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ASHFORD & SIMPSON: SOLID AS BARACK

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Friday, March 6, 2009.

 

They’ve been married for 34 years. Together they have 31 hit singles and two children. In the entertainment industry they are the ultimate showbiz couple.

Beyond honorific titles, the reality is that they also are two of the major architects of Soul music. Though we might not think of them first when we think of
Motown, their contribution to that massive legacy is staggering.

Indeed, solely as songwriters they are worthy of accolades. But there is more; their performances are legendary and they are doyen of the club circuit and producers of a prodigious number of dance floor anthems.

The
last time we focused on Ashford & Simpson, we explored their hit records, noting that Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson are arguably the greatest songsmiths of 1970s Soul music. And that’s no idle claim: from Ray Charles to Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan to Amy Winehouse, Diana “The Boss” Ross to Whitney Houston, their songs sing for themselves.

 

This week, however, the emphasis is on performance, on how these folk sang; I don’t mean “sing,” I mean sannnngggggg, as in when they finish you can just go ahead and “shut yo mouth, honey, cause ain’t nothing more to be said.”

If you just judged by their popular recordings, it would be understandable that the assessment is that they are a glitzy pop group focusing on witty lyrics and lush harmonies, but what you would miss is their roots in the Church. When you listen to these live performances, the whooping and hollering, the falsetto and refusal to stop when they come to the end of the song, their obvious joy in stretching their voices and generating a frenzy of excitement in the audience, when you check out all of that, their church origins are obvious.

 

If you listen to their latest mixtape, I bet you half way through you are going to wonder is this really Ashford and Simpson because “I’ve never heard them sing like this.” This, of course, means that you never saw their shows in the ‘70s when catching the spirit was not an uncommon occurrence at an Ashford & Simpson concert. Indeed, the strength of even their most insubstantial songs is that those songs are produced by a couple who have deep, deep roots, a couple who are not academic in their church techniques, a couple whose harmonies might even call to mind Labelle or Patti rolling on the floor (if you don’t know what I mean, I can’t help you, some things nobody can’t tell you, you got to experience it for yourself!).

 

Another electric current shooting through their performance is authentic sexuality; not posing, posturing or pretending, not “showing off/out” but rather a strong, physical attraction between the two from which their stage show draws. They not only sing and dance together, they sleep together and have stayed together, which means they have both fought and loved, both cried and laughed, been tenderly solicitous of the other’s feeling and fiercely tenacious about personal decisions.

No couple goes through more over 30 years of marriage without a struggle. And no one is more able to celebrate life like those who have struggled and survived while dealing with the vicissitudes of stardom. Ashford & Simpson’s success as a couple should not be taken lightly.

 

The hard truth is that now in their sixties, this is retirement time, especially in the context of a viciously unsentimental, youth-oriented entertainment industry. But instead of slowing down, they have caught a second wind  and have recently released two collections that are guaranteed to advance their careers.

 

Released January 27, 2009, The Real Thing is an enhanced, live CD/DVD of a concert performance. Thankfully, Ashford & Simpson avoid taking a doddering stumble down greatest hits memory lane. Indeed, nine of the fourteen tracks were not even hits for them but rather were huge for others. What we get is Ashford & Simpson doing the songs that made others famous except, of course, they are songs that Ashford & Simpson wrote. In a real sense they are covering themselves.

I haven’t seen the concert but the sound is good and the performances are energetic in a make you jealous sort of way. Selections from The Real Thing comprise the bulk of the mixtape. I’ve added two performances from my stash: "So So Satisfied" and "Gimme Something Real" are from 1977 concerts promoting one of their Warner Bros. albums.

It’s absolutely impossible to select which are the best selections, especially because so many of these songs hold special memories for many people. Whom were you hugged up with on “Ain’t Nothin Like The Real Thing”. When you and your girls hit the club, maybe you were just a year or so out of high school and Chaka was shouting “I’m Every Woman,” so you know that’s got to be your song. As for me, I was in the Army and drinking like a fish when Ray Charles was suggesting “Let’s go Get Stoned.” And on and on. It’s pointless to argue, just get it.

 

Potentially, the more important release for deep fans is the Rhino Records produced, 2CD set The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities (February 2008). Again, there’s a wonderful twist. The first CD is not simply hits but rather a collection including 12” singles that were originally released as promo recordings to club and radio DJs. A number of these songs currently fetch three figures on eBay. It’s an absolute masterstroke to make these recordings available.

But then there’s the second twist: the DNA double-helix twist. The original tapes were offered to remix maestros and they have delivered at the cutting edge of club music. This time I do have an unequivocal favorite.

Our BOL mixtape opens with a sub-minute long snippet of Valerie Simpson’s shimmering and enchanting instrumental “Bourgie Bourgie.” It’s not there gratuitously as a throwaway opening to a short interview segment, nor is it simply a homage to Simpson’s beautiful music and her crafts-womanship. No, the “Bourgie Bourgie” excerpt is a set up for the arc of the mixtape.

 

We close with an 11 minute remix of “Bourgie Bourgie” by Joe Claussell who I think of as a combination of Mozart, for his technical brilliance, and Miles Davis, for his emotional impact. I am in awe of this ‘orchestration’—it’s far, far more than simply an arrangement. From drums and percussion to absolutely, brilliantly imposing bass lines; from rhythmic drive to melodic inventiveness, Joe Claussell defines what it means to remix a song. Clausell’s work is particularly inventive in that there is no lyric, no vocalist to offer the impact of the human voice. It’s all in the sounds and in the beats.

 

A new single, ”Solid (As Barack),” is inserted between the live performances and interview segments, and the three remixes at the end of the mixtape. Released on Barack Obama’s inauguration day, it’s pretty clear what that song is. According to Nick Ashford, the idea from the song came from a trio of young ladies in Los Angeles. During a sing-along concert segment on the song “Solid,” the girls started belting “solid as Barack.” Others picked it up. In New York people repeated the idea. A producer for Saturday Night Live (SNL) read about it a New York paper and… well, if you’ve seen the SNL segment you can guess how it went from there.

So that’s it. Raw churchy vocal performances, a topical anthem for a new President, and a trio of remixes ending with a gorgeous statement from Joe Claussell. It doesn’t usually get much better for an overview of seminal pop music.

 

Have a great weekend, folks!

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.

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