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On Ashford & Simpson's Solid

 

 

 

April 30, 2007.

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

 

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson are arguably the greatest song-smiths of 1970s Soul music. They first made their mark writing songs popularized by others including the great Marvin Gaye/Tammy Terrell Motown romances “You’re All That I Need To Get By,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

 

They also wrote Diana Ross’ major solo single “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” For Chaka Khan, they penned the perennial feminine power song “I’m Every Woman,” which was subsequently covered by Whitney Houston for her film The Bodyguard.

As recording artists, they have over twenty gold and platinum recordings. Their largest hit was also their last hit, 1984’s “Solid,” which is a classic club anthem epitomizing the disco era.

Nickolas Ashford was born
May 4, 1942 in Fairfield, South Carolina. Valerie Simpson was born August 26, 1946 in New York City. They met in 1964 at the White Rock Baptist Church when Ashford moved to New York from Detroit
. His goal as a dancer and singer was to break into the big time. He was homeless and jobless but determined to make it.

 

Ashford met Simpson in church when he joined the choir where she was playing music and he was seeking spiritual sustenance. They formed a professional songwriting team and scored a major hit in 1966 with “Let’s Go Get Stoned” performed by Ray Charles. They married in 1974 and over thirty years later, they’re still together and still musically active.
 
In the fall of 2006, Nick and Valerie did a two week engagement at Feinstein’s at the Regency in
New York
. It was stirring show that covered all their major hits and received a laudatory review in the New York Times.

I have never been a fan of disco and am generally leery of pop music but I am a fan of Ashford & Simpson. They are what might be called clear-eyed romantics—soulful pop artists who craft complex but nonetheless catchy music encapsulating mature views of relationships in modern
America.

 
I used to love going to their shows, watching and enjoying them sing and dance. Ashford was initially a dancer. They were what is often referred to as a classy act. But they were also heavy into glitz and glamour, with Ashford with his long mane often more ostentatious than Simpson. I was not into their haute couture fashion scene but I was deeply moved by the philosophical relevance and musical deeptitude of their songs.

I remember interviewing them for The Black Collegian magazine. Their heart-warming story was one of hard work and consistency leading to personal and professional success. It wasn’t love at first or even second sight. A great professional partnership morphed into an enduring friendship over time and one evening at a dance, the ten-year seed germinated and romance blossomed.
 
I can still hear Valerie laughing as she described watching Nickolas go with girl after girl and Nick retorting that Val had her share of romantic ups and downs. It was apparent from the banter between them that while they really knew, loved and respected each other, they were not oblivious to their differences. They had their share of disagreements but they also had an honest way of working them out.

One of this couple’s unique qualities is that they embody role reversals. Nick is the sensitive poet who does most of the lyrics and Valerie is the professional offering the musical direction.

Listen to their songs. It is clear they understand that love is much, much larger than lust, or as one of their more down-to-earth songs proclaims “Love Don’t Make It Right.” Then there is the self-critical, brutal honesty of “Couldn’t Get Enough,” not to mention the world-weary assessment contained in “Rushing To.” This is adult music; precisely the kind of music that would hardly find a niche on 21st century urban radio.

In the Nineties, Warner Brothers reissued five or six of Ashford & Simpson’s Seventies albums. They are now out of print.  My personal favorite of their Warner Brothers recordings, So So Satisfied, commands upwards of $60 a copy, if you can find one.

While Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell epitomize the male/female duo of popular Black music, Ashford & Simpson are the real godheads of duo-dom. Just on the level of vocals, their’s is perhaps the most interesting sound in modern music.

Nick Ashford’s voice ranges from a seductive baritone to a falsetto that rivals Prince. In one sense, he is the diva of the couple. Valerie Simpson’s strong suit is the utter frankness and sincerity she projects. When their voices intertwine, their church roots flower. Instead of rock guitar power chords, they offer straight up gospel power singing augmented by jazz-influenced harmonics.
 
Although they certainly ought not be, Ashford & Simpson are generally overlooked when we talk about seventies Soul music. No one else, excepting Stevie Wonder, produced as many Seventies Soul hits. In terms of the range of their musical stylings, on one end of the spectrum there is “By Way Of Love’s Express,” the great train song employing the shuffle rhythm that epitomizes Black popular music of the first half of the 20th century. On the other end is that jet-propelled, jump-up, disco era hot-stepper “Solid.”

Of all the R&B groups Ashford & Simpson were the most successful at dealing with the Eighties transition from rhythm and blues to disco. Indeed, it is paradoxical that their last major hurrah was also their greatest pop success. “Solid” is almost a parody of disco with its drum machine, synthesizers and echo manipulations. It is at once egregious in its production artificiality and great in its emotional impact.

 

The secret of Ashford & Simpson is their ability to merge disparate elements into a gorgeous musical whole: soaring gospel, jazz harmonies, touches of blues, funk and rock, it’s all contained in the Ashford & Simpson approach to music making.

 

 

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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