Category Archives: Ashford & Simpson

Anatomy Of THE Groove Special For Womens Equality Day: “Street Corner” by Ashford & Simpson

Valerie Simpson is turning 70 years old today. That comes as very important in that today is Women’s Equality Day. As far as I’m concerned,Simpson is a pioneer female songwriter for so many reasons. She maintained a very close marriage and professional relationship with Nick Ashford until the day he died. She also kept her own name professionally throughout their career together. And this included,of course their salad years at Motown- spinning out hits for people such as Marvin Gaye & Tammi Tarrell. That’s not to mention the duo continuing to maintain a successful solo career well into the 1980’s.

Ashford & Simpson albums always tended towards the most elaborately arranged and musically diverse wife/husband duet albums I’ve ever heard. By the early 1980’s,the pair had hits for themselves and others in the form of  punchy funk,streamlined disco and elegant ballads. In 1982 the pair decided to put together a concept album. A decade before the arrival of hip-hop’s G-Funk sub-genre,the couple decided to use the contemporary post disco musical basis to present very personalized vignette with a street level basis. it was called Street Opera. And its biggest hit was “Street Corner”.

A slow and steady 4/4 drum just starts right up at the beginning of the song and continues throughout until the very end. On the intro,there’s a low thudding piano chord. Before each one there’s a thick guitar rev. After that,the bass line chugs along underneath a higher pitched piano playing a lead melody-with a string synthesizer joining the horn solos just before Nick & Val’s vocal chorus kicks in. On the refrains,the musical theme calms to a processed electric piano based melody and rhythm. But that instrumental chorus from the intro provides the basis for the entire song until it fades out.

Instrumentally speaking,this is one of the most lushly constructed example of the funkiest end of the early 80’s post disco sound I’ve heard. The main musical theme doesn’t vary all that much. But each instrumental statement the song makes is very strong. Lyrically its a very liberating tale of a ghetto woman who is…well either mistaken for naive or mistaken for a prostitute. Either way,Valerie Simpson is telling a man asking her for a ride that “the little girl has grown”. So it showcases how feminine dignity exists alive and well on the street corners across America.

 

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Filed under 1980's, Ashford & Simpson, concept albums, drums, Funk Bass, horns, Nick Ashford, piano, post disco, rhythm guitar, string synthesizer, Valerie Simpson, Women, Women's Equality Day

Phyllis Hyman Double Feature

Phyllis Hyman

Phyllis Hyman comes across as someone with a strong creative ethic. She was a strong soul/gospel/jazz vocal powerhouse,not to mention an attractive,stylish 6′ tall physical presence. The arc of her life somewhat resembled Whitney Houston’s however,aside from the fact Hyman lack Houston’s family musical pedigree. Hyman’s adult life was marred by romantic woes,mental illness and addiction problems. This led to Hyman’s tragic suicide in 1995 before she ever saw her 50th birthday.  Still her music still connects with soul/funk music lovers with its spectrum of joy and pain.

After watching some of TV One’s series Unsung‘s episode about Hyman,it fairly quickly became apparent that throughout her recording career,record producers and songwriters simply didn’t know how to handle her voice. This tends to be a reoccurring theme with vocalists who are not in complete creative control of their songwriting and production. Her time in the late 70’s and early 80’s at Arista Records didn’t seem to be her happiest,as she and label head Clive Davis often clashed. Yet the two CD’s I have by her are her most commercially successful for the label. So I am going to overview them here today.

You Know How To Love Me/1979

Of course cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard Phyllis Hyman’s name dropped. And of course how little I’d actually heard of her. Well I blame myself. No good reason. I had this idea in my head she was primarily a balladeer. And there seemed to be a dime a dozen of those out there. Kind of the old idea about uptempo tunes dating fasted and slower ones being more timeless.

Well either way I must say that after hearing this album,I must say Phyllis was possessed of a vocal instrument defined by both great confidence and vulnerability. Now tonally? She’s a soul belter out of the blues/gospel school of singing. And her voice has a nice raspy huskiness to it that is actually quite appealing. Produced by James Mtume and Reggie Lucas I’d actually highly recommend this album as a possible first Phyllis Hyman album. There are reasons.

Two of those reasons right off the bat are the title song and “You’re The One”,both seriously intense gospel fueled Philly type danceable soul perfect for the disco floor and will have you singing to yourself with the same firey and intelligent tone as Phyllis herself. Of course there are two slower grooves here that blow me away too “Some May” and “Give A Little More” both find Hyman’s experienced voice working it’s way through some choppy sophistifunk type grooves.

On “Complete Me” it turns to this flat out epic type gospel/soul ballad type thing,the sort of sound I suppose I always associated with Phyllis. “But I Love You” has this tense and rather fanfare based disco-dance sound while the only song really bound by the era might be “Heavenly”. However nothing to worry about for the discophobes because even for them Phyllis gives it her all as she does throughout.

In the end the impression I get from Phyllis Hyman here is that she seems to function best as an album artist. Her vocal style has a need to stretch itself throughout the spectrum of soul musics sub-genres. And it’s a much wider spectrum than people think. Even within each off shoot of the music. There’s music here that has the ability the impact on fans of Philly soul,disco dancing and even foot stomping funk fans.

True it’s as bubbly and sophisticated a production as good champagne is to the taste. On the other hand every sound here serves to emphasize the talent whose getting the most credit. The participation of the Mtume band didn’t do any harm either. This was a recording oriented around a group of people with unique and special talent. And in this case,they got something extremely special out of Phyllis Hyman. So even if she’s not with us anymore,there’ll always be records like this.

