consume me, 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 about 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 artist’s mantra:

“The show must go on.”

I also thought of Lionel Richie’s smile. Did I care that he was married? It was only when I examined his wife’s face that I felt a wave of guilt. She seemed so unhappy about the nightly crush of women. I wasn’t a groupie though, I sniffed to myself. ‘Hello, I’m Miss Brick House! I’m not just with the band, I’m in the show!’

That sense of entitlement combined with the bittersweet sweetness of an early hallway smile smiled in my direction. And a light conversation between Lionel and me, and I only cared about my own selfish joy.

That summed up a 21-year-old woman-girl, in a dusty Bible and a neon orange bathing suit, strutting onstage every night with a supergroup, led by a friendly, incredibly talented, rich and famous man. She was dancing a dream and everything seemed possible. And so I danced.

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