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"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

By Spotlight Central, Photos by Love Imagery


originally published: 10/13/2019

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

It’s a beautiful Saturday, September 28, 2019 evening at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center —aka HACPAC — Hackensack, NJ’s gem of an artistic venue which opened in November, 2017.

Originally built in 1847 as a church, the building later became a Masonic Temple. More recently, however, it was purchased by the city of Hackensack and transformed into a state-of-the-art creative arts venue which includes a 224-seat theater upstairs along with an art gallery and reception room downstairs.

As we make our way inside the historic structure, we meet with HACPAC’s Artistic Director, Greg Liosi, who informs us that the venue is home to several theater and dance companies who enjoy utilizing this space which the city has renovated with special attention to “high-quality lighting and sound.”

According to Liosi, the venue’s Hackensack Meridian Health Theater is a “home that nurtures new artists — playwrights, musicians, directors, choreographers, and visual artists” as well as being a “home to several professional theater companies and arts organizations including The Company, Teaneck New Theater, Aspire Theater, Off Book Productions, and Defining Moments.”

In addition, Liosi points out that HACPAC also showcases premier performers from Broadway and Hollywood, in addition to Grammy-winning artists. For example, five times each year, HACPAC presents what are known as PAC the House events. This season’s PAC the House line-up includes gospel singer Donnie McClurkin on November 2, Latin music sensation Gregorio Uribe on January 11, British singer/songwriter James Maddock on March 28, and Canadian trumpeter Bria Skonberg on April 18.



 
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Tonight, however, HACPAC kicks off their 2019–2020 PAC the House season with a live concert performance by Valerie Simpson.

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

One half of the musical duo, Ashford and Simpson, R&B legend Valerie Simpson — along with her late husband, Nick Ashford — wrote and produced hits for the likes of Diana Ross and Chaka Khan, and even created “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. In addition, they wrote, produced, and performed their own Top 20 single, “Solid,” prior to becoming inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Just before tonight’s performance, we make our way upstairs to the stunning lobby where we take a moment to chat with Valerie Simpson and ask her to share her thoughts on performing here at HACPAC’s Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre.

Replies Simpson, “It’s always nice to come to a new place and this is a new place for us,” noting, “It’s great to be here in New Jersey!”

When asked if she has anything special planned for this evening’s PAC the House crowd, Simpson replies, “Tonight, I’ll be doing some songs that I usually don’t get to do, but don’t worry, I’ll also perform many of the songs that people know like ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’”

When the doors to the Hackensack Meridian Health Theater open, members of tonight’s sold-out audience quickly take their seats.

The lights dim and saxophonist Rich Bomzer, bassist Francisco Centeno, guitarist Felicia Collins, drummer Bernard Davis, keyboardist Valerie Gent, backup vocalists Asia Ashford and Clayton Bryant, and musical director/pianist Peter Cannarozzi take their places on the stage. Then, emcee Ed Decker of the HACPAC Board of Directors welcomes the crowd and introduces them to the “timeless legend” — Valerie Simpson.

Audience members clap to the music as the band rocks out on Ashford and Simpson’s R&B instrumental piece, “Bourgie Bourgie,” where Francisco Centeno’s funky bass slaps along while Peter Cannarozzi’s grand piano, Valerie Gent’s keyboard, Bernard Davis’ drums, and Rich Bomzer’s sax energetically join in.

The crowd stands and cheers as Valerie Simpson enters, looking stunning in her flowing patchwork pant suit with floor length jacket.

Dancing freely in the spotlight, Simpson and the band launch into an R&B number she and Nick Ashford wrote for Diana Ross’ 1979 album, The Boss, entitled, “I Ain’t Been Licked.”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Sounding bright and soulful, Simpson’s voice rings out over the crowd as she sings, “Like outta nowhere/My whole world fell apart/Till this day no one knows/What I felt in my heart/All those precious things/Inside me tried to still/Hands I thought would help/Pushed me over the hill.”

Simpson skillfully ad libs with passion and strength over backup singers Asia Ashford and Clayton Bryant as they repeatedly croon, “I ain’t been licked” to excited cheers from the crowd.



 
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The funky beat continues until Simpson addresses the audience asking, “How’s everybody feeling?”

When members of the packed house reply, “We feel good!” Simpson reminds the audience that this year is the 40th anniversary of Diana Ross’ gold record, The Boss, written and produced by Ashford and Simpson.

