CHICAGO — Valerie Simpson says she never really used to think much about posterity. After all, there was still so much work to be done with her musical partner and husband, Nick Ashford.
But then Ashford died last August at age 70 of complications from throat cancer, and Simpson, 65, came to grips with mortality, both personal and artistic.
“Nick’s passing made me realize that one day we’ll both be absent,” she said in her first major interview since her longtime partner’s death. “You see certain things that are happening now because of his passing, and I’m content to know that the music is everlasting.
“I didn’t think about it before, but now I realize this music has legs way beyond whatever we originally might have thought. The songwriting is the cornerstone of everything else we did. That’s the hat we were most proud of wearing as a couple.”
Ashford’s legacy will be honored Saturday when the HistoryMakers nonprofit group holds its annual gala at the Thorne Hall Auditorium at the Northwestern University School of Law. Simpson will be interviewed at the private event, which also will include performances by Patti Austin and Kindred Family Soul for broadcast in February, 2012 on PBS-TV.
Ashford and Simpson were triple-threat songwriters, producers and performers who had a hand in crafting dozens of hits that straddled the Motown, disco and MTV eras. They wrote signature tunes for Ray Charles (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”), Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“You’re All I Need to Get By”), Diana Ross (her radical, Ashford-Simpson-produced remake of the Gaye-Terrell hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”) and themselves (“Solid”), among others.
From her office in New York this week, Simpson reflected on some of those accomplishments and looked ahead to what’s next:
Q: How did you maintain both a marriage and a working relationship with your spouse?
A: We had the good fortune to be friends first, writing partners for eight years. He had other girlfriends and I had other guys in my life. We didn’t have the problem of trying to impress each other right away. I got to see how he really was, and vice versa. He knew me, I knew him. So when the romance came, we could skip over a whole lot of stuff (laughs). At first, people would always wonder why we weren’t a couple, and I’d say, “He’s like a brother to me.” Later on, he told me that really bugged him (laughs).
Q: You met him when you were only 17 and playing gospel in a church choir in Harlem. What was Nick like?
A: When I met him, he had just come to New York (from Michigan) and wanted to be a dancer. He had a couple of auditions, but New York is a much faster city, and what he had been taught was not enough to get him through a New York City audition. The money ran out pretty quickly and he was homeless for a couple months. But we found out that he wrote gospel songs, and the gospel group we were part of needed new songs. He had a knack for lyrics. At the church, they had a piano and then there were rehearsal studios we could rent for $15, and we clicked. A person who came to our church and heard us sing gospel asked us if we could also write love songs, because he wanted to help us publish them. Pretty soon it was all about the area around 50th Street and Broadway, where publishers were looking for material.
Q: You went door to door, and I heard the first batch of songs sold for the princely sum of $64. Is that true?
A: I actually think it was $75 (laughs). That number has moved and changed over the years. We were introduced to (Josephine) Armstead, who wrote ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ with us. She knew all the publishers and helped open some doors. She was about Nick’s age, a former Ikette (Ike and Tina Turner’s backing group) and had written some songs in Chicago. She knew more about the business than we did.
Q: It’s quite a leap going from your gospel background to risque subject matter such as “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” How’d you do it?
A: (Laughs) It was really a fluke, because our whole thing was about getting an advance from a publisher, not necessarily a record. We were novice writers, and getting a $50 or $100 advance split three ways was a big deal so you could pay your rent. On this particular day we knew we were going to see (a publisher affiliated with) Scepter Records. We were trying to come up with some stuff the day before, but nothing worked and we gave up. Nick said, ‘Let’s just go get stoned.’ And we started joking about that in the hallway on the way out. When we met the publisher the next morning, we didn’t have much to present. So Nick says, ‘What about that little idea we had on the way out last night?’ And Nick did a verse on the spot, and we hit the chorus. Even if we didn’t have great ideas, we always had great presentation. And the publisher said, ‘If you can finish this, I think I can get Ray Charles to sing it.’ He couldn’t get him right away, other artists did the song first, but he was right. Ray eventually did it and it was a hit (in 1966). It was a bit embarrassing, because some folks thought it meant doing drugs. It was originally about drinking. It was a hard song to totally defend. It was a hit, but you couldn’t take a full bow (laughs).
