It’s difficult to overstate the impact the husband-and-wife team of Nickolas Ashford (born May 4, 1941) and Valerie Simpson (born Aug. 26, 1946) had on popular music and R&B from the mid-’60s through the early ‘80s. Their songwriting and production gave us indelible hits, from Ray Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” to Diana Ross’ "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” as well as the unforgettable string of songs for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell that included "Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and "You're All I Need to Get By.”
Their career as performers was no less impressive, with hits that made radio and dance floors a little classier during their chart runs. Take 1979’s “Nobody Knows”: the thump of the groove, the horn section, the hand claps – it all lays the foundation for the pair’s falsetto opening lines, which blend into the chorus where it all opens up. Ashford piles on the power in his delivery, and Simpson follows, matching him strength for strength, line after line.
There was no denying the couple’s chemistry with one another; their attraction played out on record and on stage, and was a palpable force between them. Take their 1984 hit “Solid” – from Simpson’s opening lines into the first chorus, through Ashford’s dramatic verses that slid into each succeeding chorus, the two play off one another as though they were merely conversing about the strength of their relationship, just in the most soulful way imaginable.
That kind of back and forth dated back to their earliest efforts – songs they penned for Motown artists that they would regularly dust off and play in their shows. The interplay in their performance, combined with the heavenly melodic and lyrical turns in each song, raised every room they played up to the clouds with pure Motown magic.
It’s goosebump-inducing stuff, like the harmonies in 1973’s “I Need Your Light,” another we-can-do-anything-together track that builds to a horn-infused climax before the fadeout.
In fact, the resilience of a long relationship – one that weathers the hard times to allow for the good times to be experienced and shared – came up again and again over the length of the duo’s time together. The slow jam “It’s the Long Run” is another such track. It found its place on the studio side of the three-sides-live double album Performance, in 1982.
Ashford and Simpson had some great times and made some great music, before Ashford succumbed to cancer in 2011. Their wonderful songs and ever-present chemistry were special things, very worthy of a long-overdue re-evaluation.