THIS happened in 1966. Phil Spector wrote this song, see, but he thought there was no woman on earth who could sing it. Until one night he saw Ike and Tina Turner perform in a club on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, and fell in love with Tina's voice. A voice like no other.
The Turner couple were unaware of the legendary production manager who sat in the shadows every night and paid close attention to how Tina used her microphone, how far she moved away from it, whether she needed to hold it close to her mouth…
Spector asked around about them. Heard that Ike was having problems. Peach brandy and cocaine. A short temper. Slept with anything that moved. Loved to use his fists during sex. And his feet afterwards.
Heard that Tina, who had been living with Ike since 1960, suffered terribly under his assaults but still tried to raise four sons (two of Ike's, plus their own son and one of Tina's from a previous relationship) conservatively.
Heard that Ike basically viewed Tina as the one who would make him rich. Tina herself later wrote that he treated her like a pimp treats his sex workers. But Spector was willing to take the risk.
He bribed Ike with $20,000 to lend him Tina for the recording of River Deep-Mountain High. Ike only had to make himself scarce and stay away from the recording sessions.
Those sessions were at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, where Spector and Brian Wilson made production management an art form in the mid-1960s. Women with big voices — Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand — had recorded there, and Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin went on to use the big studio's echo and other hip new tricks.
Spector took Tina Turner and taught her how to sing every line of the song. She had to unlearn her own style for starters, and eventually return to it. He gave her a crash course in microphone control. He made her sing the song over and over, with him at the piano.
He planned the sound with the help of Jack Nitzsche and audio engineer Larry Levine. They relied heavily on the legendary group of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew (with bassist Carol Kaye and guitarist Glen Campbell as the core).
The studio was packed with two sets of drums, three percussionists playing bells, tambourines and a variety of other instruments, two electric guitars, a 12-string guitar, two bass guitars, a double bass, a string ensemble of violinists and cellists, a piano, an organ and a variety of brass and other wind instruments. There was also a small choir of backing singers.
Nitzsche later explained that the most difficult part of the planning was where they would place Turner's microphone, and whether screens would be needed to prevent her voice from being swallowed up in the great Wagnerian sound that all the musicians would create together.
Tina the star
It was soon clear that Tina was the star of Spector's “Wall of Sound". In the beginning, he had the musicians rehearse the song for hours on end, then he let Tina do a few practice runs with them. Adjustments were made, the musicians' placement in the studio was adjusted and all the microphones were retuned. The drummers were told to go gently in the beginning so Tina wouldn't be overwhelmed in the soft opening stanza, but by the end of the song everyone was at full blast.
Then they recorded the song with one mighty effort. Tina's voice is an instrument on its own. It's amazing to hear how Spector balances her contribution with the overwhelming sounds in the background. I would give anything to know how that recording must have felt for Tina Turner herself.
River Deep-Mountain High was a bit of a flop in the US but in Britain it immediately topped the charts and spent several weeks at number one. The success spilled over to other European countries.
Tina the Baptist
When Ken Russell decided to film The Who's Tommy in 1974, Tina was so established in Europe and the UK that she was an automatic choice for the role of the Acid Queen. The irony is that she didn't have the faintest idea of the drug connotations of the role. Turner was a Baptist who was converting to Buddhism at the time — a conservative woman who for a long time prevented her children from seeing their mother's sensual, exotic stage performances.
The Acid Queen is interesting for another reason: Tina wore all her own Yves Saint Laurent outfits in the film. And her own wigs.
When Tina's second spring arrived with Private Dancer (1984) she had already been separated from Ike for eight years. The divorce was not an amicable affair, and for two years Tina performed only in nightclubs to pay off their debts. By 1983, she was one of many has-beens who kept body and soul together with concerts in which only their old hits were played. Until David Bowie, Keith Richards and John McEnroe attended her performance at the Ritz Club in Manhattan, and the world suddenly woke up. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits gave her Private Dancer because he couldn't record it himself without laughing.
After her official retirement in 2000, she disposed of her property in France and Britain and went to live in Switzerland with her longtime partner, Erwin Bach. She received Swiss citizenship and was treated in the country for stroke, kidney failure and cancer, dying there on May 24.
In My Love Story she says that from 1966 she sang River Deep-Mountain High at every concert she gave. Phil Spector considered the song his greatest achievement. And for Tina, the music created in Gold Star one magical night was the lucky charm which finally enabled her to shake off Ike Turner.
Here I give an overview of the remarkable singer's entire career.
♦ VWB ♦
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