Legendary singing and songwriting duo tell the stories of how they met and the first time they pitched to Motown record producer Berry Gordy and comment on why people respond to their songs.
Songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson
Tavis: Oh, I’m beyond pleased and honored to welcome Nick and Val, Ashford & Simpson, to this program. The legendary recording and songwriting duo is responsible for so many hits during their Grammy Award-winning careers. Recently, they reworked their classic song, “Solid as a Rock,” in a tribute to Barack Obama, “Solid as Barack.” We’ll talk about that in a moment. They’re also out, though, with a new CD and a new DVD, “Ashford & Simpson: The Real Thing.” CD and DVD, as I said.
Valerie Simpson: Well, we’re working hard (laughter).
Tavis: I see that, after all these years. Nice to see you both here.
Nick Ashford: Thank you.
Simpson: We are thrilled to be here.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have you here. I was telling you before we came on the camera here how honored I am just to see you all in Los Angeles. You all just don’t come this way very often no more.
Ashford: Well, we keep waiting for you call us (laughter).
Simpson: See, all you had to do was call.
Tavis: Of course, as you know, every time I’m in New York, I’m coming to see you all.
Ashford: Yeah, you came to see us at Feinstein’s. It was good to look out there and see your face.
Tavis: Yeah. I loved it. I stay at the same hotel in New York most of the time and it’s been so weird because, every time I check in, the first thing I look for is to see who’s playing at Feinstein’s. I miss you about one day here, they were just here, they come in tomorrow and I’m leaving today. The last time I was there, the timing was perfect.
Simpson: Yes, it was.
Tavis: It’s amazing to see you all still doing this after all these years and I get the sense watching you that you still love this just as much as you always did.
Simpson: Well, it’s true. I mean, you can’t –
Tavis: – the performing part.
Simpson: That part is so exciting. I mean, you feel the love really coming at you. I mean, you can’t buy that.
Ashford: And it’s quite different, the kind of love you get in a smaller club and the kind of love you get on a big proscenium stage. You know, it’s quite different. I like both of them, but I’m in love with the smaller, intimate club.
Tavis: What do you like about that? What I love about it as a consumer is that, you know, that I can – I mean, Nick’s sweat was on me that night. That’s how intimate (laughter).
Ashford: (Laughter) Well, I know.
Simpson: It’s truly a reach out and touch time (laughter).
Tavis: I could see why we, the audience, love the intimate space because we get a chance to be so close to you. What do you love as a performance about that intimate space?
Simpson: I like the fact that something different happens every night. You know, our responses are different. It causes the audience to interact with you. They start talking back to you and you have to go off program and I like that.
Ashford: And you never can get unreal.
Ashford: Because on a big stage, you can go back somewhere behind the curtain, wipe off the sweat and I’m fresh again. But right on the stage there, they’re looking you right in the eye like that. It’s a beautiful communication. They’re not far away. They’re just right up on you. You feel their souls and they feel ours.
Tavis: Here’s an impossible question I’m gonna ask anyway, Val. What it is, what was it, that you all tapped into when you started writing this string of hits? I ask that because there are a lot of songwriters. I mean, you’re on the board of ASCAP, so there are all kinds of songwriters, many of whom, most of them, never get a song published, never get, you know, stars to sing the songs that they write, never get a chance to put this stuff out themselves.
What was it about this duo, about your style? What did you tap into when you started writing all these hits that worked so well? Do you know what it is after all these years?
Ashford: I think it was the spirit, the passion, in the music. I don’t think we can write anything that we don’t both smile at the end and say, “Oh, that feels good.” You got to feel that passion. I think, when you feel it as a writer, I think it will – it’ll just sink into them the same way.
Simpson: You know, when Nick came up with the idea of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” it was coming from such a real place because he was walking down Central Park West, you know.
Ashford: I was walking down Central Park West and the buildings were so tall and I was so hungry and pitiful at the time (laughter). I needed real help in New York and I had no friends. I looked up at those buildings. I couldn’t see the sky or nothing and I said, “Well, there ain’t no mountain high enough” and words just fell out of my mouth really.
