Interview: Ashford & Simpson

a&s%2006Ashford & Simpson, the songwriters responsible for classics like Diana Ross’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”—as well as hits under their own name like “Found a Cure” and “Solid”—opened the Fall 2006 season of Feinstein’s at the Regency. This isn’t the first time that a soul singer has performed in the cabaret; Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr, Darlene Love and Freda Payne have all graced the club’s stage. This was, however, their first-ever extended New York nightclub engagement for this particular celebrated husband-and-wife team of songwriters and performers.

“We’re trying to prepare ourselves,” says Nickolas Ashford. “We’re not used to long runs; two weeks, what’s that? The cabaret is going to be really interesting for us because it’ll be different from our usual theater-scaled performance because it’s so intimate. It’s going to be a nice shared experience.” He laughs, “it’s going to be just as fresh for us as it is for the people who come.”

“We want to be loose about it,” agrees Valerie Simpson, “not so structured. We’re going to deal with whoever is in the audience; we’re going to speak from the heart. We want to leave room for spontaneity. We just want to have fun! Musically, we’re keeping it small, at least four pieces, maybe five. As we rehearse we’ll see if we need anything more.”

Will Valerie, an accomplished keyboardist, be hitting the eighty-eights for the show (titled “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” after a hit they wrote for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Tyrell)? “For sure I’ll be playing keyboards for the show. I mean we’ll have another keyboard player, but I’ll be playing some for sure.”

The duo will also be performing several songs from Invisible Life, their new musical based on the best-selling novel by E. Lynn Harris, a black gay author, which will premiere in Washington, DC sometime during the 2006-2007 season. Life is Harris’s semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a young black man dealing with his bisexuality and the specter of AIDS.

“We were contacted through George Faison who’s directing it,” says Valerie. “The producers got a hold of us to ask us if we would consider writing the music. They sent the script over—I’d heard of the book it’s based on before, but neither of us had read it. My daughter had read it. But when we read the script we thought, my god this is really good. Stanley Bennett Clay, who did the adaptation, really captured it. It was quite a challenge to get it from the book to the musical. But we could feel it, it’s a world that we recognize and know. Clay made the main character’s father a minister, which really brought the challenge of the church’s point of view of the gay life and a man’s sexual identity into full frontal. It felt like something we knew about and could write about. We were just turned on by it.”

As for the experience of writing and producing for singers of the caliber of Diana Ross and   Marvin Gaye, Simpson laughs joyfully and calls it a songwriters’ dream come true. “I think when you write a song,” she says, “you hear people in your mind. You have a vision, but you never think you’re to actually get a Diana Ross to be interested. You know when we got to Motown that whole stable of artists was available, which was just the crème de la crème for us.”

Nick agrees, and adds that he thinks “the most interesting thing is dealing with the different personalities and how to go about singing your song like you think they’re going to sing it. Because they have their own style and you have to allow for that, you have to model what you want to that. It’s a nice collaboration when it all comes together and comes out really good.”

Simpson continues, “In most cases we give artists we’re producing a demo. I many cases I’ll do lead as a demonstration. For a lot of Diana’s songs, Nick would sing the lead, because she didn’t really want to hear a female. What you try to do is just lay down the basic melody, you don’t ‘flower’ it too much, because you don’t want to make it intimidating or seem like an impossible task. Then you help them try to bring out their own colors.”

Expanding further, Nick notes that one of the more important parts of their process is spending time with the artists. ”When we cut Diana Ross’s album ‘The Boss,’” Ashford explains, “we had to stay at her house for a week. When we cut sides with Gladys Knight and the Pips, we had them stay with us, so we could get to know them, get to know what they can do and what their feeling for the music is. It helps a lot if you know the artists, if you can hang out. With Diana, she wanted to be so independent when she was leaving Motown. So we had her take a little time with us because she wasn’t sure what kind of sound she wanted to make or what kind of music she wanted to sing. But there was this very clear “independent” mood.”

Valerie agrees: “That’s definitely where ‘The Boss’ came from. It’s right there in the song titles ‘It’s My House,’ ‘I Ain’t Been Licked’…”

The duo, however, are at their most emotional when enthusing about making a contribution to dance club culture, especially its gay element. “During the real disco era,” says Simpson, “when we were all getting out there and hittin’ it, waking up at 12 o’clock to go to a club—it’s an amazing thing when you feel that energy, something that you’ve written comes on, and everybody, like, links spirits, jumps on that vibe and embodies that gyrating. It’s just an amazing feeling, especially when it’s your song. That’s always been a big thrill. When Sylvester did our ‘Over and Over’ and ‘You’re All I Need to Get By,’ we were just over the moon.”

There’s one song in particular that Nick recalls fondly “When our song “Found a Cure” came out, the clubs played it a lot. A lot of people who had AIDS kind of took that as their testimony of the knowledge that love can make things better. We’re really proud of what happened with that particular song.”

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