Songwriter who, along with his wife, was responsible for a string of major R&B hits in the Sixties and Seventies
Published 28/08/2011 | 05:00
Nickolas Ashford, who died last week aged 69, was a songwriter who, with his wife Valerie Simpson, was responsible for some of the most enduring rhythm and blues and pop hits of the Sixties and Seventies.
Probably their best known song was Ain't No Mountain High Enough, which was a hit first for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967, and then in 1970 for Diana Ross, whose signature tune it became. Ashford and Simpson went on to write a string of hits for Gaye and Terrell, which established the duo as Motown's favourite musical sweethearts.
As writers and producers, Ashford and Simpson conjured a particularly elegant and romantic form of pop music that harked back to the pair's roots in gospel music, but employed sophisticated melodies and sweeping arrangements -- nowhere better demonstrated than on the Diana Ross hit Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand.
Nickolas Ashford was born at Fairfield, South Carolina, on May 4, 1942, but grew up in Michigan. His early ambition was to become a dancer and as a young man he moved to New York to further his career, arriving with $57 in his pocket.
For the first few months he was obliged to sleep on park benches. In 1963, his luck changed when he met a music student named Valerie Simpson, who was singing and playing piano in the choir of the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem.
The pair teamed up as songwriters and singers, and in 1964 recorded two singles under the name Valerie and Nick. Neither was a hit, and for the next two years they concentrated instead on writing and producing under contract to Scepter Records, joining forces with a third partner, Josie Jo Armstead, before enjoying their first major hit with Let's Go Get Stoned, which was taken to the top of the R&B charts by Ray Charles in 1966.
In that same year, Ashford and Simpson joined Motown Records in Detroit as staff writers. Their first great success came with Ain't No Mountain High Enough recorded by Gaye and Tyrell-- the first of a series of songs that the duo would record, among them Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, Your Precious Love and If This World Were Mine.
Gaye and Terrell had never met before their first recording session, and they would never be more than friends; but Ashford and Simpson's blissful songs cast them as the Romeo and Juliet of pop music, pledging their love to each other for an eternity of cloudless blue skies in which no obstacle was too great to overcome. At this point, Simpson was married to a session pianist, Paul Griffin, but when that relationship came to an end, she and Ashford married in 1974.
They continued to work with other Motown acts, producing many of the songs on the first Diana Ross solo albums, and the Supremes/ Temptations collaboration I'm Gonna Make You Love Me. They also composed some of the music for The Wiz, the film musical starring Ross and Michael Jackson.
By 1975, however, Ashford and Simpson were in dispute with Motown over royalties, and they left the label, striking out as performers in their own right. Their first album, Gimme Something Real, was recorded in 1973, and they would go on to write, produce and perform 15 albums over the next 25 years, four of which were certified gold. Their biggest hit came with Solid, in 1984, which topped the rhythm and blues charts.
At the same time they continued to write and produce for other artists, notably Is It Still Good to Ya, for Teddy Pendergrass and I'm Every Woman for Chaka Khan (later remade by Whitney Houston).
Simpson once attributed their endurance as songwriters to the eight years that they had been writing partners before they were married. As a reminder of their humble origins she paid for a bench in New York's Bryant Park, inscribing the plaque "Nick Ashford Slept Here".
Ashford had been suffering from throat cancer. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.