Motown songwriter/producer and soul star Nick Ashford died Monday in New York City of throat cancer. He was 69.
A pivotal figure in Motown history as the soul ’60s became the funky ’70s, Ashford and his creative partner (and eventual wife) Valerie Simpson were responsible for some of the label’s most lush and dramatic songs, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.” When the duo left Motown in the early ’70s, it found success with artists like Teddy Pendergrass, The Brothers Johnson, and Chaka Khan, whose “I’m Every Woman” typifies Ashford & Simpson’s ebullient style.
Ashford was born in Fairfield, South Carolina on May 4, 1942, and by the early ’60s he found his way up to New York where he met Simpson at White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem. Ashford & Simpson tried to make a go as recording artists, but they were more successful as songwriters, penning songs for the Shirelles and even future country music star Ronnie Milsap. The duo soon broke through when it wrote the gospel-tinged “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” a No. 1 hit on the R&B charts for Ray Charles in 1966.
After writing songs for Motown artists like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (with Simpson allegedly providing ghost vocals for Terrell when she fell with a brain tumor), The Supremes, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Gladys Knight & The Pips, Ashford & Simpson left the label in 1973 due to frustration over lack of promotion of their own records. The following year, they signed to Warner Bros., and released a string of hits throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, culminating with their biggest smash, “Solid,” in 1984.
Just as it’s hard to imagine the ’60s without the songs of Holland/Dozier/Holland, the transition into the ’70s sounds very much like Diana Ross’ version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” produced by Ashford & Simpson. The sweeping strings, the larger-than-life chorus, the impeccable feel for dynamics—this is music that makes falling in love feel like the end of the world, all in the space of six minutes. Pop music rarely sounded so unabashedly grand before, and wouldn’t much afterward, either.