Story of the Song - River Deep, Mountain High, Ike & Tina Turner (1966)

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The Independent Culture

Ike and Tina Turner's Archive Series, a six-CD round-up of studio takes and alternative cuts, goes behind the wall of sound on one of the pair's enduring classics.

Written in the spring of 1966, "River Deep, Mountain High" originated from the pen of husband-and-wife team Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and the producer Phil Spector. Each brought ideas to the table. Spector played guitar, Greenwich pounded the piano and Barry smacked percussion. "The three of us were like maniacs, singing away," Greenwich said. "All of a sudden we hit on something." Spector knew immediately who the song was for.

He called his usual ensemble of players and backers – four drummers, as many bassists, plus pianists and singers – and gathered them at Los Angeles's Gold Star studios. "I had no idea what the song was or who it was for," recalls singer Darlene Love in her autobiography. When she arrived, Spector was strumming "River Deep, Mountain High" and the studio was crammed with people, including his latest signing – Tina Turner. Spector had recruited the Turners, primarily for Tina's extraordinary voice, as a hit act to challenge The Beatles. Love hoped that the song was for her, but Spector and Turner had already spent two weeks honing the melody – an experience Turner would later liken to "carving furniture".

Love found the "River Deep" sessions a miserable experience. "It was mass confusion," she said. "This time it was all din, no music. Nobody's heart was in it, except Phil's." Spector's musical directions were lost in echo and overdub and, after singing the opening line thousands of times, Turner was left sweating and stripped to her underwear. "The name on the label would be Ike & Tina Turner," said Love, "though for all we knew Ike was in Alaska when we did the session." No one but Spector much liked the finished product. When Greenwich heard the acetate, she ripped it from the turntable and hurled it across the room.

The American public did likewise when it was released as a single. In the UK, Decca made it a soaring hit, but at home it remained earthbound. After the flop, a disappointed Spector took early retirement. As the Archive Series demonstrates, however, the Turners would return to the song time and again, in various funk-filled rewrites.

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