The Music and Life of Nick Ashford

Not long before I attended Mr. Nick Ashford’s funeral at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, I was waiting in the check-out line at a nearby convenience store. The line was being manned by an exasperated store clerk, but, apparently, he had been abandoned by his fellow employees. His frantic attempts to page them for back-up help at the counter were completely ignored. Customers were irritable and becoming more and more impatient by the minute.

The scene was tense, with the exception of a teenage girl in front of me, who seemed to have found the secret to zoning out the frustration and monotony of waiting. To myself I wondered: Is she having a party of one? Her pink neon colored toenails were tapping away, her head swayed, and her shoulders took turns rising and falling to the beat of Chaka Khan’s, I’m Every Woman. Watching this, I smiled to myself, exhaled and then thought of the irony of hearing a song written by one-half of the legendary singer songwriting duo, Ashford & Simpson, on my way to Mr. Ashford’s service.

It wasn’t surprising that the teenager knew the song so well. After all, one doesn’t have to be a music aficionado, or have been on the rhythm and blues scene during the 60s and 70s, to appreciate the music of Ashford & Simpson. Some of their other smash hits, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “You’re All I Need To Get By,” are songs that resonate with people of all ages, even today. These are songs that my parents and grandparents listened to, songs that my friends and I enjoyed the remakes of, and songs that my descendants will hear forever.

As I watched everyday people, celebrities, family and friends funnel into the church, I reflected on Mr. Ashford’s life. I had already known that Mr. Ashford had a successful musical career; Ashford & Simpson were inducted in the Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

Having had the privilege of meeting him and his wife, Ms. Simpson, on two different occasions, I knew from personal experience that Mr. Ashford had a warmth about him that was hard to forget. Further, I knew that the pair met at White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem and had been married for more than 38 years. But there were other important details about his life that I, and probably many others who attended the funeral, did not know.

During the eulogy, the Pastor spoke of how Mr. Ashford met weekly with a homeless man at the Sugar Bar, a New York City club that he and Ms. Simpson own. “Nick knew what it was like to be homeless…There’s a bench in Bryant Park that says ‘Nick Ashford slept here’.” I also didn’t know that Mr. Ashford and Ms. Simpson penned a special song for their friends, a couple whose baby had died at birth. Hearing the bereaved father read a few lines from the song, I didn’t know that Mr. Ashford knew how to capture grief so well. In the words of his longtime friend, Mr. George Faison, “[Through their songs], Valerie and Nick brought our voices to life.”

And although I did know that “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was a feel-good song that had the power to boost one’s immunity to the stressors of today’s world, I never knew how moving the song would be, as everyone held hands and belted out the lyrics throughout the church as Mr. Ashford’s funeral service ended. How I wanted to bottle up the sweet aroma of God’s comforting presence and the many demonstrations of His Love, and package it for his beloved wife, Valerie, and their two daughters, Asia and Nicole, as the momentum of their lives without their husband and father had now begun.

From the tranquility of the sanctuary to the business that followed Mr. Ashford’s service, I did my best to savor every moment of the celebration of his life. Walking down 138th Street, I wondered: what did I realize now about Mr. Ashford that I did not know before? Perhaps it is this — how thankful I am that many of the spaces in my life, and in the lives of countless others, have been filled by Mr. Ashford’s music and his life.

Nicole Alston 2011

Nicole Alston

More Articles Written by Nicole

As Founder and Executive Director of The Skye Foundation, Nicole Alston’s mission is as heartfelt as it is hard-won. The New Jersey-based nonprofit organization was established in memory of Nicole’s firstborn daughter, Skye, in 2005. Skye’s sudden death deluged Nicole in grief. In seeking a new “normal,” her life’s work was revealed. Drawing on experiential knowledge, Nicole has spoken to audiences internationally about providing comprehensive psychosocial support for families who are grieving the death of a baby. Nicole’s story has been shared in Essence and Parents magazines, the Amsterdam News, on radio, Hallmark television’s New Morning Show, and a host of local venues. In 2006, she produced a video about bereaved parents and their grief experience, interspersed with commentary from the medical community. Nicole serves on various state and national boards, focusing on improving birth outcomes and providing compassionate care to families experiencing reproductive loss: the Northern New Jersey Maternal Child Health Consortium, the Black Infant Mortality Reduction Resource Center Advisory Board, and on the national expert panel of the African American Faith-Based Initiative. Passionately driven, Nicole addresses standards of care for bereaved women and families coping with reproductive loss. “Physicians, nurses and the health care system at-large play a vitally important role. What is done and said in moments of acute grief can either set families in motion toward healing, or make an already arduous journey much more difficult,” Nicole explains. Currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Social Work at Columbia University, Nicole hopes to continue to explore her twin research interests, reproductive loss and suicide, particularly among those who are disproportionately affected by adverse birth outcomes. Reach Nicole at skyefoundation@aol.com or through one of her website -- http://www.theskyefoundation.org or www.complicatedgrief.org.

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  • virginia Rogers says:

    It is so ironic that at this very moment, I am listening to a song by Ashford and Simpson featuring Ms. Maya Angelou called What If. This song totally expresses my sentiment about my relationship in which I was involved. It is as though they we on the side line watching my life. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis along with Nick and Valarie are my most favorite couples.

  • Blanche Duke says:

    Always love Nick and Val. I have most of their songs on my ipod.Such a wonderful expression of respect and love for a great songwriter,performer,husband and father. Nicole, great writing! Thank you for sharing!

  • Nicole says:

    Dear Virginia,
    Thank you for your comment. I agree! For many of us, their songs have translated our feelings into words.

    Dear Auntie Blanche,
    Hard not to love such an amazing couple. Thank you for reading!