Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Nicholas Ashford (1942 – 2011)
Nicholas Ashford passed away on Monday, August 22, 2011. Ashford died of throat cancer, he was 69 years old. It is impossible to separate Ashford from his songwriting partner, singing partner and beloved wife, Valerie Simpson. The term Ashford & Simpson has been synomonous with classic American music for over 50 years. Together, they’ve written hits for many big stars like Diana Ross (“Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” “The Boss”) Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”) and Ray Charles (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”). As recording artists, Ashford unique tenor was a inticing counterbalance to Simpson’s warm alto. Despite not fairing as well commercial as performers as they did as producers and songwriters, they were incredibly prolific, releasing 16 albums between 1973 and 1996.
It’s impossible to think of Nick Ashford without thinking of Valerie Simpson. The two have forged a groove in the minds of millions as duo in many forms: songwriting partners for over 50 years, performing duet for over 40 years, and husband and wife for 38 years. Nick was seldom seen on his own. In fact, Valerie recorded three solo albums and was a featured lead vocalist on many Quincy Jones recordings in the 1960s and 1970s (“Killer Joe,” “Summer in the City,” etc.). Still, Ashford’s individuality was never compromised. He wrote some the most enduring lyrics in 20th century music, black or white. He went from living in a church homeless shelter in New York City to writing songs for Ray Charles. Ashford has been and will go down in history among the group of immortal writers and producers in the incredibly talented and competitive Motown Records: Ashford and Simpson, Whitfield and Barrett, Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Corporation (RIP Fonce Mizell). His words are forever embedded into the bosom of American music: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” alone is song that was destined to outlive him and all those who have recorded it. Many of their hits have been made over in various fashions, both at Motown and in a new generation, thanks to sampling. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s undeniable chemistry was enhanced by the songwriting of Ashford and Simpson, as they recognized the musical, physical and personal dynamics between the two singers, making songs like “Your Precious Love” into an sensuous soul song without being overtly erotic.
Secondly, the love affair between he and Valerie Simpson goes far beyond any hit record. Ashford and Simpson were able to maintain their professional status as songwriting and singing partners for far longer than they’ve been man and wife, but it’s because of that love for each other that they were able to continue on to make successful and inspiring music. Songwriting partnerships, for one reason or another, don’t seem to last long: Bacarah & David, Lennon & McCartney, Hayes and Porter, King & Goffin, all of them contributed classic compositions to the world, but were unable to maintain their partnerships. Ashford and Simpson’s partnership was more than that. They were unaffected by fame, by who got more attention, etc. Valerie didn’t just lose her partner, she lost her husband, the father to their two daughters, her confidant and friend.
Once again, it cannot be stated enough how much we need to embrace and cherish our beloved songwriters, the architects of rhythm, melody and lyric. They are the purest of all music makers and the most unsung. Luckily Nick Ashford’s reputation helped his fans remember how talented he was, but we should be all the more appreciative that he gave us what he did while he was here.
Nick Ashford, you were loved, and thanks to the love you gave the world through your words, “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand,” you will now live forever.