For three years, The Supremes couldn’t do anything right. Their first eight singles failed to break into the Top 100. With patience unusual in the recording industry (or due to a speculated hard-on for Diana Ross), Berry Gordy stuck with the group, trying this and trying that, and finally deciding that the girls would no longer share lead singing duties. Diana would be front-and-center for the singles and Flo and Mary could have a cut or two on the albums. This was key because the girls all had different musical styles and preferences, and Diana Ross had a definite preference for pop music. Gordy thought pop music with a soul sensibility would have greater crossover appeal to a white audience, so Diana was the better fit for the marketing plan.
Even after those changes were made, nothing happened. It was now early 1964 and The Beatles and their mates owned the American listening audience. The Supremes were given a song that had already been rejected by The Marvelettes, a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune called “Where Did Our Love Go.” The girls didn’t like the song either, but when you’re a drain on a company’s assets, you don’t have a whole lot of pull. During a brief lull in Beatlemania, the song shot up to #1.
From that point forward, The Supremes couldn’t do anything wrong. Their next four singles became #1 hits. They went on a four-game winning streak in 1966-1967 and eventually amassed a total of 12 chart-toppers. Even their relatively crappy songs made it to the top. Thanks to the Motown manufacturing machine, they were a permanent presence in popular American music during their entire run.
I have to admit I find The Supremes problematic. Diana Ross’ often submissive, kittenish vocals in their early years generally don’t work for me, but I imagine that they absolutely tickled the legions of horny young Baby Boomer males of the era who grew up believing that the ideal woman was dumb and eager to please. I think the quality of their work declined after the name change to Diana Ross & The Supremes, primarily because the interplay with Mary & Flo disappeared, robbing them of the qualities that made them a credible vocal group. I can understand their success to some extent, but it doesn’t sync up with the quality of their work. They were a formulaic phenomenon with some talent, and this particular formula had a strong shelf life.
That said, after three spins through the album, I found myself singing along and doing some subtle swaying and sashaying to about half the songs on the album. They didn’t totally knock me out, but I did begin to appreciate their approach. Let’s see how it all played out!
“Where Did Our Love Go”: I was stunned that this was their breakthrough hit. As a song, it’s as close to zero as you can get. After listening to it a few times, I think it was a combination of Diana Ross, sex kitten, and a smart arrangement that integrated stop time techniques that made the girls’ voices seem more alluring. The opening clap-and-stomp passage certainly draws your attention, and Diana’s breathy vocal probably sounded quite refreshing in comparison to all the English boys on the airwaves. The sax solo isn’t much, but turns out to be one of the more memorable instrumental passages in their catalog. The Funk Brothers, Motown’s famous session group, rarely got to show their stuff on Supremes records like they did on recordings by The Temptations and The Miracles. With The Supremes, the girls are pretty much the show. The key ingredient of the formula that would be exploited on this and their next three hits is Diana in the role of a woman wronged.
“Baby Love”: This was their best-selling single of all time, though like its predecessor it isn’t much of a tune. Diana’s in full submissive mode here, pleading for her lover not to dump her in a completely obsequious manner: “Tell me what did I do wrong/To make you stay away so long.” The best part of the song is the carefully designed call-and-response vocal that defies the typical call-and-response pattern. While Diana’s singing, “Instead of breaking up/Let’s do some kissing and making up,” Flo & Mary are signing “Don’t throw our love away.” When Diana follows her lines with “Don’t throw our love away”, the entire verse is strengthened as all the threads seem to come together like magic. The sax solo here is perfunctory: what matters is the well-designed tapestry of the vocals.
