She was a jazz harpist and composer born in Detroit, Michigan, into a family where her father was the jazz guitarist Wiley Thompson.
She first started by learning the piano and supporting her father and his musician friends and while at High School she performed on the saxophone and string bass and her co-pupils included the future jazz musicians Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd and Gerald Wilson. Taking further studies in piano at Wayne State University she changed direction and started playing the harp in 1952 although she would still be a pianist at various venues in Detroit.
The harp was to be her forte and by the time 1954 had come around she was taking part in jazz gigs with her own trio, which included her husband, the drummer, John Ashby. In 1956 she recorded her first album as a leader and over the next 14 years she released a total of 10 albums in that capacity. In the 1960s she had her own Detroit based radio show and in 1970 she relocated to California.
Having an ability to perform bebop along with many other styles of music, she made her name as a sought after session and studio musician alongside her solo career with artists in jazz and popular music. These artists include Louis Armstrong, Brainstorm, Earth, Wind & Fire, Duke Ellington, The Gap Band, Woody Herman, Gladys Knight, Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis, Billy Preston, Minnie Ripperton, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, The Whispers, Deniece Williams, Bobby Womack and Stevie Wonder .
As a composer she wrote several pieces for the theater company founded by her husband called The Ashby Players an some of the songs where she is recognised for her performance are “If It’s Magic” by Stevie Wonder and “Come Live With Me” from The Valley of the Dolls movie.
The many albums her work her harp playing has been featured on include her own Hip Harp, Dorothy Plays for Beautiful People, In a Minor Group, Concierto de Aranjuez, Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby and Soft Winds plus At the Close of the Century and Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder , Adventures in Paradise by Minnie Ripperton, Spirit, I Am, Faces and All ‘n’ All by Earth, Wind & Fire, Satisfied by Rita Coolidge , Naked and Warm by Bill Withers , Late at Night by Billy Preston, Bustin’ Out of L Seven by Rick James, Greatest Hits by Ray Parker Jr., Touch by Gladys Knight & The Pips, That’s What Friends Are For by Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams , Rejoice by The Emotions, Everybody Come On Out by Stanley Turrentine, Poet and Poet II by Bobby Womack, Take It To The Limit by Norman Connors and The Gap Band .
She died in San Diego, California, when she was just 53 years old leaving her legacy of being one of the very rare breed of jazz harpists in musical history.
Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams recordings
Emotion S CBS 6164B (UK 45)
Here she is performing “Windmills of Your Mind”…