The Supremes A’ Go-Go (1966)

The Supremes A' Go-Go Cover

“Got me rockin’ and a-reelin’…and I can’t shake the feelin’…”

In April of 1966 — just four months after the release of the turbulent masterpiece “My World Is Empty With You” — The Supremes burst back onto radio airwaves with their funkiest, most danceable song yet.  “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” was a turnabout for the sophisticated songstresses, allowing the ladies to ditch the sequins, throw on some jeans for a minute, and let loose over one of the most angular, exciting tracks ever delivered by Motown session band The Funk Brothers.  The song was a top 10 hit on both the pop and R&B charts, and led the way for the group’s next single, another vibrant uptempo aimed directly at the massive market of teenaged record-buyers.  That song was “You Can’t Hurry Love” — and it brought The Supremes back to #1 (for the seventh time) for two weeks in September of 1966.

The eventual album built around these two hits couldn’t have been more different from the group’s previous LP, I Hear A Symphony That record featured a lineup composed of several pop standards and lushly arranged songs that seemed to target both teens and their parents.  The end result was a good, but uneven and often unexciting album which topped out at #8 on the Billboard 200.  For the follow-upproducers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier took a completely different approach, filling The Supremes A’ Go-Go with nothing but dance songs, every one of which would have been immediately recognizable to young listeners.  With a lineup of proven hits (all but two lifted from the Motown fold) and a cover photo featuring the three Supremes dancing, the LP soared straight to the top, becoming the group’s first #1 pop album.  Notably, they were the only African-Americans to score a #1 album on the Billboard 200 that year, and aside from the female members of The Mamas & The Papas, the only women to hit the top.

The Supremes A’ Go-Go is certainly the most upbeat recording ever released by The Supremes; the songs here have energy and bounce to spare.  Unfortunately, filling it with so many then-current hits causes the LP to sound dated, especially when it comes to kitschy inclusions “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and “Hang On Sloopy” (some of the songs were also cut in Los Angeles, which means certain tracks also lack the fire provided by the Detroit musicians).  The standouts here are the two singles, of course, especially the sublime and infectious “You Can’t Hurry Love” — pop/soul rarely gets better.  But much of the joy of past Supremes albums was discovering the deep cuts, songs like “(I’m So Glad) Heartaches Don’t Last Always” and “Any Girl In Love (Knows What I’m Going Through)” that never even made it to the b-sides of singles but are as good in their way as anything else recorded by the group.  The Supremes A’ Go-Go doesn’t contain any of those surprises, and thus feels a little superficial today.  That said, as a “concept” album — one celebrating youth and the dance culture of the mid-1960s — it works very well.


(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the “Mastered for iTunes” version of the album currently available for download.)

1.  Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart:  If ever a song captured the sound of Detroit — the honking of horns, the cranks and gears of the assembly lines, and the jingling of brand-new car keys — it’s “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart.”  Interestingly, session notes found in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes list recording dates for this song stretching back to June of 1965, nearly a year before the its eventual release.  Whatever the reason it took so long to finish the song, it came at the right time; following the releases of the stately The Supremes At The Copa and I Hear A Symphony, this track gave The Supremes a shot in the arm, providing them with something youthful and funky and perfect for the dancefloor.  Opening with Benny Benjamin’s pounding backbeat and James Jamerson’s soul-stirring bass, the track explodes into a muscular symphony of blaring horns and chunky piano chords.  The brilliant Funk Brothers play these instruments with and against each other, creating musical angles and hard edges that crackle with energy.  The lyrics are some of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s most playful, a series of clever and blunt rhymes decrying the pain of falling in love (i.e. “Love is a nagging irritation/Causing my heart complication/Love is a growing infection/And I don’t know the correction”).  Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard have a ball with the song; after hearing them labor through so many standards on recent releases, it’s a joy to hear the ladies really cut loose.  Ross takes the lead here and matches the tone set by The Funk Brothers; her vocal is urgent and edgy, as if she’s really feeling that “nagging irritation” in the studio.  Listen to the way she growls when she delivers “tearing it all apart” — it’s the kind of thing she really hadn’t done on record yet, and it lends a nice depth to her voice.  She also goes for higher notes with great confidence; I love the way she sails upward on “What you gonna do?” at roughly 1:18 in.  Ballard and Wilson ably support her; they are in fine voice, and their repetitions of “Keeps me sighin’/keeps my cryin'” etc. are a terrific hook.  When it was released on April 8, 1966, the song climbed #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #7 on the R&B chart.  Considering six of the group’s previous eight singles had soared to #1, this song’s performance was probably considered lackluster around the company.  Still, this is a fantastic recording and is certainly looked upon as a Supremes classic today; more than that, it’s one of the great instrumental tracks to come out of the Motown, and another sterling example of just what this talented group of musicians was capable of.

2.  This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You):  A classic song written by H-D-H (along with writer Sylvia Moy), this one was a hit for The Isley Brothers in early 1966 and has been recorded many times, including versions by Tammi Terrell and Rod Stewart.  According to the website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this version was produced (uncredited on the original LP release) by Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, which would mean the track was cut in Los Angeles, where the pair was based.  As is typical of many of those LA recordings, this is a very good facsimile of the Hitsville sound but is missing the strong bass that distinguished the Detroit players; thus, as good as it is, it immediately feels a little more “lightweight” than the previous track.  Still, “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)” is a great fit for The Supremes, as one would expect from another song penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland; there are even shades of past Supremes singles in the song’s melody (personally, I hear “Back In My Arms Again”).  Diana offers a crisp, precise performance; there’s a real confidence to her spirited work here, and she delivers a very different interpretation (but easily just as good — if not better) than that of the less-controlled, raw Ronald Isley.  Mary and Florence serve up classy background vocals, displaying a nice two-part harmony behind Diana.  It’s easy to understand why this song has had a long shelf life (Isley and Rod Stewart recorded it as a duet in 1990 and took it to the top 10); it’s upbeat and infectious and full of hooks.  Had the instrumental track here been just a little bit punchier and carried more weight, it could have been a hit for The Supremes, too.

3.  You Can’t Hurry Love:  If the summer of ’66 was already a hot one, The Supremes made it even more sizzling with the July release of this song, which soared to #1 on both the pop and R&B chart (peaking in September).  According to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, “The Supremes probably taped their vocals for ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ in Detroit on June 14, 1966, at a session sandwiched between concert engagements in San Francisco and Toronto.  By this time, the group had been at the top of their game for two straight years; their itineraries were crammed with concert and television dates, personal appearances, and overseas tours” (21).  Indeed, it must have seemed impossible to get the ladies in the studio at all, considering the group’s packed schedule; this makes it all the more impressive that in such limited time, The Supremes could create such important and iconic music.  At the helm again was the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland; having already delivered a half-dozen #1 hits to The Supremes (not to mention successful singles for other groups), H-D-H whipped up its most neatly-packaged chunk of pop/soul yet.  According to Dozier (quoted in The Supremes box set booklet), this song is another one incorporating the influences of the church: “It had that spiritual, church element to it.  We pulled out some stuff because it was too gospelly, then we found a nice little bed that it floated on.”  The end result is another beat-driven song, but one that’s not nearly as hard-edged as “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” — there’s still an urgency and a freshness, but it’s smoother and easier to digest.  The track here is absolutely sublime; The Funk Brothers are so tight it’s tough to figure out which instrument is which.  According to bandleader Earl Van Dyke, “When Robert [White, guitarist] and I played parts in unison, they would stop the session in the middle of a tune and say, ‘I can’t hear the piano’ or ‘I can’t hear the guitar,’ because they couldn’t separate us — like on ‘You Can’t Hurry Love'” (Billboard 22).  What is immediately audible is the earthier sound of the track; after so many lean, percussive Supremes hits, there’s a folksier feel to “You Can’t Hurry Love” that signals another step in the group’s evolution.  Diana Ross mints one of her greatest Supremes-era performances on this track, embodying every listener in the world who’s ever questioned “How long must I wait?”  This vocal is the perfect example of the unique “edge” that many talk about when assessing the Ross sound; there’s a real, heartfelt pleading in her voice as she sings, “Right now the only thing/That keeps me hanging on/When I feel my strength/Yeah, is almost gone” and the words cut straight through the track.  This is also powerful singing; listen closely around :40, as she wails the words “must I stand,” and note the strength of voice that Diana Ross is rarely given credit for.  Although the background vocals never quite break through the breathless lead vocal, they absolutely sweeten the track, and it’s hard to imagine the song without them.  And that’s the thing about “You Can’t Hurry Love” — it’s hard to imagine the song without any of the elements that are present.  It’s simply a perfect song, one that’s timeless and remains as compelling today as it must have been in the summer of ’66.

4.  Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over):  The Supremes A’ Go-Go follows its seminal track with a fantastic cover of the song made famous by The Four Tops.  As with “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You),” this tune was written by H-D-H, so it makes sense that it’s here and that The Supremes do so well by it.  Don’t Forget The Motor City lists Hal Davis and Frank Wilson as producers of this track (again, this wasn’t credited on the original LP), and I’d imagined this was the case before reading it; this is another extremely polished recording, lacking a bit of the raw, oil-smudged feel of the original.  Aside from that, this is a faithful rendition of the song, opening with the same deep, staccato piano riff leading to a punchy beat that seems to take literally the singer’s command to “Shake me!”  Diana sings the song’s opening in an appealingly low voice; there’s a sultriness to her lower range that’s a nice counterpoint to the higher singing more closely identified with her.  Ross possesses a great control over her lower range, something she’d further exploit during her solo work.  Later in the song, she lets loose with a few nice ad-libs; I love her “Wake me, somebody!” at 1:05 and her read on the line “I can’t bear to be losing you” at 1:26 is wonderfully soulful.  Diana’s performance isn’t passionate in the way that Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs’s was; he sang as if in complete emotional turmoil, whereas Ross sounds more urgent and agitated, as if she really does just want it to be “over.”  Likewise, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard don’t oversing to match the boisterous backgrounds of the original, but instead deliver statelier vocals (both ladies ring through loud and clear, particularly Ballard in spots).  The result is a recording that’s not radically different in sound, but is new and fresh in terms of tone.  It’s really good, and could have been a big hit for the group.  (NOTE: Much would be made of The Supremes covering Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl soundtrack in a few years; interestingly, Streisand would cover this song in the following decade, releasing it in a disco version.)

