Nick Ashford spent his first few months in New York City homeless and sleeping on park benches. When he met Bronx native Valerie Simpson singing and playing piano in the choir of Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, his fortunes changed.
Ashford and Simpson can now look back on more than 40 years as a musical team and more than 30 as a married couple – a life of tremendous accomplishment and acclaim. Even if they never became the superstars that their songs helped Diana Ross and Chaka Khan become, the couple is known for far more than the mid-chart hits they did manage as recording artists.
“We stand on our songs and we stand on the songs that we wrote for other people,” says Simpson in her Hotel Nikko suite, where the pair opened a two-week engagement Tuesday at the Rrazz Room. “That gives us a higher platform.”
At their commercial peak in the ’80s, when Ashford and Simpson were one of the precious few black acts to appear at Live Aid, they specialized in a high-energy, sleekly choreographed show with heavy production values (“We still do that for certain affairs,” Simpson says). But for the past couple of years, the couple has been playing the more intimate Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York City, a venue known for cabaret acts, like the Rrazz Room.
“Feinstein’s became a different kind of room when we played it,” Ashford says. “We didn’t change it. We just do what we do …”
“… and people were dancing in the aisles at Feinstein’s,” his wife says, finishing his sentence – they do that a lot.
For the Rrazz Room shows, the pair will be presenting some of the songs they’ve written for a musical based on the novel “Invisible Life” by E. Lynn Harris, a semiautobiographical account of a young gay man and his minister father that Harris initially self-published in 1991, three years before a major publisher put the title on best-seller lists. After a year and a half, Ashford and Simpson are ready to mount a workshop production.
“It’s more involved than we imagined,” Ashford says.
“We’re not used to collaborating,” his wife says. “Usually we work together and when we’re done, we’re finished.”
“Also, writing music to fit the characters – that’s a challenge,” says her husband.
The pair live in New York’s Upper East Side, having moved from the 72nd Street building on the West Side that houses their restaurant/nightclub, the Sugar Bar. Their oldest daughter, Nicole, 32, manages their business, and their youngest daughter, Asia, 20, lives at home and “is trying to find herself,” says her mother with a patient tone common to mothers of teens everywhere.
The pair first recorded a few obscure singles as Valerie and Nick in 1964. With their early songwriting partner, Joshi Jo Armstead, they scored a major hit with “Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Ray Charles. Simpson, at the time, was married to the brilliant session pianist Paul Griffin.
They were signed to Motown Records as staff songwriters after the label’s top songwriting team, Holland, Dozier and Holland, visited New York to audition writers. Ashford recalled being so disappointed when he saw the crowd waiting, he turned around to leave.
“Our future almost went down the elevator,” his wife says, laughing and rocking in her chair.
At Motown, they wrote a string of hit duets for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which Diana Ross would adopt as a personal anthem. The 1972 “Valerie Simpson” solo album on Motown has always been a cult favorite and 50 Cent in 2005 sampled “Silly Wasn’t I” from that album on his “Best Friend.” Although the Detroit label gave them more work than they could handle, they never left New York. “We’d fly in every couple months and drop off our songs,” Simpson says.
When their contract expired, Ashford and Simpson, by then married, decided to become a performing team. “I didn’t even know that was in my career plan,” Ashford says.
Between 1973 and 1989, they made 14 albums. They never had a huge pop hit – “Solid” was a No. 1 1984 R&B hit – but scored three gold albums and were a ubiquitous presence on TV shows and concert stages. Their ’70s recordings have recently been reissued, along with a second disc of remixes by today’s producers, “The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities.”
She makes the music and he writes the words, although those roles blend as easily as their conversation. They are well aware they have survived – both as a songwriting team and a married couple – long past any kind of show business norm.
“I think the key to our case is the eight years we weren’t married,” Simpson says. “That defined our roles. We can always go back to that place mentally – get past the husband-wife stuff and go to ‘songwriter.’ ”
Even monks know how difficult marriage can be. “He’s still evolving and still changing,” says Simpson, “and I don’t feel like somebody’s not allowing me to be me. He’s not looking for me to stay the same.”
“You’ve got to keep talking,” her husband says.
“And lots of laughs,” she says. “You’ve got to keep laughing.”
“And have as much sex as possible,” says her husband.
“Even if you have to schedule it,” she says.
When they’re home, Ashford and Simpson can often be found at their restaurant, especially on Thursday nights for open mike. Simpson sits stageside with a microphone and, if she likes the participant, she sings along. It being New York, anyone can show up, including Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, Queen Latifah, Jimmy Buffett or country singer John Rich of Big & Rich, who liked Thursday night regular J-Nyse so much, he flew him down to Nashville and signed him to a record deal. They pointed another Thursday nighter, Elisabeth Withers, to Quincy Jones and she landed a role in the Broadway production of “The Color Purple.”
They have become tribal elders, if not so much role models, at least an anomalous long-standing personal and professional partnership that traveled perilous waters where few others have even survived, let alone prospered as they have. To remind them, Valerie Simpson bought a bench in midtown’s Bryant Park and inscribed the plaque, “Nick Ashford Slept Here.”
Ashford & Simpson: Through May 18 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St. Tickets: $45-$55. Call (415) 394-1189 or go to www.therrazzroom.com.
To see a video of Ashford and Simpson performing “Solid,” go to links.sfgate. com/ZDHC.
E-mail Joel Selvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.