SINCE THE SONGS they wrote in the 1960s for Marvin Gave and Tammi Terrell put a patent on the genre, it was not surprising that when they turned to performing Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson should become the most convincing claimants to the title “sweethearts of soul”.
Partners both in the music room and in life for more than 20 years, they have progressed — if that is the word — from the spontaneous energy of the Motown factory to the calculated emotions of the designer cocktail bar. Like everybody, they have learnt that emotional reticence pays only a small dividend in the ’80s: whereas once they carved the subtle, affecting lyric of ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’, now they present the full-frontal display of ‘Is it Still Good to You?’. And very well they do it, too.
Clad in the raiment of a sultan and a houri, golden strands and crushed raspberry veils parting to reveal oiled flesh (and Ashford’s tossing mane making him the most extraordinary sight soul music has offered since bald, bechained Isaac Hayes), they put on an excellent show, mightily assisted by a band including several of New York’s highest-priced studio musicians, notably the energetic bass-guitarist Francisco Centeno and the discreet guitarist Andy Schwartz, whose phrases flashed like precious stones.
Starting at a point well over the top with the full-throttle quasi-gospel blast of ‘Found a Cure’, they achieved the best balance of material and presentation with two of the best songs of their recent career, ‘It Seems to Hang On’ and ‘High Rise’, both benefitting from the kind of irresistible groove that keeps customers on the dance floor.
A medley of songs they wrote for Gaye and Terrell — ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’, ‘Your Precious Love’ and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ — was movingly dedicated to Gaye’s memory, with the audience’s noisy approval.
It seemed a shame, though, that they did not see fit to mention Miss Terrell, whose life was also prematurely terminated.
© Richard Williams, The Times, 22 May 1985