Surrender (1971): EXTENDED POST

Diana teams up with Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson for a second full-length album and the results are spectacular.  Surrender remains one of the very best studio albums ever released by Miss Ross, and arguably by Motown, too — find out why in my extended discussion here!

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Diana! Original TV Soundtrack (1971): EXTENDED POST

“Hey, ya’ll, here I am!”

Diana Ross takes a major step into solo stardom with her first television special, and the soundtrack becomes her third solo album.  Check out the ALL-NEW, extended discussion here!

Billboard: April 17, 1971

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Everything Is Everything (1970): EXTENDED POST

It’s here!  Check out my extended discussion of Diana’s often-overlooked second solo album, Everything Is Everything, by clicking here!  Found some interesting info about the album I’d never heard before…for example, did you know Billboard predicted “My Place” would be Diana’s follow-up single to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in 1970?

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Diana Ross (1970): EXTENDED POST

Check out my extended discussion of Diana’s 1970 debut LP, Diana Ross, by clicking here. New research, new pictures, new thoughts on every track!

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RECORD STORE FIND: “Everything Is Everything” Unique Front/Back Cover

Happy Monday, all…

I’ve been busy working to expand my reviews of the Diana Ross solo discography, which I’ll begin posting within the next few weeks — in most cases, I’ve doubled the length of the posts, adding extra research information concerning each album and track.  I’m really excited to unveil the new album discussions, as having gone through the Supremes era has helped inform my understanding of Diana’s solo work.

Until then…wanted to share this record store find from earlier today.  I was at a shop just outside Atlanta and came across this interesting pressing of Everything Is Everything with a negative image and white background on the rear cover.  I’ve never seen one like this before — anyone know the story?  Every copy I’ve ever owned has a regular photo over a black background.  The lettering on the front cover is also made up of three colors, instead of just solid blue, and there are no song titles listed:

Let me know if you’ve seen this before — curious to know why it’s a little different!

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At Their Best (1978)

“If you give love a chance, I’ll do the best I can…”

Although the 70s Supremes were never afforded a lavish, Farewell-style final recording marking the end of the group’s tenure on Motown Records, the trio did get a “greatest hits” collection, released in the United States in June of 1978.  At Their Best features a brief collection of ten tracks, covering the group’s output from 1970’s Right On through 1976’s Mary, Scherrie & Susayeit would be issued abroad with an expanded lineup of fourteen songs.  The set was most notable for including a never-bef0re-released track, “The Sha-La Bandit,” with Scherrie Payne on lead vocals; also making the cut were “Love Train,” led by Jean Terrell and previously only available on an English Motown compilation, and the non-LP single “Bad Weather,” written and produced by Stevie Wonder back in 1973.

The tracklist from AT THEIR BEST, as released in the United States

Interestingly, The Supremes weren’t “officially” disbanded when At Their Best hit shelves — at least, not openly.  Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene planned to continue on as Supremes after the departure of Mary Wilson in June of 1977; Wilson urged fans to continue supporting the group during her farewell performance as a Supreme.  However, just a few months later, Wilson embarked in a legal fight with Motown over the use of the name “Supremes,” effectively putting her solo plans and likely any plans for Scherrie and Susaye on hold.  Finally, in mid-1979, Wilson moved forward with her solo project and told Billboard, “There’ll probably never be another Supremes, unless Motown and I agree that there should be one” (September 22, 1979).  Around the same time, Scherrie and Susaye released a joint album on Motown called Partners, ending any speculation that the two would carry on as Supremes.

At Their Best, then, basically became the group’s “Greatest Hits Volume 4,” following the 1967 double-LP Greatest Hits and the 1969 single disc Greatest Hits Volume 3.  Unfortunately, limiting the setlist to ten tracks means some notable singles were left off, not to mention several much-loved album cuts; “River Deep, Mountain High” doesn’t show up, for example, even though it was a Top 20 hit in 1970, and the United States pressing doesn’t include the Top 40 single “Automatically Sunshine.”  Still, the addition of the three then-rare tracks certainly made the set worthwhile to fans, and the it remains a decent (if visually unappealing — there’s not a single photo of any of the group members on the packaging!) sampler of an unappreciated decade for the world’s top female recording group.

***

(NOTE: Below are discussions of the three tracks previously unavailable on a Supremes LP; the other inclusions can be found on previous album releases covered on this site.)

Billboard: July 8, 1978

The Sha-La Bandit:  In the years since the release of At Their Best, fans have been treated to various versions of “The Sha-La Bandit,” a superb outtake from the sessions for 1975’s The Supremes; this version is led by Scherrie Payne, but there is a mix that includes a shared lead vocal from Scherrie, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong.  In any rendition, this is a standout song, and it’s strange that it didn’t make the group’s 1975 LP; the cut was produced by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford, who turned in every one of that album’s highlights, and should have handled the entire album.  “The Sha-La Bandit” was penned by Jerry Lang Ferguson and Wade Davis, Sr., and it’s been recorded by several artists, including Aretha Franklin and The Thymes (Franklin’s version was issued on her 1975 album You, released just a few months after the Supremes LP came out).  The song is a playful mid-tempo number with elements of pop, soul, doo-wop, and even a nod to country & western music in its lyric of a “bandit from Westchester County.”  On this particular mix, Payne offers up a dynamite vocal, smooth and sexy from beginning to end; she keeps the focus squarely on the descriptive lyrics, while also taking a few opportunities to flex her considerable vocal muscle.  Behind her, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong lay down a batch of backgrounds that come out like homemade whipped cream; there is something inherently polished and sophisticated about the combination of Payne-Wilson-Birdsong, and it’s on full display here.  As good as the song is, the At Their Best mix is perhaps the weakest of those released; the instrumental is toned down, and the final key change isn’t handled very well.  Still, it’s a terrific recording, and a welcome addition to this compilation.

Billboard: April 13, 1973

Bad Weather:  “Michael Leslie and the students at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., want to know what’s happening here in the U.S.  Is someone sleeping on the job?  Their plea is: ‘Please don’t lose this hit.'”  So wrote Julian Coleman in his “Soul Sauce” column in the May 12, 1973 issue of Billboard, referring to “Bad Weather” by The Supremes.  Released as a single on March 22, 1973, expectations were high for the song; it was written and produced by Stevie Wonder, who was then riding high with his groundbreaking album Talking Book.  It’s no coincidence that Wonder ended up in the studio with The Supremes; then-member Lynda Laurence had sung backup for Wonder, and her brother, Ira Tucker, Jr., co-wrote the song.  Reviews were immediately positive; New Musical Express proclaimed, “In a week filled with revolting dross of all possible description, the arrival of something like this gives me new faith in humanity, and new optimism for the future.”  The single managed to make the UK Top 40, but it bombed in the states, peaking at #87 on the Billboard Hot 100, the group’s worst showing on that chart since “My Heart Can’t Take It No More” stalled at #129 in 1963.  One issue is that “Bad Weather” likely came a little ahead of its time; it’s a pre-disco dancefloor workout, arranged as a bold, blaring statement for lead singer Jean Terrell.  Wonder’s track is a rollercoaster of horns, funky guitars, and ear-piercing whistles; Terrell rides the ups and downs of the instrumental bed with skillful perfection, her vocal a plaintive masterpiece.  The recording is also an opportunity for fans to hear Lynda Laurence, whose voice had been swamped by additional singers on The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb; Laurence possesses a soulful, brassy voice which is used for some nice flourishes here.  Although the song divides some fans today, it’s hard to believe it didn’t do better in the United States; it’s easily the best single released by the group since “Nathan Jones,” and it deserved far more success than it ultimately found.

Billboard: April 7, 1973

Love Train:  This classic song was originally a huge hit for The O’Jays in early 1973; written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, it topped both the pop and R&B charts and foreshadowed the coming wave of disco much in the same way that “Bad Weather” did.  This version features Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Lynda Laurence; Wilson remembers it being cut around the same time as “Bad Weather,” which means it was likely recorded at the same time the song was peaking for The O’Jays.  Interestingly, this version was produced by Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston; Wilson had been the architect of the 70s Supremes sound, helping songs for the group’s 1970 LP Right On and then entirely producing follow-ups New Ways But Love Stays and Touch before moving on to work with Motown singer Eddie Kendricks.  Wilson and Caston keep their arrangement basically the same as that of The O’Jays recording; both are set to a driving, appropriately locomotive beats, and feature ringing three-part harmony on the refrains.  In this case, Jean Terrell leads the song with a soulful, light-as-air performance that feels completely effortless, and her harmony with Mary and Lynda is a joy to listen to.  The issue is that this version is too slick and polished, something that translates to a lack of excitement; it would have been nice to hear all three ladies dig into the material a little further, adding some funky flourishes to give their version its own identity.  As it is, this “Love Train” is a thoroughly competent recording, but it’s nothing that wasn’t already done better.

***

At Their Best ended up not even charting on the Billboard 200, something unsurprising given the tumult surrounding the name “Supremes” within Motown at the time.  Later, these ten tracks would be added to the 2-CD compilation Gold, a Supremes retrospective made up of every one of the group’s previously-released Greatest Hits packages.  Although At Their Best includes all the biggest hits, it does do the group a disservice by condensing nearly a decade’s worth of material into a ten-track set; alas, the 70s Supremes really wouldn’t get their due until the 2002 release of The 70s Anthology, a double-disc set which featured hits, new mixes, and previously unreleased tracks.  Only with such an expansive set could the 70s Supremes truly be shown at their best.

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Mary, Scherrie & Susaye (1976)

“Together we stand, hand in hand…”

“‘You’re My Driving Wheel’ is the new single by the Supremes from their forthcoming album titled, ‘Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.’  The record on the Motown label sounds like a hit. This is probably the funkiest thing the girls have ever done,” raved Tom Moulton in his “Disco Mix” column in Billboard (November 6, 1976), giving fans plenty of reason to be optimistic about the trio’s latest release.  The new album came just six months after the release of High Energy, the most successful Supremes project in years; that album had been produced by Brian Holland and executive produced by his brother, Eddie, and it brought the trio a Top 40 hit and dance smash with “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.”  Rather than follow that song with another single from High Energy, the producers quickly assembled this new album and released “You’re My Driving Wheel” as the lead single.

Billboard: December 11, 1976
A good week for Susaye Greene, with “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Free” making the Billboard Hot 100

“For the title of what was to be our final album we chose Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, to give ourselves some individual name recognition,” says Mary Wilson in the liner notes to The 70s Anthology, a move that makes sense given that Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene were the eighth and ninth women to become official Supremes.  Greene was the newest, replacing Cindy Birdsong in early 1976; her voice had been dubbed onto two of High Energy‘s tracks, but this would be her first full LP with the group.  In Susaye Greene, the Hollands were given a different kind of Supreme to work with; her multi-octave range and unique tone provided some interesting opportunities for new sounds and vocal blends.  Both Payne and Greene were also accomplished songwriters, although neither got the chance to write for the group; interestingly, a week after “You’re My Driving Wheel” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, the Susaye Greene-penned “Free” (by Deniece Williams) followed it there, charting one position higher.

