Valerie Simpson is the voice of truth. The melodies and chord progressions she renders on the piano reflect an intimate understanding of the heart. When she sings, her connection with listeners goes beyond notes. It’s one soul speaking to another.
As a composer and producer, Simpson sparked a body of work that remains unrivaled in its scope and power. “Valerie Simpson along with her husband Nick Ashford composed some of the most uplifting and memorable songs of the Motown tradition,” says Michael McDonald, who paid homage to Ashford & Simpson on Motown (2003) and Motown Two (2004). “Their songs transcended the usual boundaries of pop music and took us to a higher plane of thought and feeling. Valerie is a treasure to us all but especially to the American Songbook.”
Indeed, the songs Ashford & Simpson penned and produced are more than timeless hits. They’re paragons of popular music. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were among the first artists to record Ashford & Simpson’s work during the songwriting duo’s golden epoch at Motown, popularizing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Your Precious Love”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, and “You’re All I Need to Get By”. Other producers and record companies paid attention. In fact, over a three-year period, singular talents like Dionne Warwick, Nancy Wilson, and Aretha Franklin each recorded the latter tune in their own distinct style, bringing” You’re All I Need to Get By” out of Motown and into the realm of contemporary pop standards.
Beginning in 1966, Ashford & Simpson outfitted nearly all of Motown’s marquee acts with original compositions. The Temptations, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Marvelettes, and Gladys Knight & the Pips all took a page from the duo’s songbook with varying degrees of chart success. However, it was Ashford & Simpson’s work with Diana Ross that brought them to the summit of Billboard’s pop chart for the very first time.
Fifty years ago, Ashford & Simpson’s masterful re-working of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Diana Ross crowned the Hot 100 for three weeks. After singing lead on 12 chart-topping hits for the Supremes, Ross enjoyed her first number one solo hit while Diana Ross (1970) topped the R&B albums chart. Motown president Berry Gordy had tasked Ashford & Simpson with writing and producing Ross’ eponymous debut, shelving tracks that she’d cut with Fifth Dimension producer Bones Howe and releasing Johnny Bristol’s production of “Someday We’ll Be Together” as an epilogue for Diana Ross & the Supremes rather than Ross’ first solo single, as initially planned.
“I think we were chosen to do Diana’s solo album because Berry trusted us,” says Simpson. “He trusted us to point Diana in a different direction than the one she had been in with the girls. That was a big move because most of the albums were co-produced. It was usually three or four people involved in an album and everybody was contributing, so for him to give us the whole album really spoke volumes. It put a lot of pressure on us, but we liked it and it made us work a little harder I think.” [laughs]
Ashford & Simpson brought a sweeping grandeur to Diana Ross. They opened the set with the album’s first single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, which quickly emerged as a signature number for Ross. Other key tracks like “Now That There’s You”, “Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow”, “Where There Was Darkness”, plus a new solo version of “Keep An Eye” — a song that Ashford & Simpson had previously produced on Diana Ross & the Supremes’ Love Child (1968) — were also strong vehicles for the singer. She even took a turn with “You’re All I Need to Get By”.
For all of the album’s strengths, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” towered majestically above everything else. Ashford & Simpson transformed what had been a rousing three-minute pop hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell into a six-minute masterpiece for Diana Ross. Paul Riser’s brilliant arrangement mapped out a series of movements that gradually crested to a climax. “It was a slow build,” notes Simpson. “This was no quickie.” Ashford & Simpson, Joshie Jo Armstead, and Motown session vocalists the Andantes backed Ross in the song’s choir. Just singing “ahh” conveyed a sense of triumph. Their voices are the mountain top.
Even an edited version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” retained the impact of Ashford & Simpson’s expansive musical concept for Diana Ross. The single soared to number one in September 1970, far outpacing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, which had peaked at a comparatively modest number 20 on the Hot 100 earlier that year. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” not only netted Ross a GRAMMY nomination for “Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Female”, it became what is arguably the defining anthem of her 50-year solo career.
