*It’s been widely reported that Nick Ashford, one half of the legendary songwriting team Ashford and (Valerie) Simpson, passed away on August 22, 2011.
It is true that on this date Ashford’s spirit discarded its physical form of some 70 years, throat cancer being the listed cause of the body’s demise.
However, Nick Ashford is not gone. He achieved the amazing feat of immortality decades ago, the day he and his wife and creative partner, Valerie Simpson, began writing pop songs. Chances are not a day will go by when you won’t hear Ashford’s spirit speak to you. Whenever you hear the classics “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By,” whether performed by the duo of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell or covered by a multitude of other performers, you’re hearing Nick Ashford.
That version of “California Soul” by Marlena Shaw you hear on TV shows, commercials and movies? That’s Nick Ashford. The song gets more airplay today than when it was originally released as a single by The 5th Dimension in 1968 (Shaw recorded it a year later in ’69).
As a person, Nick Ashford, born in Fairfield, South Carolina–he met Simpson in Harlem in 1963–was the sweetest spirit. Soft spoken, humble and quick to laugh, you’d never know he and Valerie wrote some of the most enduring songs of all time, their tunes having been recorded by artists as disparate as Ray Charles (“Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” the latter covered by rock bands Humble Pie, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Styx and more recently, guitarist John Mayer); Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Teddy Pendergrass, among many others.
Interviewing Nick and Val was always a pleasure, for no matter how many times they sat with me, they treated our talks as if they enjoyed it as much as I did.
It was often assumed that Nick wrote the music and Valerie supplied the lyrics to their songs. But while their creative roles often overlapped, it was Valerie, a monster pianist, composer and arranger, who usually wrote the music, leaving her sensitive, compassionate husband to write the words.
If you ever met Nick, you’d know how natural it was for the words to “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” a signature song for Diana Ross, to come out of him. And he was intuitive enough to co-write the anthem, “I’m Every Woman.”
That song was a hit for Chaka in 1978 (and later a smash for Whitney Houston), the same year Ashford and Simpson worked with her on the Quincy Jones track, “Stuff Like That.” I was lucky enough to be at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, hanging out with my partner in crime, photographer Bobby Holland, the night Quincy produced the song. Nick and Valerie were writing the lyrics right there on the spot in the vocal booth as we all waited for Chaka to arrive to sing the lead. She was late, but worth the wait. Chaka, Ashford and Simpson recorded what you hear on that single essentially in one take.
So successful were Ashford and Simpson as songwriters/producers that their careers as a singing/performing duo seemed like a side job. In the ’70s I saw Ashford and Simpson’s soulful live set so many times that I knew the act. Theirs was a show so dynamic and impassioned that core fans wonder why it took the pop public so long to discover them as artists, which they finally did with the hit single “Solid,” in 1984.
How do you say Nick Ashford without Valerie Simpson? Or Val without Nick? The two were one entity occupying two bodies. They were soul mates, literally: mates who shared their soul with all who cared to listen, which happened to be the whole world.
And now Nick Ashford has left his body. But he is not gone.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].