Nile Rodgers, Paul Shaffer, Michael Douglas, Cissy Houston, Felicia Collins, Russ Titelman, Sylvia Rhone, Nona Hendryx, and Sue Simmons were among the luminaries who attended the Monday night memorial service for Nick Ashford at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. JIM BESSMAN was kind enough to write us an account of what went on because I could not be there. No sign of Diana Ross, Chaka Khan or Whitney Houston, but plenty of towering talent from Roberta Flack to Edgar Bronfman, Jr. participated. Nick’s death is a huge blow to his family, friends and the world. –RF
To those who spoke on his behalf at his memorial service yesterday, Nickolas Ashford was a giant, a saint, a talent whose contributions, as Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley dramatically stated, matched those of the likes of James Brown, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Dr. Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison and Duke Ellington, and, after a pause, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
To his family, of course, Ashford was also a loving husband, father and brother. But to his many friends at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church–and the general public who filled the building to capacity and those who couldn’t get in–he was a true man of the people. More than one speaker noted how he offered his radiant smile–the one that flashed out of the stunning portraits on the altar and in the vestibule–to anyone who approached him, accompanied, more often than not, by the warmest bear hug.
There was plenty of music, as would be expected. Roberta Flack sang “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” prefaced by a verse from Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” and backed by bassists Jerry Barnes and Tinker Barfield, guitarist Sharrod Barnes and keyboardist Bryan Whitted. Victor Cook and Tichina Arnold rocked the gospel “I’m Too Close,” and Ryan Shaw did same on “I Am Your Man” (the Ashford & Simpson classic for which he earned a 2008 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance). Rev. D.J. Rogers got the crowd going with his hit “Say You Love Me” following his eulogy ovation.
Dr. Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall” was splendidly recited by actresses Phylicia Rashad, S. Epatha Merkerson and Tamara Tunie. But the spoken-word reflections were likewise unforgettable. Talley reverently recounted Ashford’s crucial example as an African-American male role model for the then southern youngster from North Carolina growing up in the 1960s. Shaw called Ashford and Simpson his “professional parents,” and former Ashford & Simpson musical director Ray Chew similarly saluted them for taking him in as a “young pup” at 18 and showing him the music business ropes.
Tony-winning choreographer George Faison spoke lovingly of his long friendship with Ashford and noted how his songs and words were so right-on that Faison actually thought he’d written them himself. In closing, he stirred the congregation with Ashford’s lyrics to Diana Ross’s hit “Remember Me”: “Remember me as a good thing! Remember me as a good thing!”
This deceptive simplicity in Ashford’s songwriting was singled out, too, by Warner Music Group chairman Edgar Bronfman, Jr., who has written songs with Ashford & Simpson. Here he movingly related how he asked the couple to sing at a small memorial gathering after a pregnancy loss, but without telling him, they instead wrote and performed a special song. It ended with an expression of gladness that the unnamed child had in fact arrived in the parents’ hearts, prompting an emotional Bronfman to repeat the lyric in honor of his departed friend.
But Bronfman also got a big laugh at the outset when he designated himself the “token Caucasian” on the list of speakers, quickly adding that Ashford & Simpson saw no color in people–while gently pointing out that unlike preceding speakers, he was given no musical underscore. Here, to the audience’s stunned amazement, Valerie Simpson arose, and with great deliberation, strolled to the piano, then accompanied Bronfman.
But Simpson, naturally, was always the focus of attention. Her extraordinary grace in the face of such an excruciating loss for all was lauded time and again, and when it came her turn to speak, she lovingly thanked her true “soul mate” for making her grow as a person just by watching him. And she said that she had seen her daughters Nicole and Asia grow throughout the trying duration of Ashford’s illness. And she knew that she had something rare and beautiful in their 36-year marriage, and the many years of songwriting collaboration that preceded it.
Simpson also delighted family, friends and fans with stories about her husband, including one where the impeccably stylish superstar declared that if he should walk to the corner without anyone stopping him, “I’m wearing the wrong clothes!” She thanked Ashford & Simpson’s remarkable assistant Tee Alston–known to all as Miss Tee–and longtime friend Liz Rosenberg, for their tireless help in putting the service together.
The church’s pastor, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, noted that the event completed a circle of sorts for the couple, who had famously met in 1964 at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church. He marveled at the turnout, which brought together people from all walks of life, including movie stars. Calling out actor Michael Douglas by name, he said that as a Baptist preacher, he just might have to ask for an offering–thereby generating gales of laughter.
But that’s the way of the entire evening–equal parts laughter and tears, all in the name of a most gentle, generous and gifted man for whom “he will be missed” doesn’t convey even the tip of the iceberg.
It all ended fittingly with Freddie Jackson and Alyson Williams singing “Aint’ No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out And Touch” along with The Sugar Bar singers–the many vocalists who sing backup at Ashford & Simpson’s restaurant/nightclub Sugar Bar’s fabled Thursday Night Open Mic shows–led by Open Mic host Andre Smith. Veteran Ashford & Simpson followers no doubt recognized Joshie Jo Armstead singing a lead verse, Armstead being the third co-writer of Ashford & Simpson’s breakthrough composition “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”
Clearly, the circle remained unbroken.