Had Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson written nothing but “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the duo would have found their place in the musical pantheon assured. But the reality is that the husband-and-wife team also wrote such American pop standards as “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “California Soul,” and “Solid (As a Rock).” They were so prolific that even top-notch material was left on the shelf; Second Disc Records’ recent collection of Bobby Darin’s lost Motown recordings featured two tracks written and produced by Ashford and Simpson including the never-before-heard “Oh Lord, Where Is My Baby.” Synthesizing rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, and gospel into a soul stew all their own, Ashford and Simpson had a voice like no other. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that they would emerge from behind the scenes to bask in well-deserved stardom in front of the microphone.
Between 1973 and 1981, the duo released nine remarkable albums on Warner Bros. Records showcasing their multi-faceted talents to the fullest. Groove Line Records has just released the ultimate celebration of Ashford and Simpson, recording artists, with Love Will Fix It: The Warner Bros. Anthology 1973-1981. This joyful, spirited, 3-CD journey spreads the love via studio and live tracks, alternate single mixes, and an entire disc’s worth of pulse-pounding 12-inch disco versions including unreleased mixes by Mike Maurro, compilation producer Wayne A. Dickson, and John Morales.
36 tracks on the first two CDs compellingly tell the Ashford and Simpson story opening with the shimmering and sensual “(I’d Know You Anywhere),” the lead single off the team’s Warner Bros. debut Gimme Something Real. The album introduced all but the most diehard fans to the already-famous songwriters as singer-songwriters. As “Valerie and Nick,” they had released singles early in the 1960s, but performing took a backseat when they began to make waves with their now-classic songs. Nick had released solo singles throughout the 1960s and Valerie recorded her own solo albums for Motown in 1971 and 1972, but Gimme Something Real marked the debut of “Ashford and Simpson” as a marquee name. (A joint album recorded at Motown remains in the vault to this day at the wishes of the artists.)
Rather than revisit their past triumphs as some songwriters thrust into the spotlight might have done, Ashford and Simpson concentrated on original material instead. Naturally, they also produced the LP, enlisting veteran Motown arranger Paul Riser and an A-list of musicians including Leon Pendarvis on piano, Funk Brother Bob Babbitt on bass, Andrew Smith and Charles Collins on drums, and Ralph McDonald on percussion. Their friend and onetime writing partner Joshie Jo Armstead contributed her soaring vocals. Gimme Something Real blended blissful balladry with funky, uptempo numbers, all of which evinced the duo’s knack for passionate, melodic soul with a gospel underpinning. Follow-up album I Wanna Be Selfish reunited most of the personnel from its predecessor, including Paul Riser and the musicians named above. It featured another helping of deeply personal yet universally accessible songs including “Everybody’s Got to Give It Up,” one of the songs which reflected the duo’s growing love. (They married in the year of the album’s release, 1974.) “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe” would be subsequently recorded by Diana Ross at Motown as well as by Chaka Khan and Rufus at ABC.
Groove Line’s Warner Bros. survey takes in some of the showstopping best from 1976’s Come As You Are. The urbane, soulful, and sophisticated album – arranged by William Eaton, and featuring a team of crack New York session veterans – sublimely showcased Ashford and Simpson’s range as songwriters as well as artists. Funky dancers (“One More Try”) took their place on the LP alongside lush ballads and mid-tempo numbers (“It’ll Come, It’ll Come, It’ll Come,” “Somebody Told a Lie”). Ironically, “One More Try” wasn’t written by Nick and Val but by Raymond Simpson and Bobby Gene Hall, Jr.; the track ascended to the Disco top fifteen.
On 1977’s So So Satisfied, the artists continued to explore more personal avenues in their songwriting and conjure a variety of moods and musical settings. “Tried, Tested and Found True” could be an apt description of Ashford and Simpson’s timeless songbook, then and now. Driven by Richard Tee’s piano part, it opened So So Satisfied on a rhythmic high note and is heard here three times: in the original single version and 12-inch disco version, and in remixer Mike Maurro’s instrumental reprise. “Over and Over,” later recorded by Sylvester, is in a light club vein, with a strong, memorable hook of the kind that Ashford and Simpson could create effortlessly. It’s also presented in its single version.
Ashford and Simpson’s second album of 1977, Send It, saw their success as artists keep growing, as it reached a top ten R&B berth on the Billboard chart and became their first Gold-certified album. The LP boasted the title track, an anthem of positivity, and an instrumental rendition of “Bourgie, Bourgie,” which would become a hit three years later as recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips. But Is It Still Good to Ya marked A&S’ commercial breakthrough, making No. 1 R&B and No. 20 Pop. A whopping seven of its eight songs have been reprised on Love Will Fix It, including a previously unreleased long version of “The Debt Is Settled,” the extended mix of “Ain’t It a Shame,” and the disco version of “Flashback.” Their next LP, 1979’s Stay Free, brought the sizzling dance hit “Found a Cure,” even more resplendent in the Tom Moulton mix that opens the third disc of this collection. “Nobody Knows” is another powerful, and powerfully universal, highlight.
Their Warner Bros. studio swansong, 1980’s A Musical Affair, opened with a burst of pure energy – the infectious and lyrically frank admission that “Love Don’t Always Make It Right.” They embraced the dancefloor with “I Ain’t Asking for Your Love” while the love-gone-wrong story of “Get Out Your Handkerchief” was imbued with touching realism and believability. The album closed with “Happy Endings,” contrasting the more downbeat sensibility of the opening track with a dash of hope. “Happy Endings” is heard here in its single mix, and the first two discs of Love Will Fix It conclude on a high note with a live hits medley from A&S’ 1981 live album, Performance.
What could top the back-to-back performances of “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”? The final disc of Love Will Fix It offers an array of floor-fillers that have delighted clubgoers for decades, in classic and new mixes. The exquisite rhythms and irresistible grooves are extended by Tom Moulton (“Found a Cure”), John Morales (“Love Don’t Make It Right”), Mike Maurro and Wayne A. Dickson (“Stay Free”), and Joe Claussell (“Bourgie, Bourgie”). Three of the tracks on this disc are previously unreleased.
Christian John Wikane has provided a new essay for this collection, putting the tracks into sharp perspective, and also has curated a wonderful array of tributes from such luminaries as Johnny Mathis, Thom Bell, Dionne Warwick, Brenda Russell, Ray Parker, Jr., and others. The thick, 28-page booklet is housed along with the discs in an attractively-designed digipak.
Nickolas Ashford passed away in 2011 at the age of 70, but his works live on thanks to Valerie Simpson’s still-magical live performances and recordings, and, of course, the recorded legacy he left behind. Love Will Fix It: The Warner Bros. Anthology 1973-1981, expertly sequenced by producer Dickson, explores the spellbinding and soulful qualities which distinguished Ashford and Simpson’s Warner Bros. tenure. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the music of Ashford and Simpson is so, so satisfying.