ASHFORD AND SIMPSON-STREET OPERA.

ASHFORD AND SIMPSON-STREET OPERA.

Back in 1963, when Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson met, they probably never envisaged that their musical partnership would last six decades, and see them write  songs for some of music’s biggest names and record four albums that were certified gold. Husband and wife duo Ashford and Simpson had met in the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, in 1963, and started their recording career as a duo. However, lack of success saw them hook up with Joshie Jo Armstead, a former member of the Ikettes, Ike and Tina Turner’s band at the Scepter and Wand label. Together, the trio wrote songs for a number of artists including Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown and Ray Charles. Let’s Get Stoned, which was recorded by Ray Charles, gave the trio their first number one US R&B hit in 1966. That year, Ashford and Simpson moved to one of the most famous record labels in America at that time, Motown.

At Motown, Ashford and Simpson wrote some huge hits for a number of artists. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were the beneficiaries of three of Ashford and Simpson penned tracks, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, You’re All I Need To Get By and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing. This trio of tracks gave the duo three of their biggest hits. Another of the biggest names at Motown Diana Ross, recorded Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand) as her debut solo single, after leaving the Supremes. This single sold over 500,000 copies, reaching number twenty in the US Billboard 100 and seven in the US R&B Charts, and became one of Diana’s most popular an important songs. Ashford and Simpson also wrote and produced most of the tracks on Diana’s debut solo album Diana Ross, and produced her next two albums including 1971s’ Surrender. Among the other Motown artists who recorded Ashford and Simpson songs were Gladys Knight and the Pips. They recorded The Landlord, The Taste of Bitter Love and Bourgie Bourgie. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Marvelettes and The Supremes. 

Whilst on Motown, Valerie Simpson recorded a trio of solo albums, Exposed in 1971,   Valerie Simpson in 1972 and Keep It Coming in 1977. By 1973, Ashford and Simpson had released their debut album Gimme Something Real. Their fifth album Send It, was reached number ten in the US R&B Charts and number fifty-two in the US Billboard 200. It was certified gold, having sold over 500,000 copies. After this, they embarked on a series of highly successful albums, with 1977s’ Is It Still Good To Ya and 1978s’ Stay Free both being certified gold. During this period, they were still working with other artists, including artists like Quincy Jones, Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross. Among the tracks they wrote during this period were Chaka Khan’s huge hit and feminist anthem I’m Every Woman in 1978.  

During the eighties, Ashford and Simpson recorded seven albums, but two of these albums stand out. The first of these is Street Opera, released in 1982, which is regarded as one of Ashford and Simpson’s best albums of the eighties. The other album is Solid, released in 1984. It featured their huge hit Solid, and reached number one in the US R&B Charts and twenty-nine in the US Billboard 200. It became the fourth and final Ashford and Simpson album to be certified gold. 

Street Opera was a concept album released by Ashford and Simpson in May 1982, at a time when the US was going through a really tough time economically. Back then, unemployment had soared to 10.7 million people, 9.7% of the US workforce. Families and couples alike, were struggling financially. Ashford and Simpson decided to record an album that dealt with the problems facing couples when money is tight. How do you keep your love alive when money is tight, was one of the problems they dealt with on the album. The idea behind the album was an ordinary working man, doing his best to support his wife and family, during the hard times. On the second side of the original album, was Street Opera, a four part suite, exploring the themes of life, love and relationships, against a mixture of funk and soul. It’s a powerful suite of music, very different to what other artists were doing in 1982, but very relevant to the problems facing not only the US, but the world in 2011, where unemployment and poverty are rife. However, when the album was released, would this concept album be well received?

When Street Opera was released in May 1982, it reached number forty-five in the US Billboard 200 and five in the US R&B Charts. Three singles were released from Street Opera, the first being Street Corner in March 1982. It reached number fifty-six in the US Billboard 100, number nine in the US R&B Charts and number eleven in the Dance Charts. In July 1982, Love It Away was released as a single, reaching number twenty in the US R&B Charts. The third and final single was I’ll Take the World On, released in October 1982, but failed to chart. Although the singles taken from the album weren’t hugely successful, Street Opera is seen as one of Ashford and Simpson’s best albums, which I’ll now tell you about.

