“Don’t you think everybody should have a Part Two?” asked Valerie Simpson this morning on Good Day New York, and while she was expressly referring to the title — and titletrack — of her new solo album Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again, her comment, too, had a second part.
For Simpson is now embarking on her own Part Two, having just returned from her first series of solo shows — in San Diego and San Francisco — following the death last August of her husband and creative partner Nick Ashford. She’ll be at The Beacon Saturday night with The Whispers, and at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, on June 2.
Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again was actually recorded 11 years ago, when she and Ashford came up with songs specifically for her. She performed them at a couple shows at the Sugar Bar, their popular Upper West Side restaurant/nightclub, where she can still be found every Thursday night singing background for the emerging and well-known artists who keep the club’s famous “Open Mic” events going well past midnight.
“The timing wasn’t right then,” Simpson said, “but I guess things happen as they should.”
Indeed, Ashford & Simpson kept going strong as a songwriting-performing duo up until Ashford’s illness sidelined him a year ago. They had been together, first as songwriting and singing partners, since 1963, when the then homeless Ashford, who had been raised in Michigan and had just moved to New York from Detroit to pursue a dance career, met Simpson in the legendary choir of Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church.
After recording in the gospel group The Followers, they recorded their first original song, “I’ll Find You,” in 1964 as Valerie & Nick. They were soon signed to Scepter Records as staff songwriters, breaking through in 1966 when Ray Charles landed a major hit with their composition “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”
But their big success came at Motown Records, where they penned the classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell hits “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By”; they also wrote hits for other Motown greats, most notably Diana Ross, who launched her solo career with a hit remake of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (which they also produced) and also had hits with their “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “The Boss.”
Simpson recorded her own acclaimed albums for Motown after standing out vocally on Quincy Jones’ Gula Matari album. The albums — Exposed and Valerie Simpson — yielded the great singles “Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Silly Wasn’t I.” She also became one of the top jingles sessions singers in the business, still resonant commercial credits including Budweiser’s “When You Say Bud” and Almond Joy/Mound’s “Sometimes You Feel Like A Nut.”
But Ashord and Simpson had their own recording/performing aspirations as a duo, and became Ashford & Simpson after marrying and moving to Warner Bros. Records. Releasing nine albums there from 1973 to 1981, Ashford & Simpson hit big with such r&b classics as “Send It,” “Don’t Cost You Nothin’,” “It Seems to Hang On,” “Love Don’t Make it Right,” “Is It Still Good to Ya” and “Found a Cure.” They achieved broader pop success after leaving for Capitol Records in 1982, with “Street Corner,” “Highrise,” “I’ll Be There for You,” and of course, “Solid,” which topped the r&b chart in 1984 and crossed over to No. 12 on the pop singles chart.
All the while they continued writing and producing for other artists, including Ben E. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Chaka Khan (they wrote her hit “I’m Every Woman”) and Quincy Jones (they co-wrote and performed on his hit “Stuff Like That”). Their concert appearances, meanwhile, were exhilarating: Choreographed by Tony Award-winning George Faison, the shows incorporated stunning costumes and sets that made Ashford & Simpson a live attraction worthy of the best venues in the country.
At the end, Ashford & Simpson were enjoying one of their strongest runs. After a two-week stint at Feinstein’s at the Regency in 2006, they were brought back for three weeks in 2007, garnering some of the best reviews of their career.” International performances, including concerts in London and Amsterdam, drew especially ecstatic audiences.
They wrote songs for a musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s novel Invisible Life (the show-stopping “Born This Way” surfaced last year), and put out a DVD of a Feinstein’s show at the same time a two-disc set of choice material from the Warner Bros. years, Hits, Remixes & Rarities, was issued. But really, the Songwriters Hall of Fame team’s tunes have remained constantly in play — either their versions or new ones like 50 Cent’s sampled “Silly Wasn’t I” on his 2006 hit “Best Friend,” Ryan Shaw’s 2008 Grammy-nominated cover of the Motown era “I am Your Man,” and Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own,” which built on the music from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
But although her West Coast audiences last week were “so warm and welcoming — like a big cushion I could lean on,” she admits to feeling apprehensive as her first show back home without Ashford approaches.
“I haven’t been nervous before, ever, but now I have to remember to keep singing,” she said. “No one [else]is coming in.”
But “Nick is right on my shoulder, pulling me through,” she told Good Day New York.
It was Ashford, in fact, who came up with the concept for Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again — when he and Simpson were at a meeting in a record company executive’s office, and “everybody [else]was 12 years old!”
“Nick said, ‘I feel like a dinosaur!’ and we started laughing,” she said.
But Simpson has since realized that the music she and her husband created is now a legacy that will “outlive all of us,” she says. And while Ashford won’t be there Sunday night, Asia Ashford, the couple’s youngest daughter will join her mom on stage as a backup singer.