Ike & Tina Turner, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ + ‘Outta Season’ (05/17/69)


Ike and Tina Turner have been packing suitcases and riding buses for years, playing the Sportmen’s Clubs and the Showcase Lounges, sometimes making it into the classrooms, occasionally breaking into the middle of the R&B charts, once or twice getting onto Billboard‘s Hot 100, moving from label to label, options not picked up, not well-known enough to get to black high school kids the way the Impressions and the Temptations do. Ike and Tina have a rock and roll legend to their credit, though: Tina’s magnificent performance of Phil Spector’s “River Deep-Mountain High” is part of the story of a record that should have been an automatic Number One but never made the charts. Backed up by what sounds like ten thousand Ikettes, challenging and conquering the difficult changes of mood Phil created for the production, Tina outsang Bill Medley and the Crystals and Veronica and put herself on a level with Darlene Love. But it bombed. Phil took out ads reading “Benedict Arnold Was Right!” when the record scored in England, and then he quit the music business and dissolved his record company.

But not even Phil Spector was able to get a first-rate album out of smoldering Tina and poker-faced Ike. While the Spector album, enjoyable and well-produced, is certainly their best, being mainly a reprise of their greatest hits (“Fool In Love” and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”), R&B standards, and a few big-deal efforts by Phil, only three cuts create the excitement and intensity of the best R&B—the driving, gutty, sly “Make ‘Em Wait” (a song about virginity from Tina Turner, if you can believe that), a job on “Everyday I Have To Cry” that brings back all the firecracker explosions of the Crystals, and, of course, “River Deep-Mountain High,” which is simply in a class by itself. The power of its emotion might be compared to Dylan’s “One Of Us Must Know,” but the musical inventions of Spector and Tina’s control over her almost anarchic vocal weapons make any comparison pointless. It stands alone.

The rest of the album is a disappointment. Spector’s job on “Save the Last Dance for Me” seems to owe more to Elmer Bernstein and the Academy Awards than to Wagner or Verdi; the arrangement is mushy, something fit for the Fifth Dimension. On “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Every Day)” Phil does everything right, but the real problems begin to emerge. With some exceptions, Tina is not a very interesting or creative singer, and when they say “don’t scream on this one” and then let her take it from there, she hasn’t the ability to evoke much emotion—she seems to be straining or falling down flat, as if it all ought to be about three more rungs up the ladder but there’s not a chance of getting there.

The numbers produced by Ike (the greatest hits and standards) illustrates this problem even more clearly. Tina is not in a class with Martha Reeves or Carla Thomas or Gladys Knight, and without the kind of direction Spector provides only when he is totally committed to a production (and he has made it clear his commitment comes on singles), Tina rarely demonstrates even the kind of vocal agility of which Dusty Springfield is capable. Tina Turner’s performance of “River Deep Mountain High” is strikingly better than anything the artists mentioned above ever have or ever will achieve, a masterpiece, but perhaps it was for once and then never again, like a cab driver spending one night with a fare that turned out to be Jeanne Moreau.

The Turners’ new album on Blue Thumb is a package that looks great but fails to go anywhere. The cover art—Ike and Tina in whiteface, chomping on watermelon—is a brilliant come-on, with the magnetism Tina projects with her fabulous and dazzling sexiness breaking through even on a gag photo. The material, almost all blues, looks fine—“Honest I Do,” “Dust My Broom,” “Rock Me Baby,” and many other classics. The possibilities for letting Tina loose seem terrific. Maybe so, but it doesn’t happen.

All the cuts are done straight, without invention or excitement. The one saving grace is Ike’s guitar playing, very tough, melodic, at times almost dazzling, great debt owed to BB King and all that, but in fact a good lesson for young musicians who can’t make their instruments speak but who don’t want to sound like Blue Cheer either. But that’s it. The band sounds tired and bored, as if they’ve done it all a million times before and just couldn’t be bothered.

Only on the opening track, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” does the band really seem to care—a very sparsely illustrated accompaniment following Tina’s sustained and convincing vocal, a fine tribute to Otis Redding. The drummer sounds as if he is playing in church. From then on nothing happens in the rhythm section, and Tina is no more interesting than the bass guitar. Most of the cuts are too short for Tina or the band to get into, and they don’t bother. The fade-outs are pointlessly timed and abrupt, jarring whatever feeling might have been about to develop.

“Reconsider Baby” is done with an easy, rolling beat that is totally inappropriate to the spirit of the song, which is more or less equivalent to Dylan’s description of “Don’t Think Twice”: “It isn’t a love song, it’s a statement you can say to make yourself feel better.” That’s to say the song should have an edge on it, a hardness; here there is a smoothness to the music and to Tina’s uninvolved vocal that makes the cut a throwaway instead of a triumph. It just passes by as the record winds its way to the end of the side, nothing there at all. The only cut that breaks up the monotony is Ike’s instrumental, “Grumbling,” which is the sort of thing that is put out on a B-side, to be revealed years later by John Lennon as something everyone should be ashamed of missing. But we will miss it—the album provides little reason to get to it.

Rolling Stone, May 17, 1969


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