Nickolas ‘Nick’ Ashford
Anger bubbled inside me upon learning that one of the world’s seminal soul and pop music voices was silenced by throat cancer at the age of 70 on August 22, 2011. Nickolas ‘Nick’ Ashford truly wrote the words that made the whole world fall in love. And I was literally pissed off that the same disease who claimed the earthly life of my mother had taken also taken his.
And then, I had to take a moment and rethink my reaction. Nick Ashford spent his life providing everyone within the reach of his pen, the sound of his voice–with an experience of deep, complete, soul-stirring love. Whether it was love identified with Marvin & Tami’s “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, the power of love recognized on Diana’s “The Boss”, love for the human race extended with “Reach Out And Touch”, or unshakeable love affirmed with “Solid”, the smash hit he and his lovely wife Valerie Simpson performed, Nick Ashford let us know that love was possible, attainable, and ultimately, all that really mattered. And he didn’t just write these songs. He truly seemed to feel like there was no mountain high enough to keep him from Valerie, who wrote, sang, grooved, and stood by his side for 38 years of marriage. He lived those lyrics, and the life they shared seemed to fill his heart. “Whatever it is/love’ll fix it/Found a cure.”
So what business did I have allowing anger to cloud my memory of this music legend?
As a songwriter, he and Ms. Simpson were totally unselfish. They were hitmakers (see: “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan) and starmakers, catapulting Ross to solo mega-success with multiple hits, something that eludes many an artist breaking away from a popular group. Nick and Valerie knew this all too well. So much so, they created their own incubator for artist development and live performance called The Sugar Bar. Veterans and emerging artists shared a stage that may have been tiny, but was deep, wide, rich with the history and sweat of those who graced it. Free of ego and full of good judgment–the kind that empowers artists as they hone their craft.
In a tweet exchange between myself and singer-songwriter-producer Sandra St. Victor, I learned just how much Ashford’s humility touched her:
“@putyrdreams1st I did their radio show back in the day. Val played piano, Nick sang BG while I sang “Misty Blue.” Talk about an honor. WoW.”
So I took my thoughts to the many times I’d seen Mr. Ashford striding down the streets of New York City. Sometimes he’d smile wide, other times exude cool confidence. Always regal and feline in his movement, like a lion, complete with jet black mane and black leather pants, some manner of sheer or billowy shirt, and accessories befitting the rock star showman he was. Never flanked by handlers, fabricating a scene or inconvenienced by those who would greet him with admiration or gratitude. Nick Ashford was a star, not a celebrity. His glow came from within, not from external adulation. As a writer and lover of words, I’m just glad I got to shake the hand that gave us five decades of beautiful music, love in sonic form.
I have to agree with Sandra when she tweeted, “This loss is simply shattering. I think Nick brought the earthquake when he touched the sky.” -Sandra St. Victor
My prayers and gratitude go to Ms. Valerie Simpson. As a wife in her 14th year, doing the work of creating a happy marriage, I can say that I looked to Ashford & Simpson with stars in my eyes before I even knew what marriage was about. Throughout the carefree 80s and me-me-me 90s, they made Black love look (and sound) fabulous. Enviable. Amazing. For this, I thank them both.
Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.