The Supremes

TrackAlbum / UK Single 
Where Did Our Love GoStateside SS327
Come See About MeStateside SS376
Stop! In The Name Of LoveTamla Motown TMG 501
You Can't Hurry LoveTamla Motown TMG 575
You Keep Me Hangin' OnTamla Motown TMG 585
ReflectionsTamla Motown TMG 616
Someday We'll Be TogetherTamla Motown TMG 721
The WeightTogether
Stoned LoveTamla Motown TMG 760
Nathan JonesTamla Motown TMG 782

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Contributor: Peter Viney

This covers three acts: The Supremes, Diana Ross & The Supremes and finally The Supremes after Diana Ross went solo. Singles or albums? Irrelevant. These guys had so many hit singles, and they were all about hit singles too. Catalogue numbers are British. I’m choosing 45s and hits, but there’s still an awful lot of great hit stuff on the cutting room floor. They’re not a group with surprisingly better B-sides either. Motown devoted its whole resources to selecting the A sides, and they were pretty much right. It’s hard enough to avoid their ten greatest hits in order of chart positions.

Berry Gordy, the boss of Motown, saw them as the jewel in the crown, and they had first pick of songs, producers, arrangers and backing musicians, though Holland-Dozier-Holland were the dominant writers and producers. Gordy also saw them as his spearhead for expanding Motown into conventional “white” markets which he hoped to achieve with albums. The choices were bizarre and mainly misguided: A Bit Of Liverpool, The Supremes Sing Country & Western & Pop, Merry Christmas, We Remember Sam Cooke, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, Live At The Copa, The Supremes Sing “Funny Girl”. You won’t find Supremes albums on CDs in 2-for-1s. People want compilations of singles. The album which exists in an expanded & carefully documented edition is More Hits From The Supremes (see below) which is an exception in their catalogue and their best album. It’s not a compilation in spite of its title.

The dirty laundry has been picked over. We know Berry fancied Diana, picked her out from the group and put her up front. I’ve seen Mary Wilson live and she’s still complaining about it. They were three astonishing singers, and yes, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson had every much right to sing lead as Diana, and were equal or better flat-out soul singers. The point is that Gordy rightly recognized that Diana Ross’s feline purr was instantly recognizable and the key to success. The definition of a signature voice.

They had eight singles out in 1961-1963 without a hit, and they tried swopping lead. Mary Wilson did slow songs, Flo Ballard rocked it up, and Diana had the pop sensibility. Early LPs are prized because you get to hear all of them singing lead. Smokey Robinson wrote Motown singles like Your Heart Belongs To Me in 1961, but while the voices are there, they had to wait for Holland-Dozier-Holland to find their style. Some of the early stuff like (He’s) Seventeen, written by Marv Johnson, is frankly abysmal.

They appeared on many Motown records as backing singers, building up a reputation as the best hand clappers in the business. Note how often handclaps and tambourine feature upfront on their later records.

Gordy made Diana’s lead role official in late 1963. The others never forgave him. The first of their hits was When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes (US #23), and it had Diana right up front on a Holland-Dozier-Holland song.

Where Did Our Love Go was the breakthrough. They hated the song at first with Diana way up front and the others echoing way back. It had been written with Mary Wilson in mind, and the instrumental track was in her key. Diana Ross was forced to sing it lower.

I’ve got this burning burning yearning feeling inside me
Ooh, deep inside me, and it hurts so bad …

For 1964 this was as sexy as it got. Not just the lyrics, but that purring vocal. Points off for an inappropriate saxophone break by Mike Terry perhaps, but it was a huge hit everywhere. Simon Napier-Bell has had much to say about the power of four to the bar stomp rhythms in disco. It started here. Motown had a specialist footstomper, Mike Valvano, who did the beat on this song.

I’m not going to choose Baby Love, the next and biggest British hit. It’s the most common secondhand Supremes single by a mile too. It would be eleventh or twelfth, but it was very much along the lines of the one before right down to sax break. And I have to have the next one.

Come See About Me was a lesser hit, but the way the drums build up to a crescendo to introduce it, the staccato rhythm section, the ghostly echo of Florence and Mary behind Diana singing about to ease the fire that within me burns … and we all know what “Come see about me” meant, i.e. “Come see to me …” Then Flo and Mary start getting louder and more forward. The drums and handclaps are insistent. One of the great Motown songs, and much less “pop” than the two before. There are live versions, but they take it too fast and lose impact. Jr. Walker & The All Stars did a good cover in 1967.

