Give Them the Keys
NICK ASHFORD & VALERIE SIMPSON STEP UP
The temperatures in New York City were below freezing on Tuesday, February 2, 1965 – the day that 18-year-old Valerie Simpson stepped into the Atlantic Records studios on Broadway to cut four songs, including one called “Stand Up And Testify” and another, “Silly.”
When interviewing Simpson and her partner-in-magic, Nick Ashford – in New York, naturally – for The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, I didn’t know about that recording session. Otherwise, it would have been among my first enquiries. As it was, the Q&A started with the couple talking about their first bona fide hit, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Ray Charles.
“Ed Silvers, our publisher, gave us this office, this music room, to work in, and we had been trying to write something all day,” explained Simpson. “We couldn’t come up with nothing,” added Ashford, “and so I guess I said, ‘Let’s go get stoned.’ But I meant just go have a drink, so we started laughing out the door, singing ‘Let’s go get stoned.’”
Don’t worry: this isn’t a recapitulation of the Ashford and Simpson career, extraordinary though it was. There can’t be anyone here who isn’t familiar with that story, those songs, that sorcery. Some readers will also be aware of Silvers, who ran the music publishing unit of Florence Greenberg’s Scepter/Wand operation, where Nick and Val were contracted as writers in the mid-1960s.
The record collectors among you probably own the Apollas’ “You’re Absolutely Right,” Tina Britt’s “The Real Thing” and perhaps even Troy Seals & Jo Ann Campbell’s “Same Old Feeling.” These are but three of the pre-Motown songs composed by Ashford and Simpson, with their early writing partner Joshie Jo Armstead, and published by Greenberg’s business.
And if I’m lucky, someone might even be able to confirm whether “Silly,” cut by Simpson in New York that winter, evolved into “Silly, Wasn’t I,” which appeared on her second Tamla album, seven summers later.
Anyway, the point here is to note the 51st anniversary of the first time that Ashford and Simpson produced a session for Hitsville. Having made an impression as writers for Jobete Music through the first half of 1967, notably with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” they earned the right to supervise something themselves. It was to be “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey.”
Previously, Nick and Val’s life-affirming songs for Marvin and Tammi had been produced by Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, who did not want to relinquish the task, according to Simpson. “At that point, we said, ‘It’s time to let us produce, these are our songs.’” Permission was granted, and on August 19, 1967, the track for “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey” was recorded; then, on September 29, Ashford and Simpson got to work with the headline act.
LIGHTING UP THE SKY, AN EARTHQUAKE BENEATH
Like Marvin and Tammi’s finest work together, “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey” lights up the sky with energy and electricity, with pitch-perfect harmonies and an utterly credible tale of two people deeply in love. With a bass line which rumbles underneath like an earthquake – another Jamerson triumph, surely – their criss-crossing vocal lines (“Sugar, I can’t bear the thought of ever leaving you behind/No matter what I do, another you I’ll never find”) demand the devotion of each other, then the admiration of everyone else within hearing range.
(Motown paperwork indicates that there were two vocal takes of “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey”: the first at the end of September, the second on October 12. The latter was probably the definitive version. An alternative vocal, released many years later, offers a more muscular Marvin, but Tammi seems less convincing. Whatever the sequence, the tragedy was that within a month of those recording sessions, Tammi had collapsed on stage with Marvin, never fully to recover.)
Ashford and Simpson’s first production at Motown was “also a ground-breaker because Val was a female,” said Nick. “I thought it was to my advantage that she was a woman. Whereas I might not have had a good rapport with the musicians, with Valerie, as a woman, they were easier, they were listening more carefully. A new attitude, a new respect.”
“Being a woman helped,” agreed Simpson, “but not until they knew you were qualified.” At first, those sessions were awful. “I can remember times in the studio where poor Paul Riser, our arranger – it was like [our] job to keep him from killing the drummer or something. They almost came to fist fights.” But once the musicians realised that the couple knew what they wanted, “then they would deal with you.”
The pair’s strong relationship with Riser proved invaluable – and the respect was mutual. “I was the very first one to work with them,” he had told me previously. “When they came to Motown, it was really like a breath of fresh air. It was almost like old-style classical music compared to contemporary classical music – that’s how I accepted it. It was like a whole new beginning for me.”
