Nickolas Ashford, of the famed soul songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson, died yesterday in New York from throat cancer, aged 70. His death will not attract the column inches of someone like Amy Winehouse, though he departs this world as one of the greatest soul hitmakers of the 20th century. And thanks to Winehouse, he and Simpson had a writing credit on a huge hit in the 21st century too with Tears Dry On Their Own a brilliant reworking of their Ain’t No Mountain High Enough*.
I can remember Ashford & Simpson being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey many years ago where they sang a medley of their biggest hits and at the end an ecstatic Winfrey was yelling, “You do not have to write another hit!! You do not have to write another hit!!” Like many, she hadn’t realised just how many mammoth hits Nickolas Ashford and his wife Valerie Simpson (married 1974, together since the early 60s) had written. How’s this for a greatest hits:
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
You’re All I Need To Get By
Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing
Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand
I’m Every Woman
Didn’t You Know You’d Have To Cry Sometime
Is It Still Good To Ya
The Onion Song
Let’s Go Get Stoned
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough is arguably the finest entry in the Ashford & Simpson catalogue, in part because the duo were responsible for two strikingly different versions, one for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell in 1967 and the second for Diana Ross in 1970. The latter came about when Ashford & Simpson found themselves producing the debut solo album for Diana Ross and wanted a suitably dramatic song with which to launch her. Convinced Ross’ speaking voice was uniquely compelling, they reworked the song into a six-minute minor-key epic with spoken passages, swirling strings, gospel backing, and most ambitiously, a chorus that is not fully sung until the song’s climax. It was a stunning achievement: the first version is catchy soulful pop at its most direct, the second shows the great scope and potential of the pop song. Both were number one hits.
If I had to choose a favourite Ashford & Simpson song, it would be the underrated Didn’t You Know You’d Have To Cry Sometime by Gladys Knight & The Pips. From the band’s Motown years where they were often overlooked by boss Berry Gordy in favour of Diana Ross, Gladys and the boys somehow got their hands on this sad soul gem. But that will be for another day, as for now, for the great Nickolas Ashford, here is the towering Diana Ross version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
*Tears Dry On Their Own by Amy Winehouse samples the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, not the Diana Ross remake.