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