Street Opera opens with Love It Away, which has a lovely laid back, yet funky sound, with the rhythm section providing some gentle funk, while subtle horns, keyboards and guitars combine before Valerie’s vocal enters. It too, has a lovely understated, yet laid back sound. Nick’s voice, when it enters, is stronger and louder as a piano sits at the front of the mix. Behind them, the combination of funky rhythm section and blazing horns are at the heart of the arrangement. The interplay between Nick and Valerie is laden with emotion and passion, and when combined with an subtly funky, almost understated and soulful arrangement it’s an excellent track, perfect for opening the album. However, with such a lovely sound, it deserved to do much better than just number twenty in the US R&B Charts.

Make It Work Again is a song about love and relationships. It’s about a relationship that’s failed, but having got back together, they believe they can get their relationship to work. This is sung against an arrangement that begins with a Nick and Valerie singing against a backdrop of subtle keyboards and rhythm section. Chiming guitars join the arrangement, and as the song progresses, Nick and Valerie’s vocal grows in power, emotion and drama. Like the vocal, the arrangement grows in drama, thanks to waves of guitars, rhythm section and keyboards. However, these waves of drama, quickly give way to calm, but regardless of this, the emotion and drama in the vocal never drops. As a result, it’s a hugely dramatic, emotive and quite beautiful track.

When Mighty Mighty Love opens, two styles of music combine from the opening bars, funk and soul. Elements of funk combine with elements of soul. The funk element is immediately apparent when the track opens, with the funky rhythm section, chiming guitars and keyboards combining with another emotive, yet soulful vocal. Against this backdrop, they sing about the difficulties of keeping a relationship going, and your love alive. Their voices unite, soaring high, full of emotion and passion. Later in the track, strings sweep in, swirling and shimmering, providing the perfect contrast to the funk influence. This mid-tempo track, is not only one has an infectious, hook laden sound, but would work well on any dance floor, because of the tempo and timeless quality of the track.

The final track on side two of Street Opera was I’ll Take the Whole World On. It’s a beautiful combination of slow, sweeping strings and piano that accompany the vocal. During the track, there’s some of the best interplay between Valerie and Nick, on this lovely slow track, that gets across the feeling on invulnerability that people have when deeply in love. Their voices are a combination of passion and power, sung against an arrangement that features just the rhythm section, chiming guitars, piano and lush sweeping strings. This is not only hugely effective, but deeply moving and quite beautiful. If side two is as good as side one, and tracks like this, it’ll be a most enjoyable musical journey.

Side two of the album, features the Street Opera suite of songs, with Part 1-Working Man, the opening track. It’s sung from the perspective of a man trying to support his wife and family, in the face of some economically tough times. During this track, Nick brings the lyrics to life, getting across the hardship, worry and despair that’s felt in such a situation. He feels his only solution is to leave his family temporarily, until things improve. Valerie sings her part from the wife’s perspective. They sing with a combination of emotion, concern and love for the other, against a slow, dramatic backdrop. A saxophone opens the track, adding to the emotion of Nick’s vocal. The slow tempo and spacious arrangement adds to the emotion, as does the way the rhythm section, keyboards and guitars combine. Valerie’s voice is tender, while Nick’s is full of concern and sadness. As the track progresses, the sense of drama increases, with the rhythm section, piano and saxophone responsible for this. As Part 1 ends, you can’t help but feel for the couple, you become caught up in their problems and torment they must be going through.

When Part 2-Who Will They Look To opens, Valerie sings with tenderness, but sadness and regret that she thinks that it’s right her husband leaves against an understated piano led arrangement. It gives way to an almost jaunty, funky arrangement. It’s a combination of the rhythm section, guitars and keyboards that are responsible for this, with backing vocalists accompanying Valerie’s vocal. Then when Nick’s vocal enters, he gets across the frustration, lack of self-worth and worry that a man feels in such a situation. This and Valerie’s response, are sung against the dramatic climax of the song, as she implores him not to go, because as she reminds him, there are two of them in the relationship. By the end of Part 2, both Nick and Valerie have created in music a very realistic scenario that brings to life what people caught up in this scenario must experience.

