september 2011

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson: Ain’t nothing like the real thing…

The Love They Made

Nick Ashford, dead at 70, and his wife of 38 years, Valerie Simpson, clarified, energized and elevated love to an exalted plane, and practiced what they preached—and did they ever preach…

By David McGee

In the songs he wrote with his wife and musical partner Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashord clarified, energized and elevated—this duo, in real life husband and wife, had such a firm grasp on the nature of love that you didn’t need more than their take on it to understand what you should be doing to make it right with your partner. Rarely, too, in any entertainment field, has a married couple so fully practiced what they preached. Even though Ashford & Simpson’s last big came in 1984 with the #2 R&B single “I’ll Be There For You,” they continued performing, and were regulars at their own Sugar Bar restaurant/club in Manhattan, where the Thursday night open mic often drew name artists such as Queen Latifah. And right up to the end, when 70-year-old Nick died of complications from throat cancer on August 22, you could still see the light in their eyes when they looked at each other, whether they were singing, out on the town, or lounging around their own venue. Theirs was not only one of the great soul/R&B collaborations, but one of the great love stories of our time.

Born in Fairfield, SC, and the Bronx, New York, respectively, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met in Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1963. Teaming as a duo, they recorded unsuccessfully before joining forces in songwriting with former Ikette Joshie Jo Armstead at Scepter/Wand records. Good artists—Ronnie Milsap, the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown—recorded their songs, but what put them on the map was Ray Charles’s gospelized, grinding blues treatment of their “Let’s Go Get Stoned” for ABC-Paramount, a chart topper in 1966 that had been cut the year prior by the Coasters.

The power of love in persevering through hard times: Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, ‘You’re All I Need To Get By,” written by Ashford & Simpson and featuring the songwriters on background vocals with the support of a gospel choir. #1 R&B for five weeks in 1968.

When Brother Ray hit with “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” Ashford and Simpson, minus Armstead, signed with Motown, where they began their career-long dissertations in song examining the power of love in persevering through hard times (“You’re All I Need To Get By,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1968, a #1 R&B hit for five weeks, featuring Ashford and Simpson on background vocals and a gospel choir for additional support); in rising above all impediments to a nourishing union (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin & Tammi, 1967, #3 R&B, #19 pop); in healing the world’s ills (the gospel-rooted “Reach Out and Touch [Somebody’s Hand], #7 R&B, #20 pop for Diana Ross in her first post-Supremes recording); in validating the need for both physical and emotional intimacy (“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Marvin & Tammi, 1968, written and produced by Ashford and Simpson, #1 R&B, #8 pop).

The importance of love in rising above all impediments to a nourishing union: Martin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” written by Ashford & Simpson. A #3 R&B hit, #19 pop in 1967, the single was co-produced by Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol.

With these and other Motown credits on their resume, Ashford & Simpson found their songs in increasing demand, but they had designs on a recording career of their own. In the early ‘60s they had been part of a gospel group, The Followers (and contributed four of their early songs to the group’s album Gospel Meeting, later reissued as Meetin’ the Followers) and Nick had released a string of unsuccessful singles (including his own version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned”) on a variety of small labels; Valerie’s solo career included two Motown albums (1971’s Valerie Simpson Exposed, 1972’s Valerie Simpson). In 1973, Motown refused to release an album Ashford and Simpson had made of them performing the hits they had written for other artists; coupled to what they felt was the label’s inadequate promotion of Valerie’s solo albums, Ashford and Simpson had had enough, and parted ways with Motown.

Love validates the need for physical and emotional intimacy: Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,’ written and produced by Ashford & Simpson, 1968, #1 R&B, #8 pop.

In 1974, at long last, the man and woman who had written so eloquently about love for other artists took a stand of their own for it by marrying each other; in their professional lives, they were signed as a duo they by Warner Bros. and released their debut album, Gimme Something Real. Then, with regularity, the hit singles and hit albums started and kept on coming: between 1977 and 1984 they notched six Top 10 R&B albums, including two #1s in Is It Still Good To Ya (1977) and 1984’s mammoth Solid. Releasing two or three singles every year, they were rarely out of the Top 20 on the R&B chart, with the apex of their career being another classy paean to love’s persistent strength, 1984’s “Solid,” a #1 R&B hit, far and away their biggest pop hit at #12 and the song that became their signature in its lyrics’ fervent expressions of enduring, deep, invulnerable love framed with gospel intensity, sexy vocalizing and a hip electronic sheen that sounded, amazingly, as natural as their longing for each other. Periodically they did solo projects or sang on other artists’ records; Nick even had an acting part in the 1991 film New Jack City as ordained minister Reverend Oates.

Ashford & Simpson, ‘Solid,’ #1 R&B, #12 pop (1984): gospel intensity, sexy vocalizing and a hip electronic sheen that sounds as natural as the couple’s longing for each other.

In recent years they had taken their act into more intimate, upscale venues around the country—Feinstein’s at the Regency in Manhattan, the Rrazz Room in San Francisco—and in November 2009 made their first appearance in Tokyo, playing the Blue Note Tokyo, where they performed eight shows in four days.

In addition to his wife, Nick Ashford is survived by two daughters, Nicole and Asia; three brothers, Paul, Albert and Frank; and his mother, Alice Ashford. Married 38 years, he and Valerie gave every indication of being as solid as they were on the day they were wed. Ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024