Throughout the ’70s, Ashford & Simpson would produce two more albums for Diana Ross, Surrender (1971) and The Boss (1979), and continue to hone a creative vision that mirrored the duo’s nuanced view of love and relationships. Gimme Something Real (1973) introduced Ashford & Simpson as a formidable recording act in their own right, working with a cadre of arrangers, musicians, and vocalists who helped shape their sophisticated yet fervently soulful sensibility over a series of albums for Warner Bros. and Capitol Records. Is It Still Good to Ya (1978) and Solid (1984) rewarded the duo with chart-topping R&B sets of their own as they continued writing number one R&B hits for Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”) and Quincy Jones (“Stuff Like That”). Their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2002) only solidified what listeners had known for decades — there is nothing quite as moving or perfect as an Ashford & Simpson song.
In the years since Ashford passed away in 2011, Simpson has charted a course that spotlights her dynamism in all facets of recording and performing. She’s revisited her catalog on recent efforts with Terri Lyne Carrington (“Somebody Told a Lie”) and Paul Shaffer (“I Don’t Need No Doctor”) and begun to explore new possibilities in her writing, including a collaboration with Corinne Bailey Rae on “Do You Ever Think of Me?” She explains, “With the passing of Nick, it was a challenge to see if I had a singular identity that would stand, if I could write a whole song, not half a song. Finding out that now I can, it tickles me that I didn’t endeavor to do it before. I was content because Nick was such a fine lyricist so I didn’t even try to turn that part of my brain on. Now I realize there really is something there. I didn’t have to compete with him but I certainly could have written more lyric than I did.”
Most recently, Simpson co-wrote Ryan Shaw’s “Strong Men Can” from his forthcoming tribute to Marvin Gaye, Imagining Marvin (2020). “What I love most about Valerie Simpson as a songwriter and a collaborator is how easy ‘hit’ melodies come through her,” says Shaw, who also recorded a duet with Shoshana Bean on Ashford & Simpson’s “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By” for the project. “I believe that creativity is being open enough to allow something that doesn’t exist on this plane to come to exist. It is a portal, and if I had to describe the creative portal of Valerie Simpson and the late Nick Ashford, I would liken it to the ‘Pearly Gates’ — intricate, breathtakingly beautiful, and vast.”
The recording industry has duly recognized the indelible mark Simpson has made in music. Having already been honored with ASCAP’s Founder’s Award (1996) and the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award (1999), she received the ASCAP Foundation George M. Cohan/Friars Foundation Award in 2018 while the Recording Academy honored Ashford & Simpson with the Trustees Award in 2019. A half-century after Simpson produced “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” for Diana Ross, she established the “Reach Out and Touch” Award with the ASCAP Foundation to help support future generations of hit songwriters.
PopMatters recently visited Simpson at the Sugar Bar, the restaurant she opened with Nick Ashford in 1996 on Manhattan’s upper west side. As a haven for artists and musicians, the Sugar Bar remains a welcome gathering place for New Yorkers who seek a socially distant respite from life during COVID-19, especially with live music currently on pause. During the conversation, Simpson toasted the 50th anniversary of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” reaching number one and reflected on other peak moments from her career as a singer, songwriter, and producer. Then and now, Valerie Simpson is every woman.
Just before New York went into lockdown earlier this March because of COVID-19, you and Dave Koz had a concert scheduled at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). How did you and Dave first meet each other?
I met Dave Koz through Clive Davis. He had a party and put Dave next to me. We just hit it off and had such a bang-up good time all night long. He said when he got to New York he was going to find me and he did. We had lunch together. Then we did another party and from there he asked me would I do a bus tour. I thought, A bus tour? In all my years I haven’t done a bus tour! There I went on this bus with all these men — just me.
