SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan conducted his first in person interview in America while on holiday in October, 1974 with Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, already established as hitmaking songwriters and producers at Motown and by 1974, one year into recording a series of amazing albums for Warner Brothers. By 1979, David was living in New York and Nick & Val were riding a wave of success as performers and chartmakers in their own right…
Nick and Val’s Hit Cure
By David Nathan
Interview conducted in person in New York City, autumn 1979..
We’re sitting in the same building in midtown Manhattan in which we first met the couple almost five years back and it’s a warm, sunny day in New York City. It’s lunchtime and people are scurrying from their offices to get a quick bite to eat.
Only a few minutes walk from the folks buying fruit at the store on the corner of 72nd Street, from those sitting on the benches in the vicinity and those lucky few who have the time to walk around Riverside Drive (certainly one of New York’s nicest neighbourhoods), sit a young couple whose success ratio is truly astounding. One wonders if any of the New Yorkers out in the street who’ve probably been listening to the city’s top r&b/black music station WBLS are aware thet they are just couple of blocks away from the team who are making some of the fine music that the station has been playing with increased frequency. Tunes like “Found A Cure”, Diana Ross’ “The Boss” and “No One Gets The Prize”; songs with some sense of real meaning like “Stay Free” and “Nobody Knows” that have filled New York’s airwaves alongside those of many of the major markets throughout the States in the last couple of months.
Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson seem to be finally there. After five years with Warner Brothers and seven albums, it looks like they’ve found the true hit cure in their latest single, appropriately titled “Found A Cure” and the album, “Stay Free”. It hasn’t been easy getting to this point but a great deal of hard work has gone into putting this incredible duo into the upper echelons of the music world.
After years of paying dues at Motown (and before that, writing songs like “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, a classic for Ray Charles) during which they wrote songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need To Get By”, produced the likes of Marvin Gaye and the late Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross’ first solo efforts after leaving The Supremes and gave an indication of where they were headed via two solo albums from the remarkable Ms. Simpson, Nick and Valerie stand on the threshold of being recognised for their contributions to the music industry.
More than that, they’ve struck some really responsive chords with the listening public who are eager to hear everything the couple put on wax. Ever since the album “Send It” turned gold, to be followed by “Is It Still Good To Ya?”, Ashford & Simpson have been picking up new fans everywhere.
Songs like “Don’t Cost You Nothing” and “It Seems To Hang On” have truly established their credibility as hitmakers and their writing abilities have also helped give the likes of Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”) and The Brothers Johnson (“Ride-o-Rocket”) not to mention Quincy Jones (“Stuff Like That” which they co-wrote with Q and performed on) garner big sellers. Added to which, of course, the fact that they’ve brought “The Boss” Ms. Ross back into the chart stakes with a monster album that’s her biggest in years.
So what are Nick and Valerie really all about? A whole lot of things — and a listen to their current album will tell you that these two young people (now married with a 4-year-old daughter) are very much in tune with each other and with what’s going on in the world. They have their fingers on the public pulse and their songs are definitely vehicles for the message they want to pass on, although Valerie’s quick to point out that it’s not about preaching down to anyone.
Their messages concern love, self-respect, finding out about yourself — musical self-realisation epics, one might say! And since some of the music on the “Stay Free” album reflects many of the attitudes that people in big cities in particular have to deal with, that seemed like a logical place to start in our rap session with the duo.
“We found that from travelling across the country doing a lot of touring, we’ve had the opportunity to really talk with people and to observe what’s going on,” the duo report. “You get the chance to rap in hotels, after we’ve done shows, all kinds of places and you can really feel what’s happening.
“Take a song like ‘Stay Free’: a lot of people have reacted to that, especially people who are really involved in their careers because a lot of time they’ll exclude love and a social life from what they’re doing because they want to be independent and free of commitment to anyone. Maybe at first glance without hearing the song, people might think we’re suggesting people should stay free, not be tied down — but that’s not what we’re saying. We’re telling people that the price you pay for that, for not dealing with a love relationship of some kind is that you’re gonna be lonely.” Obviously, the fact that people relate to it has meant they’ve listened and bought the album!
Valerie points out that “at one point, Nick was like that — just how the song says! He didn’t want to have that tie”. And Nick concurs that he recognises himself “in the song — that’s someone I once knew!”, he grins and it’s evident that the whole song comes from experience.
And then there’s “Nobody Knows”: “We’ve found that universally, people like to hide behind superficiality. They don’t want to deal with reality and they’re still very inhibited. Most times it’s because they’re really afraid of the person underneath and they can’t understand why people can’t deal with them: it’s because they put up barriers and defences against people who could get close to them.
