Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson
*Since it was launched in 1998, American Songbook has been dedicated to celebrating the extraordinary achievements of the popular American songwriter from the turn of the 20th century to the present day. Spanning all styles and genres from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway to the eclecticism of today’s songwriters working in pop, cabaret, rock, folk and country, American Songbook traces the history and charts the course of the American song from its past and current forms to its future direction.
Now in its 15th season, Lincoln Center’s acclaimed series American Songbook will expand its scope and offer two series that celebrate the best in American singing and songwriting. “American Songbook in The Allen Room” will run from January 30 through March 2, 2013 and will present 15 nights of music.
Major support for American Songbook is provided by Fisher Brothers, In Memory of Richard L. Fisher, and Amy & Joseph Perella. Bank of America is proud to support American Songbook. Additional corporate support provided by PVH Corp. For additional information visit: AmericanSongbook.org.
In keeping with American Songbook’s tradition of honoring great composers and lyricists, Valerie Simpson, who, with her late husband and lyricist Nickolas Ashford, created era-defining rhythm & blues for Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, and Whitney Houston, as well as for their own stage shows, brings her mesmerizing allure to The Allen Room on Thursday, January 31, 2013, 8:30 pm.
Simpson, one half of the beloved and legendary songwriters/producers and performers Ashford & Simpson, has returned to the music scene with Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again her first solo album in several decades following the death last year of her husband and partner in all things musical and otherwise, Nicholas Ashford.
Each song on Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again bears the unmistakable Ashford & Simpson imprint. “My honey put his heart and soul and some powerful lyrics into this album for me. We started recording it 11 years ago but it never seemed just right. After prompting from many friends, I went back into the studio and finished it. I think Nick would be very pleased and proud of how it came out.”
Simpson recently appeared with The Whispers at NY’s Beacon Theatre and headlined a week of concerts at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room. She also performed at NY’s Lincoln Center and Scullers Jazz Club in Boston.
As for the title of Simpson’s new CD, “It’s for anyone who feels like they are no longer useful or who questions what offerings they can still make, this song says: “Be encouraged,” says the brilliant songwriter, of Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again. “We actually got the ‘dinosaur’ feeling once in a major record company’s office — while waiting for an appointment with a top exec we didn’t get the deal, but we got this song out of it.”
“Turn Around The Square” features Roberta Flack in a duet with Simpson. The title, she notes, “was given to us by Maya Angelou, and Nick’s fun lyric has us going at each other like real rivals. We had a ball doing it — in the spirit of ‘reality,’ if we ever need to do a video we can stage a sure ’nuff brawl.’”
“Make It Up As We Go” is made all the more remarkable in being the last recorded vocal of the great Nina Simone. “Nick and I wrote this strange, haunting song and I called her and asked her to duet with me and she agreed,” recalls Simpson. “Recording in the South of France was a time I’ll never forget. It sounds like it came from another era, thus the hissy sound effects add to that old flavor.”
Valerie Simpson will headline Lincoln Center’s acclaimed series American Songbook at The Allen Room at Lincoln Center
Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again includes one Ashford & Simpson classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” played here in instrumental form. “Fans of the band “Stuff” might recall hearing a version of this instrumental as played by the late, great Richard Tee — my favorite keyboardist. I extended it, adding an opening and chorus at the end as a bookend. In this version the tempo is slightly slower — Richard’s speed is out of my reach, but I sure had fun playing it.”
And for obvious reasons, “Love Never Dies” stands out, too. “I love the quirky story Nick created — you can almost see it in your mind — but this song works for me on an even deeper level, it moves me personally.” As for the long period of time since Simpson started the album, “All I can say is things happen when they are supposed to,” she recalls.
Things started happening in the music realm for Valerie Simpson at the age of five when she started playing piano in the Bronx. She was playing and singing in the legendary choir of Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1963 when she met Nicholas Ashford, an aspiring dancer from Michigan.
Ashford & Simpson began recording music as part of the gospel group The Followers, and in 1964 recorded their first original song, “I’ll Find You,” as Valerie & Nick. The composition was among their first batch of co-written songs, which they sold for $75.
They were soon signed to Scepter Records as staff songwriters, breaking through in 1966 when Ray Charles landed a major hit with “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” This led to their signing with Motown Records, where they penned the classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell hits “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By.”
