“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967)/Diana Ross (1970)

Motown was well known for having several of its artists record the same songs, often in dramatically different versions. Ashford and Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was the beneficiary of superlative treatments by both Berry’s queen and his dashing prince (joined in song by a tragic princess.)

Miss Ross was omnipresent at the start of the ‘80s, which is right around the time my pop culture memories begin. It was rare for any of her performances (televised or in concert) to occur without a version of “Ain’t No Mountain”, featuring her dramatic spoken recitations, visually accented by her big hair and one of her glittering gowns. Her version has soundtracked a million drag balls and fashion shows. The loud strings, the louder horns, Nick & Val’s operatic background vocals, Diana’s campy, thunderously leather-lunged caterwauling…this version is gaudy. Diana plays is relatively low-key from an aesthetic standpoint in the clip below, but the performance (complete with a literally wheeled-out orchestra) is pure camp.

By contrast, Marvin and Tammi’s original seems like a simple little love song. But don’t ignore the magic in simplicity. Marvin’s all passion, Tammi is coquettish cool. When they come together, chills go up the spine. Very few things sound more like “love” than when Marvin and Tammi sing together.

Diana’s version is about the performance. Marvin & Tammi’s version is about the feeling.

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