Late, late on a cold night in January early-80’s, the band at The Cellar was anxious to start its 3rd and final set as the crowd, while sparse, was still in the mood for more. I was ready to go home. It was 2:30am on a Thursday and the only people still out besides staff had sniffed enough cocaine and consumed more than enough Remy Martin. The ones with jobs still planned to somehow show up for work later that morning. Bob Turner, a marketing executive, had managed to fall asleep in a booth while holding his half full snifter of brandy in the air, steady not spilling a drop.
The Cellar was the type of place anyone might show up. This night was no exception. Standing at the top of the stairs looking more than just a bit shaky stood none other than Jazz legend and notorious night owl, Miles Davis.
I’d heard so many Miles stories from my Dad who met Miles and his band when my father was selling men’s clothing for Paul Stuart. My Dad sold suits to Miles and the band, a real thrill for my father as I don’t think Miles had a bigger fan of his music than Howard Johnson.
I’d heard Miles loved the fried chicken at The Cellar but on this night it didn’t appear as though Miles came to eat. I made my way over to him and eagerly introduced myself sticking out my hand “Miles, hey, I’m Brad Johnson, Howard Johnson’s son!” Miles barely looked at me and while removing the cigarette from his lips allowed me to help him out of his dark colored long coat. Excitedly I removed Miles coat, a Burberry trench of course, from his slender frame and hustled off to put it safely in the office.
When stars showed up people loved it and the buzz created was palpable. When a legend like Miles, Stevie Wonder or Muhammad Ali stopped by, the night took on a whole otherworldly vibe. Musicians played harder, singers sang with all they had, women circled and the fellas just felt happy to be in the same fraternity. Like you were in the right place in the world, nothing else mattered, nowhere could be as cool as where you were at that very moment.
As the night wound down Miles was ready to go. He motioned to me and mumbled something that vaguely sounded like “where’s my coat?” If you have ever heard Miles speak, his voice was as rare as the sounds that he made with his horn. Even when sober, Miles spoke in a whispery very low scratchy sounding voice, kind of like Marlon Brando’s Godfather voice, but without the Italian accent. I quickly ran downstairs and grabbed Miles’ coat from the sofa in our office. As I lifted the coat I noticed a burned out hole in one of the sleeves and out fell a half smoked cigarette.
Then I remembered, Miles was smoking when he came in. As I helped him out of his coat he removed the cigarette from his mouth and held it between two slender fingers. Ok, he was a little high…as the coat slid off of his arm and dragged over his hand the cigarette got loose and while still lit, got stuck in the elbow of his coat, where it created a big fat burn. Damn, the last thing I wanted to do was hand Miles Davis back his fly Burberry with a big hole in the sleeve! With not much in the way of options I decided to help him into the coat, glide his arm down the sleeve and somehow avoid the hole, which was big enough for him to stick his hand right through. It worked! He coolly staggered up the stairs and disappeared out into the cold. Whew, that was close.
Several years later I was invited to the home of Scott Saunders. Scott managed Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and was hosting a small party for Nick’s birthday. I’d been discussing working with Nick and Val who were friends, on their recently opened restaurant Twenty/Twenty in lower Manhattan. In attendance were Roberta Flack, Nick and Val, Scott and a very young Whitney Houston. Val, Roberta and Whitney were gathered around the piano singing and playing. I stood with Nick and Scott near the window of his upper floor luxury apartment overlooking the Museum of Natural History and Columbus Avenue. I felt very lucky to be part of this intimate affair and watching these amazing ladies play and sing together was something I’ll never forget. At one point, Whitney made her way over to where Nick, Scott and I were standing. At the time I was a partner in a restaurant on Columbus Avenue called Memphis and you could just about make out its entrance from Scott’s window 20 stories up.
Feeling a sudden burst of confidence I struck up a conversation with Whitney whom I’d never met. “I’m in the restaurant business and that’s my place down there with the two wooden doors and no name”. She was friendly and looked out the window as I tried to point out the place. “Do you ever go out to dinner?” I bravely inquired. She looked at me and giggled, more I thought at my audacity than from shyness. “Yes, do you want to take me there?” Before I could say “Hell yea!” she was summoned to the piano to sing happy birthday to Nick with Roberta and Val.
As they serenaded Nick, I heard the sound of a door bell. I looked at Scott who motioned for me to get the door as he was busy snapping pictures. Feeling on top of the world and witnessing these incredible women singing, I floated to the door. As I opened Scott’s front door there standing in front of me was none other than Miles Davis!! “Miles!” I exclaimed after having met him years prior “I’m Howard Johnson’s son, I met you at the Cellar, remember me?” I asked excitedly. Without hesitation and as he brushed by me in that classic Miles Davis growl he said “Yea, you the mother***er that burned my coat”.