Reflections (1968)

Diana Ross and The Supremes Reflections LP

“Through the hollow of my tears, I see a dream that’s lost…”

If ever a song was representative of the turbulent emotions playing out behind-the-scenes of its creation, it’s 1967’s “Reflections,” the first single credited to Diana Ross and The Supremes.  Written and produced by Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier, the song’s dark, visceral lyrics of disillusionment speak of “a distorted reality” and “a hurt I can’t control.”  Holland-Dozier-Holland knew something about feeling disillusioned; within the year, they’d leave Motown, reportedly feeling unappreciated and underpaid for the incredible string of hits they’d penned for The Supremes and several other groups.  Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard obviously knew something about disillusionment, too; “Reflections” was recorded in May, during a period of intense turmoil within the group (dubbed “a major cold war” by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. in his autobiography To Be Loved).  By the time the single was released in late July, founding member Ballard was out of The Supremes, replaced by singer Cindy Birdsong.

Despite the drama swirling around its creation, “Reflections” became another major success for the group; although it broke a string of four consecutive #1 singles (it topped out at #2, held there by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”), it remains one of the most unique and enduring recordings in the group’s discography.  Follow-up single “In And Out Of Love” was also a solid hit; released in October, the bouncy H-D-H composition topped out at #9.  But something stunning happened next; according to Gordy in To Be Loved, By February of ’68, having no new product for the Supremes, we were forced to go back to the can, releasing ‘Forever Came Today’ — cut a year before.  That record stopped at a dismal #28″ (262).  It was the first Supremes single not to make the Top 20 since “Run, Run, Run” in early 1964.  With H-D-H gone from the company, Motown cancelled the planned follow-up single (“What The World Need Now Is Love”) and went in search of a new creative direction to put Diana Ross and The Supremes back on top.

The Reflections LP — which collects these final three H0lland-Dozier-Holland singles — is a predictably uneven one, considering it truly encapsulates a group at a crossroads. The only real connecting thread here is Diana Ross; although she sings lead on every song, various vocalists back her up, including Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Cindy Birdsong, AND session singers. Several songwriters and producers are also included here; Smokey Robinson, Brenda Holloway, Jimmy Webb, and Dennis Lussier (aka Deke Richards) among them. The quality of these songs varies wildly, and so does the quality of Diana’s vocal work. After years of non-stop recording, television performances, live engagements, and promotional appearances, the singer finally sounds tired here; there’s a weariness to her voice that really hadn’t been audible on earlier records. Although the highlights are strong, there are fewer present here than on most other Supremes albums; much of the material never sounds like anything other than album filler – and not even very good filler, at that.

***

1.  Reflections: “Everyone, the band, the orchestra, the group, the producers, were there, side-by-side-by-side in that little basement studio.  It was intense.  They knew they were recording something of significance.” That’s the memory of Detroit DJ Scott Regen (published in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes), who was present during the recording of “Reflections” in May of 1967. The work of Holland-Dozier-Holland had steadily been expanding in scope, from the orchestral brilliance of “I Hear A Symphony” in 1965 to the frenetic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” the following year; the songwriters obviously kept a close ear on popular music, never allowing themselves to fall out of fashion. The musical landscape was dramatically changing mid-1967, with rock sounds and abstract lyrics resonating with young record-buyers; in the box set liner notes, Dozier remembers, “We wanted to answer the new psychedelic sounds.” But “Reflections” did more than just answer psychedelic sounds; it dragged The Supremes back to the dark, shattered territory they’d earlier explored in 1965’s “My World Is Empty Without You” – stripping away the edgy urgency of the previous few singles and forcing the singers to a place of cold, detached bitterness. The song opens with an iconic ten-second wash of sound, beginning with eerie, space-age drip-drops which fade into a smear of metallic noise. This intro instantly signals something new and different, and is followed up by a fabulous Funk Brothers instrumental, dominated by a reptilian percussive rattle and outstanding bassline from James Jamerson that bounces up and down the scale like an out-of-control ping-pong ball. To this track, Holland-Dozier-Holland lend their most cutting lyrics yet; lines like “I’m all alone now/No love to shield me/Trapped in a world that’s/A distorted reality” bypass desperation and travel straight to hopelessness. Diana Ross is the perfect singer to convey such a message, considering she’d blossomed into an expert interpreter of lyrics; she eschews the dramatics of previous singles “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening,” instead delivering an icy, detached vocal.  Listen to Ross at 1:34, as she sings “All the love that I’ve wasted” — although there’s a strength to her voice as she reaches for the higher notes, she also sounds worn out — as if her energy is literally “wasting” away.  This bridge is basically the only chance Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard get to shine on the track; their vocals are really buried in the mix here, almost indeterminate, which is a disappointment after the previous two background-heavy singles.  Still, the goal here was obviously to set a spare, hopeless atmosphere, and Holland-Dozier-Holland succeed in spades.  According to Dozier, it wasn’t easy to accomplish:  “I think it would have been a difficult song to listen to if not for the editing.  We were going with a feeling; there were a lot of melodies creeping in and out, and knowing just where to cut it was a bit of a job.  It was unorthodox, to say the least,” he commented in the booklet to the box set.  Perhaps “Reflections” is a bit unorthodox, but the beauty of this recording is the way it organically evolves the sound of The Supremes; to the edgy simplicity of previous singles, H-D-H added an emotional maturity brilliantly delivered by Diana Ross.  The result was a group that remained relevant to record-buyers looking for a little more complexity in their music.