I had the best time! I really truly did. We would pull up into the stage or the place we were going to perform at. Because I like to play ping-pong, Dave put a ping-pong table on one of the buses, so they would unload this ping-pong table and we would play ping-pong before the show. It was just so much fun.
What makes Dave an ideal stage partner?
Oh, Dave is beyond generous. He pulls the most out of you. It’s not like you’re performing, it’s like you’re just having a good time. He knows how to bounce on you. If he does something that inspires me, I’ll do something different. Nothing scares him, so I like that too! [laughs]
A few years ago, you and Roberta Flack appeared at Lincoln Center for NPR’s Turning the Tables concert, performing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” together. What do you respect most about Roberta’s musicality?
She’s got a tone like nobody else I know. It’s got a calmness and a soothing quality that just makes everything alright. I think that that voice on those records and those songs was just the perfect match. I appreciate her musicianship, of course. I like anybody who can play a good piano and she certainly can, but she’s a lot of fun too. We’ve always hit it off and had great fun together. Usually people think of her one way, but she’s really something else altogether! [laughs] She’s a lot of fun.
It’s interesting how a remix of “Uh-Uh Ooh-Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes)” gave Roberta a number one dance hit. Did you and Nick write that for her, specifically?
I recall that we did have her in mind. It was like a cute little song. She had such monumental songs in her catalog, so we wanted something a little light and fun and came up with that idea. She certainly delivered! Quincy Jones loved it. He really did.
When you play piano, it’s almost like you’re having a conversation with the keys. That’s my impression of it. How did the piano first enter your life?
The piano entered my life very young. My grandmothers both had pianos in their homes and nobody playing them … so I think they were for me because I just knew how to play. It wasn’t like anyone taught me. I just sat down. I just knew where my hands should go. I could play a whole song and make it sound grown up when I was a child. I think that was just God’s gift to me. I enjoyed it. It was just an amazing thing that I just had that talent.
How is the piano an extension of Valerie Simpson?
I’m so closely associated with the piano that I don’t know whether I could call it an extension. It’s just a part of my being. It’s a part of who I am. It’s just connected to my body. I seldom can walk past a piano, ever. I have to sit down and play something because I never know what might arrive at that moment. You never know where the muse is going to hit you. You just want to be there when it does, so I will sit immediately. It just calls to me and I answer.
During the time that you, Nick, and Joshie Jo Armstead were staff writers at Scepter Records, you wrote “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. Ray Charles had a number one R&B hit with it in 1966 and then he recorded “I Don’t Need No Doctor”, which the three of you also wrote. How did that take shape as a song?
“I Don’t Need No Doctor” is probably the most popular blues song we ever wrote. In fact, Peter Frampton was on CBS doing something and he said he used to be in Humble Pie. Then it was like a lightbulb went off — ah, Humble Pie! They recorded “I Don’t Need No Doctor” so I went and looked it up and listened to it. I said, “Damn this is good!” It was really good. It’s a disassociation that we even wrote that kind of song. It’s so out of the realm of what we were doing at the time. The muse stepped down and gave that gift to us because that wasn’t what we were about to do! [laughs]
I spoke to Felicia Collins recently and she said that when she recorded “I Don’t Need No Doctor” with you for Paul Shaffer & the World’s Most Dangerous Band (2017), it was one of the best times that she’s ever had in the studio. How were you brought together for that project?
Paul Shaffer was doing an album. I think he thought of me because I was also doing some touring dates with him. Felicia Collins and I are really great pals. It was a chance to team up. It’s not a song that I’ve ever sung with a lady before. I don’t even know if I took a check for that one because it was just fun. We really had a good time. It’s a different version from the ones that already exist. I love it when our songs bring something else out.
When you and Nick first arrived at Motown as staff songwriters, how did you fit into the label’s hierarchy of writers and producers?
