7 Songs You Didn’t Know Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson (Ashford & Simpson) Wrote for Other Artists

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The husband-and-wife songwriting and production team of Nickolas Ashford (1941-2011) and Valerie Simpson already had a growing catalog of hits before they made it to Motown.

A Bronx, New York native, 17-year-old Simpson first met Ashford while she was singing at a church in Harlem, New York. Initially moving to New York from Michigan with dreams of becoming a dancer, Ashford had a knack for lyrics and began writing gospel songs for Simpson’s singing group. Eventually, the two began writing together, selling their first batch of songs for $75.

Selling their lyrics to publishers just to pay their rent, in 1966 several of their early songs, which were co-written with former Ikette (backing singer for Ike and Tina Turner) Josephine Armstead, included “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” recorded by Ray Charles in 1966, along with Aretha Franklin‘s “Cry Like a Baby.”

Soon after, the couple was recruited by the Motown songwriting and production team of Holland, Dozier, Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland), and under the Berry Gordy umbrella were responsible for writing and producing a large percentage of tracks for Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Diana Ross, Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, The Marvelettes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and more within the label roster.

Throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, the couple also released their own music and had a No. 1 hit with “Found a Cure” in 1979 and again with “Solid” in 1984. The duo was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2022, eleven years after the death of Ashford, who died at the age of 70 from throat cancer.

“Nick’s passing made me realize that one day we’ll both be absent,” said Simpson in an interview following her husband’s death in 2011. “I’m content to know that the music is everlasting.”

Simpson added, “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.”

In their catalog of hits, the couple wrote and produced dozens of tracks for other artists. Here’s a look at seven Ashford and Simpson wrote throughout the 1960s and ’70s, within Motown and beyond.

1. “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” The Coasters / Ronnie Milsap (1965)
Written by Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Josephine Armstead 

Trying to come up with some new material the day before meeting a publisher affiliated with Scepter Records, the couple presented one song they had in the works: “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”

“When we met the publisher the next morning, we didn’t have much to present,” remembered Simpson. “So Nick says, ‘What about that little idea we had on the way out last night?’ And Nick did a verse on the spot, and we hit the chorus. Even if we didn’t have great ideas, we always had great presentation.

She added, “And the publisher said, ‘If you can finish this, I think I can get Ray Charles to sing it.’ He couldn’t get him right away. Other artists did the song first, but he was right. Ray eventually did it and it was a hit. It was a bit embarrassing because some folks thought it meant doing drugs. It was originally about drinking. It was a hard song to totally defend. It was a hit, but you couldn’t take a full bow.”

“Let’s Get Stoned” was first recorded by The Coasters and then by Ronnie Milsap (who had 35 No. 1 country hits and six Grammys) in 1965. The couple would also write another song for Milsap, “When It Comes to My Baby,” which he released in 1966.

Charles recorded “Let’s Go Get Stoned” right after returning from rehab for his heroin addiction in the mid-’60s. Released on his 1996 album, Crying Time, the song became a No. 1 R&B hit. “Let’s Go Get Stoned” was later covered by Big Mama Thornton, James Brown, and Joe Cocker by the late ’60s. 

It ain’t no harm, you’re taking just a taste
But don’t blow your cool and start messing up the place
It ain’t no harm you’re faking just a nip
But make sure you don’t fall down bust your lip
Let’s go get stoned, let’s go get stoned

2. “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” Ray Charles and His Orchestra (1966)
Written by Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Josephine Armstead 

In addition to getting Ray Charles to record “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” Ashford and Simpson also presented him with “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” which they had co-written with Josephine Armstead. Also recorded and released by Charles in 1966 and released as a B-side to “Please Say You’re Fooling.” The song, which curiously ends with the iconic three-tone chime used by network NBC, has been covered by everyone from metal bands like W.A.S.P. and Great White, Styx, John Scofield, John Mayer, and more.

Now the doctor say I need rest
For I need is her tenderness
He put me on the critical list
When all I need is her sweet kiss
He gave me a medicated lotion
But it didn’t soothe my emotion, yeah

3. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1967)
Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

When Marvin Gaye sang an Ashford and Simpson song, something magical happened. From their initial collaborations in 1967, the duo first wrote a number of songs for Gaye and Tammi Terrell, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which would later become an even bigger hit for Diana Ross in 1970, and the soulful ballads “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Your Precious Love.”

