Yes, she lived with a very deep man.
Just two nights before the show, at a prominent music publisher’s Christmas party, a prominent music publishing friend took me aside and marveled about Valerie Simpson. “I don’t know how does she do it?” she said. “Neither do I,” I replied.
It was the day after the ASCAP Foundation Awards, where for the third year in a row, Val presented the “Reach Out and Touch” Award in honor of Nick Ashford, which she established in his memory to advance the careers of promising songwriters by providing financial assistance for professional recordings of their work.
And now, Saturday night, in the small LeFrak Concert Hall at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts in Queens College, she was performing for not even a half-full house, thanks to the first big snowstorm of the year.
Shit. It took me two and a half hours to get there from Chinatown. I took the Q uptown as far as it went, to 57th Street. Then waited for the N and took that to Lex and 59th when I realized I needed the R, then waited forever for the R and took that as far as it went, to 71st and Continental Ave. in Forest Hills. It really was like a can of sardines.
Then I waited in the snow with a million others for the Q64 bus and was lucky to get on the first one that came. There was little visibility, and I didn’t know where I was anyway, so I asked the bus driver how many stops to Kissena Boulevard and Jewel Avenue, where the Queens College website said to get off. He didn’t know.
At least he said he’d call out the stop, which he didn’t. I smeared the moisture off the window in the nick of time to see the sign for the stop lit up on the bus shelter, then got lucky again in guessing the right direction for the one-block walk to the campus entrance. But there was no signage there, no one in sight to direct me to the Kupferberg Center, so I walked around the dark, silent, snowed-in campus for half an hour before finding it just 15 minutes before showtime.
But what a show it was.
“Anybody here tonight came here out of love!” Val said, which most certainly was true, and traditional: Anybody who ever came to an Ashford & Simpson show came out of love, which is what Ashford & Simpson was always all about.
“What brought you here tonight?” Nick would shout out during Nick & Val’s performances of “The Boss.” A full house would always scream back, “Love!”
I remember one time at Radio City he tried to materialize it.
“I wish I could take all the love I have and ball it up,” he related, with his hands packing a big, invisibile mass into an imaginary snowball, “and throw it out over all of you.” And then he mimed an upward toss of the big snowball of love into the top of the middle of Radio City, and I’ll be damned if everyone there didn’t see it break open at the top into thousands of shiny golden pieces that gently landed on everyone there and left them warm and aglow.
“It’s okay, we’re going to party anyway!” said Val.
She started with “Nobody Knows” from Ashford & Simpson’s 1979 album Stay Free–and such a classic Nick theme.
Nobody knows the inside
That’s where all your little secrets hide
Nobody knows the inside
Maybe you, you got too much pride
And nobody knows the inside
Oh, I ain’t got no magic mirror
Nobody knows the inside
That’s why, that’s whi I can’t get no nearer.
“That’s why, that’s why I can’t get no nearer!” That’s pure Nick Ashford poetry! The genius of Nick Ashford.
We wanna hear what it’s all about
Try to, tell somebody, tell somebody
Go on and get it off, get it off your chest…
Nick always wanted to get to the core, get to the real. Yes, Val lived with a very deep man.
I’m thinking now of their great 1983 single “It’s Much Deeper.” But Val followed with the no less deep “It’ll Come, It’ll Come, It’ll Come,” the lead track and single from their 1976 album Come As You Are. God, she was digging deep.
I know you had a hard time
It’ll come, it’ll come, it’ll come.
He was always so supportive, encouraging, caring.
She is always so supportive, encouraging, caring. And God bless her, she did “The Boss.”
I was so right
Thought I could turn emotion on and off
I was so sure
But love taught me who was the boss.
It brought us here tonight.
She brought out Felicia Collins to play guitar and sing on my favorite “Found A Cure,” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” I ran into Felicia again a week or so later, at a Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top guitarist) gig at City Winery, with her fellow Letterman band star Will Lee. She was still raving about Val, overwhelmed that she had asked her to sit in at her show and gave her so much room. Pretty much the sort of conversation, with minor personal modifications, that one has with anyone about Val.
For the record, Val’s show also included “One More Try” from Come As You Are, which they never performed on stage, and was co-written by Val’s brother (and Village People lead singer) Raymond Simpson and featured Felicia’s dynamite rock guitar play; Val’s classic pre-A&S solo single “Silly, Wasn’t I” (“so short,” she said, “that before people started to like it, it was gone!”); and the titletrack of her current solo album, “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again”—another wondrous Nick Ashford conceit.
She prefaced “Dinosaurs” with a bit of positive seasonal reflection/instruction: “As time marches on, you need to think a little more about yourself. It’s up to you to make yourself a priority, to be what you want to be.”
Again, the old A&S affirmation, the perfect lead-in to the Motown foundation of their songwriting.
“There’s a deepness and density of the A&S catalog,” she said, noting how hard it was to choose just a few of the songs for the set. “It’s a nice problem to have: [Figuring out] which songs you might want to hear as opposed to saying, ‘I only got two.’”
“I think there’s that depth,” she explained, “because I lived with a very deep man—Nick Ashford. But if I start talking about his story, it’s a whole nother evening!”
She chose “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and introduced it, like she has done since Nick died, by relating how its meaning has changed. Hence, she starts it off slow and solemn:
I got your picture hangin’ on the wall
It can’t see or come to me when I call your name
I realize it’s just a picture in a frame
She played the piano as Nick’s portrait flashed on the screen above her, the one that’s on the wall to the left of the bar at the Sugar Bar, with his head leaning against his right hand and seeming to look back you, so sweetly, kindly.
Standing away from the piano, she followed with “You’re All I Need,” clearly, by the way she gestured outward and around with her hands, singing to the audience. And sure enough, she thanked her many friends in the crowd for being all she needs to get by, but really, she’s just allowing those of us who love her to feel that we’re helping her, when of course, it’s the other way around.
Felicia came back out to sing on the encore “I’m Every Woman,” and Val ended the show with “Street Corner,” in which she coaxed daughter Nicole to come up and sing backup, thereby joining her sister Asia and Clayton Bryant. Ray Simpson came up, too. The rest of Val’s band was the usual greatness: pianist/conductor Pete Cannarozzi, keyboardist/vocalist Valerie Ghent, bassist Eluriel “Tinker” Barfield, drummer Bernard “Pocket” Davis and saxophonist Todd Schefflin.
Luckily, I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar in the band van. Val looked after me as she always does, as she always does everyone, but in my case, at the restaurant, because I’m vegetarian, making sure I had plenty to eat.
I left a little earlier than everyone, but around midnight nonetheless, tired from trudging through the snow earlier.
I stopped for a moment at the end of the bar, by the door, looking at the picture of Nick, now encircled by a string of Christmas lights. Saint Nickolas.
Something about it that makes Nick look particularly adorable, almost cute, which he most certainly was. Then again, you could use so many words to describe Nick, many of them opposite: He went from cute to rugged, soft to tough. Everything fit him, and he fit everything.
I remember Miss Tee saying how when you walk past this particular picture of Nick, his eyes seem to follow you. Christmas lights flashing, I remember how he was called “the black Jesus” at his funeral.
He never did understand how I idolized him.
“We did it again, Boo-Boo,” Miss Tee said to the picture the night President Obama was re-elected.
I walked out into the snow, leaving behind a room full of people who had come to Nick’s Sugar Bar out of love, like any other night.