Stop! In The Name Of Love was chosen to launch Tamla-Motown as a separate EMI label in Britain as the first single: TMG501. It was such a prestige release that Berry Gordy took over the mixing himself, and released a separate radio mix. The classic hit version replaced the original studio recording, with a later version with The Andantes instead of Flo and Mary. The original studio take (Stop! In The Name of Love Version 1) is on The Supremes 4CD box and the limited expanded edition re-issue of the album More Hits By The Supremes which was the 1965 album centred on this and Nothing But A Heartache and Back In My Arms Again. The album shows how much quality material The Supremes had to choose from. It’s not “two or three hits and filler” as so many Motown albums were. Honey Boy and Whisper You Love Me Boy (B-side of Back In My Arms Again) and I’m In Love Again (B-side of Stop! In The Name Of Love) would all have been credible A-sides, and the quality is consistently high.

We all have a thing about “originals” but Version 1 of Stop! In The Name Of Love sounds dull next to the hit single. Berry Gordy was right. The song turned out to be the gift to comedy drag acts imitating The Supremes because of the Stop! hand gestures which were so obvious. Actually, when we were doing comedy revues we tried both this and Come See About Me and ended up with Come See About Me because everyone liked it even more, and it’s still got distinctive hand moves. But this is The Supremes as you might pastiche them. They were working on trademark intros … here it was organ building up instead of drums. They were sticking with H-D-H (Holland-Dozier-Holland) and James Jamerson perfected his eight to the bar bass pattern on this one.

There’s a good run continuing … Back In My Arms Again, I Hear A Symphony, My World Is Empty Without You … would all sail easily into a Top Fifteen. Videos for Back In My Arms Again show where it’s headed. Earlier videos showed them in line abreast. Now Diana is ahead of the line. The others have receded back. They were told when they entered rooms on promotional visits, Diana was to go in first, and Flo and Mary would follow. By 1965, most recordings used Diana Ross plus session singers.

You Can’t Hurry Love has a great intro again, James Jamerson’s bass guitar plus tambourine. It was another H-D-H song, and Berry Gordy intervened mid-1966 to say that in future all Supremes releases had to be number one hits. In other words, they would only get the cream of Motown material plus flat-out promotion. It worked, this and the next three all were US number ones. The tune was simple and repetitive with the verse and chorus exactly the same. The Complete Motown Singles points out that the same eight bars are repeated eleven and a half times with no deviation. Diana Ross floats over the backing. It was later covered by Phil Collins and was a major hit again. The album was The Supremes A’ Go-Go and they had reverted to the two hits + cover fillers (mainly H-D-H hits for other artists) Motown formula. Motown would re-use backing tracks with different singers. Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart was the other Supremes hit from this album.

You Keep Me Hangin’ On was the next 1966 single only eight weeks later as Berry Gordy planned a Beatles-like assault on the charts. The intro Robert White guitar part was supposed to sound like a telegraph machine tapping out morse code in a movie, and was done by layering four guitars in unison. My favourite version is the totally over-the-top long, long Vanilla Fudge cover, but when you listen to the original so many of the ideas are already there but with more subtlety. The morse code guitar goes all the way through, and by now Flo and Mary really are just ‘backing vocals’.

I was tempted by The Happening from 1967 with its big band approach and cheery tune. But this is Las Vegas doing a psychedelic reference in the title. It’s just too bouncy and MoR for me, and when I was doing stage lights on summer shows it was a chorus dance number, so I can’t separate it from sequinned dancers in high heels with feathers prancing about. It was the last one credited to The Supremes. Henceforth it would be Diana Ross & The Supremes.

Much later, Up The Ladder To The Roof is a lovely song but it has that same MoR feel to it.

Reflections repeats the clever intro, this time an oscillating tone generator pulse with a conscious psychedelic wash interrupting it before Diana’s voice comes in, more tired, more laid back. After all, it’s mid 1967. Through the mirror of my mind … a distorted reality … sounds part of the summer of love collective. Diana even sounds slightly stoned. Flo Ballard was on this track, but out of the group before it was released. The session was done at the same time as The Happening, so the name change was after both had been recorded. Cindy Birdsong was drafted in from Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells as a lookalike replacement. She had filled in a couple of times before.

Now I have to skip Love Child with great regret.

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me in 1968 was from Diana Ross with The Supremes & The Temptations, and was originally a B-side (to The Impossible Dream) but it got flipped pretty fast. It sounds later than 1968 because it’s a Gamble-Huff song and their style sounds early 70s. It had been done three times before … by Dee Dee Warwick, Madeline Bell and by Jerry Butler. Drums and bass are the signature start. Eddie Kendricks and Diana Ross switch lead vocals … Eddie sounding more female than Diana who comes in lower. It was in the first version of my list, but I decided Eddie Kendricks part was so prominent that it should give way.

