The Ancestors Welcome Singer-Songwriter Nickolas Ashford, 70, of The Soul Duo Ashford & Simpson (w/Update)
I know that I must have joined thousands who checked their Twitter and FB feeds late Monday night and breathed–or yelled out–a collective, “Noooooooooooo!” when they saw the news. Nickolas Ashford, husband, father–and importantly for us–one-half of the singer-songwriter duo Ashford and Simpson, has died of complications stemming from throat cancer in Manhattan. He had been receiving radiation treatments for the disease. I’m sure that his beloved wife, Valerie Simpson, his partner in love and in work, his daughters Asia and Nicole, and other family were present at his transition. From the New York Times:
One of the primary songwriting and producing teams of Motown, Ashford & Simpson specialized in romantic duets of the most dramatic kind, professing the power of true love and the comforts of sweet talk. In “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” from 1967, their first of several hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, lovers in close harmony proclaim their determination that “no wind, no rain, no winter’s cold, can stop me, baby,” but also make cuter promises: “If you’re ever in trouble, I’ll be there on the double.”
Gaye and Terrell also sang the duo’s songs “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Diana Ross sang their “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” and when she rerecorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough“ in 1970, it became the former Supreme’s first No. 1 hit as a solo artist.
“They had magic, and that’s what creates those wonderful hits, that magic,” Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire told The Associated Press after learning of his friend’s death. “Without those songs, those artists wouldn’t have been able to go to the next level.”
Yeah. And I hate to say it, what a contrast between what they created in yester year to what others create today.
Eventually, the couple joined Berry Gordy‘s line-up of songwriting talent at Motown, coming up with hit after hit. At this point, in the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies, Valerie Simpson was not married to Nick Ashford. Interestingly, she was married for several years to another pianist, a session player named Paul Griffin, but that relationship ended in 1973. At the same time that her marriage was ending, Valerie and Nick were chafing from behind the scenes. They wanted to take to the stage and the mic, and have a recording career as well. Gordy, convinced about what he thought really constituted a winning formula and dedicated to squeezing that formula dry, refused to back them. So they left Motown and married within a year. And they continued to make music history.
n a statement, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. said: “I am shocked and saddened to hear about the passing of Nickolas Ashford. He, together with his wife, Valerie Simpson, wrote and produced some of the most unique and memorable songs in the Motown catalog for some of Motown’s biggest artists, such as Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s ‘You’re All I Need To Get By.’…
“But more importantly to me, Nick Ashford was an all-around beautiful human being. Nick will always be a great part of the Motown family and legacy. I send my love and deepest sympathies to Val and his children.”
Umph. Let it be known that throughout the Seventies, Ashford and Simpson were in court to wrest some of their royalties back from Berry Gordy’s grasp. The same guy that helped them make a name for themselves also picked their pockets.
Along with their Motown classic tunes, Nick and Valerie wrote “I’m Every Woman,” which became a hit for Chaka Khan as well as Whitney Houston, and “Solid,” which became an anthem for all long lasting loves and marriages. I’m sorry to report that Nick Ashford resisted writing some of those very feminist lyrics for “I’m Every Woman”; his woman Valerie said it was like pulling teeth to get a response from him. Nick Ashford was apparently an old-fashioned guy about love and about women, despite his emotionally liberating lyrics. He was not that enlightened; therefore, truth be told, this is more Valerie’s song than anything else.
Yet, you can tell that Ashford and Simpson were living right. Yes, their hair was dyed, and straightened long. Nick resembled, said one respondent on You Tube, a black Jesus. His smile was always gleaming white and infectious. Nick sometimes took his shirt off during concerts (revealing the lithe body of a man several years–nay decades–younger) before the cancer took over. Maybe Marvin Gaye stole that one from Nick himself. However, Ashford and Simpson always looked and sounded young. And alive. And positive, convinced of the transforming power of love. One cannot fake something like that. Not even in performance.
In 1996, the couple opened The Sugar Bar, a food/drinks/fun and live entertainment bistro. Nick himself sponsored the open mics that ran each week, nurturing new, fresh young talent who brought the funk and the soul. The Sugar Bar website is here.
Funeral arrangements are pending. There may be a private burial, with a more official memorial service thereafter. If I see something, I’ll let yall know. The usual Tuesday evening open mic at The Sugar Bar, though, became the first of these memorials for Nick Ashford.
[…]Mr. Ashford’s absence in the New York City club he had founded with his wife, who was not here Tuesday, was palpable, and it hurt to the bone many of those pressed into the bar. There was a wreath in front of his club on West 72d Street, a table piled high with flowers and a sign saying: “R.I.P. Soul Legend. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
He also left many friends who came to the club they owned, where they held open mike nights every Tuesday and Thursday, fostering dozens of young musicians and providing a hangout for established R. & B. singers and players whose lives had been entwined with the couple’s.
After the first set, Nat Adderley Jr., the jazz artist and the former musical director for Luther Vandross, took the mike to tell the crowd how Mr. Ashford and Ms. Simpson had given him a job in a backup band while he was still in high school in Manhattan. Mr. Ashford had mentored dozens of musicians who went on to have celebrated careers in pop music. “So many of us credit Nick and Valerie for starting us in pop music and bringing us up from nowhere,” he said.
Ashford never forgot how he started or where he came from. Later, Valerie bought a park bench in Bryant Park and had it inscribed, “Nick Ashford Slept Here.”
Another respondent at a news website said that he saw Nick and Valerie standing in line for a concert in Manhattan, and was struck by their downhomeyness. They waited patiently in line like everyone else. There were no bodyguards, no advance men, no assistants, no paparazzis. They were just like any other folks. People who knew who they were slyly acknowledged them, but let them and their privacy be.
And when, during the concert, they were called from the stage, they rose from their seats and waved their appreciation and sat down. Class will always tell. It was never all about them, it was about the audience and the performance and the pleasure.
Ashford and Simpson were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2002. Rest easy, Nick. You did great.