In Appreciation of Nick Ashford: Love Songs, Unsung

The reaction to the 22 August passing of Nikolas Ashford points out a strange anomaly about black music’s place in the overall pop spectrum: black music that’s about love isn’t really sexy.

Not in the carnal sense, mind you, but in the attention-economy, marketing sense. There have been gorgeous, heavenly and luminous love ballads at every turn of black pop music’s post-WWII timeline, but virtually all of them seem to exist in some kind of hidden sub-universe, far from common recognition.Those who know that sub-universe, know it well. The rest won’t ever discover it on their own, unless by absolute accident.

That sub-universe is broader than most might fathom. Even the minor entries into the field have their charm, and the classics signify special moments in time for millions of folks, whether or not they’re still with whomever the significant other was at that time. If you don’t believe me, go to any radio market with a significant black population, find the black station that skews to an older demographic (here’s a clue: it never plays hip-hop), tune in after sundown, and hear just about all of them all over again, night after night after night, during the “Quiet Storm” block of late-night program (its name taken from a mid-’70s Smokey Robinson ballad).

It seems that just about every era and offshoot of R&B since the Kennedy administration has its champions — except, that is, for the love song. Over in England, the Northern Soul crowd is in its fourth decade of dancing the weekend away to the most obscure ‘60s American R&B it can find. A similar impulse for cratedigging and re-discovering lost jams has resurrected more ‘60s and ‘70s funk than you can shake a stick at, thanks to sampling DJs and producers. There are online communities devoted to doing the same for classic disco, even going as far as to dig up mixes from influential club DJs. And now that the first generation of rap fans is approaching middle age, you can expect to see nostalgia for the glory days of Spoonie Gee, Whistle, and other long-forgotten names from hip-hop’s formative years.

Music writers, black and white alike, have spewed out terabyte after terabyte about songs of these genres over the years. They’ve sliced them seven ways ‘till Sunday, analyzed them within an inch of their lives, championed their lost causes and pet faves, and have done much to assert the serious artistry within black pop, when most folks were content to merely groove to it. But rare has been the think piece, blog post or tweet celebrating the R&B love ballad, the one constant element of the black pop music world throughout all its permutations over the years.

See how hard you have to hunt for something that acknowledges the eternal sturdiness of the black pop love song. James Brown as didactic bandleader? Check. George Clinton as Afro-futurist? Check. Rap lyrics about gangbanging as sociological barometer? Check. Prince as…Prince? Check and double-check. But 3,000 words in praise of music that makes you want to get close with the one you love, or are trying to love, or have been eyeing from a distance for the longest time? Good luck with that.

This sub-genre hasn’t gotten a whole lot of reissue love, either. While there’s no shortage of R&B and funk boxed sets, label compilations and particular labours of love – like the Numero Group’s approach to resurrecting long-forgotten local projects – the evolution of the love ballad has been far less thoroughly documented. The most prominent effort has been Rhino’s Smooth Grooves series, launched in 1996. It now encompasses 11 volumes of R&B love songs from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, plus subsets for ‘60s chestnuts, new jack slow jams, and jazz-flavoured moodsetters. While many of the most famous black love songs aren’t part of the series, it rescues many a tune that only true love song aficionados will remember.

One thing the series reveals is that those songs are, in fact, timeless. Folks don’t dance to an old Jr. Walker burner the same way they danced to Cameo then or Lil Wayne now, but a slow dance is, always has been, and always will be a slow dance. Production styles may come and go, but two people embracing each other, moving slowly to the song, perhaps sharing a private joke or some other exchange of fondness… that hasn’t changed much.

The slow jams still have value because they speak to something more than this month’s meme or fad. Love is, after all, a central concern in just about everyone’s life, and has been for quite some time now. The mores and habits of romance have changed, but not its essence: when it’s there it can still feel glorious, and when it’s gone it can still break hearts.

Not for nothing did the Obamas choose an R&B chestnut, the ballad “At Last” as popularized by Etta James (made in 1960, before they were born), for their first dance at each of their inaugural balls. And because of its timelessness, female R&B singers like Beyonce, who performed the song at one of those balls, need to have it in their repertoires like tenor sax players need to be able to navigate a standard like “Giant Steps” or “Body and Soul”; there’s no similar urgency for singers to be able to belt out, say, Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” or Klymaxx’ “The Men All Pause”.

Musical expressions of black anger, black sass and black style have always found their way like water to the pop mainstream, as individual works and as a category. But while there are many love songs among the building blocks of black pop, the notion that there might be artistic merit within this category worth unpacking and appreciating is anything but widespread.

The main exception is if the artist in question is some sort of tortured soul, like Marvin Gaye, Al Green or Teddy Pendergrass, someone whose bio easily lends itself to a Behind the Music storyline. But even then, it’s more likely to be about the drama in their lives than in their music. Without a sensational personal backstory, the professional savvy and skill of Barry White, a Los Angeles studio rat who paid plenty of dues before conquering the world with his orchestrated confections of love in the ‘70s, was apparently not fascinating enough of a tale to tell. The same goes for Luther Vandross, the consummate black pop ballad stylist of the ‘80s and ‘90s: his work stretches all the way back to the best moments of David Bowie’s Young Americans (1974), but it must have been more fun to speculate about his dieting yo-yos and sexuality than wonder how he approached his craft.

