Ashford, Nick and Simpson, Valerie
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson
The vocal and compositional duo of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson has offered a unique example of a creative and personal collaboration that has lasted and flourished in both realms. Joining forces in the early 1960s, they became part of the legendary stable of composerssurrounding Detroit’s Motown label, that decade’s most successful purveyor of black popular music. With songwriting credits that included some of Motown’s most memorable romantic pieces, they had already compiled an enviable record of accomplishments even before embarking on a successful career as recording and performing artists in their own right.
By the late 1990s, Ashford and Simpson had become permanently identified with a kind of love song that fewer and fewer performers had cultivated over the years: the ballad of mature and unshakable love. And the duo wrote about what they knew firsthand. Although the creative partnership between them preceded and gave birth to the personal one—their marriage postdating their first composition by ten years—Ashford and Simpson truly lived and worked together. At the century’s end they were still active as recording artists, radio personalities, and restaurateurs, and their music was a staple of radio formats aimed at an older, more mature audience.
Nickolas “Nick” Ashford was born in Fairfield, South Carolina, on May 4, 1942 (some sources give the year as 1943), but grew up in Willow Run, Michigan, an auto-manufacturing area just west of Detroit. His father was a construction worker. He sang in a gospel choir as a youngster and acquired a solid education, finishing high school and attending nearby Eastern Michigan College (now Eastern Michigan University) for one semester.
To his parents’ dismay, however, Ashford then dropped out of college and headed for New York with only $57 in his pocket, hoping to make it as a singer or dancer. At first he could only find work in a restaurant, and to satisfy his musical appetite he began attending Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, where he met Valerie Simpson, a member of the choir and a recent high school graduate who, like Ashford, had strong musical aspirations. “She put me in a spin,” Ashford was quoted as saying by Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Pop,
Nickolas Ashford born in Fairfield, South Carolina, on May 4, 1942 (or 1943); raised in Willow Run, Michigan; father a construction worker. Education: Attended Eastern Michigan Colfege, Religion: Baptist, Valerie Simpson born in New York City, on August 26, 1946 (or 1948). Education: Graduated from high school in New York Religion: Baptist Ashford and Simpson married in 1974; two children.
Career: Performing artists and songwriters. Formed songwriting partnership, 1964; had song, “Let’s Co Get Stoned”, recorded by Ray Charles, 1966; wrote songs for Motown label, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” late 1960s; Simpson released solo albums on Tamla subsidiary of Motown, early 1970s; signed contractas performers with Warner Brothers, 1973; signed with Capitol, 1981; released Street Opera, 1982; released Solid, 1984; song “I’m Every Woman” recorded by Whitney Houston and included on “Bodyguard” soundtrack, 1993; formed Hopsack & Silk label and collaborated with poet Maya Angelou on Been Found, 1996.
Addresses: Business— Hopsack & Silk Records P.O Box 724677, Atlanta, GA 30339.
Rock & Soul. Simpson was born in New York on August 26, 1946 (some sources give the date of 1948). It would be some years before Ashford and Simpson entered into a committed relationship, but they continued to live in Harlem and to attend the same church throughout their careers.
Ashford and Simpson began writing songs together in 1964. Almost immediately they thought they had found success when they sold a group of songs to a publisher for the flat fee of $75. “We were pretty excited that we could make $75 just by sitting down and writing songs.” Simpson was quoted as saying by Stambler. “Actually we were taken, but we didn’t feel that way at the time.” They cut several singles for a small independent label, Glover, in 1964 and 1965, and landed a songwriting deal with a larger record company, Scepter. Ray Charles cut the young duo’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned” in 1966 and took it to Number 10 on the soul music charts and Number 31 on the pop charts.
Thanks to the success of “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” Ashford and Simpson attracted the attention of the Motown label in Detroit, famed for its roster of songwriters who seemed able to turn out hit after hit. The vocal duo of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recorded Ashford and Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which sold well in its initial release and topped soul and pop charts in America and worldwide in a 1970 cover version by Motown superstar Diana Ross. Gaye and Terrell proved sympathetic interpreters of Ashford and Simpson’s compositions, scoring hits with such now-familiar songs as “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Ross also made hits of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Remember Me.”
Simpson’s performing instincts were tapped when she filled in for the fatally-ill Terrell in duets with Gaye; she also did background vocals on various Motown recordings, working at one point with the producer and performer Quincy Jones. Thanks to her songwriting credits, Simpson was given the chance to record two albums for Motown’s Tamla subsidiary, Exposed (1971) and Valerie Simpson (1972), with Ashford at the producer’s controls. These albums sold only modestly, but the duo’s resolve to succeed as performers strengthened, and they parlayed their songwriting reputation into a recording contract with Warner Brothers in 1973.