Can’t We Fall In Love Again/1981

Admittedly I’m a bit late entering into the musical world of the late Phyllis Hyman. At this point? I actually only have two of her albums. She was one of those vocalists who moved between the worlds of jazz and funky soul. And always having an extremely talented bevy of instrumentalists at her disposal courtesy of her producer and original musical paramour Norman Connors.

Her entire creative approach matches up to the very qualities that have continually created some of the most dynamic and stunning music in the funk/soul/jazz/R&B spectrum. This 1981 album was her first of that particular decade. And upon locating it on CD? Picked it up without hesitation. Absolutely no regrets.

“You Sure Look Good To Me” is an extremely melodic horn and upbeat synthesizer based pop/boogie funk/post disco number-like a harder edged variation of the sound Richard Perry was then getting with the Pointer Sisters. The title song is a dynamic,Thom Bell like electric sitar led mid tempo love song duet between Hyman and the rich voiced baritone singer/bass player Michael Henderson.

“Don’t Tell Me,Tell Her” is a high stepping horn and slap bass Brazilian funk jam while “I Ain’t Asking” is an assertively romantic number from Ashford & Simpson-with their classic piano heavy and melodic early 80’s gospel/soul/funk style.

“The Love Too Good To Last” and “The Sunshine In My Life” are polished up,medium tempo pop/soul ballads while “Tonight You And Me” as a mixture of that Afro-Latin style drum and bass keyboard chorus of The Jackson’s “Shake Your Body” with a powerful post disco/funk/soul refrain. “Just Another Face In The Crowd” is a melodically epic slow pop ballad to conclude the album.

Well this is one of those albums where all eight songs are uniformly excellent,superbly produced and played on. Hyman herself provides the gospel/soul vocal phrasings of a jazzier and ballsier Dionne Warwick. At least to me anyway,and with an incredibly slippery and husky range as well. For lovers of early 80’s funk/soul music that’s powerfully performed and filled with a jazzy flavor? This might just be an album for you!


Phyllis Hyman offered us some fantastic soulful music. She also lived with bipolar disorder. And this possibly motivated her to end her life prematurely. For more information on bipolar disorder,or feel you may have it yourself,please go to the website below. Life is worth living!

National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Page On Bipolar Disorder

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Amazon.com, Arista Records, Ashford & Simpson, ballads, Clive Davis, disco funk, James Mtume, Michael Henderson, Music Reviewing, Phyllis Hyman, Reggie Lucas, soul singers, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Don’t Cost You Nothing” by Ashford & Simpson

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson have been strong musical examples for many songwriter/performers. Though we lost Ashford to throat cancer six years ago this August,the success of this happily married duo is important on two levels. For one,the pair were part of the transition from the age of the producer to the age of the artist in music-when they began recording albums on their own starting from the early 70’s. Additionally, they successfully beat the odds of the musician’s life as not being able to sustain married duos. Not to mention parlaying their success into other ventures.

This duo came right out of the church in more ways than one. They met at White Rock Baptist’s in Harlem. That’s when they first took a stab at recording as a duo. By 1966,they had penned a major hit for Ray Charles in “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. Later that same year,they landed at Motown records. They became the force behind the big Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell hits such as”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need To Get By”. When Terrell became ill with a brain tumor,Simpson herself provided ghost duet vocals with Marvin for their final duet album Easy.

While the pair sang (and Ashford wrote for) the gospel quartet The Followers in the early 60’s,it wasn’t for another decade until the band signed to Warner Bros. as a duo and recorded their debut as such in 1974’s Gimme Something Real. Their fourth album came in 1977’s Send It. My first exposure to the duo and music from this album came from my father via a James Earl Jones hosted social security PSA album called Genius On The Black Side,which profiled important black musicians. And the name of the song included on that from this fourth album is called “Don’t Cost You Nothing”.

Christopher Parker’s hit hat and snare heavy drums start out the groove,with Francisco Centeno proceeding to deliver one of my personal favorite slap bass solos of the late 70’s. Eric Gale delivers some liquid rhythm guitar,along with the hand claps as the groove advances. The drum begins delivering a driving 4/4 dance beat with the liquid guitar accented by Simpson’s bluesy piano and Gale’s BB King like tone on a lower guitar line. This comes to prominent on the breakdown of the song. After a dramatic upscale,the bass and guitar allow Gale to deliver one of his bluesy lines in a solo before the song fades out.

During the time that  Ashford & Simpson were about to unleash Chaka Khan’s debut solo hit in “I’m Every Woman” and Angela Bofill’s powerful album cut “Rough Times”,they were both really getting the disco era funk groove down pat with songs like “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on their own. Along with it’s strong late 70’s funky hump,especially the stomping bass,Simpson’s piano along with Gale’s bluesy guitar and Simpson’s grunting vocals really allow this song to get it’s groove on big time. And showcases how this duo,generally known for love ballads,really knew how to give up the funk.

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Filed under 1970's, Ashford & Simpson, disco funk, drums, Eric Gale, lead guitar, Motown, Nick Ashford, rhythm guitar, slap bass, Valerie Simpson, Warner Bros.

Anatomy of THE groove 5/30/14 Andre’a Pick : “Sweet Thing” by Ashford & Simpson featuring Maya Angelou

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

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Filed under 1990s, Ashford & Simpson, Funk, Funk Bass, Generations, Maya Angelou, Motown, Poetry, rhythm & blues