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Simpson goes solo with Ashford gone

She says her partner's death leaves her content that "the music is everlasting."

Ashford and Simpson perform with poet laureate Maya Angelou (right) in a 1996 Valentine's Day concert. Although the duo sang together, "songwriting is the cornerstone of everything else we did," Simpson says. "That's the hat we were most proud of wearing as a couple."
Ashford and Simpson perform with poet laureate Maya Angelou (right) in a 1996 Valentine's Day concert. Although the duo sang together, "songwriting is the cornerstone of everything else we did," Simpson says. "That's the hat we were most proud of wearing as a couple."Read moreRISASI DAIS / Associated Press

CHICAGO - Valerie Simpson says she never really used to think much about posterity. After all, there was still so much work to be done with her musical partner and husband, Nick Ashford.

But then Ashford died in August at age 70 of complications from throat cancer, and Simpson, 65, came to grips with mortality, both personally and artistically.

"Nick's passing made me realize that one day we'll both be absent," she said in her first major interview since her longtime partner's death. "You see certain things that are happening now because of his passing, and I'm content to know that the music is everlasting.

"I didn't think about it before, but now I realize this music has legs way beyond whatever we originally might have thought. The songwriting is the cornerstone of everything else we did. That's the hat we were most proud of wearing as a couple."

The couple's hits will be remembered Wednesday in a tribute to Ashford by Usher at the Grammy nominations prime-time special, 10 p.m. on CBS.

Ashford and Simpson were triple-threat songwriters, producers, and performers who helped to craft dozens of hits that straddled the Motown, disco, and MTV eras. They wrote signature tunes for Ray Charles ("Let's Go Get Stoned"), Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell ("You're All I Need to Get By"), Diana Ross (her radical, Ashford-Simpson-produced remake of the Gaye-Terrell hit "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"), Chaka Khan ("I'm Every Woman") and for themselves ("Solid"), among others.

From her office in New York this month, Simpson reflected on their accomplishments and looked ahead to what's next:

Question: How did you maintain both a marriage and a working relationship with your spouse?

Answer: We had the good fortune to be friends first, writing partners for eight years. He had other girlfriends and I had other guys in my life. We didn't have the problem of trying to impress each other right away. I got to see how he really was, and vice versa. He knew me, I knew him. So when the romance came, we could skip over a whole lot of stuff [laughs]. At first, people would always wonder why we weren't a couple, and I'd say, "He's like a brother to me." Later on, he told me that really bugged him [laughs].

Q: How did you come to work with Motown?

A: [The legendary Motown songwriting and production team] Holland, Dozier, Holland came to New York scouting talent, and Nick took a meeting with them in a hotel. They were late and kept him waiting a long time. He was about to get on the elevator to leave when they came out and got him. We had pretty good demos, pretty developed. I'd play piano, and we'd put a little rhythm section on there because Scepter [Records] had given us a little space to do our songs. They were impressed with that and the next thing I know we're going to Detroit, which is weird because that's where Nick had just come from. But I was ready to leave New York. Motown was the mecca. It was every writer's dream to work there.

Q: You ended up writing all the key hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Did you request to work with them?

A: Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol were producing Marvin and Tammi, and they asked us for material. We sent them "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." It's funny because Dusty Springfield had just come to town and wanted to meet with us for material. We played that song for her but wouldn't give it to her, because we wanted to hold that back. We felt like that could be our entree to Motown. Nick called it the "golden egg."

Q: You knew it was going to be a hit?

A: Oh, we knew that it was a hit. Sometimes you have a real gut feeling about something. Then it becomes a question of what do you do with it, and who can carry it the furthest, and you start designing how you can get it to as many people as possible.

Q: The Diana Ross version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was more radical and a bigger hit with your production. The story goes that Berry Gordy didn't like the way you arranged it with the spoken-word interludes and the extended orchestration. Did you know he didn't like it?

A: Oh, yeah, he held it back. He didn't see it as a single, but the DJs [around the country] heard it and played it. It was Nick's idea to lengthen it. We were still in the three-minute-song era at Motown, but Isaac Hayes was doing longer songs [for Stax Records in Memphis], and Nick wanted the talking part up front.

Q: What did you think of "I'll Be There for You," the huge 1995 hit for Method Man and Mary J. Blige that interpolated your song "You're All I Need to Get By"?

A: We loved it. We incorporated it into our show for a while. We'd start it off that way, and then go into the traditional version. I'm a big Mary J. fan, so anything she sings is quite all right with me. It was summertime when it came out, and it seemed to play constantly. There's a certain monotony to those types of songs sometimes, but because of those chords being what they are, that's a good type of monotony. Those are four good chords.

Q: Do you feel you got enough credit for your role in creating that song?

A: They didn't shout us out when they got the Grammy Award [for best rap performance by a duo or group], but we got the check [laughs].

Q: Will you do any more recording?

A: I have to go one day at a time. I'm not used to him not being here yet. I'm open to music and hopefully his spirit will stay with me and give me a hint.