Valerie Simpson: Underexposed
October 1971, Transatlantic phone interview
By David Nathan
Best known as one half of the successful team with musical partner (and at the time, future husband Nick Ashford) responsible for hit records with Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross among others at Motown, Valerie Simpson recorded her first of two solo albums, “Exposed” in '71...
Without doubt, Valerie Simpson is one of the most important talents to emerge this year. Her debut album, “Exposed” made some considerable impression on both the national and R&B charts and for me, showed some very considerable promise. Perhaps more than any other Motown female (with the exception of Gladys Knight) Valerie possesses a strong soul voice and as one writer recently remarked, she is more suited to the church than the supper club!
Her vocal talents have only just com to the fore, since she’s been writing for some time now – together with partner Nick Ashford – and for those who didn’t know. Valerie and Nick have been responsible for producing sessions on Marvin Gaye and the late Tammi Terrell (from which emerged, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” – both Ashford-Simpson compositions) as well as production on Motown’s number one female solo star, Diana Ross, for whom the duo worked on both her debut album and her latest album, “Surrender”.
Although Valerie’s singing career is in its infancy, she confesses that she much prefers “getting it all together” as a producer and writer. Her first recording work was with Quincy Jones and she explained how Quincy, as an old friend, asked her to round up some session singers for work on his album, “Gula Matari” – which resulted in Valerie’s mind-blowing lead vocal work on “Bridge Over Troubled Water’.
Apparently, Valerie says, she and Nick had often considered doing some recording work on their own, but time always prevented this. “When we came up with something, we always thought we could make more money out of it with someone else – so we never cut it ourselves!” As Valerie was signed with Motown as a writer and producer, it was only natural that she should record for them and originally, the plan was for Quincy Jones to produce her for Motown, but as it turned out, her debut album was self-produced with the aid of Nick Ashford and Joshie Armstead -- who co-wrote many of the team’s earlier hits, including “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. Both Nick and Joshie, incidentally, provide the backing for Valerie’s album.
The team’s major production work right now is with Diana Ross and I asked how they got a recording session together. It obviously works out differently on each occasion, but the general procedure is that Valerie and Nick get the material together (they wrote all but two of the tracks on the “I’m Still Waiting/Surrender” album), record the backing tracks and add Diana’s voice at the end. Occasionally, Valerie says, they discuss songs with Diana prior to the final session but usually, they present the finished product for her to add to her vocal. Everyone was quite disappointed that “Surrender” did not become as big a hit as predicted but Valerie said, ‘it’s just one of those things”.
She was delighted to learn that ‘Surrender” is doing very well in the UK and looks set to climb into the top ten on this country. Tthe song was only written for Diana but a few months ago for the “Surrender” album sessions. Valerie and Nick have just completed some work with several of Motown’s other acts – including Bobby Darin, The Supremes and The Four Tops.
Although “Exposed” to quote the lady herself was “not a killer, sales-wise”, Valerie is currently working on a new album which will doubtless include some new Ashford-Simpson songs. I mentioned to her that, having played the album several times, I got the impression that a good deal of it was unrehearsed an spontaneous – especially on tracks like “I Don’t Need To Help” and “Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow” – and Valerie confirmed that this was the case. She was astounded when I told her that on first hearing, she struck me as Motown’s answer to Aretha Franklin and said she “wouldn’t attempt that!” The similarity comes from the fact that Valerie is very much a gospel-based singer and is a good deal wilder than most of her Motown stablemates, who are more accustomed to recording night-club standards! Her first album is certainly one of the most soulful to emerge from the company for a long time – and in addition to singing with a great deal of conviction. Valerie plays some sensational piano! That figures, since apart from studying classical prior to learning up with Nick Ashford, she played in her local church. For a taste of just how good she is as a pianist – listen to her work on “Surrender”.
A native of New York (where she still lives), Valerie says she’s “hardly been anywhere!” but recently traveled to Chicago to appear at the Black Expo there. She found the experience interesting but still regards performing as secondary to producing and writing and says that she isn’t too worried about getting a hit single. If the public accepts her, fine, but if not, she can go back to her first love – writing! She says there is no set formula for writing songs – usually Nick provides the lyrics and Valerie adds the tune. Occasionally, she assists with the lyrics but generally it works the other way round.
Unfortunately, there are no current plans for her to visit Europe in the near future, but she says she would very much like to come to Britain if the opportunity arises. Speaking to such a delightful lady, the feeling is definitely mutual…