Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Nickolas Ashford, 1942 – 2011

24th August 2011

A tribute by Chris Roberts.

Long, long ago, before the words “darling” and “baby” became passé and infra dig, they were swoon-inducingly effective, within and without pop music. They were giddying, disarmingly romantic, and rarely more so than in the works of Nickolas Ashford, who died this week, and his wife Valerie Simpson. Among the songs they wrote for Motown were “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (sampled by Amy Winehouse on “Tears Dry On Their Own”), “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “Reach Out And Touch”, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, “Didn’t You Know You’d Have To Cry Sometime?” and – for Heaven’s sake – “Some Things You Never Get Used To”. They also later wrote “I’m Every Woman” for Chaka Khan and “Solid” for themselves. Ashford arranged, produced (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, for example) and could sing a bit too.
These are all fantastic songs: “Some Things You Never Get Used To” on its own is better than anything revered white icons like Dylan and Wilson have managed in their over-celebrated, coddled careers, in terms of both emotional heft and structural genius. If you’re reading Ashford obituaries you’ll have by now digested the stuff about how he was born in South Carolina in 1944 and met Valerie in their Baptist church choir. They had a stab at being a duo, then wrote “California Soul” for The Fifth Dimension and “Let’s Get Stoned” for Ray Charles before Berry Gordy snapped them up for Motown in 1966. They then wrote 99% of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell songs. (Marvin Gaye went on record as saying Valerie sang most of Tammi’s vocals on the last album, as Tammi was fighting an ultimately fatal brain tumour, and if the album at least came out it’d help pay her medical bills. Simpson has denied this, though no with no real vigour). They wrote for Gladys Knight, The Marvelettes, Teddy Pendergrass, even Smokey Robinson.
Yet it was Diana Ross’ three early Seventies solo albums on which the Ashford-Simpson team transcended to a level higher than perfection. I say “higher than”, because mere “perfection” would be admirable but flat; worthy of applause but not passion.
In this period, as well as nominally bigger hits, they wrote “Remember Me” and “Surrender”, two of the most yearning, heartfelt and erotic pop songs in the medium’s history. As an iddy-biddy boy I would be as gripped with wonder at these constructions as I was by Bowie’s shock-headed alien or Bolan’s guitar moves. Before I owned any pop records, my friend’s big sister owned Best Of Bee Gees, Best Of The Four Tops and these Diana Ross albums. We’d play them all over and over, first because they were pop records (pop records! exciting!) and secondly because they were great. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was epic, of course, but somehow too anthemic, too broad, too much everybody’s, to be the favourite. “Remember Me” and “Surrender” bore the smell and sweat of real, messy love, lust and abandon, all lips and tangled hair, presented behind glass, beneath a cunningly-designed sheen of shape and form and balance and poise.
Diana, all crucixion-pose diva-posture, glammy frocks and cross-racial-demographic-smiles, never shrieked or screamed or testified like an Aretha – she couldn’t – but those who criticise her vocals are idiots. Every word and line on these songs is placed with a new definition of grace. With every breath she takes, a butterfly is pinned. You’d think these two songs would be easy enough to cover: they aren’t.
Remember: Ashford and Simpson had been chosen for the plum job by Berry Gordy. Much depended on it. Diana, his inamorata, sans Supremes, had to work as a solo star if the plan to transition into movies (and to establish the uprooted Motown label in LA) was to pan out. Not only did the pair create outstanding songs, they created outstanding songs for her.
“Surrender” is unbelievably suspenseful and foreplay-flushed, piano stabs and drum guiding the voice through lyrics of insight and grandiosity, before exploding, cascading, into a chorus that goes up like a rocket and comes down like a brilliant sunset. The lyrics are stagey, cheeky, well aware they’re over the top but deploying a slow-burning fuse that keeps them, like our response, teetering dramatically right on the edge rather than tumbling over it. “Don’t you know that I’m taking my case to the highest court of love/ And these are some of the charges you’ve been found guilty of/ You’ve used me and abused me till I felt like I wanted to die/ You’ve created a need in me that only you can satisfy…”
And all through the last few words, seconds, of that, our senses are tingling with the magic of anticipation, preparing for that oh-hell-yeah BANG of the chorus and its exhortations, pleas, demands, commands to surrender. The song is both desperate and hopeful; it’s coolly smart yet doggedly insistent. It’s a seduction. (It doesn’t do any harm that Diana’s ad libs of “uh-huh, right now” and “give it to me!” in the tantalising mid-section are millisecond-precise and of a restrained conviction that a “better” singer would over-cook.)
Come along peacefully.
“Remember Me” – which features a stellar strings solo – is a lost-love lyric of nobility, honour and self-sacrificing heroism like they just don’t write any more because a younger generation wouldn’t be able to grasp such concepts. The first person narrator acknowledges that love didn’t last but is big enough to wish the ex-lover well, asking only that they “remember me” as “a good thing”, “a big balloon at a carnival that ended too soon”. It adds, “You’re gonna make it”, as only the still-enamoured but truly supportive can. For the greater good. The use of “I have no regrets” is knowing, shrewd, ideal for those of us who don’t want our Piaf-histrionics hurled in our face but would rather be enticed, allured, bewitched.
The genius Ashford and his gifted wife had a rewarding, rewarded career. It’s not like we’re talking here about some sadly unsung talents who ended up broke in a dive bar telling their neighbours they used to write pop songs back in the day. One imagines they had terrific fun all their lives, alchemising the minutiae of theirs and others’ relationships into timeless spun gold. They were, after all, solid as rock. But Ashford, and therefore the Ashford and Simpson dream team, are no more, and the world has lost songwriters with a portfolio as exultant and moving as any.
To at least two generations, the first of which, incredible though it now seems, was still learning that black people could write, Nick Ashford was a major force in conveying that music could sound and feel like the sensuous thrill of love chased, won, lost, regained. He may or may not have been dismayed by the predominance of bludgeoning, force-fuelled, sonic quasi-rape that engaged much of a subsequent generation, I don’t know. His best songs remain persuasive, interested, sincere, sexy because they’re real. If you think lyrics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” aren’t real, you’ve never known desire. For some of us the words “darling” and “baby” still reach out and resonate because, among other things, for a moment it’s like you’re living in an Ashford and Simpson song. Some things you never get used to, so they last forever. A breath of Spring. A good thing.