Never Has It Been So Good As Ashford & Simpson (and sometimes Armstead)

New York of the 1960’s brought us the power of love in the writers booth in a profound way. The Brill Building gave young Jewish Newlyweds like Goffin & King, Greenwich & Barry and Mann & Weil lots of money and respect as they churned out hits for people coast to coast and even overseas.

Given that a great majority of the artists they wrote for before the British Invasion were Black, it’s been repacked as an integrationist fantasy without consideration of intersectionality. While Carole King lives comfortably with her middling singing ability in her 70’s, many of the voices that took her melodies to the Pop Top 40 so she’d stay rich in royalty returns barely make ends meet, if they’ve even survived to be her peers in age.

One married duo from those same hallways started to have an impact in 1964. Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at a Harlem Church, and soon fell in love and married. At first they tried their hand at being a singer-songwriting duo, releasing the bubbling under “I’ll Find You” in that year. Although they had promise with their early recordings, they also were an ultra productive pairing in terms of tunesmiths.

Valerie Simpson, left, singing backgrounds with Jean Thomas, Ellie Greenwich and Beverly Warren

They also made fast friends with former Ikette Josephine Armstead, who was trying to cut her teeth under the stage name Deena Johnson. To keep the money flowing for all three, they oft sat down at the piano together. Distinctive from the start, the trio of writers really excelled at churning out intense “Big City” soul that was a natural extension of the “Uptown Soul” created by their contemporaries in the Brill Building, while adding melodic sophistication and a streetwise sense of gossip, celebration and frankly, soulfulness to the genre.

They started to fill a strategic hole as the white Brill Building writers started to drift away from providing their prime material from the Black artists as they had done in the early 60’s. Where Carol King gave material to The Shirelles, Burt Bacharach to Maxine Brown, Ashford, Simpson & Armstead had sparkling numbers ready for the charts for those artists.

It did take a while, however, given that most labels save Motown and Chess were on a more white artist centric track by mid-1964. Their first success was the multiple competing versions of “The Real Thing” (a zesty and joyful update that has the spice of Martha & The Vandellas “Heatwave” flavoring the melody). Betty Everett, The Chiffons and Tina Britt all released versions in early 1965. The Chiffons withdrew their version, and Tina Britt bought in a Top 20 R&B hit for the songwriting team.

By the end of 1965, they had another R&B hit with Ronnie Milsap’s version of “Never Had It So Good” and finally broke into the Pop Hot 100 with Maxine Brown’s original take of “One Step At A Time.” 1966 brought them the success they needed to be a force to be reckoned with, when Ray Charles’s version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” topped the R&B Charts and made the Pop Top 40.

At that point however, Ashford, Simpson & mostly Armstead had written the majority of the songs that appear on this mix. Although Josephine Armstead chose not to join them at Motown to pursue reviving her solo career on various Chicago labels, she would join her old friends from time to time on moonlighting projects away from Motown.

Indeed, I wanted to shine a spotlight on how accomplished their catalog was before they joined Motown records at the end of 1966. The efforts of The Apollas (“You’ll Always Have Me”) & Mary Love (“Baby, I’ll Come”) on this list are the first songs issued *after* they recorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with Tammi Terrell (alone, Marvin Gaye overdubbed his vocals later).

When they arrived at Motown, the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect, as Holland-Dozier-Holland started their work slowdown and A&R Director Mickey Stevenson left the label as well. Granted, I stayed away from the huge studio hits that they were known for with Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. To the extent of their early Motown efforts, I focused on forgotten gems scattered on B-sides, by lesser known artists and album tracks.

While Nick Ashford passed from this plane 7 years ago, we still have the blessing of both Valerie Simpson and Jo Armstead with us. So sit back, relax and take in this splendid collection of Soul.

  1. Betty Everett – The Real Thing
  2. The Jewels – Smokey Joe’s
  3. Tina Britt – You’re Absolutely Right
  4. The Kittens – I’ve Got To Know Him
  5. Jimmy Hughes – Hush
  6. Maxine Brown – One Step At A Time
  7. Bettye LaVette – Only Your Love Can Save Me
  8. Ronnie Milsap – Never Had It So Good
  9. JoAnn & Troy – Same Old Feeling
  10. Marie Knight – Say It Again
  11. Ruth Brown – Come A Little Bit Closer
  12. Jeanette Williams – A Friend Mine
  13. Val & Nick – Lonely Town
  14. The Shirelles – Look Away
  15. Candy & The Kisses – Out In The Streets Again
  16. Betty Everett – Too Hot To Hold
  17. Ray Charles – I Don’t Need No Doctor
  18. The Cherokees – Dig A Little Deeper
  19. Vernon Garrett – Running Out
  20. The Capitols – Let’s Go Get Stoned
  21. Chuck Jackson & Maxine Brown – Don’t Go
  22. The Diplomats – Love Ain’t What It Used To Be
  23. Anita Humes & The Essex – You Don’t Owe Me Anything
  24. Big Maybelle – Let Me Go
  25. Mary Love – Baby I’ll Come
  26. The Apollas – You’ll Always Have Me
  27. B.J. Thomas – I Saw Pity In The Face Of A Friend
  28. Gladys Knight & The Pips – I’ll Be Standing By
  29. The Rivingtons – A Rose Growing In The Ruins
  30. The Blossoms – Cry Like A Baby
  31. Rosetta Hightower – I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You
  32. Diana Ross – A Simple Thing Like Cry
  33. Judy White – Building A World For Two
  34. Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – Won’t It Be So Wonderful?
  35. Nick Ashford – When I Feel The Need
  36. Brenda Holloway – Starting The Hurt All Over Again
  37. The Charmaines – Keep On Searching
  38. JoAnn Garrett – Whatcha Been Doin’?
  39. The Messengers – California Soul
  40. The Carrolls – Surrender Your Love
  41. David Ruffin – What You Gave Me
  42. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – We Can Make It We Can
  43. The Four Tops – I Am Your Man

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