Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Ain't No Mountain High Enough

From Chapter 9...and 11...and 17...Writing about "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" is my greatest "Cusp Song of the Day" challenge. Of all the 200+ songs in the book, it's the one that means the most to me, and to the story. In the book Mark, who is obsessed with the Supremes and Diana Ross, plays little bits of it every day to keep himself grounded.

To Mark, the song is beautiful, it's reassuring, and, most of all, it's Diana. He prides himself on his psychic ability to find the six-minute version on the radio, which was admittedly easier to do in the mid-70s than it is now, but still pretty remarkable. If you're going to have a favorite song to break down into healing mantras, to call upon when needed, to be there for you always, you can do no better than "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
Of course, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" didn't start out as a 1970 Diana Ross anthem. It was written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson around 1967, after they had experienced some songwriting success. They wanted to break into Motown, and knew this song would open the door. Mission accomplished: the composition was recorded as a duet between Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell with back-up by the Funk Brothers and became a top 20 hit that's still beloved today. Ashford and Simpson went on to write and produce many classic hits, for Motown and other labels.

Diana Ross and the Supremes recorded the song in the same upbeat style with the Temptations. But for Diana's first self-titled solo album, producers Ashford and Simpson took a different direction, crafting something dramatic, powerful and timeless. Initially Motown head and Diana svengali Berry Gordy was not a fan of this version, but fortunately it was released anyway.

I used to see Ashford and Simpson in clubs and restaurants when I lived in Manhattan, and always had to hold myself back from gushing thanks to them for this song and their many others that have meant so much to me over the years. Nick Ashford's death last year, the same day as Jerry Leiber's, still pierces my heart.

While Diana has probably performed this song thousands of times, to me the most memorable is when she did it in Central Park in a downpour in 1983. I was working for Billboard then, and fortunate enough to be backstage. The very real fear of lightning or an electrical short was offset by Diana's obvious joy at keeping the audience in her thrall. When the concert was ended early, all 800,000 of us there that night left the park knowing we had seen something magical. I still remember Andy Warhol and Fran Lebowitz looking for a way out as the hordes trampled the fence between audience and backstage.

"Nothing in this world can keep me from you. Just call my name, I'll be there in a hurry. Ain't no mountain high enough."

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