Ashford & Simpson: The Warner Bros. Years

Ashford & Simpson
The Warner Bros. Years
Warner Bros.

The year is 1979. It’s 3:00 a.m. on a sultry summer night in New York City. DJ Larry Levan holds court at the legendary Paradise Garage. His deft skills at the turntable have already sent the club’s denizens into an ecstasy-fueled frenzy multiple times that night. Suddenly, the elegant tones of a familiar club hit permeate the speakers. It doesn’t matter that the cut is two years old — Larry Levan is spinning, so time is beside the point. All that matters is that Ashford & Simpson’s “Bourgie Bourgie” casts a spell over the dancers. The swelling orchestra rising underneath Valerie Simpson’s graceful piano chords transfixes the crowd. For seven glorious minutes, “Bourgie Bourgie” blissfully carries everyone above the sweat and smoke.

Larry Levan really did include “Bourgie Bourgie”, that swirl of instrumental delectation, in his ’79 Garage set. The folks at Rhino must be aware of such history, for their new compilation celebrating Ashford & Simpson’s years at Warner Bros. brings together a whole string of “Bourgie Bourgie”-type moments. The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities focuses on the club-heavy output of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson during their 1973-1981 tenure on the label, featuring the original 12″ versions of choice cuts that were available exclusively to DJs (vinyl copies of these promo singles currently fetch up to $2,000 on eBay). All-star mix masters like Joey Negro, Tom Moulton, and Dimitri from Paris also show up for the occasion on the second of this two-disc set, adding their own dance floor DNA to the original masters, extending the lineage of these indispensable tracks to the 21st century.

Because most casual listeners know Ashford & Simpson for their post-Warner Bros. hit “Solid” (on the Capitol label), The Warner Bros. Years is an essential showcase for those who need a little lesson on the legendary songwriting duo’s excellent 1970s albums. These records kept the most cutting edge DJ equipment warm all throughout the decade. Ashford & Simpson’s legacy stems back much further, of course, when they were house writers and producers for Motown artists in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Foreshadowing the thrust of this collection, the hits they penned for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were favorites among the ’60s club cognoscenti.

Doubtless when “Over and Over” surfaced from the So So Satisfied (1977) album, DJs at the hippest clubs wasted no time adding it to their playlists. Appropriately, the magnificent “Over and Over” begins the collection, giving ample evidence that Ashford & Simpson could always be relied upon to set bodies in motion. Diaphanous strings, a rhythm section that moved like a locomotive, and, of course, their passionate, gospel-inflected voices were the template Ashford and Simpson reshaped to scintillating effect time and time again. Check the “oh-oh-oh/loose me” movement in “Is It Seems to Hang On” or the “independent/ha-ha-ha-ha” refrain on “Stay Free”. These are transcendent moments.

For nighttime dwellers, Ashford & Simpson’s music was a sanctified libation, chockful of declarative statements that dug beneath the carefree attitude of the times and promoted self-respect and self-preservation. “You can’t be nobody’s lover until you’re somebody’s friend” was the mantra for “Over and Over”, imprinted into the dancer’s mind as he spun underneath a sea of lights and shadows. “Whatever it is love will fix it”, they assured on “Found a Cure” from their excellent Stay Free (1979) album. “Take a chance as you go” was the raison d’être on “Don’t Cost You Nothing”. Nestled between the “toot toot/beep beep” and “ahhh freak out!” hollers on the dance floor, the lyrics of Ashford & Simpson always imparted some sort of encouragement or assurance.

Yet this collection wouldn’t be complete without some of their more soft-focused material. Sprinkled among all the 12″ disco mixes are a few of Ashford & Simpson’s most exquisitely performed and produced songs, though not necessarily directed towards the clubs. “Have You Ever Tried It”, from the criminally underappreciated Gimmie Something Real (1973), boasts the definitive Ashford & Simpson performance. There’s a perfect balance between Ashford’s mid and upper range while Simpson treats the words like rare rubies, letting each vowel flow sumptuously from her voice. The title track to Send It (1977), similarly, exemplifies Ashford & Simpson at their best. By the time the duo exclaims, “send it” during the final segment, the music’s taken on butterfly wings, fluttering out of a warm cocoon. “Top of the Stairs”, from that same album, steps boldly towards the dance floor. The tension between the verse and chorus signifies the song’s grandeur. Hearing their voices wrapped around each other singing, “Take me up to the top of the stairs/We’ll get lost in the darkness”, it’s indisputable that Ashford & Simpson were preordained to sing together.

The only inevitable drawback about The Warner Bros. Years is that there’s a whole lot of glaring omissions. The excellent “Flashback” from Is It Still Good to Ya (1978) is missing. The slow burning “So So Satisfied” is noticeably absent, as is the gorgeous “Somebody Told a Lie” and “(I’d Know You) Anywhere”. A truly comprehensive compilation that pushes past the limitations of a single disc has yet to materialize, which makes the second disc of remixes something of a frustrating enterprise. I’d prefer any of the above songs, plus a dozen more, over the decent but not essential remixes that comprise disc two.

The full gift of Ashford & Simpson’s recordings from the 1970s has yet to be fully appreciated. With mid-’90s issues of their original Warner Bros. albums no longer in print, there are but a few places to hear the gems contained on The Warner Bros. Years. Like any good collection, The Warner Bros. Years baits listeners for much more. With enough interest, perhaps those albums will once again become properly available. For now, let “Bourgie Bourgie” transport you to a time and place when Ashford & Simpson held court on the steamiest of nights.

RATING 8 / 10