“We just heard some bad news,” said Nick Ashford as he seated himself at a long Spanish dinner table, taking a break during a five-hour photo session at Don Lynn’s studio on West 31st Street, “they cut one of our songs out of The Wiz. He pouted, half seriously, and noted that it could have been worse, at least both songs had been included in the newly released soundtrack album, “Well, there goes that Oscar,” he joked, “but I have some good news, too, our new album has just turned gold.’’ Nick was genuinely excited about that, because the album, Is it Still Good To Ya, had been out less than two months, and it had taken much longer for their previous release, Send It, to reach a million dollars in sales. When I remarked that I considered their new album to be the best since Gimme Something Real — their 1973 debut on Warner Brothers — Nick smiled and nodded in agreement, “They seem to go for it.”
Actually, Ashford and Simpson have been reaching people with their music since the mid-Sixties, and if their names aren’t exactly household words, it’s not for lack of artistic accomplishments; their relative anonymity has a lot to do with their having spent all but the last five years of their 13-year career behind the scenes as songwriters and producers, but it is also a result of their desire to maintain a low profile. When they are not touring, Nick and Valerie occasionally pop up at the concert of a colleague, or a party at Studio 54, but much of their time is spent in private at their house in Connecticut or in the comfortable surroundings of their Upper West Side brownstone. This past summer, the couple visited Europe for the first time: We only went to Paris, said Valerie, as she joined us at the table, “and the hotel was so comfortable we almost didn’t want to go out.” Were they recognized in the French capital? ‘‘Only by a few American tourists,’’ she says, obviously not the least bit perturbed by that fact. Valerie’s break is brief, Don Lynn summons them back for further poses before his camera; the pictures are to be used for the cover of ROUTES and to advertise their series of concerts at the Belasco Theatre this month.
Nick remembers Don Lynn from leaner days at the University of Michigan: He was a student and I was a bus boy in the cafeteria, but I didn’t really like him then, so I used to sweep the crumbs off the table into his lap.
It was when Nick Ashford met Valerie Simpson that his fortune began to change. The Beatles had ignited the rock explosion and Motown — then a budding Detroit label — was carving its own indelible mark on the pop arm of the music business; after a period of pseudo-folk music and simplistic rock ‘n’ roll, new exciting sounds were emerging, and though the wellsprings were scattered, it somehow all seemed to be coming together in New York City. Nick, like so many other young people, felt the lure of the Big Apple and made his way here with the intent of becoming a dancer. That wasn’t his right calling, and as he realized that, both his hopes and money dwindled — Nick joined the ranks of New York’s nomads and became a homeless occupant of Bryant Park, that small patch of benches and trees behind the Fifth Avenue Public Library. “I actually used to sleep there,” he recalls, “but I wasn’t totally discouraged, I just knew I had to get myself together and find a new direction.”
Because they offered good food and soulful music, Nick started dropping into Harlem churches on Sundays, and it was on one such occasion that he met Valerie at the White Rock Baptist Church on 127th Street. “She was just standing there, looking beautiful,” he recalls. “I knew I had to get to know her, and there was definitely a romantic interest on my part, but when I got to know her I realized that she was kind of young in her head, so it just developed into a friendship at that time. I mean she sure was fine, but only 17, and that was too young for me — at 21, I matured and so I thought I’d better leave her alone.”
Valerie was singing with a gospel group called The Followers, and they began their professional collaboration when Nick joined that group and they were booked into Sweet Chariot, a nightclub on West 46th Street. The experiment of mixing church music with cocktails looked like a trend, but the combination failed to catch on, so the new team of Ashford and Simpson sought other outlets for their creativity. They began writing songs, five of which brought them a $75 advance, “Peanuts,” as Valerie puts it, “but it was exciting and at least it gave us the inspiration to go on.” When their rounds brought them to Glover Records (a subsidiary of Roulette), they recorded one of their own songs, I’ll Find You, but the response to its release gave them little encouragement. That was the first pop song we ever tried to write, Valerie says, and that one record kind of turned us off. We were not that interested in being performers then, because we had really gotten into writing — the record told us that we were on the wrong track.” Back on the song-writing track, Nick and Valerie ran into Joshie Armstead, who was to take an active part in the creation of their first bona-fide hit. Valerie recalls how it came about “It was one of those nights when the three of us got together to see if we could get a new song going. Well, nothing happened, so Nick said, ‘Let’s go get stoned,’ and we all walked out into the street, fooling around and singing ‘let’s go get stoned.’ The next day we sang it for a publisher — as a joke, really — and he got interested. ‘That’s a song for Ray Charles,’ he said, just like that, and before we knew it, the record was out. Ray Charles’ recording of Let’s Go Get Stoned hit the charts in the spring of 1966, and suddenly two careers were in orbit — things can happen fast in the music business. Next thing we knew,” continues Valerie, “this scout came from Motown, looking for writers. Someone had mentioned us to them so they set up an interview with Nick. He went, but we didn’t really believe that this was going to turn into anything.”
