One of the most surprising musical moments of my life was when I was browsing through Bull Moose Records in Bangor and found a copy of an EP by Ashford And Simpson from 1996 featuring…Maya Angelou? I was so puzzled by the seemingly odd creative fit that I avoided the album time and time again. Yesterday I was met with the unfortunate news that Miss Angelou had passed away at the age of 1986. She was one of those individuals who had an amazing life-a black Silent generation woman who achieved an enormous level of literary respect on her own. And someone whose prose,verse,dignity and grace of person not only earned her much acclaim but was an enormous influence on the careers of many diverse figures-from Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama. Realizing Motown being founded by a group of eager Silent generation artists looking to present music with grace and dignity? I suddenly realized just how appropriate Maya’s collaboration with Nick & Val was. Especially upon hearing their song together entitled “Sweet Thing”.
The song opens musically with an echoing, Clavinet like synthesizer that rings out a tinkling blues riff before the drums kick in and this foot stomping rhythm & blues shuffle kicks in,full of hard gospel/soul style horns and a thumping bass-all with a slickly contemporary production twist of course. Nick and Valerie start in by alternately harmonizing on what begin as passionately romantic lyrics that have that great storytelling quality that most classic Motown songs possessed. After their their harmonized chorus,Maya chimes in offering her own spoken word impressions of a similar impulse. She utilizes her imagistic metaphors,which would not be out of place had they actually come from the pen of a Smokey Robinson. A favorite lyrical aspect of Maya’s part of the song for me is when she says “when the world asks me what’s my favorite film,I say St.Louis Blues and he plays it a little” . She goes on to say “If someone asks me how to call your name,your a riff by Bird and solo by John Coltrane,your the whole Misssissippi river the the whole coast of Maine”
The lyrical imagery that Maya Angelou bought to this song enhances the fact that this is actually extremely hard driving,high quality funky music-especially for its era. During the mid 1990’s,many Silent generation veteran musicians were rather concerned with sounding “new” rather than being true to themselves. A trend that continues to this day to a degree. While musical styles of past decades accomodated many generations? The post hip-hop world was a bit more fickle in that regard. What Maya Angelous and Ashford & Simpson did on this song was not only modernize classic shuffling rhythm & blues music,by that time largely a brand name whose true meaning seemed lost,and looked to remind a younger and often more profane youth culture that the concerns of the three generations of black people living at the time were not as divergent as they seemed to be . While Maya herself could politely ask her friend Richard Pryor to leave her home due to his profane language? She also realized that romance and hope were something that would far outlast one rather cynical age. And both musically and lyrically,this song with Ashford & Simpson bought that to the table when it was perhaps most needed. Both the late Nick Ashford and Maya Angelou will be missed,yet their legacy together as artists will remain in works such as this