This seems like a day Diana Ross would like to celebrate. Fifty-two years ago today, she got to #1 in the U.S. for the first time with her second solo single, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Of course, having a #1 single wasn’t unique or unusual for Diana by then; she’d sang on 12 of them in the ’60s with the Supremes. But the 1970 hit was the first just labeled under her name alone.
The song was the second single off her self-titled “debut” after a much-publicized falling out with her girl group bandmates, largely spurred on by Motown’s Berry Gordy. Gordy sensed, perhaps correctly, that Ross was the real star of the Supremes and could be a household name on her own. To get her on her way he brought in Ashford & Simpson, at the time a pair that were among Motown’s elite writers and producers. In later years, they’d also record on their own and score a major mid-’80s hit with “Solid.”
Not only did they produce the Ross album, they also wrote many of the tracks including this one. It wasn’t penned for her though; it was first recorded three years earlier by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, who took it up to #19. They had to do something a little different with it for Ross (who was trying to signify something of a new direction with her album cover, featuring a sexy looking Diana with short hair and in cutoff jeans instead of the elegant gowns and coiffed hair the Supremes had been known for) so they brought in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to add some strings, made it a bit funkier and featured spoken word bits too. As the BBC’s Matthew Horton put it, it became “a sexy anthem, whipping up the tension with two minutes of psychedelic soul before the delayed release of the chorus.” The song ran over six minutes … and neither Diana nor Berry Gordy liked the initial result.
Gordy thought the song much too long and weird, and didn’t like the spoken word bits. Eventually they all compromised and the song was shortened to about half its album length for the 7” single which radio typically played then.
No matter who’s toes might have been stepped on a bit (there was no word on what Marvin thought of “his” song being redone to greater effect) it paid off. It ended up being among the top 10 hits of ’70 and set Diana off to a pretty solid solo career through the decade. And into the next.
Another reason for Diana to like Sep. 19th, was ten years after “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” she was back on top of the American singles charts this day in 1980, with “Upside Down.” It was her fifth solo chart-topper (she’d go on to score one more with “Endless Love”, the duet with Lionel Richie) and it spent a full four weeks at #1, earning her a gold single and a platinum one in Canada, where it topped out at #5 (but sold for more weeks in a row, apparently.) It was from her Diana album, which went platinum in the States. That record was produced by the Chic duo of Nile Rodgers – who’s enjoying his 70th birthday today, by the way – and Bernard Edwards. Rodgers says “Diana was the first big star we ever worked with, so we took it very seriously.” Ross however, didn’t like their job of mixing this song, thinking it too funky and bass-heavy and had it remixed herself, bringing her voice more front and center and cutting the funk a bit. Rodgers was furious, but it seemed to pay off. Ross had a #1 song and Rodgers would soon be working with another “serious” big star – David Bowie, putting together his Let’s Dance album and helping on the Serious Moonlight tour.