Someday We’ll Be Together from 1969 replaced it. It was produced by Johnny Bristol, who co-wrote and recorded it with Jackey Beavers for Harvey Fuqua’s label way back in 1961. The intro routine was strings this time. It’s the most gospel of the selection and the chorus is hugely infectious, but what sets it apart is the hypnotic lead vocal in the verses. It was originally designed to be Diana Ross’s first solo credit, and neither Mary nor Cindy sing on it. The female vocals are Maxine and Julia Walters. The soulful male voice is Johnny Bristol, and the background of Johnny Bristol improvising around the song together with Robert White’s languid guitar fills make the record. It was decided in the end to release it as Diana Ross and The Supremes and was their final major hit together. Just a few weeks after its release her solo career was announced. Diana’s lead voice is brilliant understatement. She may not have had the soul shouter power of her bandmates, but few people could match her relaxed, restrained style.

The Weight. Diana Ross with The Supremes & The Temptations from the second Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations album: Together. This may surprise some, but this version released early in 1969 joined Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers and Jackie de Shannon in bringing out the soul roots of The Band’s most famous song. It was recorded as a response to Aretha’s version. It was a hit too in the USA (R&B 33, Pop 46)… and probably is the version which started the shifting of vocals not only between verses (as in the original) but within the verse. It wasn’t a UK single. It’s also not just Diana Ross (she gets the first line) but gives each Supreme and Temptation a go at singing lead. The lovely chuckle is Diana. It was produced by Frank Wilson and features very different but still fascinating guitar, a riffier bass line and the addition of a horn part. It was Motown’s first stereo 45 rpm release. It is the answer every time Levon Helm fans protest that all The Band should have shared Robbie Robertson’s songwriting royalties because they contributed their parts. This is unquestionably “The Weight” but every instrumental part differs strongly from the original.

Stormy from 1969 is a strong contender, especially as it’s a 2014 release, a rarity exhumed from the deepest vaults for The Motown 7s Box Set of rare and unreleased vinyl. It’s the Classics IV song done in a jazzy sophisticated version with full strings. Beautifully arranged, and sung by Diana Ross. The Supremes did a lot of covers to flesh out albums but I seek more of a pop soul sound.

Stoned Love is 1970, and post-Diana Ross. It was written by Kenny Thomas, still a teenager. Jean Terrell has replaced Diana, and it was a major hit too. The album was called New Ways But Love Stays and was conceived as an album. The original LP title was Stoned Love but Motown got cold feet over ‘stoned’, which was apparently a misprint for ‘stone’ on the 45 label. The lyrics were on the 1970 collective peace, love and harmony vibe: A love for each other will bring fighting to an end. The vocal certainly sounds like ‘stone’ not ‘stoned’. They were back to trademark beginnings … the voice then the rising volume of drums. A big string section. Thirty musicians on the track. Looking around, this is a popular choice for The Supremes’ finest song. It was in Forrest Gump giving it extended life.

Nathan Jones is 1971. On the recording, Clydie King is shadowing Jean Terrell’s lead vocal in unison along with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, and Clydie was uncredited until The Complete Motown Singles series. Clydie King was never a Supreme. The song has a ‘country-got-soul’ feel with that choppy guitar then the horns and piano.

That wasn’t the end of the hits. Floy Joy and Automatically Sunshine were the strongest later near-miss contenders for Toppermost. In 1975, Scherrie Payne replaced Jean Terrell, and the group lasted until 1977.

 

International Diana Ross Fanclub

Mary Wilson official site

Scherrie Payne official website

The Supremes biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #334

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Aug 9, 2014

    The other thing Diana Ross had was that she looked and acted like a star. She is a more charismatic presence and the eye is drawn to her. Gordy was absolutely correct. Solo careers bear this out.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Aug 10, 2014

    Peter, thanks for this great list. However, while it may true that Diana Ross had more star quality, Berry Gordy’s treatment of Florence Ballard was shabby even by his not very high standards…

  3. Calvin Rydbom
    Aug 10, 2014

    Glad to see you including some post Diana numbers Peter. For some reason, as the years have rolled by, it’s become the belief the Supremes were done after Ross went solo. The truth is of course they charted 8 more top 40 singles stateside, 2 in the top 10. They were by any standard a popular pop group for a couple of years after Ross left.

  4. Alex Lifson
    Aug 10, 2014

    Great essay. Happy to see the inclusion of Stoned Love as well as Nathan Jones. A lot of people would skip over them as they’re from the “forgotten period”.

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