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Farewell, Nick Ashford

| August 23, 2011 | 3 Comments

Nick Ashford, Lydia & Jim Bessman at the Sugar Bar, 2005

On May 5, 2005 I was in New York for the SESAC Pop Awards, and at 10:00 p.m. announced that someone had to take me out so I could celebrate my May 6 birthday when the clock struck midnight. Jim Bessman from Billboard said I was going with him to The Sugar Bar, a venue owned by songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. So we hopped a bus and headed to West 72nd Street where the Thursday night open mic was already in full swing with Valerie sitting by the stage clapping and singing along.

Jim and I made our way upstairs where Nick was holding court with all of the regulars who had become family at that point. He flashed his 1000-watt smile at Jim and gave him a big hug, and when he found out my birthday was an hour away he laughed and said his was yesterday (May 4). What followed was a big singing and dancing Taurean love fest.

At midnight Nick sent a bottle of champagne to my table and then grabbed me to dance with him and sing along to “What a Fool Believes.” It was a perfect night and a fitting celebration of life. Afterward, the mere mention of Nick Ashford’s name caused a big smile to take over my face. He embodied and radiated joy.

Yesterday the world lost that smile when Nick Ashford passed away at age 70 after a battle with throat cancer.  What a legacy of music, love and laughter he has left us, though. I thought this interview from our archives would be a fitting tribute for someone who believed in the importance of a song to be a living, breathing thing that bristled with energy and soulful emotion. Just like Nick.

Our hearts go out to Valerie Simpson, his wife of 38 years, his children, family and all those who loved him. He will be so very missed.

—By Lydia Hutchinson

The Living Soul of Ashford & Simpson

By Bill DeMain

If you listen to their vast song catalog, from the Motown hits of the ’60s and ’70s such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” to the duo’s own solo recordings of such singles as “Found a Cure,” “High Rise” and “Solid,” you’ll hear the undeniable life force of their songs. Pulsing locomotive rhythms, heartbeat-thumping bass lines and melodies that soar with all the love and wonder of a human spirit in full-flight—that’s an Ashford & Simpson song.

The duo met in 1964 at a Harlem gospel meeting, and became fast friends. Sharing a love of gospel music, they began to collaborate on songwriting, Nick handling most of the lyrics and Valerie the music. They moved into the secular pop scene and scored their first hit in 1966 with “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” recorded by Ray Charles.

This led to staff positions at Sceptor/Wand Records, where the duo penned hits for Maxine Brown and Chuck Jackson. Their snowballing successes led them in 1968 to Tamla/Motown, where they became writers and producers known for their soft soul approach with the duo of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, then later Diana Ross.

After they left Motown, they became a full-fledged recording act, releasing 10 albums over the next decade. At the same time, they continued to lend their golden touch to artists such as The Fifth Dimension, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan.

When you think back, was there a defining moment when you realized you were meant to be songwriters?

A: I think for me, maybe around 13-years-old, I had a very inspirational feeling in the Baptist Church when I was just banging on the piano. I thought, ‘this is it.’ I just had wings when I was singing and playing, so I knew something then, but I didn’t think of it as a career or anything (laughs).

S: For me, it was also in the churches. Because we were both writing gospel songs, the possibility of a career as a songwriter was introduced by someone who came to the church looking for talent to write love songs. I didn’t think about people actually doing that for a living, but suddenly it became a possibility, and something that we had fun doing. So that really defined it for us.

Tell me how the two of you ended up working together.

S: Nick came to New York actually to be a dancer, with a limited amount of money. When his money ran out, he was forced to sleep in the park. Then someone invited him up to our church where he could get a free meal, which he very much needed. So he came up one Sunday morning and that’s how he met me, singing with two other girls, and we found out he wrote gospel songs. So he and I, because I played the piano, just naturally started to collaborate. That was about 1965.

At that time, what kinds of things did you do to get your foot in the door at the publishing companies?

A: Like Valerie said earlier, we were discovered when these two guys came up to the White Rock Baptist Church. They were looking for young, talented singers at the time, and they opened this gospel club called The Sweet Chariot, and we sang there. We wrote some songs for the show, and we met some people from that experience who asked us if we could write, so that led to us writing love songs.

When you first started writing songs together, did you settle into certain roles?

S: The process has stayed pretty much the same over the years. Nick writes all the lyrics basically, and I do the music, and we kind of collaborate on the melodies. There are many ways, and sometimes he’ll have a prepared lyric. But most of the time, we like to try it spontaneously, just to see what’s in the air and what we can feel naturally. We see where my playing might lead him to feel, some thought may come to him as a result of the color of the music, and that’ll be the beginning of something. We don’t labor too long over those things, we just kind of let them fall out. If they’re good, we’ll pick them up later.

