“I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat…” – Tina Turner
In the mid-sixties, record producer Phil Spector needed a hit to spark his interest in the music industry once more. By 1965 he had sold The Righteous Brothers contract to Verve Records. He felt bored with their sound and sought a new source of inspiration to compete with The Beatles-led British Invasion. Spector set his sights on a dynamic, popular musical couple who were struggling to get a hit record: Ike & Tina Turner. Their success on the road through their touring revue had not yet translated into record sales.
Ike Turner and wife Tina (Anna Mae Bullock) were unparalleled. A funk-driven force of nature on the American touring circuit of the sixties. As a duo, they weren’t the greatest songwriters but they had a knack for turning any song into their own. However, their incendiary live performances, sadly, reflected their private lives. The relationship between Ike and Tina had become toxic; as Tina’s star climbed, Ike plummeted into a drug-fuelled, paranoid haze. His jealousy and insecurity resulted in domestic abuse, highly publicised in the 1993 movie, What’s Love Got To Do With It.
Spector’s desire to record the act was followed by one of the most unusual contract signings in music history. Even though he signed both Ike and Tina to his Phillies label, a clause in the contract stated that Ike Turner would be paid twenty thousand dollars upfront to stay away from the recording studio while Tina performed with Spector’s usual band, The Wrecking Crew. Any music created would be issued as an Ike & Tina Turner release, as Spector was well aware of Ike Turner’s temper and his need to interfere in the recording process. This was Spector’s way around it, telling Ike to take a walk whilst retaining control of the project.
In spring 1966, Spector, along with husband-and-wife team Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, wrote the song ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. Recognising its potential, Spector went straight into the studio with his latest signing, Tina Turner. With no Ike in sight, he used The Wrecking Crew. But Tina was crucial to the song’s recording. The wall of sound on the track required a powerful, bombastic voice to cut through and soar above the microphone bleed. ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ features approximately twenty-one musicians, and twenty-one backing singers. Included on the track are heavy hitters such as Carol Kaye, the most in-demand session bass player of that era. Kaye’s bass appears on classic recordings such as The Beach Boys game-changing track ‘Good Vibrations’ and their seminal album Pet Sounds.
One of the many guitarists used on the recording was country legend Glen Campbell. Also featured are Hal Blaine, one of two drummers, and Leon Russell (Bob Dylan) on keyboard duty. By all accounts, for ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, Turner sang the vocal line for seven hours straight before Spector was satisfied. Tina Turner at her very best. For all the passion of Turner’s vocal, the remainder of the instrumentation relegated emotion for sound, echo and overdub instead of a pronounced feeling. Supposedly, when co-writer Ellie Greenwich heard a test pressing of the track, she pulled it from the turntable and flung it across the room in disgust.
Released in May 1966, the instantly recognisable hit reached number three on the UK charts. Now, perhaps, it’s shocking to learn that it did not reach the number one spot. In the States, however, it fared even worse. Only reaching an abysmal eighty-eight on the Billboard top 100. The question of why one of the most widely regarded pop songs of the twentieth century could barely crack the top 100 is down to the delivery rather than production.
Ike Turner and many others, though applauding the track, put the failure down to its overt R&B sound. They felt it was “too black” for the mainstream. Spector had always championed black artists, but it was never more obvious than on ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. In December 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine placed ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ at number thirty-three on a poll of the top five hundred singles of all time. Considerably more impressive than its chart position when originally released.
Turner’s flamethrower vocal was distinctly that of a black woman, and more pronounced, as she had to struggle to sing above the band. America in 1966 was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, but it was still a time of Elvis over Otis. The UK success of the track prompted European tours for Ike and Tina, and a break into a new market. Here, they were championed by The Rolling Stones, whose own rhythm and blues rock was influenced by the likes of Ike & Tina Turner.
For Spector however, he did not see the single as a complete failure. He was content with the positive reviews from the press and his peers. It did, however, light the fuse of his self-destructive behaviour and withdrawal from the music industry (initially only for two years, until he came out of retirement to produce R&B act Checkmates, Ltd.’s album Love Is All We Have to Give). Nonetheless, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ was Spector’s goodbye to the golden era of music and his influential, infamous wall of sound.
Phil Spector is currently serving nineteen years in prison over the death of Lana Clarkson in 2003. On December 12, 2007, Ike Turner died of a cocaine overdose, on top of underlying pulmonary emphysema. That same year he won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. Tina Turner did not attend his funeral, although Phil Spector did.