Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, You’ re All I Need to Get By, Let’s Go Get Stoned, Remember Me, It’s My House, I’m Every Woman and California Soul; These are some songs of the oeuvre of the musical duo Ashford & Simpson. Nickolas Ashford (1941-2011) and Valerie Simpson wrote and produced dozens of hits that were played by many radio stations during the late 1960s and 1970s. The songs composed by Ashford & Simpson gave color to American society. The lyrics of the songs are based on hope, love, romance, respect, sincerity, and tolerance. In a deeply divided and racist United States during the 1960s, the songs supplied strength and inspiration to move toward a more righteous and equal society. To this day, the songs are played gray by radio stations. “I’m Every Woman” often still reverberates in disco halls and “ Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has been the highlight of Diana Ross concerts to this day. In addition, the lyrics are still relevant. The message in “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” is more relevant today than ever before; Help that old friend, because his shoes might fit your feet. Nick and Valerie also had hits of their own including “Found a Cure” (1979) and the famous “Solid” (1984). For DEBAT magazine, I spoke to the legendary Valerie Simpson about her career and the impact music had on society.
Dear Ms. Simpson, first; it is an honor to interview you. I was looking at your music catalog today and it is unimaginable how many famous songs you and your husband have written. The songs are pure, authentic and timeless. I am sure that in 500 years your songs will still be played and listened to; that is how good your songs are. Besides my interest in political developments and international relations, soul music is my second great passion. From an early age I have been listening to artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Rev. Al Green, Barry White, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. While my peers listened to Justin Bieber and 50Cent, I listened to Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind and your own written song; Silly Wasn’t I. Perhaps I have an old soul (laughing). I’m curious, what was your first introduction to music?
“I grew up in the Bronx, and my grandmother was a minister there. My grandmother introduced me to the Gospel tradition. The Gospel formed my first contact with music. By the way, nobody taught me to play the piano; I listened carefully to the sounds and played them. I played by ear.” What artists did you listen to when you were young?
“I loved listening to Nina Simone, especially because she sang and played the piano. Nina Simone was unique, she sounded like no one else. I listened to many artists, but Nina Simone was special to me. Later I became a major fan of Aretha Franklin. Aretha, like Nina Simone, could sing beautifully and play the piano.”
The songs of Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin are indeed beautiful. Their music holds a message.“Absolutely. Wonderful messages. So, I was incredibly impressed with them because they could also play the piano, in addition to their singing. I studied them and watched their performances. When I became a songwriter, I got to know Nina Simone personally and we became good friends. Aretha Franklin, by the way, was also a good friend. I was lucky to get to know my idols personally.”
Nick and Valerie met at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964. Valerie sang in the choir. Nick Ashford, a dancer from Michigan, wandered around New York and hoped to make it there. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out for Nick, and he ran out of money. He was homeless and sleeping on a street bench in Bryant Park. He attended White Rock Baptist Church because he always got a plate of food there. In addition, gospel music offered him strength and inspiration. Thus, he met Valerie Simpson. Together they began to write music. Romantic love did not come until many years later, but once love was there, it was solid as a rock.
How did you get in touch with the producers of Ray Charles?
“We could often be found at Brill Building, a place where many music composers hung out. We had written the song Let’s Go Get Stoned, and it was Ed Silvers who saw remarkable success in it. Ed Silvers arranged for Ray Charles to record the song. We wrote Let’s Go Get Stoned with Joshie Armstead; a former Ikette and budding songwriter. We had written the song more as a joke and really didn’t think it would be an immense success. In the end, it became a tremendous success with Ray Charles. This was our first considerable success.”
I have noticed that in your songs there is often a certain building up, there is tension building. Also, I think you like to use backing vocals, violins and stringed instruments. “That was kind of our formula. We come from the gospel tradition, so we liked to do it big, the drama was central.”
How did you get in contact with the boss of Motown, Berry Gordy Jr.?
“Yes, we got a call that he was looking for songwriters. Nick met the songwriting team HollandDozier-Holland (the songwriting team behind the Supremes’ hits) at a hotel in New York and showed them our demos. They loved it and offered us tickets to Detroit. We were hired at Motown Records.”
This was of course followed by your gigantic success with the songs you wrote for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, You’re All I Need To Get By, Your Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.
“Yes, it is. We sent the demos to Motown and Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol produced them. At one point we asked Berry if we could produce the songs ourselves. Berry found it difficult to take this task away from Harvey and Johnny and therefore said; whoever produces the song Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing the best, will get the credits of producing. We tried extremely hard and finally Berry loved our production and so we started producing. This was in line with Berry’s idea of competition makes for success.”
I recently discovered that Aretha Franklin also sang Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing…. It’s impressive how she put her own twist on it. I cannot express in words how beautiful her version is.
“A wonderful version. Differs a lot from our version. It was as if Aretha always wanted to show us what she could do with our songs, it’s extraordinarily beautiful how she sang it. She won a Grammy for it, by the way. She did the same with You’re All I Need to Get By, she always did the icing on the cake. Aretha showed everyone how it should be done (laughing)”
“The version by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is also great. The songs have stood the test of time. They are timeless classics.”
