OVER THE last five years, the emergence of producers-turned performers has been a phenomenon which brought into the limelight some of the finest creative forces at work in music today.
This acceptance has not been restricted to the general pop market, for the, behind-the-scenes soul folk have met almost unparalleled success. Isaac Hayes (who for years had been churning out hit after out hit after hit for countless Stax stars) heralded the arrival of the ‘new’ set and in more recent times, people like Willie Hutch at Motown, Holland & Dozier and Barry White (deriving more than a little inspiration from Ike himself) have all turned from control boards to the microphones.
The latest members of the set are Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford. Valerie’s ‘arrival’ is not exactly brand new, for she first came into the singing spotlight some two years ago with her first Motown album, Exposed which, whilst not exactly catapulting her into the best sellers, did open the eyes of more aware members of the musical public and press.
In addition, Miss Simpson’s work with Quincy Jones on various albums brought considerable accolades for the lady and whilst her second Motown album didn’t set the charts alight either, she did consolidate the following she’d built. It was really only a matter of time before Valerie was joined by songwriting partner, Nick Ashford in her singing efforts and earlier this year, when the couple’s Motown contract expired, they were pacted as producers, writers and above all, performers.
The came to the company with a wealth of experience and success behind them, for aside from Valerie’s solo efforts, the partnership has been responsible for many hit record (as both writers and producers) which have since become classics. They were responsible for the run of hits from the partnership of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – records like ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ (later a hit for Aretha Franklin) and ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’ – and they were the main force behind Diana Ross’ initial success as a solo artiste with ‘Reach Out And Touch’ and, of course ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’.
The first fruit of the couple’s signing with Warners is now ready and the appropriately-titled Gimme Something Real album is picking up strong airplay and sales in the States after only a few weeks, indicating that the team is set on the road to success as performers after already making their mark as creative producers and exceptionally talented writers. Without hesitation, the album is possibly my favourite of all of 1973’s releases because, from start to finish, it is simply a labor of love with some of the finest production the team has ever accomplished. There is an exciting feel to the set which truly makes it a standout and one of my first reactions was to wonder why the two had never recorded together before. When I had the good fortune to speak with the young couple, I asked them just that.
“The thing is,” Nick replied, “we did record together! We cut a whole album whilst we were at Motown but they never released it. Maybe they’ll get round to putting it out one day – who knows?”
How did the idea of performing as opposed to simply writing and producing come up? “Somewhere along the way”, Valerie replied, “we just knew it would happen, we used to do all the back-ups on our productions so I guess it was a logical step.”
Of the period Nick had this to say: “It was wonderful being part of such a creative thing, you know. It was totally great experience and we learned so much during out time there.” Valerie agreed, “Yes it was very valuable, we worked with so many people – I remember Marvin Gaye as a particularly beautiful person to work with. He always gave just that little bit more. Yes, we wrote quite a lot of songs with specific artists in mind – ‘You’re All I Need’ was for Marvin and Tammi, of course.”
Warner Brothers are making strong strides into the soul field but it may have seemed a strange home for Nick and Val. “Well, after our contract came up – we were at Motown for seven years – we got some really good vibes from Warners. We felt that they understood our music and knew what we wanted to do – so here we are!” And of cause, the warm and friendly twosome are very happy about the reaction to their first album together.
“We’re really excited”, exclaimed Valerie. “It’s really wonderful the reaction the album’s got. Which songs do we like? Oh, I love ’em all! I think my own personal favourite is the title track, ‘Gimme Something Real’, but it is difficult for me to say.”
“Yes,” agreed Nick, “I dig that one too – another of my particular favourites is ‘Time’. But you know, the title track came out very well. You see, we never planned what we were gonna say on the ‘personal testimony’ part of the track and although we had the basic song together, we did the monologue parts simply as we went. In fact, the album was recorded with us singing together – we sang at the same time to create a less mechanical, more intimate atmosphere”.