Simpson: So that’s a real place that that came from, so now people use it the way they need it, yeah.
Tavis: It’s amazing. As many times as I’ve heard all the stuff that you all do – as you know, I’m a huge fan, as I said earlier – it just occurred to me today when I was looking at the back of this CD that you all are in love with the word “ain’t”.
Simpson: Isn’t that true?
Tavis: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Ashford: Oh, you’re the first person that brought that up.
Tavis: “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
Simpson: “Ain’t That Good Enough.” We got lots of ain’ts on.
Tavis: Is that you?
Ashford: I have to check myself (laughter).
Simpson: And your English teacher was not pleased.
Ashford: And I was good in English (laughter). It wasn’t like I was bad or nothing.
Tavis: I have never seen two Negroes in my life make more money off bad English than Nick and Val.
Ashford: I love the sound of that word.
Simpson: Don’t blame me. He did –
Tavis: – you like the sound of it, though?
Ashford: I love the sound of that word. Don’t you think it’s beautiful?
Tavis: I love it. I use it all the time.
Ashford: “I ain’t gonna do it. (Laughter) You can’t make me.”
Simpson: Well, just remember. He does the words, see. Don’t blame me (laughter).
Tavis: Yeah, don’t blame me. Berry Gordy was on this program some weeks back. I was honored to have him. As you know, Berry don’t do very many interviews. You don’t do a whole lot either, but Berry Gordy, the Chairman – “Hey, Mr. Chairman” – does very few interviews. He came on this show and sat right here and the conversation go so rich that what was supposed to be, you know, one appearance turned into a two-night conversation.
Ashford: Oh, wow.
Tavis: The dialog was that rich because at the end of the first show –
Simpson: – that’s 50 years.
Tavis: You see that? At the end of the first show, we haven’t even gotten into the music yet, so I had to ask him to stay for another night so we could do – people loved it and people are still writing us and emailing us. We’ll repeat it at some point in this year because it is the 50th anniversary of Motown.
Ashford: He’s the man.
Tavis: He is indeed. I asked Mr. Gordy that night because I knew the back story because I’d heard you all talk about to me so many times, but I wanted to hear his take on this. So I said, “Do you recall the first time Nick came to Hitsville and pitched those first songs?” He said, “Oh, do I ever.” So he told the story (laughter) of who was in the room and Nick was nervous.
I’m gonna let you tell it again for those who didn’t see that conversation. But tell me about the first time that you took your and Val’s stuff to Hitsville and sat in that. I’ll let you tell the story.
Ashford: There’s several stories. The first time we went in, I mean, we were both so nervous. Mr. Berry said, “I know you wrote that song. That’s a rich tone, but we don’t need no songs like that here. We’ve got fabulous artists that –
Tavis: – before you go forward, but since you mentioned it, I don’t want to leave this good stuff out of here. He was referring to a song called “Let’s Go Get Stoned” sung by Ray Charles. That was your all’s first big hit.
Simpson: Big hit, which got us noticed.
Tavis: Really got you noticed. So Berry Gordy said, “We don’t need no “Let’s Go Get Stoned” sung by Ray Charles (laughter).
Ashford: He said, “We got classy artists like Diana Ross, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye.” So Val and I, we had to – wow, we didn’t have that song at the time, so we went back to New York, you know, and then we locked ourselves up. I tell the story all the time.
Tavis: Tell it, tell it.
Ashford: We locked ourselves up in the room and we stayed in that room.
Simpson: Until the spirit moved.
Ashford: Until the spirit moved, and we came out. Then that’s when we bought our own ticket back to Detroit. We went to see Mr. Gordy (laughter).
Tavis: Right. Tell us the whole story. Tell it, tell it, tell it. I love the story.
Simpson: Well, I wish I had a piano right now.
