Something Real: In Memory of Nickolas Ashford

From day one, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson had the real thing. No matter the era or style of music, the compositions of Ashford and Simpson were porous with emotional acuity. Whether “I’m Not That Tough”, “Is It Still Good to Ya”, or “Gimmie Something Real”, their voices illuminated the kind of intimacies that only lovers share in private moments. As the primary lyricist in a songwriting partnership that’s spun nearly 50 years, Ashford plumbed the depths of the human heart. The circle to that decades-long partnership closed when Nickolas Ashford — a poet of exceptional insight and perspicacity — passed away on 22 August 2011.

Upon meeting at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964, Ashford & Simpson cultivated a synergy that bred one of the most enduring and successful catalogs of songs in the history of popular music. They first debuted as “Valerie and Nick” that same year, selling a series of sides to the Glover label for a mere $75. (“We were pretty excited that we could make $75 just by sitting down and writing songs,” Simpson recounted to Ebony magazine in 1979.) As songwriters, their melodies graced the rosters of Scepter/Wand, Vee Jay, and ABC, where Ray Charles earned the duo their first pop hit with his recording of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” in 1966. Soon after, Ashford recorded a number of solo singles for Verve Records, including “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “California Soul”. The latter song was later popularized by artists ranging from The 5th Dimension to Marlena Shaw to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

Of course, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell nearly became synonymous with Ashford & Simpson’s soaring loves songs. The duo’s renditions of “Your Precious Love”, “You’re All I Need to Get By”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” constituted some of Ashford & Simpson’s very best work as staff writers and producers for Motown Records. Though they wrote for many of the label’s biggest acts — the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles — they were pivotal figures in launching the solo career of Diana Ross in 1970, composing and producing the singer’s eponymous solo debut after parting with the Supremes. Their pairing with Ross was an artistic triumph that spawned two signature songs for the artist, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and the bold recasting of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as a lush, symphonic masterpiece. Though less commercially successful, Surrender (1971) emphasized the alchemical dynamic between Ross’ voice and the duo’s production technique, an exchange later perfected on The Boss (1979) album with songs like “Sparkle” and “No One Gets the Prize”.

Following Simpson’s two-album stint as a solo artist on Motown’s Tamla subsidiary, Ashford & Simpson signed with Warner Bros. in 1973, commencing an eight-year relationship with the company. Beginning with Gimmie Something Real (1973) and concluding with the live Performance (1981) set, the Warner Bros. years contain what is arguably Ashford & Simpson’s finest body of work. Their vocal interplay was especially potent when layered over sophisticated string and horn-accented arrangements like those found on “Somebody Told a Lie” and “So So Satisfied”. In between their various outside compositions for Quincy Jones (“Stuff Like That”), the Dynamic Superiors (“One-Nighter”), The Wiz soundtrack (“Is This What Feeling Gets?”), Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”), Raymond Simpson (Tiger Love), Gladys Knight & the Pips (About Love), and the Brothers Johnson (“Ride-O-Rocket”), Ashford & Simpson seamlessly tailored their sound to the dance floor. The duo’s gospel-infused vocals towered above the beat, with Ashford’s falsetto amplifying the rousing sensation of Simpson’s melodies. There were life lessons in every groove: “Over and Over” observed the nuances of coupling, “Stay Free” surveyed the complexities of staunch independence, “It Seems to Hang On” explored the debilitating effects of unrequited desire, and “Found a Cure” served up an irresistible tonic for any ailment.

The 1980s yielded a new label home for Ashford & Simpson on Capitol Records and marked the beginning of a new era for the duo. Street Opera (1982) underscored the regal presence of Ashford’s voice, particularly in the title suite of songs that addressed the struggles of the working man. Though High-Rise (1983) reoriented the duo towards the clubs and featured some of their most stunning ballads, it was the title track to Solid (1984) that scored Ashford & Simpson the biggest pop success of their singing career. Before completing their contract at Capitol with two subsequent albums, they joined Teddy Pendergrass at Live Aid in 1985, where the singer made his first public appearance since the 1982 accident that had left him paralyzed.

Ashford & Simpson’s commitment to music and to each other only strengthened over the next two decades. Continuing to raise their two daughters, they recorded an album with Maya Angelou in 1996 (Been Found) on their Hopsack and Silk label, opened the Sugar Bar restaurant and lounge on West 72nd Street in Manhattan, and were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002. While their songs remained relevant in the new millennium, Amy Winehouse specifically showcased the enduring appeal of their work when she sampled the original version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on “Tears Dry on Their Own” for her Grammy-winning Back to Black (2006/7) album. In more recent years, Ashford & Simpson regularly appeared at Feinstein’s at the Regency in Manhattan, the setting for their very last album, a concert CD/DVD entitled The Real Thing (2009).

Where does 50 years of music go? Where do all of the words, melodies, and rhythms reside once they’ve been written and recorded? They conduct symphonies of memories in the mind. They live in the chambers of the heart. Even in quiet repose, the music summons the body to dance. It’s the real thing, it’s a sure thing (“comin’ at ‘cha”), and, where the lyrical talents of Nickolas Ashford are concerned, it is still such a thing.