“Come See About Me”: Out of the blue comes my favorite Supremes song of them all, and one of my favorite songs, period. Why? Because Diana finally shows some gumption and starts sounding like a soul singer, bending the blue notes and dropping the kitten act for a hands-on-hips display of female sexuality. She’s still submissive, but submissive with a kick—kinda like what BDSM practitioners refer to as a SAM (smart-ass masochist). The groove on this song is much stronger than any of the songs in their catalog, and Diana shows an impressive range of dynamics, dropping her voice to low-flame intensity on the last lines of the chorus and belting it out on the last verse. And I love it that she calls him “boy,” implying that she can teach the little prick a few things. Bravo!
“Stop in the Name of Love”: After giving us a hint of their R&B potential, The Supremes go campy with this ridiculous cliché-driven song more famous for its choreography than its dumb-ass wimpy woman lyrics. What’s fucking amazing is that when you watch the video, they sell this sucker with total commitment to the song and the act. P. T. Barnum it may be, but it’s terribly effective. Even I have to smile when I watch them do it! Here—see for yourself!
“Back in My Arms Again”: Their fifth #1 hit in a row is another of my favorites, with Diana embracing the wake-up call that she should love from her heart and clitoris instead of loving some loser her friends happen to prefer. The groove is strong, Flo & Mary are on fire, and Diana gives us one of her strongest early-period vocals. The lines “This time I’ll live my life at ease/Being happy lovin’ whom I please” are words that have very special meaning for me, and they’re lines I’ve quoted a couple of times when I’ve run into a heterosexual male who tries to convince me to give up bisexuality and go totally straight. It’s so convenient to be able to quote such an authoritative source as Holland-Dozier-Holland when you need it. Hey! Look at these babes shimmy in this video. Why would anyone want to give that up?
“Nothing but Heartaches”: Well, nothing lasts forever, especially a winning streak. Not only did “Nothing but Heartaches” fall short of the top spot, it didn’t even make the Top 10. Crisis at Motown! The franchise is failing! Men with ties loosened pulling all-nighters drinking percolated coffee brought by shapely secretaries! Ashtrays bulging with half-extinguished cigarettes! The problem with this song has to do with the production and arrangement choices including a very awkward opening, a really irritating baritone sax on the right channel and a poorly-designed backing arrangement that is too busy and can’t decide if it wants to go pop or R&B. Diana’s vocal is actually one of her best efforts, but you have to filter out a lot of junk to appreciate it.
“I Hear a Symphony”: Crisis resolved! The Supremes get back on top via a more traditional pop song with a very loose connection to The Toys “A Lover’s Concerto” in terms of subject matter. I have to question the premise: the last thing I want to hear when I’m near my lover is a fucking symphony. I don’t want Beethoven, Mahler or Holst anywhere near me and my libido. While I appreciate a great deal of classical music, I never think about it in relation to love and sex. Where’s the backbeat? Where’s the bass? Where are the blue notes? The bottom line is I think the song is a bore and Diana’s vocal too drippy but the American listening public took another view and made it yet another #1 hit.
“My World Is Empty Without You”: One of the darker songs in their catalog, the song failed to chart in the UK and only made it to #5 in the U. S. Diana does a decent job with some extraordinarily awkward lyrics (“My mind and soul have felt like this/Since love between us no more exists”) but the thing I hook into in this song is the background music by the underrated Funk Brothers. James Jamerson’s thumping bass isn’t of the chromatic complexity of some of his other work, but he and the rest of the guys were pros, not attention-grabbers, and the bass really drives this song. It may not have been a #1, but I wish they would have had more songs like this in their catalog.
“Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”: The value of this track demonstrates why The Supremes couldn’t touch Martha and the Vandellas when it came to classic uptempo dance songs. Diana’s voice is simply too thin to pull it off. When she growls, she growls like a kitten, not a tiger. Flo & Mary continue to perfect their disappearing act and several thousand fans disappeared as well, as the song barely made it into the top 10. Not to worry, though—the girls are about to put together a 4-game winning streak.