Ashford: Secretary said he’s busy and I said, “No, he’s not (laughter).” She walked into the office and Mr. Gordy’s sitting at his desk, you know, and she just started to sit down at the piano. I’m looking at Mr. Gordy and I said, “Mr. Gordy, I think we have what you’re looking for” and then Val hit that piano and I hit it. “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.” Mr. Gordy was sitting there like, “Hmmm (laughter.” You know, it just went on and we just illustrated the songs we had been preparing for Motown.
Simpson: And, you know, we never lived in Detroit. We always would fly in, so we were the “kids” from New York to them.
Ashford: But I remember the best story about Mr. Gordy is when I went to a Quality Control meeting.
Tavis: That’s it, yeah.
Ashford: Val wasn’t with me on that trip. They had this board called Quality Control and they were playing these songs. They played a Norman Whitfield song and they’d pass their notes around and Berry would say, “No, needs a little more work.” Played a Smokey song, “Good, but need a little more work.”
Tavis: And Smokey was the biggest they had at the time and they passed on Smokey’s stuff (laughter).
Ashford: Oh, it scared me. Then our song came up, so you know how I felt. I said, “Oh, I might as well buy my ticket back to New York.” Then they played the song and after they played the song, there was silence and I said, “Oh, God.” Berry said, “I don’t think we need to release this one. I think we’re just gonna send it out.” (Laughter) You know, that made my day. I was the toast of the meeting, of course, you know. I never will forget that one.
Tavis: You all did some stuff. I mean, a number of groups and we’ll talk about them in a second, but I want to start with Marvin and Tammi. Tell me about them and why that duo – God rest both their souls – why that duo were in fact so well matched to the stuff that you all wrote? Why’d that work so well, those two voices?
Ashford: They had such an incredible blend too. You know, Marvin, he’s a true artist. He can work with another artist. He can change his tone to make it blend with yours a little better and that’s what you call a true artist. Valerie won’t do that for me (laughter). If she see I need help, she just goes on, you know. Let him struggle (laughter).
Simpson: Well, just go on and tell the truth (laughter).
Ashford: The two of them together, that blend, I mean, it was like ice cream and cookies or whatever you want to call it, you know, just a good blend.
Tavis: Diana and The Supremes? What made that work?
Simpson: Well, I think our biggest coup was really when Diana was leaving and we got the chance to write her solo album. That really –
Tavis: – I should have just said Diana, exactly, yeah.
Simpson: Her version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” really, you know, stands out as one of the greatest things, you know, I’m proudest of.
Ashford: You know, at the time, Isaac Hayes was doing those long songs.
Tavis: With Stax.
Ashford: Yeah, right. We didn’t have any long songs.
Simpson: We were still three-minute kids.
Ashford: We were still three-minute songwriters.
Tavis: Isaac was the first one to do that, though, to stretch things out like that.
Simpson: Yes, he did.
Ashford: Yeah, he’s the first one, so we wanted to get something like that. Realizing Diana Ross had that sexy voice, I said, “Let me rewrite some of these lyrics, slow this joker down, put a little grandeur to it, make it real sexy” and she delivered it. She really did.
Simpson: She did. Now, you know, Berry did not hear that, though.
Tavis: Didn’t hear what?
Ashford: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Simpson: When we presented it to him –
Ashford: – oh, he didn’t tell you that story?
Simpson: He didn’t tell you that?
Tavis: He didn’t tell me that.
Ashford: Well, he didn’t tell you everything.
Tavis: “Mr. Gordy!” (Laughter)
Ashford: Oh, no. He didn’t tell you the truth.
Tavis: Tell the rest of it then. What happened on this one?
Ashford: Oh, the truth is, when we produced that first album with Diana Ross, we took it in to Mr. Gordy and he said, “I really liked this “Ain’t No Mountain” the way you did it, but I want you to take the –
Simpson: – the big part.
Ashford: “The big part on the end and I want you to put it right up front.”
Simpson: Start out with all the excitement.
Tavis: The orchestra.
