Within hours of the passing of songwriting legend Jerry Leiber, another of the rock era’s most successful songwriters, Nickolas Ashford, died in New York City. Known worldwide as the composing partner and husband of Valerie Simpson, Ashford and his wife have a history on the Hot 100 that dates back to the 1960s when they were a songwriting trio with Joshie “Jo” Armstead, a former member of the Ikettes. The threesome wrote a number of songs for the Scepter/Wand label, including “One Step at a Time,” Maxine Brown’s follow-up to “Oh No Not My Baby.” “One Step” peaked at No. 55 on the Hot 100. A year later, in 1966, Ashford, Simpson and Armstead wrote an even bigger hit, Ray Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” which reached No. 31 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart.
After their success with the Ray Charles song, Berry Gordy signed the duo of Ashford and Simpson to Motown, where they flourished as songwriters. Their pop-oriented soulful duets for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell established those two Motown solo artists as a duo to be reckoned with on the charts.
The very first Gaye and Terrell hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” peaked at No. 19 on the Hot 100 in 1967. But there was something bigger in store for what would become one of the shiniest jewels in Motown’s extensive publishing catalog.
When Diana Ross left the Supremes to become a solo artist, Gordy asked producer Bones Howe to helm her first album. He produced four tracks, including covers of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End” and “Time and Love,” when he was dropped from the project. Gordy turned to Ashford and Simpson to write and produce Ross’ debut, and two of the songs on that self-titled LP were remakes of Gaye and Terrell hits, “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Ashford had written the lyrics to the latter tune when he first moved to Manhattan. Walking down a thoroughfare, he decided New York City would never get the best of him, and the words, “ain’t no mountain high enough” popped into his head. He quickly called his wife and they completed the song in short order.
For Ross, the couple came up with a whole new concept for the song. “We thought Diana had such an interesting speaking voice,” Simpson told Billboard for “The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.” “We thought it was very sexy and wanted to incorporate that into the production.”
Instead of a boy-girl duet, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was now a soaring, gospel-inspired tune. “We felt the slow build worked well,” Simpson continued, “and by not singing the actual chorus until the very end, we thought it added drama and suspense.”
The songwriting team excitedly delivered the master to Gordy and were surprised at his reaction. “He wanted to change the whole thing around, and start with the chorus and forget all the slow build and drama, just to get to the point. We had to fight him on that because he really wanted to change it.” Ashford and Simpson argued their point and prevailed. But the track, exactly six minutes long, was too lengthy for radio play. An edited single, released as a follow-up to the album’s initial single, Ashford and Simpson’s, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” gave Ross her first solo No. 1 on the Hot 100. The song is Ashford and Simpson’s only chart-topper on the Hot 100, and is the biggest hit of their career.
Motown never released any Ashford and Simpson recordings as artists, although Valerie did record a couple of solo albums. The couple signed with Warner Bros. as artists and charted R&B but not pop, until they moved to Capitol and recorded “Solid,” which finally established them as artists on the Hot 100.
Ashford and Simpson continued to chart as songwriters into the 21st century. Their most recent Hot 100 credit was on Jessica Simpson’s No. 14 hit in 2006, “A Public Affair,” which sampled Gaye & Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” More recently, Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own” also sampled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but that song did not appear on the Hot 100.
Here is a list of Ashford and Simpson’s top 10 hits on the Hot 100, ranked in order. The list is taken from the book “Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits,” and is based on a point formula that considers performance on the Hot 100.
1. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Diana Ross (1970)
2. “I’m Every Woman,” Whitney Houston (1993)
3. “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” Method Man featuring Mary J. Blige (1995)
4. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1968)
5. “Your Precious Love,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967)
6. “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1968)
7. “Solid,” Ashford & Simpson (1985)
8. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967)
9. “Remember Me,” Diana Ross (1971)
10. “The Boss,” Diana Ross (1979)