Excerpt: Nabil Ayers Journeys to Connect With His Famous Father in “My Life in the Sunshine”
In the chapter "Ascension," the author recounts the fateful day in 1979 when he heard the music of his father, musician Roy Ayers, live for the first time
It’s nearly Father’s Day, and this week InsideHook will be featuring stories about the complex relationships between fathers and sons. First up is an excerpt from a new book by Nabil Ayers.
Nabil Ayers has seen music from many sides — he’s played in a number of bands, co-founded a record store and is now the president of the storied record label Beggars Group US. But he’s also part of a musical family — his father is the acclaimed jazz musician Roy Ayers. The younger Ayers was raised by his his mother, and his new memoir My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family is his account of gradually learning more about his father’s family and parsing out the difficult questions of familial legacies.
That process of research informed the different pathways the book explored in a way Ayers hadn’t anticipated. “It felt like this crazy loop where the more I explored and wrote about the things that had already happened, the more it caused new things to happen and caused me to connect with new people,” he told The Pitch in a recent interview. In this excerpt from My Life in the Sunshine, Ayers takes the reader with him as he hears his father’s music played live for the first time. — Tobias Carroll
When I was seven, I got to go backstage at a concert for the first time. The show was at the UMass football stadium, which was just one mile from where my mother and I lived. I distinctly remember the gray cement hallways felt cold and futuristic as we worked our way through a cast of fast‑ moving, colorful characters. The people carried the familiar and universal energy of music that I’d already sensed at concerts in New York and Cambridge. But actually being behind the scenes was more intimate. Important‑looking men and women spoke into walkie‑talkies. Others traversed the hallways carrying guitars and water coolers. I knew that all of these tasks — no matter how mundane — were part of a bigger picture, and I was fascinated by even the most minor detail.
During the concert, my mother and I watched from the loosely crowded photographers’ pit — close to the gigantic stage — and I tried to make sense of everyone’s role, from the musicians to the techs, who crouched as they scurried around. The afternoon audience seemed more interested in the scene than the music.
That all changed when the person we’d come to see walked onstage. Roy Ayers had arrived.
Roy’s song “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” was just three years old at the time. Though it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the song — we owned the album — it’s the first time I recall feeling connected to it. And it’s the first time I’d heard it performed live, outside, in the afternoon sunshine. As the lazy chords drifted over the audience, I remember feeling a gentle breeze on my arm and smelling what I already knew was marijuana smoke from the slow‑swaying bodies around me.
We owned a few of Roy’s records, and I knew that he was my father. My mother and I had run into him a few times in New York when I was too young to remember. But this was the first time I’d seen him perform, and as much as I was taken by his music, I was drawn to his personality. I could tell that he was a star through the way he smiled, the way he pointed or nodded to acknowledge individual people in the crowd and the enthusiastic way they responded, and the way in which he interacted with his band. When he was onstage, the entire stadium belonged to him. My mother and I left the concert after Roy’s set. Later that afternoon, I was in our communal backyard, building a rock concert out of Legos on the grass while my mother read quietly in a flimsy plastic lounge chair. Our soundtrack was the muted thump and indiscernible notes of the concert still happening in the distance. The band — which I’d heard of and had presumed to be a hard rock band due to their name and skeleton logo— was the Grateful Dead.
But it was the laid‑back groove of “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” that still dominated my body as I assembled my Legos. It was the perfect soundtrack to the breezy spring afternoon and the smell of fresh‑cut grass. The lyrics “My life, my life, my life, my life . . . in the sunshine” repeated in my head.
For a long time, the backstage pass from that concert lived in our photo album. The palm‑sized manila peel‑off rectangle smelled like medical tape and read in bold green letters:
U-MASS SPRING CONCERT MAY 12 , 1979
THE GRATEFUL DEAD
ACCESS TO ALL AREAS
Handwritten on the pass in blue ink, in the penmanship of a seven‑year‑old, are three words: “BOO!” next to THE GRATEFUL DEAD. “BOO!” next to PATTI SMITH. “YAY!” next to ROY AYERS. Years later, when I was well into my teens, I found out that my mother and I had arrived at the stadium early that day, that she had talked our way backstage by telling the bouncer that I was Roy’s son, and that we actually met with him. According to my mother, during that surprise drop‑in, she dominated the conversation with a flash update on my seven years of life, bragging about how I walked at an early age and was one grade ahead in school, and about my drumming. She said that Roy was exuberant in our exchange, receptive and even somewhat inquisitive, as if catching up after just a few months apart during an otherwise normal life.
I don’t remember this encounter with my father. I only remember the sound of his music, and the way he drew all the sunshine toward him that day.
My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family (Viking) by Nabil Ayers was published on June 9, 2022.
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