by Gloria Dulan-Wilson
The sudden demise of Nick Ashford has left us all in a daze of sorts. To say that it was totally unexpected is an understatement in so many ways. To my knowledge, none of us who were devotess of the Ashford and Simpson dynamic duo had any inkling that he was ill.
During my last visit to the Sugar Bar, I and several friends, sat upstairs during their famed Open Mike Night Thursday, with Nick, where we laughed, joked, and watched several hopefuls as they either crashed and burned, or blew us away with their talents.
I remember vaguely regretting not having brought my camera with me that evening because Nick was in rare form.
Valerie sat downstairs as usual, and provided harmony and back up for many of the artistic wannabees, with the able assistance of Kathy Jordan (formerly Sharpton), who was once a featured artist with James Brown. All in all it was a fun evening. Needless to say we closed the down the place in typical New York style – the last ones to leave!
And while they had some great predecessors in terms of dynamic duos are concerned: Marvin Gaye & Tammie Terrell, Peaches & Herb husband and wife duos are indeed rare. Marilyn McCoo and Billie Davis Jr. had some wonderful successes, but eventually faded from the horizon.
However, I can’t remember a time when the Ashford and Simpson team wasn’t successful. When this match made in heaven wasn’t topping the charts with their combined lyrical and vocal stylings, they were writing, styling or backing up other groups. They even performed back up on an early album recorded by Mandrill. Lou Wilson in remembering those days, stated, “Nick Ashford, what a great talent! May he rest in peace. The world has lost a giant in the music industry.” Those days, nearly 40 years ago, each group was in their infancy, finding their way onto the horizon of success.
To my mind Ashford and Simpson was a hit from day one! My first personal introduction to them was when they performed for a gala put together by Essence Magazine during the early days of the Essence Awards (y’all remember those days, right? I totally miss them.) Nick and Val (which was our affectionate names for them) performed, despite the fact that the venue did not have the proper equipment, and things had run behind time. They never complained, and gave us their best as though they were in front of a 5,000 seat audience. That’s when I first began to admire them.
Now of course, Motown Mogul, Berry Gordy thought they walked on water. Writing for Diana Ross, and so many others in the pantheon of that rarified music val halla also put them on the map. It truly was as though there was nothing they couldn’t do, write, or sing. Every thing they did had “hit” written all over it!
On the other hand, while they were rocking the musical realm, they did have a turn at “failure” as well. Do you remember the days when they opened their first supper club, “20-20”, located at 20 West 20th Street? It was an elegant posh venue. They featured the best in entertainment and talent. There was only one tiny little problem: the chef did not understand “soul” cuisine, and had a problem cooking food to the appropriate doneness for the Afrocentric palate. As a result, the club eventually folded.
Nick took it in stride. He admitted that he had learned some valuable lessons from the previous foray into the world or restaurant and entertainment. And what a difference it was. He stated that his investment advisors had meant it as a “tax write-off, but they didn’t realize that Val and I wanted it to be a real gathering place where people could come and enjoy themselves, and the food. I won’t make that mistake again!”
Lessons learned from that early foray were obvious, because The Sugar Bar is a tremendous hit! The African inspired decor in the Sugar Bar was from Nick Ashford’s own creative genius. From the Africentric bathrooms, chairs, railings, bars, the thatched ceiling trim; to his own personal, eclectic collection of artifacts from all over Africa, the place was a delight to the eye. You could not look anywhere and not be inspired by the organic integration of African tradition with African American modernity. I loved it! And so did everyone else. Nick probably had no idea how much time we would spend going over the symbology of the many African pieces he had in the restaurant.
I frequently complimented him on his taste and his eye, and recommended that he do a book on Afrocentric decor or something of that nature. It was our standing joke (well maybe a joke for him, I was serious. I wished I could combine cultures and colors the way he had done). And I wish he had taken me up on doing that book!
It was also evident that the Sugar Bar became an extension of the greater Black community. Nick and Val were as much tied in with what was going with us as they were with the entertainment realm, and made it a point to be involved with issues at various levels. These cultural icons likewise revered other icons in their own right, and hosted an annual tribute to the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, reminding us all of the role and contribution this great diva made to us all. They opened their doors and hearts throughout the years to so many who were either on the pathway up, or trying not to slide down the ladder of success.
It goes without saying that from the very beginning of their collaboration, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson have been a hit and inspiration, an example, and a success to be emulated and admired. Most marriages don’t last as long as theirs had – 38 years! But to have also been married partners, is truly a formula for success that is to be aspired to. Definitely one that many of us have envied. They made it work, without making it look like work. Now there’s an example to follow.
My condolences to you, Val. Metaphysically speaking we say there is no such thing as “loss”, but our all too human hearts strongly beg to differ, because the pain of that loss is palpable nevertheless. To say that Nick is in a better place, that he has made his transition, that he has gone to be with the Lord, are all appropriate at this time, but are cold comfort when you have to reach out and touch him; or turn to make a comment on some thought, or new song that just sprang to mind. It does not help when that ever bright smile of his does not greet you in the morning; or is not the last thing you see at night. There is much to be treasured of the times two you spent together: the fun, the collaboration, the success, the creative exchanges – what a blessing to have had the time together as the most dynamic duo, husband/wife tour de force revered by all of us.
My sincere & heartfelt condolences to you, as well as my blessings to you and your immediate family; and to the many of us who considered ourselves part of your extended family of brothers, sisters to both you and Nick. But also my congratulations to you for having been such a dynamic duo and inspiration to admirers the world over.
I already know that Nick is not “resting”. We know that no spirit ever truly dies, and that creative spirit of his is definitely in full effect carrying forth in the same vibrancy he enjoyed on this plane of action. And so it is!
Stay Blessed &
With Love From
bullet ColumnistGloria Dulan-Wilson Is a veteran New York City Journalist. Her experiences, perspective & sense of history are an invaluable combination. “check out my blog:” www.gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com