“Through the hollow of my tears, I see a dream that’s lost…”
If ever a song was representative of the turbulent emotions playing out behind-the-scenes of its creation, it’s 1967’s “Reflections,” the first single credited to Diana Ross and The Supremes. Written and produced by Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier, the song’s dark, visceral lyrics of disillusionment speak of “a distorted reality” and “a hurt I can’t control.” Holland-Dozier-Holland knew something about feeling disillusioned; within the year, they’d leave Motown, reportedly feeling unappreciated and underpaid for the incredible string of hits they’d penned for The Supremes and several other groups. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard obviously knew something about disillusionment, too; “Reflections” was recorded in May, during a period of intense turmoil within the group (dubbed “a major cold war” by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. in his autobiography To Be Loved). By the time the single was released in late July, founding member Ballard was out of The Supremes, replaced by singer Cindy Birdsong.
Despite the drama swirling around its creation, “Reflections” became another major success for the group; although it broke a string of four consecutive #1 singles (it topped out at #2, held there by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”), it remains one of the most unique and enduring recordings in the group’s discography. Follow-up single “In And Out Of Love” was also a solid hit; released in October, the bouncy H-D-H composition topped out at #9. But something stunning happened next; according to Gordy in To Be Loved, “By February of ’68, having no new product for the Supremes, we were forced to go back to the can, releasing ‘Forever Came Today’ — cut a year before. That record stopped at a dismal #28″ (262). It was the first Supremes single not to make the Top 20 since “Run, Run, Run” in early 1964. With H-D-H gone from the company, Motown cancelled the planned follow-up single (“What The World Need Now Is Love”) and went in search of a new creative direction to put Diana Ross and The Supremes back on top.
The Reflections LP — which collects these final three H0lland-Dozier-Holland singles — is a predictably uneven one, considering it truly encapsulates a group at a crossroads. The only real connecting thread here is Diana Ross; although she sings lead on every song, various vocalists back her up, including Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Cindy Birdsong, AND session singers. Several songwriters and producers are also included here; Smokey Robinson, Brenda Holloway, Jimmy Webb, and Dennis Lussier (aka Deke Richards) among them. The quality of these songs varies wildly, and so does the quality of Diana’s vocal work. After years of non-stop recording, television performances, live engagements, and promotional appearances, the singer finally sounds tired here; there’s a weariness to her voice that really hadn’t been audible on earlier records. Although the highlights are strong, there are fewer present here than on most other Supremes albums; much of the material never sounds like anything other than album filler – and not even very good filler, at that.
1. Reflections: “Everyone, the band, the orchestra, the group, the producers, were there, side-by-side-by-side in that little basement studio. It was intense. They knew they were recording something of significance.” That’s the memory of Detroit DJ Scott Regen (published in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes), who was present during the recording of “Reflections” in May of 1967. The work of Holland-Dozier-Holland had steadily been expanding in scope, from the orchestral brilliance of “I Hear A Symphony” in 1965 to the frenetic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” the following year; the songwriters obviously kept a close ear on popular music, never allowing themselves to fall out of fashion. The musical landscape was dramatically changing mid-1967, with rock sounds and abstract lyrics resonating with young record-buyers; in the box set liner notes, Dozier remembers, “We wanted to answer the new psychedelic sounds.” But “Reflections” did more than just answer psychedelic sounds; it dragged The Supremes back to the dark, shattered territory they’d earlier explored in 1965’s “My World Is Empty Without You” – stripping away the edgy urgency of the previous few singles and forcing the singers to a place of cold, detached bitterness. The song opens with an iconic ten-second wash of sound, beginning with eerie, space-age drip-drops which fade into a smear of metallic noise. This intro instantly signals something new and different, and is followed up by a fabulous Funk Brothers instrumental, dominated by a reptilian percussive rattle and outstanding bassline from James Jamerson that bounces up and down the scale like an out-of-control ping-pong ball. To this track, Holland-Dozier-Holland lend their most cutting lyrics yet; lines like “I’m all alone now/No love to shield me/Trapped in a world that’s/A distorted reality” bypass desperation and travel straight to hopelessness. Diana Ross is the perfect singer to convey such a message, considering she’d blossomed into an expert interpreter of lyrics; she eschews the dramatics of previous singles “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening,” instead delivering an icy, detached vocal. Listen to Ross at 1:34, as she sings “All the love that I’ve wasted” — although there’s a strength to her voice as she reaches for the higher notes, she also sounds worn out — as if her energy is literally “wasting” away. This bridge is basically the only chance Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard get to shine on the track; their vocals are really buried in the mix here, almost indeterminate, which is a disappointment after the previous two background-heavy singles. Still, the goal here was obviously to set a spare, hopeless atmosphere, and Holland-Dozier-Holland succeed in spades. According to Dozier, it wasn’t easy to accomplish: “I think it would have been a difficult song to listen to if not for the editing. We were going with a feeling; there were a lot of melodies creeping in and out, and knowing just where to cut it was a bit of a job. It was unorthodox, to say the least,” he commented in the booklet to the box set. Perhaps “Reflections” is a bit unorthodox, but the beauty of this recording is the way it organically evolves the sound of The Supremes; to the edgy simplicity of previous singles, H-D-H added an emotional maturity brilliantly delivered by Diana Ross. The result was a group that remained relevant to record-buyers looking for a little more complexity in their music.
