Singer and songwriter who had a string of hits with his wife, Valerie Simpson, during Motown’s heyday.
ASHFORD AND SIMPSON were one of the most prolific songwriting teams in black music in the 1960s and 1970s, composing hits for Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Chaka Khan, among many others.
Nick Ashford, who has died aged 70, following treatment for throat cancer, and Valerie Simpson also made numerous recordings as a duo, and their hits included ‘Found a Cure’ (1979) and ‘Solid’ (1984).
They were staff writers for the Scepter/Wand record company when their song ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’, a No 1 hit in the R&B chart for Ray Charles in 1966, brought them to the notice of Berry Gordy, head of the most renowned African-American music company, Tamla Motown. He quickly contracted Ashford and Simpson to write exclusively for his artists and for the next five years they were major contributors to Motown’s dominance of black pop music. The couple moved to Detroit and often played, or sang backing vocals, on Motown tracks.
They were especially adept at providing duets for Gaye and Tammi Terrell, such as ‘Your Precious Love’ (1967), ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’ (1967) and ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’ (1968). Ashford and Simpson were also assigned to compose for Ross, crafting such hits as ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ in 1970 and ‘Surrender’ (1971). Perhaps the masterpiece of their Motown years was ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, a No 1 hit for Ross in 1970. This six-minute epic was also produced by Ashford and Simpson. Ashford had previously co-produced the 1968 recording by Diana Ross, the Supremes and the Temptations of ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’.
Ashford and Simpson had made a few recordings soon after they met, and they petitioned the autocratic Gordy to allow them to revive their recording career. He viewed them as writers and producers rather than performers, but in 1971 he reluctantly acceded. Simpson made the albums Exposed and, in 1977, Keep It Comin’, but despite critical acclaim, neither compared favourably with Motown’s stars in sales terms.
Ashford and Simpson severed their Motown contract and moved to Warner Brothers as recording artists, although Gordy retained their services as occasional writers and producers, notably for Ross. During the Warners years, the husband and wife (they married in 1974) recorded a series of albums typified by their celebratory romantic songs.
Their records sold well to the African-American community but there was also the occasional crossover song that appealed to white audiences, such as ‘Found a Cure’ and ‘Solid’. The intensely uxorious ‘Solid’ was the title track from the couple’s second album under a new contract with Capitol Records. In 2009 they released The Real Thing, a compilation of live recordings.
The son of a construction worker, Ashford was born in Fairfield, South Carolina, and grew up in Willow Run, Michigan, singing in a church choir as a child. After briefly attending Eastern Michigan College, he moved to New York to follow a career in jazz dance. He turned to songwriting in 1963 when he met Simpson, a music student, at the White Rock Baptist church in Harlem, where she was a featured singer. Ashford often credited their church background as a vital influence on the duo’s songs: “So much soul comes out of the Baptist church, it’s so embedded in you. You could go out any minute and turn the sweetest ballad into a gospel song if you felt real good about it.”
Their first success came with a song whose sentiments were anything but devotional, ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’, written with Jo Armstead. Ashford recalled that the song came out of creative frustration: “We had been trying to write something all day but we couldn’t come up with anything. So I said ‘Let’s go get stoned.’ I meant, just go and have a drink, so we started laughing out the door, singing, ‘Let’s go get stoned.'”
During the 1970s, Ashford and Simpson continued to supply songs to other performers, including one of their most enduring ballads, ‘I’m Every Woman’. This was written in 1978 for Khan, for whom it became a first solo hit, but it is equally well known in the version by Whitney Houston, which was featured in the 1992 film The Bodyguard.
They were also credited as co-authors of the Amy Winehouse hit ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’, which was based on a sample from ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. Ashford and Simpson toured sporadically until recently, making their Japanese debut in 2009. In 1996, they recorded an album with the poet Maya Angelou and opened the Sugar Bar, a New York music venue and restaurant. They were also supporters of Oprah Winfrey’s South African venture, the Leadership Academy for Girls.
Ashford is survived by his wife and their daughters, Nicole and Asia.
• Nickolas Ashford, songwriter and singer, born 4 May 1941; died 22 August 2011
© Dave Laing, The Guardian, 23 August 2011