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The Complicated History Behind "River Deep-Mountain High"

Phil Spector
Phil Spector

“Benedict Arnold Was Right.”

Benedict Arnold’s name and likeness wouldn’t normally appear in a music publication, but in 1966 the Revolutionary War traitor made his debut in Cash Box and Billboard magazine. The American general, infamous for betraying his country by supplying the British with information, was the unlikely focus of a full-page advertisement, created and printed at the behest of music producer Phil Spector. The ads were the culmination of a very public tantrum, stemming from the US failure of Spector’s most recent single, “River Deep-Mountain High.” A noted control freak and self described egomaniac, he felt personally wronged anytime his artistic ambitions did not win him praise from the public. Oddly, the single’s success in the UK only made him angrier, turning his frustration with the American reception into something far more menacing than disappointment.

In April of 1949, forty-six year old Ben Spector parked his car on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, intent on never returning home. His family was five miles away in Soundview, completely unaware of his plan to run tubing from the exhaust pipe to the front seat, roll up the window and take a deep breath. Laid to rest two days after he was found slumped over the steering wheel of his vehicle, his tombstone bore the inscription: “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” Nine years later, his son, Harvey Philip Spector, would begin a successful music career with a self-penned song of the same name.

Soon after graduating from California’s Fairfax High School, nineteen-year-old Phil Spector and his group, the Teddy Bears, had a number one record. The appeal of “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” had been unmistakable and enduring, so much so that any future releases were bound to pale in comparison. And after a string of failed singles, Spector quit, knowing that they would never be able to duplicate their former achievement. But the composition was so haunting that it had never been completely forgotten, even after the Teddy Bears were. It’s influence so singular, the song’s very existence had provided Spector the opportunity he needed to build a career as a producer.

“A Phil Spector session was a party session. Phil would have a notice on the door of the studio, ‘Closed Session,’ and anyone who stuck their head in, he’d grab them and give them a tambourine or a cowbell. There’d sometimes be more percussionists than orchestra. I used to call it the Phil-harmonic. It was an absolute ball.” - drummer Hal Blaine

By the mid 1960s, Phil Spector had molded himself into a musical tour de force. Christened “The Wall of Sound,” his revolutionary recording style highlighted a forceful production complete with textured, dense accompaniment that was unlike anything ever heard before on record. His ambitious, marathon-recording sessions had made him the first superstar producer, more famous than any act on his record label, Philles records. The singles “Be My Baby,” “He’s A Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Chapel of Love,” “Then He Kissed Me” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” remain landmark recordings of the era, symbolic of a new frontier in pop music.

Frequent Spector collaborator Jack Nitzsche, explained his friend’s process, revealing each ingredient to the Wall of Sound formula to be so detailed and precise that the whole endeavor had more in common with a baking recipe than a hit song:

“Four guitars play eighth notes; four pianos hit it when he says roll; the drum is on two and four on tom-toms, no snare, two sticks– heavy sticks –at least five percussionists . . .”

Producer Denny Bruce also shed light on Spector’s imaginative approach:

“One of the first things that impressed me about Phil was hearing how he just walked in and lifted all the cymbals away from Hal Blaine. Because without even thinking about it drummers will throw in a cymbal clash. It’s cliché. And Phil didn’t want cliché. He just wanted this strong, throbbing, pulsating backbeat.”

First published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1965, Tom Wolfe’s profile, “The First Tycoon of Teen,” outlined Spector’s unique position as the most influential, commercially successful producer of the day. Only twenty-three, Spector had emerged as the future of the music business. But despite his many achievements, rock and roll was not considered a serious form of expression and the young producer was eager to underline that hypocrisy:

“I get a little angry when people say it's bad music. It has limited chord changes, and people are always saying the words are banal and why doesn't anybody write lyrics like Cole Porter anymore, but we don’t have presidents like Lincoln anymore either.”

Although the middle aged may not have understood the appeal, Beach Boy Brian Wilson regarded Spector’s work as Scripture. Reflecting on the 1962 Darlene Love song “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” Wilson spoke about how that particular record “opened up a door of creativity for me like you wouldn’t believe. Some people say drugs can open that door. But Phil Spector opened it for me.”

In December 1964, the Spector produced Righteous Brothers song, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” was released in the United States. At 3:46, the song was considerably longer than anything on radio. The composition’s length was such a concern that a running time of 3:05 was printed on the label in an attempt to fool disc jockeys. Ironically, it was later recognized as being the most played song of the twentieth century. The Righteous Brothers themselves were shocked by the runaway success of the single. Bill Medley later spoke about the group’s initial concerns stating:

“We had no idea if it would be a hit. It was too slow, too long, and right in the middle of the Beatles and the British Invasion.”

