More Hits By The Supremes (1965)

More Hits By The Supremes“I then felt born again…and it feels so grand…”

Never had an album been more appropriately titled than 1965’s More Hits By The Supremes, the sixth studio LP by The Supremes and one built around the group’s recent singles.  The Supremes had scarcely left the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart that year;  “Come See About Me” spent the week of January 10th, 1965 at #1, followed by “Stop! In The Name Of Love” in late March and “Back In My Arms Again” in June.  The latter song brought the group’s tally of chart-toppers to an astounding five; as the authors of The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits would later write, “The music industry knew that Berry Gordy’s company [Motown] already had some pop chart credentials…But what really blew the industry off its feet…was the sheer audacity of that achievement: five consecutive Number One hits” (6).

More Hits By The Supremes is particularly notable because it’s the group’s first album written entirely by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland (and produced by the first two men).  The H-D-H team was responsible for three-quarters of the material featured on Where Did Our Love Go, released the previous year; having established a successful formula for The Supremes, H-D-H would work almost exclusively with the group for the next several years.  Diana Ross was now firmly ensconced as lead singer, and H-D-H crafted songs to fit her lean, melody-perfect voice.  Together, the two trios of artists apparently worked fast; Dozier would later comment, “You usually got what you needed within two takes.  Those people were so talented and intuitive, they had a lot of raw instinct about how to sell a song” (Billboard 22).

After three “theme” albums released to varying degrees of success, More Hits By The Supremes predictably gave Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard another top seller; released in July (the same month “Nothing But Heartaches” began climbing the charts), the LP peaked at number 6 on the Billboard 200 and landed in the runner-up position on the R&B albums chart.  Along with its pair of #1 hits, the album features some sterling tracks that probably could have been hits, too; songs like “Mother Dear” and “Whisper You Love Me Boy” are so good it’s hard to believe they weren’t pushed out as singles.  In fact, the quality of this album overall is remarkable; if there’s any fault with the LP, it’s that it’s so front-loaded with classic recordings that the second half of the album can’t quite sustain that level of excellence.  But this is nearly a perfect collection, certainly one of the very best by The Supremes; more than that, it’s a seminal recording of the 1960s, as good as popular music got during that decade.


(NOTE: The following summaries are based on mixes from the UK 2-on-1 CD reissue More Hits By The Supremes/The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, released in 2000.)   

1.  Ask Any Girl:  In an odd move by Motown, this album opens with a song that had previously been included on 1964’s Where Did Our Love Go.  According to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, “Motown thought the track was strong enough to possibly issue as a single, even though it had already been the B-side of ‘Baby Love'” (480).  In hindsight, Motown was right; the song is superb, and certainly sounds like it could have been a big hit.  It also works as a kind of bridge between Where Did Our Love Go and this album, as it closes that former and opens the latter.  “Ask Any Girl” is more epic in scope than the group’s earlier hits; it begins as a majestic pop symphony, complete with swirling strings and an almost operatic vocal by Diana Ross, before a chugging, locomotive beat takes over and transforms the song into sophisticated Motown soul.  The instrumental work is excellent, as are the vocals; Diana Ross is relaxed and engaging, and the backgrounds are elegantly arranged and delivered.  What makes Diana’s work so notable here is how effortlessly she rides the melody; the song is a more challenging one than “Baby Love” or “Come See About Me,” but Miss Ross easily navigates through the wordier verses and complex rhyme structure (“…who’s often left alone all by herself…Neglectfully pushed aside…Set aside…like a doll on a shelf…”).  It’s really something of a tour-de-force for the singer, and an indication of just how strong the group’s material was that it never got released as a single.

2.  Nothing But Heartaches:  “We did wonder why it didn’t go.  Motown had one of the strongest promotion teams, so we knew it wasn’t their fault.  It had to be in the music, or the times, and we had to change with the times.  We just went back to the drawing board.” That quote by Lamont Dozier (printed in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes) pretty much sums up the overall attitude toward “Nothing By Heartaches,” which had been released as a single the same month as this album.  Following five straight #1 hits, expectations were impossibly high for the song, and when it peaked at #11 in August, it was considered a total bomb by the Motown establishment (and apparently spurred the now-infamous company memo from Berry Gordy, Jr. dictating that going forward, every song released by The Supremes would be a chart-topper!).  Nevermind the fact that before “Where Did Our Love Go,” a top 20 record by The Supremes would have been considered an astounding achievement, or that most Motown groups would have been thrilled to hit #11 with a single; for The Supremes and H-D-H, “Nothing But Heartaches” would be a failure to forget.  This is a shame, because “Nothing But Heartaches” is a solid song; although many critics have written that it was too “familiar” in sound, it was easily the most urgent Supremes single yet, cut at an almost frantic pace and loaded with memorable hooks.  If there’s any fault with the recording — anything that separates it from the group’s previous five singles — it’s that there’s zero “breathing room” here; “Nothing But Heartaches” pretty much starts in the middle of the song, and races forward from there.  There’s no real intro, no way to ease listeners in; there’s also no instrumental break, which means The Supremes are singing non-stop for three minutes.  Because of this, it’s tough to distinguish those hooks; the refrain, Diana’s “keeps me cryin’ myself to sleep” and Mary and Florence wailing “I can’t break away!” are all fabulous enough to carry a song individually, but smashed together with no space in-between can be a little much.  Diana Ross hits all the right notes here; there’s a slight “edge” to her delivery here, foreshadowing the more urgent work of later Supremes singles.  And it’s Mary and Florence who really add the spark to “Nothing But Heartaches,” their full-bodied work behind Diana is essential to the song’s success.  If there’s an upside the this song’s relative lack of success, it’s that it inspired H-D-H to whip up “I Hear A Symphony,” which would soon return to the ladies to the top; still, this song doesn’t deserve the negative rap if often receives.

3.  Mother Dear:  This is one of the great Supremes non-singles, an absolutely sparkling record that could have easily added to the group’s string of successful singles.  It was, in fact, considered for release; The Supremes performed “Mother Dear” on television a few times, proving how seriously Motown execs were looking at the song, and it was even assigned the same catalog number as “Nothing But Heartaches” (Motown 1080), but eventually cancelled in favor of that song.  Whatever the reason “Mother Dear” was held back, it’s a fantastic recording, and one ripe for discovery by those only aware of the group’s big hits.  Opening with a machine-gun percussion and set to a swinging beat, the song features many sonic similarities to “Back In My Arms Again” (i.e. the tenor sax and ringing vibes), but boasts a sweeter melody and more concise lyric.  “Mother Dear” is tailor-made for Diana Ross; her performance is smooth as silk, a mix of yearning young love and the classy crooning of a Bing Crosby.  There’s also a real brightness to her work here, the ever-present feeling of a smile, even as she sings of being “treated bad.”  The backgrounds (I’ve read some fans say it might be Motown session group The Andantes, but it sure sounds like Mary and Florence to me) carry a great deal of weight, too; the boisterous “Help! Help me, Mother Dear” is so contagious that it really becomes the focus of the song (just try not to sing along with it…I dare you).  Perhaps “Mother Dear” doesn’t break any new ground; maybe it wasn’t different enough to end up pressed as a single.  But when a song is this good, it doesn’t need to be different.  Holland-Dozier-Holland were operating on all cylinders by this point, and this is a top-notch addition to their catalog, as well as that of The Supremes. (NOTE: “Mother Dear” was so strong that it was re-recorded a couple of times; a 1966 version with a totally different, angular beat was released on the 2000 box set.)

4.  Stop! In The Name Of Love:  After three number-one hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Supremes made their boldest, most powerful statement yet with the release of “Stop! In The Name Of Love.”  Recorded in January of 1965 and released the following month, the song caught fire and hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in late March, knocking a no less formidable challenger than The Beatles and “Eight Days A Week” from #1.  The immediacy of the song, opening with an inimitable organ gliss leading straight into the abrupt shout of “Stop!” over the dramatic blaring of horns, was unlike anything released by The Supremes up until that point; it would become he group’s most iconic song, and remains so today.  Lamont Dozier takes credit for the song’s unforgettable lyric, remembering in the 2000 box set booklet, “That came from an argument with a girlfriend of mine who’d caught me in a lie.  We were wrassling and arguing, she swung at me, and I said ‘Stop, just stop…in the name of love,’ and then it was a joke.  I said, ‘Didn’t you hear that cash register?’  She started laughing.  Brian came up with hook and it went from there.”  Arranged as a kind of three-act musical, the song features a trio of verses separated by the gutsy “Stop!” refrain; this gives the recording a kind of perfect balance (three verses…three singers…three songwriters/producers).  Diana Ross spins her voice into gold here; try to imagine anyone delivering the line “Baby, baby, I’m aware of where you go…each time you leave my door” with the same verve.  There was simply no other singer at Motown capable of the kind of piercing precision to take a lyric and twist it like a knife to the heart; without trying too hard or forcing her voice beyond its range, Miss Ross perfectly captures every emotion needed to sell the song.  Listen, for example, to the way she punches the word “sweet” at 1:27 (on the line, “Is her sweet expression…”); there’s jealousy, frustration, and even envy there, slyly obvious but never overdone.  Behind her, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are dynamic, even explosive; “Stop! was cut with me, Diane [Diana Ross] and Florence [Ballard] in Studio A, on two microphones with a divider,” remembers Wilson in the British music magazine Mojo, in a 2009 issue ranking the recording as the 10th Greatest Motown Song ever.  Behind the vocalists, The Funk Brothers pack the instrumental with layers of sound, playing in such accord that it takes many listens to pick out the various instruments adding to the drama of the recording.  Although the song’s narrators beg the subject to “think it over,” there’s an undeniable strength in the image of three young African-American women in the 1960s standing with arms outstretched, ordering throngs of people to “Stop!” — in its way it was revolutionary, and is as much of an artistic statement as anything else Motown was producing at the time.  “Stop! In The Name Of Love” earned the group its second (and amazingly, final) Grammy nomination, an award it should have won; simply put, this is a masterpiece.

5.  Honey Boy:  More Hits By The Supremes rolls right along with this great album track, another H-D-H song that probably could have been a decent hit if released by The Supremes or on another group.  In fact, it was actually recorded by Mary Wells before The Supremes, with the very same arrangement (although according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, Mary’s version went unreleased for a few years).  This is a joyful, upbeat tune with a swinging beat reminiscent of that featured on “Mother Dear” — the melody isn’t quite as crisp here, although the “He’s my Honey Boy” refrain is a memorable one.  The lyrics are a bit lackluster, too; “He’s sugar…he’s spice…he’s everything that’s nice…” certainly isn’t up to the standards of the best H-D-H compositions, although it’s hard to fault writers who were cranking out so many songs in such little time.  The vocal work by Diana, Mary, and Florence is solid; I love the playful way Diana coos “Honey Boy is his name” at :38.  Again, because the melody and instrumental are just a little rustier than those featured on the previous songs (it wasn’t written for The Supremes, after all), it’s not a standout on par with “Stop!” — then again, how many songs are?  “Honey Boy” is very good filler, and certainly merits a place here.

6.  Back In My Arms Again:  This is, of course, the fifth in the historic string of consecutive #1 singles by The Supremes; “Back In My Arms Again” topped the Billboard R&B chart in May of 1965, and peaked at the top of the pop listing the following month.  The group’s first three hits (“Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me”) were sophisticated and spare, and the fourth (“Stop! In The Name Of Love”) startlingly theatrical; this one gives the group it’s most angular and soulful track to work with.  Much of the song’s success is due to the work of The Funk Brothers, who aggressively attack the arrangement without ever taking it out of “pop/soul” territory; according to Dozier in the box set booklet, “We just tried the four-four thing on the studio floor.  Because Benny Benjamin knew how to execute his kick drum with the rest of his drumset, to make the four-four sound very exciting.  Then you had James Jamerson, who would be in concert with him, that your nucleus.”  The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits further notes the contributions of “Mike Terry’s guttural saxophone, and James Gittens’s ringing vibes” (6).  Also in that book, Dozier says it was he who came up with the famous lines calling out Mary and Florence, then giving credit to Eddie Holland for fleshing out the rest of the lyrics.  That one little section, during which Diana calls our her groupmates for their unwanted advice, is a brilliant touch; it gives the song a fun, “confessional” feel and — at the time — certainly helped establish the identities of all three women to the record-buying public.  Diana’s vocal is suitably muscular here; she’s more staccato in her delivery than she’s been on other hits, giving her a strident edge that feels appropriate given the story she’s telling.  Mary and Florence don’t get as much room to play with their background vocals here; there’s no “Think it over…” or “I can’t break away!” standout lyrics for them, but they vibrantly echo Diana during the refrain.  There remains something bewitching about “Back In My Arms Again” — it’s a song still firmly in the hands of The Supremes all these years later, even though Michael Bolton covered the song back in 1983.  (NOTE: And talk about being at the peak of one’s powers; Holland-Dozier-Holland scored back-to-back #1 R&B hits when this song was displaced by the classic “I Can’t Help Myself” — written by H-D-H and recorded by The Four Tops.)

7.  Whisper You Love Me Boy:  This song gained a large audience when it was featured on the b-side to “Back In My Arms Again,” and deservedly so; this is one of the best album cuts by The Supremes during this era.  As with “Honey Boy,” Mary Wells had recorded “Whisper You Love Me Boy” first, and her version was issued on the 1964 LP Mary Wells Sings My Guy (an album that also includes “He Holds His Own” — which you’ll read more about in just a few minutes).  The exact same arrangement is used here, with The Supremes dropped in over Mary Wells; this makes listening to both versions quite interesting, as one can really focus on the vocals.  No disrespect to the talented Ms. Wells, but The Supremes really knock this one out of the park and come out with the far stronger version; although it wasn’t written for her, “Whisper You Love Me Boy” is absolutely perfect for the gentle cooing of Diana Ross.  Her voice caresses the lyrics, as though she’s the one whispering them into the ear of a lover; she effortlessly combines sweet-and-sexy and delivers an irresistible lead vocal.  Listen to her patented “oooh” at the :35 mark; it’s chill-inducing.  There’s a little more space for the background vocals here (even though the song wasn’t necessarily written for a group), and the impassioned repetition of “Come on and whisper!” during the instrumental break is a fine addition.  “Whisper You Love Me Boy” sure sounds like it could have been a solid hit for The Supremes; later in the decade, it would be re-recorded with a radically different arrangement by Motown artist Chris Clark.

8.  The Only Time I’m Happy:  In June of 1965, two months after the release of “Back In My Arms Again” and one month before “Nothing But Heartaches,” this song appeared on a promotional 45 issued by the George Alexander Inc. label (although, for whatever reason, the booklet to the group’s 2000 box-set gives lists this single as Motown 1079).  It was backed with the famous “From Hitsville, U.S.A.” interview, later featured on the 1986 Diana Ross and The Supremes 25th Anniversary set.  Whether this release was strictly meant to promote the upcoming More Hits By The Supremes, or just to bide some time while Motown figured out which song to release next (remember, there was indecision between “Mother Dear” and “Nothing But Heartaches”), it’s a weird little addition to the group’s singles catalog.  The song itself is another great one; it’s pretty amazing that we’re now eight tracks into the album and there’s not a dud among the bunch.  Opening with a dramatic spoken passage by Diana, the song becomes another bouncy midtempo number with strong group vocals.  The ladies deliver the skipping, sing-song refrain in unison and all three are mixed at the same level, so each distinct voice is audible; Mary Wilson especially shines, her misty voice nicely mirroring Diana’s, and there’s a brief little ad-lib at the end which seems to be Florence singing solo.  Diana’s work is excellent; by this point, it’s clear Holland-Dozier-Holland knew exactly how craft a melody to fit her maturing voice, and conversely Miss Ross was a good enough singer to nail it every time.  If there’s any reason this doesn’t sound as “surefire smash” as some of the other songs on the LP, it’s that the recording is pretty dense; similar to “Nothing But Heartaches,” the song is crammed with lyrics, the instruments are so tightly arranged that the track feels very thick.  Those elements — along with the fact that the ladies are singing so much in unison — give “The Only Time I’m Happy” a heaviness that might not have sounded as clean on radio as something like “Mother Dear” would have.  Still, this is a sterling album track that’s unfairly been left off of compilations over the years.