“That’s right,” injects Nick. “You get so much of yeah, we’re really gonna do this in this business, and most of the time nothing really happens — you make big plans and nobody knows what happens to them.” This time something did happen, Nick and Valerie were transported to Detroit. “It was really heavy,” she recalls, “for a song-writer to be called to Motown was, at that time, the equivalent of an actor getting an invitation from Hollywood — we went without any hesitation.”
At Motown, Nick and Valerie met with success the first time around, when Marvin Gaye and the late Tammi Terrell recorded Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, a song that resurfaced three years later — in 1970 — to become a Diana Ross hit. By 1970, Ashford and Simpson had also become a production team at Motown. “We were basically staff writers,’’ Nick explains, ‘‘which meant that we had to fight for a producer’s contract — we felt we were ready for that. It was exciting when he [presumably Berry Gordy] finally said we could do it, because all the other producers at Motown came down to watch,”
“Oh yes,” reminisces Valerie, “they were all there, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, everybody — just standing around, watching to see what we were going to do.” They became almost misty-eyed, “That was really something, I was just a wreck,” says Nick.
One of their first sessions with Diana Ross yielded Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand, which may be the most enduring of all Ashford and Simpson songs to date. “It kinda pops up at a lot of different things, especially at black functions and in churches,’’ says Valerie, explaining the song’s longevity, “It’s almost as if you didn’t write the song,” adds Nick. “After you hear a song that people take as broadly as they do Reach Out and Touch, you begin to wonder if you really wrote it — you don’t feel like the writer, because it belongs to the people, you know?” While the prolific writing team turned out such memorable songs as Dark Side of the World, Precious Love, Surrender, and Remember Me, Valerie lent her voice to commercials [hers was the singing voice of the white Doublement twins]! And two recordings by various other artists on other labels, from Quincy Jones and Blood, Sweat & Tears to Al Kooper and Paul Simon. Motown finally put her on its own Tamla label, probably at the suggestion of Ashford and Simpson themselves. “That was kind of fun,’’ she says. “We decided that we’d use me as another vehicle for the material, because we had lots of songs that nobody there could handle — or didn’t really work so well with— so we used that material on me.”
Valerie did two Tamla albums in all, the first one was called Exposed, but neither of them were. “It was underground, cult — very much underground,” she says, hinting at the fact that Motown’s powerful promotion machine didn’t exactly go into gear for her albums. I asked why they quit Motown in 1973, and got a response that — although somewhat vague — is remarkably candid as Motown answers go. ‘‘Well, we didn’t exactly quit in the sense that most people quit.” said Valerie, “Because we still had a working relationship, which was rare with them. I mean, we still produced other acts, we were still friends. It was just that, after seven years, it was time. Contracts were up and they had an idea of us as writers and producers — we kind of thought they wouldn’t really see us as performers, the performers that we wanted to become. They were satisfied with what we were doing, and we wanted someone who would kind of take a fresh interest in us.”
“You know,” adds Nick, “we were writing for Motown for about six or seven years and after a while you feel that, well, maybe you paid your dues. We had an idea of starting our own publishing company, but Motown had its own, Jobete, and all the songs went into that.” Valerie nods her head in agreement, “It would have been hard to really establish the independence we were ready for, at least at that time,” she says. “Now, of course, they have loosened up, and many of their big writers are independent.”
Press people have always found it difficult to interview Motown artists. It is as if they had been programmed to answer only the most perfunctory questions, and to do so in kind, but Nick and Valerie are obviously two free spirits who — despite some hesitancy to discuss their Motown experience in detail— never really fell into the company mold. In the final analysis, joining Motown in 1967 was probably as smart a move as was their decision to leave in 1973, a decision that brought them to Warner Brothers Records — this time as songwriters and performers. “Warner Brothers was really interested in us as artists,” says Valerie. “We wanted to expand, to make what we had more total — we always had an idea that one day we would.”