5.  Baby I Need Your Loving:  The second Four Tops cover in a row, “Baby I Need Your Loving” is a powerful classic that gave the male quartet its first Motown hit (reaching the top 20 in 1964).  This version is quite different, sonically closer in beat and background arrangement to the 1966 Stevie Wonder hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” than the Four Tops original.  The instrumental is arranged at a faster pace, and has a much “cleaner” sound — this is a tight, compact track, with a prominent guitar line that gives it a more urgent feel than the rawer, bass-heavy Tops recording.  Interestingly, Diana’s voice sounds to my ears like it’s doubled during the chorus; if this is the case, that touch and the guitar work strongly foreshadow the group’s next single, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (released in October of 1966).  Diana’s performance here features none of the sorrow displayed by Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs; Ross delivers a clipped vocal that doesn’t necessarily sound like she’s “begging” — as the lyric suggest.  Still, it’s a compelling lead simply because of Diana’s unique vocal precision; there’s great authority in the way she sings with such unwavering intention.  She’s matched by the effectively understated work by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who particularly shine toward the end of the song, while repeating the chorus.  Because this version of “Baby I Need Your Loving” sounds so different from the many others that have surfaced over the years (Johnny Rivers would make it a hit again in 1967, with The Blossoms on background vocals), it’s easy to appreciate for what it is.  It’s not the best song on the album, but it’s a deserves a place here.

6.  These Boots Are Made For Walking:  For the first time, The Supremes A’ Go-Go reaches outside of the Motown fold for a recording; this song was a #1 hit for Nancy Sinatra in early 1966, released on Reprise Records (the label formed by her father, Frank Sinatra).  “These Boots Are Made For Walking” is an iconic song, capturing the mood and flavor the swinging 1960s, although it’s been covered many times over the years and updated by artists like Jessica Simpson and Geri Halliwell, it always ends up sounding “retro” and like a novelty tune.  That’s how Diana’s version feels here, and enjoyment of the song probably depends on the mood of the listener more than anything else.  As a cover, Motown’s “These Boots” is actually pretty good; it’s played fairly straightforward, without much deviation from the original.  The instrumental is accomplished, with a slinky start and brassy finish, and Diana sounds good; there was certainly a risk of Ross crossing the line into total kitsch, but she doesn’t, which is a relief.  It’s a solo song for her, with no background vocals, and she carries it well.  Still, this inclusion comes off dated in a way the previous five don’t, and there’s probably nothing anybody could have done to change that.

7.  I Can’t Help Myself:  After a brief diversion, The Supremes return to Four Tops territory, covering the song that knocked “Back In My Arms Again” from the #1 spot on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart in June of 1965.  Penned by H-D-H, this is one of the great Motown songs of all time, with a driving beat and brilliant lyrics impossible to forget.  The Supremes deliver a fabulous version; Diana offers up a chirpy lead vocal that’s commanding and quite endearing (I particularly like her little high-note riff on the word “you” at 2:00).  Behind her, Mary Wilson is really audible; if Florence Ballard is singing with her, she’s totally overshadowed by Mary’s misty tone (it’s particularly easy to hear Mary’s singing because on the stereo master of the song, Diana is placed on one channel and the backgrounds stuck on the other).  The Funk Brothers mint another great take on the song, emphasizing strings and New Orleans-style horns this time; the only minor complaint is that the heavy strings on the instrumental break do sound dated and just a little campy.  Still, this is pleasant and spirited addition to the album’s lineup.

8.  Get Ready:  A #1 R&B hit for The Temptations in April of 1966, this song was written by Smokey Robinson; this makes it the first Smokey song released by The Supremes in quite some time (Robinson had written several of the group’s early singles, and they turned in a fantastic version of his hit “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” on 1964’s A Bit Of Liverpool).  This is one of those songs that’s so well-written that it’s really hard to mess up; The Supremes deliver an energetic version about whichBruce Eder of AllMusic says, “…even if it was no threat to The Temptations, [it] still could have been a hit.”  According to Don’t Forget The Motor City, this is one of the tracks cut in LA and produced by Frank Wilson/Hal Davis; it’s actually one of the better ones, with a driving beat and extremely tight playing by the West Coast musicians.  The Supremes sound really good; maybe this isn’t the group’s most distinguished or engaged performance, but it’s solid.  This probably got plenty of teenagers dancing in 1966, which is exactly what it was meant to do.

9.  Put Yourself In My Place:  This was (and surely still is) the most obscure of the songs featured on The Supremes A’ Go-Go, although it was recorded by plenty of Motown acts in its day.  It was first cut on The Elgins in 1965, then became a b-side when it was placed on the “You Can’t Hurry Love” 45 release by The Supremes; it was relegated to “b” status again when it was featured on the flipside of Motown singer Chris Clark’s “Love’s Gone Bad” single in 1966, and there’s also a version out there by The Isley Brothers!  “Put Yourself In My Place” is an unusual composition, and this particular version (with its keyboard-driven track) sounds ahead of its time; had it been held back a little longer, it would have been a good fit for the Reflections LP in 1967.  The song is perfect for Diana Ross, whose voice glides effortlessly over the melody; she sounds really strong here.  The voices behind her sound like Motown session singers The Andantes; this isn’t a huge surprise, considering the song was cut on so many different artists, the backgrounds were probably already done by the time Diana Ross recorded her own lead.  The Funk Brothers offer up a superb track, with a great bassline and classic Motown percussion; it’s one of the best on the album.  The more I listen to “Put Yourself In My Place,” the more I like it; it probably could have made a nice single release for The Supremes later in the decade.

10.  Money (That’s What I Want):  This it the song that started it all; written by Berry Gordy, Jr. and Janie Bradford, it was released on Barrett Strong in 1959 and became Motown’s first hit record.  The version included here is predictably more polished and less soulful than the original, though Diana Ross delivers a great lead vocal.  Ross is actually quite soulful on this recording, sounding spirited and passionate about the subject of “green” — her opening lines (the classic “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and bees”) are sung with a kind of abandon she’d further exploit in the next few years (and particularly in her early solo work).  Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, however, don’t really rise to the occasion; for lack of a better term, they sound a little “square” — too prim and proper while crooning “That’s what I want” (again, Wilson is really the audible one here, her unique tone immediately recognizable).  The arrangement also lacks some of the power you’d expect from such a bold statement of a song; the instrumental work feels superficial and too generic.  This one is worth hearing for Diana’s solid performance, but it’s filler.

11.  Come And Get These Memories:  This is a notable inclusion on The Supremes A’ Go-Go simply because it features Mary Wilson on lead, her first lead vocal work in quite some time.  This is a cover of the 1963 single by Martha and The Vandellas, which was that group’s first significant hit (it was also written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team).  The recording here doesn’t feature Diana Ross at all; Mary sings lead and she and Florence take background vocals, affording those ladies a deserved moment in the spotlight.  The song is an instantly catchy one set to a swinging beat, but its melody line is fairly limited; Wilson acquits herself nicely, but doesn’t dig nearly as deep as Martha Reeves did to give the piece some added substance.  The end result is a pleasant and innocuous reading, but one that’s not particularly distinguished.  It’s always a treat to Mary out front, but this isn’t as dynamic as her work on the great “Baby Don’t Go” (from Meet The Supremes) or “Sunset” from Country, Western & Pop.  (NOTE: This is another one of those songs on which the stereo masters stuck her lead on one channel and the backgrounds on the other; this was corrected on Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities, released on CD by Hip-O Select in 2008.

12.  Hang On Sloopy:  For the second and final time, the album features a song written and performed by somebody outside the Motown family; “Hang On Sloopy” had been a #1 hit for The McCoys in October of 1965 (shortly before “I Hear A Symphony” took the throne).  Similar to “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” this is a song that’s very much of its time — as influential as it was, it sounds like a song that was written and performed in the mid-1960s.  Thus, even though the version included here is good, it still sounds like a novelty inclusion.  The AllMusic review of this album calls Diana’s performance here “surprisingly strong, passionate” — indeed, she sounds really good, and her vocals are particularly powerful toward the end of the song.  But the rest of it doesn’t hold up too well; there’s a timeless quality to the hits and certain album tracks (like “This Old Heart Of Mine” and “Shake Me, Wake Me”) on this album that “Hang On Sloopy” just doesn’t possess.


Listening to The Supremes A’ Go-Go today, it’s no surprise that it was such a smash hit; The Supremes hadn’t sounded this youthful since their very first album, and this is exactly the kind of dance music teens would have wanted to buy and listen to over and over.  Certainly the singles here are stellar; in particular, “You Can’t Hurry Love” is perfection, with a vocal by Diana Ross that’s so unique and contemporary it could be a hit all over again today.  What this album lacks is depth; as mentioned earlier, it’s one of the very few Supremes albums without any hidden gems just waiting to be discovered by future generations of listeners (“Put Yourself In My Place” is as close as it gets here, by virtue of the fact that the song is lesser-known than the rest).  Some of the songs lack some depth, too; without the Detroit musicians present, those productions are missing a key ingredient that make Supremes and Motown recordings so special.  Today, The Supremes A’ Go-Go is best listened to as a celebration of being a teenager in the 1960s; in its way, it’s a “theme” LP as much as A Bit Of Liverpool or The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop were, and frankly, it’s much better than those albums.  Some of the songs might sound dated, but the hits are timeless.

After all, like The Supremes say — it’s a game of give and take.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (Dated, But Still A Lot To “Love”) 

Choice Cuts:  “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart,” “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)”

The Supremes A' Go-Go Back Cover      

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NEWS: Unreleased Diana Ross “Wiz” LP Coming Soon

Did you hear the news?  Thanks to commenter and longtime friend of The Diana Ross Project, spookyelectric, we just did: Diana Ross might be going back to Oz with the release of a long-shelved album.

As reported exclusively by the website Electronic Urban Report (and writer Michael P. Coleman), the 1978 album Diana Ross Sings Songs From “The Wiz” is apparently getting a release later this month.  Click here to read the news from EUR.

