Something Real: In Memory of Nickolas Ashford

In life, in words, and in music, Nickolas Ashford never gave less than the real thing. Where does 50 years of music go? They conduct symphonies of memories in the mind.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.