We didn’t really fit in at Motown. They used to call us “the kids from New York” [laughs]. That was good, which meant that we had to bring something to the table. They already had it going on. We had to prove ourselves, in a way. I remember the first session that we produced in that little studio. I probably was the first woman down there at the piano playing with all these guys.
All of the producers were there watching us to see whether we were going to sink or swim. It wasn’t like they were cheering us on either. [laughs] But by the end of the session, there was respect and that’s what it’s about. You don’t need anything else. If you come in with the goods, and you get the job done, you get respect and then friendship develops.
They were really very protective of what they had, so it was up to us to prove that we could fit in and do our own thing. We weren’t writing songs that sounded just like Norman Whitfield or Smokey Robinson. They also protect their territory. I think it worked out well because I got to be friends with all of them then.
We always had a little bit of a rivalry going with Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua because they started the relationship with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, producing our songs. We had to fight to get “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” out. They had to do it and we had to do it, and it had to be decided which one was better! I actually like Johnny Bristol very much but boy, creatively we had a battle going on! We really did.
Years before you and Nick produced a pair of albums for Gladys Knight & the Pips on Columbia, you produced some songs for them at Motown. Why was “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)” a good showcase for Gladys?
Every song we did at Motown was not a hit but there are certain songs that I love more than others and wondered why they didn’t become hits, like “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)”. There was something about that song and Gladys’ delivery of it that just struck my heart. I don’t know why we couldn’t get it to where we needed it to go. It’s the kind of song that she could pull out anytime, even now, and sing. I’m sure it’s a good song. It just didn’t have the push that it needed.
What’s interesting to me is how Smokey Robinson was an established songwriter and producer and yet you and Nick wrote and produced songs for him. “Who’s Gonna Take the Blame” is like this mini-soap opera. Describe the experience of working with Smokey, who was already Motown royalty when you arrived.
We knew that if we were going to try to do anything on Smokey, it couldn’t be a regular little love song. It had to be something that would interest him, something that was a little different than he perhaps would have done for himself. That song, like you mentioned, it’s almost like a soap opera. It’s telling a story and he liked that idea, that we had tried something different because that’s what it’s about. It has to pique your interest, especially when you can do it yourself. “Who’s Gonna Take the Blame” is not well well known, but there are a few people who are fans of that song.
The way it ends with “you’ve become a woman of the street” is something that you don’t see coming in this three-minute pop song!
Well, you take license! [laughs]
“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was the first single that Motown released from Diana Ross’ debut. It has a waltz-like feel to it. I’d love to know the inspiration behind that song.
“Reach Out and Touch” was actually started in a big studio that had a Hammond organ. I don’t play organ but, like I say, it’s hard to resist any keyboard. I jumped up on it and tried to work it with my feet and the next thing I knew I was playing those chords and Nick came over and we started that chorus. It felt churchy. It had, like you say, a waltz feeling to it, so we tried to slow the waltz thing down so that you didn’t notice you were going [snaps] “one-two-three, one-two-three”.
In the end, it turned out to be her first single and even though it wasn’t a huge huge hit at the time, it has stood the test of time. It’s played at all kinds of affairs, churches, arenas, and it has the quality in the lyric to bring people together because that’s what we’re saying — “Make this world better” — so right now we surely need those kinds of songs because we’re in a fix! [laughs]
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
What made “Reach Out and Touch” a good choice for Diana’s first single?
“Reach Out and Touch” was not our choice for Diana. It was Berry Gordy’s choice. He felt that that was the one he wanted to go with because we were pushing for “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from the get-go.
Berry had problems with “Ain’t No Mountain”. He gave us fever! We had done all this work. We thought we had a masterpiece and he was like, “Oh no no no!” It’s hard to argue with a songwriter. Berry’s a hit songwriter, too, and the president of your company so what are you supposed to say when he’s like, “I think you should put the back to the front. It takes too long to get there. You’re taking me through too many steps before we get to the punch! It’s just not right.”
