Valerie Simpson-songwriter-producer-singer-musician-performer. And, with her husband, lifetime partner, and soulmate—the late Nickolas Ashford–she is also one half of the dynamic duo known as Ashford & Simpson—perhaps the music world’s most applauded husband-and-wife team ever. With an unrivaled track record, this iconic couple has earned the respect of their peers in the music industry, as well as immeasurable adoration from generation after generation of loyal fans. And rightfully so.
The names Ashford and Simpson are synonymous with those catchy melodic and rhythmic hooks that are forever etched into a long and impressive list of hit songs that helped to define the sound and soul of Motown. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; “Your Precious Love”; “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”; “You’re All I Need To Get By”; “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”; “Remember Me”; “Send It”; “It Seems To Hang On”; “I’m Every Woman”; “The Boss”; “Is It Still Good To Ya”; and “Solid”, among others—unforgettable, timeless, and embraceable songs that span over half a century, yet still sound and feel as good today, as they did more than 50 years ago!
When Ronn Bunn, the publisher of Routes Magazine presented the idea of interviewing Valerie Simpson as part of the magazine’s 40th anniversary celebration, I jumped at the opportunity for several reasons. Firstly, I am a life-long fan and admirer of Ashford & Simpson. After all, I grew up listening to, loving, and dancing to their wonderful music. And later on, as a professional entertainer myself, I sang many of their songs. Secondly, I am also a fan of Routes Magazine and its visionary founder, Ronn Bunn. Now, for the sake of transparency, l must say that I am extremely proud to be a feature writer for such an eloquent publication—one that has, for 40 years, inspired, connected, and nourished the hearts, minds, and souls of a vast cultural diaspora. And thirdly, it was Ashford & Simpson, in a photograph taken by the late Don Lynn, who, graced the cover of Routes Magazine, November 1978, “Ashford & Simpson: They Always Could”, written by Chris Albertson—40 years ago. Ashford & Simpson and Routes Magazine are veritable and priceless institutions. Both I greatly admire.
So, with initial contact having been made by Bunn with the pleasant and very businesslike Miss Tee, and after I had made a series of polite, but persistent phone calls to her, this coveted interview was granted. I met with Valerie Simpson in her lovely Eastside Manhattan home. She was warm and hospitable, with a wonderful sense of humor. And the lady is still strikingly beautiful.
Q: You’ve had unparalleled success in the music industry for over 50 years, and yet, you’re still captivating audiences of all ages and backgrounds. What drives Valerie Simpson?
A: I don’t even feel driven. Music has always been my love, and I’ve never done anything else. I happen to be lucky enough to be doing what I was put here to do. The phone still rings, and people still want me to do things, so I’m very fortunate. And I still get goosebumps when I think of how something can continue to be new and exciting to me, even after a long time.
Q: Your music covers all genres—gospel, pop, soul, R&B, funk, disco, and some of the most beautiful duets ever. Does it always begin with you sitting at the piano?
A: No. My inspiration comes many different ways. Somebody might say something, and a bell goes off in my mind. And I can feel that it’s a good line, a great catch. Sometimes it’s something I’ve seen on TV. And many times, I do sit down at the piano and inspiration comes to me. I never know when or where that next new idea will come from. So I stay alert at all times, because when the idea hits, I want it to come to me, and I want to be ready for it.
Q: Unfortunately, on August 22, 2011, at the age of 70, your husband and lifelong partner Nick Ashford transitioned. “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again”, which featured Roberta Flack and the late Nina Simone, along with a pretty instrumental version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, was your first recording project after his passing. Was this a tribute to Nick?
A: Well, Nick had actually started working on the project, but we put the project aside. And then he transitioned. So, at that point, I was being asked to do some dates that we had obligated ourselves to, and I didn’t want to just do the Ashford and Simpson that everyone knew about. I wanted to have a few new things. You know, my mother had a saying: “When you need it, it will be at hand”. So I pulled that same project out that Nick and I had started but didn’t finish, dusted it off, and fixed it up a little bit. It was right there. All I had to do was fluff it up a bit.
Q: Take us back to the very beginning, when a 17-year-old Valerie Simpson from the Bronx, NY, first met 21-year-old Nickolas Ashford from South Carolina. Was there immediate chemistry between you?
A: Well, I didn’t know his whole backstory about being homeless and all that. He was just this stranger in the church. I thought he was very good-looking and a little mysterious. So, in that sense, there was some kind of chemistry. He had other things going on, but we hit it off because I played the piano and he wrote gospel songs. So, there was a natural connection. But I think Nick thought I was just a little too young for him because I was still in high school. But what was great was that, for those first 8 or 9 years, when we were friends, we really got to know each other and to see the real thing. I really think this laid a strong foundation for us later on with our romantic relationship and then our marriage.
Q: As a singing duo, Ashford and Simpson introduced the concept of singing gospel music in nightclubs and bars. Did you realize then that you were setting a new trend?
A: We had no idea back then that we were being trendsetters. Someone asked us to perform on a legitimate stage and we were going to get paid. That was really the important thing. And at that point, we were only singing gospel music. We weren’t singing rock and roll songs. So what we were being asked to do was a novel idea. And it caught on for awhile. But then the churches put their foot down and petitioned us to stop singing gospel songs in nightclubs. Then the churches promised that they would create concerts and an environment where we could sing gospel music. Of course, they didn’t do what they promised. I believe they gave us one concert, and that was the end of that.
Q: “I’ll Find You”, released on Roulette Records, under the Glover Label, was your first recording. You’ve said that that experience almost discouraged you from the music business. How so?
