Solid as Barack: How 1980s hit song became Obama tribute

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Some may call it a case of life imitating art, or a dose of excessive political enthusiasm, but singer-songwriters Ashford & Simpson call it a labor of love.

After hearing audiences change the lyrics to their 1984 hit song "Solid (as a Rock)" to "Solid (as Barack)" — and watching "Saturday Night Live" perform a skit in with cast members did the same thing — the performing duo went back into the studio, retooled the lyrics to honor Obama, and intend to release it via digital download on Inauguration Day.

"We were amazed that it went from a concert in California to New York to 'Saturday Night Live,'" Valerie Simpson told McClatchy in an interview. "It really started out as a people thing and snowballed from there."

Ashford & Simpson said they never thought about recording a song for Obama, though they're staunch supporters of the president-elect. They were running through a medley of their hits during a show in Los Angeles in August when they turned the microphone towards the audience to have it join them in singing "Solid."

Instead of singing "solid as a rock," many in the crowd of 3,000 belted out "solid as Barack." An audience in New York did the same thing several nights later, and it caught the attention of a newspaper concert reviewer.

It also apparently caught the attention of writers at "Saturday Night Live." The show parodied Obama's live pre-election, 30-minute, prime-time television ad. Instead of talking politics, however, the "Saturday Night Live" Obama, played by cast member Fred Armisen, and Michelle Obama — played by SNL alum Maya Rudolph — hosted a variety show and sang "Solid (as Barack)."

"We thought it was good," Simpson said. "Nick (Ashford) said 'We ought to put some new lyrics to it. We didn't want it to have a comedic tone to it."

So they changed the lyrics of a song about love and the firming of a relationship to pay homage to the nation's first African-American president.

"And for love's sake, he decided to make a promise to us all," the song starts. "And when he wrote 'The Audacity of Hope,' we could make a change. Here's for a higher plane. We'll build it up, and build it up, and build it up, and now we're solid . . . solid as Barack . . . . A new day dawning, the future looks, hot, hot, hot, hot!"

Ashford & Simpson said they hadn't given Obama's transition team a copy of the recording, but they hope that the president-elect hears it. Music with a message was a hallmark of Obama's campaign rallies that were heavy on Motown, 1970s R&B, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University, said the original "Solid" and the updated version fits the Obamas because of what the songs say and who wrote them.

"It's one of those songs that's still played on oldies stations across America, became sort of an anthem, and was played at weddings a lot when it came out," said Neal, author of "Songs in the Key of Black: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. "There's a kind of symmetry between Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford and Michelle and Barack Obama. They're both very successful black couples who have been married a long time."

Ashford & Simpson were young songwriters at Motown in the 1960s who wrote "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," signature hits for the late Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. They've also written for, produced, or performed with Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross.

The duo said they paid careful attention to the 2008 presidential campaign, but won't be among the bevy of entertainers coming to Washington to witness Obama's inauguration. They'll be in Jamaica performing at a jazz festival that day.

"I'll be taping it," Ashford said. "His victory was miraculous."

ON THE WEB

Ashford & Simpson song "Solid as Barack" clip (MP3)

Saturday Night Live: "Solid as Barack"

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