Years later, Spector would acknowledge that the single was to be the peak of his artistic and commercial success.

“There was a limitation for Phil on how far he could go with his Wall of Sound. He was like a little boy who does something really cute and gets applauded for that, and so he starts figuring out how to get the applause back, but then it’s not quite as cute again. I think Phil started believing his own legend and press. I don’t think Brian ever did that, and to this day Brian never knew how good he was. He was like Cary Grant growing up without a mirror.” - Bruce Johnston

By the mid 1960s, America’s tastes were evolving fast. Artists like the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Beach Boys were developing at a speed that eventually made the Wall of Sound seem lackluster and dated. Spector’s admirers in the business were talented composers themselves, and it was only a matter of time before their own work would eclipse his. And while he was still in demand, he was slowly becoming as famous for his outrageous, demanding personality as much as he was his genius. Even Brian Wilson would later portray him to be “a very scary person. He was egotistical and self- centered. A very scary kind of talking style. A very scary person.”

Although Spector worked hard at crafting an image that made him seem unshakable, it was a manufactured bravado. His bullying of the female teenaged singers he worked with was a transparent power play, indicative of his capability to become completely unhinged and in search of a weaker party to pounce on. He treated them like cattle, pushing them to their breaking point until there was nothing left of them. To him, they were faceless, interchangeable and disposable. Looking back on her work with Spector, Darlene Love revealed that:

“The singers were nothing to Phil. He used to say it was all about ‘his music.’ So I’d say, ‘If it’s all about your music, why aren’t you making instrumentals?’”

“Phil antagonized some people. Phil had a way to always bring up the idea that he had more money and that was power, which it probably was. He had thirteen hits in a row without a miss. Around ‘River Deep-Mountain High,’ people started to want him to fail. That’s how it is with sports and everything. You get too good and people don’t like it, too successful and people don’t like it. There was no competition for Phil in those days.” – Jack Nitzsche

When Phil Spector released a song, he expected the world to listen. Though by the middle of the decade, the public was not listening as intently as the producer would have liked. And so in 1966, he sought to reclaim his status with the release of, “River Deep-Mountain High.” A longtime admirer of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, Spector had decided that the song could only be sung by Tina Turner. While Ike’s name would appear on the recording, the two men had agreed that only Tina would perform on the track. The producer’s need for creative control was so overwhelming that Ike was paid $20,000 just to stay away from the studio.

Spector treated the making of “River Deep-Mountain High” with the same vigilance Michelangelo used when painting the Sistine Chapel. Before work on the song had even begun, he had decided that it would be the crown jewel of his catalogue. And when it came to crafting his opus, no expense would be overlooked or spared. In the end, the five recording sessions that produced the single would cost $22,000. The first two sessions alone were spent preparing backing tracks.

Located in the center of Hollywood, Gold Star Studios had always attracted famous musicians and songwriters, eager to watch Spector at work. But the producer’s mad scientist reputation had attracted more attention than usual to his new project. This time, Mick Jagger and Brian Wilson were part of the assembly that had gathered at the studio, eager to sit at Spector’s feet. By the third session, the crowd had become so large that a startled Tina Turner was rendered incapable of performing. The sight of the forty-piece band comprised of musicians and backing singers had shocked Turner, who had not anticipated the need to bring the spectacle of live performing to the recording studio.

On May 14, “River Deep-Mountain High” was released in the United States. By the end of June, it was out of the charts and all but forgotten. For Spector, the dead-on-arrival response to the song was heartbreaking. More than that, it was cause to hate an industry that he believed had grown to hate him. For Ike Turner, the American failure of the record was nothing more than politics at it’s very worst. Speaking about the record, he stated:

“If Phil had released that record and put anybody else’s name on it, it would have been a huge hit. But because Tina Turner’s name was on it, the white stations classified it as an RB record and wouldn’t play it. The white stations say it was too black, and the black stations say it was too white, so that record didn’t have a home. That’s what happened to ‘River Deep-Mountain High.’”

“I’ve been told I’m a genius. What do you think?” - Phil Spector to journalist Maureen Cleave, 1964

Soon after the release of “River Deep-Mountain High,” Phil Spector disappeared. His seclusion was so deep that many wondered if he would ever function in the recording industry again. And while his most ambitious song has gradually assumed the legacy he first envisioned for it, it’s initial failure had floored the unstable elements of his personality, accelerating his unraveling until one of music’s biggest personality’s was all but silent.

Today it is remembered as one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Forty-eight years ago, it was known as the sole cause of Phil Spector’s retirement.

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