shford & Simpson was more than "Solid As A Rock." Their work pre-Motown and outside the Motown stable - along with the countless Motown hits - expresses those sentiments. In memory of Nick Ashford, we pull out the duo's finer moments in word and song.
|LOVE WILL FIX IT: "From day one, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson had the real thing. No matter the era or style of music, the compositions of Ashford and Simpson were porous with emotional acuity."
Christian John Wikane, PopMatters; 2011
Not trying to overlook the successes of their 1984 pop hit "Solid," Ashford & Simpson was much more than that. For those curious minds eager to travel past '84, they will certainly find a wealth of hits from the successful songwriting pair. Certainly up there with Lennon & McCartney, Hall & Oates, Gamble & Huff and Leiber & Stoller should be Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the renowned forces behind Motown hits like "You're All I Need To Get By," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Your Precious Love." Ashford & Simpson were more than just songwriters. They were exceptional performers, especially together. When they were afforded that opportunity to join forces with Warner Bros. in 1974, they proved just that.
Way before Mr. Gordy put the writing duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson on their weekly payroll, the two had already cut their teeth on hits for Ray Charles.
"I Don't Need No Doctor" is an upbeat rock 'n roll jam featuring all the mechanics of a Ray Charles song. With the broken heart of a veteran blues singer, he sings 'I don't need no doctor/'Cause I know what's ailing me.' The song was the first hit Charles had scored with Ashford & Simpson, along with early co-writing partner Josie "Jo" Armstead. The Ray Charles Orchestra and his sultry background combo known as the Ralettes handle this song with care as Charles spill out his sorrow.
"Let's Go Get Stoned" floats like a Sunday morning ballad, but its apparent that Ray Charles is still hung up on a Saturday nights' hangover. He had no shame as he lamented over his need to get wasted. Sadly, "getting stoned" also meant something else during the rise of the Hippie revolution. it would be one thing the R&B pioneer would struggle with throughout most of the Sixties.
The songwriting speciality Ashford & Simpson had on Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell ushered in another kind of gold rush to Motown. Things started in 1967 with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (#19 pop, #3 r&b) and exploded even louder with "Your Precious Love." With some gorgeous help from the Funk Brothers, "Your Precious Love" transforms into a dreamy ballad for the senior prom. Gaye and Terrell take turns on their respectable verses and join in with Ashford & Simpson's classic chorus. The opening guitar lines provided by Joe Messina are so inescapable from the memories of Motown music lovers that it matches the popularity of James Jamerson's bass lines found on "My Girl."
And the hits kept coming from A&S. "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," "You're All I Need To Get By" (later covered by Aretha Franklin and Common & Mary J. Blige on a more urban contemporary update), "Keep On Lovin' Me Honey" and "Good Lovin' Ain't Easy To Come By" were all tossed at Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell and the musical lovebirds turned each song into 14-karat gold records. But the songwriting pair would run across a major stumbling block when Tammi Terrell's illness surrounding a brain tumor during the sessions of Easy started to seriously affect her studio concentration. Terrell passed away in March 1970, stalling their work relationship with one of R&B's greatest singing duos.
The two achieved moderate success writing for the other Motown acts but one of their major highlights included a remake of a Dee Dee Warwick tune, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." The song, penned by Philly soul legend Kenny Gamble, Jerry Ross and Jerry Williams, was used to promote the pairing of two of Motown's biggest acts - The Temptations and The Supremes - for their highly-televised TCB special. Produced by Frank Wilson and Nick Ashford,"I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" cracked the Hot 100, climbing all the way to number two.
After leaving Motown to find success on their own, they group scored a satisfying contract with Warner Bros. in 1974. A dry spell fell on the duo on their first four albums, occasionally cracking R&B's Top 40. But 1978's Send It changed everything.
One of Ashford & Simpson's disco-fied singles, "Don't Cost You Nothing" from Send It stands out as one of the era's best. The funk exuding from the band, containing Ray Chew, Ralph McDonald and renowned Motown string arranger Paul Riser , matches some of the gritty soulful workouts of Earth, Wind & Fire. The song soared to No. 10 R&B and No. 23 with the extra help of its riveting seven-minute 12" inch version designed especially for the discos.
"It Seems To Hang On" is another glorious caption in the A&S hall of fame. The five-minute album version and the shorter radio edit only gave a quick glimpse to the wonders of the gem, but the 12" inch disco version culled out a portal of Quiet Storm ecstasy for the dance floor. Philly-styled string arrangements, a series of amped-up sexual chants ("Loose me," "I can't shake it")and warm build-ups provided the framework while Nick Ashford's orgasmic Prince-meets-Sylvester vocals alongside Valerie Simpson's seductive phrasing created the mood of romance in the midst of the song's disco sensibility.