Some of your biggest hits have the title in the first line and it also sums up the whole message of the song. Did songs such as “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” begin as titles?

A: I remember with “You’re All I Need to Get By” I heard those chords and within seconds, the lyrics shot out of my mouth (laughs).

S: The title didn’t come first. The music kind of said that to Nick.

A: Yeah, and that’s like getting a clothes hanger, you know, a line you really love that marries to the music good and you hang all the rest of it on that.

 Your first big hit was “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” Do you recall writing it?

A: That was a day we couldn’t write a song. All that day, we couldn’t come up with a thing. So one of us said, “Oh, let’s go get stoned.” Of course, that meant go have a drink. So we went running down the steps, being silly and singing “Let’s go get stoned.” We had a couple drinks that night, then the next day when we went to see the publisher, he said, “You guys got anything for me?” And we said, “yeah, we got a hit for you.” I said, “Val what’s that big hit we wrote yesterday, remember that when we were singing coming down the steps.” And Valerie jumped to the piano, hit it and sang, “Let’s go get stoned.” We were joking. We thought he was going to laugh and throw us out of the office, and instead, he got so excited and said, “My God, I hear this for Ray Charles.” And we didn’t even know what we had said. Then we really had to go and make something up (laughs).

S: It was the clearest direction we’d ever gotten from somebody. This belongs to so and so, just finish it up. And he was right.

I’m fascinated with Motown, and would like to know how the Motown approach and philosophy affected your songwriting?

S: We were just as fascinated with the Motown aura, and we were thrilled to be there. Coming from New York, we brought our own vibe and interestingly enough, we never lived in Detroit. We were always the visiting songwriters who would stay for a week or two, do our thing, then go back home and write some more. We were part of the family, and yet we had a distance, which was kind of good, because they always liked seeing us.

At the time, were you writing 9 to 5?

S: We had our own little office, but I don’t think anyone paid that much attention to how long you were there as long as you came out with something eventually. I don’t think it was all that regimented. There was a lot of good times and partying going on if you ask me (laughs). We did have a discipline that was self–imposed. There’s no other way to get the work done but to do it. Sometimes you felt inspired and nothing was happening, so we wouldn’t labor over it, we’d just try it the next day.

Were you aware that were writing for a specific artist, say Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell?

A: That was the great thing about Motown, the heavy competition. A song had to be the best, not only as a song, but in production and everything. I don’t know about Val, but I was intimidated a little bit because you’d walk by the rooms and you’d hear songs coming out and you’d think, “Hmmm, that sounds real good (laughs).” It was very competitive, but I think that’s what made Motown and all those writers there so good so fast.

How did they decide which artists would cut which songs?

A: They had a system up there they called quality control. They had Berry Gordy and people like Billie Jean Brown that would sometimes pick songs for different artists . . .

S: but those things would also change. Halfway through production they’d take the song off one person and try it on someone else. Sometimes three or four artists would end up cutting a song and they’d choose the best one.

A: All the records went through quality control, which Berry and some other music people at Motown would sit and listen to each record. Also, the producers were in on it. Even the clerks and secretaries would come in and vote on the records.

How much freedom of interpretation did the artists have? How much different did a song like “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” sound when Marvin and Tammi sang it versus when you wrote it?

S: That’s the first record we actually produced.

A: The artists didn’t have that much to do with the arrangement. The producers at Motown formed the song around the artist. The artist would sometimes just come in off the road and have to go into the studio. So a lot of the forming of the artists was done by the producers and the writers.

S: It had a lot to do with what kind of interpreter the producer was. In our case, because we were singers, we could lay out a pretty well-defined demo for Marvin or for Tammi, then because they were so special in their artistry, they could add that little extra something. Everything was pretty layed out, very clear and straight ahead. But it probably varied with other writers who were not singers, so it’s hard to say how they worked.

Talk a little about the evolution of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from the first version to Diana Ross’ symphonic version.

A: When we were new at Motown, we didn’t produce the first version by Marvin and Tammi. That was Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol. That was also our first song at Motown. After we had some success and it was time for Diana Ross to bust out on her own, everyone wondered, “Who’s going to do her? Who’s going to produce the first album?” And lo and behold, Berry Gordy picked Ashford and Simpson (laughs). We were like “What? Her first solo album, this can’t be possible.” So we were like little busy bees around here, and we started writing immediately, of course. Now at that time, Isaac Hayes and a few other artists had started coming out with long cuts, and that was the trend. We hadn’t written anything with that kind of feeling. Knowing Diana Ross and her speaking voice and how sexy she was, we decided to take the existing “Ain’t No Mountain High” and rewrite some of the thing especially for her. We wanted to have something grand, long and sexy for her.