Q: How did you come to work with Motown?
A: (The legendary Motown songwriting and production team) Holland, Dozier, Holland came to New York scouting talent, and Nick took a meeting with them in a hotel. They were late and kept him waiting a long time. He was about to get on the elevator to leave when they came out and got him. We had pretty good demos, pretty developed. I’d play piano, and we’d put a little rhythm section on there because Scepter had given us a little space to do our songs. They were impressed with that and the next thing I know we’re going to Detroit, which is weird because that’s where Nick had just come from. But I was ready to leave New York. Motown was the mecca. It was every writer’s dream to work there.
Q: You ended up writing all the key hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Did you request to work with them?
A: Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol were producing Marvin and Tammi, and they asked us for material. We sent them ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’ It’s funny because Dusty Springfield had just come to town and wanted to meet with us for material. We played that song for her but wouldn’t give it to her, because we wanted to hold that back. We felt like that could be our entree to Motown. Nick called it the “golden egg.”
Q: You knew it was going to be a hit?
A: Oh, we knew that it was a hit. Sometimes you have real gut feeling about something. Then it becomes a question of what do you do with it, and who can carry it the furthest, and you start designing how you can get it to as many people as possible.
Q: The Diana Ross version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was more radical and a bigger hit with your production. The story goes that Berry Gordy didn’t like the way you arranged it with the spoken-word interludes and the extended orchestration. Did you know he didn’t like it?
A: Oh, yeah, he held it back. He didn’t see it as a single, but the DJs (around the country) heard it and played it. It was Nick’s idea to lengthen it. We were still in the three-minute-song era at Motown, but Isaac Hayes was doing longer songs (for Stax Records in Memphis), and Nick wanted the talking part up front.
Q: Ross has a reputation as a diva, difficult to work with. How was she working with you?
A: She came in prepared, she knew the songs, knew her lyrics. When you work with someone who knows what they want, even if she is a diva, we knew how to finesse it, how to stroke her. She also wanted hits, and she was very much about business.
Q: There are some Motown people who contend that near the end of Tammi Terrell’s life (she died in 1970 at age 24 of cancer), you had to step in and do some of her vocal parts on the albums with Marvin Gaye because she was too ill to perform. Is that true?
A: Tammi was very ill. We would have everything ready, the track and Marvin’s vocal, and then I’d get her alone in the studio and we’d go line by line. There were a couple things that were tweaked, but not a lot. I couldn’t just sing like Tammi. People give me the credit of thinking I could be Tammi Terrell, but it’s just not true. We did some production edits to fix things, but that’s about it.
Q: What did you think of “I’ll Be There for You,” the huge 1995 hit for Method Man and Mary J. Blige that interpolated your song “You’re All I Need to Get By”?
A: We loved it. We incorporated it into our show for a while. We’d start it off that way, and then go into the traditional version. I’m a big Mary J. fan, so anything she sings is quite all right with me. It was summertime when it came out, and it seemed to play constantly. There’s a certain monotony to those types of songs sometimes, but because of those chords being what they are, that’s a good type of monotony. Those are four good chords.
Q: Do you feel you got enough credit for your role in creating that song?
A: They didn’t shout us out when they got the Grammy Award (for best rap performance by a duo or group), but we got the check (laughs).
Q: Do you feel your songs have benefited from being sampled so extensively during the hip-hop era?
A: In so many instances it’s like having a second song. In most instances, they use four bars and build another melody and title on it. If it’s a strong four bars it’ll often send the young listener back to the original song. It’s like a musical history lesson. Like Amy Winehouse did a whole different melody on top of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (on her 2006 hit “Tears Dry on Their Own”).
