Nickolas Ashford, R.I.P.

Losing a spouse is always a life-altering tragedy—but it must be particularly acute in the case of Valerie Simpson. The passing yesterday of her spouse and her singing and songwriting partner, Nickolas Ashford, at age 69 ended a five-decade series of great conversations.

I'm not speculating on their seemingly content home life after 37 years of marriage and nearly 50 years in each other's lives. As songwriters, Ashford and Simpson weren't just composers of indelible melodies. It's their loquacious, street-friendly but deceptively conversational lyrics that, I'd argue, set them apart from the pack.

Ashford & Simpson, "Solid"

How proud were they of those lyrics? Enough that the music video of their biggest hit as recording artists, 1984's "Solid," leads off in medias res—not with the catchphrase/future Obama slogan "solid as a rock," but with a very reflective verse lyric: "And for love's sake/ Each mistake, you forgave/ And soon both of us/ Learned to trust." Simpson sings these words a cappella, so you can't ignore them. They hold back the big hook, because the lyric is sharp enough.

Again, how important were words to these two? Enough that when, in 1969, they were parachuted in to rescue Diana Ross's foundering first album following her departure from the Supremes, they convinced Berry Gordy to let them remake their hit Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell single "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Ross largely speak-singing the lyrics, for minutes on end.

Diana Ross, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"

Talk about delayed gratification: that immortal melodic hook, one of the greatest in pop history, is only alluded to until the song is three-fourths over, and it's only fully sung by Ross as the song is about to fade out. As both the writers and producers of the track—released against Gordy's better judgment, and ultimately Ross's first No. 1 hit—Ashford and Simpson were remarkably brave and willing to be indirect, even when helping to sell a superstar. They trusted in their words.

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