Ashford: I said, “Mr. Gordy, I don’t think that’ll work.” He said, “Well, that’s the way I hear it. I want you to put it back.” I said, “Well, let us think about it.”
Simpson: We’ll think about it.
Ashford: So we went away a couple of days and came back and sat with Mr. Gordy. We said, “We don’t think that’ll work because this song is kind of like it has an orgasm to it.”
Tavis: It builds.
Ashford: It builds, right, and it builds. He said, “Well, okay, if you’re not gonna do it the way I want it” – you know you said this, “Mr. Gordy – it won’t be released.”
Simpson: Can’t release it.
Ashford: Can’t release it unless you do it, and Val and I stuck to our guns and we said, “Well, we’re gonna keep it our way.” After they released the album –
Simpson: – after “Reach Out and Touch.”
Ashford: After “Reach Out and Touch,” the DJs all over the country started playing “Ain’t No Mountain” in spite of his thoughts (laughter). I loved it when we used to walk down the corridor at Motown –
Simpson: – oh, we never brought it up. We never brought it up.
Ashford: After it was number one, I wanted to so bad (laughter). I wanted to “Remember when you told us?”
Tavis: But you all just kept on walking down the hallway.
Simpson: Just kept on walking.
Ashford: Just kept on and we never brought it up.
Tavis: You have now (laughter).
Simpson: Well, now we have.
Tavis: I think Mr. Gordy’s gonna know about it now how you really felt all those years. What’s amazing about it, to his credit, though, it just goes to show you – and I celebrate you all for this – when you stand in your truth, when you know what is right, I mean, the way you hear it as the songwriter, you got to hold on to that.
Ashford: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: He was very honest and admitted in that conversation early this year that he was wrong about that. He didn’t admit that part, but he admitted he was wrong about Marvin’s biggest hit.
Simpson: “What’s Going On.”
Tavis: “What’s Going On.”
Simpson: That sat for a year.
Tavis: He did not want that song to come out. He thought it was the wrong song. Marvin was his smooth lover man and all that sultry sound. He’s like, “The women love you. Why you gonna sing a protest song called “What’s Going On?” He was wrong about it and we all know that was one of the best songs ever written.
Sampson: Ain’t that something?
Tavis: He admitted to that, so he’s fallible like all the rest of us. When you’re putting together a show after all these years and all these hits, does the play list change from night to night, from venue to venue? How do you decide per show per audience when you’ve done as many hits as you all have done? What needs to be on the show that night?
Simpson: Well, it has a lot to do with who we’re performing for, you know, and whether they love you already. You know, if we are lucky enough to be the headliner, then you kind of know they love you. If you are opening for somebody, then you want to put the stuff on there that’ll get instant recognition so they will know you through your music.
Fortunately, for us, you know, we think of ourselves really as, you know, songwriters that sing. So when we get up there and we start into these songs that, “Oh, I didn’t they wrote that” or “Oh, they wrote that too,” you know, that really helps us out with new audiences.
Ashford: It changes too because you have to be ready to change on the spot.
Simpson: We’ve done that too.
Ashford: We’ve ran on the stage and, if we don’t feel the right love coming from the audience and you feel yourself dying –
Simpson: – so we have to work tonight.
Ashford: You’ve got to turn around to your conductor (laughter) and change it immediately because you don’t want to die. So you can have your program, but you also have to be ready to change it immediately because there’s a certain kind of people who like certain kinds of songs and they like – some people want to dance when you come out, some people just want to be intimate with you. So you kind of feel your way through a show.
Simpson: I remember we were in Europe and we looked at each. The audience was so quiet, we said, “Oh, we are dying tonight.”
Ashford: Oh, I remember that too.
Simpson: We’re dying, and we kept changing. We did the encore. We put that in early.
Ashford: We did everything, all the good stuff (laughter).
Simpson: And then by the end of the show, the audience stood up screaming. They loved us, but we saw nothing.
Ashford: They didn’t give us no response, so we kept saying, “Well, change this, put this in.” Then when it was over –
Simpson: – they went bananas.
