Home Music Nick Ashford, One Half of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” Team, Dies...

I’d like to say I am shocked at the news of Nick Ashford‘s death, but he didn’t appear at the Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner this past June. His wife and songwriting partner, Valerie Simpson, was there. They were never ever apart. They were really inseparable. Someone who knew them said to me, “Something is wrong.” It seems that Nick had throat cancer, which no one knew. This is a terrible blow for Valerie and their two daughters, for their trusted aide de camp Tee Austen, and everyone who loves Ashford and Simpson. Nick was a tall drink of water with a beautiful, sunny disposition. He was one of the most elegant and thoughtful people I’ve ever met in the music business. He and Valerie — like Leiber and Stoller, King and Goffin, Mann and Weil, Neils Diamond and Sedaka, Ellie Greenwich, Smokey Robinson, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney–they wrote the pop songbook by which we now live.For many years now their Sugar Bar on West 72nd St. has been a haven for up and coming singers and performers.

Here’s my 1997 story about Nick and Val. This man will really be missed.

If Nick Ashford‘s name doesn’t immediately
conjure his face, think for a minute of Eddie
Murphy in “Vampire in Brooklyn.” With
long, shiny, dark hair cascading to his
shoulders, Ashford is a tall, lanky, grinning
black man. His wife, Valerie Simpson, is tiny
and cherubic, with a smile she has trouble
hiding from cameras. Together, they are a
remarkable sight, not a natural-looking
partnership. And yet it’s because of that yin
and yang that you’ve probably hummed one or
more of their famous songs at some point.
When the pop songbook for the second half of
the twentieth century is written, it will be hard
to escape their influence. The couple who
wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I’m
Every Woman” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the
Real Thing” are possibly the most successful
black songwriters of all time, the most
successful husband-and-wife team, black,
white or purple.

“It makes New York a lot easier to deal with
when you come home,” Valerie Simpson says,
as she shows me around the grand townhouse
she shares with Ashford in Manhattan’s East
60s. The petite singer-songwriter, half of the
duo of Ashford & Simpson, is a little too
modest. A grand white piano fills their living
room. Upstairs, there’s a recording studio,
which helps because the couple is either
writing, performing or recording all the time.
This month, their extraordinary career is
having a renaissance: a new album, “Been Found,” is out, and legendary poet Maya
Angelou performs with the couple. The album
is on their own label, Hopsack and Silk,
distributed by Ichiban Records. Warner Bros.
is starting to release their great albums of the
1970s on CD. (The couple has twenty-two
gold and platinum records to their credit.)
And Ashford & Simpson take the mike at 5
p.m. every weekday in New York on
KISS-FM for a two-hour love-in. The East
Side townhouse is not the couple’s only home;
they also have a stunning estate in Westport,
Connecticut, where Whitney Houston, Bobby
Brown, Sue Simmons, Robert DeNiro and
other celebrities are frequent guests. They’re
still friendly with Connecticut neighbor and
fellow Motown alumna Diana Ross. And the
pair socializes regularly with Roberta Flack
and Rev. Jesse Jackson. For a few years in
the mid-’80s, they even owned a restaurant
called 20/20 in Manhattan, where their friends
often concertized.

They’ve been married since 1974, but were
friends for ten years before that. How they got
found each other is a mystery.Valerie Simpson
was born in the Bronx. Valerie always played
the piano. At five, she discovered a gift for
singing and playing. “I was playing like a
grown-up, chord progressions,” she says
proudly. “It took me a long time to learn how
to play. I played by memory, not by notes, for
a long time. When she first started making
demos, she didn’t know how to write music.
“A lot of times, we wrote from memory
because we weren’t near a tape recorder. We
just played it like that for a publisher.”

She met Nick at the White Rock Baptist
Church in Harlem in 1964. “Nick had come
here to be a dancer. When his money ran out,
he was sleeping in parks for a couple of
months. Then someone invited him to our
church. He had his clothes in a locker! I
always kid him that he was the original
homeless.” They ended up writing five songs
and selling them for $75 to a publisher. “I
thought music was church music. No one I
knew had a career. It just happened.” They
listened then to Ray Charles and Aretha
Franklin on the radio. “It was a big deal
changing over from Christian music to pop,
but we did it. We thought it about it a lot.” The
couple did not date. But there was, she admits,
an initial attraction.

Their big moment came when Motown sent
emissaries to New York in 1965 looking for
talent. The duo was hot after their first hit
composition, Ray Charles’s “Let’s Go Get
Stoned.” On the fateful day, Valerie was doing
a backup session, so Ashford went alone.
“Nick almost blew it because he thought they
made him wait too long at the hotel for the
meeting.” Nick wound up playing for Eddie
Holland, part of the famous
Holland-Dozier-Holland team that rivaled
A&S and Smokey Robinson as the label’s top
writers. “They liked our demos. But Barry
told us point-blank that “Stoned” wasn’t for
him. He wanted love songs.” In fact, Valerie
says, “Stoned” was a joke when they wrote it.
“It was just a jam, joking around. But this
song-plugger said he could get it published.”

