“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “Your Precious Love”, “I’m Every Woman”. What do all these songs have in common besides great lyrics, smooth melodies, rich harmonies and universal appeal that spans generations and genres? They, along with many others, are part of the legacy from the singer/songwriting husband and wife team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. And they can all be found, performed live by the legends that gave them life, on the CD Ashford & Simpson: The Real Thing.
Their songwriting career started in the 1960s when Nickolas and Valerie first penned tunes for the New York based Scepter/Wand label. It was there that performers Ronnie Milsap, Maxine Brown, The Shirelles and others started recording their songs. More artists found success recording Ashford/Simpson tunes including Ray Charles, The 5th Dimension, Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass and Chaka Khan. In 1966 they joined the Motown staff, writing classics for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles to name a few. Not only did they write songs for Diana Ross, they produced her first solo Motown album. In my opinion Ashford and Simpson were as crucial to the creation of the “Motown Sound” as the legendary team of Holland/Dozier/Holland.
I’m also of the mind that as performing artists Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson have not had the recognition they deserve. Between 1964 and now, together or solo, the two made numerous records that weren’t as well received as their songwriting efforts for other singers. Okay, “Solid” (1984) charted well. But even Valerie’s stint as a Motown recording artist missed the mark. During negotiations for renewing the songwriting contract with the label, their request to record an album together comprised of the hits they’d produced for others was nixed. Here in 2009 I’m boggled at that flub by the influential label. Had Ashford & Simpson had their way back then, with full backing from the hit-making Motown machine, it could have been huge for the label and the duo.
But you can’t live your life with regrets and Ashford & Simpson have continued to work. The pair received credit along with Amy Winehouse for her song “Tears Dry On Their Own” on the award winning Back To Black CD, which is based on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". Mary J Blige and Method Man have also sampled the songwriters work in their recordings. Something new for the pair, they wrote the score for a musical based on E. Lynn Harris's novel Invisible Life.
2007 saw them playing a three week stand at Feinstein’s at the Regency in Manhattan. Besides the tunes I’ve already mentioned, the set list was a mixture of songs they’d recorded ("It’s Much Deeper", “Found A Cure”) and ones that proved their songwriting chops for others (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”). While relatively few people were lucky enough to attend one of those shows, fourteen of those songs were compiled for this new release.
The CD is truly a joy. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are amazing, of course, but it’s the execution that is sublime. The reality of performing in a club that seats 140 means there’s no room for a full-on stage show. What it did allow for was a set and set-up of true intimacy with their audience and the music. It’s that beauty and grace that comes through on this recording. I certainly don’t miss huge studio production values. Even after many, many, listenings hearing the crowd clap and cheer is the only thing that reminds me that this was taped live.
The disc itself is a connected CD with online access to additional materials. A revised edition of their earlier hit has been released in time for the inauguration of our new president, it’s now “Solid (Like Barack)” and you can download it from there (it’s also on their MySpace profile). You can get ringtones to “Solid”, “I’m Every Woman” and “Found A Cure”. There’s an exclusive video for “Is It Still Good To Ya” taped live at Feinstein’s where you can watch the magic of their performance happen… and just how up close and personal the band and audience were during the run of the show.
There are other goodies as well, my fave by a long shot being a series of eleven short interview videos clips. It’s just Nickolas and Valerie on how they came to write pop songs, falling in love, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, leaving Motown, other artists doing their songs and more. Watching these pieces almost gives you more insight to the couple than listening to the live recording do. The back and forth banter and their love for each other, life, and laughter shines through. And, it proves a point. They are Ashford & Simpson: The Real Thing.