What nobody knew when Mary, Scherrie & Susaye hit store shelves in October was that it would be the final studio album from The Supremes, ending a storied career at Motown that began in January of 1961.  Like the group’s very first album, 1962’s Meet The Supremes, this one didn’t even make the album charts, and its singles only scraped the lowest reaches of the Billboard Hot 100.  “I was frustrated and disappointed,” wrote Mary Wilson in The 70s Anthology. “It was time to do something.”  That something, of course, was to go solo; Wilson left the group less than a year after the release of this album, and eventually Payne and Greene abandoned the “Supremes” name, too, releasing a joint album on Motown of their own compositions.  It would be a quiet end to the group which had undeniably changed the course of popular music history, breaking down barriers for artists of color and women and inspiring generations to come.

The real shame is that Mary, Scherrie & Susaye is one of the most interesting and experimental albums to ever come from the group; it’s perhaps not as sonically seamless as High Energy, but it takes far more risks, giving the trio of singers challenging material and using their voices in clever, unusual ways.  Ironically, the three songs which got the most attention (“You’re My Driving Wheel,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good”) are the most formulaic on the album, all three the kind of frenzied disco recordings one would expect of the era.  But the deep cuts are the ones that really stand out, proving that this latest (and final) incarnation of The Supremes was capable of delivering exciting performances which could have evolved the group further, had it been given the chance.

***

Billboard: November 13, 1976

1.  You’re My Driving Wheel:  The album’s first single and most recognizable song, this was released on September 30, 1976; listed together with “Let Yourself Go” and “Love I Never Knew,” the song ended up peaking at #5 on the National Disco chart in Billboard in January of 1977 (incidentally, labelmate Thelma Houston held the top spot at the time with “Don’t Leave Me This Way”/”Anyway You Like It” and Stevie Wonder was at #3 with “Another Star”/”I Wish”/”Sir Duke”/”Isn’t She Lovely”).  Written by Brian Holland, Reginald Brown, Stafford Floyd, and Harold Beatty, “You’re My Driving Wheel” is a banging, breathless song that starts out zooming at 100 miles per hour and never lets up; the track is the musical equivalent of a car careening out of control on a winding mountain road.  The arrangement is marked by thunderous work on the keyboards and the punctuations of a terrific funk brass section; all of it, of course, set atop a racing beat tailor-made for disco clubs.  Scherrie Payne takes the lead and unleashes the full power of her pipes, blasting her way through the track like a stick of dynamite.  Miss Payne has a skillful, crisp way of delivering lyrics, enunciating each word while never losing momentum, which makes her a perfect fit for this kind of rapid-paced production; although her tone is thick and gutsy, there’s enough lightness to her voice to keep her from getting swamped by the very busy instrumental track.  Of course, she’s well-supported by Mary and Susaye, who absolutely belt behind her, practically screaming out the words, “You’re my driving wheel!”  Greene, in particular, adds in a lot of nice little flourishes, using her voice like an instrument and contributing to the tapestry of sounds.  It’s not hard to understand why this song did so well in clubs at the time; it spent several months on both the national and regional disco charts.  That said, it’s also not that hard to understand why it didn’t do so well at radio; “You’re My Driving Wheel” peaked at a dismal #85 on the Billboard Hot 100, and only managed #50 on the R&B side.  The issue, I think, it how cluttered and frantic the whole thing is; there’s absolutely no breathing room here, and it’s exhausting to listen to without any real valleys to balance out the peaks.  Something like this works for the dancefloor, of course, but not necessarily elsewhere.

2.  Sweet Dream Machine:  A sultry, low-key number with elements of funk and jazz laced into the danceable track, this is one of the album’s clear highlights; although it never seems to have shown up on any of Billboard‘s regional disco charts, I imagine it got some play, as it’s hard to imagine clubs ignoring this sterling cut.  Led off by quivering vibes and slowly intensifying beat, the musicians here offer up some sweet, jazzy flourishes before Scherrie Payne begins singing, her voice hushed to a sexy whisper.  Payne is beautifully controlled in her delivery, once again displaying a real gift for interpreting lyrics in a crisp, concise way.  Mary Wilson takes over on the second verse, singing with the kind of gutsy soul she’d displayed on “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” from High Energy; Wilson has commented that the addition of Susaye Greene to the group helped her feel more “free” in her singing, and this is the first indication of increased risk-taking from the singer on Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.  Although Greene doesn’t have any solo parts on “Sweet Dream Machine,” her presence is more than felt with her superb background work and some nice stand-out vocal moments, like her sustained high note at 3:38.  All three Supremes strongly contribute to the success of the song, but in the end, it’s the gorgeous production that sets it apart; this is a classy, elegant recording that transcends the boundaries of disco with its fabulous instrumental track and smart arrangement.  Written by the Hollands and Harold Beatty, there’s a great bridge starting at 2:07 which sounds like an updated version of the kind of musical break one would expect from a 1960s Motown hit, and the final minute-and-a-half of the song’s running time is taken up by the hypnotic repetition of “You’re into me/I’m into you/Wooo!/Sweet Dream Machine” (also notice the muted male voice that surfaces during this final section, a great touch).  “Sweet Dream Machine” is a terrific addition to the album, and still sounds fresh today.

Billboard: January 8, 1977

3.  Let Yourself Go:  Though this isn’t one of the more familiar Supremes songs, it is one for the history books; when “Let Yourself Go” was issued on January 25, 1977, it became the final single ever released by the group in the United States, capping off a singles discography that stretched back to March 9, 1961 and the release of “I Want A Guy.”  Sadly, like that first single, “Let Yourself Go” missed the Billboard Hot 100 completely, although it managed to just squeak onto the R&B chart at #83 and topped out at #5 on the National Disco Action Top 40 chart, listed alongside “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good.”  As with this album’s first single (“You’re My Driving Wheel”), this is a densely-produced, frenzied disco cut that speeds out of the gate and never looks back.  Scherrie Payne again takes the lead, and she sounds terrific; “Let Yourself Go” features a feel-good lyric and boasts a strong melody (written by the Hollands and Beatty, again), and Payne sells both with ease.  The problem is that the melody and lyric get lost a bit in the frantic production; there is absolutely no wiggle room here, and the track is so thick with sound that it’s hard to step back and appreciate the musicality of the song.  Compare it, for a moment, with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a huge hit at the same time for labelmate Thelma Houston; Houston’s recording is equally hard-hitting, but there’s space left in the track, and enough musical variation that it allows listeners to appreciate more than just a thumping beat.  It’s ironic that a song which urges listeners to “relax” and “hang loose” doesn’t follow its own edict; “Let Yourself Go” is a strong production, but had it been loosened up just a little bit, it could have been even better.

Billboard: January 15, 1977

4.  Come Into My Life:  The Hollands, along with co-writer Richard Davis, seem to anticipate the Motown arrival of Rick James with this starkly modern cut, filled with eerie electronic sounds atop a bongo-driven beat.  The producers wisely give the song to Susaye Greene, who leads with a sexy confidence and shows off her range with some wild high notes; the way the Hollands blend those high notes into whistling synthesizer work is pure genius.  Greene’s voice is wholly unique within the Supremes realm; there’s a sulky, kittenish quality to her delivery (she sounds like she’s pouting during her first “Darling, Come Into My Life” at 1:46) which sharply contrasts with the maturity inherent in her tone.  This makes her a natural fit for this offbeat tune; lyrics that would have sounded generic or phony in another singer’s hands sizzle with energy here.  Greene is perfectly backed by Mary Wilson and Scherrie Payne, who seem to be singing from another dimension; the producers wash the backgrounds in heavy echo, so that they seem to be alien voices beamed in from an icy planet.  Every element here defies the odds by working together perfectly; what probably should have been a weird mess ends up becoming the most dazzling cut on the entire album, and a song which should have injected The Supremes with renewed energy.  It did apparently gain some decent club play; the song showed up on the regional disco chart for Philadelphia in Billboard‘s January 15, 1977 issue, and the trio performed it on the popular television show Soul Train.  It’s too bad Motown chose to focus what little attention it gave to Mary, Scherrie & Susaye on the album’s more predictable dance recordings; this song is the one that deserves to be remembered and rediscovered.

5.  We Should Be Closer Together:  How do you top the weird, wild groove of “Come Into My Life”?  You don’t.  You follow it with a smooth, creamy ballad featuring an arrangement so gorgeous it’s almost heartbreaking to listen to, and you let Mary Wilson finally deliver the ballad performance fans always knew she was capable of giving.  “We Should Be Closer Together” is credited to a slate of names that will be familiar to fans of both The Supremes and/or Motown; the song was written by Brian Holland, Janie Bradford, Freddie Gorman, and Barbara Gaines.  Bradford, of course, is the woman who apparently came up with the name “Supremes,” having given founding member Florence Ballard a list of several possible names from which to choose back in 1961; Gorman, meanwhile, was a member of vocal group The Originals and co-wrote “I Want A Guy,” which became the first-ever Supremes single, released in 1961.  With that kind of artistic muscle, you’d hope that “We Should Be Closer Together” would be a song fit for Motown’s top female vocal group, and it is; it’s surely one of the label’s best ballads of the decade.  Arranged by the great James Carmichael, the song consists of a gauzy, easy-going instrumental that seems to be shrouded in fog; various sounds swell and fade into the track, creating a rich tapestry of sound upon which Mary Wilson places an accomplished lead vocal.  Although Wilson must be ranked as one of the best harmony singers in the business, her record as a lead vocalist had been a little spotty up until this point; she excelled at the right material, but her misty voice was also vulnerable to sounding “competent yet colorless,” as John Lowe wrote in his AllMusic review of this album.  That’s not the case here; Wilson mints a nicely restrained performance, and she’s helped out by Susaye Greene, who adds her emotional soprano to several key moments in the song.  The real star here, though, is the beautiful production; it virtually lays the blueprint for the airy ballads later made famous by Janet Jackson and her frequent collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, particularly in the achingly lovely final minute-and-a-half.  “We Should Be Closer Together” is easily among the very ballads recorded by the 70s Supremes, and is a high water mark for Mary Wilson during her years as a Supreme; had the song come just a few years later, it probably could have gained plenty of spins at Quiet Storm radio.

