Earlier this year, Jessie Smith passed away. She and Robbie Montgomery were in the second line-up of the Ikettes that you performed with. In terms of her voice and her personality, how did Jessie fit between you and Robbie?
Jessie came in with a very strong contralto voice. Robbie was always on the bottom. Of course, I was the top. I think we sounded very good together, almost matching the Ikettes when we recorded “I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song)”. Delores Johnson sang lead on that song and, in the background, there was me, Tina, and Eloise Hester. Tina was either in the middle or the bottom — I don’t remember — but we gave “I’m Blue” that sound. With Jessie and Robbie, we got almost the same sound.
I am so hurt over not having been in contact with Jessie for awhile, and she did pass a month or two ago, but she was a congenial-type personality. She was very easy to get along with … and Robbie ruled her. [laughs]
After leaving the Revue and moving to New York in the early ’60s, you began writing with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The three of you became staff writers for Scepter Records where artists like the Shirelles, Maxine Brown, Ronnie Milsap, and the Guess Who cut your songs. What were your, Nick, and Valerie’s individual strengths as songwriters?
They are my favorite people, in terms of working with. It was fabulous. Of course, Valerie’s strength was the music, and Nick would sit at the piano and tinkle and come up with a couple of chords and the lyric, and I would too, but I’m basically like Bonnie Raitt — her definition of a blues song — “Three chords and the truth.” If we had a melody or a couple of chords, Valerie would enhance it, so I loved working with them. I thought my strength might have been concepts and ideas and things that I would come in with.
How did your songwriting — you, Nick, and Valerie — reflect the distinctive blend that the three of you also shared as vocalists when you sang together?
That’s what made it great. We could have a bad day and a bad song, but when we started singing, people loved it. We sold bad songs with our voices! The blend was there, the enthusiasm was there. I just loved meeting them every day and sitting down and creating.
When Aretha Franklin was signed to Columbia, she cut a song that you, Nick, and Valerie wrote called “Cry Like a Baby”. What do you recall about writing that?
I think I brought that idea in because I ended up doing the demo. We always produced our own demos with the musicians and things, which basically was the background for us becoming producers. Our demos were really very good, and especially when we sang them. “Cry Like a Baby” was a pretty good song. Basically, the music was like our demo, and of course, Aretha being Aretha, she put her flair to it, so I loved it.
I interviewed Valerie last year and we discussed one of the songs the three of you wrote, “I Don’t Need No Doctor”. Musically, where would you place “I Don’t Need No Doctor” among the songs that you wrote with Nick and Valerie?
Of course it’s one of my favorites because it has that blues quality to it. I grew up with the blues. It’s amazing that most of the covers on that song happen to be by the rock guys — blues rock, heavy metal. That’s just not my genre, but I loved it! I went online and I heard W.A.S.P.’s version. The guitars were going. Oh, I just loved it.
On most of the covers of that song, everybody puts lyrics in their own place. The lyrics were not in the place where we put them, so I think what was so good about that song was its appeal. It’s very simple and it tells a certain truth in the blues. “I don’t need no doctor” … Unfortunately today I do need a doctor! [laughs] You get this far along up the road, you might need one!
Around the time that Ray Charles had a solo hit with “I Don’t Need No Doctor”, you moved to Chicago and met Donny Hathaway just before he released his first solo album Everything is Everything (1970). How did you meet Donny?
I knew Donny from being on the scene. He came to my house one day and brought me a song. He played this song that he had written because I was producing Garland Green. I still have that tape. I need to find Donny’s estate to see if I can get permission to work on that. I would love to put orchestration around it, but today you might not even need it. It was just Donny and piano at my house.
When I was on the scene where Donny was, he was basically writing and arranging and producing, which is my first love. As an artist, when I really started listening to Donny, he was just phenomenal. He’s one of the greatest. To me, Donny is a genius.
I did work with Donny here in New York. When he was arranging for Lena Horne, he called me. I did backup for those sessions [Nature’s Baby, 1971]. I also introduced Donny to Valerie [Simpson] and a couple of other people while he was in New York, but during the time that he got hot — he and Roberta — I had moved back to Chicago, so I wasn’t on the scene that much. I love Donny Hathaway. I love me some Donny!
During your Chicago years, you wrote and produced for several artists, including your own solo records like “A Stone Good Lover” and “I Feel an Urge Coming On”. What kind of creative outlet did producing artists like Rhetta Hughes and Garland Green give you?
I love working with other artists and bringing out their best qualities. I didn’t have to be the artist, so writing and producing allowed me to really stretch. I enjoyed teaching somebody the song and telling them where they should do this and do that. I enjoyed that. I guess going back to our days of producing demos and working with my ex-husband Mel Collins in Chicago and our record label [Giant], I was just ready.
I remember one night we went to a club, the High Chaparral, in Chicago and I heard Garland Green. Garland has a quality to his voice, a pleading quality, that I knew the women would love. I told Mel I think I can work with him and I did, right off the bat. “Jealous Kind of Fella” did very well for us.
Even though he’s deceased, I got to let it go: Mel put on the record label “Produced by Giant Enterprises under the supervision of Joshie Jo Armstead”. What the hell does that mean? “Under the supervision.” It meant that I produced it, along with my partner at the time, Mike Terry, who was the arranger, but I enjoyed that process. I enjoyed writing for Ruby Andrews, “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)”, which I kind of regretted giving away. Should have kept that one for myself!