2. I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You): A dusty, bluesy mid-tempo number that’s notable mainly due to the writing credits. “I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You)” was co-written by Dennis Lussier and Debbie Dean, names that would probably only be immediately recognizable to die-hard Motown buffs. Dean had been signed to the label as a singer in the early 1960s, notably releasing “Don’t Let Him Shop Around” in 1961 (in the wake of the success of “Shop Around” by The Miracles). Lussier, meanwhile, would find much more success under the name Deke Richards — as both a writer and producer at Motown for some of the label’s top acts. Richards would play a very important role in the career of The Supremes a year later, helping to write the #1 hit “Love Child” — he also later produced Diana’s second solo LP, Everything Is Everything (including the UK #1 hit “I’m Still Waiting”). Here, however, Richards (Lussier) and Dean offer up a solid if not particularly memorable track for the group; there’s a nice soulful feel to the song, and it certainly sounds as timely for the group as the previous track, but it lacks a strong hook. Ross is not as engaging as one might like, and sounds a bit weak during the song’s chorus (her “I Will Wait For You” is a bit tossed off), but her work is certainly competent, and the singer remains compulsively listenable even when she doesn’t seem to be really working for it. Though it’s not a hidden gem for The Supremes, “I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You)” is a nice listen and good inclusion here.
3. Forever Came Today: This song qualifies as one of the great mysteries of the Supremes discography, a single that continues to spark debate and divide even the most ardent Motown fans. According to session notes, Holland-Dozier-Holland had begun work on the track way back in April of 1967, with vocals finally added in December and January. Although Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. writes the song off in his book To Be Loved (see the earlier quote about going “back to the can”), the songwriters continue to sing its praises — and obviously thought much more highly of the recording than anyone else did. In the group’s 2000 box set booklet, Brian Holland commented, “It was like a miracle song to me. I didn’t visualize how good it was going to be. At that moment of fulfillment, as a producer and writer, I thought it was an awesome piece of product.” The song was not a hit, struggling to reach the pop top 30 when it was released in February of 1968; in the same booklet, Lamont Dozier blames the composition’s complexity. “We stepped over the line commercially,” Dozier says. “It was kind of over people’s heads. We probably could have made it simpler. The philosophy was, if you can’t whistle it, there’s something wrong with it.” Indeed, “Forever Came Today” strays far, far away from that philosophy; it opens with an outer-space intro even stranger than that featured on the album’s lead single (think flying saucers) and surges forth into an instrumental dominated by the kind of triumphant horns that seem to be signaling King Arthur and his court. None of it sounds “radio ready” — not even close — and it’s a wonder Motown’s hook-conscious quality control department decided to release it at all. The song’s strength comes with the chorus, as Diana and the background voices (definitely not those of Mary, Florence, or Cindy; the voices here are way too heavy and bog down the song) wail, “At last, oooh, at last/My Forever Came Today…” The song really gels during this joyful refrain, and Diana attacks these passages with gusto. Unfortunately, the rest of the song sounds unfinished; the opening verses feature comparatively weak vocal work by Ross and uninspiring lyrics, and that “flying saucer” sound is hopelessly dated and pretty grating. I’m not sure what Brian Holland is hearing when he calls this an “awesome piece of product” — certainly as an artist, he had a distinct vision for “Forever Came Today” and was able to achieve it. But next to the finest work by The Supremes and H-D-H, this recording is a mess; it’s three or four songs smashed into one, and only at times does it hint at the greatness that could have been. (NOTE: Several years later, “Forever Came Today” would later be covered by The Jackson 5 in an energetic disco version; it’s still a weird song, but works much better in a “club” setting.)
