the STRANGE, complicated
story OF “river deep-mountain high”

L-R: Tina Turner, Phil Spector, Ike Turner

L-R: Tina Turner, Phil Spector, Ike Turner

“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. 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 Phil Spector. The ads were the culmination of a very public tantrum stemming from the US failure of the Spector produced, Tina Turner sung “River Deep-Mountain High.” A noted control freak and self described egomaniac, he felt personally wronged anytime his artistic ambitions were not praised by 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 mere disappointment.    

“I imagined a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record.” - Phil Spector

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, 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 Was To Love Him.” Nine years later, his son, Harvey Philip Spector, would begin a music career with a self-penned song inspired by the phrase.  

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. Although “To Know Him Is To Love Him” had been so well received, all future releases were doomed 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 refused to be forgotten, even after the Teddy Bears were. It’s very existence provided him all he needed to build a career as a producer, and by the mid 1960s, he had molded himself into a musical tour de force. Christened “The Wall of Sound,” his revolutionary recording style highlighted a production complete with layers and layers of accompaniment that was unlike anything ever heard before.

 “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

Ambitious, marathon sessions made him the first superstar producer, more famous than any act on his label. “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. Tom Wolfe’s 1965 profile, “The First Tycoon of Teen,” outlined Spector’s unique position as an innovator who, at only twenty-three, was lauded as the future of the music business. And while the influence and impact of the young producer was inescapable, artists like Beach Boy Brian Wilson were so moved by his work it was practically Scripture. Reflecting on the 1962 Darlene Love sung “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” Wilson spoke about how that 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.”    

“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.” - producer Denny Bruce

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. But with the sounds and styles of music evolving all around him at lightening speed, how much longer could an unchanging, formula based song structure break new ground?

“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.” - Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys

By the mid 1960s, popular music was in a state of constant flux. Artists like the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Beach Boys were developing in ways that pushed the boundaries of the medium, eventually making the Wall of Sound seem lackluster, even 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 becoming more and more notorious for his outrageous, abusive behavior. Even Brian Wilson would later describe him as “a very scary person.”  

“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?’” - Darlene Love   

Although the producer worked hard at crafting an image that made him seem unshakable, it was a manufactured bravado. His cruel bullying of the young female 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 -along with so many others he worked with- were faceless, interchangeable, unimportant and disposable.

“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

Whenever he released new music, he expected the world to listen. Although by the middle of the decade, the public was not listening as intently as he would have liked. So in 1966 - two years after the runaway success of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” - he sought to reclaim his status with “River Deep-Mountain High.” In awe of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, Spector had decided that his newest creation 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.

“River Deep Mountain High” album art

“River Deep Mountain High” album art

Spector treated the making of “River Deep-Mountain High” with the same vigilance Da Vinci 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. In the end, the five recording sessions that produced the single would cost more than $22,000. The first two sessions alone were spent preparing the musicians and backing tracks.   

Located in the center of Hollywood, Gold Star Studios had always attracted famous musicians and songwriters, eager to watch the storied producer at work. But his mad scientist reputation had attracted more attention than usual to his new project. This time, Mick Jagger and Brian Wilson were part of the curious assembly that had gathered at the studio, eager to sit at Spector’s feet, while actor and auteur Dennis Hopper was there taking photographs. 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 - in addition to the audience of onlookers - had thrown Turner, who had not anticipated such a high pressure environment.     

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

On May 14, 1966 “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 on this side of the Atlantic. For Spector, the dead-on-arrival response was heartbreaking. More than that, it was cause to hate an industry that he believed had grown to hate him. And while his most ambitious song has gradually assumed the legacy he first envisioned for it, it’s commercial failure had floored the unstable elements of his personality and accelerated an unraveling that would only continue to surge with the passing years. Today it is remembered as one of the greatest songs ever recorded. At the time, it was known as the cause of Phil Spector’s retreat from the music business.  


by Caitlin Phillips