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50 Years Ago, 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' Became Diana Ross' First Solo Hit

The 1970 single radically revised the version produced three years earlier

Starting in mid-September 1970, the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for three straight weeks was “Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” the first single by Diana Ross after her departure from the Supremes.

Although it became an iconic hit, it almost didn't happen, according to music historian Fred Bronson. Motown mogul Berry Gordy originally hired outside producer Bones Howe to do Ross’ solo record. Howe envisioned reinventing the diva as a Barbra Streisand–type pop singer who did Laura Nyro covers such as “Stoney End."

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Gordy eventually replaced Howe with the Motown songwriting-production team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

Ashford and Simpson wanted Ross, now 76, to do a new version of “Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” which they had written a few years before. A duet version featuring Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had reached No. 19 on Billboard's pop chart in 1967, and the Supremes and the Temptations had done a similar arrangement.

“We thought Diana had such an interesting speaking voice,” Simpson said in Bronson’s 1988 book, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “We thought it was very sexy and wanted to incorporate that into the production.”

We thought Diana had such an interesting speaking voice. We thought it was very sexy and wanted to incorporate that into the production.”

— Songwriter Valerie Simpson

This time, Ashford and Simpson radically remade the song, changing it into a dramatic anthem for a solo singer. They liked hearing Ross talk, and Ashford got the idea to have her recite the verses.

Ashford rewrote the lyrics while Simpson reworked the melody, creating an instrumental and adding a choir that led up to her spoken section, according to a 2018 Wall Street Journal retrospective by music writer Marc Myers.

The album version clocked in at slightly over six minutes, which may be why Motown released “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)” as the album's first single instead. But “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” received so much airplay from radio disc jockeys that it was eventually trimmed to three minutes and 22 seconds and released as a 45 rpm single.

The song also resulted in Ross’ first Grammy nomination of her solo career. In all, she was nominated a dozen times, including two with the Supremes, but never won. Ross was honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Though Ross’ chart-topping 50-year-old hit still eclipses it in airplay and streaming, the Gaye-Terrell version became popular again when it was featured in the 2014 blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy.

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