‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’, ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’, and ‘The Onion Song’ were all hits for the last long standing black duet, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. But behind that singing twosome were another duet, that of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Between them they wrote and produced the kind of love songs that still leave imitators back in the dust.
In Part Two of this series on the people behind the scenes at Motown, ROBIN KATZ looks at the rise of Ashford and Simpson, their golden days in Detroit, the fight against Valerie Simpson’s emergence as a solo artist, and what you’ll be hearing from them in the weeks to come.
NICK ASHFORD is one of those big American he-men, who tower above the six foot mark sporting a lengthy afro, with a beard and moustache to surround his long, narrow face. On a good day, Valerie Simpson may reach his chest.
It’s not that Valerie is a little lady or anything, but stand her next to Ashford, and she looks more like his daughter than anything else. Yet put these two in a recording studio, and something magical happens, or perhaps memorable is a better word.
Simply, because their most memorable tunes were written for other people, and have still been more successful than anything they have done on their own. People still identify them as ex-Motown writers despite the fact that they have been with Warner Brothers for over a year (and two albums) and still produce two albums a year for Motown. Before one can try to explain the gap in communication, it pays to go back to the beginning, since Ashford and Simpson’s most significant accomplishments are still limited to nuts like me, who read italics names under record titles. How many of you trivia buffs knew that Ashford and Simpson wrote Ray Charles’ ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’? See what I mean? Now read on.
“Nick and I met in New York when I was in a gospel group called The Followers. Nick was with The Monarchs. He liked what I was doing and I convinced him to join us, and he became the only guy in the group. We auditioned to sing at a gospel nightclub called the Sweet Chariot and Nick wrote all the tunes for the audition. We got the job, but a local church group got upset and picketed the place and eventually it closed up,” Valerie recalled.
But the unfortunate club owners were also music publishers and it was with them that the team wrote their first collaboration. It gave them a local hit, which provided them with work at local clubs and at one point even the Apollo for one date. But as opportunities for performers became tight, the team went back to writing, adding a third member; Joshie Armstead, who still pops up now and then on their albums. Armstead excelled in writing tight three minute long life-story songs, and produced an album called Re-Light My Fire for an artist named Rhetta Hughes for the now defunct Tetragrammaton label. Between Hughes’ range and gusto and Armstead’s songs, there showed enormous potential. But, save for a few fans, Armstead and Hughes never emerged. Ashford and Simpson did. Working at Sceptor, the trio did their first studio work and their most notable achievement was producing Maxine Brown’s ‘One Step At a Time’.
“Our original goals weren’t to have hits, really. It was to write songs. You got $75 advance for every song you could come up with, so we kept knockin’ ’em out. We had our first hit with ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ with Ray Charles, freelanced a while and signed with Motown, ten years ago.”
Once at Motown, Ashford and Simpson went to work. In those days, artists and producers were shuffled around in numerous combinations until pay dirt was hit by finding a record with a bullet attached to it in the Billboard charts. And Ashford and Simpson certainly had enough of those, particularly with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Again, Gaye had been paired off with numerous female singers on Motown, Kim Weston, Mary Wells, and recently with Diana Ross, but nobody did for him what Tammi Terrell did.
When she died in 1970, Gaye retired. Ashford and Simpson were moved onto a new assignment: the newly solo Diana Ross, and once again it was their compositions and production on her early albums that resulted in a stream of hits including ‘Reach Out And Touch’, ‘Remember Me’, ‘Surrender’, ‘Keep An Eye’, ‘Didn’t You Know You Have To Cry Sometime’ and the rearrangement of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, which remains as Ms Ross’ favourite song of all time.
But in 1971 there was trouble. When Diana Ross was with the Supremes, there were other female groups around, and even some within Motown, but none of them ever got as high as the Supremes did, if you think about it. And when Ross went solo, as if the Red Sea had mysteriously parted, there were no competitors for the lady. Not that there weren’t any female solo singers on the label, but there were no competitors if you see what I mean. Then, Valerie Simpson decided to use the “artists” closure in her contract.
Diana Ross wrote the liner notes to Valerie’s first album. She said: “I always thought Valerie was a great writer-producer and after I heard her recording of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ for Quincy Jones. I realised that she excelled as a vocalist as well. One day while we were in the studio. I asked her about recording on her own. She answered ‘I guess I’ll do it one day.’ Well the day came and ‘WOW’ did she do it. The only word for this album is fantastic.”
The album, titled Exposed was everything the title and Diana Ross’s liner notes implied and more. Undoubtably the most underrated album put out that year by any artist, Exposed showed just how diverse Valerie Simpson could be.
It was an album to be reckoned with. Backing musicians from Motown’s cream flocked to the session, Dennis Coffey on guitar, the impeccable James Jamerson on bass, Jack Brokenshaw on percussion, and the long gone Joshie Armstead on backing vocals. Ross wrote the liner notes, Rolling Stone declared Simpson to be the Neglected Genius of the year…
There was just one small problem. Motown didn’t push the album much. Record stores in my home town, who order albums by the dozens, found themselves ordering a dozen copies of Exposed and being lucky to see a half a dozen. The Red Sea had taken long enough to part for Diana Ross, and it was not about to be closed by no one less than one of her writers.
