Soul Retrospective: Ashford and Simpson’s ‘A Musical Affair’

ashfordandsimpson a musical affairAshford and Simpson had been signed to Warner Brothers since 1973, and the years found them transforming their sound and refining their style. The duo had released popular mid- to late-’70s albums like I Wanna Be Selfish and So Satisfied, and 1977’s Send It became their first gold album. 1980’s A Musical Affair marked an especially busy time; they had released Stay Free in 1979, and the duo also produced and wrote songs for Diana Ross and Gladys Knight and the Pips. A Musical Affair featured Ashford and Simpson doing a more R&B-centered album with the production style that was typified by 1978’s Is It Still Good to Ya?

Perhaps more than most of their albums, A Musical Affair often had songs of regret and mixed emotions pervade even the most accessible tracks. The spunky “Love Makes It Right” displays their customary dancefloor flash and confidence but little of the romantic or sensual insouciance of the earlier efforts.

Songs like “Rushing To” and  “Make It To the Sky” aren’t exactly the happiest of tracks—both deal with vague disillusion and regret. The thankful “You Never Left Me Alone” comes off a bit trite, but the duo’s chemistry all but saves it. The show-bizzy “We’ll Meet Again” finds them falling into familiar mannerisms (Ashford’s tension and Simpson’s restraint), and the song works in spite of the grand overstatement.

Despite the uptempo beat, “I Ain’t Asking For Your Love” isn’t any more hopeful than the rest of the album. The humorous “Get Out Your Handkerchief” matches an easy beat with witty lyrics and great, joyful vocals. The album closes with the poignant “Happy Endings,” which is one of the most direct and perfectly realized songs on the effort.

For the most part, A Musical Affair may not be as remembered because most of the work is a bit insular and gloomy throughout. It also could be said that Ashford and Simpson simply taxed themselves during this era, arguably giving better songs to other artists, especially for Gladys Knight and the Pips’ About Love. A Musical Affair didn’t enjoy an aggressive ad campaign like Ashford and Simpson’s late ’70s albums. Warner Bros. also didn’t seem to have any interest in making them a crossover act, despite “Found a Cure”’s encouraging numbers.

Three singles were released from A Musical Affair: the R&B top 10 single, “Love Don’t Make It,” “Happy Endings,” and “Get Out Your Handkerchief.” “Love Don’t Make It Right” also was a 12-inch single. “Happy Endings” and “Love Don’t Make It Right” both made Ashford and Simpson’s 2002 The Very Best of Ashford and Simpson.

A Musical Affair might have some fans divided. The album didn’t extend any boundaries like Is It Still Good to Ya or Stay Free, and therefore wasn’t as highly regarded as its predecessors. On the other hand, A Musical Affair has a certain intimacy and the work is rooted in strong lyrics, production, and song craft that’s unrelenting in its often dour mood. This effort was Ashford and Simpson’s first album not to go gold since 1977, and their last full studio album with Warner Bros.

The duo released the live double album Performance, which included three new studio tracks, in 1981. In 1982, Ashford and Simpson signed to Capitol Records.

Like all of Ashford and Simpson’s Warner Bros. albums, A Musical Affair remained out of print for close to 20 years but was restored in 1996 and re-issued in 2010 and 2015. Although this album is often forgotten, even among Ashford and Simpson fans, A Musical Affair displays the duo’s customary charm and singular talent.

—Jason Elias

Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and music journalist.

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