“When I was a little girl, I had a rag doll…”
By the spring of 2011, during my senior year of high school, I thought highly of Tina Turner but was by no means an active listener. I knew a few of her songs and liked them all, particularly “Proud Mary,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” but my knowledge of Tina was limited. When one of my teachers named her as one of her favorite musical artists, my curiosity was piqued, and I desired to learn more about Tina beyond the songs I knew. And when I stumbled upon this video on YouTube, my world was never the same again:
I was speechless. Hearing this woman sing the living hell out of that song, backed by a musical track with all the subtlety of a Lamborghini Aventador, was just about the most exciting thing I had ever heard. Most of my senior year was spent listening to music from the 50s and 60s, but none of those songs came close to the sheer intensity of Tina’s performance. For the rest of my senior year, this song was my “jam” – I have so many memories listening to it at school, on trips, and during walks along the Del Mar coast – and I became a huge fan of Tina as a result.
Today marks 54 years since “River Deep – Mountain High” was released to the American public, and to this day it is still one of the greatest songs of all time. There are several reasons why it is so significant – the song is so powerful it could blow a hole through your speakers, the production is so wonderfully over-the-top it makes Queen sound like Jack Johnson, and the vocal performance is so virile and aggressive it puts most male singers to shame. But the biggest reason why “River Deep – Mountain High” is so significant is that it was Tina Turner’s first step toward liberation from her abusive husband Ike.
“And it gets stronger, in every way…”
By the mid-Sixties, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue was one of the best live acts around. But behind the scenes Tina was being abused by Ike, and the group hadn’t had a hit in years. In 1966, the legendary (but troubled) producer Phil Spector paid Ike twenty thousand dollars to use Tina for his next production, and Ike’s only involvement would be his name on the record. In her 2018 memoir My Love Story, Tina describes how the opportunity to record “River Deep – Mountain High” was a necessary intervention into her life; not only did she get to work with an artist outside of the “Ike & Tina bubble,” but she got to try an entirely new style of music and way of singing, as “River Deep – Mountain High” was the polar opposite of everything she had done with Ike. According to Tina:
“Before that, I was singing Ike’s way, because that’s how I started and that’s how I was produced. But I always knew I had another talent. I knew it was there and I wanted to explore it. This song opened my eyes to possibilities. I felt liberated, excited, ready to challenge myself vocally with other kinds of songs. To this day, I have never done a live show without singing it.”
After several rehearsals, which Tina described as “stripping away all traces of Ike,” Phil brought her into Gold Star Studios; backing her with a full orchestra and a choir of backup singers, he pushed her to give the performance of her life. As she would later recall, “I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” According to the Tina Turner Blog, she belted out the final take in a pitch-dark room, her stomach throbbing in pain and the veins in her neck bulging. But Tina pushed through the pain and delivered the best performance of her entire career, and the resulting record is now ranked #33 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. And without Ike in the picture, “River Deep – Mountain High” was the moment Tina found her voice as a solo artist.
“And it gets higher, day by day…”
Following its initial release in America, “River Deep – Mountain High” was surprisingly a commercial failure, peaking at No. 88 on Billboard Hot 100. But less than two months later everything had changed, as “River Deep – Mountain High” became a sensation all across Europe, peaking at No. 3 in the UK and marking the beginning of Tina’s superstar status. George Harrison described the song as “a perfect record from start to finish. You couldn’t improve on it.” The Rolling Stones were so enthralled by it that they invited the Ike and Tina Turner Revue to open for them on their UK tour. And three years later, it was re-released in the UK and peaked at No. 33, becoming a Top 40 hit twice. The success story of “River Deep – Mountain High” is one of empowerment, as it proved that Tina could stand on her own without Ike. Ten years later, she left her abusive husband by escaping a hotel room with a Mobil gas card and 36 cents in her pocket, and started an entirely new life.
After years of hard work and determination on her own, Tina made arguably the greatest comeback in music history with the 1984 album Private Dancer, which has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and features three of her most classic hits – “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me,” and the title track. Her success as a solo artist continued throughout the Eighties and Nineties, and after years of touring all over the world she holds the record for selling more concert tickets than any other solo performer in music history. In addition to being one of the most successful and bestselling artists of all time, Tina is recognized as a symbol of strength and empowerment, and her life story of survival and perseverance has inspired countless men and women to change their lives. And today marks 54 years since one of the most important parts of that story, “River Deep – Mountain High,” was released.
What are your favorite Tina Turner songs? Has any part of her life story personally inspired you? Comment below and share!