In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Motown would never let a good song go. It was one of the cool things about the label. During Motown’s dominant years, the label was its own little ecosystem, with its own artists and musicians and songwriters and producers all working within the machine. The people involved would pass songs around them, looking at them from different angles, figuring out different ways to approach them. Sometimes, you’d get strange situations like when Gladys Knight & The Pips and Marvin Gaye both had huge hits with radically different versions of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Or like Diana Ross getting her first solo #1 with her second version of a particular song.
When Diana Ross hit #1 with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” it was already an old song. The team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who would eventually become hitmaking artists themselves, wrote the song in 1966, before they joined the Motown machine. They’d met in a New York church in 1962, when both were struggling and trying to figure out how to get into music. One day, Ashford was homeless and wandering through Central Park, wondering if he should give up. He noticed how the buildings around the edges of the park looked like mountains. He got the chorus into his head — the “you” he was imagining was success — and then he and Simpson figured out how to turn it into a love song.
By the time they signed on with Motown, Ashford & Simpson had written a few songs for people like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. They’d played “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Dusty Springfield, and she wanted to record it, but Ashford & Simpson figured that the song might be good enough to get Motown’s attention. It was, and that’s what happened. Tammi Terrell recorded a version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and when Berry Gordy decided that it would work better as a duet, Marvin Gaye was added onto it. The song peaked at #19 and led to a whole run of Gaye/Terrell duets.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” stuck around, probably because of that huge, world-conquering chorus. On the Gaye/Terrell song, that chorus is where the arrangement turns stormy and orchestral, where everything explodes. Two years later, Diana Ross & The Supremes got together with the Temptations to record a new version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for the collaborative album Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations. That version of the song is faster and more nervous, built around the swirl of all those voices coming together.
Ross’ exit from the Supremes was an intricately stage-managed move. Berry Gordy spent years planning it out, having Ross do occasional solo performances and putting her name up front. When she finally left the Supremes and recorded her self-titled debut solo album, Gordy got Ashford & Simpson to produce it, and they came up with the idea of completely reimagining “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” turning it into a whole different song. Artists like Isaac Hayes were finding success with long, expansive soul symphonies, and inspired by them, Ashford & Simpson reworked their own arrangement, filling it out with spoken-word bits and saving the chorus for the end.
Ross’ 1970 version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” sounds the way champagne bubbles feel in your mouth. That wordless ahh-ahh-ahh intro works as an overture, the instruments all whirling around Ross before the song even really starts. On the spoken-word bits, Ross, still about two years away from movie stardom, flexes her acting chops and subtly gets across the idea of the song.
In her hands, it’s not just a love song. It’s a woman letting an ex know that things aren’t really over, that there’s always time to get things started again: “If you should ever fall short of your desires, remember life for you holds one guarantee: You’ll always have me.” Ross says those words like they’re romantic, but they’re not. They’re sad. And that comes quietly across in her delivery, too.
The chorus doesn’t even kick in until more than four minutes into the six-minute song, and when it arrives, it explodes. That chorus becomes a gospel-force eruption of pent-up feelings, a declaration of need as much as one of love. There’s something almost psychedelic about all that orchestral grandeur. To hear it is to get swept up in it.
Gordy didn’t like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and he didn’t release it as the album’s first single. He didn’t like the spoken-word bits, and he didn’t like how long it was. Eventually, he agreed to release the single, but only after cutting it down to three and a half minutes. But at least according to Simpson, radio DJs would still play the full version. And today, the full version is the one that matters.
There’s something just slightly indulgent about “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — the languid pace, the way Ross doesn’t sing the verses. But within the song, we can still hear the seed of so much that would explode in the years ahead: Gamble & Huff, Barry White, disco, Ross’ acting career. It might have pointed back at Motown’s past, just by virtue of being an old song, but it also pointed the way forward.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cast of 1993’s Sister Act 2 (including Lauryn Hill, who this column will get to eventually) singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” over the movie’s end credits:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jessica Simpson’s video for her bubbly, difficult-to-hate 2006 single “A Public Affair,” which samples the ahhh-ahhh-ahhhs from the 1970 version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”:
(Simpson’s highest-charting single — and, weirdly, her only top-10 song — was 1999’s “I Wanna Love You Forever.” It’s a 4.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Here’s Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Buck Owens-inspired ramble “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” the fifth CCR single that made it to #2. (They never got to #1.) “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” peaked at #2 behind “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and it’s an 8.