TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending Saturday, October 3, 1970.
SONGWRITERS: Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson.
PRODUCERS: Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson.
BACKSTORY: During the first twelve months of Diana Ross’ career after leaving the Supremes, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became the star’s first solo Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also part of Motown Records’ single most successful year on that chart, when the company was able to send seven singles to the summit: by Diana, the Jackson 5 (all of their first four 45s for the company), Edwin Starr, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. In total, Motown occupied the top of the Hot 100 for 18 weeks that year, including three with Diana’s smash, which proved to be the first of her five solo Number Ones while at Motown.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was among the first compositions submitted to Motown by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, when the up-and-comers joined the company’s songwriting roster in late 1966. Producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol recorded it first with Tammi Terrell, then added Marvin’s vocal to hers when she was chosen as his new partner in song. The duet reached the Top 20 in the summer of ’67, and was one of Motown’s most arresting hits that year.
Three years later, Ashford and Simpson – having graduated to Hitsville producers as well as songwriters – were assigned by Berry Gordy to work with Diana Ross on her first solo album. They reshaped “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to powerful effect, delivering a six-minute tour de force. “I thought [Diana] had a very sexy tone when she talked and when she sang,” Ashford said in liner notes for The Complete Motown Singles Volume 10: 1970. “So we wrote extra lyrics, trying to stretch it out. And Val came up with these new chords. That was one of our best assignments, trying to get that song to where it is.” What helped was the dramatic arrangement done by Paul Riser, particularly for the strings. The track was recorded in mid-March 1970; Diana cut her vocal between then and the June 19 release of the album, entitled Diana Ross.
The edited single release followed in July, but only after an argument between the song’s creators and their boss. “Berry Gordy didn’t like the version we did with Diana when he first heard it,” Ashford told David Nathan for liner notes to a 2002 expanded edition of Diana Ross. “He didn’t like all that talking at the beginning. We thought it should have been the first single, but he held it back because we wouldn’t change it. Once the DJs started playing it, we knew we were right.”
REMAKES: The commercial impact of both the Marvin & Tammi and Diana Ross versions of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” guaranteed that the song would be recorded by others. And so it was, ranging from the unlikely (the New Christy Minstrels, Whoopi Goldberg) through dance-floor queens and kings (Boys Town Gang, Jocelyn Brown, Scherrie Payne) to household names (Al Green, Michael Bolton). The song attracted artists from abroad, including Australia’s Jimmy Barnes and Human Nature, Germany’s Young Voices Brandenburg, and Scotland’s Jimmy Somerville. Also, the late Amy Winehouse used a “Mountain” sample interpolation (based on Marvin & Tammi’s original) for “Tears Dry On Their Own” on her revered, multi-platinum album, Back To Black. And naturally, the song’s use in movies and commercials has proliferated. If you flew on Dutch airline KLM a few years ago, for example, that might have been because you were taken with their TV commercial featuring “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Presumably, you could see the summit from 40,000 feet.
FOOTNOTE: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has helped three Motown artists to gain Grammy® nominations. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell were contenders for Best R&B Group Performance (Vocal or Instrumental) in the 1967 competition, although members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences preferred Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” when it came time to vote. In 1970, Diana Ross’ makeover of the song saw her nominated for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Female, in the company of Dionne Warwick, Bobbie Gentry, Anne Murray and Linda Ronstadt. Dionne triumphed, with “”I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.”