2.  I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You):  A dusty, bluesy mid-tempo number that’s notable mainly due to the writing credits.  “I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You)” was co-written by Dennis Lussier and Debbie Dean, names that would probably only be immediately recognizable to die-hard Motown buffs.  Dean had been signed to the label as a singer in the early 1960s, notably releasing “Don’t Let Him Shop Around” in 1961 (in the wake of the success of “Shop Around” by The Miracles).  Lussier, meanwhile, would find much more success under the name Deke Richards — as both a writer and producer at Motown for some of the label’s top acts.  Richards would play a very important role in the career of The Supremes a year later, helping to write the #1 hit “Love Child” — he also later produced Diana’s second solo LP, Everything Is Everything (including the UK #1 hit “I’m Still Waiting”).  Here, however, Richards (Lussier) and Dean offer up a solid if not particularly memorable track for the group; there’s a nice soulful feel to the song, and it certainly sounds as timely for the group as the previous track, but it lacks a strong hook.  Ross is not as engaging as one might like, and sounds a bit weak during the song’s chorus (her “I Will Wait For You” is a bit tossed off), but her work is certainly competent, and the singer remains compulsively listenable even when she doesn’t seem to be really working for it.  Though it’s not a hidden gem for The Supremes, “I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You)” is a nice listen and good inclusion here.

3.  Forever Came Today:  This song qualifies as one of the great mysteries of the Supremes discography, a single that continues to spark debate and divide even the most ardent Motown fans.  According to session notes, Holland-Dozier-Holland had begun work on the track way back in April of 1967, with vocals finally added in December and January.  Although Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. writes the song off in his book To Be Loved (see the earlier quote about going “back to the can”), the songwriters continue to sing its praises — and obviously thought much more highly of the recording than anyone else did.  In the group’s 2000 box set booklet, Brian Holland commented, “It was like a miracle song to me.  I didn’t visualize how good it was going to be.  At that moment of fulfillment, as a producer and writer, I thought it was an awesome piece of product.”  The song was not a hit, struggling to reach the pop top 30 when it was released in February of 1968; in the same booklet, Lamont Dozier blames the composition’s complexity.  “We stepped over the line commercially,” Dozier says. “It was kind of over people’s heads.  We probably could have made it simpler.  The philosophy was, if you can’t whistle it, there’s something wrong with it.”  Indeed, “Forever Came Today” strays far, far away from that philosophy; it opens with an outer-space intro even stranger than that featured on the album’s lead single (think flying saucers) and surges forth into an instrumental dominated by the kind of triumphant horns that seem to be signaling King Arthur and his court.  None of it sounds “radio ready” — not even close — and it’s a wonder Motown’s hook-conscious quality control department decided to release it at all.  The song’s strength comes with the chorus, as Diana and the background voices (definitely not those of Mary, Florence, or Cindy; the voices here are way too heavy and bog down the song) wail, “At last, oooh, at last/My Forever Came Today…”  The song really gels during this joyful refrain, and Diana attacks these passages with gusto.  Unfortunately, the rest of the song sounds unfinished; the opening verses feature comparatively weak vocal work by Ross and uninspiring lyrics, and that “flying saucer” sound is hopelessly dated and pretty grating.  I’m not sure what Brian Holland is hearing when he calls this an “awesome piece of product” — certainly as an artist, he had a distinct vision for “Forever Came Today” and was able to achieve it.  But next to the finest work by The Supremes and H-D-H, this recording is a mess; it’s three or four songs smashed into one, and only at times does it hint at the greatness that could have been.  (NOTE: Several years later, “Forever Came Today” would later be covered by The Jackson 5 in an energetic disco version; it’s still a weird song, but works much better in a “club” setting.)

4.  I Can’t Make It Alone:  This must be one of the lesser-known H-D-H/Supremes collaborations, considering it never made it onto a single as an a- or b-side; to my knowledge, it’s never been included on any collection aside from this original album.  “I Can’t Make It Alone” is clearly another attempt by H-D-H to evolve the sound of The Supremes; the influences of psychedelic and “sunshine” pop are evident here, and the instrumental is quite baroque in nature (and, in fact, sounds a bit predictive of early 70s pop, i.e. The Partridge Family).  Although the melody and lyrics aren’t nearly as strong as the best work by H-D-H, it’s a far more compact composition than “Forever Came Today” — it might not be as unique as that song, but it probably would have done just as well if not better had it been released as a single.  The recording’s biggest drawback — aside from the fact that it does sounds quite dated today — is Diana’s vocal performance.  As noted earlier in this album discussion, there’s a prevailing weariness to the singer’s voice; though Diana is singing from the point-of-view of a woman who’s been left by her love, the weakness in her vocal is more than an artistic choice.  There are moments during which she sounds perilously close to losing her voice altogether; just listen to her struggle at 1:54, while singing the lyrics, “I can’t run/I can’t hide…”  This lack of polish is surprising given how strong Diana’s voice has sounded on every previous Supremes album; perhaps it’s a result of the ongoing situation between H-D-H and Motown, and the fact that the writers/producers just weren’t working as much anymore.  Had there been more care given to the vocal production here, this would have been a much stronger track.

