As Dr. Ron Sadoff, director of the university’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions and its Songwriting Program noted, the likes of Bette Davis and Paul Robeson had graced the small playhouse’s stage--also the point of origin of several Eugene O’Neill plays.
That Simpson and her late husband and songwriting/producing/performing partner Nick Ashford belonged in that pantheon was established both by Dr. Sadoff, who noted that previous Master Sessions participants had included the late Hal David and Jimmy Webb, and songwriter Phil Galdston, the NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Master Teacher in Songwriting, who hosted the session and began by relating an exercise he does with songwriters.
Galdston asks his students to close their eyes and imagine an important life event taking place 10-15 years in the future—and a song to go with it. Invariable two songs are mentioned: Lennon-McCartney’s “Yesterday” and Ashford-Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Hearing this, Simpson simply stated, “That’s cool,” then noted, after Galdston saluted her and her husband as “pioneers of musical multitasking,” that the “songwriting hat,” more than the headwear for producing and performing, was “the hat that we wore first”--and the one that she was proudest of.
“It’s just such a great experience to be out in the street and people tell you your song really changed somebody’s life,” she said.
Galdston, meanwhile, brought up several Ashford-Simpson songs that changed theirs, starting with their breakthrough hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” The 1966 Ray Charles hit, which they co-wrote with Jo Armstead, was written when they were staffers at New York’s fabled Scepter Records.
“It was a blessing to be at the right place at the right time,” said Simpson modestly, noting that legendary label artists including Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown recorded early Ashford-Simpson songs. Had they stayed at Scepter, their future classic compositions would likely have remained there as well—but Motown beckoned.
She first recounted how then homeless South Carolinian Ashford, who had come to New York via Michigan to be a dancer, had met her, a Bronx native, at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, where she played piano and sang.
“It was my last year of high school and I didn’t know anything about anything!” she said. “Writing a love song was foreign,” she added, “but God is love.”
Indeed, Ashford & Simpson began as gospel artists and also recorded briefly as Valerie & Nick. But Simpson recalled how the couple, who didn’t marry until 1974 (“He put me on an eight-year hold!” she said, applying appropriate songwriter lingo), were so scared that they “almost got booed off the Apollo [stage]” in an early attempt at live pop performance.
After “Let’s Go Get Stoned” scored, Motown’s great songwriting/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland) were in New York to scout talent.
“Timing is everything,” reiterated Simpson, who at the time also enjoyed a burgeoning career as a New York jingles singer. “They had got our names, and Nick went to meet them at the Hilton with some of our demos. But he waited a long time and almost left: Our big opportunity was just about to go down the elevator!”
But H-D-H liked Ashford and Simpson’s demo of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
“We did great demos!” Simpson acknowledged. So they were given tickets to Detroit.
“They wanted something for Marvin and Tammi [Gaye and Terrell, of course]. We’d just finished writing ‘Ain’t No Mountain,’ and we knew it was a hit: Dusty Springfield came to the house and listened to our material and she loved it and wanted it. But we told her, ‘We’re taking it to Detroit!’”
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was produced by Motown’s Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol and was an R&B/pop crossover hit for Gaye and Terrell in 1967.
“We went to Motown and were asked to write for this duet,” Simpson said, returning to the lucky timing. “It fell in our laps.”
But Galdston would have none of it.
“You and Nick were beyond that,” he said, meaning Motown. “You blended gospel, R&B and sophisticated pop [and] bridged the racial and cultural divide.”
Ever humble, Simpson said, “We were just writing songs. We didn’t think of [career] longevity. If we had known, we would have taken more time--and probably messed them up! It took maturity to realize this songwriting thing we did could earn a living. It didn’t dawn on us! We just hoped to get an advance—we were living for advances, and didn’t think of making a record.”
Motown, she said, was a “songwriters’ dream.” It also gave her and Ashford their first production credit in “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and per Galdston’s research, Simpson’s status as perhaps the first female producer—and definitely the first for Motown.
Galdston, who holds the rare distinction of collaborating on a song (“The Closest to Love”) with Ashford and Simpson, also singled out the singular structure of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” observing how it starts with the hook—which is the chorus. Simpson noted that Gaye couldn’t sing the melody in the key it was written, so he “sang around it” and “brought it down.”
But “you needed to see Marvin in the studio,” maintained Simpson, to see him contort himself to “get the sound out of his body.”
At this point in Gaye's career, she said, he was not a great stage performer, but “came alive in the studio.”
