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Ashford & Simpson

Reviewed on this page:
Exposed - Valerie Simpson - Gimme Something Real - I Wanna Be Selfish - Come As You Are - So So Satisfied - Send It - Is It Still Good To Ya? - Stay Free - A Musical Affair - Ullanda - Street Opera - High Rise - Solid - Real Love - Love Or Physical - Been Found - The Real Thing - Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again

Producers and songwriters Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford brought a new level of sophistication to soul music in the 1960s, first with Ray Charles ("Let's Go Get Stoned") and later with Motown. (Simpson is the composer and arranger in the team; Ashford is the lyricist.) Productions like "You're All I Need To Get By" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, and Diana Ross' first solo album blended instantly accessible melodies with elegant arrangements and easily-grasped but uncloying sentiments. After a few years of successful production work, the duo decided to start recording themselves. At first they recorded two ill-starred Valerie Simpson solo albums, then began recording as a duet and had substantial success in the late 70s and early 80s. When their hitmaking wound down, Ashford & Simpson went to work as celebrity DJs on Kiss-FM in New York (along with Isaac Hayes), released an album with Maya Angelou on their own label, and put out a live CD/DVD in early 2009. Somewhere in the mid-1970s they got married, and remained a sickeningly happy couple until Ashford's death from cancer in 2011.

Simpson has a clear, lovely voice and has made a nice side income as a commercial jingle singer, plus doing backup dates for Paul Simon and Steely Dan. Nick's been somewhat in Val's shadow, but apart from his lyrical contributions he has a fine expressive voice, he produced the Supremes & Temptations' hit "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" with Frank Wilson, and he even cut his own version of "Let's Go Get Stoned" back in the 60s.


Here's a short list of their outside writing and production work reviewed on our site:

Before their songwriting career took off, the pair released three 1964 singles as "Valerie & Nick": "It Ain't Like That" (which rocks) b/w "You Don't Owe Me Anything" (which doesn't); "Don't You Feel Sorry" b/w "Somebody's Lying On Love" (written by Henry Glover); "I'll Find You" b/w "Lonely Town." Note that the composer credits at this point read "Simpson - Ashford" (shades of McCartney-Lennon).

The Real Thing: The Songs of Ashford, Simpson & Armstead (rec. 1964-1966)
A couple dozen single sides written with original partner (and sometime Ikette) Josie Joe Armstead.

Exposed (Simpson: 1971)
At this point Simpson sings with a gospel flavor that brings her surprisingly close to fellow New Yorker Laura Nyro. Most of the tunes here are not radically different from Ashford & Simpson's Motown production: two songs are repeated from Ross' 1970 solo album, both standouts ("Can't It Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Now That There's You"), and tunes like "Love Woke Me Up This Morning" are cut from the same cloth. More interesting are tracks like the hard-hitting, Grammy-nominated "Sinner Man" (which sounds more like Aretha Franklin than anything that was coming out of Motown) or Simpson's strangely calm, string-carried version of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" - completely the opposite of labelmate Stevie Wonder's frantic take on the tune the year before. But the album's centerpiece is the opening "I Don't Need No Help," which begins with a stirring two-minute a capella vocal and continues with just her pounding piano for accompaniment as the lyrics form a tribute to artistic self- confidence. This record was unnoticed at the time; it's available now on CD as The Best Of Valerie Simpson, together with six tracks from her self-titled followup. (DBW)

Valerie Simpson (Simpson: 1972)
Quite solid, in the same gentle/passionate mold as Simpson's debut. Some of the high points are the gorgeous opener "Fix It Alright," the lovely soft-rocker "Keep It Coming," the pensively self-critical "Could Have Been Sweeter" and the What's Going On-style social commentary "One More Baby Child Born." There are two versions of the sarcastic anti-technology "Genius": the first is piano-based and dramatic, the second sly and funky. The single "Silly Wasn't I" is a bit overdone (with its forced "ha ha ha" refrain), but still enjoyable. Despite all this, the record flopped, and the pair soon began recording as Ashford & Simpson. Francisco Centeno made his first appearance on bass here: he would keep the gig for about a decade. Other musicians include Nat Adderley Jr and Simpson (keys); Ray Lucas, Buddy Williams and Charles E. Collins (drums); Keith Loving Illidge (guitar) and Ralph MacDonald (percussion). (DBW)