9.  He Holds His Own:  A soul ballad first recorded by Mary Wells and placed on her 1964 LP Mary Wells Sings My Guy, “He Holds His Own” was also chosen for the b-side of the “Nothing But Heartaches” single.  This is the first song on the LP that really sounds like maybe it wasn’t crafted specifically for The Supremes (although a few earlier recordings weren’t either); it’s a good album track, but doesn’t have the immediacy of the album’s previous entries.  This is partly due to the melodramatic “La-la-la-la-la” opening; against the bristling edge of “Back In My Arms Again” or the swirling extravagance of “Ask Any Girl,” this repeated flourish sounds a little dated.  Speaking of “Ask Any Girl” — the two songs share some chord structures and progressions (there’s even a better “La-la-la” line in that one); I’d venture to guess H-D-H borrowed a little bit from themselves and re-worked “He Holds His Own” into the other, more exciting song.  Still, this is solid recording; Diana gives a nice, restrained reading, and Mary and Florence deliver everywhere except that first high “La,” which they never seem to quite nail.  Oh, and how can a listener not revel in that piano line?  Diana Ross wouldn’t be accompanied by such gorgeous work on the keys until her recordings with Valerie Simpson on Surrender years later.

10.  Who Could Ever Doubt My Love:  This song was recorded a few times by members of the Motown family; The Isley Brothers would mint a version which was issued on the group’s This Old Heart Of Mine LP in 1966 (as was a rendition of “Stop! In The Name Of Love”), and singer Brenda Holloway also recorded the song.  All three use exactly the same arrangement; to my ears, producers just dropped the various voices over the same recorded instrumental.  This particular version is about as perfect as the song could be; it’s easily the most “mature” recording on the album, with Diana’s lower, brassy vocal more akin to the work she’d be turning out in the late ’60s than the rest of this collection (think about it — this sounds like it could have been the flip side to “Reflections” or even “Love Child”).  It’s certainly the singer’s most soulful reading on More Hits; listen to her play with the phrase “good to him” at roughly the 2:05 mark, and try to imagine any other singer wringing the same weight from it.  The song itself is darker and more muted than the surrounding material, which makes it a refreshing — and necessary — counterpoint to the cream-puff perfection of something like “Mother Dear.”  In that way, this could be considered something of a stepping-stone to the group’s turbulent masterpiece of the following year, “My World Is Empty Without You.”  This is another song that’s been unfairly overlooked in the years since; considering it was later plucked from this album and placed on the flip side of the “I Hear A Symphony” single, it would have been a good inclusion on 1967’s Greatest Hits.

11.  (I’m So Glad) Heartaches Don’t Last Always:  Another bouncy little gem featuring strong group vocals and a smooth, restrained vocal by Miss Ross.  This is perfect Supremes album filler; it doesn’t necessarily jump out and scream “Hit!” the way earlier recordings have, but it’s solid and crafted with care.  This one’s particularly nice because of the prominent group vocals; Mary Wilson is especially audible singing the “Tossin’ and turnin’…” refrain, and there’s lovely harmonizing on the repetition of “I’m So Glad…”  This one also boasts a great Funk Brothers track, with classy and accomplished playing; the polished instrumental work reminds me of the later “Everything’s Good About You” (from the I Hear A Symphony LP).  Because this wasn’t a single nor a b-side, it’s surprising this song wasn’t resurrected for another Motown group (at least, not as far as I can tell); it sounds like something The Elgins could have done well with.

12.  I’m In Love Again:  More Hits By The Supremes closes with its most unusual entry, a dramatic love song that foreshadows the 1966 classic “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” by Jimmy Ruffin.  Both songs feature similarly arranged verses, and build to impassioned choruses that are way ahead of their time.  Imagine “I’m In Love Again” with a more contemporary production; it’s the kind of love song Diana Ross would be recording in the following decade with Michael Masser.  For starters, the lyrics are more abstract and bigger in scope than many H-D-H songs of the period; “All the emptiness I had inside you lovingly fulfilled…I then felt born again…” feels miles away from “He’s my Honey Boy.”  The Supremes really dig into their gifts, delivering on the more challenging composition; Mary and Florence sound suitably ethereal on backgrounds, and Diana lets her voice beautifully settle into the space between the notes.  As good as the singer is on danceable, uptempo pop/soul songs, something like this really exploits her gift as an interpreter of song, something she’d further develop on ballads over the course of her career.  “I’m In Love Again” was interestingly placed on the flip side of the “Stop! In The Name Of Love” single, thus exposing it to a huge audience.  Here, it’s a perfect way to close the album, serving as a sign of continued evolution from the group.


When writing about early Motown albums, it’s important to remember that these songs weren’t recorded in any kind of context; The Supremes recorded dozens and dozens of tracks, any one of which could be chosen for inclusion on one of the group’s LPs.  Because of this, early Motown albums are rarely consistent or cohesive (except in the case of something like We Remember Sam Cooke, which was a concept album from the start).  It’s certainly doubtful that much thought was given to sequencing, aside from placing the hits early enough on the album that record-buyers would see those titles first when skimming over the back cover.

That’s why a release like More Hits By The Supremes is so stunning; it’s an incredibly cohesive album.  As noted earlier, the recognizable hits are so front-loaded that the LP feels just a little lopsided today, but that’s a minor issue.  The through-line here — the element that ties the songs together and makes them feel like part of a larger work of art — is that they’re all really damn good.  It’s unfair that More Hits By The Supremes never shows up on lists of great Motown albums (or even just great soul albums).  Had this exact same LP been issued on an artist or group that wasn’t so dismissed by critics, it would be considered a masterpiece.  And that’s pretty much what it is.

Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (“Holds Its Own” Among The Greats)

Choice Cuts: “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” “Mother Dear”

The Grammy nominees for Best Contemporary (R&R) Performance By A Group (Vocal Or Instrumental) that year were:
The Statler Brothers, “Flowers On The Wall” (Winner)
The Beates, “Help!”
Herman’s Hermits, “You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter
Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs, “Wooly Bully”
The Supremes, “Stop! In The Name Of Love”

We Remember Sam Cooke (1965)

The Supremes We Remember Sam Cooke LP

“It’s been a long, long time coming…”

In late 1964, just as Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard were about to rack up their third consecutive #1 single with “Come See About Me,”  the music community received some devastating news out of California.  Soul singer Sam Cooke — who’d written and recorded a string of classic songs beginning with “You Send Me” in 1957 — was shot to death at a Los Angeles motel on December 11th.  At just 33 years old, Cooke had already put an indelible stamp on popular music; as Bruce Eder would write in the All Music Guide, “Sam Cooke was the most important soul singer in history — he was also the inventor of soul music, and its most popular and beloved performer in both the black and white communities.”  Cooke’s songs — including the powerful Civil Rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” — continue to be recorded and performed today.

There is no doubt Cooke’s massive crossover success was noted by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. — especially Cooke’s appearance at the Copacabana nightclub in New York and the subsequent live album cut there.  This kind of mass appeal was Gordy’s dream for The Supremes; the Motown group would famously follow in Cooke’s footsteps at the Copa later in 1965 (even performing some of Cooke’s songs there).  So in the wake of Cooke’s untimely death, Gordy rushed his top female trio back into the studio for a tribute album, despite the fact that the group’s schedule was already packed.  As with the previous release A Bit Of Liverpool, the tracks were cut in Los Angeles by producers Hal Davis and Marc Gordon (although it appears from various session notes that vocals were completed in Detroit, probably under the direction of credited co-producer Harvey Fuqua).

Hitting store shelves in April of 1965 (just as “Stop! In The Name Of Love” vacated the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100), We Remember Sam Cooke climbed to #5 on the R&B albums chart (it stalled at just #75 on the Billboard 200); it would be the second of a staggering five LP releases by the Supremes that year.  Although arriving just a few short months after Cooke’s death, the album manages to avoid feeling exploitive or like a rush job; there’s an elegance and an ease to the recording that was sorely missing from the Liverpool project.  Beyond that, it reveals just how confident Diana, Mary, and Florence were becoming as vocalists; Miss Ross offers up some of her smoothest and most mature work yet, and Ballard mints her shining moment as a Supreme.  We Remember Sam Cooke isn’t the group’s best album, nor the most exciting, but it is one of the most consistently enjoyable; largely forgotten for many years, it deserves to be listened to and rediscovered.


1. You Send Me:  We Remember Sam Cooke opens, appropriately, with the singer’s first hit; the self-penned song was released as a single in 1957, and went on to enjoy major success.  This smooth, softly-swinging song would set the tone for much of Cooke’s career; as noted earlier, his soulful crooning appealed to audiences regardless of race or gender, and his romantic, relatable lyrics remain unforgettable to this day.  “You Send Me” is a great fit for The Supremes; the light, sweet melody could have been written for Diana Ross, who had never sounded so laid-back or confident on record.  The song is cut in a lower key than much of what Diana had recorded previously, which exploits the sexier, more mature sound she’d first displayed on “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Her ad-libs (which actually follow Cooke’s pretty closely) are expertly done; listen, for example, to her “Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” at roughly :20 in and repeated several times throughout, as her voice glides over each note with skillful precision and clarity.  The production is clean and classy; because the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, they don’t really have the “Motown sound” — thus, they lack the kind of excitement that only Detroit players The Funk Brothers could generate.  This will become more of an issue later in the album, but it works on a song like “You Send Me,” which is supposed to feel like a soothing daydream anyway.  Perhaps the only real issue with the song is that Mary and Florence don’t offer much in the way of support; the ladies are mixed rather low, and aren’t given a particularly strong vocal arrangement to follow.  In the original Sam Cooke recording, the choir of angelic voices cooing behind the lead vocal elevates the entire song, adding to the “reverie” feel of the production.  Here, Wilson and Ballard hypnotically echo Diana, mainly in unison; when they finally break into harmony, it’s a welcome change and an indication of what could have been had there been a little more creativity in the studio.  Still, “You Send Me” is a very strong opener, thanks to the sterling performance of Diana Ross.

2. Nothing Can Change This Love:  Cooke’s performance on this bluesy song is more raw and soulful than his crooning on “You Send Me” — the song, in fact, is something of a deeply-felt sequel to that earlier recording.  The Supremes handle it very well; Diana again sings the lead in a lower key, allowing her to give a relaxed and effortless vocal performance.  Although Miss Ross was also capable of delivering raw and soulful vocals (particularly in her live performances from this period), she strays from Cooke’s interpretation and remains firmly in “pop” territory here; thus, she is silky-smooth and nails every single note dead-center.  It’s a gorgeous performance, but not particularly exciting; had Diana shaded her vocal with just a touch of blues singing (think the superb “Lazy Bones” from The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop) it would have helped this recording stand out a little bit more.  Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard offer up sophisticated work behind Diana, but unfortunately are placed deep into the mix again; had their audio levels been raised, the recording would feel much more like that of a group.  Considering the previous two Supremes albums had featured very prominent group vocals, the way Wilson and Ballard are buried here is something of a letdown.  “Nothing Can Change This Love” is a nice addition and a solid recording, but it’s not a highlight of the set.

3.  Cupid:  This is one of Sam Cooke’s most enduring classics, released in the early 1960s and famously covered by The Spinners two decades later.  Cooke’s original “Cupid” was driven by a snappy percussion line that lent the song a bit of a Latin feel; this version lacks that beat, instead featuring a generic ’60s rock arrangement that’s really the only major fault of this particular recording (too bad The Funk Brothers hadn’t cut the tune — just imagine what the Detroit musicians could have added to the mix).  The good news —  the vocal arrangement here finally makes use of all three Supremes, allowing the ladies to sing a good chunk of the song in three-part harmony, on which they sound fantastic.  Florence’s ringing soprano is especially strong, and is  gorgeous coupled with Diana’s honeyed delivery; meanwhile, listen closely for Mary mining the depths of her range to hit some very low notes.  The verses here are wordier than on the previous tunes, forcing Diana to muster up a little more energy in her singing; she certainly doesn’t match the urgent edge of her best Holland-Dozier-Holland recordings, but she sounds comfortably engaged.  The clarity of the vocals here is really the reason “Cupid” comes off as well as it does; I doubt any of Motown’s other female singing groups could produce the purity of tone or the elegance achieved by The Supremes.

4.  Chain Gang:  This song was a huge hit for Cooke; as the title suggests, it references prisoners working as part of a chain gang, and is led by the distinctive “Oooh! Aaah!” hook that repeats several times throughout the recording.  Although The Supremes sound wonderful — again, making use of three-part harmony during a good portion of their version — “Chain Gang” isn’t nearly as good a fit for the group as the previous songs.  For starters, Diana, Mary, and Florence belt out the “Oooh! Aaah!” with gusto, but they definitely never sound like men working on a chain gang; it’s a wonder producers didn’t have the idea to add some male voices to the recording (where are The Four Tops when you need them?).  Their singing is also a little too clipped; Diana sounds way too prim and proper on her “All day long they’re saying…” to really set up the image of sweaty prisoners along the highway.  More than all that, “Chain Gang” is the best example yet how much Motown’s Detroit musicians could have elevated the material; imagine the pulsing Motown machine creating a sonic pickaxe upon which The Supremes could have exhibited more muscular vocals.  For some reason, my mind goes to Marvin Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” — that kind of hard-edged, raw playing is exactly what this song needs.  That’s not to say the LA musicians completely sink this or any other song on We Remember Sam Cooke — they don’t.  But The Supremes sounded best when navigating lean, rhythmic tracks — something “Chain Gang” could have used.

5.  Bring It On Home To Me:  Really nice work by The Supremes anchor this soulful reading of the song that I believe was first released by Cooke as the b-side to his “Having A Party.”  Cooke’s version features the great Lou Rawls on backing vocals; in fact, the song is really more of a duet between the two men, with Rawls mirroring the lead vocal closely.  This makes it a natural for The Supremes; the ladies deliver the bulk of the song in harmony, and Florence and Mary are full-bodied and powerful behind Diana’s sweet, assured lead.  I particularly enjoy the call-and-response of the “yeah” refrain between the ladies; there’s something appealing about the interplay between the distinctive Ross sound and the sexy, unison vocals of Ballard and Wilson.  Years later, Diana would write,  “Despite the fact that Mary mostly sang the lower tones, she had a beautiful harmony voice with a great deal of warmth to it.  She fit so well with Florence and me; she carried the exact sound just between the two of us that blended all our voices together, the sound that made up the perfect harmony so that we were like one voice” (Secrets Of A Sparrow, 93).  A song like “Bring It On Home To Me” is a good example of that unique and winning combination.

6.  Only Sixteen:  The aural equivalent of a vanilla milkshake, this is a smooth and sweet confection that gets better with every listen.  “Only Sixteen” was an early Sam Cooke recording, an ode to puppy love that features a knowingly naïve lyric and finger-popping beat (Cooke’s version apparently made the pop top 30, but it was later a bigger hit for Dr. Hook in the 1970s).  The Supremes embrace the song’s simplicity, with Diana’s light-as-air delivery skating over the melody with ease and leaving plenty of room for the sterling background vocals.  It would have been easy for Ross to go “cutesy” here, to embellish the song with some of the coy and girlish flourishes that she’d come to inject into certain Supremes recordings; thankfully, she takes a different approach, keeping her vocal focused and coloring the sweetness with just an edge of wisdom.  Listen to her masterful way with the lyric “Why did I give my heart so fast?” at :43 and the following few lines; she sounds youthful, of course, but there’s a maturity there reminiscent of seasoned club singer.  Mary and Florence are extremely controlled behind her, their classy vocals a world away from the sometimes messy sound present on the Liverpool LP.  Had there been a single pulled from We Remember Sam Cooke, it’s tempting to think this could have done well at radio, particularly with a stronger beat behind it.  Still, this is one of the better Diana-Mary-Flo album tracks; the ladies certainly never sound better on this album.

7.  Havin’ A Party:  The title of this song says it all; this is an upbeat dance tune that was a huge hit for Mr. Cooke and a hit again for rocker Rod Stewart in the mid-1990s (on other recordings, I believe the title is spelled as “Having A Party” — but on this album, it’s printed as “Havin’ A Party”).  The Supremes version is solid, if a little limp; the arrangement is about as generic as it gets, and cries out for strong Motown backbeat.  The slicing strings present in Cooke’s original recording are repeated here, but come off as garish and corny; they bear more similarity to the cooky “rock” song featured in the 1962 film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? than to the anything in Cooke’s soulful classic.  Although there’s nothing technically wrong with Diana’s lead vocal, she’s just a little too cutting here; her voice is high and crisp and lacks the unpolished edge that made Cooke’s delivery so memorable.  His party sounded like one for adults, a place to blow-off steam after a long day at work; Diana seems to be bragging to the cool kids about her after-school shindig.  It would have been interesting to hear Mary Wilson have a go at the song; her endearing voice probably could have well-conveyed the warmth and intimacy of a gathering where “the Coke’s are in the icebox, popcorn’s on the table.”  In the end, “Havin’ A Party” isn’t a total dud, but it’s not an event you’d necessarily feel compelled to RSVP “yes” to.  (NOTE: It is fun to hear The Supremes reference other Motown recordings, calling for the DJ to play “Shotgun” and “My Girl” toward the end of the song!)

