Motown songwriter Valerie Simpson turns page on next chapter
Forty years ago, a love of music brought together one of the most famous songwriting/producing teams and recording artists in music history, Ashford & Simpson. Love was also in the air when Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964 (he was in his early 20s and she was around 17 or 18 at the time). But it wasn’t until 1974 that the two were married, though Simpson admits there was a spark from the start — a spark when they met which flourished into one of music’s great partnerships.
In 1966 they joined the Motown staff and began writing songs of love, loss, devotion and hope for many of the artists in the Motown family. They were the force behind the songs “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. They also wrote Diana Ross’ “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”; Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Didn’t You Know You’d Have to Cry Sometime” and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Who’s Gonna Take the Blame.” In 1978, Ashford & Simpson wrote the inspirational song “I’m Every Woman” for Chaka Khan, which was later recorded by Whitney Houston in 1992. Their biggest hit as recording artists came in 1984 with the single “Solid (as a Rock).” Ten years later, in 2002, they were inducted in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Valerie Simpson released her first solo album in 2012 called “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again,” and in 2013, Simpson visited Berklee to perform in “Trouble Man,” a musical about the life of Marvin Gaye that was scripted by Berklee students. After Ashford’s death from throat cancer in 2011, Simpson established the Reach Out and Touch Award which honors her late husband and helps advance the careers of promising young songwriters.
On the eve of receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Music Degree from the Berklee College of Music, Simpson spoke to the Banner at Berklee’s Commencement Concert at Agganis Arena. She talked about music, her daughters and the next chapter in her life, before she took the stage to perform “I’m Every Woman” backed by Berklee students.
Last year you were in Boston doing “Trouble Man.” Would you consider doing something else on Broadway if the right part came along?
It’s funny. Before Nick Ashford passed away someone was talking to us about our life story. Since then, he has come forward again to say they’re still interested. There’s a chance with any good fortune that our story will be told.
You worked together 10 years prior to getting married to Ashford. Did you know that he was the one?
I was just in my last year of high school when I met him. I think he considered me a little too green and not ready for primetime, even though we looked at each other and there was an initial attraction. On further notice, we both needed to grow and so therefore pushed all that stuff to the side. We could honestly get a truly working relationship which was really probably good. But still, I think if there’s an initial spark it’s always good if you push it to the side. I got married for two years. Most people don’t know I was married for two years to a musician. Nick came and took pictures of my wedding. Who knew what was going to happen down the road?
On Oprah’s “Next Chapter” you talked about your two daughters working with you. One works with you at the Sugar Bar and one sings background for you. How is it having them work with you?
That is probably the one good thing. There’s always a positive tip that happens in a bad situation or in something that you didn’t want to see happen. I think my daughters had the realization that they had to grow up. There was no more time. They had to just jump on it and bolster me. Nick’s leaving created a vacuum which they stepped into, which is kind of beautiful. In the two, I’ve seen immense growth and more confidence.
You’ve worked with so many great artists over the years. Is there any one left that you’d like to work with that you haven’t worked with?
Nobody in particular. My situation is altogether different now. So, I’m open to a lot of things. Now, I just try to jump on it, bounce on it, not worry about whether I’m prepared. I figure that everything I’ve done up to this point has prepared me, and it’s too late to be scared. You just got to do it. So, that’s the way I feel about new situations. Spike Lee called me to play keyboards in some new film. I’m not used to playing that way but I went and I did it.
Is there anyone that you’re listening to musically today that you’re impressed with?
I listen to everything and to everybody. On my phone I was just listening to the whole Miguel album. I really like him a lot. I like Pharrell’s record. I was very proud to see Nile Rodgers being able to jump in there. He’s a buddy of mine from so many years ago. People like Lalah Hathaway, who I adore and Teri Lynne Carrington from Berklee here, who’s a friend. I’m doing something on her new album. I’m just staying open to everything.
You’re in great company being honored tonight and tomorrow. Is there anything else we can expect down the line with Berklee?
I’m not expecting anything but there’s certainly people who’ve been kind to me. I’m sure I’ll be called on in other situations and I’ll always try to be here. You know it was interesting because when I did the sound check yesterday, the orchestra was so well-prepared and so on it, I forgot they were students. I was thinking of them as fellow musicians and I didn’t talk to them with any restraint, which is good. They are that well prepared. Berklee is a wonderful school.
When you’re writing a song, do you have that person in mind, or do you just write the song and then think of who it’s going to be good for?
You want the song to be great on its own so that almost anybody would want it. But, if you know someone who needs something, there’s something in the back of your mind that might push you in the direction of the person who you know needs a certain kind of song. I remember when Arif Mardin called us and asked us to do something for Chaka’s first solo album when she left Rufus and I started playing that music and Nick said “I’m Every Woman” and it just felt absolutely right for her. She was a part of the thought in that instance. But, very often when we sit down to write a song you just want the muse to step in and direct as opposed to you trying to do a specific thing.
How has owning the Sugar Bar and working with emerging or new artists influenced you?
I love it. I’m there as often as I can be there because people come from around the world. You get to hear the soulful version of the Japanese kids. It’s just encouraging to see how popular our music is. I see so much undiscovered talent. And when you see somebody who’s really good, it turns you on. It sparks something in you and makes you want to be better. I look forward to these kids.
Would you consider ever being a judge on one of the music reality shows?
They don’t really need any more of that. I like the “Voice.” That’s my favorite. I’m not really moved at this point to judge. I enjoy the fact that they have a platform to launch from. Quincy Jones found somebody for The Color Purple in the Sugar Bar. Jermaine Paul [from the Voice] was a regular at the Sugar Bar. It’s just rewarding to see I was right. It’s really good.
I know you’ve established the Reach Out and Touch program in honor of Ashford. How is that going?
It’s going great. We’ve done it three times. That’s another way when I see somebody who needs more funds to make their original stuff sound good. I’m happy to reach out and give them that and it furthers them a little bit.
Have you thought about what your next projects may be or are you just going on with the journey?
I’m pretty much going on with the journey. I’m doing some live concerts; getting a kick out of that. I’m trying to remember to sing the whole song, not half the song. It just feels different because it’s a different thing even though I’ve been doing it a long time. I’m enjoying it.