Old Music for New People: A Tribute to Nick Ashford

By , Columnist

This week we will depart from our usual format to honor the departed. Nick Ashford passed away last week from throat cancer complications at the age of 70. As a lyricist, he changed all our lives by writing and co-producing many Motown hits like "You're All I Need to Get By," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand," "Aint Nothin' Like the Real Thing," as well as Ray Charles mid-60s smash "Let's Go Get Stoned." He and his wife Valerie Simpson then started recording as Ashford & Simpson, racking up notable sales and hits and critical acclaim over the years and becoming one of the classic R&B teams of all time.

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I first met Valerie Simpson when she was studio-keyboard-ace Paul Griffin’s gal in the early '60s. She was a background singer on recording sessions and by 1967 a well-known vocal contractor as well. On the first BS&T album, the producer hired Valerie to deliver three gal singers for backup vocal overdubs. Valerie showed up with Melba Moore and a guy named Nick. The producer was not happy and, after a coupla flubbed takes, fired the unknown male and had the girls double track the missing third girl’s part. Ironically, we met again at rehearsals in NYC for a benefit concert to help ailing Paul Griffin in the last few months of his life in the late 90s. It seemed like they had no memory of the BS&T session and Nick was very nice to me.

I had become a big fan when Valerie’s first solo album came out in 1971. There weren’t that many of us back then but I always followed her career. When she teamed up with Nick as a live act, they were already happily married and had many hits as a songwriting duo.

My Ashford/Simpson archives are jam-packed and picking the ten songs for this tribute to Nick as songwriter and singer was an arduous task. I hope you enjoy the music but I admit I was moved to tears when the last song ended. With Nick’s lyrics and amazing vocal range, it’s always personal. And I know I do not stand alone there.

1. "I Don't Need Nobody's Help" — Valerie Simpson (6:45)

Leading off her first solo album in 1971, my initial listen to this track left me speechless. This was Aretha-competitive! As a matter of fact, would one of you please play this for Aretha? She could do an amazing job and it requires just a voice and some gospel piano playing. And, of course, Nick Ashford’s great lyrics. This is still a gem despite it not being well received/recorded at the time.

2. "Let's Go Get Stoned" — Ray Charles (2:55)

This was the song that started the Ashford/Simpson songwriting bandwagon. A third writer, Joshie Armistead, an ex-Ikette, wrote with them early on and got them into Scepter Records, where they got covers on their songs by Chuck Jackson & Maxine Brown. But when Brother Ray picked this up, it was number one time. And why not? In 1966, Bob Dylan thought everybody must get stoned and so Nick’s lyric merely complied, but in a more R&B/gospel way.

3. "Live Songwriting Hits Medley" — Ashford & Simpson (5:38)

Popping out this trio of tenacity on their “In Performance” album, they thanked Marvin & Tammi and Diana Ross for the success of their songs “You’re All I Need To Get By,” Ain’t Nothin’ Like The Real Thing,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” For some people, that’s a whole life of songwriting grandeur. There would be many, many more in these two lives.

4. "I Waited Too Long" — Ashford & Simpson (4:15)

These kinda songs were Nick’s specialty as a lyricist; from-the-heart confessionals were what he wrote and sang best. Somehow he's been historically overlooked as a singer and that's a crime. Let’s not even go into the seamless untouchable blend he and Valerie had; his solo work in their act was on a par with Marvin or Luther. This track is one of many testimonials towards that fact.

5. "By Way of Love's Express" — Ashford & Simpson (3:27)

This was #35 on the R&B charts in 1978. It was a little too synthesizer-driven, but the groove and the vocals were fine with me and I still click on it with affection for a few plays every year. 

6. "Is It Still Good to Ya?" — Ashford & Simpson (3:53)

When they write a good ‘un, it stays written forever. The late Teddy Bear took this into the top ten in 1978 and by now Nick & Teddy are havin’ an interesting chat upstairs, probably with Luther and Marvin as well. What a great song this is. It’s still good to me and always will be.

7. "Surrender (Alternate Mix)" — Diana Ross (2:37)

This is one of my fave outside recorded Ashford & Simpson songs. I think Ms. Ross did a great job with it, but, after all, guess who produced it? I like this mix better than the known one. Good ending.

8. "I Need Your Light" — Ashford & Simpson (3:43)

When it comes to historic blends of voices, this track is a benchmark example; it deals with all aspects of two people singing together. Taken from a live performance, just their sense of time singing a cappella is superhuman. Their blend is flawless; sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who. The fact that this is gone forever live is very sad. I hope you got to see it at least once in the last forty years. Well, there's always YouTube, but there ain't nothin' like the real thing.

9. "Good Lovin' Ain't Easy to Come By" — Marvin Gaye & Valerie Simpson (2:30)

I don’t know exactly how this billing transpired — whether it was after Tammi’s tragic death or for demo purposes — but it sure is smooth sailing with a rare chance to hear Valerie with another partner (and not just any other partner). But they are singing another great Nick Ashford lyric. Great words ain’t easy to come by, either…

10. "Prologue: Working Man" — Ashford & Simpson (1:50)

This is a section from a longer piece called “Street Opera” and concerns a guy having problems keeping his poverty-stricken relationship together. I gotta reach for the Kleenex box each time Nick sings, “What can I do but leave you?” In a variety of ways, Nick Ashford will never leave us, thank Heaven.


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Legendary musician (Bob Dylan, Blues Project, Super Session, Blood Sweat & Tears), producer (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Nils Lofgren, The Tubes) and author (Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards), Al is happy to join the staff of The Morton Report in an effort to help his fellow listeners stay in tune!

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