So Valerie Simpson did not become a household word. The Temptations did a lovely version of ‘Love Woke Me Up This Morning’, and Dusty Springfield did ‘I Just Wanna Be There’ on her Cameo album, but none of ’em held a candle to ole Valerie. And now they tell me Motown is going to delete this masterpiece of wax because the sales don’t justify keeping it.
In mid-1972, Valerie released her second solo album for Motown. Called simply Valerie Simpson, it was a much more intimate album. The musical production was more diverse, and Valerie’s voice was strong and clear. On one track called ‘Drink The Wine’ she could have been easily mistaken for Mavis Staples. The songs dealt with emotions other than romantic love, including ghetto poverty, and the apathetic nature of man’s technical achievements. Living in England by now, I don’t know about the promotion end in the States, but ‘Silly Wasn’t I’, an Ashford-Simpson-Armstead composition, made it’s way into the American top thirty. The UK kept it’s ears open, but the album wasn’t released in England until January of 1973. Just when the UK Motown office planned the big push, the news came through. Ashford and Simpson had left Motown. They had gone to Warner Brothers.
They had also gone to New York, where they opened their own company, Hopsack and Silk Productions, featuring Nick O-Val Music Publishing. Their first album for Warner’s called Gimme Something Real was a major disappointment. The love songs were pleasant, the voices pleasant, the arrangements clear, and pleasant, and the art work pleasant, but something was missing. The something that made Valerie’s solo albums not just pleasant, but dynamic.
They went back to live work, and from all accounts, are doing rather well. Nick Ashford’s voice holds it’s own, but it seems as if Valerie is sacrificing her range to keep the two of them singing in harmony. Something is missing. They have just released their second album on Warner’s, due out here by the end of the month called I Wanna Be Selfish. Again, the theme is predominantly love songs, with Val and Nick posed in cuddly positions on the sleeves. Critics will probably lampoon them mistakenly for being self indulgent.
Talking from New York after doing four knock out nights at The Bottom Line club, they admitted that their biggest problem is not material, but doing interviews, and promotional work. Speaking on a joint line from their office, they kept answers to a minimum.
“The newest obstacle for us is looking over all the things they want us to do to help our record. We’ll do anything to help. I guess we had just never been aware of the work it takes to get radio play, as we never had to deal with it before.” Valerie explained.
“You have to take things one step at a time,” Nick Ashford said assuredly, “and there is plenty of that. ‘Mainline’ is pop-gospel, which is going to be a pretty good term for a lot of the things you’ll be hearing soon.”
What about love songs? Were the golden goodies that sounded so good on Marvin and Tammi now out of time? : “Well,” thought Simpson, “Barry White’s music is heavily orchestrated, and he’s certainly thought of as romantic,, and an Isaac Hayes deep sexy voice is a different kind of romantic.”
“There’s room for the ‘Shaft’ type of thing,” Ashford added, “simply because it’s so danceable.”
“You hear two or three things of the same nature in the charts, and then people are looking for something new, and you get a better reaction because of it.” said Valerie.
“We don’t mind being identified as someone else’s writers because that in itself is a type of recognition. As performers you get a different response. People have a misconception that now we want to conform and extend to just being performers, but that’s not true either. We try to do a bit of both and that takes up a lot of time. We still do two albums a year for Motown. We’ve just finished one for a new group called the Dynamic Superiors, and haven’t decided on anything else yet,” Valerie continued.
The duet emphasised that they prefer working with new talent, like the Dynamic Superiors. As for Gladys Knight’s new found success, Nick came to life. “She’s one of my favourite people in the studio. The energy and emotion she puts into a song is a compliment to any writer. To watch Gladys start out and warm herself up and literally create herself is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
The title of the new LP, I Wanna Be Selfish, was inspired from a working trip the two made outside the hustle and bustle of New York City, although ‘Mainline’ is full of the rhythm that the city keeps its normal breakneck pace to. Ambitionwise, they seem fairly content, having achieved the kind of success around the world that most composers would be happy to see a half of. It’s just a shame at the time in the ’60s when they were the hottest, they never got half the credit for it, and have to live off past work to get a look in at their present stuff.
“When Valerie did her first solo album,” Nick remembered, “she insisted on having everyone’s names on the album. Maybe it was the fault of the writers and producers. We should have fought to get more credit, but in those days everyone just did their work and THEY knew who had done what. There didn’t seem to be any advantages to pushing it.”
This time, there will be a lot of push. Expect it from Val and Nick’s fans who disguise themselves as journalists and radio programmers. All they need is one hit under their names, and the duo will then know what musical direction to pursue. And never again will Ashford and Simpson have to resign themselves to just being two of the more illustrious disguised names in the Motor city’s past.
The names on the bottom of labels will be at the top of the charts, where they belong.
© Robin Katz, Sounds, 3 August 1974