First off, my heart goes out to Nick Ashford’s wife Valerie Simpson and their daughters, Nicole and Asia, as well as the host of family and friends that are near and dear to them.
I can truly state that I’ve been in the company of black culture’s royalty when I say that the R&B duo of Ashford and Simpson allowed me to know them. I say it like that because legends of their caliber do not have the luxury of letting non-family in their circle, for however long or short the time may be.
Just last week, I was privileged enough to be a speaker to the graduating class of young ladies in the 2011 WEEN Academy program, headed by Valeisha Butterfield. The graduation was held in the same building of Grace Jones’ chariot scene in Eddie Murphy’s movie, Boomerrang. While walking through that area, I started to reminisce with friends about VIBE Magazine’s 1997 Music Seminar finale party, which was held in the same place. Being a young budding freelance writer, fresh off intern status, I indulged in the celebrity atmosphere a bit too much. Long story short I got so drunk that my good friend from around my way, Groove, grabbed me up and threw me in a limo with him and some friends. All I remember is waking up hours later, with my mind in a haze, my shoes off and pictures of Ashford and Simpson with world greats all around me.
Photos of the long-time married couple with Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones and many others, adorned the walls and sat atop the grand piano. On my way to the bathroom to freshen up I saw even more greatness, plaques for their numerous musical accomplishments and various proclamations for charity work and such were displayed.
In my foggy state I knew I was in a historic place of love and warmth. I could just feel it. It was also the first time I saw an elevator in a brownstone building. Yet knowing these incredible people through what was shown really solidified my love for the song “Solid As a Rock”. Their living space was a testament to their commitment to each other and the work they produced as a union. It showed me that through hard work, creative genius and togetherness, higher heights could be reached.
Maybe two years later, I was invited to their sprawling Connecticut home for their legendary family picnic, which was around the Fourth of July. The dress code was all white and most everyone abided by the rule. The sun was blazing, the food was sizzling and the event was filled with love and music. While taking it all in, I saw Maya Angelou, sitting regally and holding court at a near-by table. She somehow was able to hold the ears of both young and old at the same time. I still marvel at that moment. Everyone wanted to get a bit of her wise words, including me. Mr. Ashford saw my interest; he introduced himself and welcomed me there. He and family also announced that this year’s performance was a wild surprise. After a few hours of mingling, the stage was soon bustling with family doing every dance imaginable, in costumes mind you. Laughs were everywhere while the crowd wondered, “Where is Nick?” Just then he strolled out of nowhere in a Spiderman like outfit and ran around the area, straight clownin’ the scene. Showing off his fun loving side I took cue and often do the same type of craziness when my wife and I host functions. I saw how much fun he had in letting go, regardless of his status as a Motown legend.
I won’t speak on the music that he created because you’ll most likely get that rundown everywhere else. But I will speak on how he would sing at the drop of a hat. He sang at his home that day and the few times I saw him at the Manhattan restaurant he owned named, Sugar Bar. He hopped on stage and did a few notes with up and coming talent and wowed the patrons, who more than likely didn’t expect to witness history in motion at that moment.
Although my time with Mr. Ashford was short when we did talk, he had a profound effect on me as a man that was pure hearted and kind beyond words. And to get that feeling from people like him, you only need a moment to meet them. I’ve been lucky to have a little more than that. —Datwon Thomas
R.I.P. Nick Ashford