8.  Shake:  Even though no single was ever released from We Remember Sam Cooke, “Shake” became fairly well-known to Supremes fans thanks to the group’s performance of the song on the UK show “Ready, Steady, Go!” in 1965 (which also happened to be the special on which the group first performed its iconic hand motions during “Stop! In The Name Of Love”).  If you’ve ever seen video of that performance, you know The Supremes acquit themselves well; they do plenty of shaking in their red-fringed dresses, and offer up aggressive and engaging vocals.  The recorded version here is pretty good — it’s certainly a better fit for the group than “Havin’ A Party” — and there’s a refreshing energy that was missing from the previous track.  The producers wisely keep a little rawness in the vocals; the group doesn’t sound too processed or plastic, and Diana, Mary, and Florence seem to be having a good time.  As with “Havin’ A Party” — I wish the key was a little lower on Ross; she’s very engaging, but her lower range has sounded so good on other songs here that it’s a bit of a shock to hear her pushing so high again.  The result is that the vocal comes off a bit weaker, although it really isn’t; Diana is sometimes accused of having a “thin” voice, but these critics are reacting to (and confused by) the startling purity of her tone and the ultra-precise way she has of nailing each note dead-center.  Mary and Florence really wail on the track; they punch the word “Shake!” aggressively and are full-bodied throughout.  The ladies even get a fun call-out from Diana, as she commands, “Come on now, Florence” and “Come on now, Mary” just before the final fade.  This isn’t the best uptempo ever recorded by The Supremes, but it’s certainly enjoyable.  (NOTE: A live version of The Supremes performing “Shake” in Paris was also included in the 2011 CD release More Hits By The Supremes Expanded Edition.)

9.  Wonderful World:  There’s a big drop in energy between “Shake” and this track, a much-covered classic that features the famous opening line, “Don’t know much about history.”  Though it’s a lovely song and a competent recording, The Supremes seem to be sleepwalking through this one; Miss Ross offers up a smooth lead vocal, but she’s so relaxed that she doesn’t display much personality.  Mary and Florence sound equally tired, laboring through their perfunctory echoes as if they’d just woken up from a nap.  None of this means the inclusion is a bad one; it’s not.  But compare this song to “Only Sixteen” — there’s a sparkle in that recording that’s missing here, a little bit of playfulness that The Supremes were able to exploit and spin into magic.  “Wonderful World” lacks that magic, although it’s a serviceable cover.

10.  A Change Is Gonna Come:  A powerful song that’s one of Cooke’s most enduring, “A Change Is Gonna Come” features heartfelt lyrics of hardship and faith set to an achingly beautiful melody.  The instrumental track here is superb, probably the best on the LP; the string and horn sections are majestic and lend the song an epic scope that it deserves.  Miss Ross likewise offers a stunning performance, her work a study in poise and clarity; she never pushes too hard nor detracts attention from the words she’s singing.  This is the true gift possessed by Diana Ross; she is a singer who, in her best work, never gives any more or less than a song requires.  Here, the focus is deservedly on the message of the music, which Miss Ross elegantly delivers.  Although the key here is high, it works; Diana produces a round, ringing tone that never sounds shrill nor too sharp.  Listen to her very first line (the famous “I was born by the river…”) — she’s absolutely heartbreaking.  Ross peppers her vocal with a few soulful flourishes, like the riff on the word “die” at :47 in, and they’re incredibly effective.  Supremes fans may quibble with the fact that the background vocals are pretty muted on the recording, but it’s no disrespect to Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson to say their presence really isn’t that necessary; this is a song on which the vocals should remain uncomplicated.  There are a lot of great versions of “A Change Is Gonna Come” out there — way too many to list here.  But Diana Ross contributes something to the song that easily stands with the best; her moving performance deserves to be recognized.

11.  (Ain’t That) Good News:  We Remember Sam Cooke ends on a high note, with the album’s best uptempo recording and certainly the most energetic.  Florence Ballard takes the lead here, and she really shines; there’s excitement and swagger and personality to spare as she celebrates that her “baby’s coming home tomorrow.”  The song couldn’t be a better fit for Ballard’s thick and throaty vocals; the singer’s high soprano could sometimes veer off-course, sounding a little too sharp on Supremes recordings, but “(Ain’t That) Good News” lets her really dig into her lower range, and it’s a great place for her to be.  There’s something so playful about Ballard’s work; she seems to be winking the entire time, sending a message that there’s gonna be quite party when she’s reunited with her lover!  Her delivery of the word “disconnect” (as DIS-con-NECT!)  at roughly the 2:00 mark is one of the great vocal moments on the entire LP.   The charging instrumental track ably supports Flo; it builds and builds like a train picking up steam, finally erupting into the joyful “Ain’t that news!” climax (during which it’s also great fun to hear Diana and Mary backing her up).  We Remember Sam Cooke has been a very good LP up until this point, but the final two inclusions really take it over the top.


Of the early trio of “theme” albums by The Supremes, We Remember Sam Cooke emerges the best; from start to finish this is a strong collection of material, and the high points are not only highlights on the LP, but of the group’s early output.  Sam Cooke was a pioneer, and deserved a tribute album like this one; many others have covered his songs and honored the man, but The Supremes are surely among the best of them.  To that end, the artistic contributions of The Supremes to popular music remain overlooked today; the group is overshadowed by image and gossip and — most of all — emphasis on the men behind the group (Berry Gordy, Jr. and Holland-Dozier-Holland).  But to churn out the kind of accomplished vocals as those featured on We Remember Sam Cooke, The Supremes couldn’t be anything other than true artists; this album is audible proof that each woman was developing into a gifted stylist.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Wonderful” Tribute)

Choice Cuts:  “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “(Ain’t That) Good News,” “Only Sixteen”

Supremes Sam Cooke Back

The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop (1965)

The Supremes Sing Country Western And Pop Cover

“Now everybody in the neighborhood seems to walk with a steady beat…”

Following closely on the heels of 1964’s A Bit Of Liverpool, The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop became the fourth studio album by The Supremes, and the group’s second “theme album” in a row.  Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard couldn’t have been hotter when the LP hit the shelves in February/March of 1965; “Come See About Me” had only recently fallen from the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and latest single “Stop! In The Name Of Love” would hit #1 in late March, becoming one of the act’s most enduring records.  Neither of those songs appeared on The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop — in fact, the only single included on the album had been released way back in 1963, and was a complete flop.  Which begs the question — since The Supremes was now Motown’s biggest moneymaking act, why choose this moment to release a country album in the first place?

In their Supremes “50th Anniversary Celebration” magazine, Mary Wilson and writer Mark Bego trace the inspiration for this album to the groundbreaking Modern Sounds In Country Western Music released in 1962 by Ray Charles.  That ABC-Paramount release was a smash hit; just a few months later, Motown responded with Tribute To Uncle Ray, the second LP by “Little” Stevie Wonder.  The Supremes also followed jumped on the Charles/country bandwagon; the group’s country-tinged fifth single “My Heart Can’t Take It No More” was cut in December ’62, and released in February, and producer Clarence Paul worked on several other tracks with the ladies around the sound time (Lost & Found: Supreme Rarities notes the track for “It Makes No Difference Now” was recorded in February ’63).  However, when “My Heart…” failed to chart, the company quickly moved on, eventually sending the ladies into the studio with Holland-Dozier-Holland and striking gold (see: Where Did Our Love Go).

Once The Supremes were firmly established stars with three consecutive chart-toppers, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. reached into the vaults and finally released the Clarence Paul tracks (Lawrence T. Horn is also listed as the album’s co-producer).  There were probably two major reasons for this decision; first, The Supremes were hot, so why not release another album on the group and generate some extra sales?  But second, and far more important, was Gordy’s admitted plan to expose the group to the widest audience possible.  In his Diana Ross: A Biography, writer J. Randy Taraborrelli states about this and the group’s other early concept albums, “No hit singles were ever culled from these albums; that was not really their purpose.  Rather they were part of Berry’s master plan to see the Supremes perceived as more than just another rock and roll group, to guarantee that they would cross racial, cultural, and age barriers” (121).  The good news for fans is that this album is a much better one than the previous A Bit Of Liverpool; although the material is a bit uneven and many of the songs seem to feature added voices (session group The Andantes are often noted for being on the album), the project is a better fit for The Supremes overall, and showcases Diana Ross as a rapidly growing songstress.


(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the 1994 CD reissue of the album.)

1.  Funny How Time Slips Away:  There couldn’t have been a better way to open The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop than with this song, penned by the great Willie Nelson.  A hit on more than one occasion (then-most recently by soul singer Joe Hinton, who had a Cash Box #1 R&B hit with it in 1964), the tune is a classic country ballad featuring stoic “farewell” lyrics with a surprising bitter twist at the end (“But remember what I tell you, in time you’re gonna pay…”).  Diana really brings the goods here; her voice is sly and smooth, channeling Patsy Cline in the way she slides up and down notes, seemingly refusing to let certain words and phrases go.  The melody is such a perfect fit for her high, clear voice that it sounds like it could have been written for her; she’s never forced to strain, and when her voice drops to some of the song’s lower notes, she takes on the incredibly appealing, velvety tone that she’d further develop in the coming years.  The real accomplishment here is that while Miss Ross effortlessly incorporates some of the vocal nuances common to country and western singing, she never sounds artificial (say, in the way she sometimes did when tacking the British material of the Liverpool LP); Ross has spoken about her early affinity for the country standard “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” so perhaps her deftness with this kind of music shouldn’t be surprising.  Of course, she’s ably supported by a fantastic instrumental track, led by a memorable guitar lick and bluesy piano that both sound tailor-made for the jukebox.  The background vocals are lovely, too; the high harmonies and soulful echoing of the word “funny” add just the right touch of melancholy behind Diana’s cool reading.  “Funny How Time Slips Away” is easily one of the best early Supremes album tracks, and Diana’s performance, in its unique way, is as good a lead vocal as had come from the Hitsville studios at that point.  There really wasn’t another female voice in the fold that could have delivered such a controlled, elegant performance (not to mention, I think we get the first released spoken passage by Diana, a singer who would set the gold standard for the spoken verse years later with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”).

2.  My Heart Can’t Take It No More:  This song had been the group’s fifth single, released as Motown 1040 way back in early 1963; the song didn’t make the Billboard Hot 100, and would be the last non-charting single released by The Supremes for a very long time.  Written and produced by Clarence Paul (Lawrence T. Horn is listed as co-producer of the song in The Supremes box-set booklet), the song is passable early 1960s girl-group fare, a song that could have easily been cut on The Chantels save for the country-tinged arrangement (think of it as sock-hop meets honky-tonk).  Diana, Mary, and Florence deliver capable vocals; the three-part harmonies are very well-done, and reflect the growth each had made as vocalists since recording the songs for Meet The Supremes.  Diana’s lead is good, if not nearly as stunning as her work on “Funny How Time Slips Away” — her voice is very pretty on most of the song (aside from her insistence on pronouncing the word “and” as “oooond” every time she sings it!), but she is straining during the bridge, which brings out the nasally sound prevalent on many of her early recordings.  The biggest issue with the song, however, is that it’s just not very memorable, especially when placed directly after the previous track.  There’s a sophistication to the Willie Nelson composition, particularly in the cutting lyrics, that’s missing from the clunkier writing here.  This isn’t the worst pre-stardom single released by The Supremes (that dishonor has to go to the unfortunate “Buttered Popcorn”), but it’s not a surprise that it didn’t click with listeners.

3.  It Makes No Difference Now:  This is a fun inclusion because it features each Supreme singing a solo verse; indeed, this is really the first (and only) released song in which Diana, Mary, and Florence get equal time at the microphone.  The song itself is also the only overlap with Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds In Country Western Music; he’d featured the Floyd Tillman tune on the second side of his album.  Wilson takes the first verse of this slowly swinging ballad, and her misty voice is a good match for the material; there’s a delicate strength to Wilson’s tone, something that works well with the general theme of country and western music and this song in particular.  Although her lower alto voice made her a natural harmony singer, she capably delivers the melody here, and she sounds particularly strong when belting the lyrics “…that’s plain to see” at :20.  Next to Diana Ross, Mary Wilson probably had the most naturally sophisticated voice in the group; the warmth and smokiness translated to various genres of music, and she sounds right at home here.  Ballard takes over next, her thick soprano taking the most liberty with the melody by adding several soulful flourishes.  Motown legend has it that Florence Ballard boasted a voice similar to that of Aretha Franklin; however, her performances on record reveal a sound more akin to Pearl Bailey, brassier and more “showbiz” than Aretha.  This isn’t her best vocal; as much as people bemoan Diana’s voice as nasally, Florence sounds quite nasal at several moments, especially her sustained final note.  Ballard was certainly gifted with a powerful instrument, but she sometimes lacked vocal control, which I think is the case here (her great shining moment as a Supreme would come with the next LP).  Diana Ross is on the opposite end of the spectrum; she is nothing if not a singer of control, and stays committed to her distinct choices as a vocalist (even when they’re occasionally off-base; see Eaten Alive).  Diana’s final verse is cut quite high, and she ends up singing most of it in childlike voice; although her notes can be a little sharp, the vulnerability of her performance works well here, bringing the song to a satisfying close.  By this point in the LP, it’s obvious that Miss Ross is comfortable in the laid-back singing style of country-western, and even when she’s forced to sing at the extreme top end of her range, she sells it.  Though this isn’t the strongest song on the LP, it’s a welcome inclusion, at least as a musical document of the three Supremes’ distinct musical gifts.

4.  You Didn’t Care:  This one’s another Clarence Paul original, and it’s basically a retread of “My Heart Can’t Take It No More.”  The chord changes are similar in both songs, and in some spots the melody of one can be sung directly over the other; consequently, “You Didn’t Care” (being the lesser-known of the two songs) gets a little lost in the shuffle.  That’s not to say this is a bad recording; Diana is again singing in a high hey, but she’s spot-on in her performance, and is backed by some simply sublime group harmonies.  There’s a moment worth noting at roughly :50, as Ross sings the line, “It’s not too late…” — the note she climbs to sure sounds like one of the highest she’s sung on record, and she transitions straight into her head voice to hit it.  She sounds gorgeous doing it, too; the tone she produces is full and round, ringing like a bell.  This is a pretty piece of filler; not a standout, but worthy of a place on the album.

5.  Tears In Vain:  The second Clarence Paul composition in a row is as innocuous as the previous tune; this one is well-produced and well-performed, but not particularly memorable.  Probably the biggest issue with this inclusion is that there’s not real “hook” to the song, and the melody isn’t that engaging.  Diana Ross again comes through with a sweet and sincere vocal; I wish Paul had cut he song just a bit lower to give a little more variety to the album (so many of the songs force Ross to the top of her range, and it’s nice to hear the moments when she gets to play with the huskier side of her voice), but the key certainly doesn’t sink the recording.  The classy harmonies behind Ross are superb, and worthy of any top-notch supper club; it sounds to me like The Andantes have a hand in those background vocals, and those ladies never fail to elevate a track.  Oh — and don’t miss the fantastic spoken lines at the very end of the song; maybe Clarence Paul needs to get some credit for first realizing how great Miss Ross could be when speaking on record!

6.  Tumbling Tumbleweeds:  Finally The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop returns to some real country and western, with the addition of a Bob Nolan song featured in a 1935 Gene Autrey movie (also called Tumbling Tumbleweeds).  The song’s been recorded many times over the years, including versions by Bing Crosby and Kate Smith.  Interestingly, most of the other versions I’ve heard are arranged as ballads; certainly those by the artists listed here are slow and meandering, sonic personifications of an aimless tumbleweed drifting across the dry Western landscape.  For whatever reason, the arrangement here is uptempo, giving this LP its first real upbeat song.  Purists may dislike the increase in pace, but it’s a nice change from the five songs that precede it; something needed to break up what was becoming a series of indistinguishable Clarence Paul compositions.  The bad news is that this is probably the weakest lead vocal offered up by Diana Ross on the album; as accomplished as she sounds on so many tracks here, there’s something that feels tentative and unfinished about her work here.  She lacks authority and intention in her delivery, although she’s definitely not helped by having to sing so high (again); in a way, her work here foreshadows some of the uninspired vocals on 1973’s Diana & Marvin.  As noted earlier, Diana’s commitment to a lyric is a big part of what makes her a great vocalist.  Ross herself acknowledges this in her 1993 memoirs Secrets of a Sparrow, writing, “My gift was being able, simply and honestly, to express the emotions of a song.  For that reason, my voice worked best as lead singer on the kind of material we used” (93).  She’s right, but on this recording, she sounds a little lost…like that tumbling tumbleweed.