Billboard: November 13, 1976

6.  I Don’t Want To Be Tied Down:  This is the third knockout cut in a row; in terms of pure, hard-driving disco tracks on Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, this is the best.  It did gain some club play; it made the regional disco charts for Miami, New York, and Atlanta in Billboard, generally listed along with “Let Yourself Go” and “You’re My Driving Wheel,” and it was named a standout track in the magazine’s so-so review of the album in November of 1976.  It’s a shame Motown didn’t jump on this cut as the first single and really push it to radio; the crisp, funky production probably would have appealed to a broad audience of disco fans, soul lovers, and pop music buyers.  There are similarities here to first single “You’re My Driving Wheel,” but this is a more evenly-paced track; it’s got a hard-edge and angular rhythm, but never loses itself in a breathless beat.  Scherrie Payne gives a S-T-A-R performance, deserving of every single capital letter; she swaggers through the song with what is perhaps her toughest vocal as a Supreme, tearing into each verse and chorus as if she wrote the words herself.  Listen to the singer at 1:21, as she sings, “A domesticated life, hey/I ain’t ready for it, yet” and then follows the words with a gut-wrenching, “No!” — it’s one of the most thrilling moments on the entire album, and she does it again just as effectively a minute later.  Payne’s groupmates ably back her up, but this is really Scherrie’s recording from start to finish; it’s impossible to listen to this cut now and not wonder why the singer didn’t enjoy a bevy of solo hits following her time with The Supremes.  Beyond that, there’s a refreshing message of assertiveness in the song, which comes as a nice balance to the many years of “Please don’t leave me” and “Come see about me” begging by The Supremes; these ladies aren’t yearning or burning for anything except independence.

7.  You Are The Heart Of Me:  This is probably one of the best known latter-day Supremes cuts, thanks to the fact that it closed out the group’s fabulous 2000 four-disc box set and was performed by the trio a few times on television in promotion of this album (with what Don Cornelius of Soul Train called “some of the most unusual choreography that you’ll ever see.”).  Interestingly, the song wasn’t written for The Supremes; it had already been recorded by Dionne Warwick back in 1973 for the singer’s Holland-Dozier-Holland-produced LP Just Being Myself, which also featured her version of “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” (covered by The Supremes on High Energy).  As with the previous “We Should Be Closer Together,” this is a lushly-crafted ballad tailored to Mary Wilson’s straightforward alto; it’s a tighter song than the album’s other soul ballad, which is probably why the group chose to perform this one on television, but it doesn’t quite capture the same dreamy feeling.  The subtle differences begin right at the beginning, with a stark opening that lends the recording an unexpected coolness; although sweet strings take over, the orchestration never reaches the level of rapture one would expect for a song which declares, “You’re everything to me” over and over again.  Despite some orgasmic moans in the middle of the song, Mary Wilson never quite seems to hit that level of rapture, either; she delivers a fine, professional performance, but it comes off as too calculated to be completely engaging.  The flatness of this central performance also leads the song to feel repetitive; and the singer loosened up just a little bit (think about her tremendous live performance of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on In Japan!), it would have really helped sell the unabashed romanticism of the song’s message.  This isn’t to say “You Are The Heart Of Me” is a bad recording; I imagine it remains a favorite for many longtime Supremes fans.  In the end, though, its unusual orchestration and restrained vocals probably would have worked better on the trio’s previous LP, High Energy.

8.  Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good:  “[This] is the strongest cut, with the group at its vocal best.  There is a drive to this cut that is not only overwhelming, but also reveals a whole new dimension to the Supremes,” raved Tom Moulton in his Billboard “Disco Mix” column (November 20, 1976), and he’s certainly justified in calling this song’s drive “overwhelming.”  Mary, Scherrie & Susaye closes out exactly as it opened, with a recording that gallops forward with a fiery intensity; it forms a kind of trilogy with “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Let Yourself Go” as densely packed tracks aimed squarely at the dancefloor.  It’s no surprise that this song hit #5 on the National Disco Action Top 40 chart (with the pair of aforementioned songs); it’s an easy one with which to work up a sweat.  That said, it falls into the same trap as the other two songs, packing so much into its running time that it’s hard to focus on anything aside from the pounding beat.  Thank God for Scherrie Payne, who once again plows through the lead vocal with awe-inspiring power and precision; she’s joined by Mary Wilson and Susaye Green for some great harmonies, too, something this album could have used more of.  But Payne really has to work not to be swallowed up by the dense musical track; it’s a thick, noisy recording, and the melody (with a refrain reminiscent of that featured on the far-superior “You’re What’s Missing In My Life,” from High Energy) just isn’t memorable enough to compete.  Certainly this song did what it was meant to do, which was to get people dancing in the clubs; unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up particularly well next to some of the more experimental material on the album.

***

The Supremes didn’t last long following the release of Mary, Scherrie & Susaye; when the album failed to chart following its October, 1976 release, Mary Wilson and her husband, Supremes managed Pedro Ferrer, made the decision that Wilson would go solo.  During a group appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1977, Wilson commented that Marvin Gaye would produce an album for her, and that she was “doing a solo album for now and we’ll see what God and everyone has in store for us.”  The group’s final performance together came on June 12, 1977 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, during which Wilson told the crowd, “I do hope that you will give all your support, all the wonderful love you’ve given The Supremes all these years, to both Scherrie and Susaye in their endeavor, because they will be going on as The Supremes.”

Jet: January 19, 1978

Payne and Greene, of course, did not end up continuing on with the group; after a period of uncertainty, the duo released an album called Partners on Motown in 1979, the same year Wilson released her own solo album on the label (produced by Hal Davis, not Marvin Gaye).  It was a fairly quiet, unceremonious end to one of the most influential groups in music history, a far cry from the protracted extravaganza afforded the trio when Diana Ross left for a solo career in 1970.  Still, the music lives on; Mary, Scherrie & Susaye would finally get a CD and digital release in 2011, with the issue of Let Yourself Go: The 70s Albums, Vol. 2: 1974-1977 — The Final Sessions.  In reviewing the package for the BBC online, Daryl Easlea called this album a “minor masterpiece,” affording it a measure of respect it had often been denied.  Does this album equal the brilliance of More Hits By The Supremes or The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart or Love Child?  Of course not.  But very few albums do.  It is, however, an accomplished, unique addition to a catalog that deserves far more attention than it’s ever been given.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Sweet” Studio Farewell)

Paul’s Picks:  “Come Into My Life,” “We Should Be Closer Together,” “I Don’t Want To Be Tied Down:

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High Energy (1976)

“In just a few hours, you showed me new dimensions…”

Although the 1975 album The Supremes was not a significant hit for Motown’s top female trio, the release proved there was still life in the group, particularly when it came to the burgeoning disco movement.  Songs like “He’s My Man,” “Color My World Blue,” “Early Morning Love,” and “Where Do I Go From Here” all caught the attention of club-goers; the latter two were particularly notable for being the work of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, two-thirds of the team responsible for writing ten #1 hits for The Supremes during the previous decade.  Although Holland-Dozier-Holland had spent years in litigation with Motown, the Holland brothers (sans Dozier) were now working independently for the label; they were put in charge of the next new Supremes release, the bulk of which they wrote with Harold Beatty.  Beatty would later recall in the liner notes to the Supremes box set (released in 2002),  “I always liked the lushness of a symphony.  That’s where the concept for the High Energy album came about.”

Jet: November 24, 1966

Meanwhile, The Supremes underwent another lineup change just as it wrapped up recording High Energy.  Cindy Birdsong, who’d returned to the group after a brief break in 1972-1973, left again; in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, Mary Wilson details turmoil between Birdsong and the group’s then-manager Pedro Ferrer (who also happened to be Wilson’s husband).  To replace Birdsong, Ferrer and Wilson brought in singer-songwriter Susaye Greene, notable for singing backup for both Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder and co-writing the huge hit “Free” by Deniece Williams.  Greene boasted a multi-octave range quite different from any Supreme voice before her; according to Harold Beatty, “Susaye was more like a Minnie Riperton — she could do the same things” (The Supremes booklet).  Although High Energy had already been recorded by the time Greene joined the group, her voice was added to the opening pair of tracks.

High Energy was released in April of 1976, just a few weeks after its first single, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.”  The album and single quickly became the most successful releases by The Supremes in years; the LP peaked at #42 on the Billboard 200, the group’s second best showing since Diana Ross had left the group (only 1970’s Right On charter higher), and the single climbed to the Top 40, becoming the 33rd (and final) Top 40 pop hit for the group.  For Supremes fans, seeing the group back on the charts must have been thrilling, especially when joined by the names Brian and Eddie Holland.  That said, the album is really more a showcase for the lush production than for the featured singers; you’ll hear some absolutely stunning instrumental work on every cut, but some of the vocal work gets lost in the busy, sometimes bombastic arrangements.

***

New Music Express (NME): May 8, 1976

1.  High Energy:  Harold Beatty’s comment that the “lushness of a symphony” inspired High Energy certainly makes sense given this opening track, which isn’t so much a song as it is a “mood-setter” in its execution.  It’s ironic that this song is one of the lowest-energy tracks on the entire album; those expecting a dancefloor banger are instead greeted by a slow-groove, Middle Eastern-flavored number that sounds about one-step removed from the “Charlie’s Angels” theme song.  The production here is high-gloss all the way; sweeping strings and funk-lite keyboard work are layered in over a sizzling, clicking beat, the instrumental opening lasting a full two minutes before there’s a single note sung by The Supremes.  This is the kind of thing the Hollands never could have gotten away with during Motown’s heyday in the 1960s; the hook-conscious Berry Gordy, Jr. would have had a fit over such an extended intro.  But times had changed; it speaks volumes that we don’t hear any vocals for so long, making clear that the intended stars here are the production and the beat.  When The Supremes do finally come in, it’s Mary Wilson we hear first, offering a spoken passage in which she proclaims, “I will never share my man!”  It’s a silly little section, but at least Wilson seems to be having fun with it, exaggerating her already famously sexy voice for maximum effect.  She’s followed by Susaye Greene, in her formal introduction as a Supreme; again, although “High Energy” had already been recorded with Mary, Cindy, and Scherrie, Greene’s lead vocal was dubbed in before the release of the album.  It’s immediately clear that Susaye Greene will bring a new, exciting sound to the group; her high, lilting voice bears a much closer resemblance to that of Deniece Williams than Birdsong, Lynda Laurence, or any other Supreme.  Greene’s voice flutters up and down the scale here, notably hitting some glass-shattering high notes; although Greene had already been performing for most of her life, it’s still hard to believe this is her debut given the technical proficiency she displays.  According to Mary Wilson’s 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, Greene garnered a five-minute standing ovation during a stop on the group’s European tour promoting this album; Wilson would also write that Greene was a “catalyst” in making the other Supremes more free in their own vocal performances.  She certainly sounds amazing here, and her performance is ultimately better than the material; “High Energy” is a beautifully-produced piece of music, but its glossy sheen hides a lack of substance and throwaway lyric.   Still, disco fans loved it; according to the liner notes in The 70s Anthology, the song hit #1 on Billboard‘s Dance Chart/Club Play, listed alongside “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.