“It’s understandable with all the pressures of modern day living and the increase in paranoia! But we feel people must learn to understand love and what’s inside — then they can really appreciate others instead of trying to live up to the image of what they think people expect of them. It’s like someone who’s a big, beautiful apple that’s never been picked because no one could get close to it, it was too far away from the rest of the apples!”
Which all gives you some insight into what helps make some of Nick and Valerie’s songs so meaningful at a time when banality in music has reached an all time high — no thanks, we might add, to disco (sorry, folks)!
And disco is another thing that both feel strongly about. “Sure, people have said that we went disco with some of the songs we’ve done — “Don’t Cost You Nothing” for instance — but we won’t ever record anything that we don’t think has something to say. It may be uptempo because people do want to dance and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! Now, if the beat interferes with the message,” smiles Nick, “we’ll go with the message and not the beat!
“It’s important that people can see that we can do more than one thing too — not just write one-to-one personal love ballads — we want people to see that we can cater to what they want whilst we’re still writing tunes that we feel have some validity.”
The couple also pay close attention to when an album will be coming out in order that the songs will fit into the season. “There are some tunes that are just summer tunes and some that just go well with the winter,” notes Val, “and we realise that. Of course, that best tunes are the timeless ones and we always try and write a couple of those!”
The couple feel that some of those tunes “are the ones that don’t get a lot of airplay that get tucked away in the albums — at least, they’re not the hit singles or tracks that the radio people play.”
They cite an instance in the tune “Believe In Me” from their 3rd album, “Come As You Are”. “That’s a song that people really seem to dig, although we don’t do it on stage anymore. Like ‘Gimme Something Real’ — the title tune from our first album. A lot of people come to our shows just to hear that one. We dropped it for a while but we’ve put it back in again now.”
And how do Nick & Valerie know what people are really digging in their songs? “You should just see the letters! People say that certain songs help them get up in the morning, there are songs that will help patch up a lover’s quarrel, all kinds of things! We’re glad to know that our music does something for people and we feel that makes it all worthwhile.”
The couple have no doubt that it’s been the public and word-of-mouth that has helped put them in the position they’re in today. “Touring has definitely widened our audiences a whole lot. But it’s been word-of-mouth, people telling their friends to check out our music. We still haven’t gotten across the whole crossover pop thing yet but we’re not worried. We feel that it will happen if it’s gonna due to the same thing, same thing that’s helped us get the audience we have today.
“What’s really important to us is building a legitimate following, people who will buy our records each time and that seems to be what’s been happening.”
They admit that a lot of people only discovered them with albums like “Send It” “but what’s so good is they can go back and check out what we’ve done before. That’s why we don’t feel that any of our songs are really wasted because there’s a growing number of folks who are just getting into our music.
“Like the song, ‘It’ll Come, It’ll Come, It’ll Come’,” Valerie notes, “now that song really applied to our career. We knew that we’d have to make a conscious commitment to getting it off the ground because we could see that it just wasn’t going to happen by magic. The record company wasn’t going to turn around and just give us hits. We’ve had to work and build the momentum and we’re very gratified to see that it’s paying off.”
Of course, the duo’s shows are truly dynamic and certainly help win over fans who may not have been totally aware of them to this point, and we voiced the comment that perhaps in order to penetrate the European market, some live performances might do the trick!
“We’d really rather wait until we get everything off the ground totally at home,” was the reply, with Valerie noting that “when the records sell a little bit better, it might be worthwhile, but right now it’s not worth going all that way just to play to a few people! If we get a record that takes off, we’ll definitely go!” So UK fans, it’s up to you to give A&S a hit if you wanna see them!
Meanwhile, although they’re still waiting for a big European hit themselves, they are quite comfortably represented chart-wise with the Diana Ross smash album, “The Boss”. “What happened was that Diana called us and asked us if we’d to an album with her and it came just at our vacation time — so we had the choice. We decided to do the album with Diana because she’s a good friend and we really enjoy working with her.”
Nick and Valerie wrote the tunes on the album specifically for the project, noting that “through conversation we were inspired to write a couple of things that we felt fitted the way she felt — like ‘I Ain’t Been Licked’ because we got the impression that she was at a point where she wanted to let people know that in spite of whatever she was undergoing at the time — like her divorce and so on — she was still right there. And ‘It’s My House’ was another one we wrote because we perceived that that was something she might want to say.”
Both agree that “Diana is really a producer’s dream — she’s so professional, always on time, ready and willing to work. What’s so nice is that we do get to exchange viewpoints — if there’s something she’s not happy with, she’ll say and likewise, we’ll tell her if we don’t feel something is working right. But we really dug the project a great deal.”
With the concentration on building their own careers, Nick and Valerie haven’t been able to produce much else, although eventually “we’d like to be in a position where our careers as recording and performing artists allow us to do more production work — there are a lot of people we’d like to work though we’re not saying any particular names!” the twosome laugh.