7.  Lazy Bones:  This is the single best recording on the album, and easily ranks as one of the great Supremes non-single tracks ever.  Beyond that, I’d argue it’s one of the best recordings to come out of Motown during the first half of the 1960s; it might not have the immediacy of a “Please Mr. Postman” or the fire of a “Heat Wave,” but the musicianship on display here is staggering.  Anybody who doesn’t understand how great The Supremes really were — or how unbelievably accomplished the Motown studio musicians were — needs to listen to this sultry masterpiece.  The song itself is an old Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael standard, although no version I’ve heard sounds anything like the one found here; if this arrangement is totally the work of producer Clarence Paul, he deserves major kudos for taking the basic melody and nursery-rhyme lyrics and stretching them over a foundation of smoldering blues.  The guitar work alone is worth the price of admission, with a bluesy opening that could have been lifted from a lost B.B. King recording; the piano and percussion are also dynamite, reminding listeners that many of The Funk Brothers were jazz musicians (or at least influenced by jazz artists) before being recruited to play at Hitsville.  The vocal work is outstanding; the group sings nearly the entire song in glorious harmony, with Diana’s voice pulled just slightly forward and breaking out solo on a few lines.  Diana had rarely sounded so relaxed on record; the way her voice languidly slides from lyric to lyric is almost hypnotic.  Mary and Florence wail behind her; Wilson’s strong alto anchors the harmonies and Ballard’s ringing soprano practically soars into the heavens.  The Andantes seem to be there, too, adding to the complexity of the vocals; the sum of all these parts is a kind of musical web that transcends the Motown sound.  This is light years beyond the work featured on Meet The Supremes, and even some of Where Did Our Love Go; it’s perhaps the single best piece of early evidence of the sophistication innate to The Supremes.  Dick Clark once said of the group’s pre-stardom years, “Before they’d do their three-song set, they would be in the dressing room and I vividly remember that they were practicing Broadway songs, Barbra Streisand songs — ‘People’ was one of them.  And I thought: They obviously had plans to expand beyond this” (The Supremes box set booklet).  What they do on “Lazy Bones” proves him right, and it’s hard to imagine any of The Supremes’ peers expanding like this.

8.  You Need Me:  Another Clarence Paul tune; this is the last in a kind of trilogy formed with “You Didn’t Care” and “Tears In Vain.”  Like those two, “You Need Me” is technically a good recording in every way; production is classy, vocals are tight, and the lyric is succinct and relatable.  However, also like those other two songs, there’s nothing particularly wowing here; it’s good enough that it deserves to be on the album, but it never rises above the level of filler.  Diana sounds quite sweet, perhaps a tinge too sugary at times, but totally engaging; the backing vocals are strong, as they’ve been on the entire album.  The constant, rhythmic guitar strumming on this track is a nice addition, giving the song a subtle exotic touch; again, kudos to the fantastic musicians working on these sessions.

9.  Baby Doll:  A stellar album cut, this is the most “Motown-ish” of all the songs on The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop, and it’s not hard to imagine one of the label’s groups having a hit with it.  Of particular note here is the name of one of the co-writers; with Clarence Paul and Ted Hull, this song is credited to none other than Stevie Wonder.  This makes sense, as Clarence Paul was Wonder’s musical memoir; according to the All Music Guide, “Those close to their relationship say that Paul and Wonder were like father and son and later when Wonder began having hits, he’d accompany him on tour.”  Interestingly, “Baby Doll” isn’t far from the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound; the song bears some sonic and lyrical similarities to later recordings like “Honey Boy” (from More Hits By The Supremes) and the Martha and the Vandellas hit “Jimmy Mack.”  What sets “Baby Doll” apart is that the beat is less aggressive than on most Motown hits; this is a softly swinging song, which is why it fits well with the rest of this album.  Diana’s vocal is superb; she’s relaxed and assured, and she’s given the chance to sing in a slightly lower key, which results in a sexier sound.  Although it’s still a youthful performance, there’s an elegance to Diana’s work here.  If Motown had decided to release a single from this LP (aside from “My Heart Can’t Take It No More,” which had come out years earlier), “Baby Doll” would have been the smartest choice; it would have sounded great on radio, especially with a sharper and leaner instrumental track.

10.  Sunset:  This masterful, haunting track is another Clarence Paul-Stevie Wonder collaboration; Wonder actually recorded the song himself, including it on the aforementioned album, 1962’s Tribute To Uncle Ray.  Here, the number is transformed into a showcase for the smoky voice of Mary Wilson, who handles lead duties on the first verse and is quite prominent throughout the recording.  Wilson’s voice is a great match for the material, and aside from a few moments in which she seems to lack control, she really delivers.  Listen to her at about a minute in, as she sings the words “You turned and walked away…” — she is wailing her heart out.  Diana Ross leads the second verse, and she sounds soulful and dreamy; she adorns her vocal with some nice, bluesy riffs not always associated with her style.  The background harmonies are phenomenal; this is tight, perfectly choreographed singing.  With all of that said, however, the MVPs of “Sunset” are The Funk Brothers; next to “Lazy Bones,” this is the most impressive musical interplay on the entire LP.  From the mesmerizing string arpeggio to the jazz piano and eerie organ work during the musical break, every single instrument works together to create an otherworldly atmosphere.  For my money, this “Sunset” is better than the Stevie Wonder original (which, to be honest, is pretty shrill); The Supremes, the musicians, and Clarence Paul create magic here.

11.  (The Man With The) Rock And Roll Banjo Band:  The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop draws to a close with a song that had already been released prior to the LP hitting shelves; this song had been placed on the b-side to the group’s 1963 single “A Breathtaking Guy.”  It’s not a very good song, but it was co-written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., which is probably why it found itself on a single release over so many superior recordings.  With an opening lyric of “He’s a groovy, swinging guy with the Rock And Roll Banjo Band,” the song is immediately dated, coming off as a 1960s novelty tune on par with the group’s kitschy theme song to Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine. Occasionally giving up on the idea of a rhyme scheme, Gordy & company craft mundane lines like, “The way he plays that thing, it makes my poor heart ring, I’m gonna marry that guy someday…”  The Supremes gamely pull through, although they seem to lack in energy somewhat; then again, can you blame them?  What the ladies lack in enthusiasm, the frantic banjo solo more than makes up for; whoever is plucking that thing seems determined to cram as many notes in as possible.  This is a crazy way to end such a classy album…although I dare anyone to listen to it and not break into a grin.


Because it is a “theme” album, The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop has a consistency missing from many Supremes LPs; in fact, most Motown albums of the 1960s period aren’t this consistent.  And better than that, it’s consistently good; the only real dud here is the final track, and even that’s not close to worst thing released by The Supremes.  Clarence Paul crafted some lush, sophisticated arrangements and the musicians and vocalists rise to the occasion; the end result is a satisfying work that is an immeasurable improvement over the previous Supremes album.  This wasn’t a hit when released in early 1965; it only managed to climb to #79 on the Billboard 200, and fans focused on the group’s mega-successful singles instead.  But this is a work that everyone involved with should have been proud of; Motown might have been a hit-making machine in the 1960s, but an album like this proves the label was capable of artist as well as commercial success.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Classy And Full Of “Care”)

Choice Cuts: “Lazy Bones,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Sunset”

The Supremes Sing Country Western And Pop Back

A Bit Of Liverpool (1964)

The Supremes A Bit Of Liverpool

“I’m gonna let you down…and leave you flat…”

By October/November 1964, America was deep in the throes of Beatlemania.  The British group had scored its first stateside #1 hit early that year, when “I Want To Hold Your Hand” took over the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for an astounding seven weeks; the group then followed itself at number one not once, but twice (!), as “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” followed suit.  John, Paul, George, and Ringo would score three more chart-toppers in 1964, setting an all-time record of six #1 hits in one calendar year.  It seems the world just couldn’t get enough of The Beatles…and apparently, that included The Supremes.

Just a couple of months after releasing Where Did Our Love Goa massively successful album that helped catapult The Supremes to stardom, Motown followed it up with this LP, which the liner notes by Scott St. James call a “tribute to their brothers — their brothers in song.”  Although positioned as a kind of love letter to the British sound (indeed, in the UK this album was titled With Love From Us To You), it also must have seemed like a surefire hit to have the top female group in the world record the songs of the top male groups in the world (including The Beatles, The Animals, and The Dave Clark Five).  Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was also admittedly interested in doing everything possible to broaden the appeal of The Supremes; this would be the first of three “theme albums” released in rapid succession, each focused on very different styles of music.

Although the album didn’t turn out to be a huge hit, it was a modest success and peaked at #21 on the Billboard 200 (it climbed to #5 on the R&B album chart).  Timing had far more to do with that than quality; the album appeared around the time “Baby Love” was enjoying a four-week stint at the top of the pop charts and “Come See About Me” was poised to end up there, too.  Timing had to be the driving force behind A Bit Of Liverpool, because the fact is, it’s a pretty dreadful album.  The LP feels like a rush job (according to Lost & Found: Supremes Rarities, the songs were recorded in October during a stop in Los Angeles to appear on The T.A.M.I. Show) and it features some truly bizarre vocals from Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.  Over the next few years, the ladies of The Supremes — especially Miss Ross — would prove they could pretty much do anything.  But making this album really work?  Well, in the words of Lennon-McCartney — “You Can’t Do That.”


1.  How Do You Do It?:  A Bit Of Liverpool opens with one of its weakest entries, an unbelievably irritating cover of the #1 UK hit by Gerry and the Pacemakers.  The arrangement here is faithful to the original recording; the tracks are basically identical.  The big difference is that while the British version featured just the voice of Gerry Marsden, this Motown remake is led by all three Supremes singing in unison.  And therein lies the problem; Diana, Mary, and Florence offer up equally cloying performances that sound like three cartoon characters gradually increasing their helium intake over the course of two minutes.  By the time the ladies (and Diana, in particular) deliver the line “like I fell for you” at 1:40, they could easily be mistaken for a swam of buzzing insects.  Aside from the grating tone of the voices, the pronunciation of various words is extremely odd; the ladies deliver “heart” as “hot” and “smart” as “smot” among other weird, pseudo-British affectations that even Gerry Marsden didn’t produce — and he is from Liverpool!  The LP liner notes here mention The Supremes taking on certain songs “with tongue in cheek” — and perhaps that’s what’s happening here.  But if the ladies were recording this track with a sense of humor, well, the joke is on all of us.  This is a low point for The Supremes.  Thankfully, it’s followed…

2.  A World Without Love: …by this far superior recording.  This is a gentle, romantic Lennon-McCartney tune originally made famous by Peter and Gordon (interestingly, it was never released by The Beatles), and it also topped the UK chart.  As with the previous song, The Supremes sing almost entirely in unison, aside from a brief Diana solo and some bits of harmonizing.  However — unlike in “How Do You Do It?” — Diana, Mary, and Florence sound absolutely gorgeous, offering up smooth, dreamy performances that seem to gently ride atop the instrumental track.  Their harmony on the words “…stay in A World Without Love” at :43 is sublime, and Mary’s low notes during the phrase “…don’t allow the day” at 2:09 are beautifully sophisticated.  That’s probably the most apt word for this entire recording — sophisticated.  After the caricature of an opening to A Bit Of Liverpool, The Supremes finally sound like a polished group again.  (NOTE:  The “Peter” of Peter and Gordon is Peter Asher, who went on to a long career in music and has produced several songs for Diana Ross, including material for her 2006/2007 release, I Love You.)

3.  The House Of The Rising Sun:  A smash hit in 1964 for The Animals, this haunting folk song has been recorded dozens of times over the years (including versions by Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton).  Interestingly, this song as done by The Animals knocked “Where Did Our Love Go” from the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in September of 1964, so it was still fresh in the minds of record buyers when it was included on A Bit Of Liverpool.  As a composition, “The House Of The Rising Sun” is one of the strongest on this LP; there is something deeply affecting about the minor chord arpeggio that repeats throughout the song, and the personal “story-song” lyrics are darkly memorable.  All three Supremes really bite into the material here; Diana opens the song with the first verse, and she offers up a dramatic reading that’s good, if not wholly successful.  There’s an air of artifice to her performance; Ross never really sounds like a woman who’s spent her life in “sin and misery.”  She also lays that drama on fairly thick, particularly during her second solo verse; a little more restraint could have sold the story better.  Mary and Florence take over for a good chunk of the song, and they sing their hearts out; Ballard drops in a fantastic, soulful flourish on the word “jeans” at :54 and Wilson’s belting at 1:25 is as forceful as she’d ever sounded on a Supremes recording.  As with Diana’s performance, Wilson and Ballard push things a little too far; at times, it sounds like they’re trying to outsing each other, which leads to a noticeable lack of control.  The best part of the track comes at the tail end, as the ladies quietly hum during the fade-out; it’s an eerie, otherworldly addition that actually elevates the entire recording.  “The House Of The Rising Sun” could have used more of that understatement.

4.  A Hard Day’s Night:  In the same way that artists struggle to match the unique energy and excitement of original Supremes recordings, there’s something so distinctive about The Beatles that it’s nearly impossible to do the group’s songs justice.  “A Hard Day’s Night” is a quintessential Beatles song, written by John Lennon and featured on the soundtrack to the group’s first film, also titled A Hard Day’s Night.  As with the previous three songs on A Bit Of Liverpool, the arrangement here closely follows the original, right down to the startling opening chord (although the musicians here can’t capture the complexity of George Harrison’s guitar work).  The limited melody of the song doesn’t quite suit The Supremes, who struggle to match the punchy performances of John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Ballard’s voice in particular is just too heavy for the rapid-fire pace of lines like “but-when-I-get-home-to-you,” and she drags them down.  Her high notes during the song’s harmonies are also a little brassy for a song that’s driven by guitars; consequently, the “When I’m home…” bridge is more Andrews Sisters than British Invasion.  Just as one probably wouldn’t want to hear The Beatles taking on the dramatic flair of “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” — this one was best left uncovered.

5.  Because:  A U.S. hit for The Dave Clark Five earlier in 1964, this is a sonically similar recording to “A World Without Love,” again featuring easy, uncluttered performances by The Supremes.  Diana, Florence, and Mary sing most of the song together, and it’s cut in just the right key for each one; each singer comfortably croons well within her range, with Wilson’s soft and smoky tone especially lovely.  That said, the vocal production feels rushed; the original recording featured subtle harmonies that added dimension to the otherwise-straightforward song.  Because The Supremes eschew most of those harmonies (only breaking into three-parts in a few spots), the song loses any complexity it might have otherwise had.  “Because” is a pleasant, inoffensive entry, but it’s too vanilla for a group capable of so much more.

6.  You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me:  There’s really nothing Liverpool about this song, aside from the fact that The Beatles covered it in 1963“You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is, of course, most closely identified with Smokey Robinson, who wrote the song and released it with The Miracles in ’62.  It was a top 10 hit for The Miracles, deservedly becoming one of the group’s best-known songs; it’s a fabulously bluesy song with some of Robinson’s most memorable lyrics (it opens with the perfect “I don’t like you…but I love you…”).  Because The Supremes have struggled with the bulk of the British material so far, it’s a relief to hear the ladies return to familiar territory.  Diana takes the lead here, and it’s her best performance on the entire album; she is superbly soulful, especially during the first verse, during which she sings in a lower octave and displays a smoldering sex appeal.  On his original recording, Smokey Robinson’s voice sounded raw and tortured; Diana is much smoother, but no less expressive.  There’s a real soul to the singer’s work here; those who consider Miss Ross a pure pop singer should listen closely to her performance on this song.  There’s not much wrong with this cover, aside from the fact that the background vocals (with the weird pronunciation of “…really got a hold on meh”) are a little distracting; because of the classy production and the bluesy elegance of Diana’s performance, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is the best thing about A Bit Of Liverpool.

7.  You Can’t Do That:  And we’re back to The Beatles, as The Supremes take on a song first released as the b-side to “Can’t Buy Me Love.”  Of the four Beatles covers on A Bit Of Liverpool, this is probably best, although it’s nowhere near as good as “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” or even “A World Without Love.”  Diana Ross offers up a solid performance, staying away from the vocal artifice that bogs down much of the earlier material; that said, the song doesn’t give her much to do, which is unfortunate for a woman who’s such a gifted melody singer.  Ballard and Wilson are full-bodied behind her, and ably deliver on the harmonies.  In the end, although it’s not terrible (well, the screech at 1:26 is pretty terrible…), the recording does exactly what the lyrics threatens: It leaves you a little flat.