Billboard: 1976

2.  I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking:  Released as the album’s first single on March 16, 1976 (backed with “Early Morning Love” from The Supremes), this song leapt up the Billboard Hot 100 to #40, then stalled there; it climbed to #25 on the R&B side and topped the Club Play chart, but it remains a mystery why it didn’t do any better on the pop charts.  Supremes fans could at least take solace that it added to the group’s run of Top 40 hits, becoming the first since 1972’s “Automatically Sunshine” to peak so high.  Led by thumping congas courtesy Eddie “Bongo” Brown and a stratospheric vocal by Scherrie Payne, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” is a terrific dance cut, easily one of the best recorded by The Supremes and probably one of the best ever released by Motown.   Much of the credit for the song’s success must go to the bright, snappy production and the crisp, singable melody; unlike some other disco cuts recorded by The Supremes (and many other artists, to be fair), this song doesn’t rely on a beat to cover a lack of musicality.  The lyrics here can be seen as a forerunner to the 1978 monster hit “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor; both songs share an assertive message of independence and moving on from a failed relationship, although in this case the narrator is the one doing the leaving (incidentally, Dino Fekaris, one of the writers of “I Will Survive,” had previously worked at Motown and provided The Supremes and Four Tops with several songs the their 1971 joint LP The Return of the Magnificent Seven).  Scherrie Payne is absolutely the right singer to deliver the message here; her vocal is confident, powerful, and masterfully efficient.  Better yet, the Hollands again dubbed Susaye Greene into the mix here, her fluttering soprano adding colorful vocal flourishes; her sustained high notes during the climax at 2:30 are spine-tingling.  Again, although the song should have climbed even higher than #40 on the pop chart, it was a huge hit in the clubs; in its year-end issue, Billboard listed this song at #24 on a chart of disco tunes with the biggest audience response in 1976.  “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” remains irresistible to this day.

3.  Only You (Can Love Me Like You Love Me):  Blaring horns announce the entrance of the next song, a sexy cut that’s sparked by a superb lead vocal from Scherrie Payne.  Aside from boasting powerful pipes and an impressive range, Payne is also clearly capable of producing some really interesting tones, as demonstrated by her opening lines here; her breathy delivery is unlike anything we’ve heard from her before on a Supremes recording.  The beat charges forward with an urban edge, as if the electricity of New York is pulsing through the track; in a way, it foreshadows the 1979 Crusaders hit “Street Life” in the way it seems to musically interpret the swagger of a city (by the way, musician Joe Sample, who plays keyboards on High Energy, was a founding member of The Crusaders and co-wrote “Street Life”).  Payne’s elastic vocal gets better and better as the number unfolds and she pleads, “Come on, love me now!” — there are times when the singer sounds a bit like Stephanie Mills in the way her voice bursts forth and skyrockets over the track.  Meanwhile, the singer is supported by perfectly delivered background vocals, with every Supreme offering up an engaging, energetic performance.  This cut also features really nice guitar solo at 2:00; it doesn’t last long, but it’s a great addition to the song, adding a little complexity to the repetitive disco arrangement.  I’m not sure who the featured guitarist is, but Ray Parker, Jr. (of future “Ghostbusters” fame) is one of the credited players on the LP; given his superb work on so many albums of the era, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that’s him on the solo.  While “Only You (Can Love Me Like You Love Me)” may not be a particularly original disco tune, it’s a really good one; it’s certainly only of the best inclusions on High Energy, and would have made a solid follow-up single to “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” had one been issued.

4.  You Keep Me Moving On:  Not to be confused with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” a #1 hit for The Supremes back in 1966, this track was written by the Holland brothers along with Richard Davis and Hugh Wyche.  Think of this a “trial run” for the later Supremes single “You’re My Driving Wheel” (which would lead off the group’s next album, Mary, Scherrie & Susaye); both are frenzied, unruly disco cuts which depend on the sheer force of the group’s vocal performances to hold them together.  “You Keep Me Moving On” makes strange use of brief, racing musical vamps leading into each verse, which seem to be the musical equivalent of an accelerating car (listen at :21 to hear the first one); unfortunately, these little snippets sound quite cartoonish when listened to today.  The rest of the production is standard disco, with the typical chunky beat and slicing strings; the melody is also fairly limited, although it’s elevated by the dependable Miss Payne, who attacks the lyrics in one of her gutsiest readings yet.  The song’s greatest strength is in its refrain, which prominently features all three Supremes repeating “Moving, moving, moving, moving/Moving on!”  It’s not the most poetic thing the Hollands ever wrote, but it is catchy; it’s also nice to hear Mary, Scherrie, and Cindy really belt out the words, each unique vocal tone clearly audible.  Aside from the vocal performances, however, this just isn’t a particularly interesting cut to listen to; it probably got people dancing back in the day (which was it’s purpose, after all), but it doesn’t stand up against the preceding two  tracks, which both boast a clearer musical identity.

Billboard: December 25, 1976
The Supremes come in at #17 on Billboard’s list of the year’s top disco artists (and former lead singer Diana Ross charts at #4)

5.  Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You:  The album’s seconds side shifts focus away from disco and the raging vocals of Scherrie Payne; “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” is the first of three Mary Wilson-fronted ballads in a row, a trio of songs which drains energy from High Energy but at least provides a nice (and literal) change of pace.  This song was written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and notable musician Richard Wylie (a Motown recording artist, himself) and had been recorded by Dionne Warwick for her 1973 album Just Being Myself, which was also produced by H-D-H.  Warwick’s version of the somber ballad was already arguably overproduced (AllMusic notes the “piping trumpets and cascading strings” of the album), and the Hollands ratchet it up a notch here, surrounding Mary Wilson a swirling storm of phased keyboards, church bells, sweeping violins, and a rather clunky wind instrument section.  It’s a lot to take in at first, but once the track quiets down a bit, it becomes clear just how good this song is; it’s a really satisfying soul ballad, with memorable lyrics and a pretty melody, and it finds a good match in Miss Wilson as vocalist.  Mary’s vocal is extremely controlled here, relaxed during the verses and passionate on the refrain, and she manages to just stay out front enough to not get swallowed up in the overblown arrangement.  Wilson’s leads as a Supreme have been a bit inconsistent up to this point, but this is easily one of the strongest; she displays a lot of soul in this performance, but never seems to be pushing too hard or singing beyond her range.  There’s also some lovely texture to her voice; I love the way her voice sounds slightly frayed at 1:31, as she sings the word “find,” giving the lyric another layer of resignation and melancholy.  It should be noted that an alternate mix first surfaced on The 70s Anthology, released in 2002, and it’s light years better; the instrumental is toned down considerably, placing even more attention on Wilson’s lead and the crisp, effective background vocals.  It’s too bad that wasn’t the mix included on the original album release; as it is, this is one of the best songs on the album, but the alternate mix is one of the standouts of the entire Supremes discography.

6.  Till The Boat Sails Away/I Don’t Want To Lose You:  Although compact disc and digital download reissues of High Energy split these into two selections, the original album release listed this pair of songs as a single track on the album label, and the two are musically connected by the producers so that one seamlessly flows into the next.  “Till The Boat Sails Away” was penned by the Hollands, Harold Beatty, and Barry Payne; it’s a slow, meandering ballad that lacks the focus of the previous cut, not to mention a particularly strong melody or lyric.  The producers start the track with the sound of rolling ocean waves; it’s a nice touch, and gives way to another Middle Eastern-inspired flourish which harkens back to the album’s opening track.  The problems begin when Mary Wilson starts singing; the arrangement is so incredibly slow and bland that she sounds like she’s drowning in those ocean waves.  The song desperately needs a singer with a more buoyant voice, one to lightly bob around the melody instead of dragging it down; unfortunately, Wilson’s dusky alto just can’t get the job done, even when she’s singing with more power toward the song’s climax.  Again she’s not helped much by the material; with all due respect to the talented writers and producers, this one sounds more like a syrupy Carpenters b-side than a production meant for The Supremes.  Eventually the tracks fades into nothing but the sound of a tolling bell, which immediately bleeds into the lush “I Don’t Want To Lose You,” a song penned by Philadelphia soul legends Thom Bell and Linda Creed and recorded by The Spinners for the 1975 LP Pick Of The Litter; it was featured as the b-side of that group’s fabulous #1 R&B hit “Games People Play.”  Produced by Bell for The Spinners, “I Don’t Want To Lose You” was a stripped-down, keyboard-heavy ballad; The Hollands wrap the entire thing up in a warm, fuzzy sweater of symphonic strings.  It’s a beautiful production, but again, once Mary Wilson starts singing, things go downhill; in this case, the singer gives a performance so unadorned and low-key that it barely registers.  Aside from her spoken whispers throughout the song, there doesn’t seem to be even a glimmer of passion in Wilson’s delivery; for someone who practically defines the word “smolder,” it’s a disappointment.  It’s also a shame that with a Philly soul song like this, tailor-made for gorgeous group work, the vocal arrangement skimps on three-part harmony; the backgrounds are mainly quick, staccato echoes that don’t make use of the trio’s talent and only really come alive at the very end.  A year later, singer Phyllis Hyman would cover this song on her debut album; it’s a spectacular version and demonstrates just how good the song is.  The best thing about this version is the beautiful instrumental track and the way the producers delicately tie it together with the preceding song, but those elements aren’t enough to keep it from being a low point on High Energy.

Billboard: February 5, 1977

7.  You’re What’s Missing In My Life:  Here’s the good news — after Mary Wilson practically sleepwalks through the previous medley of ballads, she wakes up and brings tremendous grit and energy to this great disco cut, arranged as a duet with the fiery Scherrie Payne.  Written by the Hollands and Harold Beatty again, the song begins with a series of fluttering musical flourishes that work in the context of the “symphony” concept of the album, but otherwise sound unnecessary.  But once the track opens up, it becomes an upbeat, jazzy soul number irresistible both on and off the dancefloor.  The musicians are really popping here; from the funky bassline to the sparkling keyboards, there’s a real joy and sophistication in the playing that immediately elevates the track.  When Miss Wilson begins singing, she absolutely tears into the material; her “I thought the I was fulfilled” at 1:06 is so powerful it would be easy to confuse her for Scherrie.  In fact, as the ladies trade lines back and forth, it’s a bit difficult to tell them apart, which is a huge complement to both.  The melody is strong here, and paired with snappy, eloquent lyrics impossible not to sing along with; lines such as, “I had a hunger I never knew/Until we loved and you fed it” could have come straight from one of the classic H-D-H songs of the 1960s.  In the end, “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” emerges as the strongest cut on High Energy after the album’s first (and only) single; it’s incredible that Motown wouldn’t think to release this song in the wake of the Top 40 success of “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.”  Instead, Motown singer G.C. Cameron (former lead singer of The Spinners, and the man who led that group’s 1970 hit “It’s A Shame”) got it as a single; a cover of the song would become the title track of his 1977 album produced by Brian Holland.  Cameron’s version is great; his throaty vocals recall Marvin Gaye a bit, and he really sinks his teeth into the melody.  Both versions demonstrate the overall strength of the song; it’s too bad The Supremes didn’t get the chance to take it to the charts, too.

