“River Deep, Mountain High”
This epic song was a failure for producer Phil Spector, and sent his career into a tailspin.
Some things look really good on paper. Everything is in place and success is certain, a mere formality, really. You put it out there and wait for the accolades and waves of love to sweep over you and then… it goes nowhere. Our guest artists for this session, Phil Spector and the unbeatable team of Burt Bacharach & Hal David, both had this experience with two of their greatest creations. What happened?
These three were used to hits, they pretty much lived on the Top Ten and their golden touch was all that was needed to insure millions of records flew off the record store shelves. The artists they worked with often achieved new levels of fame and adoration, thanks to their Midas-like skills. But sometimes the exception proves the rule and when a couple of their masterpieces sank without a trace, the unexpected results pretty much sank Spector and had to have the other two scratching their heads.
Phil Spector created his own genre. He was a gifted writer; in fact, his first record, written while he was a teen and recorded for $25, went all the way to #1. “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” a title taken directly from his father’s tombstone, was treacly but irresistible. It had a sweet melody, a very cool key change and a cooing vocal from Phil and the other members of the Teddy Bears, his first and only group. Spector had written, arranged, sung and played on it. It’s rarely mentioned, but he was a very good guitar player — that’s him on The Drifters On Broadway, wailing away.
It was his skills as producer that won him fame and and a tidy fortune. Often described as “Wagnerian,” he spared no expense in creating his famous “Wall Of Sound.” He worked with the girl groups and the writers from the Brill Building and helped bridge the gap between rock’n’roll’s heyday in the 1950s and the British invasion. That void was ready to be filled with something authentic. There was an absolute dearth of good material at the time; the “adults” had taken over rock’n’roll, substituting the danger and rebellion with cutesy stuff and giant dollops of dull.
Kingmaker Phil worked with the best female vocalists of the time: Darlene Love, (Don’t miss the documentary, Twenty Feet From Stardom, to learn more about that dysfunctional relationship) Lala Brooks, and his wife/slave, the adorable and utterly convincing Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes. (You might also watch another doc, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, if you have a strong stomach, to see what life was like in the Bruegel painting they called home) With many of the greats scratched off his get list, there was still one singer he longed to record. He would go to great lengths to achieve that goal, finally getting to record womankind’s answer to James Brown, the mighty Tina Turner.
I don’t know all the details, but there was a song, either written specifically for her or just sitting there waiting to be transformed by her husky alto. “River Deep/Mountain High” was epic in every way. Written by the Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich, one of the long influential Brill Building’s great husband and wife teams. Phil helped with the tune and it rivaled his other great over-the-top number, The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” for sheer drama.
I have read Spector paid Ike Turner something like $20,000 to get lost during the sessions. To say he was a distraction would be an understatement, as anybody who has seen Tina’s biopic or read her bio would know. So, Ike took a hike, Phil paid the bill and one of the most glorious recordings ever unleashed on the American airwaves sank without a trace. It hit big in England, where The Beatles, already Spector fans, were further influenced to work with him. Here in his own backyard… nothing.
I’m assuming everybody has heard this fabulous piece in all its symphonic splendor, so I am going to post the song in a live performance that shows what a seamless and tight band Ike ran. Giving him his due, he was a great guitar player and can be heard on what many call the first rock’n’roll record, Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88. B.B. King once said Ike was the only guitar player he wouldn’t follow. Until I saw this video, I thought there was no way this song could be done live. Watch the video below and I think you’ll agree it is being done to death.
Working the same neighborhood as Spector and equally successful, Bacharach and David catered to a demographic you might call more upscale and uptown. Some dismiss their work as the ultimate in cocktail music, but I’ll take them and whatever tasty concoction the bartender wants to pour and I’m one very happy lounge lizard. This light sophistication definitely felt like a throwback in the swingin’ sixties. Both writers were on wrong side of thirty and would have looked like narcs had they ventured to Woodstock. All this matters not a bit when you are happily listening to Dionne Warwicke, Dusty Springfield or the amazing Ronald Isley singing their concoctions.
Bacharach was also a studio rat, coming up with off kilter and dazzling arrangements that influenced, among others, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, the undisputed alpha dogs of that scene. Bacharach knew exactly what he wanted to hear and wrote it out old school, on music manuscript.
Anyhow, Bacharach and David had recorded a few songs with an exceptional, but slightly under-the-radar artist, a guy named Chuck Jackson in the past. The biggest was a soulful ballad called “Any Day Now,” also a hit for Ronnie Milsap later on the eighties. When they thought they had a song that would lift him to the top of the heap they went all in.
The song was called I Keep Forgetting (not the Michael McDonald one). A real kitchen sink production, with horns, strings and some crazy mallets, it was anything but subtle. Stopping and starting all the way through, it had the kind of melodrama and bombast that brings to mind Tom Jones’ tonsil twister I Who Have Nothing. If you can sing in that semi-operatic manner, songs like these are too good to pass up. With bravado, derring-do and all the subtlety of a brick to the face, this record dares you to ignore it. Unfortunately, that’s just what the record buying public did.
Who knows what happened to either of these songs? No telling what didn’t click or which promo man dropped the ball, but both of these true contenders went nowhere. Every rock critic worth their salt has at least listened to “River Deep.” Even if they are too young or too hip to swing all the way with it, they probably recognize it as a special moment. “I Keep Forgetting” is a smaller blip on the radar screen, and a smaller cult devotes themselves to spreading the word about it. This difference between the two is more than one of varying scales of production. “River Deep” is remembered more often due to the effect this epic fail had on Spector.
After it fizzled, Phil did too. He announced his retirement and went away to lick his wounds. His reclusive ways intensified as did his already famous paranoia. Even though he was occasionally coaxed out of his creepy Hollywood lair to work with The Beatles and later, The Ramones, he never occupied center stage again. That is until his demons took over completely and he landed right in the middle of the 24-7 news cycle. He was always headed for self destruction, but you wonder if things might have been different if that song had been a hit. Would it have saved the life of an unsuspecting B-movie actress and cocktail waitress?
And Bacharach and David? They probably felt a pang. (I’m sure Jackson did.) There were many more hits for these guys, even a Broadway show. All evidence would indicate they probably shrugged it off and went on their merry way, collecting grammies and in Bacharach’s case, dating Angie Dickinson.