“You were just enthralled,” Simpson recalled. “He made everything sound good. He made [our songs] a thousand percent better.”
Diana Ross was also closely associated with Ashford and Simpson, both as suppliers of her solo hits and as producers of her 1970 self-titled solo album debut.
“At the time not a lot of artists got to produce a whole album [at Motown],” said Simpson, noting that the standard practice was for several producers to handle a song or two on an album. “So there was a lot of pressure on us.”
She and Ashford added to it by “reimagining” the Gaye-Terrell hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” specifically for Ross.
“Isaac Hayes was doing eight-minute songs, and we’d been coming out with two-, three-minute songs,” Simpson said. “We needed a long song. Diana had a great talking voice, and Nick came up with the speaking part that made ‘Mountain’ very dramatic.”
Ross’s version clocked in at six-minutes, 18-seconds, and was the second single from Diana Ross, following the three-minute ""Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand).” This put it up there with The Beatles’ seven-minute “Hey Jude,” Led Zeppelin’s eight-minute “Stairway to Heaven” and Jimmy Webb’s seven-and-a-half-minute MacArthur Park (which, noted Simpson, caused an admiring Ashford to pull off to the side of the road the first time he heard it).
“[Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.] listened to it and said, ‘Yeah, I see what you’re doing, but there’s too much waiting around in the front. You got to hit it right away!’” Simpson recalled. “It had a long slow buildup, which he said was well and good, but he couldn’t put it out unless we changed it. We said, ‘We can’t.’ [It was a case of] stick to your guns. Then the DJs picked it up on their own and he had to release it after ‘Reach Out and Touch.’”
“Sometimes if you know you’re right…,” Simpson trailed off, to great applause.
But on the other hand, they had no problem with the Gaye-Terrell classic “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Describing Motown’s nerve-wracking “Quality Control” meetings where Gordy and his executives critiqued song submissions, she said that Ashford brought the tune to this particular meeting while she stayed in New York, again doing jingles sessions.
Gordy had just turned down three songs when Ashford went to the piano.
"[Gordy] heard it and said, ‘I don’t’ think we’re gonna vote on this one. We’re just gonna send it out.’ Nick was the star of that meeting!”
But after some seven years at Motown—which included Simpson’s brief but stellar attempt at a solo recording career--Ashford and Simpson wanted a second try at being artists. Gordy, however, “saw us as a songwriting/production machine,” Simpson said, “so we had to start somewhere new.”
In 1973, then, they began their recording/performing career at Warner Bros. Records as Ashford & Simpson--Ashford having insisted on his name appearing first to make people think he did as much as his piano-playing partner. But being in such a partnership, said Simpson, really requires one “to be open to probably something greater and better--and not miss something magical.”
Ashford, she related, had said, “We were good friends before we fell in love and realized we needed each other.”
“Most of our songs were written simultaneously,” she informed. “We had to not be afraid to make a fool out of yourself—so you could get past yourself.”
Ashford was the lyricist, and Simpson always tried to inspire a lyric from him, she said.
“I’d play a phrase, and if something came to him, great, and if not, I’d change something.”
Sometimes Simpson would “force a melody” or otherwise try to “pull” her husband over to her with a piano part. On other songwriting sessions she’d let Ashford take the creative initiative.
"Our most successful [collaborations], we were stacked right on top of each other,” she said. But she jokingly cautioned listeners to “never argue with a lyricist,” as they are capable of coming up with unassailable lines.
As for performing, she noted that duet singing “is no easy matter,” and “takes some doing” in its requisite “give and take” and “leaving room for the other person to shine.”
Being a piano player, Simpson noted her own major influences in fellow pianists/vocalists Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. Asked about the Lennon-McCartney team, she said she was “absolutely” an admirer.
“I didn’t get ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’” she said, “but with ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ it became clear.”
She then performed a bit of “We Can Work it Out” on the piano that was on stage—The Beatles hit with which she closes Thursday night’s renowned open mic shows at her West Side restaurant/club The Sugar Bar.
“Certain songs you keep in your life,” she said. “They change you the instant you hear them.”
Concluding an evening full of songs that have remained in the lives of more than one generation since Ashford and Simpson wrote them, she was joined by her band’s saxophonist Todd Schefflin in performing “Trying to Be Perfect” from her current album Dinosaurs are Coming Back Again.
Simpson will perform with Schefflin and the rest of her band Friday night in New York at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill.
[The Examiner wrote liner notes on several Ashford & Simpson CD and DVD releases.]
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