***

The AllMusic review of High Energy calls it “perhaps the most vigorous (and best) album of [The Supremes’] latter-day career,” and many fans will likely agree with that assessment.  It’s a cohesive, opulent set with top-notch production and instrumental work; the way little orchestral riffs tie many of the songs together is really sophisticated.  But there are a few clunkers here, and the vocal work is uneven; it’s a solid album, but it doesn’t quite transcend the disco genre, largely because of that unevenness.  Interestingly, another song recorded during these sessions, “There’s Room At The Top,” was left in the vaults and wouldn’t find release until 2002’s The 70s Anthology; it’s a great song, and could have replaced one of the weaker cuts here.  Still, High Energy delivered a measure of success that The Supremes hadn’t experienced in quite some time, and led to an immediate return date to the studio with the Holland brothers — a move that would result in an even better album.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (The Hollands Deliver Much-Needed “Energy”)

Paul’s Picks: “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking,” “You’re What’s Missing In My Life,” “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You”

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The Supremes (1975)

“Things won’t get any better unless we keep on trying…”

By mid-1975, fans must have been wondering if The Supremes were ever going to release new music again.  The group hadn’t had a single on the charts since “Bad Weather” came out in March of 1973, and there hadn’t been a full-length studio album since The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb hit shelves in November of ’72.  Considering The Supremes had released a whopping twelve singles between 1970 and early 1973 (averaging one every three months), a wait like this was unheard of.  But in May of 1975 — seemingly out of nowhere — The Supremes were suddenly back, represented by a new album of ten tracks heavily geared toward the growing disco movement around the country.  Titled The Supremes, the album came courtesy six different producers, most of them new to working with the group — with one very notable exception.

The Supremes themselves were also a new entity, with one new member and another rejoining the group after an extended absence.  When Lynda Laurence left the group in late 1973 to have a baby, former Supreme Cindy Birdsong returned.  More crucially, lead singer Jean Terrell also left the group in the fall of 1973, and to fill her place, Supreme Mary Wilson turned to a trusted name from her past.  “On a whim I called Lamont Dozier,” Wilson recalls in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, and he instantly suggested a singer named Scherrie Payne.  “Lamont went on to say that she was Freda Payne’s [of the 1970 hit “Band Of Gold”] younger sister and that, by the way, he and Scherrie were dating.  That was enough recommendation for me” (116).  Mary, Scherrie, and Cindy made their debut on Halloween, 1973 at the Phoenix State Fair,  and once contracts were finally worked out, began recording in December of 1974.

Jet: December 6, 1973

First single “He’s My Man” was released on June 12, 1975, and The Supremes made several appearances on national television to promote the song and its parent album, including performances on “Dinah!” (hosted by Dinah Shore), “Soul Train,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”  Many of the album’s songs did get significant club play; several showed up in Billboard‘s “Disco Action” report, which tracked sales and audience response in New York.  And even though The Supremes didn’t sell particularly well, the renewed attention certainly made a statement that this was a new Supremes; gone were the folksy rock-pop tunes from earlier in the decade, and anyone looking for an acoustic guitar or a “peace and love” message would need to search elsewhere.  These Supremes were dance divas, plain and simple; the bevy of producers behind The Supremes turned in a batch of beat-heavy, funky tracks tailor-made for the nationwide disco explosion.

***

Billboard: August 16, 1975

1.  He’s My Man:  The album’s opening track and first single explodes from speakers with a blaring, morse-code opening and the roaring vocals of new Supreme Scherrie Payne; it certainly sounds designed to send a message that The Supremes are back.  “He’s My Man” was written by Greg Wright and Karin Patterson, and produced by Wright; Wright and Patterson were also responsible for two of the best Diana Ross album cuts of the late 1970s, the smooth “Never Say I Don’t Love You” and the gloriously funky “You Were The One,” both from Diana’s 1978 LP Ross.  Wright’s production here is loud and glossy; any trace of Motown grit has been buffed away, leaving a danceable sheen led by crisp percussion and wah-wah guitars.  It’s all way too slick and obvious, but the energy level is high and the enthusiasm sounds authentic, which helps keep the production afloat.  The song itself is a sexy celebration of love; the lyrics are silly, but they get the job done, and as with previous singles “Touch” and “Floy Joy,” two Supremes share the bulk of them.  Mary Wilson splits the lead with Miss Payne here, and unlike those earlier singles (shared with former lead singer Jean Terrell) the combination of voices works extremely well; Wilson shows much confidence in her work on “He’s My Man,” putting some muscle behind her performance rather than coasting on her unique, misty tone.  There’s a good chance she’s stepping up her game due to the fireworks provided by Payne, who possesses a brassy, soulful instrument that surges up and down the scale with ease.  As Wilson would later write in Supreme Faith, “Scherrie was more than a terrific singer; she had that indescribable something that makes audiences sit up and listen…Scherrie had a fire, a spark, that the Supremes had been missing” (127).  Wilson and Payne bounce off of each other nicely; while their vocal textures are very different, they’re singing in a similar range, which helps bridge their performances.  There’s also a nice blend when Wilson and Payne sing in unison with Cindy Birdsong; their work on the bridge (“Some people say he’s no good/But they’d have him if they could”) is smooth and supple, and seems to predate a sexy funk sound that would become more popular toward the end of the decade.  When “He’s My Man” was released on June 12, 1975, The Supremes had been available for a few weeks and discotheques were already playing their favorite LP cuts; the June 14 issue of Billboard shows strong interest in the song “Early Morning Love.”  Unfortunately, this probably hurt the chances for this single’s chart success, since attention wasn’t focused solely on “He’s My Man” from the beginning.  The song ended up missing the pop chart altogether (the first Supremes song not to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 since the early 1960s) and peaked at just #69 on the R&B side.  Had Motown released this single before the album, and promoted it in clubs and to radio, it likely would’ve have done better.  It’s not the best song on the album, and it certainly sounds dated today (I could really do without Payne’s ‘Tarzan yells’ at the end), but “He’s My Man” is a solid effort from a group working hard to establish itself in a new era of music.

Billboard: June 14. 1975

2.  Early Morning Love:  As previously noted, this song generated early attention, showing up in Billboard’s “Disco Action” charts the week of June 14, 1975, when it sat at #6 for retails sales at Melody Song Shops in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island.  It’s not a surprise that listeners picked up on this song; it boasts a nice, chunky groove and sexy lyrics that are frank but tasteful.  But there is a surprise associated with this track, and it involves the names listed alongside it on the album credits.  “Early Morning Love” was written by Harold Beatty, Eddie Holland, and Brian Holland, and produced by the latter…and yes, those are the same Holland brothers of the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland team, which wrote ten of the twelve #1 hits recorded by The Supremes in the 1960s.  H-D-H gave the Diana Ross-led Supremes their first hit in 1963 with “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” and followed that song with the iconic “Where Did Our Love Go,” which shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964 and turned them all into major stars.  The Supremes worked almost exclusively with H-D-H until 1968, when the writers left Motown in a dispute over money; the departure was a devastating blow to both The Supremes and Motown.  Now, years later (and with litigation complete), the Holland brothers were working with writer Harold Beatty and resumed relations with The Supremes, providing old friend Mary Wilson with her gutsiest song yet; few producers had ever seen Wilson as anything but a ballad stylist, but the guys allow her to showcase some grit and depth in an uptempo setting.  Mary certainly sounds like a different singer here when compared to earlier leads (i.e. “I Keep It Hid” from The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb); she attacks her vocal, revealing a roughness that we really haven’t heard before.  It’s an energetic delivery, but it’s not one of Wilson’s best; the fact is, the song’s pace and melody are really better suited to Scherrie Payne, and it’s hard not to wonder how the recording would have sounded with her on lead instead.  In the end “Early Morning Love” is a strong production and it’s easy to hear why club-goers would take to it so quickly; it’s not a classic disco cut, but it’s an enjoyable one.  (NOTE: “Early Morning Love” would eventually be placed on the b-side of the “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” single, released in March of the following year; that song would go on to become the group’s final Top 40 hit.)

3.  Where Is It I Belong:  …and speaking of ballads, this is a much more typical song for Mary Wilson, a melancholy love ballad given the gauzy treatment of a perfume ad.  “Where Is It I Belong” was co-written by Elaine Brown and produced by Mark Davis; Diana Ross fans will know Davis thanks to his production of the song “I’m Falling In Love With You” from 1973’s Diana & Marvin, one of the best tracks on that uneven album.  There are actually some similarities between “Where Is It I Belong” and that earlier recording, in terms of the dreamy way in which both are produced; that said, “I’m Falling In Love With You” is the far superior track, with its sizzling groove evocative of classic Motown.  “Where Is It I Belong” is really sappy, lacking much fire or soul and sounding far too much like generic Muzak to really register; it doesn’t help that lyrics like “He was Capricorn/And a love was born” instantly date the song.  Wilson sounds okay, but her delivery isn’t particularly distinctive and she’s swamped by the schmaltzy surroundings; Cindy Birdsong and Scherrie Payne are given very little to do behind her.  The repetition of a plaintive question (“Where is it I belong?”) recalls another recording from a female trio, the monster hit “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees; that song had peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1974.  But play the two songs back-to-back and you’ll hear what’s missing on the Supremes cut; there’s a freshness and energy that just aren’t present here.

4.  It’s All Been Said Before:  This upbeat song was slated to be the first single from The Supremes; Motown assigned it a catalogue number (Motown 1350) before cancelling the release and choosing to go with “He’s My Man” instead.  The two songs couldn’t be more different; this is a peppy pop tune, written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter (who penned hits including “Keeper Of The Castle” for The Four Tops) and produced by Michael Lloyd, who’d enjoyed success with The Osmonds.  “It’s All Been Said Before” actually had been said before; it was recorded by soul singer Bobby Hutton and released on his 1973 ABC album Piece Of The Action; I’ve read the song was written for The Four Tops, which makes sense since Lambert and Potter had written for the Tops and the group was also signed to ABC.  Fascinating, then, that a song for the post-Motown Four Tops ends up with The Supremes…at Motown.  The angular arrangement and urgency in the track recall classic Motown a bit; the opening “duh-duh-duh” beats could have come from a Holland-Dozier-Holland hit of the previous decade.  The song serves as a showcase for Scherrie Payne, who gets her first full lead of the entire album; her boisterous performance is confident and impressive.  Although Payne boasts a thick, muscular voice that bears some similarities to that of Aretha Franklin, she sings with a crispness reminiscent of her Supreme predecessor, Diana Ross; both women can skip lightly over a melody, nailing each note and never getting bogged down with too many ad-libs or riffs.  This might be what Mary Wilson had meant when she wrote that Payne’s voice possessed “that indescribable something that makes audiences sit up and listen” — Payne’s enunciation and precision are immensely listenable.  That said, “It’s All Been Said Before” isn’t the “lost hit” some fans might hope for; it hasn’t aged well and sounds campy in execution, thanks to the cutesy production that really is more suited to The Osmonds than The Supremes (and indeed, Donny and Marie ended up covering this tune).  This is a memorable tune, but it’s not a standout on The Supremes.

5.  This Is Why I Believe In You:  The album’s mainly lackluster first side comes to an end with this disjointed disco cut, produced by the one and only Hal Davis; Davis had worked with The Supremes since way back on the A Bit Of Liverpool album from 1964.  The writer-producer had just enjoyed a major success with “Dancing Machine” for The Jackson 5, and would soon blow the doors of the disco genre wide open with two more classic Motown releases; first came “Love Hangover,” recorded with Diana Ross in 1976, which was quickly followed by “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a huge hit for Thelma Houston.  With Davis behind the board and songwriter Pam Sawyer behind the tune, fans must have had high hopes for “This Is Why I Believe In You.”  But…it’s a mess.  The song is produced with all the subtlety of a used car commercial, utilizing a hodgepodge of disco clichés including frantic tempo changes and overenthusiastic vocals; it’s clearly a calculated effort to jump on the disco bandwagon, and it’s not a smooth ride.  Mary Wilson leads the first half of the song, giving a performance that’s sorely lacking in character; although the melody isn’t that exciting to start with, the singer doesn’t give it any punch.  As with “Early Morning Love,” Wilson doesn’t sound quite up the task of fronting something so upbeat, and her voice doesn’t have the tonal quality  to cut through the chunky track in the way that Scherrie Payne’s does.  Speaking of, the second half of the song transforms into a pseudo-gospel breakdown during which Miss Payne unleashes a series of yelps and the backing track becomes a barrage of handclaps; this kind of drastic mid-song change is something Davis would handle much, much better the following year with “Love Hangover.”  Overall, the biggest issue with “This Is Why I Believe In You” is just how plastic and forced it feels; the best disco songs moved people because there was a real feeling and musicality behind the beat, and that’s not the case here.

Jet: April 3, 1975

6.  You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love:  It’s a rare Motown album that features a second side better than the first; the label (and probably most labels) typically front-loaded its LPs, placing the hits early and letting filler pad out the rest.  But The Supremes is a different story; there’s a major improvement in quality starting with “You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love,” thanks to a batch of songs turned in by Muscle Shoals producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford and an increased focus on Scherrie Payne as lead singer.  Though this is one of the lesser-known tunes featured on The Supremes, it is easily the best; this is a shimmering slice of light soul that injects the album with a needed shot of sophistication.  The song was written by Ivey and George Soulé, and opens with bouncy piano chords that instantly recall classic Supremes songs like “Baby Love” — the entire production is, in fact, a glorious play on the Motown Sound, without ever sounding like a weak imitation.  The recording is spearheaded by a classy instrumental track with twinkling keyboard work and soulful horns during the refrain; Payne’s lead vocal is sparkling, delivered by the singer with ease and honesty.  Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong offer up classic Supremes backgrounds, “oohing” and “ahhing” with grace and minting a fun “Give it up, give it up” hook.  The song just sounds good, it’s actually quite similar to the fantastic “All Night Lover” from the Diana Ross LP Baby It’s Me, and predates that song by two years; both knowingly nod toward the storied Supremes past, but never sound anything but contemporary.  It’s unfortunate that Motown was so quick to jump on the “disco train” and really couldn’t see past it when releasing Supremes singles; had someone been able to think outside the dance club, this might have gotten a chance at radio.  If this song had been pushed to R&B and Easy Listening stations, it would have been a beautiful way to re-introduce The Supremes after such a long absence; given the right kind of support, it also probably could have crossed over to some pop success.

Billboard: September 6, 1975

7.  Color My World Blue:  When it comes to true disco cuts on The Supremes, this is the best; it’s another cut produced by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford, this time written by Frank Johnson.  Although the song was never released as a single, it did garner interest among must fans; it showed up several times on the Billboard “Disco Action” chart for retails sales at Melody Song Shops in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island.  Since Motown clearly wanted to push a dance-oriented cut for The Supremes, it’s too bad the company didn’t go with this one; it’s superior to first single “He’s My Man” in every way, featuring a challenging melody and lyric, better vocals, and a more soulful and sophisticated production.  Producers Ivey and Woodford give the song a chugging beat, reminiscent of a locomotive picking up speed; a repetitive guitar riff provides a nice undercurrent of electricity (think of it as a more subdued version of the iconic riff Stevie Nicks would could up with a few years later for her hit “Edge Of Seventeen”).  Scherrie Payne leads the song, and it’s one of her best vocals on the album; she’s really engaging, taking the lyric literally by “coloring” her delivery with some really nice textures in her voice.  Listen to the way she opens the song, letting the lyrics “I still thank the Lord above for ya, baby” drag a bit with resignation; the lack of joy sounds strange at first, until you realize she’s singing from the point of view of a woman who’s wronged her man and realizes what a mistake it was.  This demonstrates a real gift for interpretation; it’s another quality she shares with former Supremes lead singer Diana Ross.  Although Scherrie gets most of the attention from producers Ivey and Woodford, there are some terrific moments of group singing; listen to the beautiful blend of voices at 1:21, as all three Supremes begin the second verse together.  There’s something about the way the Payne-Wilson-Birdsong combination sounds that just works; it’s a smoother sound than previous Supreme groupings.  But the real reason this recording works so well is because it’s really a good song; as noted earlier, disco worked best when there was real feeling behind a song, and when a strong melody was woven into the beat.  “Color My World Blue” would still work with a completely different arrangement; it’s a smart song that really stands out here.  (NOTE: It was recorded again, although with a fairly similar arrangement; soul singer Anne Sexton included it on her 1977 album The Beginning, and Billboard named this cut as a highlight on that album.)

8.  Give Out, But Don’t Give Up:  This is the third Ivey and Woodford song in a row, and it’s the third straight home run; at this point, it’s clear that the writing-producing duo was the perfect choice to be working with The Supremes, and should have just handled the entire album.  Someone at Motown obviously liked it, too; “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up” was first slated to be the b-side to the “It’s All Been Said Before” single, and when that release was scratched, the song was put on the b-side to “He’s My Man.”  Then, in a totally weird move, this song was used again as the b-side to “Where Do I Go From Here,” released in September.  It’s not the first time one Supremes song had been used on multiple single releases (“Time Changes Things” back up both “Let Me Go The Right Way” in 1962 and “Forever Came Today” in 1968!), but there’s no telling why the label decided to recycle “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up” so quickly.  That said, the song is better than any of the a-sides it supported; it’s easily one of the best cuts on the album.  Although most listeners today would probably lump the tune in with the other disco cuts on the album, it’s actually a laid-back, midtempo number with a powerful message and sterling production; as with their previous two offerings, Ivey and Woodford clearly paid close attention to the details, crafting a lush and interesting musical track spearheaded, in this case, by a joyful brass section that sounds like it comes straight from a New Orleans street corner.  Interestingly, the guitar work here lends the production just a touch of country-western; this cross-section of Louisiana soul and country twang is no surprise given the Muscle Shoals connection here.  Anyone fearing that Scherrie Payne didn’t have enough seasoning or experience to lead a supergroup like The Supremes need only to listen to this track to hear just how dynamic she really is; Payne sings with a wisdom and maturity that far exceeded her actual age at the time of recording, and the low-key groove really gives her a chance to unfurl her impressive, powerful instrument.  This isn’t just one of the best songs on this album, it’s one of the best of the the group’s 70s output; those turned off by the repetitive beats of the trio’s late-stage work should give this cut a spin.  (NOTE: The trio of Ivey, Woodford, and Barbara Wyrick also wrote the song “Bend A Little,” recorded by The Supremes but left off of this album.  It should have been included; it’s just as good as this song.)

Billboard: September 13, 1975

9.  Where Do I Go From Here:  This song was released as the second and final official single from The Supremes; although several cuts got club play and generated sales by fans, this song was slapped on a 45 and released as Motown 1374 on September 5, 1975.  Sadly, it tanked; while the song showed up on the “Disco Action” sales charts, it missed the Billboard Hot 100 altogether and only reached a paltry #93 on the R&B chart.  As with “He’s My Man,” part of the problem was likely the fact that so many different album tracks were getting club play, splitting attention and thus forcing The Supremes to compete with themselves; Diana Ross albums like Baby It’s Me and The Boss suffered this same fate, missing out on producing some deserved hits due to unfocused radio and club play.  “Where Do I Go From Here” was written by Brian and Eddie Holland, the second and final cut on The Supremes to come from Holland/Dozier/Holland Productions, Inc.; when the song was released, it would become the first Supremes single bearing the Holland name since “Forever Came Today” in 1968.  This is a harder-edged song than the previous “Early Morning Love,” featuring a darker melody and melancholy lyric; the instrumental is marked by slicing strings and some funky guitar work which really drive the song forward.  Scherrie Payne leads the recording and she sounds great; as with the past few cuts, she sings with soul and feeling, clearly connecting with the lyrics and interpreting them with honesty.  The backgrounds are a lot of fun, as they recall some of the trio’s early work with the writers; listen to the way the group sings “All about loving!” at :36, and it’s easy to imagine Mary and Florence Ballard giving the same performance behind Diana Ross.  If there’s a weak link here, it’s probably the melody, which isn’t as strong as anything else on the second side of The Supremes; while this is a good dance song, it doesn’t sound as alive as “Color My World Blue” or “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up.”

10.  You Turn Me Around:  This is a fantastic ballad, and again comes courtesy producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford; the song itself was written by the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, responsible for many, many classic songs including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”  As with that song, “You Turn Me Around” was first cut on The Righteous Brothers; it was featured on the 1974 LP Give It To The People, wherein it was arranged as a sparse piano ballad.  In the hands of Ivey and Woodford, the song is transformed into a slow-burn number reminiscent of the Philly Soul Sound; the instrumental is warm and intimate, and it’s matched by one of Mary Wilson’s best lead vocals ever.  Wilson is beautifully controlled here; listen to her opening lines (“When I feel the walls start closing in on me…”), and the way she delivers the words with understated elegance.  As the song continues, Miss Wilson never falters in her confidence, nailing each passage as if the tune had been written specifically for her.  As good as the lead vocal us, the real ace in the hole is the sparkling background arrangement; the addition of the “‘Round and ’round/’Round and ’round” at :43 is genius, adding a soulful sophistication and bringing to mind the kind of striking group arrangements you’d expect from The Delfonics.  It’s unfortunate that this song was never given a chance at R&B radio; perhaps it would have been a little too understated to gain much traction, but it’s superb recording and representative of what The Supremes had been about since the beginning.  As much as the trio had evolved over the decade, the group’s calling card remained glitz, glamour, and sophistication; this creamy ballad is exactly what The Supremes did best.

