Imagine for a moment that you are Tina Turner in 1965. On the one hand there’s your husband Ike, a man known for his volatility, and violent temper. You enter Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles to record with the legendary record producer Phil Spector, already know for his eccentricities if not yet for his violent impulses. What is a poor girl to do?
What Tina Turner did was what she did best. She turned in a brilliant vocal performance for what is often regarded as Phil Spector’s greatest work. And while “River Deep – Mountain High” was a substantial hit in Europe, reaching #3 in the UK, it was a miserable failure when it was released in the U.S. in May, 1966.
The truth about the “River Deep” sessions is not widely known. It was one of the first recordings that the Turners did with Spector. Spector was well aware of Ike’s reputation for trying to control things in the studio, and elsewhere. As a result a contract was signed that the record would be credited to Ike & Tina Turner, and released on Spector’s own Philles records, but Ike was paid $20,000 to stay away from the session.
“River Deep – Mountain High” was written by Spector, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Barry. Spector’s wall of sound for the occasion was created by 21 musicians (including members of the legendary Wrecking Crew), and 21 background singers. Tina was required to sing the vocal over and over for hours (by Tina’s somewhat exaggerated estimate some 500,000 times) until Spector was satisfied that he had the right take. The record cost $22,000 to make, an unheard of expenditure in those days.
Spector’s disappointment over the chart failure of “River Deep” was such that he shrunk from public view for the next two years. And even though he came back to work with the Beatles both as a group and as solo artists, it can be said that he never regained the mojo he had before he was struck down by the failure of “River Deep,” which George Harrison called “a perfect record from start to finish.”
It was during his two years in seclusion that Spector really began the long downhill slide that ended with him in a prison cell, where he is likely to remain for the rest of his life. Ike & Tina Turner went on to great success in the ’70s but by 1976 Ike was addicted to cocaine, and the couple divorced the following year. In 1986, Tina’s autobiography, “I, Tina,” cast Ike in the role of a wife beater, and the film that followed, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” cemented that reputation with the public.
Despite Ike’s enormous contributions to music, he died still in disgrace in 2007. He had been free of drugs for ten years before relapsing in 2004. Tina had great solo success after parting with Ike, and retired after her 50th anniversary in show business tour ended in 2008.
The story of “River Deep – Mountain High” is one with no winners, and only one survivor.