Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nickolas Ashford

Nickolas Ashford, the primary lyricist of the legendary singer-songwriter duo Ashford and Simpson recently died at age 70. of throat cancer.
Over a 40 year career Ashford wrote and produced for 
Ray Charles, who had a comeback of sorts in 1966 with the decidedly secular, yet sanctified, “Let’s Go Get Stoned”; 
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recordings of the late 1960s, including “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough";
Diana Ross, whose finest early '70s sides as a solo artist - see Diana Ross (1970) and The Boss (1979) - where arguably written by Ashford and Simpson; 
The first two Dynamic Superior recordings, their eponymous 1974 debut and Pure Pleasure (1975) - (Motown's willingness to even visually suggest lead singer Washington’s queerness is striking).
Chaka Khan, whose signature tune “I’m Every Women” (1978) is an Ashford and Simpson classic; 
Teddy Pendergrass who recorded “Is It Still Good To Ya”; 
Cheryl Lynn, who matches the duo’s own performance of “Believe in Me”; 

Beginning with I Wanna Be Selfish (1974) , Ashford and Simpson released seven studio albums under their own names for Warner Brothers including the brilliant So So Satisfied (1977), produced by Harvey Fuqua, founding member of the doo-wop group the Moonglows and one-time Motown record executive, which featured the proto-Disco classic “Over and Over” . “Over and Over” was covered the same year by Sylvester on his solo debut. (See also Sylvester's  influential gay classic Step II in 1978).

In 1972 Ashford and Simpson appeared on Soul!, a televised variety-show format which provided a stage for a breathtaking array of black cultural and political luminaries, including many performers who had never before appeared on TV.

Perhaps the best evidence of the value of Ashford and Simpson’s music was their securing of “Pullman Bonds” in 1998, where financier David Pullman guaranteed the duo eight figures drawn from future royalties on their 250-song catalogue. 

In "Nickolas Ashford and the Cult of Black Manhood", Marc Anthony Neal writes:
Ashford also pushed boundaries with regards to notions of Black masculinity.  With his long, straightened mane, falsetto singing voice (balanced by Simpson’s vocal heft), measured mannerisms, and clear comfort in his body, Nick Ashford, became the model for a cosmopolitan, metro-sexual Black masculinity. While Ashford had many falsetto peers during the era, like Earth Wind & Fire’s Phillip Bailey, Blue Magic lead-singer Ted Mills, Stylistics’ lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. and the oft-forgotten Ronnie Dyson, few functioned with the sartorial sass that Ashford did, save the aforementioned Sylvester.  Years later, Eddie Murphy’s character in Vampire in Brooklyn was a l nod to Ashford’s singular style. Ashford’s radical performance of Black masculinity in the 1970s and 1980s, was largely muted because he was romantically linked to Simpson as the couple served as a model for the possibilities of a Black love.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Masculinity, Consumption and Health

I have recently finished an article on representations of men's health in the promotion of filtered cigarettes and beer (Millers Lite). The paper draws on the history of men's consumption, especially the literature on men's magazines, as well as the literature on men's consumption of health - there are a few articles on Men's Health Magazine, for example.In trying to think how to develop this line of inquiry into masculinity, consumption and health I have been thinking about the role of popular music. Mention of masculinity and men's health in the context of popular music brings to mind images of drinking and excess. But what are the kinds of message being invoked by the image of now much older male artists aging gracefully-think about the contribution of the Rolling Stones to the reinventions of the aging process, think of a reformed Jimmy Barnes- who was known to drink two bottles of Vodka a day and claimed he had only performed about three shows in his life sober - and who stopped drinking in 2002 and now appears as an exemplar  good health.

For a related study - of representations of disability in popular music - see:
George McKay, "Crippled with nerves: Popular Music and Polio", Popular Music, 28:3 (October 2009), 341-365.
George McKay, Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disability, University of Michigan Press, Forthcoming.
For another innovative approach to the question of men, masculinity and health see:
Alondro Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.