"Over and Over" was originally an Ashford & Simpson Top 40 R&B tune recorded in 1977. In the hands of West Coast emerging disco king Sylvester, the song became a raging disco inferno. It failed to chart when released that same year, but the song's legend blossomed, measuring well against Sylvester's big disco hits due to its Two Tons O' Fun harmonies and the infectious party ad-libbed chatter.
1979's "Found A Cure" is A&S's most pivotal contribution to disco. The song swells with a Donna Summer-styled build-up and works its way into an individual solos and working into their magical gospel chorus. Instrumental breaks wrapped into their infectious "love will fix it" tags headline the song's closing minutes, creating all the perfect ingredients for Studio 54 madness. Speaking of 54, the song was used in the 54 motion picture (starring Ryan Phillippe and Mike Myers).
A&S delivered their sweet recipe of classic R&B and sweeping disco arrangements on the seven-track Stay Free LP. Although much of the attention was centered around the album opener "Found A Cure," songs like the gospel-spiced "Finally Got To Me" and the glorious title cut carried the remainder of the album with lasting results.
Motown knew they lost a good thing when Ashford & Simpson was riding high on the R&B charts with their fiery uptempos like "It Seems To Hang On" and romantic ballads like "Is It Still Good To Ya." That didn't mean the legendary R&B label was off-limits to working with the pair on future projects for their big acts. In 1971, Diana Ross experienced success with an ambitious remake of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough;" signaling her open door to a glowing career as a solo artist. With disco in motion, Motown teamed her up with Ashford & Simpson on her disco retread on The Boss. The 1979 album was entirely produced by Ashford & Simpson and featured the infectious upbeat title cut. Now struggling to bounce back into the Top 40, "The Boss" instantly put Ms. Ross back into the league of reigning disco divas and prepared her for what was to come: the 1980 Chic-produced Diana album. The song shot to number 19 pop and number 12 R&B. The Boss LP also sold very well, going platinum and selling 1.2 million copies.
Gladys Knight & the Pips also got the A&S treatment when they worked on their Touch album. Like Ashford & Simpson, Knight and her singing cousins were also Motown tenants. With very little support and with a growing dismay over the label's abandonment from their careers, Knight & the Pips left for Buddah and their careers blossomed with hits like "I've Got To Use My Imagination," On and On" and the Grammy-award winning "Midnight Train To Georgia." By 1980, Columbia Records attracted the group to their CBS slate. On their Columbia debut, Ashford & Simpson was enlisted as the principal producers. By this time, disco was growing cold on the ears of pop radio and A&S couldn't reduplicate exactly the same songwriting formulas as "Found A Cure." On their CBS debut 'Bout Love , the R&B midtempo gem "Landlord" was born. It gave Gladys & the Pips' yet another R&B hit (#3 R&B, #46 pop). Immediately following All About Love , the group teamed up with Ashford & Simpson again on Touch . The album contained satisfying R&B gems like "If That'll Make You Happy," the spirited upbeat "I Will Fight" and a live cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."
At their creative peak, Ashford & Simpson was being sought out by some of the biggest labels and artists. Quincy Jones - known for picking up talented acts during his career stint at A&M and using them on his own commercial records - brought Ashford & Simpson on board to co-write "Stuff Like That" on his Sounds...And Stuff Like That! 1978 disc. The song united Ashford & Simpson with Chaka Khan, who had just scored a No. 1 R&B hit with the songwriting duo on "I'm Every Woman." Their association with Khan continued forward on her 1980 solo follow-up Naughty, which resulted in a Top Ten R&B hit with the A&S-penned "Clouds." The song was also a crowed favorite at Paradise Garage, the iconic NYC disco that many times outrivaled Studio 54 in popularity. Legendary resident DJ Larry Levan played the track fervently at the club, as documented on the Warner Bros.-licensed double-disc album Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story.
A move from Warner Bros. to Capitol gave them the hit of a lifetime: 1984's Top Twenty pop hit "Solid." 1989's "Cookies and Cake" definitely had promise. Dance mixes from dance-pop duo Clivilles + Cole (best known as C+C Music Factory) were constructed, hoping to push the songwriting pair back on the dance floor, but the song failed to catch on due to a definite lack of label promotion.
And so the hits finally dried up. Those who recall the repertoire of Ashford & Simpson are quick to rewind the clock back to "Solid." It was the comeback that many of their constituents failed to expect, but their work always proved to be much more than that. Add up the hits they wrote for Motown's caviar along with their reign on disco in the Seventies alongside their exceptional production - and you're inches away from knowing the real thing.
J MATTHEW COBB