5.  In And Out Of Love:  A bouncy, guitar-driven pop song that would become the final hit single written and produced by H-D-H for Diana Ross and The Supremes, “In And Out of Love” was released in October of 1967.  The song had actually been recorded several months earlier, and had undergone significant changes prior to release; according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, “On 12 June Florence recorded another hit with the group, ‘In and Out of Love.’  As it would happen, this would be the last time she would ever step into the studio and record as a Supreme…her efforts in the studio were in vain because, the next day, Motown completely covered her vocals with those of the Andantes” (165).  Thus, the resulting song is really the first Diana Ross single, and the audible absence of Ballard and/or Wilson in the background does not go unnoticed.  The Andantes, tremendously talented singers, possessed thick, full voices that added depth and polish to many, many Motown recordings.  However, there’s a heaviness to their work here that really weighs down the song; Diana’s brassy lead vocal is a bit swamped by the  throaty backgrounds.  Aside from this, “In And Out Of Love” is a good choice for a single, although the recording lacks the crispness unique to the very best Supremes singles; the sound is a bit muddy, especially when compared to the uncanny tidiness of something like “You Can’t Hurry Love.”  The instrumental is a strong one, though; the strumming guitar is a fresh touch for a Supremes single, and the orchestral strings and horns are lovely.  Diana’s sprightly performance leads the way; she delivers a memorable vocal, skillfully toeing the line between impassioned and playful.  There’s nothing particularly innovative about “In And Out Of Love,” but it remains a solid recording.  And be sure to check out the group’s performance of this song on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — Diana, Mary, and Cindy look absolutely fantastic and offer up a nicely done little dance break!

6.  Bah-Bah-Bah:  If songs like “The Happening” and “In And Out Of Love” were a little too poppy for some tastes, this recording takes The Supremes right back squarely into “soul” territory.  “Bah-Bah-Bah” was written by Motown singer Brenda Holloway with her sister Patrice; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, the song was also recorded by Barbara Randolph and Suzee Ikeda.  This is a low-key, slow-burning soul number; the title comes from the background line, which is hypnotically delivered by Diana, Mary, and Cindy during the opening.  DFTMC notes Frank Wilson as the producer here; Wilson would figure prominently into the group’s history by helming the first three post-Ross Supremes LPs.  Wilson was responsible for restoring harmony to the group’s sound with the addition of lead singer Jean Terrell; he gets an early jump on that here, offering Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong a chance to contribute equally to the song’s success.  In fact, Mr. Wilson would comment on his beginnings with Diana Ross and The Supremes, “Diana had a lot of charisma onstage and had literally been groomed as the star.  There was no way you were going to back away from that, but the idea was to give Mary and Cindy more than the feeling of just background singers or sidemen” (The Supremes booklet).  Both Mary and Cindy sound fantastic here; listen closely at 1:55 as they echo Diana — and then moments later as they dramatically deliver the line “You won’t find me…”  “Bah-Bah-Bah” is, in fact, Birdsong’s first real chance to be heard as a Supreme; her tone is lighter and smoother than Ballard’s, and there’s an innate sophistication that made her a perfect fit for The Supremes.  Diana Ross delivers a fine performance here; once again, she proves she’s a soul singer at heart, injecting a bluesy anguish into her vocal and effortlessly riding the bass-heavy instrumental.  “Bah-Bah-Bah” is a real standout on Reflections; it was probably too R&B to have done well on the pop charts, but it’s a far better track than “Forever Came Today” and several other singles that would come in the next few years.  This song deserves more attention; it’s a very cool addition to the Supremes discography.  (And it it just me…or does the Erykah Badu song “Sometimes” from 1997’s Baduizm sound strongly inspired by this track?)

7.  What The World Needs Now Is Love:  If ever there was proof that Motown had begun losing direction for The Supremes in the wake of the Holland-Dozier-Holland departure, it’s that this song was ever scheduled for release as a single.  “What The World Needs Now Is Love” was assigned as Motown single 1125 and backed with “Your Kiss Of Fire” (from 1964’s Where Did Our Love Go) — and was supposed to follow the release of “Forever Came Today.”  Thankfully, it was yanked before it ever hit shelves — sparing the world from what would have possibly been the worst Supremes single ever.  There’s no denying the greatness of this song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and first made famous by singer Jackie DeShannon; it’s immediately memorable, and nearly impossible not to sing along with.  Next to H-D-H, Bacharach and David are unparalleled at creating moving pop songs, and DeShannon’s passionate performance really helped sell the original recording (which was a top 10 hit in 1965).  The power and drama of the original recording (and the many, many successful covers of the song) are completely absent on this rendition, which features a snooze of a performance by all three Supremes.  Diana, Mary, and presumably Florence (Don’t Forget The Motor City notes the recording for this song as happening back in 1966, when Ballard was still in the group) barely register here; there doesn’t seem to be any feeling behind Diana’s delivery, which can only be described as a somewhat-melodic whisper, and Wilson and Ballard similarly seem to be yawning through this one.  The track — apparently produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier — is nowhere near as dynamic as that featured on the original, and comes off like generic elevator music.  How something like the superlative “Heaven Must Have Sent You” (later released on 25th Anniversary and the 2000 box set The Supremes) was left in the vaults while this song was nearly issued as a single remains a mystery.  Diana Ross would fare much better with this song years later, when she recorded a lovely version for her 1994 holiday album A Very Special Season.