***

Listening to The Supremes today, it’s pretty clear that Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford were the right producers to be working with the trio; the four tracks they completed for the album are the best, and are among the best tracks released by The Supremes during the post-Jean Terrell era.  Ivey and Woodford didn’t run away from the disco sound, but they also didn’t solely rely it; they clearly saw the group as capable of handling more than one type of song, adding variety and soul to an otherwise beat-driven and repetitive album.  Ivey and Woodford produced additional songs that were left off the album; “The Sha-La Bandit” is a fabulous doo-wop inspired song eventually released on the 1978 compilation At Their Best, and the hard-driving “Bend A Little” showed up as an instrumental track on the album Motown Magic Disco Machine Volume II.  It’s mind-boggling that these were cut from the album; both are far superior to some of the weaker cuts included on The Supremes.

Although the group worked hard to promote the album, The Supremes met with middling success overall; it peaked at #152 on the Billboard 200 and #25 on the R&B side.  That said, the growing popularity of dance clubs was giving the group boost; people were hearing the music of The Supremes in a new way, and even if radio wasn’t giving the trio much attention, club-goers were.  The fact that so many of the album’s songs showed up on the “Disco Action” charts in Billboard demonstrates that even without major sales, people were still being exposed to the music of The Supremes.  This would continue in much more significant way with the trio’s next album, released less than a year later; The Supremes were about to score their biggest dance hit of the decade.

Final Analysis: 3/5 (Supremes Take An Uneven “Turn”)

Paul’s Picks: “You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love,” “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up,” “You Turn Me Around”

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In Japan! (1973)

“Why is it we can’t be the way we used to be?”

Once upon a time, this was one of the rarest of all Supremes collectibles, an obscure live album released for a short time overseas and never issued in the United States.  In Japan! was recorded on June 3, 1973, during a performance at Shinjuku Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo, Japan; at the time, the group was promoting its latest single, the Stevie Wonder-produced “Bad Weather.”  The trio then-consisted of original Supreme Mary Wilson, lead singer Jean Terrell, and newest member Lynda Laurence, who’d been with the group for roughly a year at that time; all three had sung on the group’s previous studio album, 1972’s The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb.  After releasing “Bad Weather” in March of 1973, the group remained busy touring the world and performing on various television shows; they’d even ventured into the business world, promoting a line of Supremes wigs.

Billboard: February 17, 1973

But this was also a troubled period for The Supremes; as they were performing this show in Japan, rumors were swirling at home that the group was planning to leave Motown, the record company with which it had been signed for more than a decade.  The trio’s releases had been performing progressively worse on the charts, and group members were open about their disappointment in the record company’s promotional efforts (or lack thereof) on their behalf.  According to Mary Wilson in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, dissatisfaction with their situation had led to mounting tensions within the group; a Billboard review from February of 1973 commented that The Supremes “exhibit more individual differences than the tight togetherness of their past,” perhaps a result of those backstage tensions.

Part of the problem was undoubtedly the schizophrenia of the group’s musical identity, something on full display in the eleven tracks of In Japan!, which reveal a trio caught somewhere between its “supper club” past and soulful present.  Back in the 1960s, Motown had worked hard to break The Supremes into the upscale (and primarily white) club circuit; thanks to a triumphant opening at New York’s Copacabana in 1965, the group smashed through the glass ceiling and never looked back.  But the 1973 Supremes was a completely different entity than the 1965 Supremes; selections like “T.C.B.” and “Somewhere” had been in the group’s show for years and sound really dated here, especially given the trio’s move toward pop-rock music in the new decade.  Beyond that, these “showbiz” songs are made up of crisp melodies and sharp lyrics which require great attention to detail to pull off, and Jean Terrell mumbles and riffs her way through them, resulting in tuns that are unrecognizable.  “T.C.B” is a long way from “Nathan Jones” — and it’s an uneven show that attempts to bridge the two here.

***

The Detroit Sun: September 3, 1976

1.  Introduction:  The album opens with an energetic overture consisting of several Supreme melodies woven together by a funky beat.  The band is led by conductor Teddy Harris, an incredibly talented, well-respected musician who had a long career in the industry and spent several years with The Supremes.  Because this is the only live album recorded on The Supremes in the 1970s, it gives listeners a unique chance to hear some of the great musicians who played with the group during the decade; late in the album, the group introduces the band, giving the players well-deserved recognition.  Just as Gil Askey provided the dynamic backing and arrangements for the Diana Ross-led Supremes, Harris leads a show of exuberance and pizzazz, clipping this show along at a heart-pounding pace and keeping the energy up even when the lead vocalist seems to be coasting.

2:  T.C.B./Stop! In The Name Of Love:  Here we go again with this two-song mashup, used by The Supremes since the 1968 television special TCB with The Temptations.  “T.C.B.” (which stands for Takin’ Care of Business, in case you forgot) is a splashy Vegas-style tune written by Buz Kohan and Bill Angelos, who were both credited as writers for that earlier television special.  The song had been a perfect vehicle for Diana Ross to dazzle audience members and prime them for an evening of entertainment; the group ended up keeping the song as an opening number for its stage show, and you can hear it again on the Farewell album, recorded live at the Frontier Hotel in January of 1970.  Unfortunately, despite buoyant backing from Mary Wilson and Lynda Laurence, Jean Terrell doesn’t capture the excitement needed to sell the song at all; she alters the phrasing and melody so much that she just sounds lost during most of it.  The same is true once the lyric “Stop, whatever you’re doin'” becomes “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” which the crowd greets with a warm applause; Jean clearly works hard to make the iconic Holland-Dozier-Holland hit her own, but she strays so far from the original melody that she ends up sounding like she’s forgotten the song!  This isn’t to say Terrell’s voice sounds bad; it doesn’t, of course.  Her silken pipes are in tremendous shape during this show, but her riffing often comes at the expense of melody, effectively erasing the qualities that make a number like “Stop! In The Name Of Love” a classic in the first place.

3.  Medley (For Once In My Life/I’ll Take You There/Cabaret):  This medley is a standout of the entire album, if only for the fact that it showcases some gorgeous three-part harmony from The Supremes.  It begins with the classic tune written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden and turned into a huge pop hit by Stevie Wonder in 1968; The Supremes breathlessly race through “For Once In My Life,” somehow managing to stay in tight harmony through the entire thing.  The ladies sound great together, and each gets in some solo time; Lynda sings “Could make my dreams come true” at :30, revealing a gloriously brassy instrument that never got enough play in the studio.  From this standard, the medley transforms into the title song of the famed Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, which opened on Broadway in 1966 and was turned into a hit film starring Liza Minnelli in 1972 (Liza, of course, won an Oscar for Cabaret, beating out none other than Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues.  I’m sure the inclusion of this song raised a few eyebrows!).  Again, the song is delivered at about triple the pace it’s usually performed at, and The Supremes skillfully ride the melody without a missing a beat.  Their three-part harmony beginning at 2:05 is unbelievable; these are some of the best vocals on a Supremes album ever, with Mary’s misty alto, Jean’s round soprano, and Lynda’s blaring, bugle-like voice blending to create a magnificent sound.  “Cabaret” immediately halts, becoming “I’ll Take You There,” a #1 hit from the previous year by The Staples Singers, which was written by Al Bell (who, coincidentally, would go on to head Motown Records in the 1980s); Jean Terrell seems to come alive a bit here, offering up a soulful lead before Mary and Lynda move into a few lines from the 1969 Sly Stone classic “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”  Finally, the ladies swing it on home with a few more lines from “Cabaret,” their voices soaring to the sky as they stretch out the ending and really belt out the words, displaying the kind of pipes you’d expect from seasoned Broadway performers.  Overall, this medley is a little strange in song choice; there doesn’t seem to be much of a connecting thematic thread.  However, the band and the vocalists really sell it; there’s style and energy to spare here.

4.  Stoned Love:  After some cute banter at the end of the previous track, The Supremes launch into their biggest hit of the decade, the #1 R&B hit “Stoned Love” from the New Ways But Love Stays LP.  Jean Terrell opens by soulfully belting out the title of another earlier Supremes single, “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love,” before delivering the dramatic introduction to “Stoned Love.”  The singer really takes her time here; it’s more than a full minute before the song falls into its groove, and Terrell runs up and down the scale in an effortless melisma that would make even Mariah Carey jealous.  Once the beat sets in, it becomes apparent just how watered down this arrangement is going to be; the pace is quickened, of course, and the Motown Sound is gone, replaced by frantic guitars and Vegas-style horns.  This is what happened to all of the group’s hits after the breakthrough Copacabana gig in 1965; live orchestrations went heavy on pizzazz and light on soul, transforming the songs into something more palatable for upscale audiences.  This worked better on some tunes than others, and “Stoned Love” really isn’t one of the successful ones; it loses the sense of majesty present on the original recorded version, sorely missing the expansive orchestra backing The Supremes.  Speaking of, Jean Terrell throws away a lot of lyrics while racing through the song, and Mary and Lynda hoot like helium-inhaling owls behind her thanks to the rapid-fire pace.  Overall, this is a perfect example of the strange line being straddled by The Supremes at this time; with club work still a main focus for the group, these razzle-dazzle arrangements weren’t going anywhere, but the group’s 1970s material isn’t necessarily melodic enough to survive the transition.  The 70s songs were more about the message of the lyrics and the sound created in the studio, rather than the kind of crisp, singable melodies written by Holland-Dozier-Holland in the 1960s; the message is really lost in this particular recording, leaving “Stoned Love” as a mainly forgettable selection in the show.

5.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars:  Jean Terrell next introduces Mary Wilson, who jokingly dedicates this medley to “some of my favorite things in life…men.”  It’s is frankly a little strange that Mary Wilson was still singing the same old song as her solo number; she’d been doing the Frankie Valli hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for years, and it had already shown up on three albums by this time (TogetherFarewelland Motown At The Hollywood Palace).  The good news is that this is her absolutely best reading of the song; in fact, it’s probably her best solo performance on record up to this point.  After racing through the previous selections, the band finally settles down here, letting Wilson take her time and dive into the song; it’s a real showcase for her voice, which sounds far stronger and confident than anything we’ve heard on the past several Supremes albums.  She soon segues into the jazz standard “Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars,” written by Bossa nova master A.C. Jobim; this is a newer addition to Wilson’s solo spot, and it’s a terrific one.  Wilson’s warm, misty tone is a perfect fit for jazz music, and her voice beautifully floats along sexy Brazilian melody, with able support from Lynda and Jean behind her; they spend a good portion of this song harmonizing, and it’s gorgeous.  Finally, Mary moves back into “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and she absolutely wails, belting the lyrics and allowing her voice to run all over the scale; this part of the performance definitively proves her abilities as a singer, displaying a larger range than many give the singer credit for and a soulfulness that much of her recorded work doesn’t take advantage of.  Wilson stretches out the song’s finale, tearing into it with both guttural lows and stunning high notes; she’s deservedly rewarded with a long round of applause.  This is a clear highlight of the entire evening; Wilson’s live performance experience and growing confidence as a vocalist are more than evident.

