In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Ike & Tina Turner- “River Deep-Mountain High”
PEAK: #88 on June 18, 1966
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”
How bad do things have to be when a song flopping on the charts forces you to retire at the age of 26? By 1966, Phil Spector had already made his name as the most premier pop music producer of his day as his Wall of Sound production style began to inform many of the big names hoping to come up with their take or get Spector to produce their records. But as the British Invasion, Motown, folk, and psychedelia were taking over the charts, Spector’s symphonic heavy pop sound was starting to sound out of step with the times. He may have gotten his first #1 producing the Righteous Brothers classic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in 1965 but that was increasingly proving to be the exception as many of the acts he regularly produced began to falter and was losing his touch on the pop charts.
In attempting to get back on top, Spector pulled out all the stops with his next creation. He enlisted one of the best vocalists of the time and his usual team of session musicians for a grand sweeping epic of devotion that sounded bigger than any of Spector’s prior productions. Yet this huge effort wasn’t enough to get Spector back on top as “River Deep-Mountain High” landed with a big thud on the charts vastly underperforming. The song has grown over the years into an acclaimed classic and even Spector considers it his masterpiece but at the time the flop was so embarrassing that he announced his retirement from the music business. He’d eventually return to producing after a few years but an era had ended.
By 1966, Ike & Tina Turner were already well established as one of the best live acts around and even had some pop chart success. It all started in the ‘50s when Ike Turner’s band The Kings of Rhythm became favorites in the St. Louis club scene. (“Rocket 88,” a 1951 song Ike’s band recorded under the name Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, is often considered to be one of the first rock and roll recordings.) One night at the Manhattan Club, a teenage girl Anna Mae Bullock caught The Kings of Rhythm and was an immediate fan. During an intermission at one show, Bullock grabbed the drummer’s mic to sing hoping for a place in the band. Soon after, she joined The Kings of Rhythm as a regular singer.
Bullock made her recording debut on Ike’s 1958 track “Boxtop” which listed her as Little Ann but what really broke her and Ike through was “A Fool In Love” a song Bullock sang after the song’s original singer Art Lassiter didn’t show up to the session. Bullock’s vocals were originally meant as a demo but the label liked her singing and wanted to release it as is. In response, Ike reformed the group renaming Anna Mae Bullock Tina Turner and trademarked it so that any female singer that came after Bullock would also be Tina Turner. “A Fool In Love” turned out to be the big breakthrough they hoped for whereupon its release in July 1960 it peaked at #2 on the R&B charts and became a moderate hit on the Hot 100 peaking at #27.
In the wake of “A Fool In Love,” Ike renamed The Kings of Rhythm as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue complete with a group of female backup singers dubbed the Ikettes. The two got married in 1962 already parents including a son Tina had with the band’s saxophonist at 18. For the next few years in the early ‘60s, Ike & Tina released several singles that performed better on the R&B charts than the Hot 100 with 1961’s sweaty soul workout “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” peaking the highest at #14, their highest-charting single for a decade. But they didn’t really need the charts to stay relevant as they became a premier live act touring extensively on the Chitlin Circuit with Tina’s fiery vocals and dancing becoming a big highlight for many including Phil Spector.
Phil Spector and Tina Turner hadn’t worked together before but Spector had written “River Deep-Mountain High” with Turner in mind. One night, Spector went to see the Ike & Tina Turner Revue perform and impressed by her undeniable stage presence Spector knew she’d be the perfect voice to go alongside his Wall of Sound production. Spector invited the duo to appear in the 1966 concert film The Big T.N.T Show before discussing an opportunity to record. Spector signed both Ike & Tina to his Phillies label but was mainly interested in working with Tina so despite the billing Ike had nothing to do with the making of “River Deep-Mountain High.”