8.  Up, Up And Away:  This is a better cover than the previous song; also produced by Holland and Dozier, this Jimmy Webb tune first found fame in 1967 thanks to The 5th Dimension, whose recording swept the Grammy Awards that year.  The version here is a brassy, upbeat one, driven by wailing horns and some nice harmonies by The Supremes.  Diana delivers a strong lead vocal; she’s confident and controlled, and she takes the lyrics literally by “riding” and “gliding” along the melody.  The background vocals are a little buried in the mix, but there’s some beautiful work there; to my ears, it sounds like Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong on the track, and their voices are a perfect mix of smoky sophistication and jazzy polish.  The song itself sounds dated — extremely dated.  “Up, Up And Away” is a perfect example of late 1960s Easy Listening, and sounds jarring when listened to some of the darker, more modern songs here (like “Reflections” and “Bah-Bah-Bah”).  Still, taken on a technical level, this is a decent recording.

9.  Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things):  Thus far in their career, The Supremes hadn’t done particularly well with songs first recorded by Martha and The Vandellas; their covers of “Come And Get These Memories” and “Love Is Like A Heat Wave” were lightweight and watered down, failing to capture the fire of the original versions.  “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)” was first released by The Vandellas in 1965, as the b-side to “You’ve Been In Love Too Long.”  The bluesy ballad did garner some airplay of its own, and has become a classic for the group; it’s featured on most of their major hits compilations and was included in on the 1967 Martha And The Vandellas Live! LP.  Here, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier deliver a similarly dramatic arrangement; the track here is beautifully produced, and features one of the best instrumentals on the album.  Likewise, the Supremes really rise to the occasion here; Diana Ross tears into the song with a soulful, fully-engaged performance that’s probably her very best on Reflections.  Many will undoubtedly compare her vocal to that of Martha Reeves, but taken on its own terms, it’s an impressive display of artistry; Ross is in powerful voice, nailing the required high notes and adding in a few flourishes unique to her interpretation.  The voices behind her seem to be those of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, unless The Andantes are doing an especially good job of mimicry; in any case, the soaring backgrounds are perfectly done, helping to further buoy Diana’s passionate performance.  In the end, it’s both a showcase for the sterling songwriting skills of H-D-H, and the endlessly surprising vocal abilities of Diana Ross; there’s a lot to love about this “Love.”

10.  Then:  Let’s get this straight — “Forever Came Today” was deemed good enough to release as a single, and “What The World Needs Now” was deemed almost good enough — and yet “Then” was left as mere album filler?  This is a fabulous Smokey Robinson tune; to my ears, it sounds like a lost hit for the group, a song that easily could have climbed to the Billboard top 10.  Robinson, of course, had a long history with the group, having helped facilitate their initial Motown audition before writing and producing a few of their earliest singles.  Finally back in the producer’s chair, Robinson delivers one of his patented sugary confections, boasting typically clever lyrics and an exciting, driving instrumental.  Diana, Mary, and Cindy are in glorious form here; Ross sparkles on the lead vocal, and her groupmates offer up tight harmonies.  Here again is a chance to relish the sound of these “new” Supremes; although they’d never quite regain the vocal interplay evident on earlier group recordings, there’s a joy and lightness to the singing here that’s refreshing (Cindy’s lilting voice is particularly audible at 1:19, on the line “Up is down…”).  Wilson and Birdsong are in perfect accord on the backgrounds here, their voices ringing like bells behind the Diana’s relaxed, soulful performance.  More than just the strength of the writing and the performances, Robinson captures a real magic here; again, it’s hard to believe Motown didn’t jump on this song and rush it to radio.  Interestingly, Diana Ross and The Supremes would record “Then” again; it’s included on 1968’s Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations as a collaboration with Motown’s top male vocal group.  It’s a good version, but this one is the standout; “Then” is a great hidden gem of the 1960s Supremes discography.

11.  Misery Makes Its Home In My Heart:  This is another Smokey Robinson song; according to DFTMC, the recording was completed back in the summer of 1966, which explains why the prominent background vocals sound like those of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.  This is a jumpy tune with a syncopated, calypso-ish beat; it’s much more “classic Motown” than the rest of this album, and actually would have been a better fit on the group’s upbeat 1966 LP The Supremes A’ Go-Go.  “Misery Makes Its Home In My Heart” is nowhere near Smokey’s best; the lyrics aren’t quite as concise as it typical for the writer (i.e. “The door to my heart was open/Open wide, much wider than wide”) and it’s not as melodic as classics like “My Guy” or “My Girl.”  Still, there’s something delightful about this recording — coming after the darker, more modern tracks that led off Reflections, this song serves as a nod to the finger-popping, carefree Supremes of yesterday.  All three ladies mint fine performances; Ross lends the lyrics an edgy urgency, and Wilson and Ballard are in full-bodied voice behind her.  I still say “Then” is the Smokey song that could have been the big single from this album, but “Misery” would have made a killer b-side.

