Hive Five: The Best of Nick Ashford

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson in New York City, October 2010. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Monday was a sad day in the world of pop music. Not only did we lose songwriter Jerry Leiber (the co-author, with Mike Stoller, of classic hits like “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and “Jailhouse Rock”), but we also lost Nick Ashford, of songwriting and performing duo Ashford and Simpson, due to throat cancer.

Ashford is probably most associated with his group’s 1984 single, “Solid” — but while that song (which reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart) was Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s biggest hit as performers, the duo, who were partners in life as well as in songwriting, were anything but one-hit wonders. They’d been song writing wonders since the mid-’60s, penning classics for the likes of Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson. Hive’s selected the five best songs that celebrate the life of this R&B songwriting legend.

1. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

Ashford and Simpson were hired by Motown Records in 1966 and were almost immediately assigned to write for another co-ed duo: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was the first of a string of songs the pair wrote and produced for them and it would go on to be a hit for Diana Ross three years after its original 1967 release, only to later score countless empowered-heroine-singing-into-a-hairbrush moments in rom-coms. It’s this original version though, with its conversational dynamic and close harmonies, that will always be iconic. [Listen here.]

2. “You’re All I Need to Get By”

This 1968 restrained, gospel-influenced single, also performed by Gaye and Terrell, didn’t quite fit the mold of the era’s celebratory “Motown Sound,” but that’s what has made it such a timeless classic. Artists from Aretha Franklin to Michael McDonald have covered it and Mary J. Blige and Method Man’s 1995 version (“I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By”) won a Grammy for showing off Meth’s sensitive side. Going to a wedding? Whatever the couple’s style, it’s likely that at least one version of this Ashford and Simpson-penned standard will play. [Listen here.]

3. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

No list of Ashford and Simpson compositions would be complete without the inclusion of this romantic duet, which is made all the more poignant by the timing of its recording. In October of 1967, Tammi Terrell collapsed into Marvin Gaye’s arms onstage while performing with him in Virginia. She had a malignant brain tumor, which stopped her from touring (and eventually killed her in 1970 at the age of 24). She did go on to finish the album You’re All I Need, and though “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” was one of the tracks recorded before Terrell’s collapse, it sadly stands as one of the last recordings of her sweet voice before she fell ill. [Listen here.]

4. “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”

When Diana Ross left the Supremes, she chose the Ashford and Simpson writing/producing team to make her a solo star. This song, the first single off 1970’s Diana Ross, was a socially conscious rallying cry from the diva, meant to capture both a timeless spirit of uplift and also its own turbulent-yet-hopeful era. All due respect to Miss Ross, for whom this song has become a signature part of her live shows, but we are partial to the emotional performance Ashford and Simpson did with wheelchair-bound hometown hero Teddy Pendergrass at the Philadelphia Live Aid show in 1985. [Watch here.]

5. “I’m Every Woman”

Ashford and Simpson helped another strong woman, Chaka Khan, go solo with this song. In 1978, Khan was just known as the big-voiced singer for funk band Rufus, and so “I’m Every Woman” acted as a sort of coming-out announcement for her debut solo effort, Chaka. With its confident lyrics and insistent beat, the song espoused feminism through disco. The fact that it was co-written by a man makes the late Nick Ashford one of the funkiest, most enlightened men of his era. [Listen here.]

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