“We like both studio and the road — but,” adds Valerie, “once you’ve been out there working a lot, you really wanna come home and once you get through with a studio project, what with all the mixes and so on, you’re more than happy to finish there too — so we like to strike up a balance.”
Although they may not have been producing as much, they’re still busy writing — and last year gave Chaka Khan her first solo hit with “I’m Every Woman”. “Valerie had the melody,” Nick recalls, “and I’d gotten the title so when Chaka called to ask for a tune, we knew that was the one. It was funny with that song because I had to imagine lyrically what I’d want a woman to say to me about herself — and Valerie (who contributes a great deal of the melodies to the couple’s compositions) definitely helped with that!”
“Yeah,” the petite lady grins, “I told him it couldn’t be too deep because it had to be kinda playful!” Obviously, the couple came up with the right formula because it turned out to be a smash for Ms. Khan!
In generally viewing the music scene and how they relate to it, Nick and Valerie feel that “music can really help with a lot of things. It’s become so much more important today than it was, say ten years ago when it was much lighter, more carefree. Now, people listen and they want to hear something they can relate to, it’s more serious.
“The state of the world is different now, of course, and that contributes to it and we find that with our music, it’s reflections of what we undergo in growing as people, how we open up to what’s happening, how we learn to deal with different situations and attitudes. And that’s what music is really all about — opening up to say what you feel and what you see around you.”
They also note that “the music scene has changed, naturally, and it’s not just about having a good voice anymore. It you have that certain something, a certain aura, charisma, or whatever, you can make it. It used to be that it was just about talent, but now it’s about personality, having that unique something that can put you over.”
Destiny, too, plays a significant role since Valerie believes “that if you’re meant to make it, you will — some people just draw people to them because of their whole spiritual inner thing.”
Nick and Valerie are obviously creatively in touch and when it comes down to taking care of business, they also know what’s happening. “Sure, we map things out with our manager George Schiffer because with all the time and effort that’s put in, we want to get to that point, to the top.”
At that point will they feel that they’ve made it? “You just know when you’re big!” responds Valerie with a smile. “For us, it’s not about the financial thing — it’s about having good product and having people accept it.”
Perhaps a Grammy or a platinum album would tell them they’ve arrived? “Well, one day we’re sure it will peak but we’re not in any mad hurry because we’d rather grow and build a strong base of people than just have a big hit and disappear.”
Even at this point, the duo confess that different projects and plans come their way which don’t always materialise “we call them ‘almost’ bubbles — when something looks like it’s going to happen and you feel real good about it for a few days and then for whatever reason, it doesn’t! But we don’t get disappointed, we just move right along!”
SO what are Nick and Valerie really all about? What kind of people are they? “Well,” Valerie confesses, “I’m pretty good in extreme situations, I really function well under pressure — I pay attention to the little things.”
“Yes, it’s amazing,” says Nick, “she can juggle three or four different projects at the same time.” Valerie recalls that when Nick first rented their house in Connecticut before they got married (they’ve known each other for over fifteen years but didn’t tie the knot until a few years back), “he asked me to come up there so we could write. There was this rocking chair there and I just sat in it and start rocking! Figured I’d probably be rocking till I was an old woman! But it was my first experience of really being outside New York, apart from being on the road and so on. The city’s been my home all my life and I’d never experienced being in the quiet of the countryside — it made me wonder how on earth I lived in New York all that time and dealt with it for so long! Whereas Nick, who wasn’t born in New York, he was used to it so it was no problem for him at all!”
“What I like now,” Nick notes, “is the balance because there’s a certain kind of energy and activity you have to get from New York — you just can’t get it anywhere else.” But both admit that whenever they can get up to Connecticut, they’re there — to be especially with their four-year-old daughter Nicole.
“Now she’s adjusted to both places,” the couple say, “and she seems to like them both. it will be real interesting to see how she develops — into a city girl or a country lady!” The arrival of one additional member of the family “didn’t really change us. Somehow, she’s just fitted right into everything, she’s a part of us, of whatever we do but we didn’t have to suddenly change and become different people.
“Sure, she’s inspired certain feelings — the way we’ve both inspired each other.”
SO, gold and platinum, hit albums, hit productions, great songs, dynamic performances — what is the one thing that Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson really want to do, you wonder? “One of the things is to write that one song that will spread a lot of joy and happiness!” they say.
They’re not doing such a bad job right now, we’d hasten to suggest, and there seems little doubt that Ashford & Simpson are destined for a legendary place in the music history of the 60s, the 70s and the 80s! They’ve certainly earned the right to their place at the top of the world of contemporary music.