And so it appears to be the case with Ashford, or more specifically Ashford and Simpson, the life, art and business partnership he shared with his wife, Valerie Simpson. Virtually all of the obits dutifully recalled their greatest hits as a songwriting team (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”, “California Soul”, et al), the luminous duets they wrote from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell at Motown in the late ‘60s, and Diana Ross’ early solo work. But there was far less attention given to the body of work they amassed as performers during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Ain’t Love Grand?

Over the course of 13 albums (12 studio, one live) from 1973 to 1989, the duo took the musical question “ain’t love grand?” to a new level: they made love sound grand. They celebrated love’s glory, worked through its complications, and reveled in its sensuousness (without getting smutty about it). Their voices blended perfectly, with Ashford’s raspy tenor undergirding Simpson’s airy counterpoint. And their expansive studio arrangements, while out of step with funk’s raucous side, were of a piece with the era’s aspirational black pop, as epitomized by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International and Quincy Jones, as well as the early disco just coming into vogue (before the schlockmeisters ruined the party for everyone). Their work as songwriters-producers-performers built on their Motown successes, and paved the way for the upscale R&B sound of the ‘80s.

Ashford and Simpson became a recording act, and then “Ashford and Simpson” became a brand. They stood for all that was true and eternal and clear-eyed about adult love and relationships. Their music was intelligent and highly-crafted, yet possessed of a natural ease their fans could readily appreciate. Romance – the very idea of it, as well as the romance they shared – resounded in every note.

But then and now, they got little credit for it. None of their albums or singles cracked the US top ten pop charts. They had several big hits among black audiences, but while the sleek veneer of their music virtually screamed “crossover”, their sales never did. Years later, Ashford and Simpson is probably the major R&B act that the reissue boom has most severely neglected. The aforementioned Numero put out a six-cd box on the underappreciated, second-tier performer Syl Johnson, and Sony resurrected its entire vault – 11 CDs – of pre-fame Aretha Franklin (including “Cry Like a Baby”, a minor hit the duo wrote for her in 1965), yet there has never been anything close to a decent retrospective for Ashford and Simpson. The best there’s been are a couple of single-disc hits collections, nothing so much as a two-disc set with decent liner notes.

How is this possible? How could an act this accomplished, this beloved by its core audience and this big an influence on other artists, have fallen this far from view? Perhaps they were too far apart from the hot sounds of their era for the day’s pop music gatekeepers to appreciate. Perhaps they had no one beating the drum for them among the era’s influential music critics about how they were the most incredible pair of raving geniuses since (insert name of cult music legend here). And perhaps pop audiences just didn’t get what was so special about two black people making sincere music about love – not odes to sex for sex’s sake, not s/he-done-me-wrong screeds, but simply beautiful music about the joy of love, doubtless inspired by their own lives, yet universal enough for their fans to see themselves in as well.

Love has always been a many-splendoured thing, and frustratingly fleeting, too — but even more so for black folk. Ever since slavery, there have been social and economic hurdles black men and women have had to overcome in order to keep a stable relationship. It’s a testament to heart, soul and the human will that millions of black couples over the generations have found a way to stay together, and stay happy while being together, in the face of higher incarceration rates and lower employment rates, and policies that often made it harder, not easier, for black men to do right by their partners and children. The effects linger still: every so often comes a new round of media speculation about disparate educational levels between black men and women, and whether black women ought to consider looking outside their race and/or professional status — or even partnering up with another woman or two for the company of one man, as if a penis were a timeshare — if they ever want to be married, and therefore, presumably, happy.

Ashford and Simpson surely understood the peculiar and specific challenges blacks can face in keeping love together. But they never made a point of it on any politically specific level. They simply spoke to and about love and all its truths in a way that resonated deeply to its core audience. They were pop tunesmiths (consummate ones, at that), not militants or sociologists, and that’s what their fans needed most: someone to understand and sing their emotions, not analyze them.

If it’s any consolation, they can take solace in the fact that they may have been a little ahead of their time, at least as far as sales and broader recognition are concerned. Vandross and Anita Baker had huge crossover hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s singing about love with the same high-gloss appeal Ashford and Simpson refined. Baker’s Rapture is one of the most influential and enduring albums of the ‘80s, and Vandross’ “Here and Now” (1989) has become an across-the-board wedding standard.

Too bad the state of the black love song is a little less mixed. Tune back into that “Quiet Storm” radio show, and you’ll hear a distinct generational chasm. The older chestnuts – the one’s they’ve played to death and back for the better part of 30 years or more – speak to love, and music, at the highest level. A lot of the newer stuff, by comparison, doesn’t carry the same level of emotional or artistic transcendence. There’s more than just a qualitative difference between the songs Ashford and Simpson wrote for Gaye and Terrell, for example, and the catalog of a later performer like R. Kelly, much more a troubadour of sex than of love.

That difference isn’t confined to black pop love songs, of course, but in this case there might be a remedy (or as the duo put it in 1979, “Found a Cure”). It’s high time (and alas, with Ashford’s passing a good marketing opportunity) for some label to work with Simpson and all the other companies that have their hands in the pie on putting together a comprehensive Ashford and Simpson retrospective. Such a collection probably wouldn’t be able to include most of their Motown work, but if it can gather some of their early songwriting hits, and copious doses of the magnificent music they made under their own name, it’ll be a worthy summation of a significant and underappreciated musical legacy.

Anyone who spends more than a moment with their music will grasp that these were no silly love songs. Together, as artists and spouses, Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson made real music, for real people, about real love, and real life. It would be awfully hard to imagine anything much sexier than that.