We listened quietly and we said, “Well, we’ll think about it.” We didn’t just say no. We thought about it. Sometimes you got to stick to your guns and just go with what you believe. He said, “Well, I can’t make it the first release.” We said, “You got to do what you got to do, but we can’t change it.” Berry went with “Reach Out and Touch”. It did a little something something, but not what we wanted at that moment. Then the disc jockeys heard “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and they felt what we were doing.
I remember Nick had the best line to Berry, though. He said, “This is like having sex. It’s a climax. You don’t just have it right away. You let it build!” I thought I’d fall out the chair! It was too funny. [laughs]
Going back before Diana recorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and even before Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recorded it, what was the source of inspiration for Nick’s lyrics?
The lyric for “Ain’t No Mountain” is real interesting because it’s not the love song that it sounds like. It’s so much more and I think the “more” is what people get and why it’s lasted through the years because there’s the empowerment in that thought.
Nick was walking down Central Park West and he said the buildings looked like mountains and he was so determined that New York wasn’t going to do him in. He came here and he was homeless, but he was determined that he was going to be a success. He said “ain’t no mountain high enough” looking at the buildings. “There ain’t no valley low enough. Ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from making it.” Then we changed it to “to keep me from getting to you”. I think people, when they’re going through something, sense that meaning that’s deeper than just “keep me from seeing you” or “keep me from loving you”. It does empower people because it was born into the lyric.
As a composer, how did you match chords to that feeling?
Well, knowing the backstory, I think it had to be bigger and grander. It wasn’t minor. It was major and it was big and so you had to find something that would match that thought. I think all the time that we were working on the melody we were still hearing his thought of making this a grander experience. We lucked out and it matched up.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
Of all the songs of yours that you could have revisited with Diana, and indeed you did “You’re All I Need To Get By” with her as well, why did “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” feel like it was a good fit for Diana Ross as a solo artist versus Marvin and Tammi’s version as a duet?
We were trying to make use of Diana’s speaking voice. We wanted to use everything and things that she didn’t get a chance to use when she was with the girls. She had a very sexy speaking voice so Nick wrote those extra words for her to say and we extended it. We come from that church background — “build it up, build it up, make it big”. We wanted it to be long like Isaac Hayes’ songs at that time, which were longer than our three-minute ditties that we were writing. We wanted one of those. It fit that description — that we could build all of that into this production. I must say Paul Riser did a fantastic job with the arrangement. It’s probably one of my proudest productions that we’ve ever done.
The thing that gets me right away is that opening choir.
Starting off with the “ah’s” … and Joshie Jo! Joshie Jo hit those notes like her life depended on it! [laughs] That girl could sing and we always put her on the top. She would just carry it. I think we even used the Andantes from Detroit as well so we had two groups of background. Oh, we were killing it! Luther [Vandross] used to always say he studied our backgrounds with a fine-tooth comb!
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” went to number one on both the pop and R&B charts in September 1970, giving Diana Ross her first number one solo single. How did the success of that song impact your standing at the company?
There’s nothing quite as exciting as a number one record … and to be able to tell the boss “I told you so!” [laughs] That was very special. Of course we didn’t really say that — I’m not that tacky — but he knew that we had won that battle. I think things work out like they’re supposed to. Maybe something would have went wrong if “Ain’t No Mountain” had come out first. I always believe things happen as they should and in the time that they should, so it was just the right time for that song to come out.
On the second album you produced for Diana, Surrender, she recorded “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You”. Fonzi Thornton told me how he and Luther used to study the ad libs that Diana sings on that song. Her voice is way up there towards the end. What kind of direction did you give Diana to reach that level?