We’ve known about the existence of this unreleased album for awhile; Diana’s “Motown version” of the ballad “Home” was included on the 2001 double-CD The Motown Anthology (read my review of that gorgeous performance here).  In his book Diana Ross: A Biography, writer J. Randy Taraborrelli included this information: “[The Wiz] soundtrack was released on MCA.  However, Motown planned its own LP entitled Diana Ross Sings Songs From “The Wiz.” She recorded alternate versions of “Home,” “Be a Lion,” and a new song, “Wonder, Wonder Why,” for this project.  However, they all remained in the Motown vaults” (523).

Of course, choosing this moment to release the album would make sense, with the upcoming live television production of The Wiz on NBC; there will be plenty of attention on the musical and the classic songs it contains.  Although the film version of The Wiz was basically ignored upon its release, it certainly has many fans today — and there’s no denying the powerhouse vocals featured on its soundtrack.  As I wrote in my original review of the soundtrack, “Diana Ross under [Quincy Jones’s] direction becomes a singer of superb strength and range here; the raw power in her voice is on par with that exhibited during 1971’s Surrender.  Even during the quiet moments of this album, Jones manages to bring out a rich, full sound in Diana’s voice that many other producers couldn’t seem to capture.”

From what Coleman has written in EUR, fans are in for a real treat with these Motown versions.  If the rest of then are anywhere close to the recording of “Home” that we’ve already heard, Miss Ross will surprise a lot of critics and casual listeners who are still unaware (or in denial) of the soul and power she possesses as a vocalist.

If anyone else has more information about the news of this unreleased album — post it in the comments section!  What are your thoughts about this news?

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

I Hear A Symphony (1966)

The Supremes I Hear A Symphony Cover

“Together just you and me, just livin’ on pure ecstasy…”

In the beginning, there was tremendous pressure to get The Supremes a hit.  The Motown girl-group struggled for years, releasing a batch of failed singles produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Smokey Robinson among others.  Finally, things clicked in 1964, and the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland delivered the now-classic “Where Did Our Love Go,” which took Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard straight to the top.  As the hits piled up, a new kind of pressure developed: Keeping them there.  After five straight number one hits, the 1965 H-D-H single “Nothing But Heartaches” stalled at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, a respectable chart peak but a relative failure for the superstar singing group and its writing-producing team.  “We just went back to the drawing board,” says Lamont Dozier in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes.

Going back to the drawing board meant coming up with a new song that retained the unique pop sensibilities of the previous hits while updating the sound to keep The Supremes relevant to young audiences.  That song turned out to be “I Hear A Symphony,” recorded in September of 1965 and released early the next month.  The song was a smash, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in mid-November.  Follow-up single “My World Is Empty Without You” hit shelves in late December — and an accompanying album was quickly assembled and released in February of 1966.  I Hear A Symphony would be something of a departure for The Supremes; rather than surrounding the hits with strong filler also written by H-D-H (as had been done on More Hits By The Supremes), just five Motown originals were included.  Along with those songs (all of them terrific, by the way), a group of pop standards and contemporary covers were recorded and placed on the LP.

Including classic pop songs like “With A Song In My Heart” and “Stranger In Paradise” makes sense, considering The Supremes had recently conquered New York’s Copacabana nightclub with a show consisting mainly of standards; Gordy had a strong vision of the group as a crossover act appealing to all ages and races, and these tunes were an important part of that plan.  It’s to the credit of The Supremes that I Hear A Symphony works as well as it does as an album; due to the top-notch performances of Ross, Wilson, and Ballard, quality becomes the common thread binding the LP’s dozen songs.  The highlights are the five H-D-H tunes; they are five of the strongest ever recorded by the group, and any one could have been plucked as a single.  The rest are good, but not necessarily great; it’s tempting to wonder how much better the LP would have turned out had H-D-H worked up a few more originals to complete the lineup.


(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the “Mastered for iTunes” version of the album currently available for download.)

1.  Stranger In Paradise:  I Hear A Symphony opens with one of those classic songs that The Supremes had begun incorporating into their stage act; this one was first introduced in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet.  It could be considered a bold act to place this song up top; after all, most of the teenagers buying this album weren’t in the market for showtunes.  Still, if the idea was to construct an album of romantic, symphonic songs, then “Stranger In Paradise” sets a definite tone.  The arrangement turns the song into a mini-symphony itself, with a sprightly, orchestral opening lasting nearly thirty seconds before The Supremes finally begin crooning.  Diana Ross delivers a sensitive lead performance here; she’s sweet and engaging, but manages to never quite cross the line into “too saccharine” territory.  This is a real achievement, given the song’s sometimes-piercing strings and syrupy lyrics like “I saw your face/And I ascended/Out of the commonplace/Into the rare.”  Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard strongly support her, singing several lines in unison with Ross before breaking into some lovely harmonies.  This song would remain in The Supremes stage act for quite some time, as part of a medley with other tunes from this album; it’s a nice fit for a group so comfortable with sophistication.

2.  Yesterday:  This song was another smash hit for The Beatles; the original version topped the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 1965 (interestingly, it was knocked from #1 by The Rolling Stones with “Get Off Of My Cloud” — and that song was replaced at the top by “I Hear A Symphony”).  The Supremes were no strangers to the music of The Beatles, having released A Bit Of Liverpool in 1964, which featured several songs originally recorded by the British group; Diana, Mary, and Florence were also quite vocal in their admiration for the Fab Four.  “Yesterday” was something of a departure for The Beatles; it’s a sad, stripped down ballad featuring solely the vocals of Paul McCartney, who wrote it.  The heavy presence of haunting strings on the original record makes it seem like a natural for I Hear A Symphony, especially coming on the heels of “Stranger In Paradise.”  Strangely, the arrangement here downplays the strings quite a bit; producers create a far more generic musical track for Diana Ross to sing over, and it comes off as rather uninspired (and also rather dated when listened to today).  Ross handles the song much better than she had any of the Beatles songs on Liverpool; she plays it fairly straight here, thankfully avoiding the trap of trying to sound too much like McCartney.  She sings with a nice fragility that matches the theme of the song; there is some affectation to her performance (particularly around 1:30 in, during the “Why’d he have to go…” section), but not enough to totally sink the song.  Interestingly, in the spirit of the original, this is a solo for Diana Ross; no other voice is featured on the track.  (NOTE: Years later, Florence Ballard would record her own oppressively heavy version while signed to ABC Records; it would go unreleased until the appearance of the CD The Supreme Florence Ballard.)  

3.  I Hear A Symphony:  Released in October of 1965, “I Hear A Symphony” became the sixth #1 hit for The Supremes on the Billboard Hot 100, an astounding tally for any group and especially impressive considering their first chart-topper had only been released in the summer of ’64.  “I Hear A Symphony” remains one of the group’s most enduring hits, and it’s easily the most romantic song ever released by the Diana-Mary-Florence lineup; it was also the most lyrically challenging single delivered by H-D-H up until that point.  In the accompanying booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, Lamont Dozier is quoted about the song: “We were aiming for a classical feel.  If I don’t have a lyric coming in, or a title, I listen to a track and try to get a feeling of what the track is saying.”  The track here says a lot; without the clacking footstomps that opened the group’s first major hits, “Symphony” already feels softer, and the series of upward key changes signals something more hopeful than “Where Did Our Love Go.”  This is also a song that builds in intensity; whereas previous single “Nothing But Heartaches” hit the ground running and never let up, this time H-D-H give the composition room to grow, easing listeners in with a spare, vibe-dominated intro before layering in the swirling strings and celebratory piano.  The structure of the song is more interesting than most probably give it credit for; instead of the typical verse-chorus-bridge framework, the writers separate each section by mood rather than melody.  Consider this: The Supremes sing basically the same succession of notes over and over again, even as the key changes.  What transforms over the course of the song isn’t that repetitive melody, it’s the strength of the of the musical track and potency of lyrics that accompany it.  Those lyrics are passionate and poetic, and more expansive in scope than on anything the creative team had given The Supremes thus far; lines like “As you stand up holding me/Whispering how much you care/A thousand violins fill the air” feel far more mature than the “burning” and “yearning” of earlier hit singles.  Of course, none of this would matter had the vocalists not risen to the challenge, and Diana Ross effortlessly picks up the musical cues and delivers an iconic performance.  As Eddie Holland explained,  “Her ear and her feel — she had a natural feel, a natural understanding for that kind of lyric.  It wasn’t anything you could learn or that someone could give her.  It was just very fortunate that it clicked” (The Supremes booklet).  Indeed, the singer’s great talent has always been interpreting a lyric with honestly and clarity; Ross is a vocalist who, at her best, never gives more or less than a song demands.  She is coolly relaxed on the opening lines (“You’ve given me a true love…”), but builds in intensity right along with the music until she’s brimming with emotion; listen to her wring an aching joy out of the brilliant lines, “Those tears that fill my eyes/I cry not for myself/But for those who’ve never felt the joy we’ve felt.”  Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard offer up their patented hypnotic background vocals; it’s always great to hear them, but the ladies are more muted here than on past hits and don’t get much time to really break out beyond Diana’s commanding lead vocal.  Still, this is a classic Supremes recording, and an important one to the group’s legacy; it wasn’t necessarily a radical departure, but it was a perfectly measured step forward, and the beginning of a wonderfully creative period between H-D-H and the Queens of Motown.

