Posts Tagged ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’

1970 is likely remembered, at least within the U.S., for what came to be called the Kent State massacre. On May 4th, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on college students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia, killing four and wounding nine. It spurred an in-progress student strike at some 450 college campuses – which had begun on May 1st, the day after President Nixon announced the expansion – to explode. What had been a primarily peaceful movement flirted with violence, especially when 100,000 anti-war activists descended upon Washington, D.C., the following weekend. The anger was real and can be heard in the ardent strains of CSNY’s “Ohio.”

A month and change later, on June 19th, Diana Ross released her eponymous solo debut, which sports a soulful pop sheen that may seem miles removed from the revolution brewing on college campuses. But, at least from where I sit, it was – in its own way – revolutionary all the same: “Reach out and touch/Somebody’s hand/Make this world a better place/If you can…”

Working with writer-producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson for all but one of the 11 tracks, she crafts a set that both reflects and transcends its time. Some songs, such as “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” were recycled from other Motown artists; others are original to the album. No matter. By the time the tracks were set to wax, they were hers. It’s not a statement of purpose, but a declaration.

Of course, most everyone knows the basic outline of Diana’s story: Born in Detroit, her name was and is Diane everywhere but her birth certificate, where it was listed as “Diana” by mistake. At age 7, her father relocated the family to Alabama after her mother was felled by illness, but they returned to the Motor City in 1958, when she was 14. At that point, her dream was to become a fashion designer – but she was also flirting with music and soon joined the Primettes, whose other members included Florence Ballard and, in time, Mary Wilson.

In 1960, Ross convinced childhood neighbor Smokey Robinson to arrange an audition for the group with Motown; Berry Gordy liked what he heard but, after learning their ages, told them to finish school first. They signed with another label instead, released a single that went nowhere, and then began to hang out at Hitsville, doing this ’n’ that (aka backing vocals and handclaps) before, in 1961, officially joining the fold. Rechristened the Supremes, they languished at the bottom of Motown’s hierarchy until late 1964, when “Where Did Our Love Go” topped the pop charts – the first of 11 singles to do so. Intra-group (and intra-label, for that matter) tensions soon surfaced due to Berry Gordy’s infatuation with Ross, however, especially once he decided to do what it took to make her a star.

As I noted a while back, the final No. 1 single by Ross and the Supremes, the Johnny Bristol-produced “Someday We’ll Be Together,” was originally slated to be Diana’s debut single – and was actually recorded without the other Supremes. Its success, along with the ad-hoc Cream of the Crop album, pushed plans for her solo debut to the following year (plus gave Gordy more opportunities to milk money from her exit, including the live Farewell double-LP set that was released in January 1970.)

By the time of her solo debut, she was 26 – and, yet, still deemed a “girl” by legendary Hollywood hack writer Leo Guild in a 1970 newspaper series that spotlighted (I’m not making this up) “black beauties.” (One excerpt from the article about her: “She has a peculiar ambition in that she wants the general public not to think that she’s a symbol for the blacks. She wants them to accept her as just a groovy girl.” She’s also quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody needs a sex symbol. That’s out of date. I’d rather be thought of as someone with brains and maybe have a little sex appeal in back of them.”) It wasn’t just the mainstream press that could be so callous, either; Rolling Stone wasn’t exactly a bastion of feminist thought and pretty much ignored artists of color. Part of that was the era, of course, but – to my ears, at least – it’s the casual affront to those attitudes that gives her debut its revolutionary zeal.

Although it’s probably best known as the original album home of two of her classic singles – “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – it’s not a stereotypical singles-and-filler Motown album. Over the course of the 11 tracks, she’s independent, affectionate, confident and aware. Something’s on her mind, in other words, that’s been troubling her a long, long time…

Did I mention that, vocally speaking, she’s at the top of her game? Although I dispute the assessment, it’s sometimes said of her work with the Supremes that her vocals are light and frothy, essentially the frosting atop a layered cake. There’s none of that here. Her vocals are full and developed, driving the lyrics instead of riding them. You hear her smile, hear her frown. She pulls you into her world.

If you haven’t heard the album, definitely check it out. It sounds as fresh today as it must have in 1970 and is a true essential album – alongside her 1976 eponymous and 1980 Diana albums. (The 2002 “deluxe version,” I should mention, adds a bunch of bonus tracks, including two Laura Nyro songs that stem from unreleased sessions with 5th Dimension producer Bones Howe, and is available on all the usual streaming services.)

The track listing:

And for those curious: Here’s the newspaper article referenced above… if nothing else, it shows how far we have come in the past 50+ years. (Each section can be clicked on to enlarge; it was too lengthy to fit into one, unfortunately, so you’ll have to hop between the two images.)

First time ever I heard her sing, I heard an angel plucking a piano string by string. Her vibrato shimmered and her passion simmered. She was killing me softly with her song, though it was actually a duet with Donny Hathaway, “The Closer I Get to You.” I was a few months shy of 13 and – spurred by “With a Little Luck” by Wings – just discovering Top 40 radio. The sweet groove of “Closer I Get to You” stopped time for me, just about, and made me wish I could leap through my teen years and instantly become an adult.