I think one of the fondest things I can recall about working with Diana is that she would push herself if you pushed her. For whatever reason, I think she gave us some of the best singing I’ve ever heard her do. She had great ad libs and, like you say, she was in the stratosphere and perfectly toned. We never had to go back. We never had to fix anything. She was just a joy. It’s like when you have a chemistry. We were like a real trio. As a singer myself, I would not sing for her because then she would be offended. She wanted to prove that she could do it and she did it. Often many people would accuse me, “Oh Valerie, you must have done …” I didn’t have to do nothing. Girl was ready and she knew I could sing a little bit, so she was going to sing a lot! [laughs]
“Did You Read the Morning Paper?”, for me, is the standout on Surrender. It’s like another mini-soap opera. As the song progresses, “Did You Read the Morning Paper?” turns from a question into a declaration. How did that song evolve from an idea to the finished recording that we hear?
Richard Monica worked on that song with us. It was his title and then we worked it up. I didn’t watch soap operas but we always sounded like we were writing one! [laughs] I always believed in taking liberties. Everything can have some complexity to it if you can work it in without it sounding complex. You want it to still sound simple even though there’s a complexity there. “Did You Read the Morning Paper?” is one of those songs.
It’s interesting how you and Nick were writing and producing partners at Motown, and then you got a solo deal at the company. Was that something that you sought or was it offered?
[laughs] Let me put it this way. We had a bunch of songs that nobody was doing and then Nick looked at me and said, “Let’s put them on you.” That’s pretty much how my solo arrived. There were songs that I was pushing for somebody to do and we couldn’t find somebody to do them so I got to do them. It wasn’t so much that I was looking to be a “solo artist”, no, but I always thought of myself as a writer. I wanted the songs to have exposure, so I said, “Well, let’s just see if this goes anywhere” and sure enough it didn’t because I don’t think the record company was that interested in me as an artist. I was more valuable as a writer and a producer.
All these hats you wear, you learn something so I learned a lot doing that. It amazes me when people say they know certain songs. We didn’t sell but about five copies! In some kind of way, they get to people.
“Sinner Man” off your first solo album Exposed (1971) is one of the most bracing songs you’ve recorded. What was the genesis of that song?
“Sinner Man” was really from our days at White Rock Baptist Church. That was a song that I think we had started for the church and probably hadn’t finished it, so we pulled that one out. “Don’t let Him catch you with your work undone!”
On the second solo album, Valerie Simpson (1972), the song “Genius” brings a tear to my eye, especially the lyric “You can ride in a car, take a plane up above. In his perfect world, he forgot about love.” How is “Genius” relevant in 2020?
Well I think is “Genius” is a sarcastic look at man and his grandiose ways of thinking he’s running everything, so certainly now we can feel that. Man really has gotten too big for his own britches in many instances. We did a wonderful version of “Genius” on D.J. Rogers. It never came out, but it is wonderful. It’s just one of those songs that steps back and critiques what we’ve done to this earth and what we’ve done to the world.
What’s your recollection of producing Dionne Warwick in the early ’70s when she was on Warner Bros., even though the recordings were shelved at the time?
I can’t honestly say that I have a great memory of that time. I know that Dionne very recently re-did one of the songs, “We Need to Go Back”, which says to me that at least it still held a fond place for her. She had to bring it up because nobody else would have known about it. I was really pleased. There was always something in that lyric that touched me: “Ain’t nobody got nothing good to say, and if it ain’t a dirty game nobody wants to play.” [laughs]
I don’t remember us having any great interaction with the record company or what they thought. Obviously they didn’t think enough because it didn’t see a proper release, so it’s not a great memory, but, like I say, the very idea that it still reverberates with her, that she could still sing that song today, says a lot to me.
Terri Lyne Carrington told me the inspiration behind covering “Somebody Told a Lie” for The Mosaic Project: LOVE and SOUL (2015). She said, “I felt like it was something that I could sink my teeth into. That song felt open enough to allow me to put quite a bit of jazz in there.” I think the original version of “Somebody Told a Lie” on Ashford & Simpson’s third album Come As You Are (1976) shows you and Nick at your best. What kind of story were you trying to tell with that song?
