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Ruben Studdard Gives Valerie Simpson All of His Unconditional Love

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"IF WE will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment." - Henry David Thoreau.

•WELL, tell that to fans of Madonna. Over the weekend, as everybody was buzzing over her appearance at the Grammy Awards, a rumor surfaced that the Big M would soon collaborate with the great Adele, for a new album of ballads, much in vein of Madonna's masterpiece, "Bedtime Stories." Excitement tore through Madonna-world. Even the icons most ardent fans want her to ditch the techno-infused pop music that has dominated her recent efforts. And get back to the business of allowing people to really hear her sing again. (She'll never have the pipes to tackle "La Traviata" but she has a fine, evocative instrument, when she lets it alone -- remember "Evita?")

This rumor proved false. What was true is that Madonna joined Miley Cyrus for some fun and games on MTV's "Unplugged." Cyrus proved that she can indeed sing. But she hasn't changed her tongue-wagging, nether-regions grabbing and love for expletives. Madonna sat in the audience and then joined Miley onstage for some fooling around. She stuck out her tongue, too.

Not that there's anything wrong with this. Girls just want to have fun. But Madonna has had enough fun with every trendy up-and-comer. She needs to get back down to the business of serious singing; songs with lyrics that have nothing to with the pleasures or perils of fame, or getting up and dancing -- her two favorite themes. (Her dance music is lots of fun. But I've always felt Madonna's ballads will be more lovingly remembered. And so revealing of the softer woman beneath the sometimes infuriating image.)

If Madonna ever bothered to read criticism, this would go in through one porcelain shell-like ear and out the other. She likes what she does and she likes who she likes. And she knows her willfulness is part of what makes her still interesting.

All I can say is, please, Madonna -- no Justin Bieber!

•HISTORY IS made at night. More specifically, up in New York's West side, at the intimate Sugar Bar, designed by the late Nick Ashford and still hosted by his widow, the divine Valerie Simpson. (72nd Street, off Columbus Ave.)

The Sugar Bar was recently the scene of the kick-off for Ruben Studdard's new David Foster-produced album, Unconditional Love.

We interviewed Ruben about a month ago, and found him to be a wise and jovial man -- humble and excited by this latest phase of his career. (He became famous back in 2003 when he won American Idol. That's when American Idol really meant something.) He was all duded up in a beautifully tailored suit and looked even trimmer than when we spoke last. Ruben laughed, "I'm still watching my weight, but I'll never be skinny. I work out. I keep it solid!"

Ruben sang four songs from his new CD, and was joined for one of those by Lalah Hathaway. But the best was yet to come. Valerie Simpson was up on her feet, applauding with the rest of the packed house, as Ruben's set came to an end. Then the crowd began to call for Valerie to get onstage and sing with Ruben. She declined, "I am not rehearsed. I can't do this!" The prevailing attitude was, too bad, do as we say! And so she did. Ruben looked like he might pass out from pleasure.

Valerie sat at the piano with one more caution to the audience -- "Don't hate me if this sounds bad. I'm not prepared" -- she and Ruben launched into a spine-tingling rendition of "You're All I Need to Get By," first made famous by Marvin Gaye, and then re-invented by Ashford & Simpson many years ago. Ruben sounded great, but Valerie made the years melt away with her own voice, seemingly untouched by time. She, and the audience, were obviously moved by this duet. The ovation could have been heard all the way downtown.

The Sugar Bar is small and has the feeling of one of those smoky little clubs of the 1950s/60s where you heard soulful sounds unencumbered by too loud microphones and fancy effects designed to disguise vocal weaknesses. Oh, and the food is sensational. The fried chicken alone was a five-octave winner.

Ruben's Unconditional Love debuts on February 4th, in time for Valentine's Day. (The disc includes "The Nearness of You" and "Close to You," with Stevie Wonder.)

•LAST WEEK we wrote about Linda Yellin's new novel
What Nora Knew and strongly recommended it as a fun read for today's young women. Now we are told that Linda asked the crowd at Broadway's Barnes & Noble to throw their hands up in the air and yell "We love Nora!" The SRO gang complied, doing as they were told and the delighted author who lives by the Ephron dicta and examples from her famous movies, said, "I'd like to think Nora herself was grinning from heaven and feeling the love!"

Well, I don't believe Nora had decided about whether there was a heaven or not, but then let's hope for the best. And maybe Nora did believe in heaven. She made a fabulous movie about a dirty angel, played by John Travolta, and to his own horror, he offended the gods by bringing a little dog that had been run over, back to life!