They seemed off to a promising start at Warner Brothers with the 1973 album Gimme Something Real, but their growing personal attachment led them to call a temporary hiatus in their career. “We kind of hesitated about the romance because it could have messed everything up,” Simpson told Cosmopolitan. They married in 1974, and retired from recording altogether for a time when Valerie gave birth to their first child in 1975. Returning to the recording scene in 1976, they found success with the title track of the album So So Satisfied (1977), one of the first of a long series of compositions that celebrated the deep joys of a stable and mature relationship. Ashford and Simpson adapted their lush ballad style to the musical requirements of disco later in 1977, rising into the pop top 20 with “Send It” and cementing their status as bona-fide stars.
Their next major move came in 1981, when, after a series of successful releases on Warner Brothers, they signed with the Capitol label. Their first release, Street Opera, seemed to reflect a new creative freedom: on one side of the album, four songs were linked together in the manner of a classical opera by sung dialogue and a simple but heartfelt plot line that explored the difficulty of maintaining a stable relationship in the inner city. The story ends with a couple’s separation. “It’s semitragic, because she understands his problems and that they must leave each other, but there is hope in the end because she understands … why he must leave,” Ashford was quoted as saying by Irwin Stambler. Street Opera yielded the hit single “Street Corner,” and the career of Ashford and Simpson entered a new and consistently successful phase. Their biggest hit was “Solid,” released in late 1984; it rose to Number 12 on Billboard’s pop chart.
Ashford and Simpson are noteworthy among male/female songwriting teams in that although many of their songs are written from a woman’s perspective, Simpson is generally the composer, Ashford the lyricist. “Once in a while I’ll contribute to the lyrics,” Simpson told Cosmopolitan, “but Nick’s the poet. Sometimes, though, I have to push for certain kinds of songs. ‘I’m Every Woman’ was like pulling teeth… yet I do touch his soul.” The couple works in the living room of their New York apartment, resplendent with a white Yamaha grand piano.
Ashford and Simpson retired from the recording scene at the end of the 1980s but remained very much in the limelight. Whitney Houston’s version of “I’m Every Woman,” included on the soundtrack of the runaway film hit “The Bodyguard,” gave Ashford and Simpson another top 10 songwriting credit, and the duo remained in demand as performers themselves. They hosted a program on New York’s radio station KISS-FM, and invested in several restaurants; by the late 1990s they owned the Sugar Bar, an upscale, African-inspired eatery in New York.
In 1996 they returned to the recording arena, launching their own label, Hopsack & Silk, and releasing the album Been Found, a collaboration with nationally-renowned poet Maya Angelou that had been born at a dinner party at Ashford and Simpson’s apartment. Ashford and Simpson’s music had never disappeared from the radio, and in the late 1990s Warner Brothers re-released their classic 1970s albums in its Ol’ Skool series. Their music, which plumbed the depths of romance, had never gone out of style.
Keep It Comin’, Tamla, 1973.
Gimme Something Real, Warner Brothers, 1973.
I Wanna Be Selfish, Warner Brothers, 1974.
Come As You Are, Warner Brothers, 1976.
So So Satisfied, Warner Brothers, 1977.
Send It, Warner Brothers, 1977.
Is It Still Good to Ya?, Warner Brothers, 1978.
Stay Free, Warner Brothers, 1979.
Musical Affair, Warner Brothers, 1980.
Performance, Warner Brothers, 1981.
Street Opera, Capitol, 1982.
High Rise, Capitol, 1983.
Solid, Capitol, 1984.
Real Love, Capitol, 1986.
Love or Physical, Capitol, 1989.
Been Found, Hopsack & Silk, 1996 (with Maya Angelou).
Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds. All Music Guide to Rock, 2nd ed., Miller Freeman, 1997.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, eds. The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Stambler, Irwin. Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Billboard, September 28, 1996, p. 9.
Cosmopolitan, July 1993, p. 174.
Jet, July 14, 1997, p. 58.
Nation’s Restaurant News, January 12, 1998, p. 3.
Washington Post, July 18, 1997, p. 12.
—James M. Manheim
"Ashford, Nick and Simpson, Valerie." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ashford-nick-and-simpson-valerie
"Ashford, Nick and Simpson, Valerie." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ashford-nick-and-simpson-valerie
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