Simpson offers up another song from The Boss entitled “It’s My House.” On this funky number, she moves to the groove as she vocalizes, “There’s a welcome mat at the door/And if you come on in/You’re gonna get much more.”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

As her backup singers croon, “It’s my house and I live here,” Simpson ad libs while dancing for the enthusiastic crowd on this infectious number.

The crowd cheers and Simpson and the band launch into the title track from the Ross album — the disco-inspired “The Boss.” Audience members stand and dance as soon as they hear the rhythmic intro.

Simpson scats with saxophonist Rich Bomzer as he solos, the interplay between them sizzling and upbeat.

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Ad libbing “You brought me down to my knees,” Simpson dances down to the floor — driving the audience crazy as they raise their hands, hooting and hollering for her at the conclusion.

Simpson thanks the crowd before taking a seat at the grand piano saying, “I want to go somewhere a little more sensitive.”

Here, she launches into a stunning and powerful rendition of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

With just her voice and piano accompaniment, Simpson passionately sings, “Mama may have, Papa may have/But God bless the child that’s got his own” as a fan screams out, “Come on, Val!”

Bassist Francisco Centeno, drummer Bernard Davis, and keyboardist Valerie Gent kick in with their instruments and audience members emphatically verbalize their approval with shouts and hollers.

After Rich Bomzer plays a smoky and sexy sax solo, Simpson jumps in front of the band passionately ad libbing, “God bless the black child, the white child, the gay child, the trans child,” her voice crying out to the world, before ending by declaring, “You got something to fight with if you got your own!”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

The crowd cheers and Simpson returns to the grand piano recalling, “This next one goes all the way back to our beginning.”

On the rubato introduction to “I Don’t Need No Doctor” — an Ashford and Simpson number which was recorded by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Humble Pie, Joan Osborne, and John Mayer — Simpson sings, “I don’t need no doctor/‘Cause I know what’s ailing me.”

Drummer Bernard Davis and keyboardist Valerie Gent watch Simpson intently to follow her lead as the number morphs into a soulful funk tune.

Heads bop to the infectious blues groove as Simpson’s soulful vocal pleads to the audience. Gent plays a tremolo synthesizer solo on which she manipulates the undulating sound, and Felicia Collins follows her with an inspired guitar solo, the rest of the musicians in the rhythm section obviously enjoying the interplay.

Performing straight from the heart, Simpson leaves the piano to sing center stage prior to the song ending in an emotional flurry which leaves the audience hooting and hollering for more.

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Taking a moment to chat with the crowd, Simpson tells the audience about her two daughters, Nicole Ashford and back-up singer Asia Ashford, before saying, “Let’s give Nick Ashford a hand.”

The audience happily applauds and Simpson says, “This next song is a mash-up with a song we’d written — thanks to Nicole and Asia, we’re gonna mash them together.”

All alone at the grand piano, Simpson plays the slow, beautiful intro to Jessie J’s “Queen.”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

As she sings, “I love my body/I love my skin/I am a goddess/I am a queen,” an audience member shouts out, “Sing it, Valerie!”

Bernard Davis’ drums roll and Simpson exclaims, “And I’m every woman!” before launching into the classic Ashford and Simpson composition for Chaka Kahn, “I’m Every Woman.”

Three-part backup harmonies have the audience singing along on the classic “I’m every woman, it’s all in me” chorus.

Musical director Peter Cannarozzi takes over on piano so Simpson can move center stage where she asks, “Where are my ladies? Are you feeling me?” to which women in the audience stand and dance before the entire crowd responds with elated cheers and applause.

Simpson responds by announcing, “We’re going to dig back to some real Ashford and Simpson here!”

On “Don’t Cost You Nothing,” Simpson shakes it down front as she sings this funk number with soul and style.

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Following a tasty Felicia Collins guitar solo, Simpson says to bassist Francisco Centano, “Frankie — make it funky, baby; come on!” as he slaps out a solo and Simpson dances — even doing a high kick much to the audience’s delight.

After introducing the members of her band, Simpson takes a seat at the grand piano recalling, “Some of the songs that we did at Motown — when I sing them now, they take on a whole different meaning. This is one of those songs.”

Here, Simpson performs a slow and meaningful rendition of Ashford and Simpson’s composition for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

Passionately singing, “I got your picture hangin’ on the wall/But it can’t see or come to me when I call your name/I realize it’s just a picture in a frame,” the audience feels her deep emotion.

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Segueing into another Ashford and Simpson hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Simpson invites back-up singer Clayton Bryant to join her on a duet rendition of “You’re All I Need to Get By.”