Listen, baby, ain’t no mountain high
Ain’t no valley low, ain’t no river wide enough, baby
If you need me, call me, no matter where you are
No matter how far, don’t worry, baby
Just call my name, I’ll be there in a hurry
You don’t have to worry

‘Cause baby, there ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you, baby

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Ashford and Simpson went on to write many more hits for Gaye and Terrell, including 1968 singles “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Tear it on Down,” as well as “Dark Side of the World,” “What You Gave Me” and “The Onion Song,” released in 1969.

4. “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime),” Gladys Knight & The Pips (1969)
Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

The first time Ashford and Simpson worked with Gladys Knight & The Pips, the group recorded “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By,” though, their version would not be released for another 10 years. Instead, the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recording was the first single off their third album, Easy, and the final album Terrell would release before her death in 1970 at the age of 24 from brain cancer.

Around the same time, the couple wrote and produced two other songs for Knight and the Pips, “Runnin’ Out,” and “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)” for their sixth album Nitty Gritty.

Remember when you left
You had your own rules about playing the game 
And any day, you could walk away feeling no pain
Now look at yourself
You’re all hung up on somebody else
And in your eyes I see all the signs of the misery That you laid on me

Ashford and Simpson later wrote and produced the group’s 1980 album, About Love, featuring the track “Still Such a Thing,” which they would later cover on their 1983 album High Rise.

5. “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” Diana Ross (1970)
Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

Just a few years before Diana Ross would leave The Supremes, Ashford and Simpson wrote the song “Keep an Eye” for the group’s 15th album, Love Child, their first album not featuring songs written and produced by the Motown power trio of Holland–Dozier–Holland. It was also the beginning of a long friendship and more collaborations between Ross and Ashford and Simpson. When Ross left The Supremes in 1970, the couple wrote and produced the entirety of her self-titled solo debut—with the exception of her The Velvelettes cover, “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You”—including Ross’ own versions of Marvin Gaye’s previously recorded “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” in addition to the gospel-fused song of unity “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” which became Ross’ debut solo single.

Featuring backing vocals by Ashford and Simpson on the Ross version, the song continued to have legs long after its release with covers by The Supremes (without Ross) and The Four Tops, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, among others in the years to follow its release.

Ashford and Simpson would also write and produce Ross’ third album, Surrender (1971). They also co-produced and wrote two songs for her ninth album, Ross, in 1978 and wrote and produced all of her 10th album, The Boss, a year later.

Reach out and touch
Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place
If you can
Reach out and touch
Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place
If you can

6. “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe,” Rufus (1974)
Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

Ashford and Simpson were working with Chaka Khan and her group, Rufus, from the time they released their self-titled debut in 1973, contributing a track “Keep It Coming.” Known for hits “Tell Me Something Good,” which was written by Stevie Wonder and earned the group their first Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, and “You Got the Love,” written by Khan and Ray Parker Jr., Rufus’ second album, Rags to Rufus, was gold—literally certified. Also on the hit album, which reached No. 4 on the pop and R&B charts, was another Ashford and Simpson song, the slow and soulful”Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe.”

Could it be he’s just friendly
And that’s nothing to get excited about
On the other hand he could be answering
The good vibrations I’m sendin’ out
Well I just don’t know
What I really see in
Should I make a move
Or keep on daydreamin’
Ain’t nothin’ but a maybe
Oh and maybe baby, I sure would like to know

7. “I’m Every Woman,” Chaka Khan (1978)
Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

A year before Chaka Khan would part ways with Rufus, the couple wrote: “I’m Every Woman” for her 1978 solo debut album, Chaka. An anthem of female empowerment, the song helped Khan establish herself as an artist outside of Rufus, which she left in 1979 after nearly a decade with the band.

In 1992, Whitney Houston released her powered-up rendition of the Khan classic, which was released right before her mega-hit, “I Will Always Love You.” 

Whatever you want, whatever you need
Anything you want done baby, I’ll do it naturally
‘Cause I’m every woman
It’s all in me, it’s all in me

I’m every woman
It’s all in me
Anything you want done baby
I do it naturally

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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