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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Valerie Simpson set to fill Nick Ashford's shoes at the Sugar Bar

Nick Ashford

He left some mighty big shoes to fill, but some 75 "lucky dreamers" will receive a pair of the late Nick Ashford's shoes on May 9, thanks to his wife Valerie Simpson and their daughters Nicole and Asia.

The shoes will be given away at Ashford & Simpson's Sugar Bar, the couple's famous restaurant/nightclub on Manhattan's Upper West Side, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on May 9. Simpson asks only that shoes-seekers write a short note expressing their "hopes and dreams—and why you think Nick Ashford's shoes may help you on your journey."

It was Ashford's own journey that inspired Simpson—with their daughters' blessings—to come up with the giveaway concept.

"I was looking at over 100-odd pairs of shoes and realized: What am I going to do with them?" says Simpson. "I don't want to give them to Goodwill or sell them! But what can I do that's meaningful? And I thought that because Nick was such a giving spirit who came from the bench, and who knew hard times but kept his vision and dream, that maybe someone else might wear his shoes and find their own vision and dream a little easier knowing they're in these shoes."

Simpson is referring to the famous story of how Ashford, who died in 2011, had come alone to New York from Willow Run, Michigan, in 1964, with little else besides his dream of making it in New York. He spent months homeless and sleeping in Midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park, but held on fast to his dream; in fact, he looked up at the tall buildings encircling him and said, "Ain't no mountain high enough"--thereby uttering what became the title phrase of one of Ashford & Simpson's most famous hit compositions.

Then one day he walked uptown to Harlem's White Rock Baptist Church, where he met the church pianist Valerie Simpson. Many years later she presented Bryant Park with a bench inscribed with “Nick Ashford slept here."

"People sit on the bench and know that Nick slept there, and I believe they feel that vibration—and that's the way I'm treating his shoes," notes Simpson. "Walk in his shoes and feel the vibration and keep dreaming the dream—and that's why I ask for a line or two from your heart about what you want to do. Maybe it's something you haven't told anybody, or it sounds silly, or you haven't claimed it. But the time is now because time is running, and you can say your dream and claim it and pick out Nick's shoes and let them encourage you. And that's Nick's legacy and spirit: the encouragement that is so needed today, because kids are fumbling around in their own thoughts and not sure what to do, but whatever happens, if they find out that someone else was like them, it might be helpful."

No one knew how to style and profile like Nick Ashford, as Simpson is well aware. Indeed, she eulogized him at his funeral as being such an arresting fashionister that if he should leave his house and make it to the corner without being noticed, he'd run back home and change.

And as befits an artist and man of Ashford's towering talent and physical stature, his shoes are large—Size 11, though there are some 10 ½ and 11 ½ pairs as well.

"I don't want anyone to take them and then put them up on eBay, but to realize that this is for them personally, to make them work for you in your life."

Simpson concludes: "Any man with aspirations of making it, and who wears Size 11, should step it up!"



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