But, of course, if wishes were horses we’d all own ranches. My $2-a-week allowance (upgraded to $5 once I hit 13) only went so far; it wouldn’t be until late 1981 or early ‘82 that one of her LPs – The Best of Roberta Flack – entered my collection. The way her voice soared into the sky one moment before gliding to Earth the next mesmerized me. All these years later, it still does.

The 10 tracks on The Best of herald love in its many splendors. While it’s an excellent encapsulation of her career to date, it doesn’t accurately reflect her debut, First Take, which I first heard decades later (as explained here). The first time I listened to it, I was taken aback – and pleasantly surprised – that its eight tracks didn’t exclusively chart the inner workings of the human heart. Recorded in early 1969, it instead navigates the nuances of life during a tumultuous time. Revolution was in the air, but so was love – and, for some, despair. The LP mixes jazz, soul and gospel in arrangements that never feel forced or sound cluttered.

I’d be remiss in not providing a quick-hit summary of her life up until this point. A musical prodigy, she earned a full scholarship to Howard University at age 15, studying piano before switching to voice. She graduated at age 19 and became a student teacher in a Maryland suburb of D.C. while pursuing graduate studies in music. The passing of her father, however, caused her to curtail her education and pursue teaching full time.

That changed, of course. By the late ‘60s, she was wowing crowds three nights a week at a Capitol Hill restaurant. As jazz great Les McCann tells it, whenever he visited D.C. someone would encourage him to check her out. She bowled him over when he finally did in 1968; he quickly arranged an audition for her at Atlantic Records. That audition led to a three days of recording demos and then, a few months later, a full-fledged session for her debut LP. 

The taut rumble of “Compared to What,” which opens First Take, remains restrained throughout, though its lyrics (“The President, he’s got his war/Folks don’t know just what it’s for/No one gives us rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason”) do not. “Angelitos Negros” is both pleading and reaching, a song one need not know Spanish to understand (though it helps to read a translation). “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” one of two Donny Hathaway-penned songs (this one co-written with Robert Ayers), places a heart’s desire ahead of society’s whims. “I Told Jesus,” the final song on the first side, is an old spiritual. 

The Leonard Cohen tune “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” opens the second side and then the slice of hypnotic love that is “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” blooms like a flower captured by time-lapse photography. 

“Tryin’ Times,” the other Hathaway song (written with Leroy Hutson), speaks to tumult then and now: “But maybe folks wouldn’t have to suffer/If there was more love for your brother/But these are tryin’ times…”

“The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” written by lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf for the 1959 Broadway musical The Nervous Set, is an evocative slice of beat poetry set to song, conjuring the angst of a generation adrift in the bleating boredom and conformity of post-WWII America.

These aren’t teenager laments, in other words, but adult concerns and observations poignantly expressed in song. Roberta may not have written the words, but she feels them; her soul reverberates in each and every syllable.

The 50th anniversary edition, limited to 3000 copies (at least for now) and only available from SoulMusic.com, is well worth the $50. The CD bonus tracks include the single edits for “Compared to What” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the “First Time” b-side “Trade Winds,” as well as a live track McCann recorded in 1968 that was released in 1991 on the Les Is More compilation of his private recordings. The remaining 12 tracks are culled from the demos she recorded and sound as finished as the songs on First Take. Here are two examples:

As most music fans know, the album didn’t sell all that well upon its release, but sold enough for second and third efforts, Chapter Two (1970) and Quiet Storm (1971), to be released. Then Roberta received a phone call from none other than Clint Eastwood, who asked if he could use “First Time” in his movie Play Misty for Me. The rest, as they say, is history. The eight-track original album is a five-star affair; with the added bonus cuts, it’s beyond that.

Fifty years ago today, the Summer of Love was in the offing for 16-year-old Wendy D. of Allegheny County, Pa., the home of Pittsburgh, three smaller cities and a bevy of boroughs and townships – but also a summer of love troubles, as often happens in teen romances. I’m sure she was vaguely aware of the former when she wrote the entry, but as for the latter? She wasn’t clairvoyant. (If she was, my hunch is she wouldn’t have continued to see Tom, who was but one of several suitors. Let’s just say things don’t work out so well between them and leave it at that…for now.)

The movie they saw, A Man for All Seasons, was released on December 12, 1966. In today’s world, of course, all but the biggest of blockbusters have left the theaters within five months and are prepping for their blu-ray/DVD release and/or PPV debut. Back then? Things stuck around. Movies routinely started small, at select theaters, and slowly widened in scope, hopscotching the country and media markets. (Mass distribution, where a movie opens on hundreds – if not thousands – of screens at a time, didn’t become commonplace until 1974 and The Trial of Billy Jack.)

The top TV shows for the 1966-’67 season were (in order) BonanzaThe Red Skelton Hour, Andy Griffith Show, Lucy Show and Jackie Gleason Show. The Lawrence Welk Show, which was in a four-way tie for No. 10, was a few spots higher than The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour.

