“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — Marvyn Gaye and Tammi Terrell / Diana Ross

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Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

I’m not sure what real love is, but Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson had a pretty good go at describing it in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.

Husband and wife team Ashford and Simpson were one of the best songwriting teams of the latter half of the 20th century, with hits like “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”. But they’re hardly household names nowadays, which is a great shame.

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson both started out as performers themselves and had hits of their own too, probably most famously “Solid” in the early 1980s. (If you were around at the time you might remember the “Solid as a rock” refrain from that song more than the title itself.)

But they really hit pay-dirt when they wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.

Perhaps because they were both vocalists themselves, Ashford and Simpson had a nice line in duets. Their style definitely suited Marvyn Gaye and Tammi Terrell, who recorded the original version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.

The wonderful thing about their recording is that, even though all the parts were recorded separately, the final result doesn’t sound like it was done that way at all.

Tammi Terrell recorded her section first, then Marvyn Gaye wrapped his vocal around hers to make it sound like both vocals had been recorded together live. If you’re thinking “how hard can that be?” the answer is “just about as hard as anything you can possibly imagine”.

Singing the words in time to some notes on a page isn’t especially difficult for a professional singer, admittedly. That’s what they do every day.

But doing it in such a way as to weave their vocal seamlessly around a pre-recorded vocal from another artist and make it such an intimate experience that listeners would think Marvyn Gaye and Tammi Terrell had recorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” together in the studio while gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes…well that’s about as hard as it gets in the world of music.

And let’s not overlook Tammi Terrell’s skill in recording her vocal in the first place. Admittedly she had a blank canvas to work with, and nobody else’s vocal to stay out the way of, but still she had to get the emotion into her part without anything more than a blank studio wall in front of her for inspiration.

Sadly Tammi Terrell passed away in 1970, aged just 24, as the result of a brain tumour.

Had she lived, we’d probably all be singing Tammi Terrell’s praises as one of the greatest female vocalists of all time. But at least we have the memory of her wonderful performances in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (also a duet with Marvyn Gaye) to remind us what she could achieve.

Despite being seen as a modern day classic, Marvyn Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” only just scraped into the Top 20 back in 1967. But that wrong was at least partially righted when their recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

But the pop charts weren’t finished with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. The biggest hit version of the song would come along a couple of years later, in 1970.

Diana Ross had just left The Supremes and was trying to make it on her own as a solo artist.

Looking back, we might be surprised to learn that, at the time, it was by no means certain Diana Ross would go on to experience the great success and iconic career she has enjoyed since her time as the lead singer in one of the most successful groups of all time.

Her first single post-Supremes, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”…also an Ashford and Simpson composition…had done OK by the standards of most freshly-minted solo artists, but it hadn’t exactly knocked the ball out the park in the way The Supremes had with their string of chart-topping hits right through the 1960s.

For a while, it was touch and go for her.

But Diana Ross did indeed knock it out the park with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Her recording hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970, and her career never looked back from that moment on.

It’s fair to say, although I prefer the joyfulness of the Marvyn Gaye/ Tammi Terrell version, Diana Ross’s version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a tremendous piece of work.

The Funk Brothers…Motown’s world-beating house band…members of the Detroit Symphony on strings and indeed Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson filling in as backing vocalists, in addition to being the track’s songwriters and producers, created an almost symphonic piece of work between them.

Motown boss Berry Gordy reportedly wasn’t keen on such a complex arrangement and was less than delighted that Diana Ross’s cut of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came in at over six minutes long.

But the reaction from the listening public convinced him otherwise. Instead of the cut-down three minute single version Berry Gordy had initially released, many radio DJs played the album track instead.

And, like most record company executives, there was nothing like the sight of piles of dollar bills to change Berry Gordy’s mind about most things, so he relented and got behind the song.

As you listen to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” you’ll be reminded of another song, but might struggle to place it at first.

Amy Winehouse borrowed some of it for her own wonderful composition “Tears Dry On Their Own” and as a consequence Ashford and Simpson have a writing credit on that great song by one of the 21st century’s finest singers and songwriters…and someone else taken too soon…

You’ll particularly notice the clicking sound on the drums at the start of both tracks (the Funk Brothers’ Uriel Jones hitting the rim of his snare drum) and the bass line at the beginning, but once you know the connection you won’t be able to listen to “Tears Dry On Their Own” without spotting the references.

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s production for Diana Ross is first class, and every bit as good as anything else to emerge from the Motown studios over the years. Which is about the highest praise any record producer could have, in my book.

There’s a fusing together of a very Motown-style backing vocals with symphonic passages (listen out for the piano flourishes in particular from about 3:50 which sound like something Beethoven might have written) and a sublime brass section that would go on to inspire the sound of funk into the 1970s.

Then we have Diana Ross’s breathy, whispered, spoken word passages together with the high, sweet voice that made her such a star with The Supremes and which has sustained her career ever since.

There is no question in my mind that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is one of the finest songs ever recorded. I prefer the uninhibited joy of Marvyn Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version, but I’m in awe of what Ashford and Simpson did with Diana Ross’s version too. So whichever you prefer is fine by me.

I’m not sure what real love is. But if come anywhere close to what “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” sings about, count me in…

Marvyn Gaye and Tammi Terrell version… https://open.spotify.com/track/7tqhbajSfrz2F7E1Z75ASX

Diana Ross Version…https://open.spotify.com/track/0yLchb1kn0jtEgIRtoTCwq

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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