From August 2011, On The Rise Magazine
Most people, apart from R&B music fans, aren’t readily familiar with the name Nickolas Ashford. However, if they’ve seen major motion pictures like Sister Act, Stepmom, and Remember the Titans, if they’ve watched any of the American Idol’s “Motown Nights” over the past 10 years, if their children have watched Nickelodeon’s “Fred Movie”, they know his music. With his wife of 38-years, Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford has penned some of the most memorable songs in American music history. In a time where success in the music industry is marked by the amount of recorded units sold or actual airtime, the song for which Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson have become synonymous with in larger American culture, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” (initially written for Dusty Springfield, then recorded as a solo song for Motown’s Tammi Terrell and later made a duet for Terrell and Marvin Gaye at the insistence of Motown executive and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, Harvey Fuqua), only charted at #16 on the Billboard in 1967; it wasn’t until 1970, when Diana Ross left The Supremes to pursue a solo career that the song became a #1 pop and R&B single.
Born in Fairfield, South Carolina on May 4, 1941, Nickolas Ashford didn’t originally aspire to be a songwriter. He had his sights set on becoming a professional dancer. He moved to New York in pursuit of his dreams and spent quite a bit of time living on the streets and sleeping on park benches. One day, another man, also sleeping in the park, told Nick about a church in Harlem where he could get something to eat. No one at White Rock Baptist Church knew Nick was homeless when he arrived in a suit he stored in a locker at the Port Authority. They just accepted him as he was and welcomed him into their congregation. It was at that church where he met a 17-year old Valerie Simpson, the woman who was to become his songwriting partner and later his wife.
By 1966, the duo had their first hit with Ray Charles’, “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” Written in 1964 and originally recorded by The Coasters in 1965, Charles’ cover reached #1 on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart and #31 on the Hot (pop singles) 100 chart. This was one of Charles’ first hit records after having been arrested for drug possession. It was this success that caught the eye of Motown founder and CEO, Berry Gordy, Jr. If they could write a comeback hit for Ray Charles, then it was quite possible they could write hits for Motown acts struggling to have that surefire success. Motown had solidified its standing in American popular culture by that time as the only record label in the country owned, operated, distributed, and staffed by African Americans to reach a pinnacle of success uncommon for an independent label. The label was unparalled in its operation and its identifiable, “Motown Sound.” The key to creating this sound was having an internal staff of songwriters whose primary task was to pen hit songs, singles, for the artists signed to the label and for those songs to undergo a process known as “quality control.”
At the time Nick and Valerie came to Motown, Berry Gordy, Jr. had recently signed a 20 year-old Thomasina Montgomery whom he crowned Tammi Terrell. Paired with other songwriters/producers, including Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, Tammi still hadn’t been able to secure a breakthrough, crossover hit to elevate her into the same stratosphere as her contemporaries at the label. It wasn’t until she was paired with Marvin Gaye, Nick and Val did Tammi have that level success. Ashford and Simpson wrote the majority of duets recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. These songs, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love,” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” You’re All I Need To Get By” performed well on both the R&B and Pop charts and established Marvin and Tammi as Motown’s pre-eminent duo. Ashford and Simpson wrote and produced songs for three Marvin and Tammi albums, between 1967 and 1970. However, due to Tammi’s deteriorating health and subsequent death, the Marvin and Tammi, Nick and Val collaborations ceased.
After the death of Tammi Terrell in 1970, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson went on to write and produce for a number of artists throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s, including: Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, The Marvelettes, Rufus ft. Chaka Khan, and Teddy Pendergrass. The duo left Motown in 1973 and signed with Warner Brothers in 1974, the same year they married and later had two daughters. While at Warner Brothers, scored their biggest hit as performers, 1984’s “Solid (As A Rock)”. In recent years, Nick and Valerie have expanded their love of music and songwriting into other venues other than radio. In 1996, they opened Sugar Bar in Harlem. Sugar Bar is a restaurant/ entertainment venue that hosts visiting singers and musicians as well as an open mic night where poets can share their work with patrons. Nick Ashford appeared in a few films, including New Jack City in 1991. A host of you artists have sampled their music, including Fantasia and the late Amy Winehouse, who shared songwriting credit with the duo for her song “Tears Dry On Their Own,” which heavily samples the Marvin and Tammi version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Nick Ashford’s death on August 22, 2011 came to the surprise of many who revered his music and had intricate knowledge of the many songs he and Valerie had written over the years and the list of elite singers and performers who have recorded, covered, and sampled their works over the last 50 years. In a statement released by Vickie Wright on Facebook, Tammi Terrell’s sister wrote:
“When I first got the news about Nick’s transition, I stopped and pondered what he meant to me! The memories flowed back to me. If it had not been for he and Val, my sister, Tammi, and Marvin may never had the chance to memorialize those beautiful lyrics that he and his wife created! A fantastic musician in his own right, coupled with the foresight and ability that has not been matched to this day! What a man, what a man you are…”
News of Nick’s death also became a trending topic on Twitter with celebrities from a variety of art forms and genres of music, as well as politicians and social activists who’ve enjoyed his songs over the years.
In reflecting on my own work, a forthcoming book on Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell and the making of “What’s Going On,” Nick plays a significant part in that story and how I’ve decided to tell it. I am sad that he died before we could do an interview, but I am thankful for the body of work he and Valerie created for Marvin and Tammi because I wouldn’t have a book to write about had it not been for that one song that got the metaphorical ball of history rolling. As I write this piece to memorialize Nick’s contributions to American music and drink coffee from a cup that is adorned with his lyrics, “I’m every woman, it’s all in me,” I realize that I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to naming all of Nick Ashford’s accomplishments; some of that I figured I would save for the book. However, I have mentioned enough to make the case for why he deserves recognition from both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2012 and will explore that further in the October print issue of On The Rise Magazine.