Trust the art, not the artist—isn’t that what they always say? Notorious music producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector died Saturday at the age of 81. We thought his 1966 production of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep—Mountain High” was due for some reconsideration.
This story originally appeared in The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables And Sonic Storytelling (HarperCollins, 2007) by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers.
Several years ago I was in Los Angeles and found myself at an empty bar in the middle of the afternoon. There were two guys shooting pool and an older fellow sitting alone. The old guy was tan, had long sideburns and was wearing a fringed leather jacket.
We started talking. He told me that he was a studio musician who’d played on many different recording sessions in the 1960s.
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds exciting. What instrument do you play?”
“Glockenspiel,” he answered.
“Glockenspiel?” I barely contained my sarcasm. “Man, you must have played on some pretty heavy sessions.”
The old guy became stern. “You think you’re smart? Let me tell you something. I worked on one of the greatest recording sessions of all time. Have you ever heard the song ‘River Deep—Mountain High,’ produced by Phil Spector?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Ike & Tina Turner cut that in 1966.”
The guy laughed, “You’re half right, son. Now let me tell you the real story.”
With that, he strolled over to the old-fashioned jukebox in the corner, dropped in some quarters, pushed a few buttons and returned to his seat. He told me that his friends called him Harvey The K.
Then he leaned back on his barstool and said, “Phil Spector was a hot-shot producer when he first saw Ike & Tina perform in L.A. At 26, he was already a huge success in the record business. Phil had a string of hits with all these different girl groups including the Crystals singing ‘He’s A Rebel’ and ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes.
“It hardly mattered who was singing when Phil was producing. He’d pick the group, give them their songs, and direct every move they made in the studio. Before he came along, record producers never got any press, but I remember Tom Wolfe wrote an article in 1965 calling Phil ‘The First Tycoon Of Teen.’
“Anyway, Phil had his own record label by then, but things were falling apart. The hits just weren’t coming like they used to and his last success had been with the Righteous Brothers. Even though Phil produced their number one hit ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ just a year earlier, the Righteous Brothers had stopped working with Phil.
“Yeah, Spector was slipping, but he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. So Phil calls up this tiny label called Loma Records and offers to buy Ike & Tina’s recording contract for $20,000! And get this—the entire offer is just so he can produce one song with Tina Turner singing. But there’s a catch, Ike isn’t allowed to come anywhere near the recording session—Phil just wants Tina!
“So they make the deal and Tina starts rehearsing at Phil’s mansion, just the two of them with no Ike in sight. They keep going over this disjointed song about a little girl and her rag doll. Phil had written it with his cronies from the Brill Building in Manhattan, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Somehow, Phil convinced Ellie and Jeff to come out to L.A. and help him. He was hoping to recapture the magic of their old days together since they’d collaborated on big hits like ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’ and ‘Baby, I Love You.’
“And Phil took a big risk with Tina Turner. She and Ike weren’t stars at that point. They were still doing endless one-nighters with a nine-piece band and three Ikettes—just another hardcore rhythm ‘n’ blues act with Ike calling the shots. If you think about it, Phil’s session with Tina was her first step away from Ike’s domination.
“Finally, Phil got us together for ‘River Deep’ and you had to see it to believe it—it was like a huge party with more than 20 musicians crammed into Studio A at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. And there were just as many people hanging out. I remember Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was watching us the whole time and Mick Jagger kept walking in and out of the control booth for some reason. Would you believe Dennis Hopper was there taking pictures? It was a rock ‘n’ roll zoo and Phil worked us harder than usual just to impress everyone.
“With so many of us in the studio, Phil took his legendary ‘wall of sound’ to a whole new level. It was positively orchestral with four guitarists, four bassists and three keyboards all going over this killer arrangement written by Jack Nitzsche. Nitzsche was always in the studio with Phil, as well as his engineer Larry Levine. Before we started recording, Jack, Larry and Phil fussed endlessly with the sound, adjusting each microphone and turning up the echo and reverb beyond anything I had ever heard before.
“Phil used two drummers for the first time and two percussionists, too. We were falling all over each other, but the sound was huge; there were saxophones, trumpets and trombones. Phil threw us all together until everything reverberated into one giant roar. Later on, he would add a string section and a battalion of back-up singers. Of course, the whole thing was recorded in mono and nobody made mono recordings like Phil Spector.
“Tina had tried recording her vocals that day, but she just wasn’t prepared for the total Spector experience. She rehearsed with Phil for another full week before doing her vocal track. That day, hardly anyone was in the studio, just Phil, Larry and me. The lights were low and Tina was wearing studio headphones with Phil’s dynamic sound booming in her ears. And Phil kept making her sing the song over and over until Tina sweated right through her blouse. Finally, she said, ‘OK, Phil, one more time.’ Then she pulled off her shirt, stood there in her bra and just nailed it. I mean she matched Phil’s production punch for punch. It was majestic!
“We all figured ‘River Deep’ was headed straight for number one, but a funny thing happened. The record bombed. Some said it was overproduced, others thought it was just too far ahead of its time. Besides that, Phil had alienated a lot of industry people and some folks were eager to see him fail.
“In any case, Phil took it real hard. He became reclusive and hardly made any records for about three years. Of course, he rebounded in the ’70s producing albums like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Imagine.”
When the music on the jukebox stopped, Harvey The K jumped up and said that he had to get going. As we bid farewell, I noticed a button on Harvey’s jacket that read “Back To Mono.” Then he was gone.
I was so impressed with Harvey’s story about Phil Spector that I contacted the American Federation of Musicians Local Union 47 on Vine Street in Hollywood. Sure enough, there was a contract listing for a recording session using 23 musicians on March 7, 1966, working on a song entitled “River Deep.”
The funny thing is, nobody named Harvey was credited on that session. Not only that, there was absolutely no mention of anybody playing a glockenspiel.
Mitch Myers narrated this story for National Public Radio in 2002, which you can listen to here.