Some people enter your life and become so much a part of it you don’t realize how you count on them to always be there. Altamese Alston – known lovingly to all of us as Miss Tee, Ms. Tee, or simply “Tee” – was one of those people. Gracious, smart and always in style, Tee had that rare old-style courtesy while keeping a watchful eye over all of us. She was a mother to so many of us in the Ashford & Simpson family. Tee knew how to celebrate, enjoy life and be at the center of everything with a smile.
I first met Tee over 30 yeas ago, in the early days working with Ashford & Simpson when I started as their Synclavier/Direct-to-Disk recording engineer. Tee was always there. In the years before I joined the A&S band I would see Tee at the house, where Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson have their studio on the top floor. I worked long days with Valerie and Nick, just the three of us in the studio. When guest musicians or vocalists came to the studio Tee would bring water, snacks and herbal tea – or sometimes champagne! – on an elegant silver platter. She was there before anyone arrived and there at the end of the day, making sure everything was running smooth.
In the 90’s at Nick and Valerie’s annual 4th of July parties in Westport – with everyone dressed completely in white – Tee made killer pina coladas that everyone loved. Whenever she would call, “Val, It’s Tee, put this date on hold”, to giving advice on what to wear at Sugar Bar concerts, Tee was the person we relied on and turned to. I’d always bring an alternate jacket or top, or two different pairs of shoes, and ask her opinion. “You know black is always classic,” Tee would say. “Oh I just love that on you! Work it girl! Work what you’ve got!”
When I had my first sequin dress and didn’t know how to clean it after a concert, I asked Tee. Invariably when I was in France or China she would call, asking if I were available for a concert date. “Where are you darling?” she would ask when I answered the phone, “I know from that telephone ring it’s not New York!”
Her corner seat at Sugar Bar, her desk upstairs in the Hopsack and Silk office, holding court in the Cat Lounge, airports at 6am, always calling the night before to remind each of us in the band that the van was leaving for the airport at 5:30am. She always called. Never sent email. Always on the phone, often late at night, Miss Tee called you. She called everyone. She sent faxes long after everyone else switched to email; she wrote handwritten notes on each of our tour itineraries. Tee made sure there was food and drinks at rehearsal: juice, water, snapple, soda, pizza or chicken wings, and sliced honeydew, cantaloupe, berries. I remember her putting a little sugar on the fruit – “brings out the sweetness” she would say.
The amazing experiences we shared together with Nick and Val over the decades could fill a book, traveling to the South of France to record with Nina Simone, singing on Oprah with Maya Angelou, cruises in the Caribbean, South Africa, London, California, Florida, Tokyo. Everywhere we went Tee was dressed to the nines, usually in black with wonderful textures – velvet, wool, satin, silk – adorned in gold accessories, elegant jewelry, perfect manicure, and the most fabulous shoes. Airports, buses, vans, limos, trains, we were often half asleep but she was always there, making sure we got where we were supposed to go.
Tee ordered cakes for every birthday at Sugar Bar, including mine at rehearsal one day in May before we flew to the West Coast. Last year when I mentioned my in-laws were celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary and were coming to my blues night concert, she insisted on getting them a cake. “64 years of marriage! God bless them!” she exclaimed. “Now darlin, you have to tell me where in the set you’re doing the cake so I know when to light the candles.”
When I first sang at the Blues night at Sugar Bar our dear Miss Tee was there for me. Nick Ashford had started “Nuttin but the Blues” in May, 2010, and I went almost every week. I was so inspired by the wonderful singers & musicians every Tuesday that I started writing a few tongue-in-cheek bluesy songs that I tried out in the open mic part of the night. I’d never considered myself a blues singer, but Nick and Valerie encouraged me, and one day I was invited to do a month of Tuesdays. I was terrified! What to sing? What to wear? I had to ask Tee!
On opening night I brought two jackets as options. As I was getting ready I said, “Tee I need your advice! Which jacket should I wear?” As soon as she saw the blue leather coat dress, Tee said “Ooh yes! That’s the one. Honey, you wear that coat out!“
Tee loved when I sang “Hot Nuts”, a racy blues tune made popular by Georgia White in the 1930’s. She said over and over, “you know I just love when you sing Hot Nuts, Hot Nuts!” and we would laugh together at the double entendre that never got old. After that, every time I sang Hot Nuts I dedicated it to Tee.
One day riding to the airport the conversation – always lively on one subject or another with lots of laughter – turned to astronauts. Tee said quietly, “My cousin was on the Challenger.” We stopped short. “What? He was on the Challenger?” “Yes,” she said, “his name was Ron.” We were stunned. All these long years of traveling together and we had no idea. Tee was one of a kind.
Miss Tee called me in mid-July, just a few weeks before her sudden passing on August 5th. I still have her voice mail messages in my phone. Just to hear her voice again fills my heart with gladness. We spoke on the phone only a few days before her transition. She was laughing and happy and we remembered together the incredible concert with Maya Angelou in Baltimore, when we played “God’s Army”. Valerie Simpson had just shown part of “God’s Army” on the Sugar Bar Thursday night livestream – I was so moved to hear it again, now that we had lost Nick, and then Maya. We reminisced about recording with Nina Simone in France, the beautiful concerts with Maya. Tee said she was being careful during the pandemic, not leaving the house, and insisted I take good care. We agreed to meet soon at Sugar Bar now that the outdoor dining had started.
And then, out of the blue, our dear Altamese left and flew up into the heavens. I like to think she is reunited with Nick and with Maya, and that they’re together soaring through the skies, watching over us still. Thank you for taking such good care of us Tee. We love you.
Read more about Altemese Alston:
Centerline: Ms. Tee Alston – An Appreciation by Jim Bessman