4. I Can’t Make It Alone: This must be one of the lesser-known H-D-H/Supremes collaborations, considering it never made it onto a single as an a- or b-side; to my knowledge, it’s never been included on any collection aside from this original album. “I Can’t Make It Alone” is clearly another attempt by H-D-H to evolve the sound of The Supremes; the influences of psychedelic and “sunshine” pop are evident here, and the instrumental is quite baroque in nature (and, in fact, sounds a bit predictive of early 70s pop, i.e. The Partridge Family). Although the melody and lyrics aren’t nearly as strong as the best work by H-D-H, it’s a far more compact composition than “Forever Came Today” — it might not be as unique as that song, but it probably would have done just as well if not better had it been released as a single. The recording’s biggest drawback — aside from the fact that it does sounds quite dated today — is Diana’s vocal performance. As noted earlier in this album discussion, there’s a prevailing weariness to the singer’s voice; though Diana is singing from the point-of-view of a woman who’s been left by her love, the weakness in her vocal is more than an artistic choice. There are moments during which she sounds perilously close to losing her voice altogether; just listen to her struggle at 1:54, while singing the lyrics, “I can’t run/I can’t hide…” This lack of polish is surprising given how strong Diana’s voice has sounded on every previous Supremes album; perhaps it’s a result of the ongoing situation between H-D-H and Motown, and the fact that the writers/producers just weren’t working as much anymore. Had there been more care given to the vocal production here, this would have been a much stronger track.
5. In And Out Of Love: A bouncy, guitar-driven pop song that would become the final hit single written and produced by H-D-H for Diana Ross and The Supremes, “In And Out of Love” was released in October of 1967. The song had actually been recorded several months earlier, and had undergone significant changes prior to release; according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, “On 12 June Florence recorded another hit with the group, ‘In and Out of Love.’ As it would happen, this would be the last time she would ever step into the studio and record as a Supreme…her efforts in the studio were in vain because, the next day, Motown completely covered her vocals with those of the Andantes” (165). Thus, the resulting song is really the first Diana Ross single, and the audible absence of Ballard and/or Wilson in the background does not go unnoticed. The Andantes, tremendously talented singers, possessed thick, full voices that added depth and polish to many, many Motown recordings. However, there’s a heaviness to their work here that really weighs down the song; Diana’s brassy lead vocal is a bit swamped by the throaty backgrounds. Aside from this, “In And Out Of Love” is a good choice for a single, although the recording lacks the crispness unique to the very best Supremes singles; the sound is a bit muddy, especially when compared to the uncanny tidiness of something like “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The instrumental is a strong one, though; the strumming guitar is a fresh touch for a Supremes single, and the orchestral strings and horns are lovely. Diana’s sprightly performance leads the way; she delivers a memorable vocal, skillfully toeing the line between impassioned and playful. There’s nothing particularly innovative about “In And Out Of Love,” but it remains a solid recording. And be sure to check out the group’s performance of this song on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — Diana, Mary, and Cindy look absolutely fantastic and offer up a nicely done little dance break!
6. Bah-Bah-Bah: If songs like “The Happening” and “In And Out Of Love” were a little too poppy for some tastes, this recording takes The Supremes right back squarely into “soul” territory. “Bah-Bah-Bah” was written by Motown singer Brenda Holloway with her sister Patrice; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, the song was also recorded by Barbara Randolph and Suzee Ikeda. This is a low-key, slow-burning soul number; the title comes from the background line, which is hypnotically delivered by Diana, Mary, and Cindy during the opening. DFTMC notes Frank Wilson as the producer here; Wilson would figure prominently into the group’s history by helming the first three post-Ross Supremes LPs. Wilson was responsible for restoring harmony to the group’s sound with the addition of lead singer Jean Terrell; he gets an early jump on that here, offering Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong a chance to contribute equally to the song’s success. In fact, Mr. Wilson would comment on his beginnings with Diana Ross and The Supremes, “Diana had a lot of charisma onstage and had literally been groomed as the star. There was no way you were going to back away from that, but the idea was to give Mary and Cindy more than the feeling of just background singers or sidemen” (The Supremes booklet). Both Mary and Cindy sound fantastic here; listen closely at 1:55 as they echo Diana — and then moments later as they dramatically deliver the line “You won’t find me…” “Bah-Bah-Bah” is, in fact, Birdsong’s first real chance to be heard as a Supreme; her tone is lighter and smoother than Ballard’s, and there’s an innate sophistication that made her a perfect fit for The Supremes. Diana Ross delivers a fine performance here; once again, she proves she’s a soul singer at heart, injecting a bluesy anguish into her vocal and effortlessly riding the bass-heavy instrumental. “Bah-Bah-Bah” is a real standout on Reflections; it was probably too R&B to have done well on the pop charts, but it’s a far better track than “Forever Came Today” and several other singles that would come in the next few years. This song deserves more attention; it’s a very cool addition to the Supremes discography. (And it it just me…or does the Erykah Badu song “Sometimes” from 1997’s Baduizm sound strongly inspired by this track?)
