Valerie Simpson swayed back and forth in her seat and smiled during the memorial for her husband and singing partner, Nickolas Ashford. Wearing a gray dress specially made for her for the service, she had no problem getting up from her seat and singing along with people honoring her late husband of 36 years-she even played the piano in the background for those who offered reflections.
Mourners packed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Monday night to bid farewell to Ashford, who died from throat cancer last week at the age of 70. Family, friends, entertainment industry figures and fans came by the thousands to the church to pay their respects. The church became so packed that mourners were sitting on windowsills in the balcony.
Ashford, who for decades was known as half of the singing duo Ashford and Simpson, was well known and respected in the music industry, famous for hits including “Solid.” The married duo was also songwriting royalty, penning hits for Motown like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “I’m Every Woman.” The two were also successful restaurateurs and owned the Upper West Side restaurant Sugar Bar.
The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III presided over the ceremony as family and friends sang songs and read reflections about Ashford while three black-and-white photos of him sat on easels in the pulpit.
Singer Roberta Flack opened the service, sitting at the piano with her song “The First Time I Saw Your Face.” Maya Angelou’s poem “When Great Trees Fall” was then read by actresses Phylicia Rashad and S. Epatha Merkerson.
Reflections were also given by former Vogue magazine editor Andre Leon Tally, dancer and choreographer George Faison and former Apollo Theater music director Ray Chew.
Along with Flack, musical tributes were given by Ryan Shaw, who sang “I Am Your Man.” The song was written by Ashford and Simpson and earned Shaw a Grammy nomination in 2008.
A highlight of the service was actress and singer Tichina Arnold and Victor Cook, who sang a rousing rendition of “I’m Too Close,” which had most of the church on their feet.
Simpson spoke to the crowd in her own words. She told stories about her experience being married to Ashford and thanked everyone for their support. The duo have two daughters, Asia and Nicole. Simpson said she had received numerous calls of support, including one from Louis Farrakhan.
“I thought we had more time,” she said. “He was a man who grew me. He was my soul mate. He was the man of my life. I’m grateful for a life like this, doing what I love. He broadened my horizons, and I’m richer as a result. I’m going to miss my honey.”
The Rev. D.J. Rogers eulogized Ashford and sang “Say You Love Me,” bringing the entire church into a sing-along.
Among those present at the service were Judith Jamison, Susan Taylor, Sue Simmons, Paul Schaffer and Cissy Houston.
The entire church paid tribute to Ashford, ending the service by singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” led by Freddie Jackson, Andre Smith and Alyson Williams, along with singers from the Sugar Bar.