Audience members cheer and raise their hands in approval for this soulful and rousing performance where the two singers trade vocals, inspiring enthusiastic cheers and applause from the crowd.

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Simpson says, “This next one sits at the front of the Motown Line. It’s been 50 years, and it has a life now that Nick Ashford never dreamed of — it’s still inspiring people.”

Vibrant back-up vocals enrich Simpson’s rendition of Ashford and Simpson’s classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” where Simpson sings directly to the audience, “Ain’t no mountain high enough/Ain’t no valley low enough/Ain’t no river wide enough/To keep me from you.”



 
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The crowd happily joins in singing as Simpson turns and dances to a Rich Bomzer sax solo. After ad-libbing to the music as the refrain repeats behind her, Simpson looks out at the crowd declaring, “I love you!”

As she exits the stage, audience members leap to their feet cheering for her return.

The crowd explodes when Simpson returns to perform an encore of Ashford and Simpson’s 1984 hit, “Solid.”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Singing along on the famous “Solid/Solid as a rock/And nothing’s changed it/The thrill is still hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot” refrain, the audience claps and dances to the infectious rhythm.

On their feet, the crowd cheers as Simpson accepts a bouquet of flowers, smiles, and graciously bows while members of her band also wave goodbye.

As audience members make their way out of the Hackensack Meridian Health Theater, we take a moment to chat with backup singer, Asia Ashford, who tells us what it’s like to perform with her famous mom, Valerie Simpson.

Replies Ashford, “I love working with my mom — she’s awesome! I still get butterflies before I perform with her. To stand alongside of her and sing the songs that she and my father wrote, really, is just indescribable.”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Acknowledging, “Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of my parent’s old songs,” Ashford reveals, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really been able to appreciate their lyrics — and I love that I can relate to them,” before concluding, “I think it’s just awesome!”

We also chat with several audience members who share their thoughts about Valerie Simpson’s performance tonight.

First, we chat with a group of three friends — Vera, Gladys, and Jeannette.

Comments Vera from New York, “Valerie Simpson was phenomenal! She put on an excellent show. She went way back to songs from the beginning of her career, and I like how she communicated with the audience.”

Whereas Jeannette from Englewood remarks, “Valerie Simpson is a consummate performer, and it’s especially wonderful seeing her here at HACPAC — a venue which is just perfect for concerts like this,” Gladys from Tenafly declares, “This is the best show I’ve seen in Bergen County in a long time!”

Laurel from Newark maintains, “I thoroughly enjoyed Valerie Simpson’s performance tonight — it was great! Her music moves you — when you hear it, you can’t sit still — and I loved her energy, too. Also, the audience knew all the songs right from the start, and started singing along — we didn’t want it to end!”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

John from Newark agrees adding, “You don’t hear words and melodies like that anymore. I loved this concert, and I love HACPAC, too — every single seat is a good one.”

Althea from Newark calls Valerie Simpson, “Fabulous!” Recalling, “I was first introduced to Ashford and Simpson when I was in college,” Althea affirms, “She’s still got it, and she brought back so many good memories,” before noting, “And it was wonderful seeing her in such an intimate theater where you’re so close to the stage that you truly feel as if you’re part of the show.”

Althea’s friend, Mary Ann from Newark, asserts, “Ditto on everything Althea said!” before adding, “I love her energy — Valerie Simpson hasn’t missed a beat through the years. She’s awesome!”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

Toni from Englewood remarks, “Valerie Simpson was magnificent. She is major — a legend. I could have stayed all night,” disclosing, “This is my first time at HACPAC — and this theater is wonderful; I love it.”

Phyllis from Little Ferry acknowledges, “I never saw Valerie Simpson before, but she was fabulous — and so is this venue.”

Barbara from Hackensack agrees adding, “We are so fortunate to have this theater right here in our community.”

Lastly, we chat with Stephen from Harlem, NY who declares, “Valerie Simpson is the best! She brought back so many great memories,” before concluding with a smile, “We love her!”

"We Love Her!" Valerie Simpson LIVE! at HACPAC

To learn more about Valerie Simpson, please go to valeriesimpson.net. To find out about upcoming performances at Hackensack Performing Arts Center — including Waiting for Lefty and the 146 Point Flame on October 18 & 19, Donnie McClurkin on November 2, and The Company presents 12 Angry Young Men on November 8–10 and November 15–17 — please click on hacpac.org.

Photos by Love Imagery

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