Ashford: They stomped, they went crazy. We didn’t have nothing left then (laughter).
Simpson: And then we had no encore. We had no encore (laughter).
Tavis: When you say that, I remember the first time – here I grow up not just in a Black church. I grew up in a Pentecostal church.
Simpson: All right now.
Tavis: You know, we’re jumping and singing and speaking in tongues all day long, for hours at a time, so I’m used to that kind of energy. I eventually, you know, go to college and now I’m getting exposed to Frankie Beverly and Maze and Ashford & Simpson and Prince, so I’m used to this energy. I mean, the first time I went to a Beethoven concert, I loved the music, but I wanted to clap and stand up all during the thing.
Ashford: The parts you like, right.
Tavis: “Negro, sit down.” I got it. At the end, when the whole thing is over, then the audience stands up and, “Encore, bravo, bravo!”
Ashford: Ten encores, yeah.
Tavis: They would applaud for twenty minutes at the end. Black folk ain’t like that. We got to get into it in the right now. We got to get down right now. I hadn’t heard that though.
Simpson: We need that. We need that to keep going. We’re better when you let us know you love us and then we get good.
Tavis: I felt bad when I saw you all at Feinstein’s. I was over there yelling and screaming at all your stuff. They were probably, “Tavis, will you calm down?”
Simpson: No, we love that.
Tavis: You said something a moment ago I want to go back and get. You and Nick, you suggested, see yourselves as songwriters who sing and not singers who write songs.
Tavis: That’s an important distinction for you. Why?
Simpson: Because we started as – actually, we started as Valerie and Nick and we soon realized –
Tavis: – I wanted to ask you about that, how you became Ashford & Simpson.
Simpson: We realized then that the singing thing was secondary to, you know, what we should be doing and we became songwriters, you know. People said, “Well, why didn’t you just sing those songs yourself?” Because we were songwriters and the dream is to have somebody wonderful like a Diana Ross sing your song, interpret it and take it all the way up there, you know, and that’s what happened to us.
Tavis: How do you subject your ego to that reality? When you know that you can sing, but you know that somebody else’s treatment on this thing may make this thing go to the top of the charts, how do you subject your ego to say, “You know what? I’m gonna give this one to them because I know that Diana, I know that Marvin and Tammi, I know they can work this thing.”
Ashford: I think in those days we didn’t have those feelings. I think we just wanted to write and write some hot songs, you know. People have asked us, you know, “Why didn’t you keep that song for yourself?” It never entered our minds.
Simpson: It never did.
Ashford: We had no problem with that.
Simpson: Also, writing for Marvin and Tammi because they were a duet, it was like we were in a groove and, once you get in that groove, you know, it’s like a team. That was our part of the job.
Ashford: And we weren’t even singing at that time, right.
Simpson: I didn’t know you could sing back then (laughter).
Ashford: You know, when I started singing, I wasn’t prepared. It took me five years. They used to wrap my body up in towels before I went onstage.
Simpson: He would sweat so much.
Ashford: I would just sweat so much. I’d be dry when I run on the stage. By the time I got in front of the microphone, it was just like a river pouring out. I don’t know what made that happen. It took five years for that to stop happening to me.
Simpson: For him to believe that the people loved him enough. He could stop (laughter).
Tavis: I know this story and I know your hardcore fans know the story, but since you all been together so long, for those who haven’t heard the story, you all got together how?
Ashford: We met in church. I was homeless and I went up to –
Simpson: – White Rock Baptist Church.
Ashford: Someone told me to go up there and get a meal.
Simpson: My church.
Ashford: And when I walked in the church, I remember I saw Valerie. She was singing with three girls and she was just rocking. I said, “Hmmm, kind of cute.” You know, dinner, I was so hungry, I really couldn’t deal with that then, you know (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) She’s cute, but that chicken sure smelled good.
Ashford: I couldn’t wait for service to be over. So after service, we were downstairs and the sisters, you know, had that chicken and collard greens.