Gimme Something Real (1973)
Their first duet release is a surprisingly low-key affair, as if they were determined to break with the pop formula they'd immortalized at Motown. Nearly every track is ballad-paced, and with minimal horns and strings, most tunes are carried just by electric piano and vocals. More importantly, the unforgettable Simpson melodies are rarely to be found - the compositions are pleasant enough ("Time," "Ain't That Good Enough"), and not particularly derivative, but clearly below their standard. Which is a shame, because the lyrics are generally excellent, either incisive looks on love (title track), social commentary ("Can You Make It Brother") or even broader statements ("Have You Ever Tried It"). Interesting just because it's so different from any of their other releases, but definitely not on the "A" list. This and the following eight albums were on Warner Bros, though at this point some of the musicians (Bob Babbit, Andrew Smith) were borrowed from Motown. (DBW)

I Wanna Be Selfish (1974)
They instantly retreated to their trademark smooth, joyous sound, and put together another fine album: "Spoiled" is an irresistable upbeat love song, and the title track and "Everybody's Got To Give It Up" are also solid grooves. The slower numbers like "Ain't Nothin' But A Maybe" and "Take All The Time You Need" are also affecting, benefiting from Paul Riser's string arrangements. (DBW)

Come As You Are (1976)
Simpson didn't arrange or play much piano this time, and the arrangements (mostly by William Eaton, one track by Al Gorgoni) are overly slick in standard mid-70s fashion. There's even a full-blown disco/fusion nightmare - "One More Try," written by Simpson's brother Ray and Bobby Gene Hall - that's just an excuse for an unenlightening Eric Gale guitar solo. The only arranging curiosity is the prominent slide guitar (by Hugh McCracken) and honky-tonk piano on "Tell It All." Melodically too, the record is distressingly obvious ("Believe In Me"). Just a couple of tracks escape bubble-gum string-swamped overproduction, capturing the low-key sweetness of the early 70s releases - "It'll Come, It'll Come, It'll Come" and "Somebody Told A Lie" - and for a fan they overshadow the remaining dreck. But just barely. The musicians are prominent NY session players like Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Jeff Mironov, etc. (DBW)

So So Satisfied (1977)
This starts off very strong, with "Tried, Tested And Found True" combining soaring vocals, a swinging piano riff, and an interesting middle featuring syncopated strings; then there's the funky "Couldn't Get Enough" and lovely "Destiny." But there are a few problems: the seven-minute title track is a listless throwback to the Gimme Something Real period, and several of the tunes are throwaways ("Over And Over"). Not a bad album by any means, but since they have so many better ones, this isn't a priority. (DBW)

Send It (1977)
The arrangements and recording get even more professionalized here, with more prominent strings and the first appearance of synthesizers. Studio pros Eric Gale and Ray Chew also get on board, contributing to the slickness. Though there are several fine tunes in their usual styles ("Top Of The Stairs," "Let Love Use Me"), it's not as good as their surrounding LPs, partly because Ashford doesn't have anything much to say ("Don't Cost You Nothing" is an exception), resulting in the overlong, routine instrumental "Bourgié Bourgié." Plus, several of the compositions are unremarkable (title track). But it is on CD, which most of their catalog is not, and if you like the following release, you should give this a try. (DBW)

Is It Still Good To Ya (1978)
Their pop breakthrough; this went gold and sailed into the Top 20. This is meticulously produced mainstream soul, very similar to what Quincy Jones was doing at the time, only without all the showoff guests. The tender title track was a hit single, as was the frantic funk tune "It Seems To Hang On." Meanwhile, "You Always Could" is a gorgeous melody that sounds tailor-made for Gaye and Terrell. The production is so tasteful they even pull off flirtations with disco ("Get Up And Do Something"). Longtime orchestral arranger Paul Riser is here, and the band would remain in place for several years: Eric Gale (guitar), Ray Chew (keys), and the remarkably limber Francisco Centeno on bass. Steve Jordan plays drums on half the tracks, alternating with John Sussewell. (DBW)

Stay Free (1979)
Another gold album; the title track is another classic, brilliantly-arranged and catchy, but most of the record is thrown away on endless disco numbers ("Dance Forever," "Nobody Knows") featuring those awful synth drums (think "Ring My Bell"). As always, they sneak clever little touches into the arrangements ("Found A Cure") but the arresting melodicism that marks so much or their work is notably absent... this brings down the slower numbers too, including "Crazy" and the embarrassing "Follow Your Heart," with a Mantovani-style string arrangement. The band is mostly the same as before, though drumming duties are split between Steve Gadd and Chris Parker. Don't listen to this before you've heard their better albums, it just wouldn't be fair to them. This same year the pair produced Diana Ross' The Boss, and one suspects Diana got the best of the tunes they had available. (DBW)