“You Can’t Hurry Love”: Returning to form with this uptempo soul-pop number driven by James Jamerson’s bass, this song had to seem like a fastball down the middle of the plate for The Supremes, and they knocked it out of the park. It’s an exceptionally strong display of Flo & Mary’s supporting talent and Diana Ross’ continuing journey away from the Betty Boop Singers Club. This is one of the better songs in the “Momma’s Advice Column” sub-genre, ranking right up there with The Shirelles’ “Mama Said” and The Miracles’ “Shop Around.”
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: This makes for a very impressive back-to-back hit collection! The famous bulletin-like guitar opening has become iconic, and Diana gives one of her more passionate, high-temperature performances. The arrangement adopts some of the free-form panning techniques of the time, but unlike some other efforts, these engineers still had their wits about them and the panned features are well executed. I love the touch of harmony on the “Why don’t you be a man about it” line, emphasizing the dig at machismo. Note here Diana’s spoken word line, “And there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it,” and how it flows naturally with her vocal. They’ll try to exploit this gimmick in the next song with disastrous results (though not nearly as disastrous as the Vanilla Fudge cover of this song).
“Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”: Berry Gordy always had an ear to the radio, listening carefully for current trends. At this time the harpsichord was the hottest instrument on the planet, so The Supremes’ next single simply had to have a harpsichord, no matter how positively ludicrous it might sound in the mix. The producers also decided that a few tablespoons of Diana Ross, narrator, should also be thrown into the recipe since it worked so well on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The result is an overly dramatic vocal display that proved Diana had a long way to go before Lady Sings the Blues and that the engineers who had done so well on their previous hit had totally lost it. This song is drenched in spoken word lines, all obviously overdubbed, over-emoted and over the top. Instead of flowing with the song, the spoken lines are intrusive interruptions to the melodic line. The only explanation I have for this song making it to the top is that January is usually a slow month for the music business.
“The Happening”: Despite my general approval of 1960’s music, I have to admit that there were several vacuous, cheery-sounding numbers that cause my gag reflex to go into spasms. “Georgy Girl.” “Music to Watch Girls Go By.” “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” “The Happening.” In an attempt to solidify their crossover status (as if they hadn’t done enough of that already), The Supremes recorded this awful theme song for what seems to be a pretty awful movie that didn’t do dick at the box office. The premise of the movie is this: four hippies kidnap a retired Mafia don. Why would anyone want to see that film? I’ve scoured the lyrics for any relation to the plot and could not find a single reference to ransom or dead fish. It’s yet another song by The Supremes about lost love, exploiting the word “happening” because that was a happening word at the time, dude:
One day you’re up, then you turn around
You find your world is tumbling down
It happened to me and it can happen to you
I was sure, I felt secure, until love took a detour
Yeah, I’m riding high on top of the world
It happened, suddenly it just happened: the happening
Damn if it didn’t make it to #1.
“Reflections”: It’s all over now, folks. Now they’re DIANA ROSS and the supremes. Berry Gordy’s marketing strategy that year included giving top billing to certain lead singers so he could charge concert promoters for two acts instead of one. The Miracles became Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, while Martha and the Vandellas became Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, likely on the advice of attorneys. The Supremes were obvious candidates for the repackaging, as the productions had already tilted heavily in the direction of Diana Ross. Opening with strange and superfluous space age sounds whizzing through your ears before settling into a slightly-low-tempo funk groove for a few minutes, Diana’s voice is so prominent that you can barely hear Flo & Mary. Despite the cute psychedelic touches and the title implying more depth, this is still the same old song The Supremes had been singing for years: Diana gets dumped and bitches about it.
“Love Child”: After “Reflections,” Florence Ballard was sent packing and Cindy Birdsong joined the group. Diana Ross & The Supremes released three singles that charted #9, #28 and #30. Panic in Motown! Diana Ross could wind up being both a has-been and a never was! Berry Gordy’s losing his touch! Finger-pointing! Backstabbing! More all-nighters! We’re no longer hip! We’ve got to get socially relevant! Daring! Outré!
