Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson achieved their second life in the ’70s. The husband-and-wife songwriting pair was well known in the ’60s for writing some of the decade’s most notable soul songs, such as the Motown duet hits "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" and "You’re All I Need to Get By." But as Motown slowly ground to a halt in the early ’70s, the two were ideally positioned to reconfigure themselves as marquee artists.
The Warner Brothers Years captures the pulse of this period. Differing from the garden-variety greatest-hits package (of which the duo already has plenty), this compilation collects popular (and oftentimes rare) extended twelve-inch mixes on one disc and modern-day remixes on another. This collection is a blessing — especially for fans, deejays and dance-music enthusiasts — because the collective value of one CD of limited-edition promo-only edits is several thousands of dollars. More important, these proto- and full-on disco cuts illustrate how the duo once again captured the ever-changing beat of American popular music.
Rest assured that Ashford & Simpson’s signature stylistic trademarks were in clear blossom even through the hirsute days of the ’70s. Soaring melodies and tight harmonies were simply merged with a punchier beat. Admittedly, Ashford’s choking falsetto has always worn thin on my skin, but Simpson’s alternately powerful and tender voice more than makes up for his.
Though the group’s performing and songwriting talents are in fine form on this collection, equal credit for their ’70s success should be given to Valerie’s brother Jimmy Simpson, who edited the majority of the tracks. He was among the first to extend the intros, choruses and breakdowns of songs specifically for club play — a vast departure from the duo’s tighter, format-friendly radio hits of the ’60s. His gentle touch helped make these songs live and breathe on the dance floors.
Particularly surprising, then, is the remix disc. Compilation producer Johnny "D" DeMairo wisely chooses producers who best appreciate Ashford & Simpson, or who were old enough to remember hearing these songs when they were first released. An A-list of pioneering producers — Tom Moulton, Dimitri From Paris, Joe Clausell, M&M (Paul Simpson and John Morales), Tommy Musto and Joey Negro — employ similar techniques of subtle editing to reshape these songs.
Dimitri, who has demonstrated this talent repeatedly on his own releases, gently extends and focuses on underemphasized parts to enhance the drama of "Stay Free" in his "Dim’s Missing Mix," and then chops those same parts rapidly for his more dance-friendly "Dim’s Club Mix." Better still are the master tapes of previously unheard tracks that are incorporated into several songs, particularly on Tom Moulton’s completely revamped "Found a Cure." In an exceptionally rare case, each remix captures the energy of the original and works with it, as opposed to messily altering it.
Though clubs have already relinquished its importance to more virtual spaces in terms of hearing the newest hits, this collection captures an exciting point in pop music history, when a sweaty dance floor packed with people was where the connection was made. It also demonstrates how Ashford & Simpson reinvented themselves to become synonymous with hit-making for a whole new generation. The remixes more pay homage to the two than help connect their legacy with the vibrancy of today’s music. But who cares? For a body of fans, they’ve found the cure again.