There is absolutely no doubt that the couple have captured a real sense of togetherness on the album and we talked about how it had all been prepared. “After we signed with the company, we set to work on the album and all the songs are new – none are from the Motown days,” explained Valerie. “We wanted to have them specifically for the first album, with the exception of ‘Ain’t That Good Enough’ which we wrote with Joshie Armstead a few years back.” And mention of Miss Armstead led us to talking about how exactly the partnership between the two had begun. “We both started in church: in fact, that’s where we met,” the twosome volunteered. “We worked together in choirs, doing gigs and so on but when things didn’t work out with that, we thought we might try our hand at writing songs together.”
It wasn’t that easy, of course! “We spent many a day trudging from office to office trying to get people interested in our songs'” recalled Valerie. “In the early days we spent time with Scepter Records in New York.” “That’s right, we did several things with Maxine Brown and with Chuck Jackson, too,” Nick remembered. It was during this period (around 1965) that the team scored with one of their biggest-ever smashes, Ray Charles’ famous ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’. With a title like that, there had to be an interesting story in there somewhere!
“Well, we’d spent a whole day trying to get a song together and it had been totally frustrating – we just couldn’t seem to come up with the right thing. So I just turned to Valerie and said, ‘C’mon, let’s go for a whisky or something – nothing stronger! Anyway, we left the office singing the title and the following day, we took the song along to our publishers, Next thing we knew, Ray Charles had cut it and had a big hit!” Nick told me.
Around 1966, Holland-Dozier Holland were out scouting for fresh writing talent for Motown and the work of Nick and Val came to their attention. “They dug the demo records we’d made, “Valerie said, “and when they brought us out to Detroit, we were really knocked out”. Thus began a long and successful term with Motown.
“And you Know, Diana (Ross) was always asking Valerie why she didn’t record herself.” Nick recalled. With so many hits under their belt, it would have seemed a good idea to record an album of them: “Well, Motown have an album of just that in the can! We did the sessions – we’ve done the material in a different way – but they just never put it out. In fact, there’s quite a lot of material on us still at Motown – both me solo and with Nick,” Valerie said.
The team say that their parting with Motown was amicable and that, in fact, they are still committed to a certain amount of production work for the company. “Our relationship with the company is still warm and we’ll definitely be doing some more things with them in the future – possibly with Diana, who knows?” Nick stated.
Right now, the future looks decidedly bright for the pair. Their plans are certainly wide-ranging: “We probably will do solo albums in the future, but right now we’re concentrating on working together. We’re also into production on other artists, of course”. Nick explained. “We’ve already cut some things on a few acts at Warners, including Dionne Warwicke.”
Valerie commented that working with Dionne was really great: “She’s so fast – she catches on so quickly to musical ideas. In was the first time we’d worked directly with Dionne and we cut two sides together.” As to whether Nick and Val might replace Bacharach & David for Miss Warwicke, the duo could only comment that if the musical marriage was a success, they’d certainly love to work with the lady again. Meanwhile, the couple are busy working on their first engagements as live performers.
Their datesheets has included the Troubadour night spot in Los Angeles and a recent highly successful concert at New York’s Town Hall. “The reaction’s been good. It’s all so new for us – so we’re still learning. But so far, it’s been fine.” Nick revealed that they’ll be working on a new album at the end of January and then came the best news of all: “Yes, we’ve been told that when the album is released in Europe, we’ll be coming over there. And we can’t wait!”
Well, I got news for them: neither can I! Meanwhile, I’ll have to be content with playing Gimme Something Real till I wear it out and it looks like I’ll be needing a new copy really soon, too! With each successive hearing, the album gives a further insight into the incredible creativity of Nicolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and it there is any justice, 1974 will bring them the total public recognition and acceptance that they deserve. Believe me, it couldn’t happen to two nicer people!
© David Nathan, Blues & Soul, December 1973