On the music front: According to the Weekly Top 40, the Supremes’ “The Happening” was the No. 1 single on the charts.

I featured that song in the April 22nd, 1967 Top 5, of course. And, between that entry and the one for April 2nd, I’ve spotlighted the top five songs on this week’s Top 40 chart fairly recently. As a result, I’ll be digging deep into the chart for today’s countdown.

And, with that caveat out of the way, here’s today’s Top 5, May 13, 1967 (via Weekly Top 40).

1) The Happenings – “I Got Rhythm.” The No. 9 song this week is this…kitschy delight? It was one of four Top 40 singles the group scored from 1966 through ’68. This one, like their 1966 hit “See You in September,” topped out at No. 3.

2) The Mamas & the Papas – “Creeque Alley.” Jumping from No. 44 to No. 22 is this self-mythologizing song, which tells of the formation of the group.

3) Jefferson Airplane – “Somebody to Love.” Holding steady at No. 31 in its seventh week on the charts is this Summer of Love anthem from the Airplane, which would eventually fly into the Top 10.

4) The Who – “Happy Jack.” One of the week’s Power Plays is this now-classic song, which jumped from No. 51 to No. 41.

5) The Marvelettes – “When You’re Young and in Love.” Another of the week’s Power Plays is this lovely Van McCoy-penned song, which would eventually reach No. 23. An interesting piece of trivia: It’s the group’s only single to chart in the U.K. Another piece of trivia: It was Wendy D.’s theme song… nah, I’m making that last bit up. But it should’ve been!

And two bonuses, both pulled from the “New This Week” section:

6) Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The first of the many classic Marvin & Tammi duets. Here, they perform the Ashford & Simpson-penned song on The Tonight Show:

7) The Grass Roots – “Let’s Live for Today.” Debuting at No. 87 is this ‘60s classic, which would eventually make it to No. 8. Who knew that it began life as an Italian pop song written by an ex-pat Brit beat group? Not me. Wikipedia gives the rundown of its complicated history.

Thanksgiving night, after a wonderful get-together with family, Diane and I continued our trek through Good Girls Revolt. One episode centered on New Year’s Eve of 1969: As the ‘60s came to an end, Patti (Genevieve Angelson) and editor Finn (Chris Diamantopoulos) concluded that the decade had been about suppression and repression; the ‘70s, they predicted, would be about expansion. Then, at about 10:50pm, I received a message from iTunes: Rumer’s This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach and David Songbook was available for download.

It’s a lilting and lush set; the music possesses the grace of Audrey Hepburn, soul of Dusty Springfield and vocal finesse of the 5th Dimension, if that makes sense, and evokes the era in which the songs were born while remaining firmly rooted in the present. While one can imagine Rumer singing, say, “One Less Bell to Answer” on The Tonight Show in 1969, one can also imagine her swaying to the same music on The Tonight Show next month. At its best, music transcends time and space; and this set does just that.

Anyway, the juxtaposition of Good Girls Revolt and This Girl’s in Love (and, perhaps, too much turkey) led me to reflection – and to the realization that Patti and Finn, in their rush to pass judgment on the ’60s, were wrong. The decade was not a time of suppression or repression. To the contrary. It was a time when the collective American mindset pushed past a centuries-old prejudice (race) and began to do the same with another (gender). That’s not to say prejudice was eliminated; far from it. But the majority of folks realized it was wrong.

Consider this clip from Petula, a TV special starring British pop singer Petula Clark that aired on NBC on April 2, 1968:

The moment near the end, when Petula puts her arm on Harry Belafonte’s? Believe it or not, it spurred a controversy. A vice president of Chrysler, which was sponsoring the show, demanded that another take be used due to the “interracial touching.” Petula Clark and her husband, the special’s producer, said no; NBC sided with them; and the special, when it aired, was a hit. But if that touch had occurred a decade earlier? NBC likely would’ve cut the song or, if not, many TV stations, primarily in the South, would’ve refused to air the show.

That said, despite the decade’s advances, life wasn’t great. Two days after that special aired, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; two months later, Robert Kennedy was killed; four months later, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned violent; six months later, Richard Nixon was elected president; and, all the while, the Vietnam War raged – more than 16,592 American soldiers died and 87,388 were wounded that year.

When we strip the gauzy nostalgia from the reality of any time, we’re left with this: What often made the time wonderful was less day-to-day life and more the promise of what had yet to come. It’s why succeeding generations continue to embrace the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I think – despite the tumult of the ‘60s and woes of the ‘70s, the messages that powered much of the music were hopeful. And, by and large, we’re a hopeful lot.

Which leads to today’s Top 5: The Promise of Tomorrow, circa 1970 and Billboard. These are the year’s top singles

1) Simon & Garfunkel – “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

2) The Carpenters – “(They Long to Be) Close to You”

3) The Guess Who – “American Woman”

4) B.J. Thomas – “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”

5) Edwin Starr – “War”

6) Diana Ross – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

And a few singles that didn’t make the year’s top 100:

7) The 5th Dimension – “One Less Bell to Answer”

8) Elton John – “Your Song”

9) Dusty Springfield – “A Brand New Me”