After attending East Michigan University in Ypsilanti for a time, Ashford chose to leave school and pursue his interest in music. He left for New York in the early 1960s in the hopes of making it as a performer. Ashford was homeless and sleeping on park benches when he first met music student Valerie Simpson at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem in 1964. The two young musical talents took to each other fairly quickly and began what proved to be a lifelong collaboration. Within two years, they would have a number one hit on the R&B charts, with Ray Charles’ 1966 recording of their song “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” That same year, Ashford and Simpson signed with Motown Records in Detroit.
At Motown, Ashford and Simpson joined an impressive staff of in-house composers, including such dynamic songwriters as Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Norman Whitfield, along with a who’s who of singers and musicians. These talented songwriters and performers produced some of the most outstanding pop music of the 1960s.
Ashford and Simpson’s most enduring compositions are undoubtedly those recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (who died of a brain tumor in 1970 six weeks before her 25th birthday) between 1967 and 1968, among them “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Your Precious Love.” Just to say the names of these songs is to conjure up a wealth of emotion and memory.