Still Solid, 40 Years Later: Ashford And Simpson

Ed Gordon talks with the R&B songwriting duo Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who have been composing and performing hit songs for more than four decades. The husband and wife team perform for the next two weeks in New York City.

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ED GORDON, host:

Many people turn to music to try and get them through the horror of 9/11. Undoubtedly, some of those tunes were the music of Ashford and Simpson. The legendary duo became household names among R&B fans for at least two reasons. Since 1966, the prolific songwriting duo has been composing classic music made famous artists, including Ray Charles, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross.

But Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson have a career as performers themselves. The put out three gold albums during the 1970s and topped R&B charts with hits like Is it Still Good to You and It Seems to Hang On.

(Soundbite of song, It Seems to Hang On)

Ms. VALERIE SIMPSON (Musician): (Singing) Is the daylight, I can't take no more, never had this condition before.

GORDON: The powerful husband and wife team is still going strong after more than four decades of collaboration. Looking back to when he and Val started composing in the 1960s, Nick remembers what helped them write the classic hits that endure today.

Mr. NICK ASHFORD (Musician): Times were different and I think we were on the heartbeat of America. You know, it's like when you're young and you're being inspired by music, it's really beautiful. And I think at that time Valerie and I were just wanted to bust out of ourselves.

Ms. SIMPSON: So eager, so eager.

Mr. ASHFORD: And I just had to go somewhere and be somebody. Times inspire you. I think that's what inspired a lot of the lyric.

GORDON: Here's what's interesting with your music, too. Often you'll get producers and writers who will have hits on one or two or three people. But when you read the laundry list of folks who've taken your songs to heights, you know, on the Billboard charts - Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, many, many others - it must be a thrill for the musicianship in you that says all of these people, cross genres, have been able to take this music and make hits from it.

Ms. SIMPSON: It is quite thrilling; it really, really is. And, you know, when we get together with those artists, there's a commonality there. There's a kinship that, you know, that could never be broken. And we're thrilled. It makes us a part of their legacy too.

(Soundbite of song, Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand)

Ms. DIANA ROSS (Singer): (Singing) Why don't you reach out and touch somebody's hand, make this world a better place if you can...

GORDON: You guys know that I've been fans of yours for a long, long time. I've been able to express that to you in private and public. But I had no idea you guys wrote the Ray Charles hit Let's Get Stoned.

Mr. ASHFORD: You didn't?

Ms. SIMPSON: That was our first hit.

GORDON: I had no idea.

Mr. ASHFORD: Ed, that was all a joke too when we wrote that song.

Ms. SIMPSON: A big fluke.

Mr. ASHFORD: Because we were working with this publisher, Ed Silvers, and we came into his office one day and he said, you guys got a song for us? And we said, oh yeah, we wrote this great song. But it was a song we went out the door singing when we couldn't write any song. We were saying, oh, let's go get stoned. And we were saying...

ASHFORD AND SIMPSON: (Singing) Let's go get stoned.

(Soundbite of song, Let's Go Get Stoned)

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Let's go get stoned.

Mr. RAY CHARLES (Musician): (Singing) Get...

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Stoned.

Mr. ASHFORD: And we made it up for him on the spot. And he said, oh my God, that's great. Put it on tape, we're going to get it to Ray Charles. And we didn't even know what we had sang at the time.

(Soundbite of song, Let's Go Get Stoned)

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Ain't no harm to take a little nip, but don't you fall down and bust your lip. No, no...

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Let's go get stoned.

GORDON: One of the things that I've seen not only through your recordings but when I've seen you guys live, there is a real sense of familia, if you will. A family with Ashford and Simpson and their fans, isn't there?

Ms. SIMPSON: Absolutely. It's almost sensual and just a yummy, yummy thing. It almost makes you feel like you can do things that you know you can't do, but they make you feel like you can in that instance. And you will strive to be better.

GORDON: You guys are going to be playing at Feinstein's at the Regency, which is, by many people's accounts, one of the great nightclubs of New York City. And this will kind of be a throwback to what people knew as the supper club to a...

