Nickolas Ashford, the renowned songwriter and poet, was born in South Carolina, spent his adolescent and teen years in Detroit and later with Motown, and lived in midtown Manhattan, but Monday evening at Abyssinian Baptist Church for his homecoming the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts thanked his widow, Valerie Simpson Ashford “for bringing him back to Harlem to celebrate his life.”
And what a celebration it was for Ashford, 70, who succumbed to cancer on August 22.
There wasn’t an empty pew in the church and a long line of well-wishers were waiting outside when Roberta Flack at the piano set the evening’s tone of reverence and remembrance with a tender version of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and Ashford’s face—that gorgeous “ivory keyboard smile” Andre Leon Talley would later note—greeted attendees from placards at several entrances.
When Rev. Butts introduced the Rev. Vincent Cooper of White Rock Baptist Church he quipped that Cooper might also break out in song. “And that would be the last time I saw your face,” Cooper told the audience to great laughter. He said it was his church, before he became the pastor, where Ashford and Simpson met and subsequently began a ten-year relationship and ultimately 36 years of marriage.
In a program interwoven with reflections and song, Tamara Tunie, Phylicia Rashad, and S. Epatha Merkerson read from Dr. Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall.” The last stanza belonged to Tunie and she recited: “And when great souls die/after a period peace blooms/slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.”
Impresario and director George Faison of Firehouse Theater offered an emotionally charged encomium to his fallen friend, noting that “He wrote songs I thought I wrote, words I thought I made up.” That reflection was similar to Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s remarks in which he said that Ashford “took everyday phrases and turned them into unforgettable songs.”
Organist Victor Cook and songstress Tichina Arnold presented a powerful musical interlude with “I’m Too Close,” and it was given additional momentum when Simpson led the rhythmic clapping, bobbing her head in time to the gospel-tinged tune.
“I’ve known Nick and Valerie since I was 18,” said Ray Chew, who for many years was the musical director at the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night. “Nick was just a wonderful spirit.” And his spirit pervaded the church and compelled Chew to sit at the organ and give song to the rest of his testimony.
Vocalist Ryan Shaw and his crew delivered a tuneful confession with “I Am Your Man,” and once more Simpson rocked along with the group from her seat, and it was indication that it wouldn’t be long before she would be at the piano for more than background effects for Talley and Bronfman.
“Nick showed me the better part of myself,” Simpson began, during her moment at the podium. “He made me want to be better.”
She said that “he was my soulmate, the man of my life…and I’m going to miss him.
Simpson’s words were the perfect intro for the Rev. D. J. Rogers’ eulogy, which was a mixture of comedy, reminiscences, and uncategorical patter that he brought to a resounding close with his rendition of “Say You Love Me,” and the church shook with that “overwhelming love,” Rev. Butts had mentioned earlier.
It was left to the Sugar Bar Singers, named for Ashford and Simpson’s club, to put a cap on the evening with Freddie Jackson and Andre Smith leading them in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and Alyson Williams doing the same on “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand,” just two of the songs from the Ashford and Simpson compendium. Flutist Bobbi Humphrey was among members of the audience asked to contribute to the jamboree.
As Rogers’ observed during his eulogy, Ashford left “a legacy of songs that tell the truth,” and that truth often resonated at Motown, which was saddened by the passing last week of Esther Gordy Edwards, Berry Gordy’s sister.
Outside the church, many of the folks who couldn’t get in were still waiting to greet those who had and on more than one occasion witnesses said “it was the real thing,” and Ashford would have been proud of the moment and the words.
Photo: Michelle James