This was written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector. Greenwich and Barry were married from 1962-1965 but kept working together after their divorce. They were one of the most successful songwriting teams of the '60s, with a string of hits that included "Do Wah Diddy Diddy
" and "Leader of the Pack
." Spector was a legendary producer famous for his "Wall Of Sound" recording technique, which he had used with great success on other songs he worked on with Greenwich and Barry, including hits by The Ronettes and The Crystals. Greenwich, Barry and Spector each had separate ideas for songs which they combined to form "River Deep - Mountain High." The melody is a composite of three different unfinished songs.
It had been over a year since Phil Spector produced a hit record, and he went all out on this one. When it flopped in America, he was shocked and very upset. He announced his retirement, went into seclusion and stopped working until 1970, when he returned to the studio to work on The Beatles Let It Be album and produce solo works by George Harrison and John Lennon.
This was written specifically for Tina Turner to sing. Phil Spector made very dense recordings that required a strong vocalist to cut through, and he knew Turner and her flamethrower voice could handle it.
Although this is credited to Ike And Tina Turner, Ike had no part in the recording process. Phil Spector wanted his own people to record this, and made sure Ike was not in the studio during the sessions.
Bob Krasnow, the then president of the Blue Thumb label, for whom Ike and Tina recorded in the late 1960s, was interviewed in Rolling Stone magazine (issue 93) in 1971. He recalled how Phil Spector, who had been won over by Ike and Tina's work as a substitute act in the rock and roll film T'N'T Show, hooked up with the Turners: "Spector had just lost The Righteous Brothers, and at the same time, Ike was unhappy (having switched to Kent Records). Spector's attorney Joey Cooper called and said Phil wanted to produce Tina - and that he was willing to pay $20,000 in front to do it! So Mike Maitland [then president at Warners] gave them their release, and they signed with Philles (Phil Spector's record label.)"
Spector offered $20,000 upfront to Ike Turner in exchange for total control over the production. Ike happily counted the money and agreed to stay away from the sessions, even though his name still appeared on the record. When it flopped in America, though Spector was distraught, Ike wasn't, as it meant the end of their association and put him back in charge.
In Rolling Stone magazine's Top 500 Songs, Tina Turner is quoted as saying of the recording of this, "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."
Spector used over 20 top session musicians for the recording, including Hal Blaine, Leon Russell and Glen Campbell. The completed record cost around $22,000, at the time an unbelievable price tag for a single. On bass for these sessions was Carol Kaye, who told us, "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. And you know that something that feels like a party is not going to be a hit record. It's not the feeling of sitting down and cutting a record, which is business. You've got to take care of business.
But the arrangement was nice and the feeling was good and Tina was there to sing. I'm sure that they put her voice on again after that. So I thought it was going to be another hit, but that's the feeling that was on the date to me. It didn't quite feel like a normal record date." (Here's our full interview with Carol Kaye
In 1995, Spector agreed to produce a version of this with Celine Dion. The sessions were a disaster, and her version from these sessions was never released.
Other versions have been recorded by The Animals, Deep Purple, and Neil Diamond. Darlene Love
recorded a version in 2004 for a Tina Turner tribute album called What's Love
The actor Dennis Hopper did the photo for the cover of the River Deep - Mountain High album. Krasnow recalled in the same Rolling Stone interview: "Dennis Hopper did the cover on that LP. He was broke on his ass in Hollywood and trying photography. He said he'd like to do the cover. He took us to this sign company, where there was this 70-foot high sign for a movie, with one of those sex stars - Boccaccio '70 or something. And he shot them in front of that big teardrop. Then the gas company had a big sign, and Hopper took them there and shot them in front of a big burner."
The Supremes and Four Tops recorded this for the 1970 album The Magnificent 7, their version charting at #14 in the US. It was produced by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. It was the first hit that the Supremes had with the Four Tops, a pairing inspired by the Supremes success with the Temptations before Diana Ross went solo.