The Mountain, Climbed
ASHFORD & SIMPSON GET TO THE REAL THING, DIGITALLY
“The world changes,” Valerie Simpson said last autumn about the evolving music business, “and when the world changes, some are gonna lose out and some are gonna gain. And so I look to see, where’s the gain for me, how can I get in this loop in some way?”
But Val’s already in the loop.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is one of the 500 most-streamed songs on Spotify, worldwide. This fact was revealed in 2018 as the leading digital music service celebrated its tenth anniversary. The company’s “data storyteller” (an executive title that’s another sign of change) said the track possessed “pretty amazing staying power” – especially true when you consider that its competition is modern music made by contemporary young stars, who generate hundreds of millions, if not billions, of streams.
Spotify has more than 95 million paying subscribers worldwide, and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is the single most-streamed classic Motown track. That status is probably also the case at Apple Music, which has more than 50 million subscribers.
Written by Simpson and her late husband Nick Ashford, the song was only their third for Motown’s Jobete Music to be registered with the U.S. copyright office, in early 1967. Ashford once told me that what surprised Motown was their self-sufficiency and skill set. “They said, ‘She writes lyrics?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘She writes the music?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Did you arrange it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You made up the background [vocals] too?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘What are you talking about? We always do those things.’ ”
Ashford and Simpson subsequently became one of Motown’s most attractive, familiar narratives. This was primarily due to the calibre of their work, but also their media accessibility and candour (even the title of Valerie’s first Tamla solo album was Exposed). In 1971, when questioned by David Nathan for Blues & Soul, she said, “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.”
Over the years, Simpson – alone or with Ashford – must have done hundreds of interviews, if not more. They were certainly generous with their time when I was researching The Billboard Book Of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. More recently, Simpson talked at length to Dave Roberts for Music Business Worldwide, where this blog post’s opening quote first appeared. “Songwriters should be prepared to go through a lot of stuff to get to the real thing,” she added.
Another measure of Ashford and Simpson’s impact can be found in Alan Warner’s always-intriguing The Door To Yesterday website. This particular edition lists all of the couple’s Billboard-charted songs from 1965 to 2018, including their early collaborations with Joshie Jo Armstead, who was once a member of the Ikettes, and their later work with revered poet/novelist Maya Angelou.
Warner knows Nick and Val’s songbook from his time at EMI Music Publishing, after the EMI Group spent $132 million in 1997 for a half-share of the diamond mine that is Jobete. (In 2003-2004, the British firm spent $187 million to buy the balance.) “Part of my role was to familiarise EMI’s domestic and international staff with the depth of its vintage music catalogues,” recalled Warner. “I often met with songwriters, and custodians of significant portions of catalogues, to review their important copyrights.”
Jobete lawyer Vince Perrone suggested getting together with Berry Gordy in Los Angeles to identify the catalogue’s hidden classics, described by Warner as “existing songs which either had not achieved hit status, and/or previous hits which we felt had significant potential for further exploitation.” Among them was Ashford and Simpson’s “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You.” Warner added, “Berry brought along Suzee Ikeda to the meeting, which was particularly appropriate as she had cut a version of that song in 1972.”
On another occasion, Warner got together with Ashford and Simpson at their home in Manhattan. “Jon Platt, who was then at EMI, also wanted to meet Nick and Val, so he joined us and I took along a list of their Jobete copyrights, which we analysed, pinpointing the predominant titles for future promotion purposes.” It was a forward-looking move on Platt’s part, considering that in a few weeks, he will take charge of Sony/ATV Music, the company which now owns Jobete and enjoys the receipts from worldwide spins – by Spotify and others – of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and many more.
Ashford and Simpson’s first charted track was Maxine Brown’s “One Step At A Time,” co-written with Armstead. This made its Billboard Hot 100 debut in July 1965, followed in October by Ronnie Milsap’s “Never Had It So Good,” also penned with Armstead. Both were recorded for Scepter/Wand, when Nick and Val were under contract to its music publishing unit, Flo-Mar. The best account of this period in the couple’s pre-Motown life appears in Steve Guarnori’s Scepter Wand Forever! In addition to the prose, it includes a rare photo of Ashford, Simpson – looking very Diana Ross – and Armstead with Flo-Mar’s Ed Silvers and Artie Wayne.
The flipside of Milsap’s “Never Had It So Good” single was another Ashford/Simpson/Armstead tune, “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” When recorded by Ray Charles in late 1965, this graduated into the writers’ first major hit, reaching the top of the Billboard R&B charts the following July and considerably raising their professional value.
Nick and Val signed to Motown’s publishing division during the second half of 1966. According to Keith Hughes of Don’t Forget The Motor City, their first registered Jobete copyright was “Make Him Come To You,” recorded by the inimitable Brenda Holloway in September ’66, although unissued until 2005. More than two dozen of the songwriters’ Jobete works have reached the Billboard pop, R&B, adult contemporary or dance charts, including a remix of Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which – remarkably – went to No. 1 on the magazine’s Dance Club Songs countdown in January 2018.
The list of Ashford and Simpson’s Motown hits include the obvious diamonds, but also such lesser-known gems as “Shoe Shoe Shine,” “Destination: Anywhere,” “Tear It On Down” and “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime).” Remakes are represented, too, including two in the ’70s by Aretha Franklin, as well as Method Man & Mary J. Blige’s 1995 smash, “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By.”
In addition, Alan Warner tabulates the post-Motown chart entries which Nick ’n’ Val recorded as artists in their own right, for Warner Bros., Capitol and Hopsack & Silk. The last of those was a label created by the couple in 1996, featuring recordings made with Maya Angelou. Two of them, “Been Found” and “What If,” were minor R&B hits.
And what of “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You,” the song written by Ashford, Simpson and Brian Holland, and discussed during that EMI strategy session with Alan Warner, Suzee Ikeda and Berry Gordy? To this day, it has resisted being alchemised into a hit, despite recordings by Rita Wright (the original), Ikeda, the Supremes, Dusty Springfield, Kiki Dee, Diahann Carroll, Rosetta Hightower, Diana Ross, Vikki Carr and Stephanie Mills, plus an instrumental take by, uh, the Jeff Beck Group.
Hey, Valerie is jetting soon to Tokyo to perform in concert with smooth jazzman Dave Koz. If she includes “I Can’t Give Back...” in her set, perhaps an up-and-coming local singer will hear the song, be inspired and conjure up a hit. After all, Ashford and Simpson’s work is popular worldwide: Spotify has them in the loop.
Music notes: Ashford and Simpson’s Motown songwriting is well-represented on digital music services, obviously, and much of their pre-Motown work can be found there, too. The latter on Spotify includes Maxine Brown’s “One Step At A Time,” Tina Britt’s “The Real Thing,” Aretha Franklin’s “Cry Like A Baby” and an early copyright, Doris Troy’s “Please Little Angel.” On the physical side, there’s a comprehensive selection of Ashford/Simpson/Armstead material on The Real Thing, a 2009 compilation from Ace Records with fine liner notes by Mick Patrick. The Motown Forum of the Soulful Detroit website has posts with YouTube links for even more A/S/A tracks, via part 1 and part 2. As singers of their own songs, Nick and Val’s albums for Warner Bros. and Capitol are available for streaming, but we may have to wait a while longer for their 1972 Motown LP, never released.