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9 November 2012
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Stories Behind the Song: "River Deep, Mountain High"

River Deep Mountain High
Phil Spector

River Deep, Mountain HighRiver Deep Mountain High is quite simply one of the most exciting, soulful and original pop songs ever.

The Supremes and the Temptations, Deep Purple, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilson and Erasure….have all had a fair oul stab at River Deep Mountain High but all, in my opinion, coming nowhere near the depth or indeed the height of the original.

To understand the obsessional quality of the man behind the song producer supreme Phil Spector it’s important to understand his history.

He was born Harvey Philip Spector on Boxing day 1940 in the Bronx, New York. His grandfather was a Russian Jew named Spekter, who’d emigrated to the United States and changed his name to Spector at Ellis Island.

His father Benjamin was a troubled depressive character who committed suicide in 1949 and in 1953, Bertha Specter, with Phil and his older sister Shirley, moved to Los Angeles where she worked as a seamstress.

As a teenager Phil had a hard time fitting in. He was short, he was skinny and perhaps unsurprisingly he stood out from his fellow teenagers like a sore thumb.

Yet even while the kids in the neighbourhood would be playing ball Phil was already finding his place in the crowd as the man himself said in a rare interview from 1973.

As a young man Phil found expression in music. He learnt the guitar, piano, drums, bass and even French horn. He began hanging around the recording studios of LA looking for work where he formed his first band the Teddybears.

On the trip back to the Bronx he visited his fathers grave and the inscription on it inspired him to pen his first song. To Know Him Is To Love Him, lifted directly from the tombstone, became his first hit single in 1959.

From there his career was settled but Phil never wanted to be in a band, he wanted to control bands and dictate the music. He wanted to be a producer, which in the early sixties wasn’t really a recognised job.

By working with many of the fledgling R&B groups of the time Phil set out to mould their sound and shape their style. So much so in fact that his seminal work with girl groups like The Ronettes, The Crystals and Darlene Love on singles like “Then He Kissed Me” and “Be My Baby” earned Spector the title of the Tycoon of Teen.

He pioneered a style known as the wall of sound, throwing everything from orchestras, multi tracking and a barrage of instruments into the mix.

In the mid sixties the hits just kept on coming. He produced perhaps the greatest seasonal album ever with a Christmas gift to you, and he shaped one of the greatest singles ever when he created 'You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling' in 1965.

After that hit with the Righteous Brothers however things dried up a bit. 18 months later and purely by chance Phil caught a live set by The Ike and Tina Turner revue in a sunset strip night club. He was blown away by young Tina’s tonsil ripping vocal ability and vowed on the spot to use her on his next project. Trouble was he didn’t see the need for Ike or the band so he came to an arrangement with the difficult band leader. Basically he paid Ike 20 thousand dollars to stay well away.

In return Phil could use Tina for one single and both their names would be used on the release. For that single Phil had something special in mind.

Jeff Barry was an established writer of some standing and together with his usual writing partner Ellie Geenwich he’d written numerous Brill building hits in the mid sixties. Unlike many of the teams writing projects this was one specifically orchestrated for Tina Turner.So with the song written, Tina on board and Ike off counting his money rehearsals began.

For two whole weeks Phil ran over and over the song with Tina at his hillside mansion and finally they retired to Gold Star Studios in LA on March 7th 1966 to record it.

It was undoubtedly the producer’s most ambitious project to date….string arranger Jack Nitzsche described it as “A battle plan for all out war”…..and the line up of session men was top notch with the likes of keyboardist Leon Russell, drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Barney Kessel and Glen Campbell (yes that Glen Campbell) all adding their magic to proceedings.

In this atmosphere Tina had a few problems getting her vocal right. In fact she claims she must have sang the opening line “When I was a little girl” a million times….finally drenched in sweat and at her tethers end she stripped down to her bra and pants to record the finished version. Strange but true. All in the single had cost an unprecedented 22 thousand dollars to make….which made it all the harder for Spector to take when the single bombed in the states, it was a huge hit in Britain but that failed to cheer the moody producer up.

So shocked was Spector at the reaction to the song in his homeland he ffectively retired from the business for three years, he never again captured his position as tycoon of teen and despite working with the Beatles and indeed both Harrison and Lennon solo he will always be remembered for the outrageously inventive and overblown pop epics he created in the 60’s.

Written by Ralph McLean




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