They also wrote hits for other Motown greats, including Diana Ross, who launched her solo career with a hit remake of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that was also produced by Ashford & Simpson, as were such later hits as “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “The Boss.”
In 1970, Simpson stood out as a pop vocal soloist in her own right on Quincy Jones’ Gula Matari album. She followed up with a pair of well-received Motown solo albums — Exposed and Valerie Simpson — which yielded the memorable singles “Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Silly Wasn’t I.”
She also became one of the top jingle sessions singers, as evidenced by her versatile lead on such still resonant commercials as Budweiser’s “When You Say Bud” and Almond Joy/Mound’s “Sometimes You Feel Like A Nut.”
But Ashford & Simpson had recording and performing aspirations of their own as a duo. After moving to Warner Bros. Records, the now married couple finally realized their artistic vision at last.
From 1973 to 1981 Ashford & Simpson released nine albums, yielding classic R&B hits including “Send It,” “Don’t Cost You Nothin’,” “It Seems to Hang On,” “Love Don’t Make it Right,” “Is It Still Good to Ya” and “Found a Cure.” The hit making continued when they were signed to Capitol Records in 1982 with “Street Corner,” “Highrise,” “I’ll Be There for You” and their biggest hit which embodied the Ashford & Simpson mantra, “Solid,” which topped the R&B chart in 1984 and crossed over to No. 12 on the pop singles chart.
They continued writing and producing for other artists, including Ben E. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Chaka Khan (they wrote her hit “I’m Every Woman”) and Quincy Jones (they co-wrote and performed on his hit “Stuff Like That”).
Meanwhile, the Ashford & Simpson concert appearances were exhilarating and stunning. Choreographed by Tony Award-winning George Faison, the shows made Ashford & Simpson a live attraction worthy of the best venues in the country.
In 1996, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was used as the theme for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Also that year Ashford & Simpson formed their own label, Hopsack & Silk, and released Been Found, acclaimed music/poetry album collaboration with their friend Maya Angelou.
That same year the American Society of Composers And Publishers (ASCAP) presented them with its highest honor, the Founder’s Award, and in 1999 they received the Pioneer Award from the prestigious Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 2002 they joined the pantheon of popular music songwriters when they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 2006 and 2007 Ashford & Simpson performed before sold out crowds every night during their stints at NY’s Feinstein’s at the Regency. “Singles, doubles, gays, straights, blacks, whites, all mixed together and singing along,” concluded the New York Times’ Stephen Holden in his rave review.
The show aired on PBS stations across the country and was released on DVD simultaneously with the release of “Hits, Remixes and Rarities,” a two-disc set of choice material from their Warner Bros. years. They were also hard at work on a Broadway musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s novel Invisible Life.
Ashford & Simpson tunes remained a constant on the charts. Singer Ryan Shaw was nominated for a 2008 Grammy for his cover of the Motown era “I am Your Man”, joining such notable covers as Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” (1993) which became the official song for The Oprah Winfrey Show. Method Man and Mary J. Blige won a Grammy for their medley of “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By” (1995), 50 Cent sampled “Silly Wasn’t I” on his hit “Best Friend” (2006) and Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own” was built on the music from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
To know Ashford & Simpson is to love them! This dynamic duo have always had an open door policy for budding entertainers and always ready to lend a helping hand to the “whatever happened to” artists as well. The husband and wife team never forgot their humble beginning and their Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar became a showcase for artists.
Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar is one of New York’s top live music venues providing both established and emerging artists with a consistent outlet with which they can expand their fan base and share their music.
Located on the trendy Upper West Side of Manhattan inside of a beautiful, converted brownstone, the Sugar Bar – featuring an intimate and elegant ambiance — is best known for its sensational cuisine and live entertainment. The Sugar Bar showcases local and international talent playing R&B, soul, jazz and rock, as well as traditional Caribbean and African rhythms.
In 1996 the music moguls established Ashford & Simpson’s Legendary Open Mic Night for budding performers as a means for them to master their live shows — from establishing a memorable stage presence to improving their vocal skills and delivery.
Since its inception the trendy watering hole have had guests and entertainers, such as Stevie Wonder, Raphael Sadiq, Patti La Belle, Dr. Maya Angelou, ,Queen Latifah, Mario, Michael McDonald, and Roberta Flack to name a few. Woven between the buffet of celebrity guests and Grammy winning artists are the next generation of powerful performers.
Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.
Audrey J. Bernard