Name some of Motown's biggest hits--"Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," and "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand"--and one thinks of two singular talents: Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The songwriting duo were behind these classic hits, along with other Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell standards such as "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By." While their numerous compositions earned them a well-deserved place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, few focus on the couple as performers, with the sole exception of their 1984 romantic duet "Solid." The next few DeepSoul columns will examine their careers as performers as well as songwriters, starting with the socially conscious 1982 track "Street Corner."
First, a brief Ashford and Simpson history: the future couple met in Harlem in 1964, when both were aspiring singers and songwriters. They penned a number of songs together, finally achieving success when Ray Charles recorded their composition "Let's Go Get Stoned" two years later. This earned Ashford and Simpson a writing and producing contract with Motown, and they became the powers behind some of the label's most enduring singles, writing for acts like the aforementioned Gaye as well as Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
Despite their success, the duo desired to record their own material; when Motown head Berry Gordy discouraged this, they departed the label in 1973. After their 1974 marriage, Ashford and Simpson focused on developing their own careers. Initial sales were shaky, but eventually they found their groove by recording ballads and disco-tinged numbers. They never stopped writing hits for others, however, such as the Chaka Khan anthem "I'm Every Woman" (later covered by Whitney Houston for her film The Bodyguard).
In 1982, Ashford and Simpson released the concept album Street Opera, a collection of tracks addressing issues such as poverty and unemployment. Its lead single, "Street Corner," initially fools the listener--its silky-smooth grooves entice people to the dance floor, but underneath those seductive beats lie dark emotions and cautionary tales.
Horns straight out of a late 1970s/early 80s Quincy Jones record (specifically The Dude) accentuate the danceable beat, but Ashford and Simpson immediately chant "Street life / Rough necks / Bad guys," setting an ominous tone. Simpson's sexy, breathy vocals contrast with the subject matter. As she walks down the street, she is mistaken for a prostitute and drug addict. "They try to pick me up and take me for a ride," she proclaims. "They say, 'I've got the stuff that really turns you on.'" When the unnamed men continue harassing her, she exclaims "I'm not the kind of girl / You're gonna see / On any street corner." The chorus repeats the phrase "any street corner," with Ashford and Simpson pulling back the curtain to reveal the seamier side of night life.
In the next verse, Ashford spins his own tales of the street, this time focusing on drugs alone. "They say, 'I've got a dime, I've got a nickel bag,'" he sings, his Smokey Robinson-esque voice softening the frank language. "'I've got your pleasure right here in my hand / It'll make you feel just like a real big man," he continues in the voice of the drug dealer. The narrator appears to hesitate, to consider giving in to temptation. "But when I stop / To think about the cost / I know that I just might get lost," Ashford concludes, the "cost" clearly referring to more than just money. As they harmonize on the chorus, they emphasize the danger of the streets: "they'll find ya . . . on the avenue waitin' for you," they warn. Both narrators conclude that they must leave this dark world and its many pitfalls.
"Street Corner" may initially serve as a disco-friendly track, but the lyrics issue a serious warning and paint scenes of degradation. Only Ashford and Simpson could couch such themes in a lush, sensual arrangement. While they may be primarily known for songs addressing monogamy and the enduring power of love, "Street Corner" proves that the duo were capable of so much more.