8.  Do You Love Me:  The first Motown song on A Bit Of Liverpool provided the album’s highlight; incredibly, the second takes listeners to the absolute nadir.  “Do You Love Me” was originally written and produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.; when released by The Contours, it soared to the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The song certainly touched a nerve in the UK, and was covered by several groups including Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, who took it to number one.  The original “Do You Love Me” remains one of the wildest recordings to come out of Hitsville; the raw, unbridled vocals are instantly recognizable, and were subsequently copied by the bulk of the groups daring to cover the song.  So perhaps credit should be given to The Supremes, who go in the totally opposite direction, toning down the soulful passion of The Contours and turning the song into a kooky, teenage ode to dancing.  Unfortunately…it doesn’t work.  At all.  This recording may be, in fact, one of the worst ever released by the Diana-Mary-Florence trio; it is so wrong for them in every way that it’s hard to imagine it being any further off-base.  Diana’s lead vocal is thin and whiny, as she’d been on some of her earliest recordings, and for whatever reason she repeatedly delivers the title as “Do You Love Me-Yay-Yeah.”  Mary and Florence don’t fare any better, especially when unenthusiastically singing “Work it owwwwwww” in the background.  Florence seems to suddenly become British herself when wailing “Tell me baby…” at :45, and comes off like a very un-hip mother through the rest of the song.  It’s amazing that multiple British groups could handle a Motown original better than The Supremes, but it’s the truth; The Hollies, The Dave Clark Five, and others all sounded a million times more comfortable with the material when they released it.

9.  Can’t Buy Me Love:  It would be hard to get much worse than “Do You Love Me” — and although this version of the Beatles classic isn’t particularly good, it’s a big improvement over the previous track.  This song became the third consecutive #1 hit for The Beatles in America, replacing the group’s own “She Loves You” at the top.  The Supremes don’t stray far from the blueprint of the original; the women sing almost the entire song in unison, similar to how Paul McCartney had double-tracked his own vocals.  The Supremes do break into three-part harmony during the chorus, when singing the word “love” — and although they do it well, it doesn’t feel necessary.  As on “A Hard Day’s Night,” the harmonies just sound too showbiz, as if being arranged for a Broadway performance.  I’ve read that The Beatles decided not to include background harmonies on the song, feeling it worked without them; I think this recording — although it’s not really bad — proves them right.

10.  I Want To Hold Your Hand:  This is Liverpool‘s final Beatles song; the original became the group’s very first American #1 hit, holding down the top spot for nearly two months, and also spent Christmas of 1963 at #1 in the UK.  It’s an inimitable classic in the way that “Stop! In The Name Of Love” would later become; the band’s layered guitar work, the iconic handclaps, and the twin vocals of Lennon and McCartney resulted in pure pop magic.  This version’s limp arrangement pales in comparison to the instrumental excitement generated by the Fab Four, so The Supremes are already operating at a major disadvantage.  The vocal production again feels rushed and even unfinished, and the ladies are lost in the mix.  In the end, the recording just sounds amateur, particularly with the messy harmonizing on the word “hand.”

11.  Bits And Pieces:  The album closes out with another hit made famous by The Dave Clark Five, a song that bears some interesting structural similarities to Supremes hits.  There’s a rhythm-setting, foot-stomping intro (an earthier version of the one featured on “Where Did Our Love Go”) which eventually breaks into a call-and-response vocal pattern similar to that of “Come See About Me.”  Here, Mary and Florence repeat “I’m in Pieces, Bits And Pieces” and Diana takes the solo lines in between.  Because the ladies have spent so much of this album singing in unison, it’s a welcome change to hear them break apart their voices; Diana sounds good, although there’s very little melody for her to work with.  The repetition of the song’s title by Wilson and Ballard becomes a little grating, although that’s not really their fault; the song sounded basically the same when done by The Dave Clark Five.  Not the worst song on the LP, but not very memorable, either.


Beatlemania didn’t immediately fade for The Supremes after the release of this album; in 1965, The Supremes performed “I Feel Fine” on popular television show “Hullabaloo” and “You Can’t Do That” and “Eight Days A Week” on “Shindig.”  The latter is a really solid performance featuring a solo verse by each group member; many fans have wondered why it wasn’t featured on the album, and the simple answer is that the original wasn’t released by The Beatles until after A Bit Of Liverpool had already been issued (in fact, the song didn’t hit #1 in the states until March of ’65, and was knocked from the top by The Supremes and “Stop! In The Name Of Love”).  The Supremes and The Beatles would continue to wrestle on the charts through the remainder of the decade; as late as 1968, the former’s “Love Child” would knock the latter’s “Hey Jude” from #1.

Listened to today, A Bit Of Liverpool is really just a relic, a time capsule reflecting the unbelievable dominance of British groups in the mid-1960s.  It also serves as a reminder of Berry Gordy, Jr.’s belief in the group.  “I was pushing them all the time,” he reflected in the booklet to the 2000 box-set The Supremes.  “I knew that they were major at that time but I wasn’t satisfied, I wanted them to be more major!”  The group’s next two albums would demonstrate Gordy’s conviction that The Supremes could do anything; first a country-themed LP, then a collection of Sam Cooke covers.  Fortunately for fans, these albums would improve upon A Bit Of Liverpool — and eventually lead to some new, exciting Supremes originals.

Final Analysis: 2/5 (Only “Bits And Pieces” Of Greatness)

Choice Cuts: “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” “A World Without Love,” “You Can’t Do That”

Production on the LP is credited to “Berry Gordy Jr. and Davis & Gordon” — the last two names being Hal Davis and Marc Gordon.  This is the same Hal Davis who would produce the smash hit “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross in 1976, and handle Mary Wilson’s self-titled solo LP in 1979.

The Supremes With Love From Us To You

Where Did Our Love Go (1964)

The Supremes Where Did Our Love Go LP

“Then I knew…oh, then I knew…”

Where Did Our Love Go, simply put, is one of the most important pop albums of all time.  It’s a work that features a whopping six singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, including an astounding three #1 hits.  It sent the careers of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard — which had barely limped along since the beginning of the decade — into the stratosphere, and forced the music world to acknowledge Motown Records as the preeminent force behind American pop/soul music, which it would remain (unchallenged) for the next several years.  Never before in the rock era had a female vocal group dominated music this way, let alone an African-American female vocal group.

The LP was only the second released on The Supremes, following 1962’s unsuccessful Meet The SupremesThere had been some important changes for the group following that earlier record’s recording and release; fourth member Barbara Martin (featured on the bulk of the first album) had exited the group, leaving Ross, Wilson, and Ballard a trio.  Perhaps more significantly, the writing and producing team of Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland, and Brian Holland had begun churning out hits for the label including “Mickey’s Monkey” for The Miracles and “Heat Wave” for Martha and the Vandellas.  The Holland-Dozier-Holland sound was noted for its strong, catchy melodies and memorable lyrics — something sorely lacking in early releases by The Supremes.  Since nobody else had managed to get a hit with The Supremes, it must have seemed a no-brainer to let H-D-H have a go.

“When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” would be a breakthrough for The Supremes; it was the group’s first single written and produced by H-D-H, and climbed to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and #2 on the Cash Box R&B chart), a huge improvement over the group’s previous releases.  The success of “Lovelight” meant more sessions with H-D-H, which eventually led to a little ditty about which Lamont Dozier would later comment, “I was fumbling around, and it just felt right…a bluesy kind of pop song.  We though it could be a hit on somebody” (The Supremes box set booklet).  That song was “Where Did Our Love Go,” and it (along with the subsequent smash album) would change the course of history for The Supremes, for Motown Records…and for popular music.


(NOTE: As with the post concerning Meet The Supremes, the following summaries are based on the stereo mix of the LP when possible.)

1.  Where Did Our Love Go:  “To my ears, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ was a teenybopper song.  It had childish, repetitive lyrics…a limited melody, and no drive.  It was too smooth, and I couldn’t imagine anyone liking it” (Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith, 143).  Mary Wilson has commented many times over the years that The Supremes wanted no part of “Where Did Our Love Go” — according to her, the group longed for the kind of fiery, soulful hits being recorded by labelmates Martha and The Vandellas.  If this is true, it at least speaks to the professionalism of the group that it produced such a superb performance in the studio; the end result is one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded.  Released in June of 1964, while the group was touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars, the song climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in August, remaining there for two weeks.  In her book Secrets Of A Sparrow, Diana Ross recalls, “…we were so busy riding the bus and performing we were unaware of what was happening with our record.  But the audiences knew.  They began to recognize us.  They would scream and shout when we appeared onstage, and when we got to the wings we’d scream to each other, ‘They know our song!'” (118).  It’s hard to believe today that anybody doubted the hit potential of “Where Did Our Love,” a tune that is loaded with hooks; from the iconic opening footstomps (apparently provided by Mike Valvano, using blocks of wood) to the hypnotic repetition of “Baby, baby…” in the background, this is the kind of tune that digs itself in the brain and remains there for days.  The lead vocal performance by Diana Ross is astonishing, displaying the major evolution her voice had undergone since recording songs like “Who’s Lovin’ You” early in her Motown career.  The high straining of those early recordings is gone, replaced by a relaxed, soulful sound that is far more confident than even the best work on Meet The Supremes.  It’s often said that her performance is strikingly different because she’s singing in a much lower key; there may be some truth to that, but she’s also just a better, more seasoned vocalist here, offering up an intelligent and unique mix of yearning and resignation in her delivery.  Listen closely, and you’ll hear the complexity, as though she’s well aware that pleading “Don’t you love me no more?” won’t do any good, anyway.  The contributions of Wilson and Florence Ballard are also key; their trance-like repetitions echo the smooth, emotionally-reserved tone set by Diana and the producers, who wisely keep the instrumental track spare and focused.  Whether all of this was planned or just a happy accident, “Where Did Our Love Go” is a masterpiece, and a song that probably could have only been a monster hit for the Diana Ross-led Supremes; it’s hard to imagine another group turning the same song into such a layered listening experience.  Had The Supremes never scored another hit, this would have been a recording to be proud of; amazingly, their work would only get better.

2.  Run, Run, Run:  This is the single that immediately preceded “Where Did Our Love Go,” and it certainly did nothing to raise expectations for The Supremes.  Although it’s also an H-D-H production, it bombed on the charts, scraping the lowest reaches of the Billboard Hot 100.  “Run, Run, Run” isn’t a bad song, but it’s extraordinarily dense; this is a track loaded with lyrics, instruments, and voices; in essence, it’s the polar opposite of the stripped-down “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Diana’s vocal is much more aggressive than on the previous track; she’s audibly working harder here, resulting in a less controlled performance.  She’s also back to singing in the upper reaches of her range; she doesn’t sound as tinny as she had on much of Meet The Supremes, although with the bottom-heavy instruments her voice does sometimes cut a little too sharp.  She’s backed by a loud and raucous choir of voices, which are unfortunately a little overpowering and messy; it also seems odd given the context of the song (Diana calling “Girls, gather ’round me!”) that male voices would be so prominent.  The Funk Brothers are operating on all cylinders here; again this is a packed instrumental, with almost no breathing room between the piano, organ, handclaps, and prominent saxophone.  The result of all this is a swinging, pulse-pounding song — but one that probably would’ve been done just as well in the hands of The Marvelettes or another group.

3.  Baby Love:  If “Where Did Our Love Go” was the song that created the “Supremes sound” — the follow-up single was the one that confirmed its success.  “Baby Love” was recorded in August of 1964 (right around the time “Where…” hit #1), released a month later, and hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 a month after that.  The song would go on to remain at #1 for four weeks, becoming the group’s longest-running chart-topper; perhaps more importantly, it also topped the charts in the UK, proving the appeal of the group beyond the borders of its home country.  It would also gain The Supremes its first of two Grammy nominations.  But forget all of these statistics — the most astonishing achievement of all is that as ideal a pop song as “Where…” is, “Baby Love” is actually better.  It’s extremely similar in sound to the previous hit, and that’s by design; in fact, according to Lamont Dozier, “It was originally cut slower than ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’ and Mr. Gordy felt it should be at least as fast because it had been so successful”  (The Supremes box set booklet).  But every element that contributed to the previous single’s success is turned up a notch here; the melody is more engaging, the lyrics more compact, and the instrumental more sophisticated.  Wilson and Ballard get more play in the background, too, offering up the catchy “Don’t throw our love away” refrain and displaying a real power while never distracting from the lead vocal.  And that lead vocal from Diana Ross is another slice of pop perfection, beginning with the brilliant “oooh-ooh-oooooh” cooed by the singer just six seconds into the song’s brief running time.  That intro isn’t present in the original, slower version of “Baby Love,” and it’s addition is genius; it’s the kind of flourish that is totally unique in delivery to Diana Ross (try to imagine any other singer matching it — it’s impossible).  Likely bolstered by her first major hit, Ross is more confident in this performance; anyone who discounts the vocal as “simple” is missing the skill it takes to inject the clipped, mainly monosyllabic lyrics with emotion and personality.  What could end up sounding like a nursery rhyme in the hands of another singer contains all the angst and yearning identifiable to the millions of teenagers who kept the song at #1 for so long.  When British music magazine Mojo published its list of the 100 Greatest Motown Songs in 2009, “Baby Love” came in at #52, with a testimonial by no less than soul legend Mavis Staples.  She wrote, “I used to sing it all the time around the house.  I love Diana Ross…She had this high voice, and it was unusual to hear a soprano voice since lead, sopranos are usually background singers…Holland-Dozier-Holland went hand-in-hand with The Supremes.  They took pop music and turned it into a symphony of sound.  It was infectious.  ‘Baby Love’ is too.”

4.  When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes:  The breakthrough song, and the first released collaboration between H-D-H and The Supremes.  Recorded in early October of 1963, the song was released less than a month later and climbed to a relatively impressive #23; remember, the group’s highest pop charting previous to this was a dull #75.  Listening to the song today, it’s not a surprise that “Lovelight” broke the losing streak; in fact, it’s surprising it didn’t do a little better.  This is an upbeat, exciting track, easily one of the most energetic singles every released by The Supremes; it was actually recorded after “Run, Run, Run” and features a similar sound with extra backing voices and layers of echoed instruments.  That said, “Lovelight” is a much better song, and a natural bridge between the chunky grit of “Run, Run, Run” and the spare sophistication of “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Although H-D-H hadn’t hit upon that perfect Supremes formula yet, they were getting warmer; there’s a strong melody here, perfect for the crisp lead vocal by Diana Ross, and the background vocals by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard aren’t cluttered up, allowing the women (especially Ballard) to contribute a definable sound to the recording.  There are also plenty of memorable touches, from the prominent handclaps to the growling male voices; H-D-H were clearly experimenting with the idea of “hooks,” finding ways to create music that would immediately grab the attention of radio listeners.  And the experiments were working — and it’s the mark of great artistry that everyone involved took the very best elements of this record and refined them into something even better.

5.  Come See About Me:  Christmas 1964 must have seemed like a dream for The Supremes; after two smash hit records, the group scored an amazing third #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, as “Come See About Me” hit the top spot for the week of December 13th.  Better yet, after being knocked off the summit by The Beatles (“I Feel Fine”), the song reclaimed the throne for another week in early 1965.  Considering America was caught up in the throes of Beatlemania, the fact that Diana, Mary, and Florence could wrestle with the British supergroup for chart supremacy (pardon the pun…) demonstrates just how popular the group had become in such a short period of time.  “Come See About Me” was the most challenging Supremes record yet; Holland-Dozier-Holland incorporated a gospel “call and response” structure for the song, expertly pacing it to mask the musical origins and place it firmly in the realm of pop music.  This back-and-forth means all three ladies are able to equally add to the song’s success; if Diana is the “preacher” here, then Mary and Florence are the full-bodied choir without which the song wouldn’t work.  Although it’s hard to top the smooth and exquisite “Baby Love,” Diana matches her own performance here, offering up a warm, crystal-clear delivery with touches of a brassiness that would become more pronounced over the next few years.  After their cool, repetitive vocals on the previous two hits, Ballard and Wilson really get a chance to shine here; listen as they break certain phrases (“…for you…”) into two-part harmony, and wail out the “Come See About Me!” refrain.  Attention must be paid, as always, to the brilliant work of The Funk Brothers; the driving beat here is highlighted by those fabulous footstomps, and the rest of the players create a clean, muscular bed for the vocals.  For an interesting comparison, listen to the competing version of this song released by singer Nella Dodds on the Wand label (her recording, which topped out at #74 on the charts, apparently forced Motown to rush-release theirs).  The Wand version is arranged identically to Motown’s; the two songs even share the same running time, and Dodds doesn’t diverge one bit from Diana’s vocal blueprint.  Still…it’s not the same.  Without that crisp, percussive Motown track — and certainly without the sophisticated, deliberate vocals of The Supremes — the song just doesn’t sing.  There’s a magic to this record, and that’s why “Come See About Me” has become a deserved classic.  (NOTE: It also doesn’t hurt that the group performed this song on The Ed Sullivan Show, their first of many acclaimed appearances on the program.)