4.  Unchained Melody:  I Hear A Symphony follows one powerful love song with another; “Unchained Melody” dates back to the 1950s film Unchained, but truly attained “classic” status when recorded by The Righteous Brothers in 1965.  That recording is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to listen to any other version and not hear the echo of Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield, especially in the wake of the song’s massive revival thanks to the 1990 film Ghost.  The charm of that popular recording is just how overwrought it is; Hatfield’s vocal is bombastic, exploding all over the scale and matched by the epic, cinematic orchestration behind him.  The Supremes version here is actually pretty solid, but it feels watered down in terms of both the production and the vocals.  There’s no denying that Diana Ross sounds gorgeous here, her lower notes in particular quite stunning; listen as she drops her voice on the word “lonely” at :34, and note the precision and control she’s demonstrating.  Unfortunately, Miss Ross doesn’t offer up much variation in her vocal; rather than let it build to thunderous heights as Hatfield had, she remains pretty much on the same relaxed level through the entire piece, which becomes a bit boring by the end.  This isn’t to say she shouldn’t have come up with her own interpretation or needed to just mimic Hatfield’s performance; but the lyrics here are so passionate and pleading that they really call for an unbridled reading.  Mary and Florence are full-bodied behind her, adding some lovely vocal flourishes; they sound particularly haunting while chanting “need your love” at around 1:15 in.  The instrumental track is pretty, but it lacks fire, especially compared to the “Wall of Sound” featured on the more famous version of the recording.  As with Diana’s vocal, there’s no real progression to the music, and consequently it verges on Muzak.  “Unchained Melody” is a pleasant listen, and can certainly be enjoyed on its own merits; that said, it could never measure up to the impossibly high bar set by the The Righteous Brothers.

5.  With A Song In My Heart:  In a few short years, The Supremes would record an entire tribute album to the legendary composing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; here, the group offers an early version of one of the team’s most popular compositions.  Originally dating back to the 1920s, the tune found further fame as the title song to the 1952 Hollywood biopic of singer Jane Froman, starring Susan Hayward.  Although the song would remain part of the group’s act for a long time (featured in the same medley as “Stranger In Paradise”), only Diana Ross is featured on this particular recording; this turns out to be an unwise decision, as some group harmonies could have really given this entry some distinction.  As it is, this is an undeniably schmaltzy recording; the track is basically one big marshmallow of strings, fluffy and overblown, and just a touch too grand for a song with a somewhat-limited melody.  Diana’s performance is fine, but it’s definitely not one of my favorites; for lack of a better word, the singer is a little soulless here.  No matter what critics have said over the years, Diana Ross is — and always was — a true soul singer.  Her unique, cutting voice can pierce straight through the heart, and with a startling clarity she can twist emotion from the most cliché lyrics.  But that power isn’t on display here; she forces affectation on certain lines (i.e. “I behold your adorable face”), rather than letting the lyrics flow through her, as she’d learn to do so well on her Billie Holiday recordings years later.  The Supremes would re-record this song for 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, although it would be left off the album and remain unreleased until 1987.  It’s a better reading of the song; all three Supremes are featured, the arrangement is a bit more stripped down, and Diana is a more seasoned vocalist, delivering a brassier and more interesting performance.

6. Without A Song:  Another standard, this one co-written by Billy Rose and recorded by artists including Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.  This one is a better fit for The Supremes; there’s an inherent bluesy quality to the song’s melody line, and it allows for a deeply-felt performance by the vocalists.  On top of another accomplished, swirling instrumental, Diana delivers a stunning performance; her reading is wise and knowing, with just a tinge of melancholy shading lyrics like, “When things go wrong/A man ain’t got a friend/Without A Song.”  I’d assume it’s Mary and Florence backing Diana here, although there are a few times when the voices sound more like The Andantes than The Supremes; in either case, the backgrounds are smooth and relaxed, if sometimes mixed a little low.  As with the album’s track, it would be nice to hear more group harmonizing; The Supremes At The Copa proved how much The Supremes could elevate a standard with tight harmonies and some vocal interplay, and it feels like a wasted opportunity to feature such songs on a studio album and not take advantage of the sophisticated singing Diana, Mary, and Florence had been mastering for several years at this point.  Still, as far as album filler goes, this is a nice inclusion thanks to the sterling lead vocal.

7.  My World Is Empty Without You:  Holland-Dozier-Holland followed their most romantic composition for The Supremes (“I Hear A Symphony”) with their darkest, most anguished one; “My World Is Empty Without You” was recorded in October-December of 1965, and released as a single on December 29, 1965.  It’s amazing to think this masterpiece of angst and depression hit the airwaves just days after Christmas, when the world had been celebrating to the upbeat sounds of the group’s Merry Christmas LP.  If “I Hear A Symphony” was a step forward for H-D-H and The Supremes in terms of lyrical sophistication, its follow-up single amount to a giant leap; this is possibly the most soulful single ever released by the Diana-led Supremes, and is one of the most challenging hits to ever come out of the Motown machine.  Opening with a skipping-heartbeat kick-drum matched by the low whirring of Earl Van Dyke’s organ, the song kicks into gear with the patented Funk Brothers machine-gun drums and shrill, shivering vibes; for the next two-and-a-half minutes, the musicians charge along like a steam engine, slicing through time and space with a dense gothic arrangement.  Similar to the progressive approach taken in “I Hear A Symphony,” H-D-H allow the lyrics to become more specific, and thus increasingly devastating; “I need your strength, I need your tender touch”  builds to “Inside this cold and empty house I dwell” before exploding to the exquisite couplet “And each time that darkness falls/It finds me alone with these four walls.”  The songwriting here is truly astounding; writers Brian Chin and David Nathan call it “a complex and emotionally risky interior exploration” (The Supremes box set booklet), and the lyrics crafted by the team amount to one massive plea for help, which is effortlessly voiced by Diana, Mary, and Florence.  This is one of the great vocal performances of Diana Ross’s career; her voice is razor-sharp, slicing through the baroque track with an icy desperation.  Because her voice is so totally unique, it can be tough for some listeners to discern just how versatile she was during her early Supremes work.  But for confirmation of her skills, listen to this song back-to-back with 1964’s “Baby Love” — the warmth on that earlier record, all the teenaged “yearning” on display, is transformed into a mature, cold bitterness here.  This is great singing, period; it’s a performance that should have earned the group a Grammy (the song wasn’t even nominated, which is a shame).  Behind her, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson offer up detached, almost-robotic responses; although the ladies might seem muted and underused here, they literally become the sad echoes inside the narrator’s head.  When released as a single, “My World Is Empty With You” peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100; that it didn’t reach the top of the chart is possibly due to the fact that this is a darker single, lacking the brightness of the group’s previous hits (surprisingly, the song only rose to #10 on the R&B chart).  Still, it’s as good as any of the group’s chart-toppers; this is a career highlight for everybody involved.  (NOTE: A great new interpretation of this song was included on the 2005 release Motown Remixed, entitled “My World Is Empty Without You” [Tranzition Remix] — with the original vocals laid over a new spare and soulful track, it’s easy to really appreciate the stunning work of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.)

8.  A Lover’s Concerto:  This is a fascinating inclusion, and merits a little discussion before delving into the merits of the recording.  “A Lover’s Concerto” is a pop song built around a classical piece; the melody is taken from the famed Minuet in G major and placed over a 60s girl-group beat.  Released as a single in 1965 by female trio The Toys, the song was a hit, topping out at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100; listening to the recording today, it’s clearly inspired by the string of Supremes hits written/produced by H-D-H, directly borrowing a little riff from “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and playing off the pop/soul sophistication mastered by Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.  It also seems pretty likely that “A Lover’s Concerto” was then something of an inspiration for H-D-H and their own “I Hear A Symphony.”  After all, “Symphony” — featuring a similarly romantic theme and nod to classical music — was recorded in late September, apparently after “A Lover’s Concerto” was already released and climbing the charts.  Certainly the folks around Motown had to be aware of the song’s success, especially considering the latest Supremes release (July’s “Nothing But Heartaches”) hadn’t done as well as expected; Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. couldn’t have been jumping for joy that another female group was doing so well with a song that sounded tailor-made for his group.  In any case, “A Lover’s Concerto” was a solid hit for The Toys, and then “I Hear A Symphony” was a smash for The Supremes…and now we get The Supremes coming full circle and covering “Concerto.”  When it comes to the contemporary covers featured on I Hear A Symphony, this is easily the best, precisely because it’s such a great fit for the group; Diana delivers a crisp lead vocal (the AllMusic review of the album calls it “a Diana Ross tour de force“) and Mary and Florence are clear and strong behind her.  It’s a really enjoyable recording, but listened to today, the song does pale a bit compared to “I Hear A Symphony” and some of the other H-D-H originals here.  I don’t know if “A Lover’s Concerto” did indeed inspire “Symphony,” but if it did, Holland-Dozier-Holland created something far more lasting.

9.  Any Girl In Love (Knows What I’m Going Through):  A great album track that certainly sounds like it could have been a single, this song was written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and recorded in December of 1965.  Interestingly, it turns out this one was cut first on Motown singer Kim Weston; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, Weston’s version was completed earlier in 1965, though it apparently went unreleased for many years.  Both versions boast the exact same arrangement, and Motown session group The Andantes also provide background vocals on both records.  It’s interesting that H-D-H didn’t record this on The Supremes first; it certainly sounds like it was penned for the group, featuring the kind of bittersweet lyric Diana Ross could ace in her sleep.  Ross certainly delivers here, offering up a relaxed and pleasant lead vocal; the song doesn’t stretch her much as a vocalist, but it’s good enough that it doesn’t need to (and any song that lets Diana croon her patented “oooooh” is welcome).  It’s ironic that of all the songs featured on I Hear A Symphony, this one features the most liberal use of background vocals; “Any Girl In Love” really couldn’t exist without the prominent background line, so it’s unfortunate that Mary and Florence aren’t here (or, if they are, they’re overpowered by The Andantes).  Still, the Motown’s in-house singers offer up sublime harmonies and full, thick vocals behind Diana, similar to those heard on the Merry Christmas LP.  This is a really strong, classy chunk of pop/soul; although it was never even placed on the b-side of a Supremes single release, it’s one of the best songs on the album.

10.  Wonderful, Wonderful:  The final cover featured on I Hear A Symphony is a peppy song made famous by Johnny Mathis in the late 1950s.  The tempo and arrangement are basically unaltered on this version; it remains a sweet, bouncy love song, the kind Gene Kelly would have danced down the street to in an MGM musical.  “Wonderful, Wonderful” is perfect for The Supremes, as it boasts a strong, memorable melody and soaring chorus; as part of that aforementioned medley with a few other songs from this album, it would remain in the group’s stage act for quite some time.  This recording is quite good, although to my ears Diana’s lead vocal is uncharacteristically hesitant in spots.  It a good vocal performance, but it lacks some of the confidence evident on the rest of the album; in particular, the chorus is cut rather high, and Diana doesn’t really “go” for the notes in the way she’s clearly capable of.  That said, she sounds fabulous on the verses, as do The Supremes behind her, and “Wonderful, Wonderful” is pleasant, welcome addition to the album.