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes.

Mr. ASHFORD: Right, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIMPSON: And we're really excited about doing it. The fact that they will be up close right on top of us.

Mr. ASHFORD: And you know you wonder should you do your, you know you can't do your big theatre act or your arena act, so you've got to size everything down and still get the emotion and the feeling you want to give the people and feel it yourself, too. So it's going to be...

Ms. SIMPSON: And it's a lot harder to hide with four musicians than it is with eight.

GORDON: Is there a hit song, one of your big songs, that you are all still stymied by the fact that it became a hit? Something you wrote and you thought, let's throw it on the album because we got to fill it up.

Mr. ASHFORD: Well, I tell you, Ed, I was shocked or surprised when Solid became a hit. I wasn't sure that was - I thought, I loved the song but I didn't think it would rise to the height it rose. It was just interesting to me. And now it's like our, it's like our...

Ms. SIMPSON: Like our anthem.

Mr. ASHFORD: Our anthem. We can't leave the stage before we sing that, you know.

(Soundbite of song, Solid)

Ms. SIMPSON: (Singing) And so both of us learned to trust, not run away...

Mr. ASHFORD: (Singing) It was no time to play...

Ms. SIMPSON: (Singing) We build it up...

Mr. ASHFORD: (Singing) And build it up...

Ms. SIMPSON: (Singing) And build it up...

ASHFORD AND SIMPSON: (Singing) And now it's solid, solid as a rock.

GORDON: Let's get to the new project, Invisible Life. And that's a musical you guys are doing based on a novel by E. Lynn Harris, who we have had on this program, and has really over the course the last decade become one of the most popular African-American artists, or authors, and just period, authors in the nation. Talk to us about what this will be. And I understand it will debut in Washington, D.C. this fall.

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. The book, it was brought to us in a musical script, and we read the script and we loved the script. What the script really did, which is going to be different from the book, is that it points out - it gives you a very interesting look at a young man who's confused about his sexual identity. And his father, who, in the book was a lawyer, becomes a minister in the script that we were given. And so you have the church's point of view.

So it gave us a chance to voice the church and to voice his view and to voice the gay world's view. And so it's a very, very interesting project for us.

Mr. ASHFORD: It's very touchy, but I think we're mastering it pretty good.

Ms. SIMPSON: Yeah.

Mr. ASHFORD: So far everyone really loves what we've done with the music and I think it's really going to speak to you.

GORDON: Finally, let me ask you guys. Any hopes of getting you guys back in the studio and looking for new material outside of Invisible Life, but new Ashford and Simpson material soon?

Ms. SIMPSON: Well, you know, as soon as we see a viable situation where we think that, you know, that the distribution end is going to be there. To me, it's pointless just to make music that's going to sit home or in my shelf.

Mr. ASHFORD: I do think it's turning around a little bit. I think I can see people wanting to hear more music-music now as opposed to all hip-hop. You know, which I have nothing against hip-hop. I think some of it is really good. But on the other hand, some of the real great artists are just being lost because they're not getting the airplay or anything to make them inspire to record again.

Ms. SIMPSON: And interestingly enough, those are the artists who continue to work.

Mr. ASHFORD: But I also think it's up to the fan base to call in the radio stations and demand that the more mature artists be played as well.

GORDON: Yeah. Don't push us aside quite yet. We're not ready to retire to the home quite yet. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIMPSON: I think I've got something to tell you.

GORDON: Well, listen, we can listen to great material and look forward to it in Invisible Life, which will open this fall in Washington, D.C., a musical from Ashford and Simpson based on a novel by E. Lynn Harris. And for those in the New York area, September 12th through the 23rd at the Regency Hotel, Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: An Evening with Ashford and Simpson, and that will certainly prove to be a very special and an exciting time.

Nick and Val, thanks so much for being on the program.

Mr. ASHFORD: Thank you, Ed.

Ms. SIMPSON: Always good to talk to you, Ed.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Think, think about the way…

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. We'd like to welcome our new listeners in Norfolk, Virginia at member station WHRV, 89.5 FM. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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