Nick Ashford, who with Valerie Simpson, his songwriting partner and later wife, wrote some of Motown's biggest hits, like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," died Monday at a hospital in New York City. He was 70 and lived in Manhattan.
Ashford had throat cancer and was undergoing treatment, but the cause of his death was not immediately known.
One of the primary songwriting and producing teams of Motown, Ashford and Simpson specialized in romantic duets of the most dramatic kind, professing the power of true love and the comforts of sweet talk.
In "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," from 1967, their first of several hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, lovers in close harmony proclaim their determination that "no wind, no rain, no winter's cold, can stop me, baby," but also make cuter promises: "If you're ever in trouble, I'll be there on the double."
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Gaye and Terrell also sang the duo's songs "Your Precious Love," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By." Diana Ross sang their "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand," and when she rerecorded "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in 1970, it became the former Supreme's first No. 1 hit as a solo artist.
"They had magic, and that's what creates those wonderful hits, that magic," Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire told The Associated Press after learning of his friend's death.
Nickolas Ashford was born in Fairfield, S.C., and raised in Willow Run, Mich., where his father, Calvin, was a construction worker.
He got his musical start at Willow Run Baptist Church, singing and writing songs for the gospel choir. He briefly attended Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, before heading to New York, where he tried but failed to find success as a dancer.
In 1964, while homeless, Ashford went to White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, where he met Simpson, a 17-year-old recent high school graduate who was studying music. They began writing songs together, selling the first bunch for $64. In 1966, after Ray Charles sang "Let's Go Get Stoned," a song Ashford and Simpson wrote with Joey Armstead, the duo signed with Motown as staff writers and producers.
They wrote for virtually every major act on the label, including Gladys Knight and the Pips ("Didn't You Know You'd Have to Cry Sometime") and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ("Who's Gonna Take the Blame").
While writing for Motown, Ashford and Simpson nursed a desire to perform, which Berry Gordy Jr., the founder and patriarch of the label, discouraged. They left the label in 1973 and married in 1974.
Ashford and Simpson's initial collaborations sold poorly, but by the late '70s, songs like "Don't Cost You Nothing," "It Seems to Hang On" and "Found a Cure" became hits on the R&B charts.