In the late 1960s, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were Motown's sweet songbirds, duetting on the romantic ballads "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". These odes to the undying, eternal power of love were tailor-made by Nick Ashford and his writing partner and later wife, Valerie Simpson, and mirrored their enduring and happy relationship, the flip side to the tragic fate that would befall Terrell, who died of a brain tumour in March 1970, and Gaye, who was shot dead by his father in April 1984.
During their seven-year tenure as songwriters and producers for Motown, between 1966 and 1973, Ashford and Simpson also penned and produced hits for Diana Ross, most notably "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)", the former Supreme's debut solo hit, and a new arrangement of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" that topped both the R&B and pop charts in the US in 1970. The pair also worked with acts such as Gladys Knight & the Pips, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, The Marvelettes and The Velvelettes.
After they married in 1974, the couple's run of success continued with The Dynamic Superiors, The Brothers Johnson and Teddy Pendergrass as well as Quincy Jones, whose first British hit, the irresistible "Stuff Like That" they co-wrote and sang on in 1978. Their phenomenal catalogue also includes the perennial favourites "California Soul", recorded by The 5th Dimension, Gaye & Terrell and Marlena Shaw, "I'm Every Woman" – Chaka Khan's 1978 signature song, subsequently revived by Whitney Houston in 1992 – and "Solid", the upbeat 1984 Transatlantic hit they eventually scored in their own right, two decades after making their recording debut as Valerie & Nick.
Born Nickolas Ashford in Fairfield, South Carolina, in 1942, he grew up in Michigan. One of three brothers who all had careers in music, he first sang in the choir at Willow Run Baptist Church, where his yearning falsetto and ability to ad-lib drew plaudits. Gospel music remained a constant inspiration throughout his life. "So much soul comes out of the Baptist church, it's so embedded in you," he said.
After dropping out of Eastern Michigan University he moved to New York, where he hoped his lithe physique would enable him to become a dancer. He failed to realise this ambition and slept on park benches after running out of money. One day in 1963, he ventured into the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, where he met Simpson, a piano player, singer and music student four years his junior. They began collaborating and became staff writers for the publishing company attached to the Scepter and Wand labels.
Over the next two years, as well as cutting three singles, including the moderately successful "I'll Find You", as Valerie & Nick, they placed songs with Betty Everett, Doris Troy, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, The Shirelles, Mitty Collier and Tina Britt. However, their big break came in late 1965, when a chance remark at the end of a fruitless session turned into their first R&B chart-topper. "We couldn't come up with anything," Ashford recalled in The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm'n'Blues Hits. "I said: 'Let's go get stoned'. I meant, just go have a drink. I started ad-libbing the title and Val picked it up and we just kind of made it up. Ed [Silvers, their publisher] said: 'Y'all joking, but if you finish this, I bet I can get a record with Ray Charles'." Indeed, the following year, the genius of soul charted with "Let's Go Get Stoned" and again with "I Don't Need No Doctor", another Ashford and Simpson composition that became a mainstay of the repertoire of Humble Pie, the British rock band led by Steve Marriott.
The Motown songwriting and producing triumvirate of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier duly recruited Ashford and Simpson on Berry Gordy's behalf. "Nick's lyrics with Valerie's melodies and arrangements added a new, sophisticated and dramatic element to our overall sound," Gordy, the label's founder, wrote in To Be Loved, his autobiography. "When their first production on Marvin and Tammi was brought into the Friday meeting, there was no debate. 'Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing' was voted a smash and it was. When their next record 'You're All I Need to Get By', was played, it sounded so great to me I didn't bother to take a vote. No one complained. It is still one of my all-time favourites."
Given leeway to remain based in New York, Ashford and Simpson mostly wrote at home and would travel to Detroit and stay for a week or two in order to polish their elegant productions. "I remember when we started, I wasn't thinking of Marvin and Tammi, I was just thinking of the songs," said Ashford of the demos he brought to the sessions. "I would always sing Marvin's part very straight, with no frills, so I wouldn't be embarrassed when he sang." Ashford and Simpson became extremely adept at tailoring material to the singers. "They worked well together, they made things easy," remembered Ashford, who added backing vocals with Simpson, while her piano playing provided "the foundation that kind of cued the feeling," as he put it.
In 1968, Ashford, who had sung backing vocals on the Dee Dee Warwick 1966 recording of the Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff composition "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me", helped Frank Wilson produce a shivers-down-the-spine remake by Diana Ross & the Supremes and The Temptations which reached the Top 3 in Britain. In 1970, Ashford and Simpson wrote and produced Diana Ross's eponymous solo debut, featuring "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" and an extended, sweeping version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", a mammoth session with the rhythm track cut in Detroit and the strings arranged by Paul Riser and dubbed in New York.
"At that time, lengthy records were starting to come out: six, seven minutes. We didn't have any songs like that, but we wanted Diana to feel she was into new things. We thought to stretch 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough'," Ashford explained. However, Gordy wasn't sure about the result, especially the lengthy chorus that took up the last third of the track. "You're gonna have to take the back and put it up in the front," he told the writers, who refused to tamper with the recording. The deadlock was broken when disc-jockeys began playing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" from the album, forcing Gordy to sanction its release as a single. Ashford and Simpson also produced Surrender, the 1971 album by Ross, and collaborated with her again on The Boss album in 1979.
By that time, frustrated with the lack of promotion Motown afforded the two albums Simpson made for the label, and the shelving of an Ashford & Simpson duo project, they had broken away and signed with Warners as writers/producers and recording artists in 1973. They made nine albums for the label, most notably Stay Free, a mainstay of the dance charts in 1979. They renewed their association with Quincy Jones to help him complete "Stuff Like That" and the soundtrack to The Wiz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and worked with Rufus & Chaka Khan, most famously contributing the sublime "I'm Every Woman", the anthem that won Khan the Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female Grammy Award in 1979.
Despite scoring 22 entries on the R&B charts in the US, Ashford & Simpson hadn't managed a crossover hit of their own on Warners. They finally achieved this with "Solid" after they moved to Capitol in the Eighties. "The song came about from the streets," Ashford recalled. "At that time, I was walking around New York and the brothers had an expression, 'Yo, solid', you know. I came home and said to Val: 'That kind of applies to us'." Mixed by Ron St. Germain and François Kevorkian, who suggested the a capella introduction, "Solid" became an international smash.
The prolific duo continued recording and performing live until recently. In the mid-Nineties, they opened the Sugar Bar in Manhattan, where friends like Patti Labelle and Stevie Wonder would drop in on open-mike nights. The all-pervasive influence of their work continues to this day, as demonstrated by the sample of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" which forms the basis of the Amy Winehouse track "Tears Dry on Their Own", while rappers and producers like 50 Cent and 9th Wonder have found rich pickings amongst Ashford and Simpson's back catalogue.
Paying tribute to Ashford, who died of complications from throat cancer, Gordy said: "He, together with his wife, Valerie Simpson, wrote and produced some of the most unique and memorable songs in the Motown catalogue. But more importantly to me, Nick Ashford was an all-around beautiful human being. I know we will be celebrating his life forever."
Nickolas Ashford, singer, songwriter, producer: born Fairfield, South Carolina 4 May 1942; married 1974 Valerie Simpson (two daughters); died New York City 22 August 2011.