Even so, as New Yorkers commuting to Detroit, the newcomers had a difficult start. “I can’t even express how insecure they were when they first came in there,” remarked Riser. “They didn’t know how to control musicians, they didn’t know about the interaction between musicians and producers and arrangers – how the engineer interacted and tied it all together and put it on tape. They just didn’t understand any of it.”
Yet they were fast learners, helped by the Cass Tech-schooled arranger. “His real forte is in his string arrangements,” said Simpson. “He would take the piano part and make an arrangement, really use the demo keyboard part that I [created], and then build the whole thing around it. It sounded like it belonged there.”
If “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey” was the start of Ashford and Simpson’s advance as producers, then Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was surely the peak. “They didn’t do the one with Marvin and Tammi,” Riser acknowledged, “that was Harvey. So when they got a chance to do it [with Diana], they did it the way they originally heard it, no doubt.”
BIG FUN FOR PAUL RISER
According to Don’t Forget The Motor City, the rhythm track and background vocals for this “Mountain” were recorded in mid-March of 1970, with strings and horns added a few days later. “Of course, I just loved it, it was big fun for me,” said Riser. “We cut the rhythm track here in Detroit. The strings and horns were a little too sophisticated for the players there, so we went to New York to do it, to get the best possible performance.”
And what of Diana, who cut her vocal in Detroit? “She just kind of raised her eyebrows,” recalled Simpson, “and said, ‘Marvin and Tammi already did that.’ We said, ‘This is especially for you.’ She said, ‘OK,’ and just gave it all she had.”
“She’s a very hard worker,” said Ashford, “very attentive and would try. Even if vocally she hadn’t done anything like the riff you wanted her to do, she had no objection to trying. She wants to be good.” Simpson agreed. “After having worked with lots of ladies in the business, I would say she’s a lot better voice-for-voice than some of the others who get more credit.”
There is another version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the Motown vault, of course, featuring the singing voices of the authors themselves. This remains part of their “lost” album, Nick & Val, recorded during 1972 and intended for release on Tamla that November. “The time we were writing for Marvin and Tammi and people at Motown, I don’t think they were interested in us as artists,” said Ashford, who died in 2011. “They felt they had a good producing/songwriting team.”
Throughout the first half of Nick & Val, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” flows as an “interlude,” unifying and separating three other songs: “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “Oh Love, Don’t Make Me.” On the album’s second side, “You’re All I Need To Get By” is deployed in similar fashion, together with “Remember Me,” “If You Don’t Love Me Now” and “Isn’t Love Supposed To Be Like This.” The finale is “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”
“It was a non-stop album,” Simpson explained. “We thought we were being very clever – so clever that they didn’t release it.” For his part, Ashford thought Nick & Val was undertaken by Motown to pacify the pair, to keep them away from the exit door. “It was,” he declared, “like a farm. ‘Your job [is] on the farm. You do a really good job over here, so stay on the plough.’”
That said, Simpson was gracious about Berry Gordy in a recent, expansive interview with Music Business Worldwide. “He was very keen on songs being standards,” she said. “He was looking at people like Gershwin, and he knew that you need to hear something over and over in order for it to stay in the consciousness of the people, and for it to mean something in people’s life. I thought that was very wise of him, and it’s partly what’s led to our catalogue being as strong as it is today. I’m making more money today than I did when they were hits!”
Earlier this year, eleven blocks south of that Atlantic studio where she sang a half-century ago, Valerie Simpson made her Broadway debut in Chicago: The Musical, playing Matron “Mama” Morton, keeper of the keys.
Evidently, the mountains keep challenging, and the audiences keep on lovin’ her.
Music notes: there’s no shortage of Ashford & Simpson on digital services, including their albums for Warner Bros. and Capitol, and Valerie’s two Tamla titles. The couple’s songs for others are available, too, including those by the Apollas and Tina Britt which are cited above. In physical form, there’s The Real Thing from Ace Records, a fine assembly of Ashford/Simpson/Armstead copyrights sung by various artists. But if a desert island is your destination and you’re only allowed one disc for your portable CD player, Marvin and Tammi’s The Complete Duets (a 2001 Motown compilation) is all you need to get by.