This was written by the Motown husband and wife songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson. Nick Ashford was inspired by an experience when he first moved to New York. He was walking down a Manhattan thoroughfare, determined that New York City would not get the best of him; the words "Ain't no mountain high enough" popped into his head.
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The Supremes sang this on the 1968 duets album Diana Ross & The Supremes Join the Temptations. Ross paired with Dennis Edwards on the track, who had just replaced David Ruffin as the Temps' lead singer.
Two years later, Ross garnered her first US #1 solo hit with an innovative cover of the song. Ashford & Simpson were invited to co-produce Ross' debut album, and they had lofty ideas for their mountainous tune. Artists like Issac Hayes had been releasing songs that went well beyond the typical 3-minute format, inspiring the duo to retool the song as a symphonic epic that stretched over six minutes.
Simpson, who played piano on the track, explained: "Nick suggested we have Diana narrate an extended verse. He thought she had a great speaking voice, so he wrote new lyrics. Once his monologue for Diana was completed, I worked on a new structure for the song. I created an introduction that began as an instrumental and led into a choir that set up Diana's spoken voice.
We delayed the song's familiar chorus - 'Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley low enough' - until about 4 minutes into the song and treated it as the climax. We held the chorus back because listeners already knew it and expected it would come eventually."
Berry Gordy wasn't sold on the idea for such a lengthy single, especially with the late chorus. Ashford & Simpson were forced to cut it down to 3:32, but many DJs opted to play the album version instead.
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recorded the original version, which peaked at #19 US in 1967. Uriel Jones of The Funk Brothers, who played the drums on Gaye and Terrell's original version, recalled in Mojo magazine February 2009: "Ashford and Simpson had written the song and they always came to the studio with charts. This time was no exception; they came with the song fully written out. The lyrics were written out too. They were one of the few producers and writers who had full charts and made us work from them. They knew 95 percent what they wanted to hear. Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua were the actual producers in charge of the recording. We did the rhythm track first, then they put the horns on second. Then they recorded Tammi Terrell's vocal, then they did Marvin Gaye's next. Each vocal was done separately, the singer in the studio with the producer on their own, and they put it all together at the end. You know, I never heard the finished song until I switched on the radio and it was playing."
This song impelled Diana Ross to stardom as a solo artist, but it wasn't her first single. That was "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)
," an original song written for her by Ashford and Simpson. It stalled at #20 US in June 1970, two months after the first Ross-less Supremes single, "Up the Ladder to the Roof
," climbed to #10. Without a big solo hit, Ross had trouble drawing crowds that summer, but when "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" shot to #1 in September, concerns about her viability as a solo artist were allayed. The Supremes had a few more hits in 1970, but never regained their former glory.
Lyrically, this takes a cue from the 1966 song "River Deep - Mountain High
" by Ike & Tina Turner. That song, a massive Phil Spector production, was a surprise flop in the US, stalling at #88, so most Americans hadn't heard it.
Diana Ross' second husband, Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Næss, Jr., died in a South African mountain climbing accident in 2004.
With a message of overcoming any obstacle, this song is a great fit for politicians seeking office. Hillary Clinton used it a great deal in her 2016 campaign for president, especially when courting male voters who might not connect with her main campaign song: "Fight Song
" by Rachel Platten.
The informal contraction "ain't" is frowned upon by strict grammarians, who would also cringe at the double negative that is "ain't no," but "There Isn't Any Mountain High Enough" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
Michael McDonald covered this for his 2003 Motown covers album, titled Motown
. His version reached #111 in the US and got a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (he lost to Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River
This song has popped up in a number of movies and TV series. The Diana Ross version shows up in these:
Good Times ("The Break Up" - 1976)
Designing Women ("The Rowdy Girls" - 1989)
The Wonder Years ("The Pimple" - 1989)
Nip/Tuck ("Joel Gideon" - 2004)
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Chicken Little (2005)
The Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell version appears in these films:
Remember the Titans (2000)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) - This was big: It was part of the soundtrack, which went to #1 in America. Chris Pratt's character plays a mixtape given to him by his mom (the Awesome Mix Vol. 1) throughout the film. Near the end, he discovers Vol. 2. When he pops in the tape, this song plays.
Other movie uses of the song include:
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), where a Michael McDonald DVD plays the song.
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), where the nuns, including Lauryn Hill, sing it over the end credits.
In TV, Nia Peeples and Janet Jackson sang it in a 1985 episode of Fame, and Will Smith did it on a 1992 episode of his series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Paul Riser, Motown's musical arranger and trombonist for the label's band The Funk Brothers, recalled putting the rhythm track together shortly after he first heard the demo. "That famous rattlesnake sound in the introduction - tick-a-tick-a-tick - was Uriel Jones hitting the metal rim of his snare drum with his sticks. I wanted those there to build suspense before Tammi's lead vocal came in."
He continued: "After Tammi recorded her vocal, the producers decided the single would be stronger as a duet. Months earlier, Marvin had a hit with Kim Weston on 'It Takes Two.' So Marvin was added to Tammi's record to help its odds on the charts. Marvin was amazing. He overdubbed his vocal so it wrapped around hers, as if the two of them were in love, singing to each other in the studio."
Diana Ross performed this at the Motown 25th anniversary special in 1983, which is best remembered for Michael Jackson's moonwalk. After the song, Ross called out Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, reuniting The Supremes for "Someday We'll Be Together
." There was talk of a Supremes reunion, but that was scuppered when Wilson refused to take far less money than Ross.
Amy Winehouse's 2007 single "Tears Dry On Their Own" is based around the backing instrumentation of this song. Ashford and Simpson were also credited on Jessica Simpson's 2006 transatlantic Top 20 single "A Public Affair," as towards the end of the song, the background vocalists can be heard singing a few lines of "aaah, aaah, aaah" in a clear duplication from "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."