An extraordinary evening transpired April 2nd in an intimate environment of like-minded musicians, songwriters and students during the latest in the series of Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions at NYU. The event featured more than a few historic experiences and stories as told by songwriter, performer, producer giant and SHOF Inductee Valerie Simpson.
The NYU Steinhardt’s Provincetown Playhouse set the cozily appointed stage, and was expertly hosted by Phil Galdston, NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Master Teacher in Songwriting. Galdston began by prompting Simpson to speak of the early years; she was born in the Bronx, New York and was singing at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964 when a homeless Nickolas Ashford from Fairfield, South Carolina, walked in looking for a meal. The connection made that day was the stuff of legend, and before long, the two were writing and recording as a duo. They soon joined the Scepter/Wand label, and later went on to Motown.
Ashford & Simpson created an unprecedented catalog of chart-topping hit singles and albums, collecting 22 gold and platinum records and more than 50 ASCAP Awards. Some of their classic compositions, productions and recordings include “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Your Precious Love,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” for Ray Charles,” Is It Still Good To You?” for Teddy Pendergrass, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and a customized version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Diana Ross, and “I’m Every Woman” for both Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston.
While this list of world soundtrack hits is astounding enough, Simpson provided an inside look that was both awe-inspiring and poignant as she spoke of her long collaboration and relationship with late husband Ashford. Periodically getting up from the interview to take to the piano, playing snippets from some of their iconic songs, she said she was always trying to “inspire a lyric” in Nick. He came up with the title “I’m Every Woman,” and when Simpson heard that, she told him to “put your hand on your hip and finish that lyric!”
She told the story of the song “You’re All I Need To Get By,” saying they decided to begin with the chorus, then broke up the verses, inserting a “bridge” in the middle in a very unconventional formula that wound up creating one of the biggest singles in Motown’s history. Simpson said the key was a bit high for Marvin Gaye who sang it with Tammi Terrell, so he had to sing “around the melody” to make it work for his voice. The rest is musical history.
When it came to the topic of rewriting your own songs, she advised the students in attendance to be “open to the possibility that there is something better in your songs.” She said Nick had been a perfectionist, constantly rewriting songs. They’d also had a specific vision as producers and arrangers and the duo had “stuck to their guns” when they felt a song had to be presented a certain way, at times even contrary to Motown founder Berry Gordy’s suggestions.
Galdston pointed out that Simpson was Motown’s first female producer, and went on to become recognized as the most successful female producer of all time. Ashford & Simpson were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.
Winding up the evening, Simpson left the enraptured audience with important advice: “If you feel it in your heart and in your fingertips, go on with it.”
And then she said,” anytime you’re around someone great; listen, learn and don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s how you grow.”
All who were in attendance left feeling touched by the magic and history of this songwriter and producer legend.
Kudos go to SHOF Board Members and Education Chair and Vice-Chair respectively, Robbin Ahrold and Karen Sherry, for making this event possible.
For more coverage, see Jim Bessman’s article for The Examiner here.