River Deep, Mountain High


River Deep, Mountain High

Let us stipulate: Phil Spector was an abusive, wife beating, murdering piece of shit.

Let us stipulate: Ike Turner was an abusive, wife beating piece of shit.

They both created great art. That does not change that they are thoroughly reprehensible humans and that fact needs to be prominently displayed in any discussion of their work.

Ike Turner had absolutely nothing to do with “River Deep, Mountain High” despite his name being on the label. That was part of the deal. Spector knew he had to keep Ike out of the studio if he was going to get the performance he envisioned from Tina. He understood the depth of her voice, he knew what she was capable of. Ike did too, but his need for control overshadowed his artistic side. Do not get me wrong, it’s not like Phil Spector wasn’t controlling. I think this case was two control freak motherfuckers facing off and Ike blinked. He was happy for the money, and he certainly wanted the spotlight that Phil Spector working with them brought.

It’s not that I don’t care about Phil Spector trying to finally achieve the ultimate form of his Wall of Sound, it’s just that his ambition is far less important to me than Tina Turner’s performance. I care more about her delivery, her emotion, her tone, her phrasing, her power, her strength, her joy. I am interested in how she always threw herself into the center of the song, any song, and made it her own. I am also more interested in the people who did the work, who played on or sang background vocals or arranged the song. Hell, I am more interested in the valet who parked people’s cars. Whoever swept up. The guy who made coffee. The woman who answered the phones. (Seriously, those people must have stories.)

Do not misunderstand me: I am an unabashed fan of the Wall of Sound, I admire most things that derived from it, in the broadest definitions possible. I guess I am glad Spector had this obsession that he needed to pursue, but I shudder every time I think of the human cost. Phil Spector would have been a nobody sitting in his room if it wasn’t for the singers and the musicians who embodied the final product. I will always wonder who we didn’t get to hear, who walked away rather than pay the price he demanded.

I heard “River Deep, Mountain High” late one night on WCBS 101, not long after my family moved to Connecticut in 1974. The oldies format for radio was brand new -- the musical form was brand new, so nostalgia for ye olden times was in its early days. Now when you listen to oldies radio, you’re going to hear Nirvana; but in the 70’s, the oldies were from the 50s and 60s. It was how I learned about doo-wop and got a thorough grounding in the Girl Groups and everything else I hadn’t been around to hear at its inception.

I liked oldies radio at night because it felt like a doorway into another time and place. I liked to sit in my purple bedroom with the purple carpet and the pink paper Chinese lamp that was artfully hung on a rattan chain by my mom, and cast a literal rose-colored hue. It was, like, the coolest thing I had. It felt very Haight-Ashbury to me. I would sit on the floor and balance the Radio Shack headphones on my head, and see how far the AM waves would bring me on any given night.

Those three crescendos. Two notes. One beat. Then, Tina starts singing. It’s almost operatic, there’s a degree of formality that lasts exactly two lines before she picks up speed and intensity. Tina can sing anything, Tina has, literally, sung everything, from disco to soul to Otis to Rev. Al to Led Zeppelin, and of course she sang the Stones. Some of that had already happened by the time she arrived at Gold Star studios in Hollywood for this particular session. “River Deep, Mountain High” was written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (with a Phil Spector credit which history claims he earned and didn’t just take, as was the custom in the day).

This is not the finest moment of this pair of Brill Building craftspeople, and when we talk about all the reasons “River Deep, Mountain High” wasn’t a hit, it has to do with the awkwardness of the phrasing, the cadence, the imagery. I get that it is supposed to be listing all of the innocent things one loves with the purity of a newborn, but as an opening line, “When I was a little girl/I had a rag doll” doesn’t pull you into the song. Tina sounds absolutely perfect, of course. She fills every available space for her to fill but in a polished and comfortable way -- she’s not oversinging. There are very few vocalists who could manage “River Deep, Mountain High” without oversinging.

Luckily, we get past those first few lines and into the heart of the song: “And it gets stronger, in every way,” she revs up a gear, and then again, and then again, before the chorus. Lyrically, this isn’t going to win a Nobel Prize, but also, it’s a pop song.

Do I love you, my oh my

River deep, mountain high

If I lost you would I cry

Oh how I love you baby, baby, baby, baby

The lyrics don’t matter. What matters is the delivery, the freedom, the expansiveness of how Tina opens up her voice to encompass the whole world, the excitement of the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ at the end of that second line.. She makes you feel the depth of the emotion, of how important it is to her, how it matters more than anything else to her. That final declaration, those three baby’s, aren’t superfluous. They are punctuation, they are exclamation points, it is insistence, it is affirmation.

