At the risk of dating myself, adults of a certain age may vaguely recollect New York Hot Tracks, a 90-minute music video show that was the urban viewer’s answer to MTV (during a time when black artists were still verboten on the network’s list of heavy rotation videos). Hot Tracks, guest-hosted by some of the music industry’s marquee names, played some of the most memorable pop and R&B hits of the era.
One video that received endless play from the show’s producers was High Rise by the inimitable Ashford & Simpson. Preserved in that video is Nickolas Ashford’s distinctive visage: the dark, flowing mane of hair; arched eyebrows that framed catlike eyes; and a mischievous-looking rictus of a mouth surrounded by a goatee. Even all these years later, Ashford very much resembled a portrait of 80s flamboyance.
It’s also the way many of us will forever recall the male half of the singing-songwriting dynamic duo, who died Monday after battling throat cancer. He joins an ever-widening roster of soul singers taken far before their time. As ever in the era of instantaneous communication, word of the 69 year-old’s demise ricocheted across social networks and led to impromptu outpourings of support.
On Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds, commiseration and nostalgia was the order of the evening by music fans quoting old Ashford & Simpson lyrics. Part of his legacy will forever live on in the next generation. As is the music industry’s wont, yesterday’s classics get recycled into today’s hits: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was sampled by the recently deceased Amy Winehouse for her hit “Tears Dry On Their Own”.
Ashford’s life charted an improbable arc from hardscrabble beginnings — he met wife Valerie Simpson in 1964 while in search of a free meal at a Harlem church — to the pinnacle of musical success.
In an industry where careers are meted out to good-looking ingénues who demonstrate little effort and even less talent, Ashford’s rags to riches tale is a refreshing totem of how success is something earned over time, and with hard work.
The singer’s biography in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame reads like the liner’s notes of music industry royalty. Together with this wife, Ashford & Simpson were the creative forces behind blockbusters like “I’m Every Woman”, “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand”, and “You’re All I Need To Get By” (which incidentally, was originally sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, not Mary J. Blige and Method-Man). In many respects, the songs Ashford & Simpson wrote for others eclipsed their own recordings.
None of which means their catalogue was anything less than brilliant. Some of the duo’s hits were deeply rooted in the firmament of R&B’s resurgent era that spanned the late 1970s to mid-80s: “It Keeps Hanging On” (my personal favorite), “Found A Cure”, “Is It Still Good To Ya” and the anthemic “Solid” live on in tape decks and old-school DJ mixes across the country.
One of Ashford’s key strengths was an ability to parlay his musical acumen into appearances in other media that broadened his appeal. Nowadays, it’s commonplace for singers to leverage their singing in so many different ways that they border on gross overexposure. Not so with Nick Ashford: he and his wife translated their singing/songwriting alchemy into infinite television appearances that broadened their recognition, but allowed them to work side-by-side with other singers.
WATCH NBC NIGHTLY NEWS COVERAGE OF ASHFORD’S DEATH:
For old curmudgeons yearning for the sounds of yesteryear, they even hosted a radio show that played old-school hits. In spite of side ventures like the Sugar Bar on New York City’s Upper West Side, Ashford & Simpson were savvy enough savvy enough to know where their real talents lay: writing and singing songs. Everything Ashford did with his wife led directly back to their music. Unlike the multi-taskers of modern day music, Ashford never attempted to shed his musical career like a used skin he outgrew, or evolve beyond his core competency.
Naturally, the name “Ashford” can’t be mentioned without “Simpson” in the next breath. For nearly four decades, they surely were the yin to each other’s yang: Nick and Valerie were music’s reining super-couple before anyone even imagined the names Beyonce and Jay-Z, or Will and Jada. By all appearances, solid — the name of one of their biggest chart-toppers — is an apt metaphor when describing their relationship.
The entertainment field is littered with broken marriages and unsavory escapades. Ashford & Simpson’s ability to remain committed, particularly in an era where marriage is lamentably devalued, was a refreshing example of commitment in an era of serial faithlessness. In a move so improbable it seems Ruritanian, Simpson bought a park bench plaque, marking the place where Ashford spent his poor and fallow years as a struggling artist, as a benchmark of their incredible journey as a couple.
Perhaps one of the most overused words in the English musical lexicon is “legendary.” Yet the term seems condign when describing Ashford & Simpson, who — as Earth Wind and Fire member Verdine White told the UK’s Daily Telegraph — helped countless artists create “magic.”
As half of one of the most formidable songwriting teams the music world has ever seen, Ashford helped further the careers of other singers. In that regard, he differed from a P. Diddy or a Kanye West, in that he collaborated with other artists but never overshadowed or tainted them.