Valerie Simpson, in her first major interview since the death of her husband and creative partner, Nick Ashford, was in Chicago recently to be feted by The HistoryMakers, a multimedia company that archives African American historical figures. During her visit, Simpson spoke with rolling out about losing the love of her life, (Ashford succumbed to throat cancer in August) and how she plans to carry on. As a duo, Ashford & Simpson have written and performed some of the greatest love ballads in R&B. Outside of the studio, the couple was inseparable.
“We’ve known each other for 46 or 47 years, all told, we were married for 36, almost 37 years,” a somber Valerie Simpson tells rolling out. “So it’s a long time and a long time of happiness.” Their union produced two daughters, Nicole, 35, and Asia, 23.
How are you doing?
With the help friends and family, my daughters are here, so that makes me feel good. With the help of the spirit, I think I’ll make it through. I have to, I have no choice.
What do you want to bring to the forefront, to let others know about Nick Ashford?
I think what surprises me the most during the last couple of the months is people who come forward with how we affected them. Acts of kindness and good deeds; things that I was not even aware of. I knew I had a good guy, but I had a great guy. So many people have testified to that fact and that makes me chuckle.
How has the music you built together kept you motivated?
The message is in the music, as I go through this particular uncertainty, new beginnings, every time I feel like I just want to fall down, there is a song that comes to me, or something he’s said. And I just keep stepping, one foot in front of the other.
What did your husband tell you as you were by his side throughout his battle with cancer? Did he reassure you that everything would be OK?
He reassured me that he wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t as strong as him then. We’re all going to make that transition one day, but can we get a little extension? So we came from different points of view about that. But he loved me up. He loved me up. Everything that I needed or wanted to say to him I said, so there’s nothing missing or wanting now.
How did your musical partnership begin?
He wrote songs in the church and when he came to New York and visited my church I found out about that. And because I played the piano it was a natural thing for us to get together and start to write songs.
It was very natural, I would play and he would know what the chords were saying and he would sing the right thing on the chord. And we just let it flow and it was just a fun thing to do.
What did you enjoy most, writing or performing the songs?
The writing was the most important thing and it was the thing that brought us the most joy. The singing was good; and that audience give-and-take, but the writing was personal. You never know when the muse was going to enter the room and you’re going to write something so much better than you were capable of, so that was something always special.
What are your favorite collaborations?
I look at them like children, so it’s not like you can say I like this child better than I like that child. But the ones that the audiences appreciate and the songs that resonate very much in their hearts because they reach a larger audience, songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” People sing those songs forever.
Certain words have power, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” that wasn’t really a love song; it was his desire to not let New York City get him down. And he’d look at the buildings on Central Park West, and he’d say, “ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from striving to achieve what I want to achieve.”
So people, years later, they take it and use it the way that they need to because there’s a power already there
Professionally speaking, why did your partnership work so well?
The partnership worked because we were opposites, I’m the rabbit and he was the slow one. That was a good balance, and we did not agree, which is good, but we had great respect for one another. If he didn’t agree with me, I listened. I fussed and argued, but I listened, and I would go back and try to think about what he said, because, he was a very smart guy.
What is the most important message that you want to get across about the partnership, bond, and the two soul mates behind Ashford & Simpson?
I believe in my heart that it’s not possible unless you have the right person in your life.
So many times, for the wrong reasons, people get together. And I always say that if the wrong people would stop getting together, maybe the right people can find each other.
We weren’t trying to be a couple. And so when we fell into it, it really was a natural thing and it was great learning; that happened over the first eight or nine years of each other and that was real. There was no pretense, no phoniness, nothing to deal with, just, “let’s do this,” and he was the right one and I was right for him.
What is your best advice for today’s couples?
Communication is key, and you have to be honest. You have to tell the truth even if it hurts. Because I trusted him I was able to listen and learn from him. You don’t want to stay the same, you want to grow. And when you get somebody who can tell you the truth and you can be honest with, and also that you can share laughter with and you can make fun of each other, and it’s okay because the love is that deep.
Communication is key.
When you look ahead, what do you see?
I don’t see.
I realize that I’m going to go on and I have some kind of offering to make, and what that is and how it’s to be perceived, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s OK. Music will be a part of what I do because that’s who I am. But it’s also like being reborn. I already lived one full life, now I’m about to endeavor to see what else the world has in store for me.