A Musical Affair (1980)
Very much in the same style as Is It Still Good To Ya, with the same band and same mix of midtempo dance and slow ballads. When it works it's terrific: the moody tune of "Rushing To" is a fine complement to the contemplative lyrics, and the closing "Happy Endings" is a masterpiece, with a fine string arrangement (by Rob Mounsey) and heartbreaking vocals from Simpson. Ashford's lyrics are noteworthy throughout, staying focused on romantic themes but steering clear of cliché ("I Ain't Asking For Your Love"). But too often Simpson's melodies are just ordinary ("Get Out Your Hankerchief," "Love Don't Make It Right"). This is good fun for the duo's fans, though it's not their most consistent work. This year, they also produced About Love for Gladys Knight & The Pips. (DBW)

Performance (1981)
While they were focusing on producing other artists, the duo put out this live album to keep their fans happy. It's a typically tasteful assortment, including workmanlike renditions of all the hits they recorded themselves - "Found A Cure"; "Is It Still Good To Ya"; "Gimme Something Real" - and medley versions of their most notable giveaways. "Clouds" into "The Boss," with Simpson on piano, is a showstopper, but the trio of Gaye/Terrell classics ("You're All I Need"/"Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing"/"Ain't No Mountain High Enough") feel perfunctory, without the drama of the earlier (not to mention some later) versions. Side Four has three new studio tracks, all in the same "classy disco" style as the previous couple of albums: "It Shows In The Eyes" is dramatic and engaging, but "It's The Long Run" and "Come On, Pretty Baby" (with a tiresome refrain) are filler. (DBW)

Ullanda (Ullanda McCullough: 1981)
Ashford and Simpson put a lot into this album produced for one of their backup singers, writing and arranging every song and singing backups. The material is quite strong in standard A&S style: "Bad Company" is a The Boss-style dramatic dance track with soaring strings (arranged by Mounsey); "Warm And Gentle Explosion" is smoother, verging on disco; "Love Had Changed My Life" and "It's You" are engaging, dignified ballads. The also-rans are still pretty good: "Rumors," the uptempo closer "Rock Me." McCullough has a typical backup singer's voice: pretty and pleasant, with good range, but anonymous. Fortunately, the backing tracks have enough personality on their own. Musicians are the usual cast - Simpson, Gale, Centeno - with Chris Parker and Yogi Horton alternating on drums, and Paul Riser and Mounsey splitting string credits. Also in 1981, A&S produced Gladys Knight & The Pips' Touch, after which they took another break from outside production work. (DBW)

Street Opera (1982)
Their Capitol debut, and it starts strong, with the irresistably funky "Love It Away" and yearning "Make It Work Again." Side two is turned over to the 13-minute title suite, telling the story of a relationship strained by poverty. It works surprisingly well, tugging at heart strings on "Who Will They Look To" and "Times Will Be Good Again" - they still have a knack for describing situations everyone can relate to without descending into cliché. Mostly the arrangements are slow and stately, except for the bouncy funk "Street Corner," which became a successful single. It's not a masterpiece, but it's quite enjoyable, and I don't see why this wasn't more successful. The band is mostly the same as Still Good, with Yogi Horton on drums and Leon Pendarvis arranging strings and horns; Richard Tee appears on the ballad "I'll Take The Whole World On." (DBW)

High Rise (1983)
The synths are taking over: the title track has two synth players, electric piano and vibes, all of which completely drown Simpson's acoustic piano without adding any interest or excitement, and that goes on throughout much of the album. The acoustic tracks ("Experience (Love Had No Face)") really stand out by contrast, and there are some fine tunes: the anti-macho "I'm Not That Tough" and another slow inspirational album closer, "Still Such A Thing." Their core talents are still firmly under control here; it's a shame they stuck on such "commercial" tripe as "My Kinda Pick Me Up." Horton remains on drums, alternating with Gadd, and Ed Walsh and Pete Cannarozzi are guilty of those synth lines. (DBW)

Solid (1984)
The title track was their most recent substantial hit, and this was their last Top 40 album. On "Solid," an instant wedding anthem, they manage to use synths and electronic drums instead of being used by them, but most of the rest of the album doesn't fare so well: "Babies," "Outta The World" and "The Jungle" are overaggressive and downright irritating, and "Closest To Love" (arranged by James Newton Howard) isn't much better. Maybe they just didn't have any better ideas: the more acoustic numbers are sadly ordinary rehashes of earlier efforts ("Honey I Love You," "Tonight We Escape (We Make Love)"). (DBW)

