Nick Ashford, of Ashford and Simpson—one of the most successful songwriting duos of all time—passed away on 22 August. His death represents a waning of a generation of black American musicians who bequeathed us hip-hop and urban, all hailing from a more innocent time in which a love song could still conquer the charts. By RICHARD POPLAK.
I come from a family so chronically tone deaf that we do not sing the prayers over wine and bread during the Jewish Sabbath—we mumble them. My guitar lessons, ostensibly guided by a gentleman from Springs named Pravesh, were so painful that, instead of listening to me to brutalise “Stairway to Heaven,” he would complain about the unfairness of his arranged marriage and laud the bedroom wiles of his numerous mistresses. To this day, the only song I can play on guitar is Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine”. Pravesh ruined me.
Despite this familial handicap—or perhaps because of it—my clan was obsessed with music. I was weaned on the music video shows Pop Shop and Fast Forward. Our appetite for 80s schmaltz was so rapacious that following the Sabbath meal, we would make for my grandparents’ television set, and get a second dose from Solid Gold, which played on SABC 2 from that channel’s inception and throughout the decade.
Solid Gold’s concept was airtight: pop stars, backed up by a bevy of dancers, belted out a hit song, in turn garnished by music videos for tracks that were heating up Billboard’s R&B charts. For a prepubescent boy, Solid Gold was mostly about the dancers. The girls were molded from liquid chocolate, and if they wore thongs and dental floss by way of a top, they were ridiculously overdressed by the show’s high sartorial standards. Those ladies (and the occasional fellow) would, to quote Andre 3,000, “shake it like a Polaroid picture”. Solid Gold ruined me.
The show served as a gateway drug for the high-grade pop pedaled by Motown, the legendary label that brought R&B music into the mainstream. Motown launched the careers of Michael Jackson, Diane Ross, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan and just about every black musician who make up the backbone of popular music today. The label’s chief, Berry Gordy, had an ear for popular song-craft that has no precedent and has known no equal. Like a truffle pig, he sniffed the airwaves for the slightest sign of talent, and made stars out of the unlikeliest of entertainers. Which is where Nickolas Ashford comes in.
Ashford was a string-bean of a kid from Fairfield, South Carolina, who moved with his family to Willow Run, Michigan, during the Great Migration of southern African Americans over the course of the last century. They brought with them the southern spirituals, and sang those songs in the icy clapboard churches of the north. This migration was one of the more significant cultural transmogrifications in the history of the United States—the exuberance of southern soul music infected the north, and Motown was there to capture the moment on vinyl, and preserve it forever.
Ashford moved to New York City in the sixties to make it as a dancer. Broke and homeless, in 1964 he met a 17-year-old music student from the Bronx, named Valerie Simpson. Their relationship started inside Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, and would span 60 years of music making, with several children thrown in for good measure.
They bombed at first as a duo, and started writing for other artists. In 1966, after completing a stint at rehab for his 16-year heroin addiction, Ray Charles recorded their 1965 ditty “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” an Amy Winehouse-like moment of hedonistic defiance that sent Charles to the top of the charts. Berry Gordy then snapped the duo up, and installed them as songwriters for Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell. Smash hit followed smash hit, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Precious Love” and “You’re All I Need to Get By”. The magic ended when Terrell succumbed to a fatal brain tumour, thus ending one of the more successful acts of the 60s, which is saying something.
Gordy then assigned Ashford and Simpson the task of ushering Diana Ross from the Supremes into a successful solo career, which they did with the album “Diana Ross”, a record that included “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and other hits. They spend the 70s thus, while harbouring dreams of re-jigging their own performing career, an activity Gordy discouraged based on their earlier bad run.
The duo prevailed, however, and recorded for Warner Brothers, ripping it up with their album “Gimme Something Real” which was recorded shortly after they were married in 1974. They had a string of big singles, culminating in that Solid Gold perennial—a video I must have seen 400 times as a boy—“Solid as a Rock”. That 1984 classic, despite all their earlier triumphs, came to define them. And while they spent many a Friday night in South Africa, mediated via the airwaves by way of Solid Gold, they came here in the flesh in 2006 to open the ill-fated Leadership Academy for Girls, along with Oprah Winfrey and other African American luminaries.
Ashford was suffering from throat cancer, and it claimed him on 22 August. While he and Simpson were no longer writing and recording as prolifically as they had in the past, his death represents the waning of an era. The Motown artists are dying off with a rapidity that can at times seem like a plague. This is but the way of the flesh—songs that sound like they were recorded yesterday are indeed artifacts from a bygone America, a place where Jim Crow chased southerners north, where they made sweet, sweet music for a man named Berry Gordy. They bend time, those songs, and when one hears of their creators passing, one is never sure if it’s a tragic early loss, or the death of an old man or woman who lived and loved well.
Nick Ashford leaves behind him an astonishing trove of singles that work as a mnemonic for an era. (Amy Winehouse, who crafted Back in Black as a postmodern nod to Motown, sampled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for “Tears Dry on Their Own” on the “Back to Black” album.) Ashford and Simpson are woven through popular music, in this country and many others, like a bright strand of DNA. They form a critical part of my musical memory, linking me to the southern United States of the Jim Crow years in the game of cultural pick-up-sticks that only music can properly referee.
I’m still tone deaf, and I remain ruined by my guitar teacher’s tales of debauchery, along with those Solid Gold dancer’s booties. But I know this, too: “No wind, no rain, no winter’s cold can stop me”. Also, “If you’re ever in trouble, I’ll be there on the double”. Sound advice. Let’s hope Ashford’s playing in the Motown all-star band in the sky. DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall