When producer Phil Spector released "River Deep, Mountain High" in May 1966, he was aiming for far more than a hit record. God knows, he had had enough of those as head of Philles Records. Nor was he that anxious to make a star of the lead singer on the single, Tina Turner—he’d found other singers with far less talent and had made them big.
No, the “First Tycoon of Teen” (as Tom Wolfe had called him in a famous profile) wanted, amid the continuous wave of the British Invasion overwhelming American music, to show that he, at least, was impervious to shifting musical tastes. Maybe above all, he wanted to top himself.
As I discussed in this prior post, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” had become a smash hit, broken radio stations’ tight limits on song length, and been acclaimed a record of almost frightening power. But that was over a year ago. Now, rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest producer would put his trademark “wall of sound” at the service of nearly four minutes of concentrated but stratospheric intensity: 21 musicians and 21 backup singers supporting Tina Turner’s guttural, urgent lead vocal. It was as if Richard Wagner had tired of opera and found a new musical genre: the pop single.
As an aural monument, "River Deep, Mountain High" fulfilled all of Spector’s ambitions. But commercially, it was a great disappointment. Although achieving number 3 on the British pop charts, it rose no higher than #88 in the United States. One critic had a simple explanation for this: “The general consensus in America was that the record was too black for white radio stations to play, and too white for the black stations to play.” If that was the case, it was an early harbinger of the increasing racial homogenization that would occur in pop music distribution over the next several decades.
There was another explanation besides falling out of musical fashion, however. Many in the music industry in the U.S. were waiting for the slightest misstep by Spector. Even in an industry notorious for disputes that ended in lawsuits, he was making a reputation as an executive given to sharp practices. (He had outraged Darlene Love by assigning her lead-vocal credit to someone else, for instance.)
Spector was demanding and all-controlling of women in business and personal relationships. Once he wed Ronnie Bennett, lead singer of The Ronettes, he insisted that she give up her career and remain in their mansion, even as his behavior became more and more capricious.
The producer must have sensed in Ike Turner a kindred spirit, a male who had to dominate his wife (though, unlike Spector, Ike was physically rather than mentally abusive). Spector also surely sensed a threat both to his command of his record’s chosen vocalist and the studio musicians. Thus, Spector agreed to list Ike on the credits for the song he was planning, but he paid him to stay away from the studio.
Just how much did Spector want Ike gone? Well, think of it this way: out of the $22,000 for the record’s production budget, all but $2,000 was allotted to make Tina’s husband disappear. “For all we knew Ike was in Alaska when we did the session," Love recalled.
That left Tina to work for Spector with no interference from her husband. And did Tina work…and work…and work, in one take after another, until, by the end of the sessions, she was so dripping in sweat that she had to strip to her underwear. If it was a miserable experience for her, it was almost as bad for the stable of Philles musicians who, by now, should have been used to Spector’s perfectionism.
With all the takes, nobody seemed to know what Spector wanted—with one important exception: himself. In an interview in the June 2, 2016 issue of Rolling Stone, Ronnie Spector put it vividly, when questioned if she had any “positive memories” of her ex: “He was great in the studio. He could hear one mistake in one person’s guitar and say, ‘Over there, in the corner—you hit a wrong note.’ That blew my mind. He was great as a producer. As a husband, not so much.’”
After hours and hours, the agony was over. When Ellie Greenwich heard the product of all the work she had done with Spector and her songwriting partner Jeff Barry, she is reported to have thrown the acetate against the wall in frustration. (It couldn’t have helped her spirits for this to be happening just when her marriage to Barry was coming to an end.)
The reaction of Spector was slower than Greenwich’s but perhaps more extreme. He felt so frustrated by the tepid commercial reaction to the song that he lost interest in Philles and, within two years, sold the business. He largely withdrew from the recording industry in the late Sixties, at only age 25. When he re-emerged, he seemed to be in a futile chase to recapture old glory, most controversially through involvement with solo albums by George Harrison and John Lennon and, more controversially, The Beatles’ Let It Be and The Ramones’ End of the Century LPs. (His overreliance on strings came in for some heavy criticism by Paul McCartney and The Ramones.)
These days, it is difficult to view Spector’s career in the Sixties without reference to the sentence he is currently serving for the fatal shooting of actress Lana Clarkson. But in the case of “River Deep, Mountain High,” posterity has come down on the side of the deeply troubled superstar producer. The song remains one of the most heavily covered of his career.
Deejay Jonathan Schwartz is fond of quoting someone else’s opinion that you can tell a standard by whether or not it’s been covered by Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. It turns out that the same can be said about more contemporary rock/pop standards, except that it would have to be covered on the late TV shows “Glee” (in this case, on the “Duets” episode of Season 2, as seen in this YouTube clip) or “American Idol” (by contestant Pia Toscano) .
But this is only the beginning of the long list of singers who have plunged into the powerful current of “River Deep, Mountain High”: Darlene Love (finally getting a chance at the song she had coveted), Dobie Gray, Harry Nilsson, Leslie Uggams, Deep Purple, Eric Burdon and The Animals, Bob Seger System, The Supremes & The Four Tops, Neil Diamond, and Celine Dion.
There are two other live versions on YouTube that deserve to be seen: first, by Annie Lennox in 1992 (later part of the MTV Unplugged series); second, by Meat Loaf in 1978, in a duet with Karla Devito that starts about 42 minutes in and continues for just short of another five.
The Wall of Sound “was all-consuming, left no room for anything else in your head, and tore at your heart with tympani and an exuberant rush of noise,” according to music historian Bob Stanley. Other songs that featured this style might have been more tender and yearning (“Be My Baby”) or more atmospheric (The Righteous Brothers’ “Ebb Tide”). But no other engulfed the listener from start to finish more than “River Deep, Mountain High,” a fact recognized when Rolling Stone recently listed it as number 33 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All-Time.”
(The image accompanying this post shows Spector, in sunglasses, with Tina Turner, and, at one of the few points he must have been around the studio, Ike Turner.)