Prolific but with a career as uncelebrated as some of their songs, Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were a husband-and-wife duo, unsuccessful as performers at first and then enjoying a renaissance after their Motown writing heyday had passed.
They had a few early hits with songs for stars such as Aretha Franklin (Cry Like A Baby) and Ray Charles (Let’s Go Get Stoned, I Don’t Need No Doctor), which is an achievement most writers would be happy with, but it is a measure of the exalted standards we’re dealing with in this series that this part of their career doesn’t invite real celebration in its own right.
Eventually their work with Charles attracted the attention of Berry Gordy, and Ashford & Simpson were enlisted on the Motown roster, with a special brief to provide material for Marvin Gaye in his second partnership, Kim Weston having been replaced by Tammi Terrell.
There is a heartwarming quality about the team’s big hits, The Onion Song, You Ain’t Livin’ Until You’re Lovin’ and You’re All I Need To Get By that owes much to Terrell’s vulnerable delivery of an Ashford and Simpson trademark. While the Motown catalogue is full of love songs, something about this writing duo gave an extra mellow feel to the recordings.
There was also the original version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough with Gaye and Terrell which would later be eclipsed by Diana Ross’s more dramatic version, and the drama element continued in the early 70s with Ross’s Ashford & Simpson collaborations on Remember Me and Surrender. It was a more grown-up style for Ross as she moved on from the teen angst (high class though it was) of the Supremes, and Ashford and Simpson knew exactly how to do it.
A splendid combination of the mellow and the dramatic sides of Ashford and Simpson is the surprisingly low-profile I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You, which they co-wrote with Eddie Holland and which shifted a few units for Syreeta Wright (billed as Rita on that occasion). Dusty Springfield and Diana Ross both covered it, as have a host of others over the years, including Vikki Carr, but in my opinion nothing rivals the Syreeta version. Meanwhile, British guitar hero Jeff Beck thought enough of it to do an instrumental version, blustering (vainly, I’m sorry to say) to wring out every drop of emotion without the help of words. Nice try – it just doesn’t quite work.
The Seventies knocked the stuffing out of many Motown writers, who managed only sporadic hits, and Ashford and Simpson were no exception, their sporadic one being Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman.
And they had their belated singing career too, building slowly before culminating with Solid in 1984.
After that they got out and about, opened a restaurant/music bar, worked with the poet Maya Angelou and adapted Solid for Barack Obama (Solid as Barack). Nik Ashford died at the age of 70 of throat cancer in 2011 just days before Simpson’s 65th birthday. Is it ever less than insensitive to observe that someone “had a good innings”? Ashford and Simpson didn’t do too badly for themselves.