12.  Ode To Billie Joe:  This is an interesting way to close Reflections; “Ode To Billie Joe” is the huge hit song that kept “Reflections” from hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Released by Bobbie Gentry in summer of 1967, the song topped the charts for a month (while “Reflections” settled for the #2 spot), and garnered several Grammy Awards that year.  Gentry’s composition is classic Southern Gothic, a winding tale of a boy named Billie Joe McAllister who jumps off a bridge.  The original arrangement was hauntingly minimal, with Gentry mainly accompanied by acoustic guitar and swelling strings.  The version here is nearly identical; producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier don’t change much, aside from possibly adding in a few more instruments.  Diana Ross does a good job with the song; it’s well within her range, and she’s convincing in her delivery of the folksy lyrics.  There’s nothing particular notable about this cover, but it’s not a bad inclusion.

***

In his AllMusic review of Reflections, writer John Lowe comments, “It was apparent that both parties [H-D-H and The Supremes] were battling creative fatigue and were exhibiting the appropriate scars at the time.”  Lowe’s right, and “fatigue” is a good word for much of this album.  Reflections isn’t bad (there would be weaker Diana Ross and The Supremes albums to come), but it’s lacking the energy and glossy sheen present on the group’s previous LPs.  Accordingly, the album wasn’t as strong a seller as most of the group’s earlier offerings; when released in March of 1968, it stopped at #18 on the Billboard 200, an especially unimpressive peak given The Supremes had scored #1 albums in each of the previous two years.  Amazingly, Reflections was only the first of an astounding six (!) albums released by the group in 1968; the group was about to embark on its busiest year yet…with varying results.

Final Analysis: 3/5 (A Lackluster Effort Of “Ups” And Downs)

Choice Cuts: “Reflections,” “Then,” “In And Out Of Love”

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Record Store Wednesdays: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” Picture Sleeve

You Keep Me Hangin' On The Supremes picture sleeve

My dad was thumbing through the stacks at Atlantic Sounds Records in Daytona Beach this week and came across this beautiful Supremes picture sleeve from 1966.  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was released as Motown 1101 on October 12 of that year — and promptly rocketed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it held the top spot from November 13-26.

Note that the picture sleeve uses the same artwork as that featured on The Supremes A’ Go-Go, which had already been released and actually didn’t include the song.  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” would find a place on the group’s next LP release (which is mentioned at the bottom of this picture sleeve).

For me, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is as good as a Supremes single ever got; it’s a dazzling work, featuring Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and The Funk Brothers in absolute peak form.  The song’s been covered many times over the years, by extremely talented artists, but nobody’s ever captured the heart-stopping urgency created by the original.  Oh — and the flipside (“Remove This Doubt”) is a gem.

Please click here to read my full review of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and its parent album, 1967’s  The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland.

You Keep Me Hangin' On The Supremes single back cover

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Greatest Hits (1967)

Diana Ross And The Supremes Greatest Hits

“Now I see life for what it is…it’s not all dreams, it’s not all bliss…”

In August of 1967, fans of The Supremes were treated to a gorgeously-produced “best-of” compilation, featuring twenty classic tracks spread out over two albums.  The timing of Greatest Hits made perfect sense from a commercial standpoint, as the group was wrapping up another unprecedented hot streak.  Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard had recently scored a stunning tenth #1 pop hit with “The Happening” in May of ’67; the song served as the theme to the film of the same name, and was the fourth consecutive Supremes single to reach the summit of the pop chart.  Meanwhile, follow-up single “Reflections” had been released in July, and was on its way to the #2 spot.  Although the latter song was left off of the hits collection and held for a future album, the remaining twenty tracks consisted of the ten #1s, five other singles of varying chart success, and five popular b-sides.  The songs came packaged in a beautiful set, complete with liner notes by Broadway star Carol Channing and a fold-out poster featuring color portraits of each Supreme.

Supremes Pull Out Poster

But the timing of Greatest Hits makes sense for another reason; this career retrospective truly marked the end of an era for The Supremes, and officially opened the door to the group’s next chapter.  By the time the collection hit store shelves (credited, for the first time, to Diana Ross and The Supremes), Florence Ballard was out of the group; after a period of turmoil within The Supremes, the singer was replaced by Cindy Birdsong of Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles.  Meanwhile, the group’s songwriting and producing team of Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier was also breaking from Motown at the time, due to a dispute over money.  Holland-Dozier-Holland had penned every single song included on Greatest Hits; with the release of “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” in 1963, the writers had created the perfect Supremes formula, and then evolved it in a series of crisp, clever productions with strong melodies and irresistible lyrics perfectly suited to Diana’s uncanny vocal precision.

The loss of both Ballard and the H-D-H team would result in monumental changes for The Supremes; Motown would show something of a lack of direction in the coming years as to the group’s musical releases.  Still, The Supremes remained the top female group in the world at the time of the Greatest Hits release, and it was an astounding success.  The double-LP became the group’s second #1 album on the Billboard 200, and remained in the top spot for a full five weeks.  Aside from a two-week stint by Bobbie Gentry, The Supremes were the only women to have a #1 pop album that year, and just as significantly, they were the only African-American performers to reach the summit in 1967.  The featured songs remain some of the best pop/soul songs ever written; even today, nobody can deny the power of “Stop! In The Name Of Love” or “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”  The tracklist also traces the evolution of Ross, Wilson, and Ballard from eager, excited young singers to powerful, polished vocalists.  This is especially evident in the collection’s newest song, “The Happening” — a big, bouncy pop song created hundreds of miles from Detroit.