Q: When you and Nick wrote together, would you ever argue?
A: Oh, yeah, sure. Sometimes you want a person to read your mind and the other person can’t. Nick would say, “Those chords don’t have enough purple in them.” And I’d say, “Well, every word out of your mouth ain’t golden” (laughs). But we didn’t ever think anything was finished or couldn’t be re-approached, or be made better. Even if I can’t find that chord today, it might come to me tomorrow. We’d rewrite the same song several times. It’s easy to take it personally, but it helps if you know you have more than one idea. I always knew there’d be another approach. And he was enough of an artist that I would want to make him happy. To me something might be good, but if he’s not feeling it, it made me want to work harder to find another way to do it.
Q: You also had quite a bit of success singing jingles in the ‘60s and ‘70s. How did you juggle that with your songwriting career?
A: In the early part of it I was very active. In fact, it almost became a bone of contention. I was making so much money doing jingles, these 20- and 30-second things, that it drove Nick to work with another producer at Motown for a while. It made me realize I was going to lose my writing partner if I didn’t take my work with Nick more seriously. But it was such easy work and such good money, high six-figure money. I was a good sight reader and I could sing two or three of these jingles a day. An orchestra would come in for half an hour, and then the singers would come in and knock ‘em out, and go on to the next one. I was the voice of Budweiser (“When you say Bud, you’ve said a lot of things nobody else can say”), and Almond Joy (“Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t”). Do I cringe when I hear them now? No, but I realized it was taking away from my dream of wanting to be a respected writer, so I cut back.
Q: You transitioned from being behind the scenes in the ‘60s and early ‘70s as songwriters and producers to performing and recording as Ashford and Simpson in 1973. Was performing your own material always the goal?
A: No, the goal was to be songwriters first. We did a (public-television) show called “Soul!” — the first time we had a TV appearance and got to sing and perform. They got so many letters, which clued us in that maybe we should try this. The timing was right. Our contracts at Motown, which were for seven years, were up around 1973. We asked them about being recording artists, and they were going to placate us, string us along, but they wanted us to remain a writing machine for the acts they had. They weren’t taken with us as artists. I had done two solo albums for them, which they didn’t do much to sell or promote. So the handwriting was on the wall to go somewhere else and do it. That’s when we signed to Warner Bros. and started recording albums.
Q: You come from an era where you had to write no matter how you felt. How did you keep it from feeling like work?
A: We knew we could write decent songs, but then there are inspired songs. There are songs you don’t even think you wrote because they’re so good. There is a formula that allows you to write a decent song. But a song like “You’re All I Need to Get By,” it just writes itself. I usually just start playing and he’d start singing, his words would fall down on the chords, I’d join in, and we’d find the harmonies, the hook. You don’t talk or fix anything at first. You want to ride that mist as long as you can before you interrupt.
Q: You have to play a long time to get to that intuitive place as a musician and artist, I’d imagine. You started playing as a child, right?
A: Yes, there was always a piano in the house. Both my grandmothers had upright pianos, and I just knew how to play since I was a child. Nobody taught me. I sounded like a grown-up, and then I learned how to read music. I played so well by ear I could fool the teacher to believe I could play the notes. She’d make the mistake of playing the song once, and I could play it. Eventually she caught on and I learned to read music. That made me a good jingle singer, because they throw the notes up cold and you just have to sing it.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I have an interesting situation. There were so many dates we had in place for next year, which I’m still holding. I don’t know what I’m going to feel like. There is one date, Dec. 10 (at the Star Plaza Theatre) in Merrillville, Ind., with the Whispers that I will do in tribute to Nick. I’ve spent the last 30 years singing half the songs. So to do the whole show with the band without Nick, will be a different feeling. I’ll have to see how it goes before I decide to do anything more.
Q: Will you do any more recording?
A: I have to go one day at a time. I’m not used to him not being here yet. I’m open to music and hopefully his spirit will stay with me and give me a hint.