Monday, November 3, 2008

Ashford & Simpson - Still Solid

The 1985 Ashford & Simpson R&B flavoured hit ‘Solid’ didn’t make a huge impact on me at the time of its release, but I honestly can’t pinpoint why. Perhaps it was just one of those songs that can occasionally slip under your personal radar, a bit like a sleeper on the charts. I’m glad to say in the two decades since, its charm has won me over completely, and ‘Solid’ is now song I can listen to anytime, anywhere with an enduring appreciation for its slick production values and the truly world class song writing/vocal talents of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

Prior to scoring their biggest hit as a vocal duo, Ashford & Simpson had already established a twenty plus year career as a song writing partnership. Nickolas Ashford dropped out of college and move to Harlem in his late teens, homeless at first and working as a busboy, before taking his first tentative steps as a gospel singer at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem. It was there that he met a seventeen year old Valerie Simpson in 1964. Simpson was studying music at Chatham Square School and also sang in the church choir. The pair began writing songs together, the first batch of which they sold for the princely sum of $75. They also recorded a single titled ‘I’ll Find You’ under the name Valerie & Nick.

But they soon recognised their strength was as a song writing team, and before long they had penned the 1966 Ray Charles’ hit ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ (US#31). Following their stint at Scepter Records, Ashford and Simpson were recruited to the song writing/production staff at Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. They wrote and produced a string of hits for the duo of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, including ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’ (US#8) and ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ (US#7) in 1968, and Diana Ross’ first post-Supremes hit ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ (US#20-1970). Other artists at the Motown label to benefit from the Ashford & Simpson touch were Gladys Knight & The Pips, Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown.

By the early 70s the duo were keen to try their hand again at the performance side of things, something which Motown kingpin Berry Gordy was apparently not encouraging of. Valerie Simpson released a couple of low key solo albums during 1972, which she co-wrote and produced with Nickolas Ashford, but the duo were now focussed intently on making their own music. They released their debut album as Ashford & Simpson with 1973’s ‘Keep It Comin’, their one and only LP with Motown, as a duo. Soon after they jumped ship to Warner Bros. and late in ‘73 released their sophomore set ‘Gimme Something Real’ (US#18-R&B), which yielded the duos first chart hit with ‘(I’d Know You) Anywhere’ (US#88). To celebrate Ashford & Simpson the duo became Ashford & Simpson the married couple in 1974, no doubt with Valerie Simpson’s brother Ray in attendance, though it’s doubtful Ray Simpson donned a police uniform to perform at the reception, as the Village People were still a couple of years away from forming.

Ashford & Simpson’s next album ‘I Wanna Be Selfish’ (1974-US#21-R&B) didn’t break any new ground but did further consolidate the duo on solid ground in the American R&B scene. The in studio synergy between Ashford and Simpson continued to blossom over the next couple of albums, ‘Come As You Are’ (1976-US#35-R&B) which yielded the #13 disco chart hit ‘One More Try’, and the gold certified ‘Send It’ (1977-US#52) which signalled Ashford & Simpson’s arrival as mainstream chart contenders.

By the close of the 70s Ashford & Simpson were regulars inside the R&B top 10 with the likes of ‘It Seems To Hang On’ (1978-#2) and ‘Found A Cure’ (1979-#2), and had released their third straight gold certified album in ‘Stay Free’ (US#23), all the while maintaining a reputation for producing high energy, slickly produced urban R&B. They’d also found time to write Chaka Khan’s first major solo hit ‘I’m Every Woman’ (see earlier post), and continue their work as writer/producers with Diana Ross, Ben E. King and Gladys Knight. Ashford & Simpson released two more albums for Warner Bros. (‘A Musical Affair’-1980, ‘Performance’-1981) before another label move landed them at Capitol Records for 1982’s ‘Street Opera’ (US#45), which featured the US#56 hit ‘Street Corner’.

It was lucky album #13 for Ashford & Simpson with the late ‘84 release of ‘Solid’ (UK#42/US#62), acknowledged as one of, if not the, most consistent collection of high quality R&B songs for the couple. The #1 R&B chart album realised three hit singles during 1985 with ‘Babies’ (UK#56), ‘Outta The World’ (US#4-R&B) and the aforementioned ‘Solid’ (US#12/UK#3/OZ#21), finally giving the duo a much warranted major hit on their career c.v.

Their follow up ‘Real Love’ in 1986 didn’t match the commercial heights of ‘Solid’, but nevertheless sold well (US#12-R&B) and produced another major R&B hit for Ashford & Simpson in ‘Count Your Blessings’ (#4). The duo had one more hit album in the creative tank with 1989’s ‘Love Or Physical’ (US#28-R&B), which yielded the US#2 (R&B) single ‘I’ll Be There For You’.

Ashford & Simpson continued to stage regular concert tours into the 90s and performed at special occasions such as Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration and the inauguration concert for President Clinton. In 1996 they established their own recording label Hopsack & Silk, and released the album ‘Been Found’ (US#49-R&B). That same year Ashford & Simpson were recognised for their prodigious song writing partnership, when they received the prestigious Founder’s Award from ASCAP (American Society of Composers And Publishers), and in 2002 they were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Over the last decade they’ve hosted a high rating radio show on New York’s KISS-FM, made a foray into television as hosts of a R&B TV promotion for Time Life, and continued to wow them in the aisles across the U.S. and Europe.

The YouTube clip below shows Ashford & Simpson still at the top of their game, performing ‘Solid’ at a 2007 concert in Amsterdam (the audio’s a bit dodgy). You can also view the original promotional video for ‘Solid’ at the following link:

No comments: