Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Pop # 19, R&B # 3
By Joel Francis
Marvin Gaye found his greatest early success as a duet partner. The 1964 album “Together” was his first album to chart, and his duets placed in the Top 20 with a consistency that eluded him as a solo artist. Unfortunately, Gaye’s soul partners, Mary Wells and Kim Weston, both left Motown for (allegedly) greener pastures shortly after collaborating with Gaye. As established Motown solo artists, pairing of Gaye with Wells and Weston made sense. The teaming of Gaye with Hitsville newcomer Tammi Terrell, however, was inspired.
Terrell arrived at Motown in 1965 after bouncing from Scepter Records, where she recorded as Tammy Montgomery, James Brown’s Try Records and the Chess Records subsidiary Checker. Her initial Motown singles didn’t much fare better than her previous efforts, but “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” took both her and Gaye’s careers to a new level.
Motown’s new singing pair was paired with the songwriting team Berry Gordy hired to replace the gradually exiting Holland-Dozier-Holland squad. Husband and wife Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson came to Gordy’s attention in 1966 with their No. 1 hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned” for Ray Charles. (Ironically, “Stoned” was Charles’ first single after leaving rehab for his heroin addiction.)
“Mountain was a heck of a debut for both Ashford and Simpson and Gaye and Terrell. It’s obvious from the few seconds of spoken introduction that the signers have great rapport and their voices dance perfectly on the chorus. Although Gaye and Terrell sound like they’re giggling from the same care-free piano bench, their vocal parts were actually recorded separately. Terrell felt like she hadn’t rehearsed the lyrics enough to record with Gaye, so after some coaching with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol she cut her part alone.
Although Fuqua and Bristol had helmed dozens of Motown hits, “Mountain” doesn’t have the expected Hitsville sound. The most obvious explanation is that Ashford and Simpson were an “outside” songwriting team and that Holland-Dozier-Holland were on their way out. It also highlights that when people talk about the “Motown sound” they are often talking about Holland-Dozier-Holland’s signature production style. Holland-Dozier-Holland’s defection not only deprived Motown of its greatest songwriting team, but also Gordy’s vaunted “sound of young America.”
As one team of stars left, another was being born. The success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” helped transform Gaye into one of Motown’s biggest and most enduring performers, whose brightest days were yet to come.