By the time Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson began recording for Warner Bros. Records in 1973, they were bonafide industry vets.
The greatest duets by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell? They wrote them. Those ethereal, unmatched recordings Diana Ross made early in her solo career? They produced them. Boiling Ashford & Simpson down to the smash single “Solid” – don’t get it twisted, I LOVE that song – would be plain unjust. While several anthologies have been issued on them, none have taken a deep look into their time at Warner, a period most agree was their most noteworthy as recording artists. Thankfully, the excellent, two-disc retrospective “The Warner Brothers Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities” remedies this problem.
A highly personal, intimate collection, the set culls tracks from their eight Warner studio albums released between 1973 and 1981. While a hits collection, it takes things a step further by presenting the cuts in rare, extended 12-inch mixes, many of which are making their debut on compact disc. As an added bonus, A&S turned their masters over to a series of hand-picked jocks who re-imagined their gems as heavenly, often tribal remixes that could make ’08’s kids party like it’s ’78. I ain’t a big fan of remixes, but these dudes put their collective toe in these ditties. They aren’t as good as the originals of course, but they are damn close. In a sense, it’s almost like the records came home.
A&S landed at Warner while disco was still bubbling under pop culture’s radar at clubs frequented by blacks, gays and Latinos and left when the style was about to draw its last mainstream breath – and the songs here reflect both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. Early, overlooked hits like “Over and Over,” “Tried, Tested and Found True” and “One More Try” (all of which were mixed for club play by Valerie’s brother Jimmy) are lush, nascent disco at its best, shining examples of why pre-“Saturday Night Fever” era dance music shouldn’t be lumped with corporate crap like “YMCA” and “Funkytown.” This is solid, uptempo soul music, which is what disco was at its core. Built around Simpson’s strident piano playing, swirling strings and a whole lotta high-hat, it’s not surprising that these grooves – much like the outstanding A&S-produced dance cuts from Diana Ross’ 1979 offering “The Boss” – came across most effectively in the 12-inch format. The extra breathing room brings out nuances a standard five-minute album cut simply can’t capture. Many of the original pressings are collector’s items today, as the liner notes point out that the 12-inch single for “One More Try” recently fetched 750 bucks on eBay.
As the first disc progresses, we find the duo moving into their most successful period, an era that began with their landmark album “Send It” and the high-steppin’, hip-dressin’ disco-funk of the hit “Don’t Cost You Nothing.” All at once it seemed they found a strong identity as recording artists, as the album’s lovely title track and “Top of the Stairs” brought out an upscale, sophisti-soul sensibility in the duo’s approach. Their pop breakthrough “Found a Cure,” “Love Don’t Make it Right,” and my personal favorites, the elegant, timeless “It Seems to Hang On” and “Stay Free” (the title track from their 1979 album) added fuel to the fire of a period that earned three consecutive gold-selling albums and turned the duo into one of R&B’s most popular concert attractions.
I have to confess: When I picked this up and saw that the second disc was titled “Remixes” my side-eye kicked in. It’s hard to remix perfection, and too often DJs screw up great songs by putting ridiculous beats over R&B vocals. (Deborah Cox anyone?) That said, letting some of the top remixers in the game do their thing with the A&S masters was an ingenious idea. In their hands, the songs become even more expansive and intricate than the presentations on disc one, with riffs, runs and ad libs originally left on the cutting room floor seeing the light of day. Twelve-inch mix pioneer Tom Moulton, who put his stamp on hits by everyone from First Choice to Phyllis Hyman, transforms “Found a Cure” from an accessible top 40 pop entry to a 10-minute elastic jam. “It Seems to Hang On” takes on an airy, almost haunting aura thanks to Tommy Musto’s re-touch, while “Stay Free” gets two treatments from Dimitri from Paris. He captures both of clubland’s worlds: “Dim’s the Missing Mix” retains the original song’s tempo while bringing the guitars up a bit in the mix and adding some new bass riffs. Free and easy, this is one I could see Chicago steppers embracing. “Dim’s Club Mix,” however, is a little too hurried for my taste and borders on eroding into facelessness. Still, it ain’t half bad. Overall, these and offerings by Joe Claussell, Paul Simpson (no relation to Valerie) and John Morales could make even the most anal purist reconsider his remix-related skepticism. A remix is only as good as the remixer, and the ones chosen for this collection just might turn me into a believer.
After a 1981 live album, the duo would leave Warner for Capitol and go on to have the biggest smash of their career with the infectious 1985 anthem “Solid.” More hits followed, but none matched the sheer beauty of the material released during their Warner tenure. Some spaces in time are just unparalleled.
Right down to the liner notes, this package radiates love, positivity and the power of good music. What makes both the originals and the remixes presented here special is the heart behind them, something that’s sadly missing from most of what we are subjected to today. Without question, this is essential listening.
Just like their marriage, Ashford & Simpson’s music just seems to hang on.