geo faison tad schnugg & valerie simpson

Choreographer George Faison, Tad Schnugg, executive director, Faison Firehouse Theater, and singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson

*The music world is still reeling from the loss of the inimitable Nick Ashford who succumbed to throat cancer at the untimely age of 70 in August 2011.  There have been many nationwide tributes to Ashford including one by The HistoryMakers, the Chicago-based research organization involved in documenting well-known and unsung African American historical figures.

An Evening With Simpson In Honor Of Nick Ashford featured an intimate conversation with Valerie Simpson, the other half of the iconic R&B duo — Ashford & Simpson — conducted by noted PBS-TV journalist Gwen Ifill, award-winning moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.

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“It was the first thing I did after Nick,” says Simpson.  “Everything makes you nervous at this point, but certain things make you comfortable, too.  I looked into the auditorium and recognized so many faces who knew me and loved me — friends from Chicago and people I’ve seen at the Sugar Bar.  And I looked out at my daughters, and it made it easier.  And Gwen was asking the right questions about our lives together, so I didn’t feel stiff.”

It was the same look she got from invitational only guests at a special screening of the taped show at the Sugar Bar on West 72nd Street where VIPs were treated to cocktails and noshed on popcorn as they watched the excellent taping on several screens at the popular Upper West Side bar owned by the phenomenal pair.

ray chew & raymond simpson

Musicians Ray Chew, musical director, American Idol, and Raymond Simpson, Valerie Simpson’s brother and lead singer, The Village People

An Evening With Simpson In Honor Of Nick Ashford covered the legendary couple’s exquisite love for each other from their initial meeting in Harlem at the White Rock Baptist Church to their unmatched success at Motown.  Ashford & Simpson brought us such classic songs as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “I’m Every Woman.”  As performers, their best-known duets are “Solid as a Rock” and “Found a Cure.”

An Evening with Valerie Simpson in Honor of Nick Ashford marked the first public interview by Simpson after the ill-timed death of Ashford and provided an up close look at the life and celebrated career of the husband and wife team.  Taped in 2011 in front of a live audience at Northwestern University Law School’s Thorne Auditorium in Chicago, Illinois, on Saturday, November 19, 2011, this cherished conversation was a tribute to the dynamic duo’s artistry, with performances by Patti Austin, Kindred The Family Soul, and Simpson herself!

An Evening with Valerie Simpson included an appearance by the couple’s longtime friend and choreographer, Tony Award-winning choreographer George Faison, who thanked Ashford for “the most precious gift we could ever have: an ever-enduring legacy.”

Faison served as co-producer along with The HistoryMakers’ founder and executive director, Julieanna Richardson, who pointed to Nick Ashford’s death as to the urgency of The HistoryMakers project.  “I regret that we did not get to hear Nick Ashford’s story from Nick Ashford,” said Richardson. “We have to record people’s stories because we are losing people every day.”

“George Faison asked if I’d do it — and said I wouldn’t be sorry!” says Simpson.  Faison created the classic Ashford & Simpson dance routines, as she noted in the program.  “He knew I’d probably shoot him if it didn’t work out,” said Simpson laughingly.  “But I knew of Gwen Ifill and thought she was good, and was confident that George would put it all together.”  But she admits to some nervousness at the taping.

While she was pleased that The HistoryMakers, wanted to focus on Ashford & Simpson, Simpson didn’t want to be involved in the process, she says.  “I like to come to these things fresh,” she explains. “I didn’t want to see the questions or talk to Gwen in advance, but be more spontaneous.  And I didn’t know who they were going to get as music guests, other than that I knew Ray Chew would be the music producer — so I felt safe and knew he’d put together a program I’d be happy with.”

Chew was hired to join the Ashford & Simpson team when he was eighteen and worked for them for over 20 years. He currently serves as the musical director for American Idol. Chew credited Ashford & Simpson with “empowering me as a music director.”

As songwriters and performers, Ashford & Simpson have long ranked among the most acclaimed and admired creative couples in modern music.  Their award-winning collaborations span from writing Ray Charles‘ hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned” to helping shape Berry Gordy‘s Motown musical dynasty with songs for artists like Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross.

During the interview, Simpson candidly talked about first meeting Nick Ashford in New York City at the White Rock Baptist Church, falling in love with him and the legacy that they will leave behind.  In addition, she discussed their Motown experience and all the wonderful artists who they have worked with as well as making it as solo performers.

After Ashford & Simpson left Motown in 1973, they continued to write songs and produce for other artists like Chaka Khan and Teddy Pendergrass, while launching their own successful career as performers and garnering four gold records.

During their illustrious career, Ashford & Simpson received many accolades including the Founder’s Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the Pioneer Award from the prestigious Rhythm & Blues Foundation and were inducted into the esteemed Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Of their many meritorious honors and awards, two emerge as special milestones to Simpson — her name on a street sign in her hometown’s Bronx Walk of Fame and a park bench inscribed with “Nick Ashford slept here,” presented by Valerie to Bryant Park, symbolizing the long journey the couple traveled together since that fateful day at White Rock Baptist Church.

Now Simpson is embarking on a solo career supported by numerous fans, friends and family.  And in her corner is Simpson’s rock solid personal assistant Altamese Alston who’s been the terrific twosome’s personal assistant for almost 40 years — and still counting.  Affectionately known as “Miss Tee,” the affable and well-loved confidant will cheerfully be thisclose to her only charge as she starts her solo career.

On Saturday, May 19, 2012, KISS FM in association with Marquee Concerts presents the annual “Mother’s Day Concert” at New York City’s Beacon Theatre.  The show will feature Simpson in her first area appearance since the passing of her husband and will include a special tribute to him with video and song.  The legendary R&B group The Whispers are also featured on the show.  (Photos by Audrey J. Bernard)

Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.

audrey j bernard