ASHFORD & SIMPSON: STILL SOLID AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Iconic soul singing/writing/production duo Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson return to the UK this month for their first UK show in over 20 years. B&S listens in awe as the legendary duo discuss past musical glories plus their current aspirations for Broadway success.
While the many timeless classics they wrote and produced at Motown during said label`s 60's/early 70's heyday would in itself be more than enough to earn them a significant place in soul`s Hall Of Fame, fact is husband/wife duo Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson`s full contribution to music does of course extend much further. Which is why we find their upcoming headlining concert at this month`s Birmingham Luxury Soul Weekender (their first UK show in over two decades) being accompanied by two very different compilation sets. While Expansion Records` `Songbook` collection mainly focuses on late Seventies/early Eighties recordings of their compositions by a wide range of vocalists (from the little-known Collins & Collins and Tata Vega to chart-toppers-of-the-day like Teddy Pendergrass and Stephanie Mills), Stateside/EMI`s 'Best Of' set alternatively offers a selection of tracks from the 14 acclaimed albums the twosome recorded as artists in their own right between 1973 and 1989.
Having first met in New York in 1963, the pair began writing songs together the following year and eventually attained their first taste of success when Ray Charles` recording of their composition 'Let`s Go Get Stoned' topped the US soul chart in 1966. Signing a songwriting contract with Motown the same year, Nick & Val would immediately pen a string of classic hits for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell ('Ain`t Nothing Like The Real Thing', 'You`re All I Need To Get By' etc) as well as the first batch of solo smashes for diva-supreme Diana Ross (including 'Reach Out And Touch' and the chart-topping 'Ain`t No Mountain High Enough').
Leaving Motown in 1973, the duo then launched their own recording career at Warner Bros. before (in 1982) switching to Capitol Records, where their singing career peaked in 1985 with their transatlantic Top Three radio smash 'Solid'. Highlights of their outside songwriting and/or production work during the Seventies/Eighties meanwhile additionally included Chaka Khan`s timeless 'I`m Every Woman' (1978); plus classic albums for Diana Ross (1979`s 'The Boss') and Gladys Knight & The Pips (1980`s 'About Love').
Hooking up with `B&S` for the first time in 18 years, a friendly and down-to-earth Nick & Val happily discuss their illustrious career, starting off with those legendary Motown years: “When we got to Motown they were already on top of the world! So it was like walking into a master-school! Working alongside writers like Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield or Smokey Robinson just had an amazing influence on us! And the great thing about that era at Motown was how those songs broke down racial divides and basically changed music in America for ever. The fact that the music was reaching across-the-board and wasn`t just on the R&B charts anymore meant it was suddenly colourless. Because those songs were both soul and pop-orientated, people all over the world were singing them. Which is no doubt why that catalogue has lasted all these years and why, 40 years later, the music is appreciated just like it was when it was first written.”
With arguably their most successful work emanating from their studio collaborations with erstwhile Motown Queen Diana Ross, the twosome have nothing but praise for the once-pioneering international chart-topper: “I think a lot of the appeal came from the sensuality in her voice. It has a lotta glaze over it and makes for a good sexy sound”, volunteers Nick, before Val adds: “It`s also one of those voices with a childlike quality where you just wanna take care of the person because they seem so vulnerable.- which is a universal feeling. Plus in the studio she is very much a professional who likes to get it right. She`s a hard worker, who wants you to give her points and tell her exactly how she`s sounding. And I think we were lucky enough to get some of the highest notes out of her! You know, we kinda stretched her - and she liked that a lot.”
Meanwhile, of the more soulful songstresses the duo have worked with, two in particular stand out: “As far as I`m concerned Chaka Khan is one of the sexiest women in the world - with that voice, that range… And I think what allows her to be a great artist is the fact that she`s so free-spirited and that everything is all just so natural with her”, asserts Nick: “While Gladys Knight is simply one of the ultimate singers of all time! She`s just an original, who all the others have to follow. She has like a pulling-power, a kinda tension in her voice, where you really feel her going for it! You know, she doesn`t sing easy and you definitely feel her intensity.”
With the twosome`s last album release being `Love Or Physical` way back in `89, they attribute their lack-of recording profile since to both the death of their then-manger plus the emergence of rap as the all-dominant force in mainstream black music: “Change always comes, and it brings about a new era - which is exactly what happened when the hip hop culture came along and changed the entire music industry”, insists Nick: “You know, while change is a natural thing, it can also become a major challenge to any established artist to know how to fit in to a new marketplace. And, while we have benefited financially from the rappers sampling our old music, what I don`t like is the way they sometimes fail to give the original artist or creator any credit! I remember being a little insulted when Method Man & Mary J. Blige did `You`re All I Need` and `The New York Times` said it was the biggest record of the summer - but never once mentioned Ashford & Simpson had written the original version! But, while that did hurt me, I guess once I got to the bank it all suddenly became OK!”
While their forthcoming UK show will understandably consist of mostly familiar material, the duo are additionally hoping to preview live some of the songs they`re currently penning for an interesting new project: “We may do a couple of things from a new Broadway show we`re working on”, reveals Val: “The play is called `Invisible Life`, which is based on the Elan Harris book. It`s the story of a young man who`s confused about his sexual identity, and for the play they`ve made his father a minister. So you have the church`s rigid point-of-view up against him just trying to find out who he is. Which gives us a chance to write some really interesting kinds of songs. And we think this UK concert could be the ideal opportunity to test the waters and see how a couple of them go over in front of a real live audience.”
The album `Ashford & Simpson Songbook` is out now through Expansion Records.
The LP `The Best Of Ashford & Simpson` follows May 21 through Stateside
Words PETE LEWIS