NICKOLAS ASHFORD and Valerie Simpson have, of course, been writing great songs for years. Songs like ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’, ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’ and ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’.
Their very first hit was with Ray Charles. A song they wrote at the end of a long day, of a long week, when things were going so badly they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Somebody said ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ and that was it! Motown scooped them up, and they began writing for the Detroit stable, then arranging, singing, producing and doing the whole thing. For artists like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Gladys Knight and Diana Ross. From doing everything for everyone else, they began to look to themselves. Valerie recorded two solo albums but Motown weren’t ready and they got little exposure.
Then in 1972 Nick and Valerie appeared together at New York’s Alice Tully Hall as part of Ellis Haizlip’s “Soul at The Centre.” Despite a lot of problems, which nobody at the time knew about, they brought the house down. In 1973, the two-man ‘do-it-yourself-kit’ left the confines and restrictions of Motown and put together their own production deal and moved to Warners. The result is their first duo album, Gimme Something Real. On it, they’ve taken the best of everything they taught to Marvin and Tammi and added Nick and Valerie. It’s great — and a long, long way from the now-forgotten single they cut for Henry Glover’s Glover label in New York in 1961.
But how did the partnership start?
Nick: “I was from Willow Run, about 30 miles from Detroit. I had been in the church all my life, and I was writing gospel songs when I was younger, but I hadn’t really thought of writing as a career or anything. I wanted to be a lot of things — actor, singer — anything in show-business. And that’s what they told me. ‘If you want to get a break — go to New York’. So I took a bus to NY! And I wound up in Harlem, going to churches up there. That’s when I met Valerie. She was still in school. I spotted her in the White Rock Church on 116th Street. I used to go up there on Sunday’s because I knew exactly where I could get a free meal. Before I met Valerie I used to go up to Faith Temple and they had food every Sunday and I’d go up there and eat because that was the one day of the week I could eat! Then eventually I met this piano player called Cooper and he took me to the church and I met Valerie. She was just bouncing. I tell you, she has a special bounce. You’ve got to see her in church. She doesn’t really do it performing other songs. In church she’s got her bounce. It’s really cute! For a while we had a gospel group ‘The Followers’. That was right before we started writing together.
“Back in the poor days we did have aroutine. We would say we would write so many songs that week, so that we could get so much advance. Eating money! Now, it’s hard. Basically we write when we feel it.”
Valerie continues: “We started as staff writers for Scepter (songs for Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown and The Shirelles). Before that we were just door-to-door! Joshie Armstead was with us then. No we didn’t really have any hits, but we wrote plenty of songs and got advances.
“The songs really weren’t that good. The style at the time was like that. We had great presentations. Joshie could really sing and I’d beat it out on the piano and Nick got it together, and we’d go up there and I think they got so into us as individuals that I don’t think they ever realised that we weren’t saying that much!”
“I met Joshie in somebody’s office after Nick and I had started writing together. We didn’t have many outlets. She was trying to peddle her songs and we were trying to peddle ours. Then I saw her again outside the Drugstore on 50th Street and Broadway. (You know she brought this back to me last night, it was her birthday and we were talking about how we met, and she reminded me!) Anyway, I asked her if she had any contacts, you know, publishers, and she gave me her list which was precious to us. As I started to walk away she said to me, ‘Can you lend me a dollar?’ So I lent her a dollar and that’s how we got together.
“Right after we left Scepter we had our first hit, Ray Charles recorded, ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’. So we were kind of happy about that and two people from Motown came scouting.”
Nick: “Actually it was Holland-Dozier and Holland. They were looking for new talent — writers. And they contacted us through somebody. They called me and we took the demos down and they really flipped out ‘cos they said they sounded like finished records. They asked did we really do this and we were all excited. Then they flew us out to Detroit to talk business! Above and beyond it was impressive when you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from and all that. We were kind of star-struck too, especially with Motown! They just wanted us to write songs and then they’d give them to other producers.”
Valerie: “I think that’s where they felt they were lacking. They had people who made great rhythm tracks but they didn’t really have enough songs. And they used to make tracks without any songs at all, just some chords. Then they’d sit around and try to write something to that track.”
Nick: “They thought we were amazing. They couldn’t believe us. We were amazing because we had the whole song and music and the background and we had the whole thing together! We were in a different school altogether. They just weren’t ready for us. It took them months. When we went into the studio we could finish our product immediately. We could go in and cut the rhythm, do the sweetening, and just have everything there. Like we say, they were used to cutting the rhythm track, not that there’s anything wrong, and some of them still do that. They just cut a good feeling. But it was just that we had never followed that pattern.”
Valerie: “I think we had two things released that had made it. ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and ‘Your Precious Love’ for Marvin and Tammi, and we gave them another tune. And they messed around for so long and then we finally convinced them that we could produce it ourselves, and go in there and do it.”
Nick: “We finally fought to get a producer’s contract because you’re never quite satisfied with someone else’s interpretation.”
Valerie: “You lay a road-map which is just very clear to you. We would sit down and lay a song out for them, sing it, give them the parts, and the background, and the chord-lines, and the bridge and the riffs and the bass … so there wasn’t anything for them to do but give it to the arranger and go on in there in the studio. It was like giving so much of yourself away. It was necessary that we make this move into production.”
And it was their production of the masterpiece ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ which launched Diana Ross’s solo career.
Nick: “When Diana was going on her own we had already done a few things with her. They told us after they had heard some of the things we were doing and they were pleased, would we like to do the whole album. Then we really started to put our heads together and to come up with something really fantastic. We had written a few things but we still hadn’t come up with that… IT… That’s how we came up with ‘Ain’t No Mountain’. We went back and said let’s re-do this and see what happens having Diana in mind, and knowing her sensitivity and knowing what she can do.”
Valerie: “She works very hard. She’s probably the hardest worker of all the artistes we worked with at Motown. With Diana you feel she is giving 100%.”
Nick: “I like to work with people who are really into what they are doing. Working with somebody like Gladys Knight is marvellous. Because she takes a song we write, and we teach it to her and all of a sudden it just has another life style. Suddenly she adds another dimension to it. She keeps what you have got but adds to it. I always like that. She did that with ‘Didn’t You Know You’d Have To Cry Sometimes’ which we wrote.”
Who does what when it comes to writing a song?
Valerie: “Nick basically does all the lyrics and I do music. But he sings, so a lot of the melody work is his. He may even do chords or start something and just get a general idea and then I can take it from there.”
Nick: “We never really have a pattern. Sometimes Valerie will be playing and I come up with something, or I’ll be playing… either way.”
And how about their emergence as live performers?
Nick: “I actually like performing, I think I enjoy it. Once I’m over that initial hump. It’s just getting out there. My arms will be perspiring and I’ll have a box of tissues under each arm to try to keep my clothes dry! And I’m still wet.”
Will they be going to Britain? Nick says, “I really hope so. The album is just out there. I would like to do a lot of travelling, but I never thought of travelling as an artist. I always thought of being this great man behind the scenes! It’s different now, I guess.”
© Vicki Wickham, Black Music, May 1974