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Nickolas Ashford, RIP

by Mosi Reeves

Nickolas Ashford, RIP

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It's impossible to pay tribute to the late songwriter Nickolas Ashford, who died on August 22, without discussing his wife and partner Valerie Simpson. He wrote and recorded nearly all of his songs with her. (Crate-diggers will note that Ashford made a few solo singles in the late '60s.) Married since 1974, the couple was soul music's most durable relationship. To quote from their biggest pop hit, "Solid," they were "solid as a rock."

For black audiences of a certain age, Ashford & Simpson were an archetype as familiar as freaky ol' Rick James and Stevie the blind genius. On their late-'70s soul albums, marriage became a melodrama of commitment, devotion and ecstasy. Their image was indelible -- Ashford with his long, enveloping lion's mane and thick mustache, and Simpson with her flowing cornrows and lissome frame. On the album covers for Send It and Is It Still Good to Ya, the two appeared enraptured in each other, holding on together no matter what happens. Ashford & Simpson's high-volume disco performances on hits like "It Seems to Hang On" and "Found a Cure" lent themselves to parody -- "Loose me! Please!" they shouted lustily to each other on the former -- and seemingly inspired the '90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color's "Ceephus and Reesie" skits. But their partnership, which lasted until Ashford's death, was also based on hard-won experience that they alluded to in song. "Though they don't complain/ Doesn't mean there's no pain," sang Ashford on 1986's "Count Your Blessings." "To forget is the worst/ So always put them first/ Thinking of their needs/ Make them the one you please."

Ashford & Simpson may have achieved a certain legend as disco artists, but their achievement as songwriters was also significant. The couple began writing together in the mid-'60s, and in 1965 they landed their first hit, Ray Charles' "Let's Go Get Stoned." Three decades of classic singles followed: Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" (plus Marlena Shaw's "California Soul") in the '60s; Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" in the '70s; and their own "Solid" in the '80s. They wrote and produced Diana Ross' 1979 comeback album The Boss, including the no. 1 title track, as well as albums for Gladys Knight & the Pips. And it must be pointed out that they wrote one of the greatest disco songs ever, Sylvester's incredible "Over and Over."

With Ashford's passing at the age of 70, one-half of this classic songwriting team is gone. But Ashford & Simpson's music together will undoubtedly endure.