S: The original version of that song I remember that Nick came in after walking down Central Park West with that chorus. It was just at the point where you feel like you don’t want the city to take you under and you’re just telling yourself there’s nothing anyone can do to stop me, and he came in with this dramatic statement, “Ain’t no mountain high.” But that was like the easiest chorus for us to hook together, and it was clear that it was a hit. In fact, we even played it for Dusty Springfield before we took it to Motown, and she wanted it . . .

A: But we wouldn’t give it to her (laughter).

S: We couldn’t give it away, because we knew we had to make a good impression when we went to Motown. Of course, Dusty would’ve killed it too (laughs).

That song, and so many of your others have incredible melodies. If a songwriter wanted to improve his or her melody writing, what would you suggest?

S: Well, you should be able to take the music away and still hear it. It’s important that the melody can live on its own.

A: Also, if you don’t feel what you’re saying, then change the melody, because you’re not getting your message over. I’ve had lines that I felt were so fabulous and yet in the music it didn’t live the way I wanted it to live. When you feel that, you have to keep working until you find out what it is that’s gonna make it live.

S: We’re not afraid to change things up. We’ll sing a song any number of ways until that’s the way it feels like it belongs. I think a lot of people try to hold on to stuff. It could take a little fine-tuning here and there.

If you feel like you’re getting in a stagnant place with your writing, what kinds of things do you do to renew your approach?

A: Live (laughs). When you get all tied up in knots, and you’re trying to do something, the effort alone prevents it. So the whole thing to do, to me, is to relax and live because it has to be a natural flow. It can’t be work because you’re looking for something that you’re not inspired to have. I think living and above all, communicating with people is a great source of energy.

What obstacles do you face being husband and wife and a professional team?

A: That’s an interesting question. There is an obstacle, but it’s not an obstacle we have. It’s like a label people put on you. We’re kind of known as a “love couple.” So whenever we write a song that’s not so positive, people think it’s about us and that we’re probably breaking up. We get letters to that effect (laughs). Is something wrong between you two? They think everything is related to our relationship and it’s not true. So that to me is a negative thing. I think the public’s perception is sometimes limited when they just apply it to us. But you got to give them what they want though (laughs). I think when we write other songs, we can field them out to other artists. Songs where we wish to express other emotions than positive ones.

I love the chord progressions that use, Valerie. Do you feel like you have signature chords?

S: I don’t know . . .

When you sit down at the piano, do you find that your hands fall into certain chord patterns?

S: Probably, but because you’ve done what you’ve done before, you try to vary. You try to find the variation on the theme or the feeling. There’s certain kinds of things that I play that I think are splendid but Nick doesn’t hear anything, so it’s not just you. It has to inspire somebody else too. I have to hit on something that will spark a lyric, otherwise it just becomes an exercise in doing your own thing. So it’s still like we have to come to something together. I think there is probably a churchiness to the stuff because of the church days and I always like to try to get some of that in.

A: There’s definitely that undercurrent there.

S: And Nick has a thing, he’ll say, “Give me some color, that don’t have no color in it.” He always pushing me.

What would you say is your favorite song that you’ve written?

A: There’s a few new ones you haven’t heard (laughs). But of the ones you know, I’d say “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross. I still get goose pimples when I hear that. The song, what it means, I won’t be modest, I just think it’s great.

S: I think “You’re All I Need to Get By.”

What advice would you give to a songwriter who wants to write hits?

A: As emotional as you may feel, if no one wants to hear it, then you have to step back. You have listen to the marketplace, you’ve got to be somewhere in the marketplace, unless you’re new wave or something and don’t care. Also, that depends on what is your definition of a hit. My definition of a hit is when the whole world is singing your song, not just segments who like this type of music or that type of music. My definition of a hit is a worldwide hit.

S: Or one that can come back (laughter).

A: I think you have to listen to all music, then put your heart in it and decide what you want to do, then just cry it out louder than anyone has ever said it. Make your own hit. Everybody’s got their own feel and their own style.

S: I admire originality, I like people who try for their own thing, who are true to their own selves. As opposed to cloning what is the trend of the day. I encourage that. If you have a little streak, a little sound, a little nuance, you have to hold on to something that’s really yours. We all adapt in many ways, but it’s nice to have something that is really yours.

From Performing Songwriter Issue 13

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (3)

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  1. Lydia says:

    Thank you, Nancy, but that was Bill DeMain who did that interview. He’s the best, and everything he ever wrote for Performing Songwriter deserved a journalism award! So glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Nancy Kelel says:

    Wow Lydia! This is a powerful piece. Surely you should win some sort of journalism award for this presentation. Ashford and Simpson wrote such incredible music together. What a beautiful couple. How blessed you were to have interviewed them. And what an awesome interview. So poignant and simultaneously educating. A sincere thank you for sharing it.

  3. Darrell says:

    Loved the whole artical !! Awesome stuff. A loss for sure! blessed writers & people!

    God got his angels back

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