The Allen Room brilliantly incorporates New York’s urban landscape. At nighttime, a panoramic window provides a vista of glittering lights. Street lamps illuminate the night sky. It’s the perfect back drop for the opening notes to Ashford & Simpson’s “Bourgie Bourgie”, a song that conjures the kind of glamour and sophistication that’s specific to New York. It’s also the song that heralded Valerie Simpson’s entrance to the Allen Room stage for Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series.
Greeted to a standing ovation, Simpson had the poise and effortless cool of someone who knows New York better than most. Indeed, the city inspired many of the songs Simpson wrote with Nick Ashford. Appropriately, “Bourgie Bourgie” marked the beginning of a night dedicated to the Ashford & Simpson songbook. Accompanied by a six-piece band and two background vocalists, Valerie Simpson was nothing short of triumphant.
As soon as the words “Is it daylight” dripped from Simpson’s lips on “It Seems to Hang On”, she held the audience rapt. A favorite off Is It Still Good to Ya (1978), the song has retained its seductive appeal. Simpson imbued the lyrics with a soulful yearning that escalated towards the “loose me” climax to scintillating effect. Her bold turn on “The Boss” summoned the legacy of Studio 54 just five blocks away. A swirl of lights enveloped Simpson as she sang the words that first appeared on the duo’s 1979 production for Diana Ross. Simpson’s spirited vocal illustrated why she’s probably the only other person in the world besides Ross who can best convey the song’s dichotomy of exuberance and vulnerability.
Between “The Boss” and a rousing duet with her daughter Asia Ashford on the title track to Stay Free (1979), Simpson thanked Lincoln Center for including her in the “American Songbook” series. “Lincoln Center is to be commended for gathering so many artists together,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to look into the Ashford & Simpson songbook and come up with things that I think you want to hear and things you haven’t heard in a long time and things that you might not have heard until tonight.”
“Trying to Be Perfect” fell into the latter category for many audience members. Simpson recently unveiled the song on Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again (2012), her first solo album in 40 years and the first studio project she’s released since Ashford’s passing in 2011. “I remind myself of this all the time,” Simpson said as she sat behind the piano. “We’re all strong, we all have aims. We’re not perfect but we just keep on trying.” Simpson chillingly rendered the song’s emotional complexity. Her piano playing was a visceral extension of her soul and sax player Todd Schefflin complemented the pleading undertones of her voice. “Please accept me as I am, not what I might become / Cause at this point in my life, I’m far beyond trying to be perfect”. Simpson sang with such naked honesty that her performance transcended that of a song and became a personal proclamation.
Vocalist Clayton Bryant joined Simpson for “Street Corner”, the lead track from Ashford & Simpson’s 1982 masterpiece Street Opera. The song worked especially well with a majestic view of 59th Street in the background. Alternately soulful and sassy, Simpson exuded finesse in every dance step. Moving forward 30 years in the catalog, she introduced “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again” by explaining the sentiment behind the song title. “If you have a dream yet fulfilled, the time is now,” she said. “Just reach back to that thing in the back of your mind and bring it forth. You gotta reach for it. You might need a theme song as you reach for your part two …” While Valerie Ghent produced atmospheric sound effects on the keyboard, Simpson deftly traded places with pianist Pete Cannarozzi during the first verse. “Deep in my heart, I’m still not done”, she sang, the lyrics resonating like a battle cry for anyone embarking on part two (or part three) in life.
Perched at the piano, Simpson confided her feelings about singing these songs without Ashford by her side. “As you can well imagine, coming to the stage and digging so deep into our songbook and doing it by myself…it’s no small matter. I have to believe that Nick left me prepared.” She explained how many of the songs she wrote with Ashford now have deeper meanings beyond what the songwriters originally intended. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” held a particular poignancy when Simpson sang “I’ve got your picture hanging on the wall / But it can’t see or come to me when I call your name.” Singer Ron Grant joined Simpson for “You’re All I Need to Get By”, a song that Simpson often cites as her personal favorite among all of the tunes she wrote with Ashford. The chemistry between the two singers carried through to “Still Such a Thing”, which Gladys Knight & the Pips popularized before Ashford & Simpson recorded it themselves on High-Rise (1983). “We don’t do this one often. It’s kind of a hard song to sing,” said Simpson, before she and Grant imparted the song’s spirit of abiding love with warmth and conviction.
Throughout the evening, Simpson not only honored Ashford but also acknowledged other beloved friends and music icons who passed away far too young. Wearing a pair of red shoes that were a birthday gift from Luther Vandross – “he’s hovering over us too” – she dedicated “I’m Every Woman” to Whitney Houston and performed the arrangement that Houston sang on The Bodyguard (1992) soundtrack fourteen years after Chaka Khan debuted the song in 1978.
Arguably the evening’s most transcendent sequence, Simpson performed two different versions of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. The song’s “third incarnation,” which appears on Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again, was inspired by Simpson’s favorite piano player, Richard Tee, who used to play a special instrumental arrangement of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with the group Stuff back in the early-’80s. Accompanied only by Bernard “Pocket” Davis on drums, Simpson outfitted the song with rollicking gospel inflections at the piano. “That’s not the definitive version, though” Simpson said, before launching into the version she and Ashford produced for Diana Ross in 1970. She replicated the spoken passages of that iconic recording, nailing every vocal turn that made “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” not just a love song but an anthem for the ages.
The Ashford & Simpson songbook is so vast and so multi-faceted that “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” could easily have been the last song before intermission rather than Simpson’s encore. However, Simpson kept her promise from the very beginning of the show, striking a flawless balance between hits, fan favorites, and new material. There’s more than enough repertoire for Simpson to produce an entirely different show for the “American Songbook” series, incorporating songs from both current and past solo projects, songs that Ashford & Simpson penned for other artists, and even more hits and deep album cuts from the duo’s tenure on Warner Bros. and Capitol.
Valerie Simpson’s appearance at The Allen Room proved that, after more than 40 years of performing together, Nick Ashford left her very well-prepared to continue burnishing the duo’s legacy. She remains the consummate performer, a singer-songwriter who’s equally comfortable behind the piano as she is venturing into the audience. On record or onstage, there is no mountain too high for Valerie Simpson.