It’s that time of year, the time when we reflect on the blessings that have shaped our lives and sent us down a path to love and happiness. Valerie Simpson treasures every moment that has brought her to this place in her life: a place in the history books, at the top of the charts, surrounded by talent and inspiration, and with a legendary partnership in both love and artistry.
Not many realize that it was fluke, a glorious twist of fate that made Valerie a household name.
Already one of the most successful songwriters in R&B, Valerie was thrilled to work behind the scenes delivering songs for superstars like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, never setting her sights on being in front of the microphone. But in 1972, a groundbreaking New York City television show called “Soul!” invited Valerie and her husband (and songwriting partner) Nick Ashford to sing some of the hits they created for so many others.
“We were seven years into our writing career at that point,” recalls Valerie. “We sang some of our songs and got a great response. It made us seriously think that we should try this singing thing out.”
When Valerie casually mentions “our songs,” she downplays the magnitude of Ashford and Simpson’s body of work. The Ray Charles No. 1 hit “Let’s Get Stoned.” Chaka Khan’s anthem “I’m Every Woman.” Teddy Pendergrass’ “Is It Still Good to You?” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s string of hits “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Songs for Diana Ross, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, as well as the soundtrack to “The Wiz.” Songs that have withstood the test of time like no others.
“When we first started, we were writing for the joy of writing,” Valerie explains. “But the idea that they were going to stick around for 40 years just wasn’t even a thought in our minds. We were coming from a place of love and feeling good, and it was just such a joy to write these songs that we would have done it for nothing,” she adds, revealing the secrets to her success. “Before anyone hears it, you have to love it yourself.
“Initially the songs were for others, and we mainly thought of ourselves as songwriters. There was no question: Marvin or Tammi or Diana could have whatever they wanted,” she says, her voice still filled with awe as she remembers the early years of her career. “We always believed that aside from a great song you need a great vehicle to carry it.” Little did Simpson realize back then that she was a “great vehicle” herself. It was her performance on “Soul!” that finally opened her eyes, and ears, to her true potential as a superstar.
Within two years of appearing on “Soul!,” Ashford & Simpson landed two albums on the R&B charts back-to-back, with singles like “Main Line,” “Everybody’s Got to Give It Up” and “(I’d Know You) Anywhere.” Hit after hit followed for nearly two decades, including their iconic “Solid (As a Rock)” and Top 20 smashes “It Seems to Hang On,” “Send It,” “Don’t Cost You Nothing,” “Nobody Knows,” “Is It Still Good to Ya,” “Found a Cure,” “Love Don’t Make It Right,” “Street Corner,” “Love It Away,” “High Rise,” “Outta the World,” “Count Your Blessings” and “I’ll Be There for You.”
As a testament to their limitless talent and work ethic, the duo continued to write and produce songs for other artists as their own stars were on the rise. And not just songs. Iconic, career-defining songs that are as popular today as they were when first recorded. “It was a miracle to us,” says Valerie. “You think of pop songs lasting a just few months. But then these songs started being placed in films, and people started using them for commercials, or other artists started to cover them — that was just like icing on the cake.” She credits Berry Gordy and the Motown family with teaching the duo to approach their craft with an everlasting vision. “Berry wanted to see songs become standards. And we were really fortunate that so many of our songs really had that lasting quality.”
With every song, Ashford & Simpson’s fans grew closer, building a bond with the couple that lasts to this day. The support is not lost on Simpson. “Since I’ve just started really doing solo shows on my own, the response has been really amazing,” she marvels. “I think it’s because they know that I’m fragile, and so everybody is so supportive and there for me and anytime. When an audience gives you that, it makes you stronger, bigger, better, and I just so appreciate it.”
Valerie will get a chance to spend time with these fans when she is aboard the upcoming Soul Train Cruise, and her longtime friends, too. “It’s as much a party for us as much as the guests on the ship,” she says with anticipation. “That’s the good part about this — all of the artists coming together. Usually when we do a big show, we pass each other in the hallway and don’t really get a chance see each other. This is the time when we will get to see each other, spend some time together and catch up.” Simpson will even reconnect with artists she and Nick wrote for in the earliest days of their career: They penned hits for The 5th Dimension (Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. will perform on The Soul Train Cruise) and Gladys Knight, who recorded several of their songs.
Valerie sees the cruise as a “golden opportunity to get to as many shows as I can.” She adds, “When you see something great, it makes you strive harder. I don’t mind even picking up a trick here or there,” she laughs. “You always try to improve your game. When I leave a show and it’s good, it makes me want to go home and do something.”
Her performance aboard The Soul Train Cruise 2015 will mark a relationship with Soul Train that has lasted over 40 years. Yet Valerie still clearly remembers the first time she and Nick appeared on the television show. “Being on Soul Train was like an arrival. To be asked to be on the show, it meant an awful lot. For us to finally be able to say that Don Cornelius was asking us to be on the show meant that we just made it, that this is it. And you gave it your best,” she says, adding with a smile, “It called for a whole new outfit. And those little short interviews were like a catch-22; Don wasn’t going to talk long, so you wanted to say something bright and brilliant.”
“I love Don,” she continues wistfully. “I think he had a special place in his heart for us. He was really nice to us. Usually, he wouldn’t do much talking on camera but would talk a lot off the air. He really was a bright business man and really a fun man, too. He was an original.”
Valerie plans to honor the spirit and legacy of Soul Train and Don Cornelius while on the cruise. But until she steps onto the majestic ship next month, she’ll be sticking close to home at her Sugar Bar in New York City. For over 16 years, the venue — and Valerie — has nurtured young, up-and-coming talent, including The Voice winner and Grammy Award nominee Jermaine Paul and stars of Broadway’s “The Color Purple” and “Motown: The Musical.” Sugar Bar will be the subject of a documentary, currently being filmed.
See Valerie Simpson perform on The Soul Train Cruise this coming February 22, 2015. Call Amber direct at 585.653.8746 or click below to start your cruise registration:
Passionate about music and passionate about cruising. Put 'em together and I'm in heaven -- you can catch up with me on a themed cruise and, especially, on an Entertainment Cruise!