Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were best known as a songwriting team in the 1960s. They penned Ray Charles’ number one single, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and a number of Motown hits, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, and “You’re All I Need to Get By”. The duo had recorded their own material for different labels during this period, but it was not until after the two married in 1974 that they began seeing chart action. Is It Still Good to Ya? (1978) and Stay Free (1979) went gold and are among the highlights of their discography. Cherry Red has just re-released these two albums and they sound as vibrant today as the discs did more than 35 years ago.
Is It Still Good to Ya? is the better of the two discs The influence of the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever is clear on the beat heavy disco production. There are times when the ruby-throated Ashford croons the word “I”, such as on the wonderfully danceable “It Seems to Hang On”, that he sounds just like a Gibb brother—and that’s on the original album track, not the newly included disco mix. The reissue contains 5 remixes of the original contents.
The title cut stands out for its soulful sincerity. The duo intertwine their declarations of need and love in a song that builds to a climax that holds back the passions. The explosion takes place after the song ends, as they know the imagination is more powerful than the stated expressions. The other songs of Eros are just as tightly constructed. The eight tracks may be formulaic, but it is a good formula that allows the small variations, like the spoken word intro to “Ain’t it a Shame”, to come off as radical before the song gets to its real dirty business.
Stay Free is more adventurous and lacks the consistency of the prior album. The good news is that when a song shines, the brilliance is brighter. The seven-minute train-chugging “Found a Cure” never goes off-track, and “Dance Forever” does make one want to, well, dance forever as a way of forgetting one’s trouble. But the title cut is the real headspinner here. “Stay Free” is a combination hippie ode to good vibrations and a condemnation of those who would rather please themselves than be with others. Ashford and Simpson were wrote “California Soul” back in the sixties—a well-known tune recorded by the Fifth Dimension, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Marlena Shaw, and others, but “Stay Free” seems the embodiment of what happens when Laurel Canyon meets the city streets.
There are four bonus remixes on Stay Free, and like Is It Still Good to Ya?, the sonic quality of the recordings is crystal clear. Both of these albums went Gold when originally released and found limited crossover success. Listening to these discs today one cannot help but hear their blackness. The late seventies was a time of philo Afro-Americanism in America when black disco deejays helped originate and popularize hip hop music.
There are plenty of spaces on these records where one can imagine the person spinning the record to talk over the beats to the crowd. Audiences could find the groove in the disco rap suggested by these recordings. This explains some of the longer instrumental stretches on the discs. However, what made them new and exciting back then drags a little now. The songs are best when Ashford and Simpson sing and the music backs them up instead of when it overwhelms the duo.
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