Ashford and Simpson
The Rrazz Room
Review by Tamara Palmer; Photos by Mike Battaglia
May 10, 2008
Better than: Most of the last 20 years in R&B
The Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko is a tiny jazz lounge where personal space is at a minimum. But it was still an unexpected surprise and an instant delight to end up in a front seat that was mere inches away from Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, ridiculously within reach of the legendary songwriters who penned, among many other enduring classics, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”
The influence of Ashford and Simpson on modern music is untold, whether through being sampled or covered by hip-hop artists or vocally imitated by house and neo-soul’s so-called divas. Ashford and Simpson sip from the fountain of youth, just as their melodies and sentiments do; in person and from an extremely close vantage point, both appear in amazing, healthy shape.
A surprise early crowd favorite among a slightly older, relatively well-heeled and totally smokeless room was “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” which they wrote for Ray Charles in 1966. Ashford, who introduced the R&B hit as the one that allowed him to switch from “hamburgers to steak,” unleashed an enviable Charles impression to deliver the second and third verses.
Ashford relayed the tale of how the couple came to write smash songs for Berry Gordy’s Motown empire. Gordy flew them out to Detroit, and told them he was looking for a classier sort of joint than “Let’s Get Stoned.” Ashford and Simpson returned to New York, locked themselves in a room and, Ashford said, “The sun came up, the sun came down . . . The Chinese food came in, the Chinese food went out.”
When they were ready, they flew themselves back to Detroit and burst into Gordy’s office without an appointment. Simpson took to the piano, and she and Ashford sang him “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” which would go on to become one of the signature tunes for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (and also be covered by Diana Ross and the Supremes). Ashford and Simpson also wrote the Gaye/Terrell anthems “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.”
They brought forward their young backup vocalist Clayton Bryant, whom they first discovered at their acclaimed open mic night at their New York restaurant Sugar Bar, to help perform three sassy, tender and funny songs they’ve penned for Invisible Life, a forthcoming musical based on a novel by E. Lynn Harris. Simpson explained that she was excited to try the tunes out here in San Francisco because of the subject matter, the main character’s active pursuit of questioning and experimenting with his sexuality.
A lot of people associate the song “I’m Every Woman” with Whitney Houston, who hit with it in 1993. Or, if they’re older/more knowledgeable, it is credited to Chaka Khan, who shredded Houston’s version way back in 1978. But Simpson is the song’s inspiration, according to its author (Ashford), and their version is a serious threat to Chaka’s. Here, Simpson started it on the piano and quickly sauntered off stage to expertly work the whole room. It was a well-arranged prelude to ‘80s jam “Solid,” their biggest hit that they didn’t give away to someone else, and “You’re All I Need To Get By” as an encore. Hip-hop soul contemporary Mary J Blige and rapper Method Man covered the latter 14 years ago, but even those two fly individuals can’t quite match the swagger of Ashford and Simpson’s original.
Personal Bias: Soul Sister Number 415
By the way: Ashford and Simpson perform through May 18 at the Rrazz Room, which offers a “Nick and Val” cocktail in honor of the duo: Hendricks gin served with a cucumber infused with lemon and ginger.