’Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ for Valerie Simpson
Recently when Valerie Simpson decided to do club dates, the question came. Why?
Her husband and partner Nick Ashford had died. The duo Ashford and Simpson who’d been together since the 1960s seemed forever entwined. Why was she going to perform alone? (Ashford died August 22, 2011 at age 70 of complications from throat cancer).
She solos at Scullers Jazz Club for one night only, two shows, 8 and 10 pm, Friday, September 7, 2012. (For more information visit the Scullers website).
String of Motown hits
The duo had been successful as a writing and producing team, what the public did not know was that they were seasoned performers with ambitions to take to the stage. When they worked for Motown in the 1960s they wrote and produced "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," "Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing," "You’re All I Need to Get By" for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Also, the songs they wrote and produced for the three early 1970s albums for Diana Ross as a solo performer. And on it went.
In 1974 Berry Gordy rejected the idea of the team performing and recording on their own, which led them to leave Motown and sign with Warner Brothers. It proved to be Gordy’s mistake as the hits kept coming: ""Don’t Cost You Nothin’" (1977), "It Seems to Hang On" (1978), "Is It Still Good to Ya" (1978), "Found a Cure" (1979), "Street Corner" (1982), and their biggest hit, "Solid (As a Rock)," released in 1984.
But in the response to why she was performing again, Simpson answered directly:
"Don’t you think everybody should have a Part Two?"
Resolute, Simpson told EDGE in a recent phone conversation, "I meant by that question that in going on you recognize that there are goals in life that you haven’t yet achieved.
"Something happens you never expected, you are not prepared for, you have to find a way to begin again. You have to stand alone now. And that is not easy," she said.
Valerie and Nick met in 1963 at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church. "Nick was homeless and had heard that the church fed homeless people," recalls Simpson who was a recent high school grad and active in a gospel group at the church.
"Nick had been homeless for three months. He’d come to New York after college to become a dancer. We needed a gospel singer.
"Later, Nick would tell me that those years when he was homeless were among the most significant in his life. He said he learned so much about himself. That he could exist on almost nothing and still feel joy in life," she said.
Simpson added that when the City was raising money to care for parks, Valerie "bought" that very bench in Bryant Park that Nick had regularly slept on. A plaque was placed on it in Nick’s name.
"When times got rough in our career," said Valerie, "Nick would say. ’we can always go back to the bench, Babe.’ I would scream ’Nooo!’ It was a running joke for us."
An unfinished musical
By the mid 1960s they were writing songs that won success for other artists, such as Ray Charles "Let’s Go Get Stoned," which was a top R&B hit. The music has never stopped.
Simpson’s brothers are in the music business as well. Ray Simpson replaced Victor Willis as the "Cop" in the Village People, early on in that enduring group’s career. Valerie says she and Nick wrote and arranged a couple of songs for the popular disco group, "but nothing that really came out." Jimmy Simpson produced the group GQ and became a noted mixing engineer in the disco era.
However, in 2006, Ashford and Simpson did write the music for a show that was bound for Broadway based on the openly gay, African American writer E. Lynn Harris’ novel "Invisible Life," whose title referred to the invisible life of gay black men. The runaway best seller was the start of many more stories about Raymond Tyler Jr., who after years of questioning his sexual identity finds himself torn between a male married lover and a woman, Nicole, to whom he becomes engaged. (Harris died in 2009).
"We did some of our best writing," says Simpson. "We composed some 30 songs. They are really dramatic songs and dear to me."
Disagreements with the producer stopped the forward motion to getting the show up but Valerie says the question EDGE has asked about this music makes her want to redouble her efforts to have it heard by the public. She said the few times she and Nick performed some of the songs, people were moved by the music. She remembers one woman coming up to her later with tears in her eyes and saying that her son is gay and that hearing these songs gives her a better idea of his emotional life.
"I have to find a way to get this music out," she said.
"Music alone can change people’s lives," she said. "You don’t know who is hearing it."
Varying the song list
At Sculler’s nightclub this Friday, Simpson will sing some of the music that Ashford and Simpson is known for but she is varying that song list as well.
It’s hard to go on without him. "Sometimes I don’t know what to think. (As a performer) I’m a new kid but I carry Nick with me. Death is a transition and when that person is someone dear, they are close to you if you want them to be. They can steer you to the right choice.
"My grandmother was a minister and a spiritualist so these beliefs are in my family. Now I embrace it because I need it," she said.
When Valerie comes on the stage alone, she believes the audience who’s known Ashford and Simpson will see someone who is "raw, unsure but determined, scared but not scared. Struggling.
"I want to be fearless.
"You’ve got to keep living. You’ve got to figure out what for and do it. That’s what this person is trying to be," she said.
Valerie Simpson appears in two shows, one night only, Friday, Sept. 7, at Scullers Jazz Club in the Double Suites by Hilton Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Rd. Boston. For more info and tickets you can phone 617-562-4111 or go on line to the Scullers website.
To learn more about Valerie Simpson, including how to purchase her latest CD "Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again" and to learn of upcoming performances, visit her website.
Watch Valerie Simpson sing "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" in tribute to her late husband Nick Ashford with singer Ryan Shaw at Lincoln Center, August 12, 2012::