11.  Everything Is Good About You:  This is a classic Supremes b-side, initially featured on the flipside of “My World Is Empty Without You” and eventually placed on the group’s Greatest Hits double-LP in 1967. The swinging mid-tempo number features all of the hallmarks of a great Supremes recording; the instrumental track is lean and focused, sweetened with ringing vibes and the purring of strings, and the melody is instantly memorable. The lyrics are definitive Motown; seemingly simplistic couplets like “You’re the summer in the park/You’re the candle in the dark” have a way of burrowing into the brain and staying there forever, something writers Eddie Holland and James Dean (Holland’s cousin, and a Motowner who penned classics such as “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” for Jimmy Ruffin) obviously knew. Diana Ross offers up a sterling vocal performance; unlike in the previous track, she’s in total command here, engaging the listener with her unique blend of sparkling vitality and soulful sensuality. There’s a lovely relaxed quality to her delivery (especially in the way she tosses off the song’s key phrase, making it “Everything’s good about-cha”) that’s imminently listenable; at the same time, she always sounds fresh and alive, as if her eyes are just opening up to the “meaning of love” she sings about. This is such a perfect, compact song that it’s amazing it wasn’t released as an a-side for The Supremes; it just sounds like a hit, and seems a surefire for at least the top ten. A recording this good on any other group would have been rush-released as a single; it speaks to the incredibly high quality of the group’s material in this period that this wasn’t given a chance to ride the charts on its own.

12.  He’s All I Got:  Another H-D-H (along with James Dean) original, this rollicking track brings I Hear A Symphony to an ebullient finish. This song would eventually find its way to the b-side of the “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” single (released in April of 1966), but it’s another one that easily could have garnered airplay on its own. Although the lyrics speak of a relationship on the rocks, the track is the most funky and upbeat on the entire album; to my ears, there are similarities to “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops (also penned by H-D-H) in terms of the beat and orchestration. Hitsville musicians The Funk Brothers play in such accord that it takes several listens to really pick apart each instrumental line; this was truly a group of master players feeding off of each other and creating magic in the studio. For the first and only time on the album, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are really given a chance to shine here; the ladies are wailing on this track, especially as they repeat “He’s All I Got” and sing along with Diana on the lines, “Go to him/Tell him/Before he finds someone new.” Wilson once wrote that early in their careers, The Supremes wanted to record the kind of fiery songs Motown handed to Martha & The Vandellas and The Marvelettes; this is their chance, and the ladies really run with it. Diana handles the leads expertly, singing with the kind of edgy urgency she’d already displayed on “Nothing But Heartaches” (from More Hits By The Supremes) and would perfect on the group’s next few singles. Along with the full-bodied singing and the powerful track, the lyrical point-of-view is a nice change of pace; rather than pleading with her lover, Diana is singing to another woman, telling her “You’re a girl that hates to see others happy” before asking her to silence her gossip. Because it hasn’t turned up on many compilations over the years, “He’s All I Got” is a lesser known Supremes recording; it deserves more play and attention, and proves that Diana, Mary, and Florence possessed every bit the scorching soul of Motown’s other top acts.


Although I Hear A Symphony was a big success commercially for The Supremes (it was a #1 R&B album, and reached #8 on the pop chart), it’s really only half of a great album. The five originals here are among the best ever recorded by the group; I’d place “My World Is Empty Without You” in the top three best Supremes recordings ever, and “Everything Is Good About You” is one of the all-time great b-sides.  That’s not to say the rest of the album is bad – it isn’t – and there’s not one single awful inclusion on the LP. But the covers just don’t compare to the five standouts here; the contemporary covers (aside from “A Lover’s Concerto”) don’t come close to matching the distinction of their original versions, and the pop standards are vanilla and mainly unmemorable.  The Supremes would grow much more comfortable with standards over the next few years; they do an admirable job here, but the group’s work on the forthcoming Rodgers & Hart album is far superior.  At this point in their career, Diana, Mary, and Florence were still most adept at H-D-H originals; had a few more of those found their way onto I Hear A Symphony, it would have been a perfect album.  As it is, it’s an essential because the highlights are so ridiculously good.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Uneven, But “Wonderful” Highlights)

Choice Cuts: “My World Is Empty Without You,” “I Hear A Symphony,” “Everything Is Good About You”

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Merry Christmas (1965)

The Supremes Merry Christmas Cover

“I’m the star upon your tree, that makes your Christmas bright…”

August, 1965 must have been an incredibly exciting month for The Supremes.  It was another sizzling summer in New York, made even hotter thanks to the group’s nightly appearances at the famed Copacabana nightclub.  Opening night on July 29 was a smash success, and Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard continued dazzling crowds there for the next few weeks, blowing the door wide open to bigger and better supper club work around the world.  Meanwhile, More Hits By The Supremes (released in July) was another top-selling LP for the group, featuring a pair of #1 hits (including “Back In My Arms Again,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 the week of June 6) amidst a solid lineup of classic Motown recordings.  And all the way across the country, in Los Angeles, studio musicians gathered to begin cutting a batch of holiday tracks for a future Supremes release.

Immediately following the historic Copa engagement, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard apparently took a little time off; Diana Ross, meanwhile, went back to Detroit and recorded her vocals for the holiday album (the singer is quoted in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography as telling a journalist, “I even took my vacation to do a whole Christmas album while the other girls went on vacation!” [179].  Taraborrelli, meanwhile, writes that “Diana, alone, recorded this album” [481]).  Producer Harvey Fuqua shaped that album, while all three Supremes continued their work with Holland-Dozier-Holland, recording “I Hear A Symphony” in late September and “My World Is Empty Without You” in October.  Finally, in November, Motown released both The Supremes At The Copa and Merry Christmas.  The former was a solid hit, capturing much of the magic of the group’s Copa run.  The latter climbed to #6 on the Billboard Christmas charts.

Had Merry Christmas been a lackluster entry into The Supremes discography, it would be understandable; it was recorded months before the holiday season and in the aftermath of an extremely stressful — albeit successful — live engagement.  This is why the resultant album is remarkable; it isn’t just good, it’s great.  This is one of the all-time classic holiday albums, a collection of beautifully-produced songs capturing all the joy and magic of Christmas.  It’s also one of Diana’s shining moments as a vocalist; her warm performances are absolutely glorious, and a few of the tracks rank among her very best work.  Knowing that Mary and Florence didn’t record the album with her may be disappointing, but it doesn’t detract from the quality of the songs; Diana Ross delivers such sterling vocal work that she easily carries Merry Christmas herself (although she is ably supported by great background singers and session players).  This is simply a perfect album, one that’s deservedly become a classic and an essential part of the holiday season.


(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the 2003 CD reissue titled The Best Of The Supremes – The Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters.)

1.  White Christmas:  Merry Christmas opens with its single best track, an achingly beautiful version of the Irving Berlin classic.  “White Christmas” might belong to Bing Crosby, who sang the song in the films Holiday Inn and White Christmas, but Diana Ross comes pretty darn close to stealing it; her vocals here are some of the best of her entire career.  Opening with gorgeous strings languidly descending the musical scale like fluttering snowflakes, the instrumental track has to contain some of the most lush and polished playing in the entire Motown canon; if these are the same musicians who worked on the group’s previous Los Angeles-cut LPs (A Bit Of Liverpool and We Rememeber Sam Cooke), they were really holding back on those albums.  The playing here is smooth and sophisticated, the soft percussion, twinkling piano, and orchestral strings mixing together to create a sparkling Christmas cocktail.  Diana’s singing here is just stunning; her relaxed reading of the lyrics, lagging just slightly behind the beat, foreshadows the masterful jazz singing she’d deliver less than a decade later in Lady Sings The Blues Her voice is incredibly strong here, likely due to the fact that she’d just come off the important Copacabana run; certainly the dynamic nightly shows had helped get her instrument into top shape.  But more than just being technically strong, there’s a dreamy sensitivity to her performance that’s perfect for the song which begins with the lyrics, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…”  The voices behind her certainly don’t sound like Mary and Florence; the backgrounds here are thicker and deeper in tone, and I’m assuming are the work of Motown session group The Andantes (those talented ladies would later support Diana on hits like “Love Child” and “In And Out Of Love” — and have the same sound as those featured here).  Still, those backing vocals are just lovely, perfectly matching Diana’s warmth, and when they break into harmony at :50 (as Diana sings “…and children listen…”) it is simply breathtaking.  Because this is a holiday song — and an oft-covered one, at that — it’s never featured on Supremes anthologies, but it should be; this is one of the truly great records bearing the group’s name, and a highlight of Diana’s career.

2.  Silver Bells:  Another song closely identified with Bing Crosby, this is a perfect companion piece to “White Christmas” and another one of this album’s top tracks.  The only major difference between this song and the one preceding it is the natural inclusion of bells to the instrumental, which ring as though from a church tower at the beginning and ending of this recording.  “Silver Bells” features another accomplished instrumental track; strings once again swirl over understated percussion, providing a soaring musical bed for Diana’s confident lead vocal.  Her performance again matches the tone set by the lyrics, shifting from the dreaminess of “White Christmas” to a sparkling optimism as she croons, “…in the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas.”  The voices behind her serves as a bell-like echo, softly repeating key phrases and underscoring other sections with superb harmony.  Although I personally prefer the lush and almost-otherworldly  “White Christmas” — this song is just as good in its way, perfectly capturing the soaring magic of the holidays.

