Maya Angelou, with Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Disney-MGM studios, February 27, 1998
When the city's awful voice, a wall of noise, crowds me up against myself, I grab a freighter fantasy, settle down in Pullman memory, and I'm back safe and sound ... back ... where we come from...
Maya Angelou's words fall among the Ashford & Simpson lyrics and melody in "Where We Come From" like easy rain on a roof. The song, one of 11 on "Been Found," the threesome's recent collaboration, is, like many on the album, more than mere nostalgia; these compositions play to the common history of the human heart, and reaffirm that although Angelou speaks six languages, she is most fluent when talking from the soul.
The birthplace of the bluesy "Been Found" -- selections of which those three will perform this weekend to cap the Black History Month celebration at Disney-MGM Studios -- was a Thanksgiving gathering at Angelou's home. The food was finished. The womenfolk were curled in conversation. Nick Ashford, a legendary songwriter and performer with his partner, Valerie Simpson, wandered downstairs to fool around on the piano.
"I started to feel lonely down there," he says, "...hearin' all the voices upstairs."
"In a bit, he called to us and asked me and Valerie to come down," Angelou says. "So, I grabbed a bottle of wine and we went. Valerie began to play, Nick began to croon, and I began to speak simply out of the mood of the music."
Beneath the piano was a forgotten recorder, preserving the spontaneous combustion of artistic creation. "We kept on jamming," says Angelou. "We drank the whole bottle of wine; no problem, no apology. That kind of creative experience is just so fine, so delicious."
A month later, the trio met in Angelou's Atlanta home to seriously consider producing an album. Within two days they'd written "Why Shouldn't It Be Me?," the poet's and Simpson's favorite
Ashford & Simpson have been doing it right for more than 30 years, earning 22 gold and platinum records and 50-plus ASCAP awards.
Angelou also has lead a life of dizzying accomplishments: actress, best-selling author, civil-rights activist, dancer, director, educator, historian, playwright and poet.
"Been Found" keeps up the quality beat. The spoken Angelou passages woven throughout seven of the collection's songs are as emotionally recognizable to the listener as they are autobiographical of the artists.
One thing they are not, however, is political, though Angelou does have strong feelings about what she feels is an egregious mistake in the media's coverage of African-Americans in the United States today.
"We see a camp of young black women who are manless [with] their intended -- their hopeful fiances -- rotting in prison. There is that.
"There is also this: every year, African-American colleges graduate tens of thousands of young black people who are aiming for the stars. Our landscape in not all rutted with blood and guts. It's very important to know that.
"The schism between the haves and the have-nots, between the middle class and what is called the under class, is growing, and that's a sad thing, a tragedy. However, we still do meet in the churches, and that is wonderful."
Although they are her long-time friends, Ashford & Simpson say they have been deeply touched by working creatively with Angelou.
"We never felt we could have this much fun or find something new in recording," says Simpson. "A lot of it happened all at the same time; we just would sit together and the creativity would begin at that instant."
Says Ashford, "Being with Maya Angelou is kind of like going to school, you learn so much."
Another magical ingredient for Ashford & Simpson was working in front of people: If there were others in her house while the three were composing, Angelou invited them to listen."She is so open ... that freed us in a way we'd never been before," Ashford says."In one of their songs, "Just Talkin,'"Angelou says, in her smooth-as-milk-gravy voice, "I'd like to be a poem that everybody could know"
Well, ma'am, you are.