That’s one of my favorite Ashford & Simpson songs. Nick had an extremely high voice and he really tested me. He could actually hold his breath for a long time, so it was a test for me to keep up with him in that song. I think we captured this ethereal quality of heaven being in the sky. Sometimes your intention doesn’t fan out, but I think the lyrical content and the production married nicely where we were saying something and musically it sounded that way. It feels heavenly. It feels otherworldly. Like I said, that was a hard vocal for me to manage. [laughs]
At the end of the song, it’s like your voices do this lovely dance together.
Yeah, I love that. I have to find a video of us doing it because George Faison choreographed our visual on that song and it used to go over. He told us, “They’re going to clap here and they’re going to clap over here. When you get to this part, they’ll clap.” He told us what was going to happen and he was right!
Is It Still Good to Ya (1978) was the first Ashford & Simpson album to top the R&B chart. In reviewing the album for Record World, Vince Aletti highlighted “It Seems to Hang On”. He wrote, “This is one of the team’s most inspired lyrics and most complex arrangements … Excellent.” In what way did “It Seems to Hang On” reflect your growth as songwriters and producers?
I think the fact that that arrangement and song could have been written this morning is a testament. It was just good. Good is good. It’s not of the moment. That song still sounds wonderful and one of those that just was a gift. We never wrote another one like that, so that is something that was given to us at that moment and that time, wherever we were, emotionally. I guess we weren’t fighting that day [laughs]. It just is what it is. My pride in it is still there. I’m very proud.
That same year, you recorded “Stuff Like That” with Quincy Jones, Stuff, and Chaka Khan. It went to number one on the R&B chart. I would love to know about the opportunity to write that song with Quincy and the members of Stuff.
Quincy sent us the track and we came up with that feeling. All the guys that were on the track are dear dear friends and raucous and just crazy and fun. We had worked together, all of us, many many times. It was like hanging out with family and talking about “stuff like that”. That was just a fun assignment.
It’s always a pleasure to even get to sing with Chaka. I remember she was in the studio and I didn’t know she was there. We were there to do the background. The track came on and she just kind of rolled out from the floor. [laughs] She’d been sleeping in front of the console and got up and sang her buns off. I couldn’t believe it. She sang like there was no tomorrow. We had it in two takes, so that was just the gift she was given. It wasn’t no big deal. She could just do it.
“I’m Every Woman” opened Chaka Khan’s solo debut Chaka (1978). How were you and Nick approached to write a song for that album?
Arif Mardin, Chaka’s producer, called us and said he was doing her solo album after leaving Rufus and he asked if we had anything that would be right for her. I had been playing this melody for awhile. Nick heard it and said, “Yeah … I’m every woman.” I said, “Alright! Yeah, that’s good.” He said, “Now what do I say?” [laughs] I said, “Put your hand on your hip and dig down into that other side of you that everybody has — yin and a yang. It’s in there.” It took him awhile. He had to re-write a couple of lines but he came up with it. It was natural, though.
Chaka was such a fireball that she could deliver it and make it believable. Everybody can’t sing that. You have to be able to be that. I think it kind of threw her off initially. She’s told me that. She had second thoughts about putting herself out like that, but she certainly could handle it. We all felt that way about her.
What’s your assessment of Arif Mardin’s production on “I’m Every Woman”?
Oh, I loved Arif’s arrangement. It was so in the pocket. He was a fabulous producer and arranger. That’s a great gift to have. His arrangement of “Clouds”, which we also wrote for Chaka, was the same thing. It’s so real. When Whitney covered “I’m Every Woman” she still had to use the basic elements that Arif had laid down. Some things are just too good to mess with. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You might add something on to it but the parts that really work are the parts that people want to hear.
Immediately after Diana Ross’ The Boss album topped the disco chart in 1979, you and Nick had a number one disco hit with “Found a Cure”. What sort of outlet did disco offer you and Nick?