3.  Born Of Mary:  The third song on Merry Christmas is a definite departure, a more traditional-sounding carol that tells the religious story behind Christmas.  The instrumental here is given a less-polished, reedy interpretation, incorporating musical sounds evoking Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth.  Diana and The Andantes (again, assuming that group is solely responsible for the backgrounds) sing this one completely in unison, which makes it tougher to notice the absence of actual Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.  The vocals are simple and straight-forward, rarely breaking into harmony; this is a smart decision, as it focuses attention on the lyrics and sounds more authentic as a hymn.  Though it’s not as heart-tugging as “White Christmas” nor as memorable as “Silver Bells,” this is a beautiful song that helps really ground the album and gives it a heart.  It’s hard to think cynically about the commercial reasons behind a Christmas album when Diana Ross is singing so convincingly about “the glories of his wondrous birth.”  It also boasts a fantastic ending, as the vocalists hauntingly deliver the song’s title — it’s one of the single best moments of the entire LP.

4.  Children’s Christmas Song:  It’s a little easier to be cynical when it comes to this song, a Motown original which was lifted as special single, issued as Motown 1085 in mid-November, 1965.  The song charted at #7 on the Billboard Holiday Singles Chart, and the group performed it on the television show “Hullabaloo” (if you’ve never seen this performance, YouTube it immediately and note the part where it sure seems like Mary and Florence have no clue what words they’re supposed to be singing!).  Written by producer Harvey Fuqua and Isabelle Freeman, this is a repetitive, sing-song composition in which Diana implores boys and girls around the world to learn the words and sing along with her.  During her first spoken passage, Diana calls out several kids by name; one is her brother Chico, the others are Berry Gordy, Jr.’s children Joy, Berry, and Terry (whose names, by the way, form the word Jobete, the name of Motown’s publishing company).  It’s fun to hear her name-check these real children; it’s not so fun when the kids star singing with her, since they’re all crooning in completely different keys (then again, they are kids…so it’s easy to forgive).  After three repetitions of the song’s cloying refrain, most listeners will be ready for the song to end, and thankfully it does without dragging things out any longer.  None of this means “Children’s Christmas Song” is terrible; I’d argue it’s not really that bad, since it states its purpose early (learn the lyrics, then sing along) and delivers in under three minutes.  But it’s a novelty tune, and never rises above that.

5.  The Little Drummer Boy:  A simple and sweet version of another Christmas classic, this song wisely features a prominent drum-line and nice, staccato background vocals appropriate for the subject matter.  Diana’s vocal is nicely done; there’s a tenderness to her performance that makes it sound like she’s singing directly to a child, but it’s never too saccharine.  The piece builds to a climax during which the narrator plays his drum for the baby Jesus, and the added bells and strings and harmonizing are lovely.  This isn’t a standout of Merry Christmas, but it’s a necessary counterpoint to some of the more exciting inclusions; an album like this could easily become too boring if there weren’t some lower-key moments to bridge together the peaks.

6.  My Christmas Tree:  If Motown wanted to release a Christmas single and use one of its own songs, it’s interesting that it went for “Children’s Christmas Song” over this one; not only is this a far better recording, it’s one that probably could continue to garner more airplay during the holidays had it been pushed at the time of the album’s release.  “My Christmas Tree” was written by the prolific Jimmy Webb (of “MacArthur Park” among many other songs, and the man who would craft the 1972 LP The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb for the group), who I believe was signed to Motown as a songwriter for a time.  This song is a bittersweet ballad about lost love at Christmastime, and perhaps the execs at the label felt it was a little too sad for release; still, it’s a memorable recording, and certainly no more morose than the popular standard “Blue Christmas.”  Miss Ross offers up another great vocal here; her performance is full of yearning and heartbreak, as it should be given lyrics like, “I have been so lonely since you left me all alone.”  They key here is cut fairly high, which means Diana’s reaching toward the top-end of her range for a good portion of the song; that said, she acquits herself well, avoiding the nasal sound of her earlier recordings and allowing the strain to add to the emotion of her performance.  The Temptations would later cover this song on the group’s 1970 LP The Temptations Christmas Card; it sounds just as good done by that group, with Eddie Kendricks infusing the tune with a more adult, soulful passion.  Both versions deserve some spins during the holiday season.

7.  Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer:  Speaking of The Temptations Christmas Card, a highlight of that LP is a funky re-working of this classic Christmas song, given a chunky beat and soulful group vocals.  The version here couldn’t sound more different; The Supremes get a jazzed up, showbiz version that could have been tailor-made for their then-recent run at the Copacabana.  Thus far on the album, Diana’s been delivering stirring renditions of new and classic Christmas recordings, but here she finally sounds like she’s really having fun; the entire production comes off like a mini-Broadway show, with Diana Ross as leading lady.  The arrangement lends the tune a big-band swing, and The Andantes get a few “Andrews Sisters” moments (such as their tight harmonies on the line “…join in any reindeer games!”).  Diana’s performance is pure joy; she’s exaggerated (listen to the way her lips really pop on the word “him” at roughly :46) and brassy and imbues the entire reading with a delicious whimsy.  Her delightful spoken line at 1:15 (“Rudolph, with your nose so bright!”) is the kind of touch only she could pull off; it’s silly and over-the-top, and she’s clearly having such a good time that it’s impossible not to love it.  After months of preparing for the group’s run at the Copacabana and then weeks of performing standards like “Put On A Happy Face” and “I Am Woman” — it’s obvious that Diana had mastered the art of the showtune, using the songs to display her personality to full effect; she does that here, and it’s a wonderful treat.  Nothing can sink a Christmas recording faster than an obvious disinterest by the artist; there’s no danger of that anywhere on this album, least of all on this track.

8.  Santa Claus Is Coming To Town:  An upbeat version of the holiday perennial, this inclusion had the potential to be the most “Motown” of these songs, but falls a little flat due to the production.  This is an issue with all of the Supremes albums cut in Los Angeles; the West Coast musicians always suffer by comparison to the enormously talented Motown session musicians, The Funk Brothers, especially on uptempo numbers.  While the ballads and mid-tempos generally sound great, the rhythmic playing of bassist James Jamerson, drummer Benny Benjamin, and others is sorely missed on more aggressive tracks.  This isn’t to say the instrumental here is bad; it’s fine, and certainly does exactly what it needs to.  But the best Supremes songs are built around crisp, angular instrumentals, and it’s hard not to compare — even on a Christmas song.  Diana’s delivery is spirited and engaging, but misses the mark a few times; she really “punches” certain words and phrases, and comes off a little schoolmarm-ish every once in a while.  Again, this is really nitpicking; the song works perfectly well on the album, and listeners hearing it on the radio wouldn’t notice any of this stuff; maybe it’s better that it doesn’t stand out more, since Christmas music is often meant to be played in the background during family gatherings.  But to see what Motown could really do with this song, look no further than the scorching version recorded on 1970’s Jackson 5 Christmas Album.

9.  My Favorite Things:  Given the arrangement and performance on “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” it makes sense that Merry Christmas goes a step further, giving Diana Ross an actual Broadway showtune to sink her teeth into.  “My Favorite Things” is, of course, one of the most famous songs from the 1959 stage sensation The Sound Of Music, and was further popularized by the 1965 film version.  Because the blockbuster movie had been released earlier that year, it makes sense that Motown would want to include something from it on this album; since “My Favorite Things” includes lyrics about snowflakes and wrapped packages, it certainly works well as a holiday piece.  The arrangement here is everything is should be; it’s splashy and colorful, with slicing strings and Vegas brass and the ringing of jingle bells to help tie it together with the rest of the album.  Diana Ross is at her bombastic best, belting out the song with such joy and verve that it sounds like it was written for her; as with “Rudolph” and a few others here, she’s totally in her element, displaying her gifts as both a pop singer and an interpreter of standards.  She really attacks the song here, anticipating the beat rather than allowing herself to lag behind it, and nailing each lyric with her uncanny precision and perfect annunciation.  Along with the stirring instrumental track, the background vocals are masterfully done; the way The Andantes ride the melody with their wordless “oooohs” at the beginning is incredibly exciting, and their harmonies with Diana at the tail end of the bridge, during the line “And then I don’t feel so bad,” is gorgeous.  This recording is perfect in every way; it continues to garner airplay during the holidays, which is totally deserved.  There have been a lot of great versions of “My Favorite Things” over the years, but this one easily stands with the very best.  (NOTE: The Supremes gave a sensational live performance of this song on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which is currently available on the DVD The Best of the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show.)

10.  Twinkle Twinkle Little Me:  This is another Motown original and was co-written by the great Ron Miller, a man whose name will forever be associated with Diana Ross thanks to the fact that he co-wrote her 1973 #1 hit, “Touch Me In The Morning” (along with many other Motown classics, including “For Once In My Life” and “I’ve Never Been To Me”).  It’s a lovely little gem, written from the point-of-view of the star on top of a Christmas tree; it was placed on the flip side of the “Children’s Christmas Song” single and managed to chart even higher, topping out at #5 on the holiday chart.  This is a quiet song, a flickering ember in the wake of the big and blazing “My Favorite Things” — there’s a gentle warmth here, in both the softly chugging instrumental track and the smooth vocal performances.  During the song’s opening few lines, Diana is accompanied by a strumming guitar; it’s one of the prettiest moments on the album.  The background vocalists deliver some of their best work of the entire album here; their sophisticated harmonies behind Diana are amazing.  Just as “My Favorite Things” captures the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning, this is the song to listen to in the peaceful, final few hours of Christmas, just as the fire dies down.

11.  Little Bright Star:  This is an interesting inclusion, as it has something of a dual history at Motown.  It was featured here first, as a Christmas song for The Supremes; later, it was recorded by Tammi Terrell as “I Can’t Go On Without You” and included on her 1969 LP Irresistible.  The melody is exactly the same, but the lyrics are changed; no longer a Christmas song, it’s been transformed into a soulful song of heartbreak (weirdly, “Little Bright Star” is credited to Al Capps-Mary Dean, while “I Can’t Go On Without You” is credited to Harvey Fuqua-John Bristol-Sylvia Moy).  “The Motown Sound” is certainly present here, in terms of the song’s structure and chord progressions; there’s also a little more fire in the musical bed than what we got on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”  Diana is solid, as always; the melody isn’t the most memorable and it’s a bit more rhythmically challenging, but the singer keeps it simple, and gets to let loose with a little vocal power toward the end with her repetitions of “Keep on shinin’!”  The Andantes are a little tough to understand on this track; the odd syncopation of their refrain makes it a challenge to figure out what the lyrics are (the hook works much better as “I-Can’t-Go-On-With-Out-You” than “Li-Tle-Bright-Star-Keep-Shining”).  Not necessarily a standout, but this song gives the LP some nice variation.

