Listen: Tina Turner’s Marathon Recording of “River Deep-Mountain High”

Outtakes from the historic 1966 session at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios capture Turner and producer Phil Spector at peak performance

Tina Turner, who died today at the age of 83, was a famously robust performer.

But the recording of her classic “River Deep-Mountain High” tested even her reserves of endurance.

The song, written by Brill Building legends Barry Mann and Ellie Greenwich, and producer Phil Spector, renowned for his epic productions on behalf of the Shirelles and other pop acts, was meant to broaden Turner’s appeal beyond her work with then-husband Ike Turner, who led their Ike and Tina Turner Revue.

The sessions for “River Deep” were held at Gold Star in March, 1966. As was his custom, Spector laid in no less than 21 musicians for the date, among them key members of L.A.’s famed Wrecking Crew including bassist Carol Kay, drummer Earl Palmer and future stars Leon Russell and Glen Campbell. Jack Nitzsche gave the song its rousing arrangement.

The evening that Turner cut her lead vocal, Spector demanded she record take after take of the uptempo, demanding song into the early hours of the morning. In the darkened vocal booth, Turner—exhausted and disoriented by Spector’s unceasing demands—finally stripped off her shirt and sang in her bra before the producer finally relented.

“I must have sung that 500,000 times,” Turner later said. “I was drenched in sweat.”

As it happens, many of those outtakes were captured on soundboard recordings made the night of the sessions and posted on The Tina Turner Blog.

The raw recordings offer a fascinating glimpse into Spector’s perfectionism—at one point, he halts the proceedings to chide percussionist Frank Capp for playing his bongos too loudly during the song’s breakdown. Meanwhile, Turner can be heard in the left channel of the mix, singing the verses again and again with all her might.

“River Deep-Mountain High” ended up costing a then-astronomical $22,000 to record. But despite the collective talent involved and Turner’s monumental vocal performance, the song was, in the U.S., a flop, stalling at No. 88 on the Billboard Hot 100. Disillusioned that his most ambitious production had failed so spectacularly, Spector effectively left the record business thereafter.

“River Deep-Mountain High” has since been recognized as one of pop music’s masterpieces, ranked at No. 33 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

And it remained a staple in Turner’s live performances over the years, even after she became an international superstar with massive hits like “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” which gave her the mainstream audience that the grandiose and quirky “River Deep-Mountain High” was supposed to deliver but never did.