Ashford & Simpson - Biography
Although Ashford & Simpson are mainly known for their recorded output of the 70s and 80s, their career as composers and performers actually began in the 1960s. They had a major influence over the Motown output towards the latter part of the decade, writing the majority of the material recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Ashford & Simpson’s songs were also recorded by the likes of Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson. The duo also had a number of hits as performers themselves on the R&B charts, most notably “Solid,” “Love Don’t Make It Right,” and “It Seems To Hang On.” “Solid” is one of the few of the duo’s singles to cross over into the mainstream, rising to #12 on the national charts.
Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson met in a Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, in the early 1960s. Ashford, four years Simpson’s senior, was already working on original material when he met his future wife and collaborative partner. They began working as a duo and writing songs together, and, aside from a little early turbulence, their first foray into the music world proved successful. They released their first single, “I’ll Find You,” under the moniker, Valerie & Nick. The track is now extremely rare, but at the time it garnered the attention of the legendary Ray Charles, who later, in 1966, would record versions of other Ashford & Simpson’s songs, such as “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” It was this chance encounter with Charles that led to Scepter Records taking note of the duo’s songwriting prowess.
Ashford and Simpson were hired on as staff writers for the Scepter label in the mid-60s, but the contract for them would not last long before they were recognized and picked up Motown Records’ honcho, Berry Gordy. This move to Motown established the tandem as a formidable force of songwriting talent. They scored hits with songs like “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” both recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, performers whom they’d become paramount in writing for. Ashford & Simpson also scored a hit with the song “California Soul,” which was originally recorded by the vocal soul group, 5th Dimension, a version that crossed over into mainstream top 40 charts, and then again covered by Gaye & Terrell. On the latter, Simpson sang background vocals. The song would later be covered by Marlena Shaw and sampled by rap artist Gang Starr in his song, “Check the Technique.” Other stand-out hits that were written for the Gaye and Terrell duo were “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Precious Love.”
While building an excellent reputation with Motown by writing for Gaye and Terrell, Ashford & Simpson also began making headway with other groups. They wrote the song “Who’s Gonna Take the Blame” for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles,” and then they penned “Didn’t You Know You’d Have to Cry” for Gladys Knight & The Pips. They also worked with The Marvelettes, who did a version of the song “Destination: Anywhere,” and The Supremes, who recorded “Some Things You Never Get Used To.”
Another major artist on the Motown label that Ashford & Simpson began working closely with was Diana Ross. Once Ross left The Supremes to pursue a solo career, she frequently relied on the Ashford & Simpson’s writing ability and songcraft. The writing wunderkinds would also produce for Ross, on songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”
By the time the 1970s arrived, Ashford & Simpson were widely coveted amidst musicians who were actively seeking out their songwriting talents in hopes of scoring a hit. Early in the decade, Ashford & Simpson were writing songs for artists like Chaka Khan, who recorded the tune “I’m Every Woman,” and Rufus, who recorded the songs “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe” and “Keep it Coming.” They also wrote for The Brothers Johnson, who did a version of the A&S-penned song, “Ride-O-Rocket,” and Quincy Jones, who maximized Ashford & Simpson’s talent as songwriters and singers on his own solo outings of the 1970s.
By 1974, Ashford & Simpson were officially a couple, and decided to get married. Just before that, the soon-to-be husband and wife team resumed their career as performers that they’d begun some 10 years earlier with the initial single “I’ll Find You.” Though they had intermittently delved into performing themselves for the better part of the last decade, their songs were more commonly recognized by fellow performers than by the record-buying public. But in 1973 they released their first full-length album to critical acclaim, the soulful Gimme Something Real (Warner). After making so many other people into stars, the duo had finally attained the recognition they had been searching for. Song’s like “Have You Ever Tried It,” “Can You Make it Brother” and “Ain’t That Good Enough,” made a beautiful and subtle blend of soul gospel throughout the album. Gimme Something Real helped to define Ashford & Simpson’s sound as slick and cohesive.
As prolific songwriters, it wouldn’t be long until they followed-up with I Wanna Be Selfish (1974 Warner), a record that merged disco, funk and soul.
Although the initial LP releases by Ashford & Simpson were mildly successful commercially even though they had established themselves as media darlings, it was not until 1977 that A&S scored a hit with the song, “Don’t Cost You Nothing” from one of the most memorable albums in their catalog, Send It (1977 Warner). The song climbed to #10 on the R&B charts, and the title track peaked at #15. The album sold over 500,000 copies, and it converted the production/songwriting team into undeniable performers.
In the mid-70s the duo also contributed material for the film and stage production of The Wiz.
Ashford and Simpson had finally attained star status by the early 80s on the heels of Send It and subsequent albums Is It Still Good To Ya (1978 Warner) and Stay Free (1979 Warner), but their record sales began to wane as musical tastes changed rapidly. They followed with a series of albums in the early part of the decade to varying degrees of success, including A Musical Affair (1980 Warner), which boasted the hit “Love Don’t Make It Right”; Performance (1981 Warner); Street Opera (1982 Capitol), an ambitious concept album; and High-Rise (1982 Capitol). It wouldn’t be until 1984, when they released Solid (Capitol) that the duo would be on top again. The title track topped the R&B charts, and hit #12 on the pop charts.
From the late 1980s on, as R&B tastes began to fizzle, Ashford & Simpson put out Real Love (1986 Capitol), which peaked at #12 on the R&B charts; Solid Plus Seven (1987 Capitol); and finally, after nearly a decade between albums, Been Found (1996), which came out on their own label, Hopsack & Silk, and centered around the voice of poet Maya Angelou. On August 22, 2011, Nicholas Ashoford died of complications from throat cancer. He was 70 years old.