This week we will explore the music of the talented duo of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
Ashford was born in Fairfield, South Carolina, and Simpson in the Bronx, New York. Afterwards, his family relocated to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he became a member of Christ Temple Baptist Church. While there, he sang with a group called The Hammond Singers, (named after the founding minister, James Hammond). Later, Nickolas attended and graduated from Willow Run High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan before pursuing his professional career where he would ultimately meet his wife, Valerie Simpson. They met at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964. After having recorded unsuccessfully as a duo, they joined an aspiring solo artist and former member of the Ikettes, Joshie Jo Armstead, at the Scepter/Wand label, where their compositions were recorded by Ronnie Milsap (“Never Had It So Good”), Maxine Brown (“One Step At A Time”), as well as the Shirelles and Chuck Jackson. Another of the trio’s songs, “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, gave Ray Charles a number one U.S. R&B hit in 1966. That same year, Ashford & Simpson joined Motown, where their best-known songs included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”. Ashford and Simpson wrote many other hit songs, including Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” (1978) and Teddy Pendergrass’s “Is It Still Good to You?”. As performers, Ashford & Simpson’s best-known duets are “Solid (As a Rock)” (1984 US and 1985 UK) and “Found a Cure” (1979). The duo was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002. Ashford and Simpson were also recipients of The Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1999, and ASCAP’s highest honor, the Founder’s Award, which they received in 1996.
The duo essentially had two careers: one as a successful writing and producing team and the other as singers and performers themselves. They started their career in the mid-1960s, writing for artists such as The 5th Dimension (“California Soul”), Aretha Franklin (“Cry Like A Baby”), and Ray Charles (“Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor”). Their work with Charles brought them to the attention of Motown chief Berry Gordy.
Upon joining the Motown staff in 1966, Ashford & Simpson were paired with the vocal duo Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and they wrote and/or produced all but one of the late-1960s Gaye/Terrell singles, including hits such as the original version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Your Precious Love”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, and “You’re All I Need to Get By”. According to Gaye in the book Divided Soul, Simpson did most of the vocals on the last album he did with Terrell, Easy, as a way for Terrell’s family to have additional income as she was battling an ultimately fatal brain tumor. Though Louvain Demps, singer of The Andantes, has stated that she saw Terrell recording the album, Simpson is quoted as saying, in a book written by Terrell’s sister Ludie Montgomery, what they saw was her singing the guide tracks for the album, which were later replaced by Tammi’s own vocals.
Ashford & Simpson wrote and produced almost all the songs on three 1970s albums for former Supreme Diana Ross, including her first solo album Diana Ross (“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), Surrender (“Remember Me”), and The Boss. All three albums were critically acclaimed with “Diana Ross” her 1970 album debut and “The Boss” being certified platinum and “Surrender” certified Gold.
Other Motown artists whom Ashford & Simpson worked with include Gladys Knight & The Pips (“Didn’t You Know You’d Have to Cry Sometime”,(after Motown they worked with Gladys Knight & the Pips and wrote and produced – “Landlord”, “Bourgie, Bourgie”, and “Taste of Bitter Love”), Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (“Who’s Gonna Take the Blame”), The Marvelettes (“Destination:Anywhere”), The Supremes (“Some Things You Never Get Used To”), and The Dynamic Superiors (“Shoe, Shoe Shine”).
Other artists with whom Ashford & Simpson had hits were Teddy Pendergrass (“Is It Still Good to You”), The Brothers Johnson (“Ride-O-Rocket”), Chaka Khan, both on her own (“I’m Every Woman” and “Clouds”), and with Rufus (“Keep It Comin'” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe”).
Ashford & Simpson’s career as recording artists began in the early 1960s as part of the gospel group The Followers, with whom they recorded the album Gospel Meeting (on Forum Circle), later issued as Meetin’ The Followers (on Roulette Records). The LP contains their vocals and also four Ashford compositions. In 1964, they recorded “I’ll Find You”, as “Valerie & Nick”. That was followed by several obscure singles recorded by Ashford on the Glover, Verve and ABC labels, such as “It Ain’t Like That” (later recorded by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas), “California Soul”, and “Dead End Kids”, backed by his own version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. After concentrating on working with other artists, Simpson was the featured soloist on the songs “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “What’s Going On” on the Quincy Jones albums Gula Matari in 1970, and its follow-up, Smackwater Jack. Simpson subsequently recorded two solo LPs for Motown: Valerie Simpson Exposed in 1971, and, the following year, Valerie Simpson, which included the single “Silly, Wasn’t I”, which was later sampled on 50 Cent’s “Best Friend” from the movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The song was also sampled by 9th Wonder on Murs’s “Silly Girl” in the album Murray’s Revenge. Ashford & Simpson were featured singing selections from Simpson’s solo albums on the PBS TV show Soul!, hosted by Ellis Haizlip in 1971. In 1973, they left Motown after the albums Simpson recorded for the label received poor promotion and the company refused to release an album of the duo recording a collection of their most famous songs for other artists.
In 1974, Ashford & Simpson married after resuming their career as a duo with the Warner Bros. album Gimme Something Real released in 1973. In 1974, they followed up with “I wanna be selfish” and in 1976 “Come as you are” was released. 1977 saw the release of two albums – “So So satisfied” and “Send it”. This was followed by the hit singles “Send it”, “Don’t Cost You Nothin'” (1977), “It Seems to Hang On” (1978), “Is It Still Good to Ya” (1978), “Found a Cure” (1979), “Street Corner” (1982), and their biggest hit, “Solid (As a Rock)”, released in 1984.
In 1978, they were featured as vocalists, along with Chaka Khan, on the hit single “Stuff Like That” from Quincy Jones’ Sounds… And Stuff Like That album and contributed to the writing of the soundtrack to The Wiz.
Simpson appeared (with Melba Moore) as part of the “Blood, Sweat & Tears Soul Chorus” on the band’s Al Kooper-led debut album on Columbia Records, Child Is Father to the Man.
On his own, Ashford (along with Frank Wilson), produced the hit “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, which Diana Ross & the Supremes recorded in collaboration with the Temptations in 1968. He also appeared in the movie New Jack City (1991), as Reverend Oates, an ordained minister who was part of Nino Brown’s entourage.
Simpson’s brothers were in the record business as well: Ray Simpson replaced Victor Willis in the Village People and their brother Jimmy Simpson produced the group GQ (which had big hits with “Disco Nights” and “I Do Love You”), and was in great demand as a mixing engineer during the disco era.