6.  Long Gone Lover:  The first non-single inclusion on Where Did Our Love Go, and the first song that’s not the work of Holland-Dozier-Holland.  “Long Gone Lover” is a Smokey Robinson production; Robinson, of course, had written several songs for The Supremes and made some valiant efforts to gain them a hit.  Overall, the tune is pretty standard girl-group fare, featuring a swinging, 50s-style beat and allowing Diana, Mary, and Florence the chance to demonstrate their skill at three-part harmony.  That vocal work is probably the most notable aspect of the song; similar to “You Bring Back Memories” from Meet The Supremes, the song doesn’t feature a particular memorable hook — certainly not when compared to the big hits included on this album.  Still, the ladies sound good and it’s nice to hear Miss Ballard cut loose at the end of the song; Robinson allows her to take the lead on the ad-libs during the outro, and her round soprano rings clear and powerful.

7.  I’m Giving You Your Freedom:  Another H-D-H composition, this song was placed on the b-side of “Run, Run, Run,” although it couldn’t be more different from that song.  This is a relaxed, low-key breakup song, one that sounds like it could have been written for Mary Wells; the songwriters had produced a hit for Wells with 1963’s “You Lost The Sweetest Boy” (featuring The Supremes on background vocals), and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the guys had meant this song for her, too.  That said, there’s an elegance to the song that makes it perfect for Diana Ross; she offers up a high, sweet vocal, similar to her work on the earlier “Your Heart Belongs To Me.”  The background vocals are also quite sophisticated, although for my money the voices don’t sound a bit like Mary or Florence, and I’d guess someone else is backing up Miss Ross.  It’s not the strongest track on the LP, but this qualifies as very good filler.

8.  A Breathtaking Guy:  An excellent pre-stardom single for The Supremes, written and produced by Smokey Robinson.  This would be the group’s last non-H-D-H single for several years; it managed to climb to #75 on the pop chart, which at the time was the group’s best showing.  Robinson’s lyrical genius is on full display here, with a whimsical chorus composed of the refrain, “Are you just a breathtaking…first sight soul-shaking…one night lovemaking…next day heartbreaking guy?”  Wordy?  Yes…but Robinson wisely breaks up this chorus, allowing each Supreme to take a line.  This is, then, one of the few Supremes singles on which each member’s voice is featured separately, and all three ladies sound superb; Diana offers up another accomplished lead, which is perfectly complimented by Florence’s thick, honeyed delivery and Mary’s mature and husky sound.  No matter how talented Motown’s other female groups — and there was great talent there — no other group featured three such distinct, polished voices.  And, of course, nobody else sounded like Diana Ross.  Later in her career, Ross would often talk about the importance of “living” the lyrics she sings; she certainly sounds like she’s doing that here, offering up a high, piercing bittersweet reading.  For whatever reason, many over the years have doubted her skills as a true vocalist, condescendingly referring to her as an “entertainer” in order to downplay her gifts as a singer.  But listen to her first line on the choruses here; the way she jumps several notes from the word “are” to “you,” landing squarely on pitch in her head voice, is masterful.  Years later, Wanda Young (Rogers) would record the song and release it as The Marvelettes; although also an undeniably gifted singer, she alters the melody in this part, revealing just how impressive the range displayed by Diana Ross really is.

9.  He Means The World To Me:  This one was penned by the prolific Norman Whitfield, a man whose name shows up on some of the greatest Motown songs ever released.  In particular, Whitfield co-wrote and produced many of the biggest hits for The Temptations, including “Ain’t Too Proud To Bed” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” along with the group’s later, fascinating foray into psychedelic soul.  Although he contributed to some gems for other female groups, including The Marvelettes (the joyful “Too Many Fish In The Sea”) and The Velvelettes, his work with The Supremes unfortunately falls flat, giving Where Did Our Love Go its weakest entry.  This isn’t solely Whitfield’s fault; everyone seems to be operating on half-speed here.  The song itself is a shuffling ballad, hampered by an opening verse that starts high and descends down the scale; although she’s been up to the challenges thus far, Diana doesn’t nail the notes this time around, aiming just a little too high and coming off as shrill.  This is especially true as she ad-libs the word “world” at about 1:30 in; the sound she produces is not pretty.  Meanwhile, the most notable performance on the instrumental track is that of the xylophone player, which should pretty much tell you how subdued the brilliant Motown studio musicians were during this session.  Interestingly, this was the song placed on the b-side of “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Thus, even though it’s not one of the group’s better efforts, it was probably heard by a much wider audience than some of the better tracks on this album!

10.  Standing At The Crossroads Of Love:  A great album track (and the b-side to “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”), this song serves as an interesting counterpoint to Where Did Our Love Go‘s previous offering.  This H-D-H composition features a similar “downward scale” structure, and requires Diana to do some of the highest singing of her early career; but with a far stronger production and much more accomplished vocals, it’s miles better than “He Means The World To Me.”  Considering this was obviously cut in 1963 (The “Lovelight” 45 was released in October of that year) and the background voices don’t seem to be those of Florence or Mary, it’s questionable if this song was originally intended for The Supremes; nonetheless, it’s impossible to imagine another singer nailing the octave jumps as effectively as Diana Ross.  I’m sure many fans (and many more non-fans) will argue that the key is cut too high, and maybe it is; still, I’d argue back that even at its most piercing, Diana’s delivery generally matches the unorthodox feel of the entire piece.  There’s something about the song, with its weird “Twilight Zone”-meets-Motor City intro and the aggressive, meaty backing vocals (is it just me, or do the “ooh-ooh-oohs” sound more like judgemental “eww-eww-ewws”?) that just works.  Maybe it’s the sputtering beat; at times, it seems to mirror the sound of a car stalling out at an intersection, which probably wasn’t intentional, but matches the lyrics beautifully!  H-D-H would turn out some exciting, experimental music for The Supremes over the next several years; consider this a very early exploration of the fringes of pop.  (NOTE:  If you’ve heard the 1964 recording of The Supremes performing this song live, you’ll know the key was dropped significantly.  While it allows Miss Ross to give an earthier, more guttural reading, it also robs the song of a lot of its odd charm.)

11.  Your Kiss Of Fire:  This one’s a holdover from the days when Berry Gordy was personally trying to pen The Supremes a hit; the Motown founder had written several of the group’s early singles, and is credited as co-writer on this tune, along with legendary writer and producer Harvey Fuqua.  Gordy’s personal output on the Supremes ranges from sublime (the unreleased “Come On Boy”) to the depressing (“Play A Sad Song” — despite a nice lead vocal), and thankfully “Your Kiss Of Fire” ranks a little closer to the former.  Though the song is undoubtedly filler, it’s solid; the production is clean, with a neat touch of Spanish influence in its chord structure and the tango-like bassline (one can imagine the song showing up in an old movie about matadors).  Diana offers up a warm, relaxed vocal; the song makes nice use of her low-to-mid range, and when she does reach for the higher notes on the bridge, she sweetens them with an audible yearning.  Her “Please don’t forsake me, after showing me the way to love!” is the pre-jaded version of the young woman who croons on “Where Did Our Love Go.”

12:  Ask Any Girl:  Where Did Our Love Go ends on a high note, with a stellar H-D-H album track that’s become a well-known favorite and is featured on many anthologies.  “Ask Any Girl” was original placed on the b-side of “Baby Love,” and apparently regarded highly enough around Motown that it would be recycled for the 1965 LP More Hits By The Supremes and again on 1967’s Greatest Hits (writer J. Randy Taraborrelli mentions in his Diana Ross: A Biography that Motown was interested in it as a potential candidate for single release).  The swirling pop symphony features perhaps the best instrumental track on the entire album; laden with strings and muted horns, it’s more complex than the big hits, but the musical flourishes never bury the hook.  The ladies offer up a terrific interpretation; the majestic intro alone features some of Diana’s best work thus far in her career.  She had never sounded so assured, and so comfortable in her voice, and she easily glides along the song’s bouncy melody without ever displaying any discernible effort.  Interestingly, the booklet to the 4-CD box set The Supremes notes that “Ask Any Girl” was recorded on April 10, 1964 — just two days after “Where Did Our Love Go” and several months prior to “Baby Love.”  The song feels like a more mature extension of those other two songs — but the recording dates suggest otherwise.  (NOTE: “Ask Any Girl” did end up near the top of the charts, in a way; Motown apparently sued the writers of the 1965 Len Barry hit “1, 2, 3” — claiming it was a reworking of “Ask Any Girl.”  According to Lamont Dozier in the box set booklet, because of the lawsuit, “that particular song is my catalog” — which explains why in 2003, “1, 2, 3” was performed on American Idol’s Motown night.)


Where Did Our Love Go is an astonishingly solid album, considering Motown wasn’t in the business of creating great albums in 1964.  The label would keep its focus firmly on racking up hit singles through the end of the decade, but it hit the jackpot with this collection of memorable tunes and classic performances.  The LP was a smash success; bolstered by the hits, it climbed to #2 on the Billboard 200, and would ride the chart for sometime thereafter.  And yet, somehow, the impact of Where Did Our Love Go has been lost over the years; the LP rarely shows up on lists of great popular music recordings (it doesn’t even garner a place on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time).  For whatever reason, critics seem endlessly reluctant to give the group its due; when they do, the credit goes to the men behind-the-scenes.  Certainly Berry Gordy had the vision, and H-D-H provided the incredible hits — but on this album, The Supremes (and especially Diana Ross) really deliver, maturing into exciting, skillful vocalists.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Breathtaking” Breakthrough)

Choice Cuts: “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Where Did Our Love Go”

The Grammy nominees for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording that year were:
Nancy Wilson, “How Glad I Am” (Winner)
The Supremes, “Baby Love”
Sam Cooke, “Good Times”
Joe Tex, “Hold What You’ve Got”
The Impressions, “Keep On Pushing”
Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By”

Meet The Supremes (1962)

Meet The Supremes 1962

“Funny how time changes, rearranges everything…”

The legacy of The Supremes is so firmly established today — from the group’s influence on fashion, to music, to Broadway musicals and films — that is seems impossible to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.  From 1964 until the end of the decade, The Supremes would become the savior of American music, almost single-handedly defending a corner of the industry from the British Invasion while conquering the rest of the world through sell-out tours and hit singles.  The group’s astounding string of a dozen number one singles (racked up in just five years) is something modern pop acts still struggle to match, and those hits continue to win over audiences though appearances in movies, commercials, and through radio airplay and album reissues.

But success wasn’t overnight for Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard (and, in the beginning, Barbara Martin, who is featured on most of this album); after signing with Motown Records, the group suffered through eight lackluster singles before finally striking gold with “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964.  The earliest of those singles were collected and released as Meet The Supremes in late 1962, an album that’s basically a patchwork of songs recorded during various sessions at the beginning of the decade.  It’s interesting to note the talent involved in this debut album; along with the four young vocalists, names like Smokey Robinson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and even Berry Gordy, Jr. pepper the credits.  Still, without a sizable hit or much audience demand for its existence, Meet The Supremes failed to make an impact.

So what happened?  Well, first of all, the top-notch material wasn’t there.  But more importantly — in the vaguest of terms — The Supremes weren’t quite The Supremes yet.  The elements are all there on Meet The Supremes; the unique style of each singer is immediately discernible, as is the endearing, primitive grit of what would become known as The Motown Sound.  But the smooth, sophisticated polish that would set The Supremes apart from every other vocal group — male or female — is missing.  There’s a roughness around the edges here (and, in some cases, more than just the edges) far more akin to The Marvelettes and The Contours than to later Supremes efforts.  Meet The Supremes is the work of a group still finding itself; while it’s a fascinating listen, it’s no surprise that the songs featured here struggled to stand out.


(NOTE: Writing about the discography of The Supremes is challenging, due to varying versions of the group’s early albums; mono and stereo versions often feature alternate vocals on certain songs.  Although Meet The Supremes was initially pressed as a mono release only, the following summaries are based on the more widely-available stereo mix of the LP.)

1.  Your Heart Belongs To Me:  Meet The Supremes opens with perhaps its best song, a Smokey Robinson tune that was released as the group’s third single (and first on the Motown label, as the previous two had been placed on the company’s Tamla imprint).  More than any other song on the album, “Your Heart Belongs To Me” hints at the sophistication these young ladies were capable of; there’s a sexy maturity to the vocals here, especially those of Diana Ross, that would become much more pronounced in the next few years.  This is a softly-swinging ballad, driven by surf-style guitars and snapping percussion; with lyrics that mention “faraway sand” and the sea, listeners can practically hear the rolling of waves in the background.  The sweet yearning of Diana’s lead vocal is expertly done; there’s an appealing roundness of tone here, devoid of the nasally sound that sometimes plagued the singer’s early work.  Of course, Miss Ross had been singing for a few years by this time, and her experience in the studio shows; the way she stylishly stretches the word “me” at the end of the second chorus to “me-e-e” demonstrates her innate ear for pop flourishes.  Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Barbara Martin provide able support, although there’s far less precision in the background here than would later become standard for the group, resulting in a hint of flatness in some of the harmonies.  Because Robinson’s lyrics are so timely — the song is a love letter from a young woman to her boyfriend, who is serving overseas — it seems hard to believe this song wasn’t a bigger hit; it ended up charting at #95 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Still, it remains one of the group’s best early recordings, and a sign of greater things to come.

2.  Who’s Lovin’ You:  Perhaps the most recognizable song on Meet The Supremes, “Who’s Lovin’ You” is a widely covered Smokey Robinson tune first recorded by The Miracles in 1960.  This was one of the earliest songs recorded by The Supremes at Motown; it had been placed on the b-side of the group’s second single, “Buttered Popcorn,” released in 1961 on Tamla (the single failed to chart).  The decision to include the song directly following “Your Heart Belongs To Me” is an interesting one, as it really highlights the dramatic growth The Supremes made as vocalists in such a short period of time.  “Who’s Lovin’ You” is everything the previous song is not; it’s raw and imperfect, dominated by a high, “go-for-broke” lead vocal by Diana Ross over a bluesy, oil-smudged track.  Diana really reaches for the notes here, and doesn’t always nail them; she is far less controlled than in the album’s previous track, with her voice here wavering around notes and attempting soulful runs that she would later eschew completely.  There’s a reason, of course, for that youthful abandon in Diana’s singing; she was still a high school student when the song was recorded (eventually graduating from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School in 1962).  Wilson, Ballard, and Martin could pass for the Marvelettes in the background; their loud, girlish voices have a slightly discordant sound that’s quite endearing (Mary Wilson writes about recording this song in her book Dreamgirl, recalling that Barbara Martin sang “loud and flat” and cracked up the other girls in the booth).  I’ve read that Berry Gordy, Jr. preferred this song to “Buttered Popcorn,” but the truth is that neither recording really stood a chance at becoming a timeless classic.

3.  Baby Don’t Go:  It’s interesting that for all the online chatter focused on Diana and Florence, one of the most accomplished lead vocals on Meet The Supremes comes from…neither one.  Mary Wilson takes the lead on the album’s third track, and knocks it out of the park; she offers up a confident performance reminiscent of fellow girl-group singer Darlene Love.  The song, credited to Berry Gordy, Jr., is a doo-wop ballad similar to “Who’s Lovin’ You” — it’s not a particularly memorable song, but Wilson’s solid vocal easily sells the rather banal lyrics.  Wilson would later become known for her unique misty tone, which served as a perfect tool to blend Ballard’s strength and the sharp urgency of Ross.  But here, Mary displays something of a brassy swagger that’s both impressive and appealing.

4.  Buttered Popcorn:  This song would be the group’s second (and final) single released on the Tamla imprint; it also bears the distinction of being the sole Supremes 45 release featuring a lead vocal from Florence Ballard.  “Buttered Popcorn” is unlike anything the group had recorded before, or ever would; it’s a rollicking, bottom-heavy tune with gutsy vocals and totally bizarre lyric (which, if taken literally, really is about a man’s obsession with buttered popcorn.  If not taken literally, than the meaning might not be fit for print).  Mary Wilson would later write, “The song had a great dance riff, and I think ‘Popcorn’ was the most raucous thing we ever released.  The musicians were pleased with the session, and we all left the studio believing we had a hit” (Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith 97).  Of course, the song was not a hit, and while it’s a hilarious listen today, it’s not hard to understand why it didn’t click.  There’s no denying the soul present in Ballard’s voice, but her guttural growls are not particularly pleasant listening here; furthermore, she’s given the task of selling a rather unappetizing lyric (it’s perhaps the only pop song to feature the words “salty,” “sticky,” and “greasy”).  The song doesn’t require much range from its vocalists, either; Ballard doesn’t stretch far beyond a few notes, and the backgrounds consist of a constant repetition of the song’s title.  Several versions of this song can be found floating around (in fact, the single was withdrawn, re-recorded, and re-released), but the fact is “Buttered Popcorn” remains more of an interesting experiment than anything else.  (NOTE: The song would get something of a “second life” when a snippet was performed in the 2013 Broadway smash Motown The Musical — used as an example of the early Supremes songs nobody considered “hit” material!)