12.  Joy To The World:  Merry Christmas ends with a bang, thanks to this frenetically-paced version of the traditional Christmas carol.  Bridged together with a triumphant “Hallelujah!” refrain, Diana and the other singers commandingly race through several verses of the song, underscored by superb string work and a marching percussion line.  The instrumental work is most impressive here; the symphonic arrangement is almost epic in scope.  This song was a good choice to end the LP; it serves as a musical “exclamation point,” driving home the notion that this project is truly a celebration of the season, and more than just a commercial endeavor.


Along with this perfect dozen, The Supremes worked on a few other holiday tracks which have surfaced over the years; fans missing the presence of the other two Supremes on this LP can at least enjoy Florence’s leads on “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” — both now available elsewhere.  Although there are some sterling vault tracks (“O Little Town Of Bethlehem” in particular is poignant and haunting), it’s hard to argue with the original lineup of Merry Christmas; from start to finish, this is just a really good album.  As a Christmas work, it’s a tough one to top; it’s perfect background music for a holiday party or family dinner, and just as good for singing along to.  And as a Supremes album, it’s one of the few that’s truly solid from start to finish, without any jarring moments or total misfires.  The tasteful production is a big part of that, and so is the work of Diana Ross; few singers would sound as comfortable on every single one of these songs.  To any naysayers who still doubt the ability of Motown’s first lady, listen again to “White Christmas” — how can anyone not fall under the spell of that voice?           

Final Analysis: 5/5 (A Deserved Holiday “Favorite”)

Choice Cuts:  “White Christmas,” “My Favorite Things,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”

The Supremes Merry Christmas Back Cover

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The Supremes At The Copa (1965)

The Supremes At The Copa

“I will never forget the first time we worked at the Copacabana.  I did our makeup and hair, and this was the first time we ever signed autographs.  I stood there in amazement, holding a piece of paper that someone had asked me to sign, knowing for certain that life had changed.” (Diana Ross, Secrets Of A Sparrow)

“We were cooking, and after the show we all hugged, knowing we had been a real smash.  Now everyone in the entertainment world knew the Supremes had what it takes, and we weren’t just girl singers anymore.  We had arrived.” (Mary Wilson, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme)

It’s telling that in their respective autobiographies, both Diana Ross and Mary Wilson write about their experiences opening at New York’s famed Copacabana nightclub.  Though The Supremes had already performed internationally, and would go on to conquer the world’s best venues, the group’s opening night at the Copa (on July 29th, 1965) was more than just another engagement.  This would become the defining moment for The Supremes, and arguably the defining moment for Motown Records; it was a culmination of a plan to establish Berry Gordy, Jr.’s stable of stars as more than just rock n’ roll singers, to elevate them to a league of highly-paid supper club singers who could win over upper-class audiences around the world.

“Taking them to the Copacabana was a big plan of mine.  We tried to book various supper clubs and they would not use The Supremes.  The only way we could break into that circuit was to play the Copa in New York.” (Berry Gordy, Jr., The Supremes box set)

Gordy knew that if anybody could win over the exclusive Copa crowds, it would be Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.  Since joining the Motown roster just a few years earlier, the group had demonstrated its fortitude singing all kinds of music, and doing it with an innate sense of elegance and poise.  The group’s previous six LPs covered a wide spectrum of musical styles, from doo-wop to soul to country and pop; to play the Copacabana, the ladies would now need to master sophisticated standards and showtunes.  To that end, musical director Gil Askey was tasked with designing the show; he would remain with The Supremes and Diana Ross for many years thereafter (later gaining an Oscar nomination for his scoring work on Diana’s film debut, Lady Sings The Blues).  According to Mary Wilson, preparations for the Copa booking lasted more than four months; by opening night, it was apparently obvious to everyone inside the club that group’s hard work had more than paid off.

“Any doubts that the Supremes will be around for a long time as a top adult act were erased at the Copacabana on Thursday night, as the three Detroit girls put on a performance the likes of which the famed bistro has seldom experienced.” (Billboard, August 7, 1965)

The resultant album also performed well, climbing to #11 on the Billboard 200 and the runner-up spot on the R&B album chart.  Interestingly, according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, “Diana overdubbed all of her lead vocals because of inferior sound quality on the original recordings made at the Copa” (481).  In other words, the singer re-sung the entire show in the studio; this is remarkable, considering everything sounds live on the recording, aside from a few instances in which Diana’s voice is audibly echoed.  If there’s an issue with the album, it’s not the audio quality; enjoyment of the LP is dependent on one’s tolerance for the setlist.  The Supremes At The Copa is light on Motown, heavy on pizzazz; those seeking the hard-edged funk of Detroit had better look elsewhere.  Still, The Supremes At The Copa is an invaluable addition to the group’s discography; this is a document of an important moment in music history, and a testament to the groundbreaking talent of The Supremes.


(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the album remaster currently available for download on iTunes.)

1.  Opening Introduction:  A brief, roughly 20-second musical introduction, and those immortal words, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Jules Podell proudly presents…The Supremes!”

2.  Put On A Happy Face:  The album opens with a brisk rendition of a song so familiar, it’s hard to believe that in 1965, it was still a relatively new composition!  “Put On A Happy Face” initially gained fame in the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie and the subsequent film adaptation starring Ann-Margret.  Certainly the New York crowds would have immediately recognized the time, and The Supremes glide through a chirpy performance that serves as a nice introduction to the rest of the show (although the actual live show opened with a different song, “From This Moment On,” which was cut from the LP).  The months of preparation are obvious; if there were nerves for Diana, Mary, and Florence, they’re never audible for a second.  The ladies sound particularly good when they break into three-part harmony, something that had been largely missing from previous LP More Hits By The Supremes.  Gil Askey’s band is really swinging, too; listen to that fantastic bassline!

3.  I Am Woman:  And on to another showtune, this one from Funny Girl; the Barbra Streisand vehicle had just opened on Broadway in 1964, so it was also relatively new.  Of course, The Supremes would go on performing songs from the hit musical for many years, culminating with the group’s 1968 LP Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform “Funny Girl.”  Here, The Supremes deliver a spirited take on the song; Diana really gets to belting by the end, especially around 1:25 when she’s singing “But man, I love the subterfuge!”  Florence and Mary deliver gorgeous harmonies about 30 seconds later, as the group croons “I Am Woman, you are man…” — again, this kind of sophisticated three-part harmony is what really elevates The Supremes above “girl group” territory, and it’s wonderful to hear it on a live album.

4.  Baby Love:  After a cute little intro in which the ladies sing, “Here’s a little song that you made popular, and we hope you like it now…,”  Diana Ross delivers her patented “Ooooh” and the crowd goes wild, shouting and applauding this chart-topping hit from the previous year.  As one would expect, it’s arranged like a showtune, blaring big-band brass replacing the aggressive precision of Motown’s studio musicians.  Still, the showbiz arrangement doesn’t hurt “Baby Love” — the song is so undeniably catchy and skillfully written that it works, even in a different set of clothes.  Listen closely, and there are sections in which Diana’s voice sounds doubled; my guess is that we’re hearing her studio dubs along with her original live vocal being picked up through other microphones.  Still, Diana sounds terrific; there’s a sparkle to her performance here, perhaps due to the fact that she’s finally singing one of her own songs.  Mary and Florence really wail behind her, displaying far more vivacity here than they do on the original recording; listen particularly to Flo’s ringing soprano as she sings “I need you!  I want you!” at 1:50.  This song is where the show really kicks into high gear; even without seeing the audience, listeners can feel the shift in the room.

5.  Stop! In The Name Of Love:  The ladies quickly transition into a fiery rendition of their recent #1 hit, which had topped the Billboard Hot 100 only a few months prior to the Copa engagement.  The stark drama of the original recording is given something of a makeover, particularly with the addition of a frantic pace, but the song remains wildly successful; credit must be handed to songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland for crafting music that really transcended genres.  Diana again sounds strangely doubled; listen closely to her “Baby, baby, I’m aware of where you go…” and you’ll hear something of an echo.  Still, she acquits herself beautifully to the faster beat, never missing a syllable and nailing each note.  Florence and Mary sound a little sharp on their “baby, baby” repetitions at roughly :24 in; Ballard in particular produces an oddly “pinched” tone during this section, but they otherwise offer up energetic backgrounds.  “Stop! In The Name Of Love” would further transform from pop/soul masterpiece to big-band razzle-dazzle during Supremes performances over the years; at least here, there’s still some of the Motown magic around the edges.

6.  The Boy From Ipanema:  A frankly lackluster follow-up to two high-energy performances, this was another extremely popular song at the time of the Copa show.  Originally recorded as “The Girl From Ipanema,” the song was a Grammy-winning hit for Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz; it has since been recorded by pretty much every pop/jazz singer ever.  The tune, with it’s subdued, almost monotone melody, is not a great fit for Diana Ross, who always sounds best when letting her voice ride atop a more varied melody line.  The recording also feels murky; aside from Ross, it’s hard to hear what Wilson and Ballard are doing, and if there’s any real harmonizing going on (aside from the opening few lines).  This is a song that probably sounded much better in person; here, on record, it falls flat.

7.  Make Someone Happy/Time After Time:  In the August 7, 1965 Billboard review of the Copa act, this song was singled out as “the showcase act for Diana’s solo potential. Her distinctive phrasing and amazing vocal range in every song confirms that she truly is one of the best in the business.”  Indeed, “Make Someone Happy” gives Diana Ross her first chance to really dig into some meaty material, and that’s exactly what she does, her velvety voice sliding up and down the scale like a seasoned torch singer.  This is truly terrific vocal work; listen to her soulful run on the word “everything” at a minute in, and just try not to get chills.  As the song progresses, and then shifts into “Time After Time,” Diana’s voice just gets better; Florence and Mary ably support her with sophisticated harmonizing.  Thus far into the LP, The Supremes have met expectations for a high-powered, polished show; here, they transcend all expectations, truly coming into their own as the kind of supper club singers Berry Gordy, Jr. envisioned.  I like that the aforementioned write-up points out Diana’s “amazing vocal range” — something she’s rarely given credit for.  Indeed, she’s all over the scale on this particular performance, nailing high and low notes with a rich, smooth tone that’s stunning.  It might have taken months of perfecting to get Diana to this point, but she makes it all look so effortless.

