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#RSFlashback: 20 Years Ago, Vanessa Carlton And A Piano Riff Took Us On ‘A Thousand Miles’ Journey

We’ve not stopped singing along to this effusive pop hit since

Amit Vaidya Feb 12, 2022

Vanessa Carlton in 2020. Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Arguably the most easily identifiable first three seconds to a song of the last two decades, and quite possibly the most instantaneously recognizable piano riff ever, Vanessa Carlton officially released her global smash “A Thousand Miles” 20 years ago this week.

Originally titled “Interlude” and shopped to record executives ahead of even getting signed, “A Thousand Miles” nearly took as long to actually complete. Carlton came up with the piano riff one day while visiting her parents. Her mom encouraged her, and called the song a “hit,” but the singer failed to complete the song.

Several months later while putting together a compilation of tracks to send to labels, she completed the track and the demo reached the hands of Ron Fair, the head of A&M Records who instantly took a liking to the song. He met with Carlton and over the course of more than a dozen sessions, the song was altered to include an orchestra section with more transitions adding a dramatic effect often not found on Top 40 records.

The result of their collaboration was the first track recorded for Carlton’s debut record Be Not Nobody. The song was featured on-screen and then included in the 2001 soundtrack for Reese Witherspoon’s smash hit film Legally Blonde. Titled “A Thousand Miles (Interlude)” at the time, the song was a standout but wasn’t released as an official single as that honor went to Hoku and her upbeat single “Perfect Day.” Internationally, Samantha Mumba’s “Don’t Need You To Tell Me I’m Pretty” was released as the official single from the soundtrack.

While the piano riff began to make its way into our streams of consciousness through the film, the song officially got the greenlight in early 2002 when Jimmy Iovine, the co-chairman of Interscope-Geffen-A&M — Fair’s boss at the time — fell in love with the song and immediately commissioned for a music video and pushed the track to radio. Now titled just “A Thousand Miles,” the song connected rather quickly on radio, moving up the Top 40, Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40 charts.

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The already memorable single was helped in part by an equally memorable music video. Directed by Marc Klasfeld, the video was shot in Newbury Park, California, with portions also filmed in Downtown Los Angeles. The video begins with Carlton entering her garage, uncovering her piano and then moving with the piano around her neighborhood, passing bikers and racers, a parade, and then the beach until the sun sets, making her way back to the garage and then the house. A custom dolly was built for the piano, with a safety belt in place for Carlton — no green screens or CGI was used to film the classic video.

The video became an instant hit on MTV, spending the entire eligibility timeframe in the Top 10 at TRL. On radio, the song peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 but spent more than 40 weeks on the chart. The song did hit Number One on the AC and Mainstream Top 40 charts and became one of the biggest hits of 2002.

The song continued to have legs and garner significant airplay into 2003 and even 2004 on Adult contemporary and Adult Top 40 stations, often charting higher than Carlton’s follow-up releases including “Ordinary Day,” the single, the label and the artist had hoped to become her second hit.

“A Thousand Miles” was nominated for Song and Record of The Year at the 2003 Grammys but it lost both categories to Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.” Bizarrely, Carlton was not nominated for her vocal performance despite it being a heavy favorite. In many ways, the snubbing of the artist at the award shows combined with the adoration for the song across generations and genres, kept it a part of the pop lexicon.

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This was no better showcased than in 2004, in the comedy film White Chicks, where the song was not used once, or twice, but three times in the film, and each time becoming all the more memorable in critical comic scenes. In particular, for actor Terry Crews, his performance of the song became his breakout star turn, speeding up the trajectory of his now decades-long career.

While mocked as the white girl “jam” in the film, the song actually expanded even further on its audience, forever becoming a part of pop culture history and bringing the urban/hip-hop audience to now find love for the record.

In just 20 years, the song has been sampled by everyone including hip hop giants like T.I. and Cam’ron, Brit-pop star Cheryl Cole, and Rico Nasty. Countless YouTubers and thousands of contestants across every singing competition show around the world also continue to try and impress judges and the audience alike with their own renditions of  “A Thousand Miles.”

While Carlton is aware she’s likely never to achieve the same level of fame or success she did with her debut hit, we are very certain that even 20 years from now, the minute the piano riff for “A Thousand Miles” starts, we’ll be ready to sing along.


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