The familiar yellow and brown design of the Tamla/Motown label-the names Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell adorning 45s such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, “Your Precious Love” and the stirring “You’re All I Need to Get By”. In the midst of fire and brimstone, assassinations and protest, riots and lockdowns, everybody took time to enjoy the sweet, sassy, mischievous romanticism of a “Marvin and Tammi” duet. Neatly parenthesized under every one of those hits were the names “Ashford and Simpson”. For seven years, from 1966-1973, Nickolas Ashford and collaborator and life partner Valerie Simpson were house writers for Motown, penning hits for Gaye and Terrell as well as Diana Ross (“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”). The duo came to the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy after their song “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (originally recorded by Ronnie Milsap in 1964) became a hit for Ray Charles in 1966. After two brilliant solo releases by Valerie Simpson (Exposed (1971) and Valerie Simpson (1972)), the duo signed a deal with Warner Brothers in 1973. The Very Best of Ashford and Simpson chronicles more than a decade of Project “Ashford and Simpson”.
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson are perhaps best known for “Solid”, their 1984 cross-over hit. On the strength of their “new” popularity, the duo would be one of the few R&B acts that graced the stage for the historic Live Aid concert in 1985. The appearance was notable, as the duo was joined by Teddy Pendergrass in a performance of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, a song they wrote for Diana Ross 15 years earlier, marking Pendergrass’s first stage performance since an automobile accident in 1982 left him paralyzed from the waist down. It was a singular moment of transcendence for Pendergrass, and likely for all of those who had followed his career closely. It was classic Ashford and Simpson, as the duo had been sharing such moments with audiences almost twenty years before their appearance at Live Aid. The Bronx-bred Simpson originally met Ashford in 1964 at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem. What began as a gospel singing collaboration shortly become a professional relationship as they became writers for the Scepter label. Despite their desires to write for secular audiences, the duo never really left the church, their music consistently referencing the themes of “uplift” and at times getting downright “church”, as they did on their first major hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”
Though the duo often sang together as part of the writing process, it wasn’t until a television performance in the early 1970s that Ashford and Simpson seriously considered recording together as an act. As the primary muses for so many of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell songs (Simpson has long been rumored as the literal “voice” of Tammi Terrell, when the latter was too ill to perform shortly before she succumbed to a brain tumor.), Ashford and Simpson had a particular legacy to build upon. Signing with the Warner label, the duo slowly built a commercial following. “(I’d Know You) Anywhere”, from their debut disc Gimme Something Real (1973), begins as a slow burn changing up into a bouncy groove, giving the duo ample room to exchange Simpson’s sweet vocals with Ashford’s yearning tenor. The song’s lyrics (“A thousand voices may call my name up high in a cloud/but I know you by the melody that flows from you to me”) speak powerfully about their commitment as “soul mates.” Not surprisingly, shortly after the release of their debut, Ashford and Simpson married.
It was only with the release of their fourth disc, Send It, in 1977 that Ashford and Simpson began to garner wide spread acclaim among R&B audiences. The title track, which is their highest charting single to date, featured the kinds of lush string arrangements that were becoming cliché in the music of Barry White, but were given a fresh spin courtesy of the legendary Paul Riser, who was responsible for the distinct sound of the Temptation’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and who continues to work with the likes of MeShell N’degeocello and R. Kelly. The song also prominently featured Nick Ashford’s distinct falsetto, which he was beginning to use with much more confidence. With the relative success of Send It, which also featured the “disco” hit “Don’t Cost You Nothing”, public awareness of the duo was further heightened with their appearance on Quincy Jones’s Stuff Like That. While still at Motown, Simpson provided amazing vocals on Jones’s rendition of Paul Simon’s “Bride Over Troubled Water” (Gula Matari) and collaborated with Leon Ware (the genius behind Marvin Gaye’s I Want You) on “If I Never Lose This Heaven” from Jones’s classic Body Heat (1974). The single, “Stuff Like That”, which featured lead vocals by Simpson, Ashford and Chaka Kahn, backing vocals by Luther Vandross and Gwen Guthrie (“Ain’t Nothing Going On But the Rent”) and the legendary “session” musicians that comprised the group Stuff, was a major cross-over hit for all involved. No doubt the residual effect of the song would be felt in the burgeoning solo careers of Vandross, Guthrie and Khan (then trying to break free of her association with Rufus), in Jones’s own status as super producer (Michael Jackson would give him a call that same year to “board” Off the Wall), and, of course, in the careers of Ashford and Simpson.
In fact, the duo released their now-classic Is It Still Good To Ya only two months after the release of Jones’s Stuff Like That. Both discs topped the R&B charts in 1978 and Is It Still Good To Ya actually charted higher on the Pop charts, cracking the top-20. The project was grounded by the infectious lead single, “It Seems to Hang On” (one of the duo’s finest performances—better than “Solid” in my mind) and the title track, which Teddy Pendergrass would later set on fire on his accomplished TP (1980) recording. Ashford and Simpson quickly followed up with Stay Free, which was anchored by the dance classic “Found a Cure”. According to the duo in the liner notes, the song has become an anthem for a wide range of people facing debilitating diseases, including those with HIV, who would have been very sensitive to the song’s theme given the significant influence that the gay and lesbian communities have had on dance music culture over the last three decades. Stay Free was one of many successes for Ashford and Simpson in 1979, including their production work on Diana Ross’s The Boss, helping resuscitate the “diva’s” somewhat dormant solo career.
After the release of A Musical Affair, which featured another of Ashford and Simpson’s signature tunes, “Love Don’t Make it Right”, the duo left Warner to sign with Capitol Records. Their first disc for the label was the highly ambitious Street Opera, which aimed to tell the story of “ghetto love”. Though the disc did not reach the commercial success of their previous outings for Warner, it remains one of their great artistic achievements. The Very Best of Ashford and Simpson features “Street Corner”, the lead single from Street Opera. The collection is rounded out by “Solid”, which became their first and only #1 R&B single. The song’s most stirring moments come right at the beginning with Simpson’s a cappella opening. The collection also features a “live” melody of their Motown tracks.
Ashford and Simpson remain a great story because they are one of the few acts that have remained intact professionally and romantically in an industry that is often harsh to such relationships. Part of their success professionally and romantically has no doubt been the fact that they played out the ebb and flows of their lives in their music. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson are, like Billy Paul sang 25 years ago, “Love Buddies”, and The Very Best of Ashford and Simpson is simply a soundtrack to that friendship. We’ve all been privileged to eavesdrop.
// Notes from the Road
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