Motown sent them tickets to Detroit. They
arrived at Hitsville, the Motown studios, and
were skeptical. “We said, take us to main
building, not this,” she says.They couldn’t
believe that the Hitsville factory which had
produced records by the Supremes and the
Temptations was a little ranch house. “We
couldn’t believe it. The secretaries were in
their coats, people were running around.
Unbelievable.” The first song the team gave
Motown was “Ain’t No Mountain High
Enough.” “Johnny Bristol [the legendary
A&R man] thought it should be a duet. So
that’s when they put Marvin Gaye and Tammi
Terrell together.” The inspiration for the song
was the tall buildings of Central Park West.
“About not letting the obstacles of the city get
to you,” Valerie recalls. “Like, I’m going to
make it, I’m going to be somebody. The
buildings became the mountains. Don’t forget
Nick slept in the park.”

As usual, Nick wrote the lyrics. “He’s the
poet,” she says. Valerie writes the music. It’s
the same arrangement that Carole King and
Gerry Goffin had when they were married
and composing hits like “Up on the Roof” and
“One Fine Day.” “I have to push him for some
kinds of songs,” Valerie says. “I get on him.
I’m in touch with his feminine side,” she
laughs. Simpson recalls that when Diana Ross
was approached to sing “Ain’t No Mountain
High Enough” she didn’t want to do it. “She
didn’t like the idea of redoing a song that was
so popular. But Nick had a thing about her
speaking voice being sexy. And we were into
slow buildups and climaxes. When she heard
it, she was thrilled. She realized it was
couture and not off the rack.” When Ashford
and Simpson sing it in concert, they do the
original version.

“Berry Gordy didn’t like Diana’s version,”
Valerie recalls. “He said it took too long, that
we should put the end in the front, put the
chorus in the front.” At first, he wouldn’t
release it, so A&S took it to deejays and
convinced them. The song wound up being
Diana Ross’s biggest solo hit. Motown–aka
Jobete Music–still controls the rights to their
songs. But Ashford & Simpson did not have
the trouble most writers had with founder
Berry Gordy. “They used to gamble songs.
They would gamble their money and trade
songs. That’s why they’d start out with one
publisher and end up with another.” Songs and
card games went together. “Royalties were
big,” she laughs.

But it was the Marvin Gaye connection that
made A&S an historic writing team. “Marvin
was a real interesting man. In the early days,
he was not a great performer. He was a great
performer in the studio. He’s not like one of
these black-faced performers. To make it
happen the first time, he gave you all that
emotion in his face. We were drooling when
he was singing. He loved a great hook. He
didn’t sing by rote. The simple songs, he took
to another level.” Until Gaye wrote his
landmark 1971 statement album WHAT’S
GOING ON, A&S were his house
songwriters. “All he really wanted to do was
be a great pop singer, just croon and sing
standards like Sam Cooke. But Berry
wouldn’t let him. Marvin and Tammi were a
nice pairing, and they really cared about each
other. They had a real camaraderie.” Terrell,
who died in 1968, did not make many solo
records. “Marvin sang with a lot of people,”
Valerie recalls, but Terrell was his best
match.

Some thirty-plus years later, Ashford &
Simpson remain an anomaly as business and
romantic partners. They’re a staple on the
New York social circuit. And they seem so,
so…happy. How could any two people be so
happy? It seems too good to be true. “We
never expected it to last this long. We didn’t
know people would have all this emotion
about the music. They care so MUCH about
it.” Who does Valerie consider her peers?
“Carole King, absolutely,” she answers
quickly. “I don’t know who I am, a writer or a
performer. I think of myself as a writer first. It
comes as a surprise to me that it goes on and
on, that my kid is listening to my work.” (The
couple has two daughters, ages twenty-one
and eight.) “That’s a surprise. There are
certain songs that are just lasting, and you
don’t know why. We didn’t do with this
intention. I can also tell by the checks that
we’re doing pretty good. It’s kind of
wonderful.” The songs that are most
successful are “Ain’t No Mountain High
Enough” and “Real Thing.” When a song gets a
new life, Valerie says, it’s like “hitting the
Lotto. There are more ways to make money
now. When you have a one-hit song, it doesn’t
mean much.”

c2011 Roger Friedman

2 replies to this post
  1. So sorry to hear. In addition to A/S, the other songwriters wrote music that was and has been the soundtrack to life for many, many years.

    Too bad this current generation has no appreciation for it.

  2. Ashford & Simpson produced some of my favorite R&B songs, and Nick Ashford’s death is a real loss for the music industry. My condolences to his family and friends.

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