Real Love (1986)
Once again they ran afoul of the #1 80s production trap: boring over-aggressive programmed drums and standard-issue synth lines. Song after song has the same generic midtempo sound, dragging down the clever melodic tunes ("Count Your Blessings," "What Becomes Of Love"), and making the filler painful to hear ("Relations," "10th Round"). Centeno is still on half the tracks, Steve Gadd plays on a couple, and Sammy Figueroa adds live percussion to "Relations"; Joseph Joubert adds most of the annoying synth and picks up a co-arranging credit. Stevie Wonder plays harmonica throughout "No One Walks In L.A.," a tossoff that's probably the record's best moment. (DBW)

Love Or Physical (1989)
Their last record for Capitol, and though it's not as irritating as the previous offering, it's not any more interesting. The synths and drum machines are used more subtly, the tempos vary a bit, and the ballad "Til We Get It Right" is lovely in their typical style. But too many numbers are overobvious (title track), cutesy (the single "Cookies And Cake"), or just misfire (the closing "Timing"). They even resort to outside writers (Bruce Roberts and Edgar Bronfman) for the sappy love song "In Your Arms." Since there are almost no live instruments, there's nothing to bring the tracks some vitality; though the disc has its moments, it's instantly forgettable. (DBW)

Been Found (with Maya Angelou: 1996)
After a long layoff, they came back with their own independent label and a new collection of songs, several featuring poet and former calypso stylist Maya Angelou writing and performing some spoken word. It's not exactly a match made in heaven: A&S have to keep the groove simple whenever Angelou is speaking, but they overdo it, so songs like "I Remember All" are just dull instead of atmospheric. The combination works best on "Where We Come From," where Angelou handles the verses but Ashford & Simpson get to croon a lovely chorus, and Nile Rodgers adds guitar; the title track and "Just Talking" are slightly less successful attempts in the same direction. I don't review poetry, but as lyrics Angelou's work isn't particularly interesting. On the tracks without her, the duo sounds more confident and less gimmicky than on their 80s albums: the bass-driven "Made For Me" is positively joyous; "This Time It's Real" and "Sweet Thing" are updated versions of the sly grooves that were their bread and butter in the 80s. The songwriting never gets into their top gear, but the singing does; no longtime fan should be disappointed. (DBW)

The Real Thing (2009)
With their biggest hits as a duo ("Solid"), a number of overlooked cuts (Nick's showpiece "I'm Not That Tough"; "It's Much Deeper") and a ton of hits they wrote for others ("Your Precious Love," "I'm Every Woman," even "Let's Go Get Stoned"), this live record - available on CD or DVD - is a fantastic crash course in Ashford & Simpson's career. The CD doesn't list any musicians, but the band is tasteful and empathic, rendering each tune with unshowy strength in an urban R&B idiom that avoids both false cheer and bathos. That format strips away the then-trendy production that weakened the studio versions of "Solid" and "Found A Cure." Most of the attention, though, goes to the two principals and their compositions, which is exactly as it should be; Simpson's voice is as powerful and lovely as ever, while Ashford sounds gorgeous if not always precisely on pitch. I wish they hadn't turned quite so much time over to "Gimme Something Real," and the inevitable closer "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" gets rushed a bit, but in general Ashford & Simpson are still living up to their reputation for perfection. (DBW)

Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again (Simpson: 2012)
It's rare for anyone to go forty years between solo projects, and even rarer to sound equally good on both. Simpson's arranging is as smooth and accomplished as ever, whether it's mostly programmed ("Heaven") or live instruments (a striking instrumental version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). At points, the songwriting - by Ashford & Simpson before the former's death - is equally sharp: The dramatic, dynamic "Trying To Be Perfect" would have been a worthy addition to any of the 70s LPs. Best of all, the pop-funk "Sometime Thing" is a landmark - shockingly sexy, quietly romantic and altogether irresistable. A couple of tunes are just so-so, though ("The Look"), and the guest shots don't add much: Nina Simone's contribution to "Make It Up As We Go" sounds grafted on from some other album. And even for a heartless bastard like me, it's bittersweet to listen to a trademark A&S slowie like "Count Your Losses" because I can't help but imagine how Ashford's plaintive vocal would have sounded. (DBW)

Get up and do something.

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