In Appreciation of Nick Ashford: Love Songs, Unsung

Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson stood for all that was true and eternal and clear-eyed about adult love and relationships. Romance resounded in every note.

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.

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