Disco was the outlet to stay in the game. If they’re gonna go in another direction, either you get on board or you say, “Alright, I’ll wait till it comes back around to what I’m doing.” We put that beat under there. Let’s just make sure that we’re saying something on top of the beat so that when they get around to listening, it will be there. It’s very interesting because that was during the AIDS dilemma and somehow that song got picked up as a hopeful idea that there will be a cure, we will find a cure, so it was sung with a different fervor than just a love song.
During your tenure with Capitol Records, “Solid” went to number one on the R&B chart and became your and Nick’s biggest pop hit as a recording act. I always thought it was so bold to start off with you singing a cappella on that song. Structurally, how was “Solid” put together?
François K. stripped it. I don’t think I would have been that bold. Thank God I was in tune because we actually started it with music and then we asked him to mix it. Then he inserted that in the front, which really made it stand out. He’s really responsible for it being a noticeable song because there weren’t many people doing that. He made it special. I think we connected with him through the clubs. We knew the club scene. We would hang. We were those people who would wake up at two o’clock in the morning and go to a club. He was a mixer at the time and then I think we saw some of his work for other people and then called him to mix “Solid”.
Valerie Simpson with Christian John Wikane / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
How did you first hear the mash-up that Aretha Franklin did of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”?
I’m not sure. I must say, Nick and I always used to pinch ourselves how lucky we were that Aretha liked our writing style and did so many of our songs. When she mashed them together like that, it was just a treat. It was like somebody giving you dessert. It was like “Wow! I wouldn’t have even thought of that.” I love “Rolling in the Deep” so if we can be a part of that, yeah I’ll take that ride any day!
Aretha was very adventurous, musically, and very hard to know. You might be in favor this week … and maybe not. [laughs] Musically, I think we kept favor, all the time. She loved Nick, so that wasn’t a problem, but our relationship was the music. I was thrilled that she took such a liking to our songs.
If we would show up at a concert, she’d pull us out of the audience and put us on the stage. I’d be like, “Oh Lord, I don’t know if I want to do this!” [laughs] With Aretha, there is no saying no. We had some grand times. For a party, she hired us here in New York and paid us the regular money — didn’t try to pinch — and we had the best time. That said to me, “Ah she really does like us. Why would she want to sit there and listen to me all night if there wasn’t a sincere love?” [laughs] That boosted my ego.
Let’s bring it full circle to Richard Tee’s arrangement of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that you yourself covered on Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again (2012).
Richard Tee is my favorite keyboard player. I’d gone to see him and Stuff play many many times over the years at Mikell’s. He’s done a lot of sessions for Ashford & Simpson. He’s arranged things for us. I was intrigued by his style and his arrangement of “Ain’t No Mountain”. Only he could play that fast, so when I was trying to put together a solo project, I wanted to do something instrumental, and then I thought about that.
In all good conscience, I could not play it as fast, there’s no way I could have made it to the end without falling out, so I had to slow it down a little bit and I had to bookend it another kind of way so that it was more recognizable as our song. I kind of mashed up his arrangement to some degree, but that was a loving tribute to him.
Valerie, your music has shaped the lives of countless listeners, but I’d love to know how has music shaped your life?
I think I have no fear because music took care of that for me. Now I walk bolder — that may come with time and experience too — but musically I think I’ve done enough. I can fail because I’ve done enough, but I’m going to keep trying. That’s what it’s done for me. I’m just much more fearless now and sure of who I am and what I’ve accomplished. There’s still quite a few things I hope to accomplish.
I think being in this period also has clearly shown me that there’s more to be done. The world is hurtin’ and somebody’s got to say something that means something, that touches somebody, that catapults us out of this place that we’re in, which is nowhere. I say, “Lord, if you give it to me, I’ll say it. I’ll put it out there.” I don’t know who is going to say it or how it’s to be said, but I want to be that open vessel.