As Part 3-Street Corner opens, with a funk drenched arrangement that’s created by a combination of the rhythm section, piano, guitars, burst of backing vocals and blazing horns. This sound is meant to portray the urban sights, sounds and experiences of people hanging around on the corner, because they’re without work, money and sometimes, even hope. When Valerie sings, she sings about how she isn’t the kind of girl who’ll stand on the corner selling herself for money. Then Nick sings from the perspective of a potential street corner hustler, but backs away from selling drugs. Meanwhile, the arrangement sees a combination of soul and funk combine masterfully. Blazing horns, the funkiest of rhythm section, chiming guitars and piano are accompanied by a myriad of handclaps. Together, they combine to create a funk laden arrangement, which is perfect for Nick and Valerie vocal’s of urban despair, and how they escaped with their pride in tact. Not for them, turning tricks or selling wraps, even though times were bad. Like the first two parts of Street Opera, Part 3 is just as good, hugely funky, yet still soulful.

The final part of the Street Opera suite is Part 4-Times Will Be Good Again, when Nick sings optimistically, that things will improve, and they’ll be able to return to their previous lives, but for the time being, he’s got to go away. Valerie tenderly urges him to “take good care of yourself.” This track features a hugely emotive vocal from Nick, as the realization that it’s his only option. It’s sung against a hugely dramatic, slow, backdrop of the the rhythm section, keyboards and guitars. In response, Valerie’s vocal is tender, caring and full of concern and worry. As the track reaches this point, it’s a hugely emotive, dramatic and moving climax to the suite.

As Part 4-Times Will Be Good Again, gives way to a short reprise of Working Man, the emotions and drama carries on, as Nick sings the lyrics, slowly but with a huge amount of feeling. Valerie tenderly accompanies him, her voice a thoughtful and concerned contrast, while a saxophone drenches the arrangement with its sad sound. As if that isn’t enough, the rhythm section, keyboard and guitars combine wonderfully, with a piano gently closing the track. By then, you can’t fail to hugely moved by what has been one of the most sad and emotive suites of music you’ll ever hear, one that in 2011 is even more relevant than in 1982.

Street Opera is one of these albums where it pays to listen intently to the words of each song. If you do, you’ll be transported on a hugely emotive, moving and desperately sad musical journey. It’s the nearest thing you’ll ever hear to a soul opera. Drama and sadness, emotion and love, all these things and more can be heard on this album. It follows the journey of an ordinary family when life gets tough, and the husband can no longer support his family. During the album, the feelings of despair, worry and damage to self-esteem are apparent. You hear how this not only affects him, but his family. They avoid taking desperate measures, and instead, retain their dignity. All he wants to do is support his wife and family who he loves dearly. He’s willing to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, but through no fault of his, isn’t able to do so. This albums tells the story of many millions of people not only in America, but worldwide, not just in 1982, but in 2011. Through no fault of their own, they’ve been plunged into poverty, sometimes through the greed and avarice of others. Ashford and Simpson brilliantly brought these people’s story to life, gave their problems, worries and despair a voice. In doing so, they created a musical masterpiece, one of the most moving and quite beautiful albums you’ll ever hear. If you’ve never heard it, you must do so. Recently, it was rereleased and remastered by BBR Records. They’ve done a good job with this album, the remastering of the album is good, and allows you to hear this wonderful album again. Should you be one of the many people who only know Ashford and Simpson for their huge and joyous hit Solid, here’s your opportunity to hear one of their best ever albums, Street Opera, a deeply moving, emotive and dramatic soul masterpiece. Standout Tracks: Love It Away, Make It Work Again, Mighty Mighty Love and Street Opera Parts 1-4.

ASHFORD AND SIMPSON-STREET OPERA.

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