“Do it,” exclaims Nick, “really do it!”
And “do it” they did. If Ashford and Simpsons first Warner Brothers album, Gimme Something Real, didn’t make some people at Motown uncomfortable, it should have; with arrangements by Paul Riser —who had worked with Nick and Valerie at Motown — and with such strong material as the title song, Bend Me, and Time, it was an auspicious debut. There were those who felt, with some justification, that Nick was not a strong enough singer for Valerie, [an argument since weakened] but no one could deny that they worked together like hand in glove. “You know, it’s strange about Gimme Something Real,” says Nick, “when we went into the studio to record it we only had the chords. We said, “When we get there, we’ll see how we feel,” so we had blocked out the music, but nothing else was planned. I think that’s what made it really special to us as well as a lot of people.”
“Yeah,” injects Valerie, “the talking, it was very personal.”
“I didn’t know what she was going to say,” Nick continues, “and it was so nice because it was totally spontaneous — it felt good.”
Their second album for Warner Brothers, I Wanna Be Selfish, was a disappointment, and Nick and Valerie are the first to admit that with that release they did not give us something real. Nick agrees, “We rushed it out and, inspirationally, it was not as rewarding to us. We put less time into it. Sometimes you owe a company an album and you have to get into the studio real quick to fulfill your obligation. I think we did I Wanna Be Selfish more that way than trying to get out a good product. I suggested that it might be better not to do an album at all rather than to do it haphazardly.” “Yes, we found that out,” Valerie replied, that’s why we kind of disappeared.
The disappearance Valerie referred to was, more accurately, a retreat, and it was only partly brought on by the failure of the second album. Actually, Valerie became pregnant with Nick’s child; they had made no firm decision to get married, but, as Valerie put it to me at the time, their relationship was “no longer platonic. When did the change in their relationship occur? “It’s hard to say exactly at which point down the road it happened,” says Valerie, but we have such a foundation, you know — I’ve watched him do so many things when we were just friends, and he’s seen me through all kinds of escapades. I don’t know if we even then knew, I really don’t, but I guess this is how it was to be, and the foundation’s just great, because I respected him as a person and as a man.
“It isn’t like we can play games with each other,” adds Nick.
“No, no,” says Valerie, smiling, “I know all the tricks.”
“Yes,” he says, giving her a gentle hug, “we have managed to eliminate a lot of things people may go through trying to get to know each other — it really has to be like the song, I have to give her something real, because she’ll know if I don’t.”
They toured during the early months of Valerie’s pregnancy, then retired to their house in Connecticut “To just be,” as Nick puts it, “you know, be married.” In February 1975, a baby girl arrived — they named her Nichole. “The baby was something new for both of us,” Nick explains, “I mean we suddenly had the experience of not just dealing with ourselves, of being responsible for another human being — that’s really serious thinking, you know. So we stopped working for about a year, but we continued writing, and that started to come out different. I guess our spirits were different, because we were just naturally closer— a child will bring you closer together. We had always felt very close, but a whole new spiritual thing began to develop, and our relationship just seemed to take on a new dimension, a dimension that began reflecting on our music — our intensified closeness started to come out in the work we were doing at the house, our music became very sensitive.
“When we were in the country, we got into this thing about people freeing up, really letting loose and being themselves. There’s a song on the third album Come As You Are called “Tell It All”, which expresses how we feel about setting ourselves free, because we are only dealing with a fragment of ourselves when we hide all these things inside, and Valerie and I were trying to get into being total.” Whether it’s parenthood, the tranquility of the country, a bit of both, or just plain maturity, something is obviously working in Ashford and Simpson’s favor. The response to their sixth album, Is It Still Good To Ya, proves that it obviously is, and if the muse stays with them, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson may yet become household names. As it is, the cult following they have developed over the past few years can no longer be called that — Ashford and Simpson have “finally arrived,” as the saying goes, and they are beginning to sense that themselves. How does it feel after more than a decade of quiet success? “Great,” says Nick, “I think I feel caught up for the first time.”
November is a busy month for the unassuming team. The success of the new album is already making demands on their time, the opening of The Wiz will undoubtedly add to that, and their five-day concert series at the Belasco Theatre (November 15th through 19th) is bound to add fuel to their fire. In the fairly near future, look for Ashford and Simpson’s seventh album, a two-record live set; in the more distant future, look for Nichole Ashford — at three she already knows the difference between a dead mike and a live one, by 1980 she’ll probably be doing backup vocals.