5.  I Want A Guy:  In her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow, Diana Ross writes of this song, “I vividly remember this recording session.  I felt so important.  With my eyes closed and my arms outstretched, I poured my heart into this song.  When I listen to it now, I feel nostalgic; I can hear that teenage yearning in my voice” (104).  It makes sense that Miss Ross would recall the recording of “I Want A Guy” — it would become the group’s very first single, issued in March of 1961 as Tamla 54038.  Opening with an eerie organ motif, the song eventually evolves to include a galloping beat that sounds more like the theme music to a Western TV series than a Motown release.  One can hear easily hear that “teenage yearning” in Diana’s lead vocal; as with “Who’s Lovin’ You,” she’s singing in an awfully high key here, so much so that the All Music Guide review of the album calls her performance “whiny” — which it often is.  The odd, almost operatic delivery of the single letter “I” is probably the most notable “hook” of the recording; it’s memorable, but not necessarily strong.  And that’s the big issue with the song; it’s just not very strong.  Compare it to “Please Mr. Postman,” released later the same year by The Marvelettes; both were co-written by Freddie Gorman and Brian Holland and contain similarly raw and youthful vocals, but the latter’s song structure is tighter and the melody much cleaner.  That song easily climbed to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, while “I Want A Guy” didn’t chart at all.  (NOTE: Coincidentally, The Marvelettes would cover “I Want A Guy” and include it on their Please Mr. Postman LP.)

6.  Let Me Go The Right Way:  The group’s fourth single was one of its best yet; featuring a gutsy and soulful lead by Miss Ross, it managed to climb into the Billboard R&B Top 30, easily the best chart showing for the group thus far and likely an indication to Motown head Berry Gordy, Jr. (who wrote and produced the song) that the group was capable of major success.  By the time of this recording, Barbara Martin had exited the group to give birth to her child, leaving The Supremes as a trio.  The change is noticeable; there’s a cleaner sound to the background work here, and the three voices are fairly distinct.  Of the group’s first four singles, “Let Me Go The Right Way” is the most classically Motown; there’s a fire and a real spunk to the recording, with a gritty, syncopated beat courtesy The Funk Brothers.  Though Diana’s delivery is undeniably girlish (imagine the more mature Martha Reeves attempting the song; it doesn’t work), she displays an impressive range and puts some muscle behind her lead vocal; those who believe Ross was always a “pop” singer might want to listen to her soulful performance here.  Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson really belt the backgrounds here, and the three young women sound like they’re having a ball in the studio.  Though it wasn’t the hit it deserved to be, The Supremes energetically performed this tune during early concerts; a great version recorded live at the Apollo Theater in 1962 was released on the 2000 four-disc box set The Supremes (during which Diana uses the “A little bit softer now!” routine that she allegedly cribbed from Smokey Robinson!).

7.  You Bring Back Memories:  Speaking of Robinson, this song is his third and final contribution to Meet The Supremes.  This song would later end up the b-side to “My Heart Can’t Take It No More,” the group’s fifth single (the a-side was included two years later on The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop), but it’s one of the lesser-known early Supremes recordings.  The ladies sing a generous portion of the song in unison, and each voice is clear and strong; indeed, that’s a problem, as the simultaneous vocal attack is quite startling at the beginning of the song (not to mention the clumsy lyrics they’re forced to recite don’t exactly seem to roll off the tongue).  Once it gets going, the recording has that real, definable Motown sound, led by a rocking piano line typical of an early Marvin Gaye release.  Unfortunately, what it lacks is a great Motown hook; atypical of Smokey’s work, there’s not a memorable refrain.  This one is filler — not the worst song the Supremes would ever record, but certainly not an essential.

8.  Time Changes Things:  More than any other song on Meet The Supremes, “Time Changes Things” foreshadows the formula that would eventually send The Supremes into the pop stratosphere.  And this isn’t a surprise; it was co-written by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, two-thirds of the team that would pen nearly all of the group’s future chart-toppers.  “Time Changes Things” was a late addition to the album, initially appearing as the b-side to “Let Me Go The Right Way” about a month before the LP was issued.  Although there’s still a primitive roughness to the recording, the evolution in the group’s sound is audible; the background work by Mary and Florence is light years ahead of something like “I Want A Guy.”  Diana offers up a confident lead vocal; she is naturally gifted with a sense of how to twist a word or a phrase to give it more emphasis than it would otherwise receive.  Listen to the way she coyly blurs the word “guys” during the line “I already had many guys in my telephone book” — it’s a masterful way to direct attention to the lyric without seeming crass.  The production is a little too cluttered; the instrumental is dense with what sounds like every single member of The Funk Brothers, and the song probably would have been more successful had the track been slightly more spare.  Still, this is the first definitive step toward greatness; Lamont Dozier would later comment, “…they had a certain poise that came innately; they were born with a certain presence” (The Supremes box set booklet).  “Time Changes Things” begins to take advantage of that poise and presence; it wouldn’t be long before the team perfected it.

9.  Play A Sad Song:  This is one of the few tracks on Meet The Supremes that didn’t end up on either side of a 45 release; a Berry Gordy, Jr. composition, Diana Ross handles lead vocal duties again, and offers up one of her best performances on the album.  Ross sings in a slightly lower key here, allowing her voice to shake off the tinniness present on many of the other songs here; she produces a thicker, richer tone and really digs into the melody.  The song isn’t a great one; it’s a morose, 50s-style doo-wop ballad with touches of country-western (it’s not that far off from the material included on 1965’s The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop).  Still, this one’s worth listening to for Diana’s lovely performance.

10.  Never Again:  This song has the distinction of being one of the first two that listeners ever heard from The Supremes; it was placed on the b-side of the group’s very first single.  This song was also written and produced by Gordy, and is again a classic 50s doo-wop ballad; the All Music Guide review of the album states, “…if you didn’t know, you’d think it was The Chantels.”  Indeed, “Never Again” is a close relative of 1958’s “Maybe” — Diana and company sound like they could be The Chantels’ kid sisters.  This song itself is no stronger nor weaker than the album’s previous tune; the biggest difference is in the vocal performances, which are far less controlled here.  Diana never quite seems totally sure what note she’s going to land on, and Ballard, Wilson, and Martin likewise never really come together behind her.  That said, it’s hard to harshly judge the work of four young, excited girls taking a shot at their dreams; there’s an endearing quality to a song like “Never Again,” especially in light of the great achievements still in store for The Supremes.

11.  (He’s) Seventeen:  Meet The Supremes closes with this cute, bopping little number that serves as a virtual blueprint for the theme song to the hit cartoon “Muppet Babies” more than twenty years later.  That I’m comparing this song to one featured in a cartoon should pretty much sum things up; it’s catchy and silly, without much depth.  Diana Ross gives an unusually bland vocal performance; nobody could ever accuse the singer of not working hard in the studio, but she doesn’t project much energy or personality this time around.  Florence Ballard is just about the only other audible singing voice and unfortunately, in this celebratory song about being a teenager, her loud soprano sounds more like that of an older aunt.  Perhaps the most notable aspect of the song is that Barbara Martin is featured on a brief spoken interlude (something that probably really confused fans at the time, considering her picture wasn’t featured on the album cover), which at least gives us a chance to hear something extra from the lady considered for years as the “lost” Supreme.  It’s interesting that Motown decided to place this song on the album (likely only because it had already been placed on a single); the unreleased song “The Boy That Got Away” is similar in style, but a superior recording, and would have made a better closer. (NOTE: “The Boy That Got Away” was actually listed on some pressings of Meet The Supremes, but never included on the album).


Had Meet The Supremes been the only album ever released by The Supremes, it almost certainly would have faded into obscurity; this isn’t an album of lost classics, and the material isn’t close to the best Motown was churning out in the early part of the decade.  There’s undeniable talent in the four young voices featured, but it’s young and unformed talent.  In the wake the LP’s release, Diana, Mary and Florence would tour the country, opening for and learning from more seasoned performers; they would continue to practice their harmonies and refine their style.  Dick Clark later remembered, “They were smooth, their choreography was down, the costuming was good, they were ladies, they were impressive” (The Supremes box set booklet).  Less than two years after the release of this album, with all of those elements firmly in place, The Supremes would change the course of history, both for themselves and for the pop music.

Time Changes Things, indeed.

Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (An Uneven Start, But Going “The Right Way”)

Choice Cuts: “Your Heart Belongs To Me,” “Let Me Go The Right Way,” “Baby Don’t Go”

Meet The Supremes 2nd Cover

“Lady Sings The Blues” 1972 Promotional Featurette

LSTB Diana Ross Photoshoot

“To me, acting is about truth, and it can’t be a lie.”

Diana Ross — for as much as she’s given her fans over the past fifty years — can be maddeningly vague when discussing her career.  Perhaps this is more the fault of interviewers than of the artist herself, but Miss Ross tends to talk about her projects in big, broad strokes, glossing over specific songs and albums in favor of generalizations about her work.  Over and over we’ve heard her talk about “moving mountains” and the importance of believing in the lyrics she’s singing; these things are great, but they don’t shed much light on Diana’s artistic process.  Thus, when “behind-the-scenes” footage of Diana Ross at work surfaces, it’s a rare treat for those who’ve followed her body of work.

American cable television network Turner Classic Movies recently aired an amazing 10-minute promotional featurette filmed on the set of Diana’s film debut, Lady Sings The Blues.  This was probably originally released to theatres in advance of the film’s 1972 premiere, an “extended trailer” of sorts to generate excitement for the project.  What makes this featurette truly remarkable is that not only does it contain clips of Diana and director Sidney J. Furie working on the film — it also features shots from scenes ultimately cut from the film!  And back to the original point, there are also some audio snippets of Diana discussing the movie, something that offers further insight into her ability to “become” Billie Holiday — a transformation which earned her an Academy Award nomination.

LSTB Diana Ross filming

Crews filming Diana Ross

The featurette opens with footage of Diana Ross being photographed in character as Billie Holiday, a photoshoot that would produce the famous shot used for the VHS and DVD covers.  Diana, by the way, is singing along to her own recording of “My Man” — and doing it with such intensity that sweat can be seen running down her arms.  Next comes footage of the camera crew filming on the set which represents the Harlem city block where Billie Holiday lives and works in a brothel.  It’s hard to really tell in the finished movie, but it’s obvious here just how massive and detailed this set is, an indication of how much everyone involved (especially Berry Gordy, Jr.) invested in this film.

In the finished film, the familiar song “Don’t Explain” is heard during a scene in which Billie Holiday sings along to her own record late one night, having pledged to end both her career and her drug addiction.  This featurette, however, includes a beautifully-shot scene in which Diana (as Billie) is recording the song — a scene that didn’t make it into the final cut.  Miss Ross wears an eye-popping red outfit with draped headpiece; behind her, the shadow of a man playing the piano is visible.  The camera slowly closes is on her, before she removes her sunglasses and the lights around her fade to black.  It’s a visually stunning scene, likely cut for time — but what a shame.  (That costume, it should be noted, is undoubtedly more glamorous and expensive than anything the real Billie Holiday ever wore.  But just look at the pictures – has Diana Ross ever looked like more of a movie star?)

LSTB Diana Ross Red Dress2

Diana Ross singing “Don’t Explain”

After the “Don’t Explain” scene, there’s more behind-the-scenes footage, including a revealing moment in which director Furie says to Miss Ross, “It would be ridiculous, obviously, for me to discuss this scene with you, right? You know what I mean?”  He’s talking about the lynching scene, during which Billie Holiday sees the horrifying image of an African-American man hanging from a tree.  And what he’s saying, of course, is that he thoroughly trusts her instincts as an actress.  Although Billie Holiday and Diana Ross lived in different times and led very different lives, they shared something very deep — the experience of being an African-American woman.  This is something her director clearly understood.  Diana, meanwhile, appears to be totally “in the zone” as Furie talks to her; she is quiet and serious, and is then heard discussing her approach to the scene:

“I had never seen a man hanging on a tree with a rope around their neck.  In all the research that I did of Billie Holiday and the South at that time, I happened to find one picture of a tree with about ten men hanging on it, and I reacted, and then I thought about how I reacted to the picture.  I had never understood the song ‘Strange Fruit,’ and from the picture I got more of an understanding what the song was about.”

Diana Ross filming LADY SINGS THE BLUES

Diana Ross filming LADY SINGS THE BLUES

Of course, anyone who has seen her performance in this particular part of the film knows that she managed to convey a stark realism in her reaction to the lynching, and her performance of the song remains one of the great recordings of her career.  She goes on to make an interesting comment, which I believe is about the scene in which Holiday’s tour bus is attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan:

“I’ve never disliked or hated anyone, I mean, I don’t know the emotion hate that well.  I’m angry for a minute or something but I haven’t really hated anyone.  In this particular scene I found that I do have a lot of that emotion inside of me.”

LSTB Sidney Furie

Director Sidney J. Furie

Of her approach to acting, Miss Ross continues:

“I read somewhere that acting is believing, and that’s exactly what it is.  So it’s not acting, because you always think of acting, ‘Oh, she’s just acting silly,’ but that’s wrong.  She’s acting, she’s really being believable, she’s really being real.  To me, acting is about truth, and it can’t be a lie.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise for viewers of this promotional short is footage of Miss Ross (clad in all white, with the classic gardenias in her hair) singing along to her recording of the song “He’s Funny That Way.”  That song never appeared in Lady Sings The Blues, nor was it included on the accompanying #1 soundtrack album.  In fact, “He’s Funny That Way” would go unreleased until 2006, when it was included as a bonus track on the release of Blue, Diana’s “lost” jazz album.  Thus, between 1972 and 2006, this featurette inadvertently contained an otherwise unheard Diana Ross track!  It’s too bad this couldn’t have been lifted from the vaults and used to help promote the release of Blue, as something of a “music video” to accompany one of the newly-released songs.

Diana Ross He's Funny That Way

Diana Ross singing along to “He’s Funny That Way”

More than anything else, this vintage promotional featurette serves as a reminder of what a remarkable achievement Lady Sings The Blues remains.  This is a film full of intimate, dramatic scenes for its leading lady, and the footage of Diana engaged in these scenes while surrounded by crew members and giant cameras demonstrates the incredible focus possessed by this novice actress.  More than forty years later, this remains one of the great debut performances in film history, and there is no doubt that Miss Ross richly deserved her Oscar nomination.  What Diana Ross also deserves is far more credit for what resulted from her work.  She was only the second (along with Cicely Tyson, nominated the same year) African-American woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; it would be nearly thirty years before one actually took home the award (Halle Berry in 2001).

Diana Ross and Lady Sings The Blues helped make that possible.


(And one final note for fans, of course — wouldn’t it be great for more of these deleted scenes to surface somewhere?  The DVD release of the film did include several deleted and extended scenes, but it’s long been reported that the original cut of the film ran something like four hours.  Here’s hoping there’s more surviving footage out there somewhere.)

To Set Things Right: Top 5 Diana Ross “Vault” Tracks


Considering the pace of Motown’s release schedule during the 1960s and 1970s (remember, there were three Diana Ross studio albums released in 1973 alone), it’s hard to believe there was anything left over that didn’t make it to the public. But indeed, in the past decade or so, Diana Ross fans have been treated to some stellar reissues from Motown Select, which typically include at least a few previously unreleased tracks.   Some of these songs, like 1970’s “Stoney End,” had been talked about by fans for years, and even leaked in low-quality, bootlegged versions. Others, like “Room Enough For Two” from the recent Baby It’s Me: Expanded Edition, seemed to come out of nowhere.

It’s always interesting to ponder why certain songs were left behind in the Motown vaults and others plucked for release on an album or as a single. Quality is often an issue; certainly nobody would mistake “Alone” (cut from Diana & Marvin) for being a hit, and while the bizarre “Go Where Your Mind Is” might be an interesting listen, it definitely didn’t need to knock anything off of Diana Ross (1976). But there are other reasons why certain tracks were held back; the superb jazz album Blue apparently went unreleased for more than thirty years simply because Diana Ross didn’t win an Oscar for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues, and Motown wanted to move her back into pop territory.

Although most of Diana’s albums have now been re-released in expanded formats, there’s always hope for more “lost masterpieces” in the Motown vaults, just waiting to be unearthed for fans.  Until that happens, here are my personal top five favorite Diana Ross tracks that waited for decades in the “dark side of the world” before finally being given a chance to shine.  (NOTE: The bulk of the discussions here come from previous reviews on The Diana Ross Project; click on the links to read more information.)