***

(NOTE: “The Happening” is the only new song to appear on Greatest Hits; the other inclusions can be found on previous Supremes albums releases, and are thus discussed in previous articles.)

The Happening:  For the 1967 #1 hit “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” Holland-Dozier-Holland created a dramatic track in Los Angeles that sounded like a mini-movie musical, complete with spoken passages and swirling strings.  For the follow-up Supremes single, H-D-H went a step further, actually helping to craft the theme song to a Hollywood film.  The Happening was a 1967 comedy starring Anthony Quinn and a young Faye Dunaway, with music written by Frank DeVol (who’d already scored several films including Pillow Talk, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Cat Ballou).  According to Lamont Dozier (in the liner notes to the 2000 box set The Supremes), “Frank DeVol had done the score of The Happening, and they called us to meet with him and see a print of the movie.  We wrote to his string part and cut it once in L.A., went back to Detroit to recut it because the L.A. rhythm guys couldn’t do what we wanted.”  With “The Happening,” H-D-H managed an incredible feat; they took DeVol’s fun, bouncy musical motifs and used them to create a compact pop song that ended up being far more successful than the actual film.  Opening with a fabulous cinematic intro (the “DAH-da-da-da, DAH-da-da-da” motif can be heard in DeVol’s popular composition “The Fuzz,” also featured on the film’s soundtrack), the song explodes into a swinging, splashy sing-along piece led by the vibrant vocal performances of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.  More than any recent single by The Supremes, “The Happening” makes use of all three singers, allowing Wilson and Ballard to deliver a forceful background line that becomes an essential hook; the song would not be the same without Mary and Florence belting “Beware The Happening!” throughout.  Ross leads the way with a brassy performance, her voice cutting right through the crowded instrumental and deftly delivering the song’s clever lyrics (I love the lines “I saw the light too late/When that fickle finger of fate/Yeah, came and broke my pretty balloon…”).  Diana was always a singer of incredible precision and crisp pronunciation, but around this time her voice began to pick up another texture, a breathy raspiness that lent an added soulfulness to her later Supremes recordings.  This added texture to her voice really benefits “The Happening” — on the surface, it’s a light, poppy song, but the lyrics are actually quite dark, and Diana’s tone works to bridge the two feelings.  Also, note the power and confidence in her voice here, particularly during the “Now I see life…” section at around 1:30 in.  Much credit for the song’s success must also go to that aforementioned Detroit rhythm section; James Jamerson grounds this recording with a spellbinding, skipping bassline (once you really listen to the bass on this song, you’ll never be able to ignore it again).  Although elements of the song are more dated than other Supremes hits (by virtue of the fact that it was born from a 1960s film score — also, listen for shades of Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass here), the recording remains an exciting and interesting addition to the group’s discography; there’s an irresistible energy to the single that still sounds fresh today.  (NOTE: The flipside to “The Happening” single was another song written by DeVol and H-D-H, called “All I Know About You.”  Although an instrumental version appears on the film’s soundtrack, the Supremes version was left off of Greatest Hits and the group’s other releases at the time.  It eventually surfaced again as a bonus track on the CD release of Reflections.)

***

After “The Happening,” Diana Ross and The Supremes would release just three more singles written and produced by H-D-H, bringing to an end arguably the most important partnership between artist and writer/producer in popular music history.  Dozier would later look back on the “golden years” with The Supremes: “Diana Ross is one of the most professional artists in the business…She was the best, and she will go down in history as one of the best…This particular recipe called the Supremes came together because everybody had the right elements, the right seasonings, and the right flavors to make it happen” (Diana Ross: A Biography, 180-1).  Nearly fifty years after its initial release, the double-LP Greatest Hits collection remains a delicious platter upon which to enjoy that recipe of perfection.

(Click on the picture below to see the complete tracklist for Greatest Hits.)

Supremes Greatest Hits Tracklist

 

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The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart (1967)

The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart

“And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold…”

By 1967, The Supremes really had nothing left to prove.  In just three short years, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard had conquered the music industry, racking up a staggering ten #1 hits (the latest being March release “The Happening”) and several smash albums, including the 1966 chart-topper The Supremes A’ Go-Go.  More important in the eyes of Motown executives, the young singers had developed into seasoned entertainers, booking dates at prestigious clubs like New York’s Copacabana.  According to manager Shelly Berger, “Adult audiences were not afraid of The Supremes; they looked great, they wore great costumes.  They had Diana, Mary Wilson — sexy as all get out — and Florence, who had a great sense of humor.  Unlike a lot of black groups at that time who had to prove themselves with the R&B audiences before they could cross over, The Supremes entered the pop market from day one” (The Supremes, 2000).

Still, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was determined to keep pushing his top group, and when they were booked to appear on an ABC-TV special celebrating the music of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, he decided to cut an entire album dedicated to the legendary composers.  Diana Ross had already recorded a solo version of the Rodgers & Hart classic “With A Song In My Heart,” which was included on the 1966 LP I Hear A Symphony.  But Rodgers & Hart had written countless memorable songs, many of them seemingly perfect for the sophisticated style of The Supremes.  Thus, musical director and arranger Gil Askey worked up more than two dozen of them, ranging from “The Lady Is A Tramp” to “My Funny Valentine,” and prepared them for the young ladies.  According to Andy Skurow in the 2002 release of The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Recordings, Diana, Mary, and Florence laid down their vocals between October 28th and November 3rd, 1966.  The tracklist was eventually whittled down to 12 songs, and released in May of 1967.

