Nickolas Ashford met Valerie Simpson at the Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964. He had come to New York from South Carolina, stopping briefly in Michigan to go to college. He wanted to be a dancer, but it wasn’t happening for him and at 23 years of age he was homeless. Simpson was a 17 year-old music student at the time.
The duo did some recording early on, starting out as members of a gospel group called the Followers, and then with the song “I’ll Find You,” on which they were billed as Valerie and Nick. Ashford also released some singles on his own for several different labels. While success proved elusive for the pair as recording artists, it was a different story when they shifted their focus to songwriting. At the Scepter/Wand record label their songs were recorded by artists like Ronnie Milsap, Maxine Brown, the Shirelles, and Chuck Jackson. But it was the the 1966 Ray Charles smash “Let’s Go Get Stoned” that really propelled their career.
That was the same year that Ashford & Simpson went to work for Motown Records. There they became famous for their romantic duets, especially those that were recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” In the book “Divided Soul”, Marvin Gaye is quoted as saying that on the last Gaye/Terrell album, Easy, it was Simpson who did most of the singing because Terrell was battling with what proved to be a fatal brain tumor. Gaye’s account is in dispute however by Simpson herself, who said that what she recorded were the guide vocals, and that her voice was later replaced by Terrell’s.
It wasn’t all duets though. When Diana Ross left the Supremes for a solo career she scored a big hit with Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” and another with her own version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” In fact, Ashford & Simpson wrote and produced most of the songs on three of Ross’ albums, her self-titled solo debut, Surrender, and The Boss. In addition to Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, and Diana Ross, other Motown artists that Ashford & Simpson worked with included Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, and the Dynamic Superiors.
Their success was not limited to Motown however. Ashford & Simpson also had hits with Teddy Pendergrass (“Is It Still Good To You”), the Brothers Johnson (“Ride-O-Rocket”), Chaka Khan on her own (“I’m Every Woman” and “Clouds”), and with Rufus (“Keep It Comin'” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe”).
Simpson resumed her recording career in 1970 when she sang on the Quincy Jones album Gula Matari and its follow-up Smackwater Jack. Simpson then recorded two solo albums of her own for Motown, Valerie Simpson Exposed in 1971, and a self-titled effort the following year. Motown failed to promote Simpson’s albums properly however, and in 1973 the duo left the label where they had seen such great success as songwriters.
In 1974 Ashford & Simpson got married and started singing together again after signing a recording deal with Warner Brothers Records. They released the album Gimme Something Real that year, and followed it with the hit singles “Don’t Cost You Nothin'” in 1977, “Is It Still Good To Ya” in 1978, “I Found a Cure” in 1979, “Street Corner” in 1982, and of course their biggest hit, “Solid,” in 1984.
“Solid” was a throwback, albeit one with a definite ’80s bent, to the songs about the challenges of holding onto a relationship and prevailing through the difficult times that Ashford & Simpson had written while at Motown. The public related to the song’s theme as they always had in the past and rewarded the duo with a #1 R&B hit that also reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Ashford & Simpson continued writing songs, appearing on albums, and producing records. In 1996 they opened a restaurant called Sugar Bar in New York, and became disk jockeys on radio station WRKS. Later they began performing together in cabarets and in 2009 they released a CD and DVD of a live performance called The Real Thing. For Barack Obama’s first inaugural that same year Ashford & Simpson rewrote their biggest hit as “Solid As Barack” and performed it during the festivities.
Two years later, Nick Ashford was diagnosed with throat cancer and he died on August 22, 2011. Valerie Simpson continued her career, releasing the solo album Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again in 2012.