The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits
The Billboard charts have a currency acknowledged around the world. The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, written by Adam White and Fred Bronson, pays tribute to many of those who helped to create a quarter-century of unimpeachable music: singers, songwriters, musicians, producers and more – even some of the record executives whose hustle delivered the hits and sent them to the soul summit.
AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH
Writers: Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson
Producers: Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson
No. 1, October 3, 1970 (1 week)
As if rehearsing for Lady Sings The Blues, Diana Ross swept through her role in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with all the drama and majesty befitting the queen of Motown.
Just months earlier, Motown’s king, Berry Gordy, had put his most skilled artisans to work, “Berry thought we would be the most innovative with her solo album,” explained Nick Ashford, who wrote and produced it with partner Valerie Simpson. “We were trying to think of directions to take her. At that time, lengthy records were starting to come out: six, seven minutes.
“We didn’t have any songs like that, but we wanted Diana to feel she was into new things. We thought to stretch ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ and we thought how sexy and silky her voice was...” Simpson interrupts: “You thought about how sexy her voice was.”
Berry Gordy’s trust in the couple was well-placed. The New Yorkers had crafted urban pop ballads to perfection for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, including "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" and "You're All I Need To Get By." And since Nick and Val met through a Harlem church choir, it was no surprise to hear that background in their work.
Despite Gordy’s wide-screen ambitions for Diana Ross after she left the Supremes, he gave Simpson and Ashford relative independence in the recording sessions. “I must say from the time we started producing, you had total control,” Simpson stated. “They restricted you in terms of how long you had [to record], but as long as you stayed within those guidelines, they let you do what you wanted to do.”
Ashford did remember Ross questioning the choice of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which had been a hit three years earlier. “She just kind of raised her eyebrows and said. ‘Marvin and Tammi already did that.’ We said, ‘This is especially for you.’ She said, ‘OK,’ and just gave it all she had.”
Arranger Paul Riser framed the record like a three-act play, with the singer occasionally offstage. “We cut the rhythm track in Detroit,” said Riser. “The strings and horns were a little too sophisticated for the players there, so we went to New York to do it, to get the best possible performance.” Simpson played piano, she and Ashford also handled backing vocals, joined by their earlier songwriting partner, Jo Armstead.
Breaking the rules of hook-conscious Motown, the finished production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was inverted — the climactic chorus consumed the last two minutes of its six-minute running time.
“When we took it to Berry,” recalled Ashford, “he said, ‘I think it sounds good, but you’re gonna have to take the back and put it up in the front.’ “ Ashford and Simpson were not pleased. “Berry wouldn’t release that song [as a single],” Ashford contended. “We refused to change it, and he refused to release it. He didn’t release it — the disc jockeys did. They picked it up all over the country.”