HACKENSACK, NJ – You’ve heard Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan win over the hearts of millions with their impassioned warbling of “I’m Every Woman,” and sang along to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s endearing duet of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” But Valerie Simpson’s performance of them — the woman who co-wrote these chart-topping smashes alongside her songwriting partner and late husband Nick Ashford — is just as scintillating.
On September 28, Simpson kicked-off the Hackensack Performing Arts Center’s Third Annual “PAC the House” series with a live jazz band that included her daughter Asia on backing vocals and guitarist Felicia Collins, best known for her performances with the CBS Orchestra on The Late Show with David Letterman.
“With the PAC the House series, we’re really proud of it because it’s our premier concert series,” explained HACPAC’s artistic director Greg Liosi. “But it helps us tremendously with all the other theater, dance, music and art programs we have here.”
Apart from Saturday night's gig with Valerie Simpson, HACPAC has attracted a slew of other top-tier talent. Last year, the nonprofit theater featured Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez, who played Elphaba in “Wicked” at the turn of the decade with Rachel Zegler who was tapped to play Maria in Steven Spielberg’s 2020 remake of “West Side Story” opposite Ansel Elgort as Tony. Actress Audrey Martell also took the stage of the intimate, 200-plus seat theater earlier in the year during Black History Month as she starred in Lady Writes the Blues — a tribute to the life and music of Rose Marie McCoy — who, like Simpson, wrote hit songs that were performed by some of music’s megastars.
Dressed in a sparkly, neutral-patterned long coat draped over matching pants and a black fringe top, her long auburn dreadlocks swept half-up in a bun, Simpson alternated between sitting at the piano and showing off her dance moves center stage with every sassily-delivered song that she and Ashford penned from the Motown era and beyond. Their bluesy hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” which they co-wrote with fellow songwriter Josephine Armstead in the mid-1960s, was performed by Ray Charles, and, in 1966, reached No. 1 on the R&B charts catapulting the duo’s career. After the song’s success, the pair went on to pen “Cry Like a Baby,” which was recorded by Aretha Franklin and “Is It Still Good To You” sung by Teddy Pendergrass.
The 73-year-old songstress was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002 with Ashford with whom she was also bestowed The Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1999, in addition to the Founder’s Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
“It’s 50 years ya’ll, since we’ve wrote this, and my gosh, it has a life now that Nick Ashford and I never, ever envisioned, but it’s still inspiring people,” said Simpson of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “And that’s what I love, because we all need a reason to get up and to keep going forward.”
Simpson noted the void in modern-day popular music, which she described as lacking songs of this lyrical caliber.
“That’s what’s missing on the radio today. We don’t get no inspiration. There’s no soundtrack to our lives anymore,” said Simpson in her southern drawl.
“Somebody got to write some lyrics. Or else I’ll just keep playing this,” she said to increasing applause before diving into the hit.
Apart from singing all of her most popular songs during her hour-long concert from her dazzling repertoire which included “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” and Diana Ross’s “I Ain’t Been Licked” and “It’s My House,” she kept the energy ablaze by tickling the ivories to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”
“This song is written by a woman that you probably just think of as a singer,” she mused to the crowd. “But she was a fine writer. She led a very complex life, but she left some beautiful music and a wonderful voice. So we gonna celebrate her right now.”
While the evening seemed an ode to women empowerment, one of the concert’s highlights was when Simpson performed “I’m Every Woman,” which she merged with Jessie J’s “Queen.” She said she connected with the song and its message about self-love and the comfort of your own skin, the beginning lines of which read: Stop playing with your body lady/Stop feeling like you're not enough/Stop feeding into the haters/Stop and give yourself some love.
While concertgoers were on their feet and dancing in their seats, another song that struck a chord was when Simpson touched upon the theme of nostalgia. Before belting out “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Simpson told the audience how singing these Motown songs take on a “whole different meaning” when she sings them today. While hearing the song, it seemed inevitable not to draw a reference to Ashford, who passed away in 2011 and to whom she asked the audience to give a hand.
After leaving the stage, the crowd roared for one more song, after which she re-emerged to sing “Solid,” and was gifted with a bouquet of flowers by an audience member who wore a white suit at the number's conclusion.
“I love you,” she said to the crowd.
For upcoming events the HACPAC, go to hacpac.org.