I know someone is going to come in here now and tell me that I’m wrong, that Phil Spector directed Tina’s performance. Except I don’t think that he did at the level you think he did. I think he knew better than to try. I think he didn’t trust himself to know if he’d gotten the take he wanted so he just had her sing it over and over and over again until she was standing in the vocal booth sweating so hard she had to take her shirt off and finish wearing only her bra. She didn’t know if she’d achieved what needed to be achieved either.

The crescendos return, this time heading down. It’s an aural cue that the song is moving into the next verse. It is also, you know, a musical depiction of the hills and the valleys of the depth of the river and the height of the mountains referenced in the title. Or at least this is the way I always have understood it myself.

The second verse is lyrically even more discomfiting than the first one. Here, the narrator is demonstrating her loyalty by comparing herself to a puppy. Again, not Greenwich/Barry’s finest moment! But now we know what’s coming and so we’re just waiting for the dénouement in the melody, that moment when Tina gets to upshift again. Listen to how she subtly accelerates and opens up her voice to create intensity and excitement when she hits the adjectives: stronger. bigger. sweeter. How could not you not believe her devotion?

It’s in the outro where Tina’s voice finally gets to ride the front of the mix, where any of the slight formality of the vocal cadence falls away alongside the finger snaps. And then one more time, it’s like a pitcher’s windup before throwing that perfect fastball, except here it’s Tina herself who is rounding third and sliding perfectly into home. The discipline and the control of her breath, her delivery, her emotion is just phenomenal. It leaves you breathless. It always amazes me that “River Deep, Mountain High” is so brief (3:34 or so) because it feels like an eternity. You don’t want it to end but then it does end. While you are in the song it is a magic carpet, it is a cloud gliding along, Tina bringing you with her.

It does not matter that the song only went to #88 in the States. The charts have never been an arbiter of quality, you can’t just start affixing capricious standards to this one song that was supposed to change the world. I am saying this as someone who does not like Phil Spector, mind you. But this song, this song! This song absolutely did change the world. It is a formidable composition. There is a reason no one in the right mind even tries it. Celine Dion did once, on Letterman. And I saw Darlene Love sing the shit out of it with a veritable skeleton of a band a few years ago. But these women are also giants of their craft.

“River Deep, Mountain High” is not a casual song to render live. Despite it being one of Tina’s all time masterpieces, I have yet to find a live version that captures the magic. I secretly feel like Ike sabotaged it every time. He could have pulled the band together to deliver an above-average facsimile. But he would have made Tina and the Ikettes do a dance routine for 30 seconds before shifting into the intro, and probably insisted on a dance break in the middle somewhere. I get it, I know, “Rocket 88.” I am aware of history. But I also believe that there would have been another first song of rock and roll if that song had not been the song. Trust.

I’m going to go listen to it again.

Tina inducted Phil Spector into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, which was two years before she would get in with Ike, and THIRTY FOUR FUCKING YEARS before she would be allowed in as a solo artist in 2021. Fuck you fucking people on the nominating committee and your fucking broadcast TV ratings hard-ons. And also, the fucking bullshit of even asking her to do it, on top of which, Phil Spector INVITED IKE TO THE INDUCTION CEREMONY. Apparently Ike thought he was going to be inducting Phil, so I’m kind of glad he had to deal with that public embarrassment. It is no wonder, then, that in 1991, when some rocket scientist decided that the right person to induct Ike & Tina was — yep — PHIL SPECTOR, Tina declined to participate instead of rightfully launching the closest heavy object at Jann Wenner. Ike was in jail by then. Just, like, can everyone who made these decisions go eat a bag of dicks? And if you’re dead, I hope you are rotting in hell.

Media coverage of this was all hahahah. Rolling Stone made sure to get a quote from Ike about how he was nervous to be there because Tina was there. (No one asked Tina how she felt that I could find.) I am holding up my middle finger at everyone who was involved in making that coverage happen in that manner.

But I do urge you to watch Tina saunter onto center stage at the end of the closing jam and effortlessly deliver a practically flawless performance. (I also love watching Bruce Springsteen get the fuck out of the way as fast as humanly possible once Paul Shaffer announces what’s next.)

I wrote about Tina as the Queen of Rock and Roll for Vulture. I absolutely salute her years as an international pop superstar but no one needs me to write about that (and I do not want to be writing about her guest vocals on Eric Clapton and Bryan Adams songs.)