Actually, the lyrics are not half-bad and I can understand why this song made it to the top, knocking off “Hey Jude” (which had already spent nine weeks at #1, so it was time to go). Usually I disapprove of songs with anti-sex messages, but the narrator has good reason to tell her hungry young stud to put his pecker back in his pants: she was illegitimate, a love child who suffered poverty and humiliation as a result. Diana Ross gives us a much more credible dramatic performance than in “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” and while the background vocals are really fucking irritating in places, don’t blame The Supremes. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong rarely performed on any Diana Ross and the Supremes tracks.
“Livin’ in Shame”: Man, when those guys at Motown found a successful formula they hung onto it for life, even when it defies logic. I don’t think a “love child song” sub-genre was ever a possibility, but The Clan (the guys who did the all-nighter that produced “Love Child”) came up with another love child song as a follow-up hit. This one features the love child denying her origins and lying to everyone she knows to hide her shame about her impoverished existence. The story is credible, but the lyrics are a bit busy and the arrangement curiously pop-cheerful. Diana slips back into ham mode and overdoes it. A turkey that somehow climbed to #10.
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”: Motown was obsessed with male-female duets, a form that I’ve always found insipid with the sole exception of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who were at least fucking each other in real life. The duet became a competition as to who can outdo the other, the ultimate definition of musical ennui. Eddie Kendricks’ falsetto is somewhat confusing to those unused to gender-benders and Diana Ross sounds like she’s absolutely entranced by the sound of her own voice. Double raspberries to this piece of fluffy doo-doo.
“Someday We’ll Be Together”: An intensely ironic title for a swan song that contains no trace of the other two Supremes: the background vocals here were supplied by Maxine and Julia Waters. Pockmarks aside, this isn’t too bad of a tune, though the strings are a bit much. Lead songwriter Johnny Bristol is heard throughout the song urging Diana on to reproduce the sound he had in mind. I hope she kicked him in the nuts after the session: his presence is distracting in the extreme.
While I’m so-so about their individual songs, I found that simply listening to the entire album without bothering to analyze the songs made for a happier experience. The Supremes were heavily packaged and choreographed, swathed in gowns and glitter and designed to please. Their music is generally pleasant, if often bland. They were the darlings of Motown. Their favored status pissed off other Motown acts, but somebody had to lead the charge, and The Supremes filled the role perfectly. Although I still scratch my head over the extent of their success, they have symbolic meaning as the most successful group in a game-changing movement of commercial and social significance.
One of the world’s most distinguished music critics once wrote, “American rock music in the 1960’s never really found its groove in the same way that the folks in Motown did.”
That was me!
Okay, so I’m not distinguished. But show me another music critic who looks as good as I do half-naked in thigh-high boots!
I will now proceed to make the case for my assertion, which is pretty much a no-brainer if you consider three pieces of data: the pop charts during the era, the historical background and the music itself.
In prepping for my review of The Supremes, I noticed something remarkable when scanning the Billboard charts. Once they broke through with their first #1, The Supremes never left the charts for the rest of the decade. They’d release one hit after another, and when one hit started its descent, up popped another one to take its place. The Temptations came close, perpetually on the charts for about four years with a few short gaps. In the meantime, there were dozens of Motown and other soul performers popping in and out of Billboard and Cashbox and peppering the Top 30. In the days before MTV, radio play was everything, so the soundtrack that accompanied the 1960’s in the United States was chock full of Motown music. If you listened to AM pop radio faithfully in the mid-sixties as my father did, it was guaranteed that during the day you would be listening to several Motown productions as they came up in the rotation. You couldn’t avoid it.
In large part, this was due to Berry Gordy applying Detroit mass production and quality control techniques to music—but mass production doesn’t lead to profits if your products are shoddy. Gordy had three other things working for him: talented songwriters like Holland-Dozier Holland and Smokey Robinson, a remarkable collection of talent and exquisite timing.