“Marvin was also incredibly special. He brought magic to the studio. He was a gentleman and got along very well with Tammi, those two were a match in heaven. Marvin brought out the best in the female singers.”
Did Berry Gordy Jr. give you all the freedom? Or were there certain rules that you had to follow when composing?
“He really gave us all the freedom. They didn’t bother us. They didn’t even change anything about our productions. Berry trusted us, he believed in us. Nick once attended a quality-control meeting about our written song ‘You Are All I Need to Get By’. In that meeting, they would criticize the song and ultimately determine if it would be released. Nick was incredibly nervous. After the master was played, Berry said, “We’re not even going to vote on this, this is going to be released.’ We were so glad after that meeting.”
How wonderful that must have been, to be among all those famous artists and musicians. We know artists like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, but I also think of the Funk Brothers, Paul Riser, Uriel Jones, Earl van Dyke and Johnny Griffith.
“I never used the keyboard players; I played all those songs myself. But indeed, James Jamerson and Robert White were present. Uriel Jones was the drummer and Paul Riser was the arranger. Paul always wanted to have it his way (laughing). We didn’t have much time to record the songs. We had about 3 hours with the musicians in the control room. We had to keep going.” “There was also competition between the songwriters themselves. Smokey Robinson occasionally came to listen in, Norman Whitfield too. We also helped each other though. It was a kind of high school for us.”
In 1970 you produced the solo album for Diana Ross. This was her first solo album after leaving The Supremes. You had reshaped Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. The song got a new dimension, a new feeling. A beautiful version by the way. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough originated because Nick began to see the skyscrapers in New York as mountains. Nick wanted to make it as a professional songwriter at that time and imagined that he had the power to climb these mountains. He could overcome his obstacles (the skyscrapers/mountains). Nothing would stop him from making his dreams come true. And that’s what people feel in this song, motivation and empowerment. The deeper message is that you can achieve anything you want. So, it’s not so much about romantic love. There is a story about a football team that played very badly in the league, but in the end won the deciding game. When the coach was asked how it was possible that the team suddenly won, he replied: “I told them the night before; Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Ain’t No Valley Low Enough, Ain’t No River Wide Enough to keep us from this victory. So, it’s great that people use this song for their internal motivation. We wrote it with intention. And it’s wonderful to see that that intention is felt by people. The song is already 51 years old. Time flies.”
The text is beautiful; “If You Need Me, Call Me. No Matter Where You Are, No Matter How Far. Just Call My Name. I Will Be There in A Hurry. On That You Can Depend and Never Worry. You See My Love Is Alive, It’s Like a Seed, That Only Needs the Thought of You to Grow….” Did Nick write this?
“Yes. And Berry thought Diana Ross’ speaking part took too long. He thought it all had to be done faster. But Nick and I persisted and said, no, we must keep it that way. Diana has a beautiful, sexy speaking voice. You can hear that we build up the tension in the song, we build up the drama. The entire song works towards a climax. Fortunately, we didn’t change anything because it was a momentous success.”
“Diana knew exactly what we wanted. We were able to work very well with her. She felt good about us. We understood each other. She understood that it would not be a copy of Marvin&Tammi’s version.”
Which production are you most proud of? Or is that impossible to say?
“They are all my children. Each song has its own qualities. For every state of mind there is a different matching song. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and I’m Every Woman are the best known.”
My personal favorite is Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand because of the message.
“Yes, I’m glad we wrote it. The song holds wisdom for all of us regardless of the time. Diana Ross sang it great, and Aretha once again gave it a special beautiful twist. I happened to be in a church last Sunday, and the minister knew I was in the audience, and spontaneously the choir started singing ‘ Reach Out and Touch’. It was beautiful.”
I’ve always been interested in the stories behind the songs, also the time context. We must not forget that many of your songs were released at a special time in the United States. Polarization, racism and division prevailed. I personally think Motown has broken down racial barriers. How do you look back on this?
“The great thing is that all those songs transcended the races. We’ve made songs for everyone regardless of race. That’s the beauty of music; it’s for everyone. But certainly, in the southern states, racism was rampant. In the audience, white people sat on one side, and black people on the other. But the music eventually brought us together. That was the strength of Motown; it brought people together through the music.”
In 1978, Nick and Valerie wrote I’m Every Woman for Chaka Khan. It was Nick who wrote the lyrics. Nick came up with the line; ‘I’m Every Woman’ and then couldn’t come up with any lyrics, so Valerie teasingly encouraged him to look for his female instinct. Nick wrote the entire lyrics after a while, and it became an unofficial anthem for women everywhere in the world. In the 1990s, Whitney Houston covered the song.
You have seen so much, you have worked with the greatest on earth, you have made history and you have paved the way for so many. What is your advice to the younger generation? What are the lessons we can learn?
“Be yourself. Your gift is yours. Always try to work hard and radiate your own values.”
“Don’t give up too soon, learn to deal with criticism. And enjoy the process. That is particularly important.”
Thank you so much for the interview and thank you for writing the soundtrack of our lives.
Photo by Frans de Beer