5. What A Diff’rence A Day Makes (Released on Blue, 2006)

Diana Ross Blue

This is an achingly beautiful, delicate reading of the classic most closely identified with Dinah Washington (who won a Grammy for it in 1960).  This recording is so good — so absolutely perfect — that it’s really quite surprising it never managed to find its way onto an album earlier; it would’ve fit well on Touch Me In The Morning, and would have been a better choice for 1976’s Diana Ross than the dreadful “Smile.”  Opening with swirling strings and driven by a lovely acoustic guitar, the instrumental here is languid, relaxed, sophisticated, and sexy.  Diana Ross’s performance is all of those things, too; she displays a stunning mix of youthful optimism and mature wisdom.  Listen, for example, to Ross begin the second verse, crooning “What a diff’rence a day makes…there’s a rainbow before me…” with a skillfully restrained joy; as sluggish as the lyrics come, the listener can’t help but notice a “smile” in Diana’s voice.  This transmission of emotion through tone is something Miss Ross excels at; it’s what makes her such an outstanding vocalist.

4. Home (Released on The Motown Anthology, 2001)

2015-08-04 18.11.48[1]

Diana’s Motown version of “Home” surfaced in 2001, with the release of the beautifully-produced The Motown Anthology, a 2-CD collection featuring hits, rare songs, and alternate mixes.  This recording is credited to producer Lee Holdridge (the incredibly prolific composer and arranger) and features a lovely arrangement, taking the drama and whimsy of the film version and mixing in more pop-oriented instrumentation, notably a fabulous acoustic guitar accompanying Diana during the opening few lines.  The vocal performance here is sublime; Diana’s voice is sure and controlled during the opening, her lower notes strikingly husky and appealing.  As the song builds, she retains the sense of wonder she’d discovered as the character of Dorothy, while imbuing the performance with a warmth more characteristic of classic Diana Ross ballad work.  She uses her voice in new, interesting ways on lines like “I have had my mind spun around in space” — listen to the slight edginess in her vocal (especially on the word “mind”), a little roughness surfacing just long enough to give the song a sense of realness in the midst of its fantasy elements.  The sustained belting during the final minute of running time is dead-on and impressive; there just a slight wobbliness as she holds “world” for several bars, but she really delivers the lyrics, “…so it’s real…real to me!” from her gut, growling out a few words.  The musical track finally swirls to a delicious close, finishing off a truly strong recording that showcases Diana at a personal peak.

3. You Build Me Up To Tear Me Down (Released on diana Deluxe, 2003)

2015-08-04 17.41.05

In tone, “You Build Me Up…” is similar to Diana’s brilliant reading of the Bill Withers tune “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” off of Baby It’s Me; both offer a refreshing complexity to Diana’s dance discography.  This is a sexy, sultry number with an instrumental intro that recalls Stevie Wonder’s 1972 hit “Superstition” and a wonderful vocal that’s as moody and shaded as anything else Diana turned in during the period.  Written by Holland, Holland and Ronald Dean Miller, the producers utilize a soulful bass and dark keyboard work to create an atmospheric song that manages to be danceable without sounding like disco camp to contemporary listeners.  From the very start, Miss Ross’s vocal is perfectly done; her hushed delivery on “Something’s troublin’ you…it’s gonna mess up your mind…” and the rest of the first verse sets a tone of anguish and complexity that’s extremely compelling.  Listen to her starting around three minutes in, as she sings the chorus along with the powerful group of background voices; there’s an excitement to the song that’s almost soul-stirring here, with Diana confidently leading the way but never forcing her vocal or hitting a false note.  It’s a real shame this track wasn’t featured on Ross; it would have made a far better single than that album’s “What You Gave Me.”

2. Kewpie Doll (Released on Touch Me In The Morning: Expanded Edition, 2009)

2015-08-04 17.39.38

A revelation and a masterpiece; written and produced by Smokey Robinson, this is a fabulous recording that languished in the Motown vaults for far too long.  Diana Ross and Robinson, of course, shared a long history; Robinson was responsible for helping the Supremes obtain their first audition at Motown, and he’d written and produced several songs for the group over the years.  Incredibly, Robinson and Ross really never collaborated after she went solo (save for the song “Pops, We Love You” in 1979), which makes “Kewpie Doll” such a spectacular find.  The track here is sublime, driven by a soul-stirring guitar; the composition shifts from major to minor key in a unique way that gives is far more complexity than much of Diana’s other work of the period.  But best of all is the vocal arrangement; Smokey Robinson provides the background vocals here, and they are so prominent that the song is pretty much a collaboration between him and Diana Ross.  This turns out to be a great thing, as both are in fine voice; Diana Ross is as smooth and soulful as she’d ever been on record here, delivering the same kind of youthful passion heard on her earliest solo albums without any of the rawness that crept through.  Robinson’s layered backgrounds are just breathtaking; they work with Diana’s vocal rather than detract from it, adding an aching and tenderness to the recording that it really needed to have.  The end result is such a classic, timeless song that it really doesn’t sound that dated; it could easily be a “neo-soul” tune by a contemporary artist.

1. Let Me Be The One (Released on Last Time I Saw Him: Expanded Edition, 2007)

2015-08-04 17.40.18

I hate to keep throwing around the word “masterpiece” here — but Miss Ross’s version of this oft-recorded hit made famous by The Carpenters is one of the single best recordings of her 70s discography.  An incredibly brief recording (running under 2:30!), there is not one unsatisfying moment here; the laid-back, dreamy production is matched by a smooth and soulful vocal by Diana and a gorgeous, inspiring choir of voices backing her up.  The production here is credited to Lar Mar – whoever or whatever that is, this is the perfect mix of toe-tapping percussion and sweeping strings.  Diana gets to really showcase her lower register on the verses; she sounds warm and mature singing “…if you should find yourself alone…” at :15 – the perfection of these lower tones is made even more acute when Diana jumps up an octave to sing “Let Me Be The One!” at :56.  Her higher singing here (especially the section beginning with “Come to me…”) is among the best of her mid-70s work; it’s powerful and emotional while still sounding full and round in tone.  Had this not been a big hit for The Carpenters, this could have been a #1 hit for Diana Ross; this is light soul/pop at its best, and still sounds good today.  Though it’s a shame the song never got a chance back in the 70s, it’s a blessing for fans to hear something this incredible come out of those fabled Motown vaults.


It was tough to narrow this down to a list of five; songs like “Share Some Love” and “Stoney End” also feature stellar production and vocal work and rival anything else released in their respective years.  And of course, I couldn’t end this article without a shout-out to Harry Weinger, George Solomon, Andrew Skurow, and everyone else responsible for “sharing some love” with Diana Ross fans and lovingly re-mastering these songs.  For those of us who’ve memorized every nuance of hits like “Upside Down” and “Endless Love,” it’s such a treat to hear these previously unreleased tracks, if only to gain a greater understanding of what Motown wasn’t looking for when crafting a Diana Ross hit.

Now…let’s hear it.  Which “vault tracks” have become essential parts of your Diana Ross playlist?

Record Store Wednesdays: “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” Cassette

Diana Ross Reach Out Cassette

Because these days we’re so focused on collecting either Diana Ross vinyl (the best cover art) or Diana Ross CDs (the best sound), it’s easy to forget that Motown once produced some really wild collections on cassette tape.  I absolutely love this one, released in 1990 under the “Motown Special Products” imprint.  My dad picked it up for me years ago at a Big Lots store in Daytona Beach, Florida — for those of you unfamiliar with Big Lots, it’s a discount store crammed with everything from jelly beans to bedroom sets.  But this cassette is random even by Big Lots standards — check out this lineup:

Side 1:
1. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand) (from Diana Ross)
2. Stone Liberty (from Last Time I Saw Him)
3. We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again (single, released 1982)
4. When Will I Come Home To You (from Last Time I Saw Him)

Side 2:
1. It’s My Turn (from To Love Again)
2. (They Long To Be) Close To You (from Everything Is Everything)
3. Together (from Ross)
4. For Once In My Life (from Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars)

There are several great inclusions here, the most notable being “For Once In My Life.”  Diana had recorded the song in the 1970s with Hal Davis (of “Love Hangover”), but it was shelved until it showed up in the 1983 LP Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars featuring various artists.  As of this writing, the song hasn’t been released anywhere else since, making it one of the singer’s rarer recordings.  Meanwhile, “We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again” was another shelved 70s track, finally released by Motown as a single in 1982 but never on a studio album.

There were a few other Diana Ross cassette tapes released around the same time that offer up similarly obscure tracklists (one is titled Baby It’s Me, but isn’t the actual album Baby It’s Mehow’s that for confusing?), and eventually the “Motown Legends” series of CDs would use this same format, placing a few hits alongside deep cuts and previously unreleased material.  Looking over the songs included on the various cassettes I’ve seen, it sure seems like someone wanted more people to hear the albums Everything Is Everything, Ross, and Last Time I Saw Him, all of which get major play.  And considering those were probably the three hardest-to-find Ross releases at the time, these cassettes seem like generous gifts to fans.

Now…if only I could find my old cassette player so I could play the thing again…


Were You The One? The Top 5 Hits That Got Away


I knew when you walked into the room, you were the one…

It stands to reason that a career as long and active as that of Diana Ross would be peppered with “should have been” hits — cases of superlative recordings that were somehow overlooked by record executives and perhaps the singer herself.  It’s hard to argue with many of the decisions made in Diana’s career — after all, she’s one of the most successful vocalists in history, and her voice has led a whopping 18 singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (and, to be technical about the matter, she graced two other #1 hits, “We Are The World” and “Mo Money Mo Problems,” for a grand total of 20!).  Still, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s hard for fans to listen to some of the hidden gems of the Diana Ross discography and not wonder “what if?”

Sure, songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me In The Morning” sound like surefire hits; there’s a magic to these recordings and it’s clear that they were destined to become classics.  But what about songs like “You Were The One” (from 1978’s Ross) or “All Night Lover” (from 1977’s Baby It’s Me) — don’t these also possess the qualities that could have led them to become great successes?  It’s hard to say why certain songs are chosen for single release and others are relegated to “filler” status — but it’s sometimes the case in the Diana Ross discography that overlooked album tracks sparkle with a fire and energy that seem tailor-made for radio airplay.

It’s well-documented that Diana’s second stint with Motown (encompassing studio albums from 1989 to 1999) was marred by messy promotional campaigns; the label seemed completely confused by albums like 1999’s Every Day Is A New Day, for example, not even attempting to garner any radio play and letting Diana’s television movie Double Platinum serve as the sole promotional tool.  There were many missed opportunities in these years, but there were just as many earlier in the singer’s career.  Here, then, is a look back at some of my personal choices for the “should have beens” — non-singles that are as good as anything that reached #1, and seem like they could have easily added to singers tally of hits.


5. All Night Lover (From Baby It’s Me)


To be honest, there are several songs from this 1977 Richard Perry-produced masterpiece that should have or could have been hit singles; this is easily one of Diana’s strongest collections of material, and each track is perfectly suited for her warm vocal performances.  Lead single “Gettin’ Ready For Love” is a gorgeous song, a joyful, jazz-inflected tune that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album.  However, there’s a sparkle to “All Night Lover” that is irresistible, a shimmering and timeless sophistication. Had this song been released to radio in advance of the album, I think it would have caught on quickly; as I wrote in my original review of the album, the bouncy beat is incredibly catchy, and Diana’s vocal is masterful – she throws in some nods to her past hits (like her opening cooing, straight out of “Baby Love”) while still sounding like a seasoned, mature songstress.  If there’d been an immediate hit to herald the release of this album, it surely would have become the smash success it deserved to be, and “All Night Lover” sure seems like a song that could have done it.

4. It’s Hard For Me To Say (from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues)

Diana Ross Red Hot Rhythm And Blues

Why this song wasn’t pulled as a single from Diana’s 1987 album Red Hot Rhythm & Blues is a complete mystery, given that it’s a gorgeous ballad written and produced by a man who was enjoying tremendous success on the R&B at the time — Luther Vandross.  Vandross reportedly worshipped Miss Ross and had hoped to produce a full-length LP on her (if only!); he at least got the chance to do this song, which turned out to be one of the highlights not only of the album, but of the singer’s entire RCA output.  This passionate, soulful ballad features a trademark crystal-clear vocal by Diana, who sounds assured throughout; her voice also blends beautifully with Vandross’s backgrounds on the chorus.  Had it been released, it could have topped the R&B chart — it’s that good — and was certainly a far better choice to go to radio than the significantly weaker “Tell Me Again.”  At least Diana seems to recognize the power of this song; she resurrected it in her live shows years later, after Mr. Vandross passed away, and even performed it on her final appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

3.  Be A Lion (from The Wiz)


This is one of the great hidden treasures of Diana Ross’s discography and easily one of her best ballad performances of all time; anyone who doesn’t believe that Diana Ross has strong “pipes” or can belt out a song would surely change his or her tune after hearing her work here.  Though “Ease On Down The Road” was the first chosen single from The Wiz soundtrack and the ballad “Home” is the one Diana most often performed in concert, “Be A Lion” is her clear standout on the double-LP, a powerhouse of a performance that is ripe for rediscovery.  Miss Ross shifts from a smooth, velvety performance at the beginning of the song to a soaring and rich delivery that rivals the most seasoned of Broadway performers; the second half of the song includes possibly the best singing of her entire career.  Considering the movie underperformed with both critics and audiences, MCA Records probably didn’t try too hard with this soundtrack; it did release a second single, “You Can’t Win” performed by Michael Jackson, but that one barely hit the Billboard Hot 100.  Had the movie been a massive hit, there probably would have been more singles from this soundtrack; certainly “Home” would have been released had there been more interest in the film.  But “Be A Lion” is the track that deserves recognition; it’s as good as any other ballad that topped the R&B charts during the decade.

2.  Change Of Heart (from The Force Behind The Power)

Force Behind The Power Diana Ross

And now we get to the really painful ones.  Why, oh why was this not the lead single from 1991’s The Force Behind The Power?  According to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, “Change Of Heart” was supposed to be the first release from the album, but Motown had its own “change of heart” and decided to focus on other songs instead.  In retrospect, this was a big mistake; the song is clear winner, an upbeat pop song that could have put Diana Ross back on top.  Written by the team behind Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” the song is a swinging mid-tempo number with a classy instrumental and catchy lyric.  Diana never sounded better than she does on this song; she’s in total command of the song, displaying great range and nailing some awesome high notes at the end that are reminiscent of her work on 1968’s “Love Child.”  She sounded great doing the song live — there’s a video floating around YouTube of the singer performing this song in Japan, and it’s outstanding — and it’s a track that could have done well on multiple formats (including pop, R&B, and adult contemporary).  The Force Behind The Power should have been a “comeback” album for Diana Ross; it’s a solid, classy work that deserved not only success but awards consideration.  Whatever shot the album had at bringing Ross back to the forefront of popular music, Motown blew it by not focusing attention on this standout song.

1.  You Were The One (from Ross


On the heels of the commercial success of Diana Ross (1976), a special Tony Award for An Evening With Diana Ross, and the release of her pop masterwork Baby It’s Me (1977), Motown made an incredibly odd decision in putting together 1978’s Ross, an album containing both new recordings and older ones (some of which were previously released) and which didn’t seem to have any real concept behind it.  Although there are some very strong songs on the album, only one single was pulled from it, the Hal Davis-produced “What You Gave Me” — the song flopped, charting solely in the lower reaches of the R&B listings (which is, frankly, not a surprise — the song just isn’t very good).  Other new songs, like “To Love Again” and “Never Say I Don’t Love You” could have been hits, but the real showstopper is “You Were The One,” and funky disco song that is one of the big “what were they thinking?” moments of Diana’s career with Motown.  This is, frankly, one of the best dance songs ever recorded by Diana — a classy, funky club song boasting a poppin’ bassline and a powerful vocal performance.  It’s completely of its era, and yet sophisticated enough that it doesn’t sound nearly as dated today as much of the disco released in the late 1970s — it doesn’t even sound as dated as some of the songs on Diana’s great 1979 album The Boss Along with Diana’s soaring vocal, there’s an anthemic quality to the piece that could have easily carried it to hit status.  Why Motown went with a lackluster dance single to promote this album when it had such a stunner just doesn’t make sense.  It was the one, indeed.


There are, of course, many “honorable mentions” that belong on this list; “Never Say I Don’t Love You” from Ross ’78 could have been a big pop hit, and “No One Gets The Prize” and/or “I Ain’t Been Licked” from The Boss should have been given a chance to chart.  And what would have happened if the absolutely sublime “Free (I’m Gone)” (featured on the Japan pressing of Every Day Is A New Day) had been serviced to R&B radio — would it have finally gotten Miss Ross the airplay she deserved during the late 1990s?  It’s impossible to say…but boy, is it fun to speculate.

Now, as Diana would say, it’s your move.  What are your top “should have been” singles?  What overlooked album tracks deserved one shining moment?