6.  New Hit Medley (Automatically Sunshine/Floy Joy/Nathan Jones/Up The Ladder To The Roof):  As good as Mary Wilson’s previous solo feature is, it’s criminal that she gets more than five minutes for those two covers while four of the group’s own best recordings are condensed into a medley of shorter total running time.  Then again, that’s how it always was for The Supremes; “hit medley” had been a dreaded phrase for years, right?  There’s a cute little set-up for the medley, with Jean telling a story of The Supremes as “three little girls” in a “kingdom by the sea” and being interrupted by Mary and Lynda to contradict her (listen to Mary’s “Wait a minute, honey” — it’s pure Florence Ballard).  The medley begins with a few lines from the group’s 1970 hit “Up The Ladder To The Roof” before abruptly switching to “Automatically Sunshine,” the Smokey Robinson-penned single from Floy Joy, and a release which had peaked in the pop Top 40 the previous year. The single had fared even better in some overseas countries, and it gets a warm applause here; although the arrangement is predictably jazzed up, there’s a nice swing to the bassline and the trio offers up a bouncy vocal performance.  Next up is the group’s Top 20 hit “Floy Joy,” also penned by Robinson and lifted from the album of the same name; as with the preceding tune, this one works reasonably well with a quickened pace and big-band backing, although the entire point of the original recording was to serve as a “throwback” to the group’s hits of the previous decade, so taking away the deliberately self-referential arrangement leaves very little aside from a sing-song melody and simplistic lyric.  “Nathan Jones” follows; this, of course, was a solid hit for the trio in 1971, a rock-pop dazzler from the superb album Touch.  There is nothing dazzling about the arrangement here, however; it sounds like a cheap imitation of the original recording, robbing the song of any power or soul.  The quickened pace isn’t really the problem; speeding it up actually reveals some gospel roots that aren’t so obvious on the studio version.  But the performances are a mess; the band and singers don’t seem to be together, creating some odd shifts in timing.  Mercifully, “Nathan Jones” ends pretty quickly and the medley flips back to “Up The Ladder To The Roof,” which provides a boisterous finish for The Supremes.  This medley — particularly the non-Smokey Robinson songs — once again shows how much the group’s 70s hits depended on the sound and mood created in the studio; such a radical makeover leaves the tunes feeling really weak.

7.  Hit Medley (Reflections/Where Did Our Love Go/Baby Love/My World Is Empty Without You):  After running through a few of their hits from earlier in the decade, The Supremes go even further back in time, presenting a mash-up of four big hits from the 1960s.  This is an interesting listen, given that all four songs are inextricably linked to the voice of Diana Ross; “Baby Love” and “My World Is Empty With You” are songs that have rarely left Diana’s stage show since she went solo, appearing on most of her live albums and concert specials.  “Reflections” was a #2 hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes back in 1967 (and the title track of the 1968 Reflections album), and it turns out to be a really nice fit for Jean Terrell’s voice; she sounds better at the beginning of the song, when she’s singing it straight, but by the end she’s riffing all over the place, massacring the melody.  Mary Wilson takes over on the bouncy “Where Did Our Love Go,” which was the group’s very first #1 hit back in 1964; nine years later, Mary was the only Supreme still part of the group, so it’s nice to hear her step out and deliver the hit here.  The arrangement is actually a little bluesy, as is Wilson’s vocal, a nice reminder that there were many layers to the work of writers Holland-Dozier-Holland; the hits they penned for The Supremes in the 1960s had sometimes been written off as “pop ditties,” but in reality they are clever compositions that tie together pop, soul, jazz, and blues.  Next up is another song from the Where Did Our Love Go LP, and another #1 hit; “Baby Love” only gets about 20 seconds here, before the tempo slows down and Jean Terrell leads a torchy version of “My World Is Empty Without You” from 1966’s I Hear A Symphony.  The original recording’s dark, driving beat is gone, replaced by sparse, piano-driven accompaniment; the piece is a vocal showcase for Miss Terrell, who gives an interesting and textured performance.  Her melisma-heavy reading is way ahead of its time; the vocal itself sounds like it could be a hit today.  It’s a nice way to end the medley, because at least the group sounds interested in investing it with some new energy, rather than running through it out of obligation.  To be honest, I’d have rather heard a longer version of this final number than a medley including all four.

Billboard: April 13, 1973

8.  Bad Weather:  This was the group’s current release as the time this album was recorded, a single written by Stevie Wonder and Ira Tucker, Jr. and produced by Wonder.  The driving force behind getting this recording made was newest Supreme Lynda Laurence, who happened to be Mr. Tucker’s sister and had sung background for Wonder before joining The Supremes; according to Mary Wilson in Supreme Faith, “[The Supremes] were discussing our trouble getting a decent record out, when Lynda suggested, ‘Why don’t I talk to Stevie about it?  We’re still great buddies.  He’ll write us something.’  When Lynda proposed the idea to Stevie Wonder, he accepted immediately” (79-80).  The group recorded the song in late January of 1973 (according to Wilson, during a performing engagement near Detroit) and the single was released on March 22; reviews were strong for uptempo funk number, but it ended up flopping, barely making the pop and R&B charts (sadly, further work with Wonder was scrapped, including the never-released “Soft Days”).  The studio version is a pre-Disco dancefloor workout, several years ahead of its time; Wonder arranges it as a big, brassy statement, giving Jean Terrell a rollercoaster of a track upon which to unfurl a plaintive, urgent vocal.  It’s the best single released by the group since “Nathan Jones,” and deserved much more success than it ultimately found.  It’s nice to hear the song in full here, rather than having it crammed into a larger medley; although the arrangement cries out for the Wonder-led fullness of the studio version, the band does an admirable job of recreating the urgency and playing with energy.  Terrell’s vocal is a bit more laid back in the beginning than one might expect; she certainly doesn’t attack it the way she did in the studio.  But she picks up steam as the song continues, offering up some really powerful moments and showing off her impressive range.  Lynda Laurence also emerges a real standout on this number; her brassy cries behind Jean are so dead-on that they sound like they were recorded in a studio.  It’s too bad we don’t hear more from Lynda overall on this album; at time, she was given the standard “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” as a solo during the show, but for whatever reason, it’s not included on this album.  After The Supremes wrap up “Bad Weather” to extended applause, they take a moment to introduce “a very good friend of ours in the audience tonight,” who happens to be singer Dionne Warwick, and then tell the audience that they’re about to go back to the 1950s…

9.  Cherry Cherry Pie:  Going back to the 1950s first means a brief but delicious version of this Marvin & Johnny doo-wop hit from 1954.  Led by Mary Wilson, the trio breaks into a luscious three-part harmony, sensually delivering the double-entendre lyric  for just under one minute of running time.  It’s too bad this is so short; Jean-Mary-Lynda are clearly at their best when harmonizing, and they sound terrific.  However, this trip to yesteryear isn’t done yet…

10.  Tossin’ And Turnin’:  Next, The Supremes encourage the audience to do The Twist (Jean: “You must shake it but never break it…”) as they break into a showstopping version of  the Bobby Lewis classic “Tossin’ And Turnin'” (which, by the way, was actually released in the early 1960s, not the 1950s), a song which The Supremes had recorded with Jimmy Webb and which was included on the group’s previous LP, The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb.  This was one of the standouts on that album, a rollicking recreation of the original hit version sparked by a soulful vocal attack by Jean Terrell and full-throated background vocals; here, the song is stretched into an extended, exciting grand finale clearly designed to leave audiences wanting more.  All three Supremes absolutely come alive, with Jean Terrell sounding more engaged than she has during the entire preceding show and Mary Wilson and Lynda Laurence backing her up with a sound so big you’d swear there were extra vocalists joining them.  The trio is more than matched by the band, which creates a sound that absolutely leaps out of the speakers; after about five minutes of singing, the group pays the musicians well-deserved respect by introducing members of “The Supremes rhythm section,” including Marvin Marshall (lead guitar), Nate Neblett (drums), and, of course, Teddy Harris (pianist/conductor).  The Supremes also introduce each other to the audience before the band finally ends with a big, blaring climax.  And this is where the show should end, too; this nearly eight-minute track is just about worth the price of the album, finally showcasing the group and the band as a tight, dynamic performing entity.  But…

11.  Somewhere:  …a Supremes show wouldn’t be a Supremes show without an encore consisting of some pop standard; it was “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” on At The Copa and Live At London’s Talk Of The Town, and “The Impossible Dream” on Farewell.  Here, the ladies deliver another old standby which had been part of the group’s stage show since that 1965 Copacabana debut, the ballad “Somewhere” from Broadway’s West Side Story.  The song itself served various purposes for The Supremes; in the beginning, it was an opportunity for Diana Ross to really belt out a showtune, and later it became a call for Civil Rights and social justice, delivered with drama by Miss Ross, complete with a passionate monologue quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I’m not completely sure what purpose it serves here; there’s some nice harmony by the singers, and a showy vocal from Miss Terrell, but the entire thing seems redundant and dated.  The monologue has also been changed, and without the reference to Dr. King, it loses its power.  Again, the ladies sound good, but coming after the passionate, frenzied “Tossin’ And Turnin’,” this encore feels unnecessary. 

***

Although it’s nice having a high-quality recording of a live performance by the 70s Supremes, In Japan! emerges as the least successful of all live albums by the group; to put it simply, there’s an electricity missing from this album that’s present in the three live recordings which preceded it.  The album works best when Jean, Mary, and Lynda are singing together, using their voices to create uplifting harmonies; whatever might have been happening behind-the-scenes, the vocalists do seem to feed off of each other when singing in this way.  But there’s no denying a lack of something in Jean Terrell’s work here; she’s an immensely talented vocalist, as proven by her overall work with The Supremes, but she just doesn’t seem to be really working here to sell the songs.  And the material is a problem, too; the continued reliance on pop standard and showtunes just doesn’t make sense of a group which had evolved so much during the new decade.

Jet: November 1, 1973

It’s really not a surprise to learn that, according to Mary Wilson, Terrell asked to be released from her Motown contract within weeks of this performance in Japan; by fall, she was gone from the group, as was a pregnant Lynda Laurence.  Although press reports insisted Laurence would return to the group after giving birth, this never happened; Cindy Birdsong re-joined The Supremes, and dynamic singer Scherrie Payne was hired to fill the group’s third spot sharing lead vocals with Mary Wilson.  By January of 1974, this grouping was performing on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” effectively beginning a new era in the story of The Supremes.  It’s unfortunate that Jean Terrell couldn’t go out on top, in the way that Diana Ross did; it’s also too bad that Miss Laurence didn’t get more of a chance to shine during her brief tenure with The Supremes.  Still, In Japan! proves an infusion of new energy was needed, and The Supremes would certainly have a new sound by the time their next album was released, in May of 1975.

Final Analysis: 2/5 (An Interesting, But Ultimately “Empty” Album)

Paul’s Picks: “Tossin’ And Turnin’,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”/”Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars,” Medley (“For Once In My Life”/”I’ll Take You There”/”Cabaret”)

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