8.  Come See About Me:  After the slow burn of the last number, The Supremes return to familiar territory.  This song, of course, was the group’s third #1 hit, having topped the charts into the very beginning of the year.  Their performance here is full of energy; arranged at a faster pace than the original recording, the composition’s gospel undertones come through loud and clear, even with the blaring, big-band brass.  This is one of Diana’s best vocals on the LP; she injects the song with a contagious vivacity, and it must have been impossible for Copa audiences to sit still during this number.  Mary and Florence are full-bodied behind her; Mary in particular is audibly belting during the “Come See About Me!” refrain.  Diana also orders the audience to “Let me hear everybody clap their hands! Come on!” — she is obviously having a great time here, totally in command of the crowd and her craft.

9.  Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody:  A swinging classic, made famous by Al Jolson and later performed by a wide array of artists, including Judy Garland during her legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall show.  Coming off the energy of “Come See About Me,” The Supremes dive right in to the song, Diana coming on strong with another staggering display of vocal energy.  The ladies famously mastered a complicated song-and-dance routine including hats and canes for this song, and it’s unfortunate that there’s no visual to accompany this recording; there’s a lengthy instrumental break during which the group is obviously displaying some impressive moves.  Still, this is another fun entry into the lineup; it remains impressive how easily The Supremes mastered a song like “Rock-A-Bye…,” which was written in the early 1900s!

10.  Queen Of The House: The aforementioned Billboard review of the Copa show references this song, the writer commenting, “the trio’s treatment of pop material like ‘Queen Of The House’ demonstrated that the girls have a sharp comic sense and a repertorial range worthy that of a veteran group having been in the business for some time.”  Indeed, this song is a comic novelty, an play off of the classic song “King Of The Road.”  This version replaces the original’s vagabond lyrics with those about an ordinary housewife lamenting her daily chores, all the while dreaming, “I’ll get a maid someday, but ’til then, I’m Queen Of The House.”  The Supremes have a ball with the song, acting it as much as singing it, with Diana’s offering a beautifully wry reading on the line, “I need a new wig to wear.”  Florence and Mary really ham it up, yawning loudly and lazily pacing their responses (listen to the way they drag out “Wax and scrub” — it’s great).  You can hear the audience laughing loudly and possibly even a few shouting out a few comments to the ladies, demonstrating just how much the crowd was enjoying the show and how engaging The Supremes were as performers.  Their reading of this song would get better over time; there’s a recording of a 1966 show during which Florence delivers a classic “Uh-uh, honey” after Diana sings about having another kid on the way!

11.  Group Introduction:  Diana quickly introduces the group here, establishing a bit of patter that would pretty much continue through the decade.  She refers to Florence Ballard as “the quiet one” (listen closely and you can hear Flo utter a quick thanks), Mary as “the sexy one,” and herself as “the intelligent one.”  It is interesting to hear Diana call herself “Diane” here — a name used by family and friends.

12.  Somewhere:  This is a song that would stay in The Supremes repertoire for a very long time, first as an opportunity for Diana Ross to really belt out a showtune, but later as a call for Civil Rights and social justice.  The first line, “There’s a place for us,” was actually the intended title for a 1965 Supremes LP of standards that was shelved at the time, and finally released on CD by Hip-O Select in 2004.  The tune (from the stage hit West Side Story) is admittedly schmaltzy by today’s standards, especially with the trite monologue Ross is forced to recite; “Let our efforts be as determined as that of a little stream that saunters down a hillside, seeking its level, only to become a huge river destined to the sea…” is far more suited to a greeting card than a show-stopping love song (later, the monologue would be much improved it was refashioned as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).  There’s some really nice harmonizing by The Supremes at the beginning of this performance, but the song is basically a showcase for Diana, and she lays it on pretty thick here.  There’s no denying that Miss Ross delivers an impassioned performance, but it does sound a little forced; where she was bluesy and sultry on “Make Someone Happy,” she’s syrupy here, too preening.  Some would probably argue that this is a highlight of the set, but the intended emotion just doesn’t quite connect.

13.  Back In My Arms Again:  This really is a highlight of The Supremes At The Copa, a rare performance of the group’s then-latest #1 hit and a song that would slowly fall out of their concerts over the years.  It makes sense that as the group continued racking up hits, certain songs would be dropped from the act, but while “Baby Love” and “Stop! In The Name Of Love” pretty much secured permanent placement, “Back In My Arms Again” became something of a rarity (at least on television specials and live albums).  Listening to the ladies perform the song here, it seems a real shame that live performances of the song weren’t captured on record more frequently; they nail it, and bring an energy that’s not even present on the original record.  As with all of the group’s hits during this show, the arrangement is faster, basically a race from beginning to end; similar to “Come See About Me,” that quicker pace lends the song a nice gospel flair.  Listen closely for the male voice roaring “Oh, yeah” during the first chorus (at roughly :44) — I have no idea if that’s Gil Askey, a band member, or a someone in the audience, but it’s a great moment — as Mary Wilson later wrote, The Supremes were really “cooking” by this point.

14.  Sam Cooke Medley:  This is the real “crowning moment” for these Queens of the House, a soulful medley of Sam Cooke songs lasting nearly eight minutes and building from a simmering take on “You Send Me” to a joyful, raucous reading of “Shake.”  The Supremes were no stranger to Cooke’s music, of course, having released the LP We Remember Sam Cooke earlier in 1965, not long after the male singer was killed.  That album featured some truly outstanding work by The Supremes, and is one of the group’s best early efforts, so it’s a real treat that a mashup of songs from the LP (and one that wasn’t on the album) shows up here.  It should be noted that Copa audiences were also no stranger to Cooke; he’d played the club before his death, and released his own At The Copa, which makes this medley even more appropriate.  Diana’s take on “You Send Me” is better than the one she delivered on the studio album; she was sweet and angelic on that record, but here she’s a sexy, sultry songstress.  Listen to her ridiculously soulful ad-lib on the word “you” at :47 — a single, breathtaking moment that encapsulates what a gifted interpreter of song Miss Ross is.  The Supremes transition into “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” — a song which hadn’t been included on We Remember Sam Cooke.  It’s just as smooth as “You Send Me,” with Diana’s voice effortless bouncing down the scale like a clear drop of water.  The transition to “Cupid” is a bit abrupt, with a sudden shift in key and tempo, but the ladies harmonize nicely on the song’s familiar refrain, before moving right into the gruff “Chain Gang” — Mary and Florence really get to work it here, shouting the song’s signature “Oooh! Aaah!” behind Diana before relaxing into some nice two-part harmony.  “Bring It On Home To Me” follows, a brief and playful performance, before The Supremes launch into a full-scale attack on the Cooke classic “Shake.”  Diana, Mary, and Flo had done the song justice on We Remember Sam Cooke, offering up a peppy version that certainly evoked images of a teenagers’ dance party.  But here, the group is raw and unfiltered, with Diana yelling out “Supremes A-Go-Go!” and tearing into the song like a steam engine racing out of control.  Mary and Florence (and some male voices, too — probably the band) yell and wail and sing behind her, letting loose in a way they’d rarely get to on television or in the studio.  The last minute or so features Diana really working the crowd, riling it up like a fiery preacher, more proof of just how powerful a vocalist and performer she always was.  Think of her work here as a tease to the later audience-participation songs she’d master; long before “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” or “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” there was “Shake” at the Copa.

15.  You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You:  After “ending” on the high note of “Shake,” The Supremes return for an encore with this popular standard, a song which would also remain in their act for a long time.  The tune has also carved itself a special place in the legend of Berry Gordy, Jr. and The Supremes; it was apparently the first standard Gordy asked the group to perform, and the Motown founder has written about Diana’s initial dislike of the song, and her eventual choice to sing it for him (this little episode is also included in the biographical Broadway hit Motown The Musical).  If by the time of the Copa engagement Diana still hadn’t warmed up to it, she’s giving us an early demonstration of her Oscar-worthy acting skills; she and her groupmates couldn’t sound more thrilled to be singing the song to the crowd.  The opening of the song contains some cute banter between Diana, Mary, and Flo (Mary interrupting with “Don’t nobody care about little old me…” and Florence drolly delivering her classic, “Wait a minute, honey! I don’t know about all that!” to the lyric about gold not bringing happiness) — this stage patter is somewhat subdued here, but there’s a far funnier and more raucous version of it included on the 2000 box set The Supremes, taken from a 1967 Copa show.  After singing the first few lines as a ballad, the band pumps it up into a swinging, foot-stomping extravaganza, led by Diana’s confident and brassy lead vocal.  All three ladies display real vocal power here, especially on the repetitions of “To love! To love!” and the band is really jamming.  It’s a perfect way to end such a high-powered evening, and a perfect way to end the group’s first live album; listeners can feel the magic in the air.


The historical significance of The Supremes At The Copa is obvious; that three young African-American ladies from Detroit could win over the wealthy, mainly white audiences at the supper club speaks to the way music, talent, and style transcended barriers (and still do today).  For fans of The Supremes, the LP is additionally important because it’s the only original live album featuring the group’s most memorable lineup (though some have since been unearthed from the Motown vaults and released).  There’s an undeniable chemistry between the three women, and their harmonies are exhilaratingly tight.  There’s also still a little roughness around the edges here; as polished as the group was for its Copa debut, there remains a soulful earthiness about this performance that would be gone by the time 1968’s slick Live At London’s Talk Of The Town appeared.  The Supremes At The Copa isn’t necessarily the best live album by The Supremes, but it’s an essential part of the group’s discography; breaking down walls and opening doors for others never sounded so good.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Supremes Prove Themselves “Queens Of The House”)

Choice Cuts: “Sam Cooke Medley,” “Make Someone Happy/Time After Time,” “Back In My Arms Again”

The Supremes At The Copa Back Cover

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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”

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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

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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

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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

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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”

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