One thing you notice immediately when listening to Motown and other soul artists of the period is the difference in the energy level when compared to the pre-Beatles girl groups and R&B singers. The increase in energy roughly coincided with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which eliminated segregation in the United States. The passage of that bill fundamentally changed the significance of Motown and soul music in general—it wasn’t just about the music any more, it was about the music in the context of history. Smokey Robinson spoke on this subject most clearly:
Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.
You can hear the energy in the music itself. Pre-1964 soul music often sounds restrained, as if the artists have been told to remember their place. In 1964, the confidence starts to come out, in performances like Martha Reeves in “Dancin’ in the Street” and Mary Wells’ cheeky vocal in “My Guy.” The Motowners and their companions at Atlantic and Stax soon proceeded to smash every last trace of the barrier that limited African-American presence on the Billboard Hot 100. This dramatic shift in the makeup of the pop music charts reflected another benefit of civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act meant more than symbolic freedom: it opened the doors for millions to the possibility of economic freedom. Having lived at the epicenter of the dot.com boom, I know how much energy is released when the money is flowing and Americans are feeling good about their prospects. The growth of Motown’s economic power must have been equally exciting to the participants, and imbued them with status and confidence.
The first years of success in any endeavor are always exciting years, and the performers brought that excitement to their music, just like The Beatles did so vividly on A Hard Day’s Night. The energy of simultaneous liberation and success allowed African-American performers to be themselves, go back to their roots and use their experience to inform their music. As Smokey Robinson explained it, “Listen, the Motown sound to me is not an audible sound. It’s spiritual, and it comes from the people that make it happen.” While American rock groups were stuck trying to figure out how they could be The Beatles, Motown performers were delighted by the sudden realization that they could be themselves . . . and the audiences of the day, black or white, would cry out for more.
There was also another significant difference between the stateside rock groups and the Motowners: sexuality. While Berry Gordy did his best to direct his artists towards mainstream tastes, refusing to consider socially-charged material until 1968, he was also smart enough to accept that the inherent rhythms in African-American music gave his performers a huge advantage over the more intellectually-oriented white artists of the era. Motown music is sexy, from the grooves to the grunts to the soft porn cooing of Diana Ross. Soul music makes you move, and the area near those grinding hips is where the sexual organs and the second chakra are located. Gordy wisely gave that sexuality a taste of class, dressing the girls in gowns like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, and frequently clothing his male artists in suits and ties to make them seem more wholesome. It didn’t matter: you could have dressed up The Temptations in clown suits and their innate sexuality still would have come through.
I chose to focus on Motown’s peak years (prior to the move to L. A. in 1972) because of the era’s musical and historical significance. The artists pictured above may seem rather obvious choices, but there were others I could have selected, like Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight and the Pips. All of the artists above were major players during the peak period between 1964-1968; Gladys didn’t get going until 1967 and Marvin spent a good chunk of those years doing duets and would not hit his prime until the early 1970’s. I wavered back and forth about The Four Tops, but decided that The Temptations were the stronger choice of the two. Leaving out The Supremes was unthinkable, and The Miracles even more so because of their collective talent and Smokey Robinson’s gift for songwriting. Martha and the Vandellas did not enjoy the success at the level of the other three or even The Four Tops; this choice was driven by a desire to provide contrast to The Supremes and my everlasting love of the sound of Martha’s voice.
This should be a gas!
Reviews in this series:
- Diana Ross & The Supremes: The Definitive Collection
- Martha Reeves & The Vandellas: The Definitive Collection
- The Temptations: The Definitive Collection
- Smokey Robinson & The Miracles: The Definitive Collection
Photo Credits: The Miracles, ©Tamla Records via Wikimedia Commons. The Supremes, ©CBS Television via Wikimedia Commons. The Temptations, ©Multi-Media Management/Gordy Records via Wikimedia Commons. Martha and the Vandellas, ©Gordy Records via Wikimedia Commons.