7. What The World Needs Now Is Love: If ever there was proof that Motown had begun losing direction for The Supremes in the wake of the Holland-Dozier-Holland departure, it’s that this song was ever scheduled for release as a single. “What The World Needs Now Is Love” was assigned as Motown single 1125 and backed with “Your Kiss Of Fire” (from 1964’s Where Did Our Love Go) — and was supposed to follow the release of “Forever Came Today.” Thankfully, it was yanked before it ever hit shelves — sparing the world from what would have possibly been the worst Supremes single ever. There’s no denying the greatness of this song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and first made famous by singer Jackie DeShannon; it’s immediately memorable, and nearly impossible not to sing along with. Next to H-D-H, Bacharach and David are unparalleled at creating moving pop songs, and DeShannon’s passionate performance really helped sell the original recording (which was a top 10 hit in 1965). The power and drama of the original recording (and the many, many successful covers of the song) are completely absent on this rendition, which features a snooze of a performance by all three Supremes. Diana, Mary, and presumably Florence (Don’t Forget The Motor City notes the recording for this song as happening back in 1966, when Ballard was still in the group) barely register here; there doesn’t seem to be any feeling behind Diana’s delivery, which can only be described as a somewhat-melodic whisper, and Wilson and Ballard similarly seem to be yawning through this one. The track — apparently produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier — is nowhere near as dynamic as that featured on the original, and comes off like generic elevator music. How something like the superlative “Heaven Must Have Sent You” (later released on 25th Anniversary and the 2000 box set The Supremes) was left in the vaults while this song was nearly issued as a single remains a mystery. Diana Ross would fare much better with this song years later, when she recorded a lovely version for her 1994 holiday album A Very Special Season.
8. Up, Up And Away: This is a better cover than the previous song; also produced by Holland and Dozier, this Jimmy Webb tune first found fame in 1967 thanks to The 5th Dimension, whose recording swept the Grammy Awards that year. The version here is a brassy, upbeat one, driven by wailing horns and some nice harmonies by The Supremes. Diana delivers a strong lead vocal; she’s confident and controlled, and she takes the lyrics literally by “riding” and “gliding” along the melody. The background vocals are a little buried in the mix, but there’s some beautiful work there; to my ears, it sounds like Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong on the track, and their voices are a perfect mix of smoky sophistication and jazzy polish. The song itself sounds dated — extremely dated. “Up, Up And Away” is a perfect example of late 1960s Easy Listening, and sounds jarring when listened to some of the darker, more modern songs here (like “Reflections” and “Bah-Bah-Bah”). Still, taken on a technical level, this is a decent recording.
9. Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things): Thus far in their career, The Supremes hadn’t done particularly well with songs first recorded by Martha and The Vandellas; their covers of “Come And Get These Memories” and “Love Is Like A Heat Wave” were lightweight and watered down, failing to capture the fire of the original versions. “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)” was first released by The Vandellas in 1965, as the b-side to “You’ve Been In Love Too Long.” The bluesy ballad did garner some airplay of its own, and has become a classic for the group; it’s featured on most of their major hits compilations and was included in on the 1967 Martha And The Vandellas Live! LP. Here, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier deliver a similarly dramatic arrangement; the track here is beautifully produced, and features one of the best instrumentals on the album. Likewise, the Supremes really rise to the occasion here; Diana Ross tears into the song with a soulful, fully-engaged performance that’s probably her very best on Reflections. Many will undoubtedly compare her vocal to that of Martha Reeves, but taken on its own terms, it’s an impressive display of artistry; Ross is in powerful voice, nailing the required high notes and adding in a few flourishes unique to her interpretation. The voices behind her seem to be those of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, unless The Andantes are doing an especially good job of mimicry; in any case, the soaring backgrounds are perfectly done, helping to further buoy Diana’s passionate performance. In the end, it’s both a showcase for the sterling songwriting skills of H-D-H, and the endlessly surprising vocal abilities of Diana Ross; there’s a lot to love about this “Love.”
