Valerie Simpson talks about Motown in 1969

by Bruce Pollock

For the book By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Revolution of 1969, Bruce Pollock spoke with Valerie Simpson, who along with her husband Nicholas Ashford wrote many classic Motown songs and became a successful performing duo. Here's an inside look at the Motown machine in 1969.
In Detroit, songwriter/producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were perhaps the most in touch with the zeitgeist of 1969, as evidenced by their work for the Temptations, including "Cloud Nine," "Run Away Child, Running Wild," and "Ball Of Confusion." In 1970 they'd write the anthemic "War" for Edwin Starr, followed up by the even more explicit "Stop the War Now." But Diana Ross had become socially conscious, too, with 1968's Holland-Dozier-Holland-influenced "Love Child" and 1969's "I'm Living in Shame." By the end of '69 she'd be singing "Someday, We'll Be Together" as her farewell to the Supremes before launching her solo career in Hollywood with "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," written especially for her by the gifted team of Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Ashford and Simpson had scored the plum of all plum Motown staff assignments, to write and produce an entire album for the magisterial Diana, after Gordy rejected the work of the previous producer, the accomplished L.A. vet Bones Howe.

"It was a coup for us," said Valerie, "because most people only got to contribute a song or two to an album, so for him to give us a whole important project was one of the biggest things we did as a production team. Creatively, he left it all in our hands. Once he gave you power he let you do it. He didn't hear it until it was all done." At which point the professor had a minor quibble with their slow-building, Isaac Hayes–influenced, extended version of the 1967 Marvin and Tammi hit "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," which Diana introduced with a sexy monologue. "Berry thought we had gotten it wrong with all that talking in the front," Valerie said. "He thought the build was too slow and he encouraged us to change it around, put the big part in the front. We told him no, we wouldn't do it. Then he told us he wouldn't release it as a single."

But after "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" peaked at No. 20, disc jockeys started playing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" from the album. Having little choice, Berry revisited his previous decision, with a nod to his producer's original wisdom. The song reached No. 1 six weeks later. "That was kind of nice," Valerie admirably understated.

By 1969, the rule book of decorum was basically out the window in polite society, let alone impolite rock society. About the only place it was still posted on the wall of the cafeteria for all the employees to read was at the Motown commissary.

"The manner of grooming a group certainly helped prepare them for what they were going to encounter in the outside world; Motown was strong about that," said Valerie from her vantage point as a staffer based in New York City. "But nobody has control over anybody when they close the door. It really comes down to the values you're raised on and how crazy fame makes you. Some succumbed to demons and that's going to happen in all genres of music. The tremendous exhilaration an audience can give you can push you into places that are not real and it's like, can you come back to reality and find your footing?"
That year Motown scored a total of fourteen Top 10 singles and the label showed no outward signs of losing its mojo. "We were such an insulated world," Valerie recalled. "Motown had its own scene, its own clubs. Everybody was doing well, at the height of their popularity. Everywhere people went they were treated like royalty. So you were part of a very special inner circle. The average person in Detroit, working for Ford, might have been going through a very different thing."

Like the town's resident automakers, however, Berry maintained an assembly-line approach. "Everyone had a cubicle, so you could almost literally hear the music coming out of everyone else's room," said Valerie. "We all worked with an ear to the door, listening for what everybody else was doing, just to make sure your stuff sounded stronger. You were always amidst creativity; it was like going to college." And Berry Gordy was the cool but demanding professor whose class was always filled to capacity, even if he was stingy with the As.

"We were really lucky because in the first batch of songs we sent in was 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough,' which was recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell," said Valerie. "So we got music on the street right away. After 'Your Precious Love,' when it came time for the third single, we kind of realized we had sent them great demos and they were pretty much following them, so maybe we should produce as well. So that's when we asked for a production deal."

But Berry always believed his writers should be well schooled in the fine art of competition. Said Valerie, "He decided we should cut 'Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing,' and Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua should cut it as well, and whichever version came out the strongest would be released. So we were lucky again that ours turned out stronger. And that's how we started off as producers, thanks to the indulgence of Marvin and Tammi, since they had to pay for both songs."

Adding to the pressure during that particular production were a couple of unannounced visitors to the studio, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield. "They were standing in the control room watching us," said Valerie, "so it made us a little nervous, but it was also reassuring, like whoa, this must be important here. We gotta get this right." That they did. "Once it was determined you could write a good song and produce it well, we had total creative freedom."

Marvin and Tammi remained their biggest clients until Tammi's death in 1970 from a brain tumor. "When she got sick, I was always doing the demos anyway," said Valerie. "I would sing with Marvin and then we'd bring her in and we'd kind of put together a vocal and doctor it up a bit. That's been perceived as I did the singing, but basically it was her singing and it was just doctored."

Marvin Gaye was a particular favorite of Valerie's. "The studio was a place where he was totally free of whatever demons he might have been dealing with on the outside. So we got to see him at his happiest," she recalled. "He was always my favorite artist, because his gift was so tremendous, his sensibility as to how to bring out a lyric. In duets, he excelled on making a singer better. He didn't have a lot of ego, where he tried to outshine anyone."

In 1970, reeling from Terrell's death, Gaye was on the brink of retirement. Shortly after the murders at Kent State, he went into the studio with a heartfelt message song he helped Al Cleveland and the Four Tops' Renaldo Benson write, called "What's Going On." He thought he might give it to the Originals, the group he was producing, whose "The Bells" had just peaked on the pop charts at No. 12. Then he decided he wanted to do it himself. Just one thing stood in his way: Berry Gordy, who didn't think the track's antiwar sentiments conformed to Marvin's sexy image. Marvin threatened to leave the label if Gordy didn't let him release it. Gordy threatened to let him. A legendary impasse ensued.

"He was the most charming man," Valerie said of Berry. "He could talk you into anything. Even if you didn't agree with him, he was still charming."

But Marvin Gaye was equally staunch in defending his passions no matter how charming his antagonist; he eventually prevailed in his standoff with Gordy, releasing "What's Going On" eight months after it was finished. On the Detroit Metro Times list of the 100 Greatest Detroit Songs, it ranks No. 1

Excerpted from By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Revolution of 1969 by Bruce Pollock (Backbeat Books).
More Song Writing

Comments: 3

  • Poetdannyqueen from Hyttsville M,d.The funk Brothers

    As the heartbeat behind the
    Motor city's inner-city soul
    Is the story behind the story
    That's never been told.

    They had no fame,no
    Fortune no glory
    But still the stars, behind
    The stars,in the Motown-story.

    Their gift of song was
    The creative-Crazy glue
    For the sound of soul, the
    Whole world was dancing to.

    As the soundtrak for this
    Legendary saga of success
    They gave their all and
    Always gave their best.

    Their magic and music
    Gave birth to the sound
    Music lovers the world over
    Came to know as motown.

    Down in the snake-pit
    Of Hittsville's Studio-A
    The work of the Bros. was
    The order of the nite and day.

    The funk Bros. as Motown's
    Only studio house band
    We're always on stand-by
    And forever in demand.

    They had fame, no
    Fortune and glory
    But always the stars,behind
    The stars in the Motown story.

    All rights reserved
  • Poetdannyqueen from Hyattsville Md.Askford & Simpson
    Are simply the best
    Of the very best there are
    Bar none.

  • Valerie from PhoenixWouldn't it be a tragedy if Berry Gordy had prevailed and not let Marvin Gaye release What's Going On?
see more comments

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