Askey is quoted by writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography as saying of the project, “When we finished the entire album, I remember sitting with Berry and playing it for him and he was completely knocked out by it” (156).  He should’ve been; although Gordy certainly knew The Supremes were up to any challenge, the resultant album is a masterpiece.  Not only are Askey’s arrangements sublime, but this is a true group album, with dynamic vocal work by all three Supremes.  As with the earlier trio of Supremes concept albums (A Bit Of Liverpool, The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop, and We Remember Sam Cooke), these songs give Ross, Wilson, and Ballard a chance to both shine as individuals and demonstrate their strength as a group.  It’s a gift to fans to have this audio record of the group’s astonishing talent, as The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart marks the beginning of the end of an era.  It would be the final LP released before the group’s name was changed to “Diana Ross and The Supremes” — and the last album released before the departure of Florence Ballard.

***

NOTE: The following reviews are based on the mixes included on the 2002 CD release of The Complete Recordings.

1.  The Lady Is A Tramp:  Of all the songs featured on The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, “The Lady Is a Tramp” would become the most associated with The Supremes; although no single would be released from this album, the lead-off track was incorporated into the group’s live act and stayed there until Diana Ross left the group (and Ross kept it in her solo act for a good portion of the 1970s after that).  In fact, “The Lady Is A Tramp” can be found on the group’s 1968 LP Live At London’s Talk Of The Town…and again on 1970’s Farewell…and again on Diana’s 1974 LP Live At Caesar’s Palaceand again on 1977’s An Evening With Diana Ross!  Thus, the Rodgers & Hart classic is afforded more album appearances than most of the actual hits recorded by The Supremes and/or Diana Ross!  The reason the upbeat, swinging standard (written for the 1937 music Babes In Arms) became such a go-to is obvious; the song is a Ross showstopper, giving the singer a chance to really belt and display her often-overlooked range.  For my money, the best recorded performance of the song is found on the Farewell album, in which Diana, Mary, and Cindy Birdsong exhibit a staggering amount of energy and pizzazz during a medley of the song and “Let’s Get Away From It All.”  This studio version is very good, but lacks some of the energy of a live performance.  Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are sorely underused on the track; for whatever reason, they don’t chime in until the very end, and their harmonies could have been used to add some verve earlier in the song.  That said, Diana’s vocal performance is incredibly fresh.  Her vocals at the end of the song are probably the most powerful thus far in her recording career; listen as she holds one of the final notes for a full seven seconds!  Those incredibly short-sighted critics who still contend that the singer possesses a “thin” or “airy” voice have obviously never heard her work on this song.  They should; with a performance like this, Ross was proving herself in a totally different class of singers.

2.  Mountain Greenery:  The lack of group vocal work on the previous track is rectified here, with Florence Ballard particularly prominent on this sprightly tune, first featured in 1926’s The Garrick Gaities.  There’s terrific vocal interplay here, with Florence and Mary echoing many of Diana’s lines, creating a musical “round” at times.  Miss Ross lends the clever lyrics the perfect light touch, letting her voice effortlessly dance over the melody (and note that she changes the lyrics from “just two crazy people together” to “just three crazy people together”).  There’s a nice little rhythmic section in the middle, with Wilson and Ballard punctuating each line with staccato harmonies, and listen to the gorgeous work at the very end the song (at roughly 1:40), as Flo and Mary hold the word “home” for six or seven seconds.  This is truly sophisticated singing, far beyond what most popular vocal groups were capable of at the time.

3.  This Can’t Be Love:  Because The Supremes had recorded to many songs dealing with the aches and pains of love (with lyrics ranging from “yearning” to “burning” to “itching” and beyond), “This Can’t Be Love” turns out to be a sly inclusion here, as the song opens with the words, “This can’t be love/Because I feel so well.”  Although the song comes from the popular 1938 musical The Boys From Syracuse, it’s given a more modern treatment here, with a pseudo-Motown beat and brassy arrangement.  Florence and Mary open the song with a hip “hey-hey-hey” repetition, and they offer very strong support behind Diana’s lead vocal here.  Ross races through her performance; it’s another very good one, although it’s not quite as precise as her work on the rest of the album (to my ears, there are a few spots where she doesn’t quite nail the notes she’s going for).  Still, this is a nice change of pace, albeit a very brief one; at just 1:44, this is the shortest song on the album, and certainly one of the shortest ever released by the group.