Spector wrote “River Deep-Mountain High” with his usual collaborators Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and recorded with his usual crew of Wrecking Crew session musicians. This was no ordinary recording session with over 20 musicians present recording take after take until it sounded perfect including Tina’s singing, “I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” As session bassist Carol Kaye described to Songfacts, “It felt like another thing that was going to be a hit, but to walk in the booth and there’s a ton of people in the booth and there’s a ton of us out in the studio, it almost felt like a party.” With all this effort, “River Deep-Mountain High” cost a whopping $22,000 to record, a high cost for the time which is equivalent to $175,000 today when you adjust for inflation.
All this time and effort comes across heavily on “River Deep-Mountain High.” People might point to Spector’s work on “Be My Baby” as his greatest and most recognizable effort but “River Deep-Mountain High” takes that sound up to 11. It sounds huge with every instrument drenched in so much echo that you’d think it was recorded in a cave with no dead space present. As with a lot of Spector productions, the musicians are on their total A game where I especially like how Kaye’s bass and the orchestra play in sync with each other most of the time. The same goes to Tina Turner who brings the same fiery and passionate performance that she’s been known for where towards the end she’s essentially screaming as everything builds up to the grand finale.
As with most Spector productions, the lyrics to “River Deep-Mountain High” aren’t that complicated amidst the Wall of Sound. It’s another love song with Tina singing about how her love for this guy is so big that it’s deeper than any river and higher than any mountain. She further expresses this feeling by comparing her love to things they loved during childhood with Tina comparing her love to this guy to how she loved her rag doll and how this guy loved his puppy but now that love is bigger. Furthermore, on the bridge, Tina compares her love to various things like a flower that loves the spring, a robin that loves to sing, and a schoolboy that loves his pet. On paper, this looks silly but Tina manages to sell it as a serious love song. If she thought the lyrics sounded silly, it doesn’t come across in her delivery.
The song really is something to behold but it’s not something I would say is an all-time favorite. There’s a lot that’s great about the song but the loudness and grandness of it can be a lot to listen to after a while. It makes you want to listen to something quieter. It’s the kind of song where if you’re not in the mood for grandiose statements of love it can come across as white noise.
Despite this great accomplishment, it did not turn out to be the big comeback Phil Spector was hoping for. Early reception wasn’t good with even some of the musicians felt the overwrought sound was too much. There was also the issue of race among radio programmers with Black stations that normally played Ike & Tina feeling it was too white while the white-dominated Top 40 stations felt it was too Black. Nobody was sure what to make of it. “River Deep-Mountain High” wound up debuting toward the bottom end of the Hot 100 in the late spring of 1966 and only after a few weeks reached a dismal peak of #88 before falling off though it performed much better in the UK peaking at #3. Apparently, the Brits were still very much into Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
But it didn’t matter to Spector who got so disenchanted by its flop in the US that he announced his retirement from the recording business shutting down his Phillies label and withdrawing from the public eye. During his time away, “River Deep-Mountain High” went through a reappraisal with major acts covering it and critics finally coming around to it. This led A&M Records to reissue the Ike & Tina Turner original in 1969 as well as releasing its accompanying title album that had been unreleased in America due to the song’s poor chart performance. Nowadays, it’s weird to imagine “River Deep-Mountain High” as a flop upon initial release but as we’ve seen sometimes it takes distance for a piece of work to be truly appreciated.
BONUS BEATS: Deep Purple turned “River Deep-Mountain High” into a 10 minute freaked out psychedelic rock epic on their 1968 album The Book of Taliesyn. Here’s their version:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Angela Bassett as Tina Turner lip-syncing to “River Deep-Mountain High” in a recreation of the recording in the 1993 award-winning biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For her 1996 album Falling Into You, Céline Dion recorded a cover of “River Deep-Mountain High.” Spector was initially on board to record it but during the sessions ended up backing out with Jim Steinman, another producer known for making grand sweeping pop music melodrama, taking over. Anyways, here’s Dion’s extremely ‘90s sounding version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mercedes Jones and the late Naya Rivera performing “River Deep-Mountain High” on a 2010 episode of Glee:
(Glee’s version peaked at #41. The Glee cast’s highest-charting single is their 2009 version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 4.)