Marvin Gaye at 80, Diana Ross at 75, Motown at 60: the singular story of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Today, today is the first of April, and it marks the 35th anniversary of the shock shooting of “the Prince of Motown”, Marvin Gaye (at the hand of his own father, no less), while tomorrow would have been the soul supremo’s 80th anniversary.

Born in Washington D.C. (exactly two weeks before confirmed Motown aficionado Dusty Springfield entered the world across the pond in London), not only was Gaye a singer, songwriter, and record producer, but after going west to the Michigan Motor City he helped shape the sound of Tamla Motown and American soul in the 1960s, first as an in-house session player and later as a solo artist with a string of hits for himself and others, including Dancing In The Street for Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, later campily covered by David Bowie and Mick Jagger for 1985’s Live Aid charity concert.

To commemorate the twin occasions, last week Motown Records released You’re the Man, a 17-song collection Gaye recorded in Detroit and Los Angeles between 1971 and 1972 which were originally intended to used in a follow-up to What’s Going On, one of the greatest, if not the greatest protest record ever.

The early ’70s was a watershed era for Marvin. What’s Going On produced three chart-topping singles and became one of the most powerful and revered concept albums of all time, taking a reluctant Motown beyond producing hits; in 1972, Gaye released the film soundtrack, Trouble Man; between 1971 and 1973 he recorded tracks for what would become the iconic duet album with the supreme Miss Ross, 1973’s Diana and Marvin. Just two months earlier, he had released the legendary Let’s Get It On. The funky, roller-light disco soul of I Want You* and Got To Give It Up followed in 1976 and 1977.

During Motown’s imperial years, the label was its own little ecosystem, with its own artists and musicians and songwriters and producers all working within the Detroit factory. The people involved would pass songs around them, looking at them from different angles, figuring out different ways to approach them.

Sometimes, you’d get strange situations like when Gladys Knight & The Pips and Marvin Gaye both had huge hits with radically different versions of I Heard It Through The Grapevine within little more than a year of each other. Or like Diana Ross getting her first solo chart-topper with her second version of a particular song.

Motown would never let a good song go. It was one of the cool things about the label. So when Diana Ross hit No.1 with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, it was already an oldie. The team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who would eventually become hit-making artists themselves, wrote the song in 1966, before they joined the Motown machine.

Ashford & Simpson met in a New York church in 1962, when both were struggling and trying to figure out how to get into music. One day, Ashford was homeless and wandering through Central Park, wondering if he should give up. He noticed how the buildings around the edges of the park looked like mountains. He got the chorus into his head — the “you” he was imagining was solid success — and then he and Simpson figured out how to turn it into a love song.

By the time they signed on with Motown, Ashford & Simpson had written a few songs for people like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. They’d played Ain’t No Mountain High Enough for Dusty Springfield, who essentially introduced the label to Britain in an edition of Ready Steady Go she hosted. She was more than keen to record it, but Ashford & Simpson figured that the song might be good enough to give them access to the Detroit-based label. As Simpson later recalled, “We played that song for (Springfield) but wouldn’t give it to her, because we wanted to hold that back. We felt like that could be our entry to Motown. Nick called it the golden egg.”

His instincts were right. Tammi Terrell recorded a version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and when Berry Gordy decided that it would work better as a duet, Marvin Gaye was added into the mix. The single peaked at No.19 and led to a whole run of Gaye/Terrell duets that reached their zenith with 1968’s Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing and You’re All I Need To Get By.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough stuck around, probably because of that huge, world-conquering chorus. On the Gaye/Terrell song, that chorus is where the arrangement turns stormy and orchestral, where everything explodes. Two years later, The Supremes got together with the Temptations to record a new version of the song for the collaborative album Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations. That version of the song is faster and more nervous, built around the swirl of all those fabulous voices coming together.

Ross’ exit from the trio that made her a star was an intricately stage-managed move. Berry Gordy spent years planning it out, having Ross do occasional solo performances and putting her name up front. When she finally left The Supremes and recorded her self-titled debut solo album, Gordy got Ashford & Simpson to produce it, and they came up with the idea of completely reimagining Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, turning it into a completely different song. Artists like Isaac Hayes were finding success with long, expansive soul symphonies, and inspired by them, Ashford & Simpson reworked their own arrangement, filling it out with spoken-word bits and saving the big chorus for the end.

The new arrangement of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough closed out the first side of 1970’s Diana Ross long-player. It sounds the way champagne bubbles feel in your mouth. That wordless ahh-ahh-ahh intro works as an overture, the instruments all whirling around Diana before the song even really starts. On the spoken-word bits, the singer, still about two years away from movie stardom, flexes her acting chops and subtly gets across the idea of the lyrics.

In her hands, it’s not just a love song. It’s a woman letting an ex know that things aren’t really over, that there’s always time to get things started again: 

“If you should ever fall short of your desires, remember life for you holds one guarantee: You’ll always have me.” 

Diana says those words like they’re romantic, but they’re not. They’re sad. And that comes quietly across in her delivery, too.

The chorus doesn’t even kick in until more than four minutes into the six-minute song, and when it arrives, it explodes. That chorus becomes a gospel-force eruption of pent-up feelings, a declaration of need as much as one of love. There’s something almost psychedelic about all that orchestral grandeur. To hear it is to get swept up in it.

Gordy didn’t like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough when he heard it, and he didn’t release it as the album’s first single (that honour went to the under-performing Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand). He didn’t like the spoken-word bits, and he didn’t like how long it was. Eventually, he agreed to release the single, but only after cutting it down to three and a half minutes. But at least according to Simpson, radio DJs could still play the full version. And today, the full version is the one that matters.

There’s something just slightly indulgent about Ain’t No Mountain High Enough — the languid pace, the way Ross doesn’t sing the verses. But within the song, we can still hear the seed of so much that would explode in the years ahead: Gamble & Huff and TSOP, Barry White, disco, Ross’ acting career. It might have pointed back at Motown’s past, just by virtue of being an old song, but it also pointed the way forward. The song would spend three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and reached No.6 in Britain. It even bagged Diana a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Ow! It even inspired I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), Aretha’s diamond duet from 1987 with George Michael, and another twenty years later, formed the basis for this 2007 hit by Amy Winehouse, Tears Dry On Their Own.

The fact that in this key year of 2019 we’re still talking about it half a century after its release is testament to its brilliance. Marvin would have been 80. Diana has just turned 75. Motown is 60. A writer put it very nicely, is something turning 50 soon?

Steve Pafford

Postscript: Here’s Whoopi Goldberg and the cast of 1993’s Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit (including future Fugee Lauryn Hill) singing Ain’t No Mountain High Enough over the movie’s end credits. It’s a unique mashup cover version, in which the verses and chorus of the song contain the original Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell version, whereas the bridge and ending are by Diana. Go girls! 

*In September 2004, I’d attended a Madonna concert at the Arnhem Gelredome in The Netherlands, when on the train journey back to The Hague, conversation turned to how few cover versions Madge had turned in.

“I Want You, that was one,” I piped up.

“No, that’s not an old song. Madonna wrote that one, countered Martijn.

“I don’t think she did somehow. Not when Marvin Gaye had already written it in the Seventies.”

“God, really? Oh, I don’t like it now!”

You couldn’t make it up.

 

 

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