RIP: Nick Ashford

Posted August 23, 2011 by J Matthew Cobb in News

Legendary Motown songwriter and R&B performer dies at the age of 70

Nickolas Ashford, one-half of one of R&B’s greatest songwriting teams, succubmed to throat cancer at the age of 70.

Ashford died in a New York City hospital, said Liz Rosenberg, who also was Ashford’s longtime friend. He had been suffering from throat cancer and had undergone radiation treatment, she said.

Ashford along with his longtime writing partner and wife Valerie Simpson carved out dozens of gold records for the pantheons at Motown. After scoring a No. 1 R&B hit with Ray Charles (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”) in 1965, the duo migrated to  Motown, where their writing assignments increased after scoring back-to-back hits for darling singing duo Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “If This World Were Mine” were just some of the songs that blossomed from their Gaye & Terrell sessions. The desire to become solo artists emerged as their hit formula continued on other Motown acts including Diana Ross & the Supremes, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and the Temptations. Aretha Franklin picked up “You’re All I Need To Get By” in 1971, releasing it as a single and turning it into pop gold – going to number 19. Valerie Simpson managed to record a few tracks with Motown, even scoring a Top 30 R&B hit with “Silly Wasn’t I” for Motown in 1972, but thir fortunes as solo acts slowly faded into nothingness.

After marrying in 1974, the duo scored a record deal with Warner Bros. Records, releasing their debut album Gimmie Something Real. By the time 1978 rolled around, their songwriting formula incorporated the sparkly disco flavor of the time and it proved to be extremely profitable for them. “‘Don’t Cost You Nothin'” soared to No. 10 R&B and “It Seems To Hang On” flew to No. 2 R&B. During their hot period (1978-1980), Ashford & Simpson had recorded a generous selection of ballads like the No. 12 R&B hit “Is It Still Good To Ya” (Teddy Pendergrass also re-recorded on his 1980 TP album) and disco classics like “Found A Cure.” During this time, Ashford & Simpson took advantage of their ace card by writing and producing for other artists including Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman,” “Clouds”), Gladys Knight & the Pips (“I Will Fight,” “Landlord,” “Bourgie Bourgie”) and Quincy Jones (“Stuff Like That”). In 1993, Whitney Houston reworked and updated “I’m Every Woman” on the best-selling Bodyguard soundtrack, peaking at number four pop and number one on the Hot Dance/Club Play charts.

Although pop radio didn’t reward them with the same favor as their Motown glory years, Ashford & Simpson managed to score a Top 20 pop smash with “Solid” in 1984.

Nick Ashford’s presence and vocal abilities always seemed miles apart from his predecessors and fellow contemporaries. On album covers, Ashford stole snapshots using the seductive spark of his dreamy eyes while showing off his chiesled physique and silky long hair. He even pushed the envelope by going for ambitious poses with his wife Valerie on album covers like Is It Still Good To Ya and Send It.  The covers never materialized with the reputation of The Ohio Players’ album covers, but the sex appeal usually appeared saucy. Vocally, Ashford would crescendo beyond its Little Richard swoops into an emotional Sylvester-esque falsetto. Simpson’s voice would swoon with the orgasmic romantics of Prince – from sexual moans to sweet ear whispers (evidenced best on “Is It Still Good To Ya” and “It Seems To Hang On”). When he paired up with his wife Valerie and attacked gospel-tinged choruses on songs like 1978’s “Found A Cure” and 1989’s “Cookies & Cake,” the two increased their volume to the point where they would sounded like a full-voice church choir working on background duties. No other R&B male singer while in performance matched the type of musicality and gusto Nick Ashford had. It usually seemed breathtaking and always felt rare.

In recent years, Nick Ashford continued to tour and perform with his wife Valerie, while also opening their own music hub in New York City called The Sugar Bar. The small, intimate venue attracted legions of music lovers and fellow friends due to its popular open mic nights. Big names like Cyndi Lauper, Patti LaBelle, Freddie Jackson, Queen Latifah and Ann Nesby would stop by and wreck the place with their standards, usually performing with the songwriting duo.

Ashford leaves behind his wife of 38 years Valerie and two daughters.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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