Simpson: And we welcomed him because, you know, he’s from out of town.
Ashford: She was so sweet.
Simpson: We didn’t know his back story. We didn’t know he was homeless, but we did find out that he wrote gospel songs and our little group needed some songs. Because I played the piano and he wrote gospel songs, we just hooked up right away.
Ashford: It was natural.
Tavis: That’s amazing. Wow.
Ashford: We used to be Valerie and Nick. Well, when we went to Motown, you know, this is why – you know, ladies are generally first, so the reason her name is after mine now, when we went to Motown, I was kind of quiet, kind of laid back, cool. You know, you couldn’t upset me for nothing.
Then Valerie played the piano and she’d be killing them and then they’d swoop Valerie away like she did everything. I’m still laying up there cool (laughter). Am I invited to the party? I realized that kept happening more and more.
Ashford: So when we got back to New York, I said, “Val, something’s got to change.” I said, “No one thinks I did anything. You know what we could do? Put my name first and, if it’s Ashford & Simpson, they’ll know with my name first I had to have something to do with it.” (Laughter)
Tavis: (Laughter) I know the honesty of that story. Brother said put my name first.
Ashford: That’s how it was reversed (laughter).
Tavis: On my very, very first flight to Los Angeles, I wasn’t living here, I wasn’t working here; this is long before TV, long before Tom Bradley which preceded TV. My very first flight to Los Angeles and I hadn’t even flown before. My first flight to Los Angeles, flying from Indiana where I grew up, all the way to Los Angeles.
I’m on a plane and there’s a woman in front of me who had gotten just downright drunk and she stood up in the seat at 38,000 feet and insisted on performing “Solid” for the entire plane.
Tavis: Took off her top.
Tavis: Just got buck wild with it.
Simpson: What’d you say (laughter)?
Tavis: The flight attendants had to shut that thing down. But I was like, “What is this song, “Solid?” Is she a singer?” That’s how I got introduced to that song, but that’s neither here nor there. You all kind of tweaked it a little bit and now it’s not just “Solid as a Rock.” It’s “Solid as Barack.” How’d that happen?
Simpson: No, no. That started right out here in Los Angeles.
Ashford: Yeah. We didn’t actually do that.
Simpson: In Los Angeles right here.
Ashford: In Los Angeles, right.
Simpson: It started here. We were doing a concert, I think, for Black Enterprises. During “Solid as a Rock,” I put the mike out to the audience expecting them to say, “solid as a rock” and these two ladies down front starting saying, “solid as Barack.”
Ashford: And then you got, all of a sudden, 3,000 people saying, “solid as Barack.” So when we got back to New York, that fine city, Val will tell the story of how that happened to us. The guy from “The New York Times” –
Simpson: – Stephen Holden. He wrote about it.
Ashford: He wrote about it.
Tavis: He’s a critic, yeah.
Ashford: And then “Saturday Night Live” picked it up, so we had to do something.
Simpson: People were like, you know, you got to – so Nick wrote the tribute.
Tavis: So now on iTunes (laughter).
Ashford: Yeah, right. It’s got all new lyrics and everything.
Tavis: Yeah. Go to iTunes for “Solid as Barack.”
Ashford: And it can be a ring tone, you know (laughter).
Simpson: And actually when you buy the CD, you can put it in your computer and you can also have “Solid as Barack” as an extra.
Tavis: I could talk to you all for hours because I appreciate more than anything else not just your gift, but your humanity. What makes your lyrical content stand out as compared to others is the humanity that’s in that lyric.
Ashford: Thank you.
Tavis: I mean that. It’s just a beautiful thing. Nick and Val, or Ashford & Simpson.
Ashford: And Simpson (laughter). Get it right.
Tavis: I did. Ashford & Simpson. They got two things for you. A new CD called appropriately “The Real Thing” and a DVD called “The Real Thing” and they are the real thing. I love you both. Glad to have you here.
Simpson: Love you.
Ashford: Thank you so much.