A: Yes, it almost discouraged both of us, because we realized then how hard the music business was. We played the Apollo, The Royal Theatre, somewhere in Washington, DC, and somewhere else. I don’t remember where. But it was just a junket of places. It was very hard work and very difficult. You see, those were the days when you did 3 shows a day. You worked hard and didn’t make much money. That showed us that we liked the writing better. So, at that point, we were happy to hang up our costumes and get back to writing.
Q: In 1966, you, Nick, and Jo Armstead co-wrote “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. Ray Charles recorded it, and it soared on the charts. Did you realize at that point that your future was being established?
A: I guess so. You know, it was a little bit of success for us, and I guess, in a way, it affirmed what we were doing. But we were so having fun, because we loved what we were doing! No one in my family was in music. And no one in Nick’s family was in music. I mean, Nick came to New York trying to be a dancer. So, it was a little confusing. At first we weren’t even concerned about making hits. We just wanted to get enough of an advance to pay our rent. But then we realized that you could actually make money at it, and that’s when we really got serious about writing.
Q: Ashford and Simpson were major songwriters at Motown from 1967 to 1973. What were those years like?
A: Well, at that time, Motown was the dream for every songwriter. It was the place to be, because they had such a great formula. You know, at Motown, you weren’t boxed into just R&B, wherein your music only played on R&B radio stations. Their formula appealed to young America—the Black world, the white world, and to everyone. Berry [Gordy] was very wise. He knew what to do and how to get things done. Berry was trying to launch Tammi Terrell’s career, and he felt that if she sang the right songs with Marvin, that would launch her. So we were thrilled to have our songs sung by performers like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. It was like a dream come true. And I’ve always thought that Tammi was Marvin’s greatest partner.
Q: You wrote a lot of hit songs for a lot of recording artists, including Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Maxine Brown, Chaka Khan, The Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Ben E. King, among others. Who were your favorites?
A: Marvin was probably my favorite person to work with. He was always an extremely gracious man, and an extraordinary singer. In those early years, he wasn’t as well-known an entertainer yet. People thought he was cool and too laid back. But in the studio, he always gave it his all. You know, he’d hug the microphone, in just the right way, to get that perfect oooh sound we wanted. And we’d all just sit back, watching and enjoying him, because he knew exactly what to do with our lyrics. He knew how to enhance the songs…how to make them bigger and better. Marvin knew how to put the icing on the cake.
Q: When Motown released your debut album “Exposed” on its Tamla Label, the creative duo of Ashford and Simpson went from songwriters to performing artists. Did this launch your performing career?
A: No, not at all. What happened was, we had a lot of material that no one was doing anything with. Just a bunch of songs lying around. So I became the vessel that these songs came through.
Q: You wrote hit songs for others, and then created more magic when you wrote hit songs for yourselves including “Solid”, “It Seems To Hang On”, “Is It Still Good To Ya”, “Don’t Cost You Nothin’”, “Everybody’s Got To Give It Up”, “Gimme Something Real”, and “Send It”, among others. How was it different writing for yourselves?
A: We were at a point in our lives and career where we knew we wanted to be performing artists. But the record company only saw us as songwriters and producers. I think Berry was willing. But we knew that his heart wasn’t there for us. After we did a soul show, people were urging us to perform, and we knew it was time for a change.
Q: In 1973, you left Motown and went to Warner Brothers Records. Was that a good move?
A: It was time to move on. We’d fulfilled our contract with Motown. We signed for 7 years and it was time for a change. A lot of people were afraid to leave Motown because they were made to believe that if you left Motown, you were finished. But Motown hadn’t done much with my 2 albums they’d released. So we thought it might be better to go somewhere where we’d be the new kids.
Q:You and Nick were married for 36 years. How did you manage to keep your marriage and professional relationship on such solid grounds?
A: I think a lot had to do with the fact that we were well-suited for each other. And of course, the music thing. But much of it had to do with those first 8 to 9 years when we were friends and just worked together. We both got to see each other as we truly were, without the pretenses. So when we did take that step, it was too late to turn into something else. Nick said he never felt married. Which I found interesting. But I trusted him with my fingers crossed behind my back. I always took him by his word, and he never let me down. We liked and loved each other. And that’s important.
Q: Did you both enjoy parenthood?
A: Definitely! Now that was the one thing we argued about the most—how to raise our children. I guess we were brought up with different values. Nick grew up with a strict father and came from a family of boys. And we had girls! You can’t treat girls like boys.
But like everything else, we came through that also.
Q: You’ve earned 22 gold and platinum records; a Recipient of the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation; inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; and a Recipient of the Founders’ Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Your name is on a street sign in the Bronx Walk of Fame; and you gifted Bryant Park a park bench inscribed with: “Nick Ashford slept here.” With all of your accomplishments, what is life like now for you flying solo, and what’s next?
A: I’m embracing new things: [Valerie Simpson sings “Gonna Take More Time”) and Valerie Simpson’s sympathetic and insightful interview Creative Conversations: Valerie Simpson, conducted by Tracie Morris at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.] I played the Hollywood Bowl for the first time, twice in one month, this past June and July. I went back with Quincy Jones and did some of the earlier songs I’d done solo work on. You know Quincy was actually the first person to use me as a soloist on his records—“Walking In Space”, and “Gula Matari”. That was fun, revisiting how I’d first begun. I also went on the road with Dave Koz and Paul Shaffer and did actual bus tours. It was fun being the only girl on tour with Dave Koz. And later this month, in November, I will be doing a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th Birthday, singing 4 of her songs with original arrangements at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (PAC). And I’m writing lyrics now, which is something I didn’t have to do when Nick was here. I’m shocked that I can actually write lyrics, and enjoy doing it. I’ve been in this business forever, and something new and different always makes me nervous. That’s a good thing.
The incomparable and ageless Miss Valerie Simpson agreed to end this interview by sharing a few words of wisdom.