10. Then: Let’s get this straight — “Forever Came Today” was deemed good enough to release as a single, and “What The World Needs Now” was deemed almost good enough — and yet “Then” was left as mere album filler? This is a fabulous Smokey Robinson tune; to my ears, it sounds like a lost hit for the group, a song that easily could have climbed to the Billboard top 10. Robinson, of course, had a long history with the group, having helped facilitate their initial Motown audition before writing and producing a few of their earliest singles. Finally back in the producer’s chair, Robinson delivers one of his patented sugary confections, boasting typically clever lyrics and an exciting, driving instrumental. Diana, Mary, and Cindy are in glorious form here; Ross sparkles on the lead vocal, and her groupmates offer up tight harmonies. Here again is a chance to relish the sound of these “new” Supremes; although they’d never quite regain the vocal interplay evident on earlier group recordings, there’s a joy and lightness to the singing here that’s refreshing (Cindy’s lilting voice is particularly audible at 1:19, on the line “Up is down…”). Wilson and Birdsong are in perfect accord on the backgrounds here, their voices ringing like bells behind the Diana’s relaxed, soulful performance. More than just the strength of the writing and the performances, Robinson captures a real magic here; again, it’s hard to believe Motown didn’t jump on this song and rush it to radio. Interestingly, Diana Ross and The Supremes would record “Then” again; it’s included on 1968’s Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations as a collaboration with Motown’s top male vocal group. It’s a good version, but this one is the standout; “Then” is a great hidden gem of the 1960s Supremes discography.
11. Misery Makes Its Home In My Heart: This is another Smokey Robinson song; according to DFTMC, the recording was completed back in the summer of 1966, which explains why the prominent background vocals sound like those of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. This is a jumpy tune with a syncopated, calypso-ish beat; it’s much more “classic Motown” than the rest of this album, and actually would have been a better fit on the group’s upbeat 1966 LP The Supremes A’ Go-Go. “Misery Makes Its Home In My Heart” is nowhere near Smokey’s best; the lyrics aren’t quite as concise as it typical for the writer (i.e. “The door to my heart was open/Open wide, much wider than wide”) and it’s not as melodic as classics like “My Guy” or “My Girl.” Still, there’s something delightful about this recording — coming after the darker, more modern tracks that led off Reflections, this song serves as a nod to the finger-popping, carefree Supremes of yesterday. All three ladies mint fine performances; Ross lends the lyrics an edgy urgency, and Wilson and Ballard are in full-bodied voice behind her. I still say “Then” is the Smokey song that could have been the big single from this album, but “Misery” would have made a killer b-side.
12. Ode To Billie Joe: This is an interesting way to close Reflections; “Ode To Billie Joe” is the huge hit song that kept “Reflections” from hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Released by Bobbie Gentry in summer of 1967, the song topped the charts for a month (while “Reflections” settled for the #2 spot), and garnered several Grammy Awards that year. Gentry’s composition is classic Southern Gothic, a winding tale of a boy named Billie Joe McAllister who jumps off a bridge. The original arrangement was hauntingly minimal, with Gentry mainly accompanied by acoustic guitar and swelling strings. The version here is nearly identical; producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier don’t change much, aside from possibly adding in a few more instruments. Diana Ross does a good job with the song; it’s well within her range, and she’s convincing in her delivery of the folksy lyrics. There’s nothing particular notable about this cover, but it’s not a bad inclusion.
In his AllMusic review of Reflections, writer John Lowe comments, “It was apparent that both parties [H-D-H and The Supremes] were battling creative fatigue and were exhibiting the appropriate scars at the time.” Lowe’s right, and “fatigue” is a good word for much of this album. Reflections isn’t bad (there would be weaker Diana Ross and The Supremes albums to come), but it’s lacking the energy and glossy sheen present on the group’s previous LPs. Accordingly, the album wasn’t as strong a seller as most of the group’s earlier offerings; when released in March of 1968, it stopped at #18 on the Billboard 200, an especially unimpressive peak given The Supremes had scored #1 albums in each of the previous two years. Amazingly, Reflections was only the first of an astounding six (!) albums released by the group in 1968; the group was about to embark on its busiest year yet…with varying results.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (A Lackluster Effort Of “Ups” And Downs)
Choice Cuts: “Reflections,” “Then,” “In And Out Of Love”