4.  Where Or When:  As with “The Lady Is A Tramp,” this Rodgers & Hart classic was written for the 1937 musical Babes In Arms; it has to rank among the most achingly beautiful melodies ever penned by the pair, if not among the most achingly beautiful melodies ever penned…period.  “Where Or When” has been recorded countless times by countless artists, ranging from Dion and The Belmonts to George Michael; even without hearing all the others, it’s safe to say the version recorded by The Supremes is one of the very best.  Everything is right about this track; the arrangement by Mr. Askey is sweepingly elegant, with polished playing by the phenomenal studio musicians (the strings in particular are lovely).  Diana Ross delivers one of her very best readings on this or any other album; her delicate crooning is simply spellbinding.  There’s a quiet confidence from her very first line (“It seems we stood and talked like this before”), and she sings with an intelligent restraint until the moment when the song dictates she let go; as we’ve said over and over on The Diana Ross Project, the singer’s strength is her ability to perfectly interpret a lyric, and this song is a stellar example of that.  When she does finally open up at the end of the song, her voice building and building until it soars at the climax, it feels earned; it isn’t just cheap vocal gymnastics, it’s the organic progression of the song.  Although the song is really a showcase for Diana Ross, her groupmates contribute some beautiful moments; I love the way Mary Wilson purrs “Like this…” at :15, and the three ladies really wail together on the song’s final few words.  No single was ever released from The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, and if one had been, chances are it wouldn’t have been an enormous hit.  But this is a song more people should hear; it’s one of the very best Supremes album tracks, and certainly a testament to how much these young ladies had matured as vocalists.

5.  Lover:  Jeanette MacDonald first sang “Lover” in the 1932 film Love Me Tonight; here, the song gets a bopping “Baby Love”-style makeover perfect for The Supremes.  All three ladies sing the opening lines in unison; their voices are strong and clear, with each unique tone equally audible.  Diana offers up a playful, breathy performance here; she should have obtained a trademark on the sexy way she murmurs the song’s title at :23.  The arrangement here gives The Supremes plenty of opportunities to harmonize, and once again Mary and Florence demonstrate their excellent ears for intricate vocal work; listen closely for the ringing high notes, and the way Mary’s misty alto anchors the background line.  The “What a lover, oh yes he is!” repetition during the final fade is classic; it brims with the kind of personality demonstrated during the group’s live performances.  As far as group vocals go, “Lover” is one of this album’s strongest songs, and it’s one of the best existing representations of what made The Supremes so special; no other Motown group had such unique and distinct voices adding to the mix.  (NOTE: Along with echoing early H-D-H productions, “Lover” certainly seems to foreshadow one of the great album tracks of Diana’s career, “All Night Lover” from 1977’s Baby It’s Me.)

6.  My Funny Valentine:  Imagine Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. first listening to the playback of songs from The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart; if indeed he was “knocked out,” as Gil Askey remembers, then he must have completely fallen out of his chair by the time “My Funny Valentine” finished playing.  This popular ballad exists here for one reason and one reason alone — as a vocal showcase for Diana Ross.  Although Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are given a few perfunctory background parts, this is basically a solo performance, and Diana Ross grabs hold of this song and digs into it like it’s the only thing keeping her alive.  The arrangement is breathtaking, with an acoustic guitar line that foreshadows the opening of Diana’s “Little Girl Blue” (also written by Rodgers & Hart, from 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning), haunting strings, and muted horns; the musical elements weave just the right tapestry upon which Ross unfurls her lead vocal.  This is easily the singer’s most dramatic performance on the album; each and every lyric drips with passion.  This leads to moments of brilliance; her reading of the line “Don’t change a hair for me” at 2:23 sounds like an audition for her later role as Billie Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues, and she exhibits real lung power during the climactic “Stay!” at 2:42.  Of course, a no-holds-barred performance means there are also some moments that seem overdone; Ross could have used some restraint at the beginning of the song, as she had on “Where Or When,” instead of wringing emotion from lines that don’t necessarily seem to call for it.  Still, this is a great moment for Diana; she is proving herself a vocalist capable of carrying more than just pop/soul songs.  Although many people would be shocked at how well she pulled off the songs of Billie Holiday, this song was an early indication that jazz singing was well within her wheelhouse.

7.  My Romance:  After a showstopping end to the first side of the album, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart picks back up with a bouncy rendition of this classic R&H composition, first introduced in 1935’s Jumbo.  This is another song featuring great three-part harmonies by The Supremes  Listen, for example, to the masterful way they sing the line “My Romance doesn’t need a castle rising in Spain” at :45; Diana stays on the melody, while Florence and Mary break apart on their own, and resulting sound is heavenly.  Ross is relaxed and assured here; I love the way she drags down the notes on the words “Romance” and “need” beginning at 1:04.  All three Supremes sound fabulous on this song, and there’s a real “twinkle” to their performances, indicating just how much the young ladies enjoyed recording this classic material.

8.  My Heart Stood Still:  If Gil Askey ever wanted to match the edgy, urgent material being written for The Supremes by Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier — this was his chance.  “My Heart Stood Still,” so often performed as a saccharine ballad, is transformed into a driving dance number here, complete with a little sax line that sounds ripped from “Back In My Arms Again.”  The ladies sing a good portion of the song in unison, and the lack of harmonies creates a sense of modernity to the production; they also get to riff a little at the end, throwing in a few trademark “baby, baby” lines.  It’s surprising that the arrangement works as well as it does; as a ballad, “My Heart Stood Still” doesn’t quite have the immediacy of something like “Where Or When,” but the thumping beat and brassy soul give it some distinction and also adds some variety to the album.  It’s no surprise that Diana, Mary, and Florence sound quite comfortable on the song; Diana’s vocal is crisp and engaging, and she’s matched by her groupmates.  In the original liner notes to the LP, the great Gene Kelly wrote, “Whatever survives through changing tastes and is adaptable to any variation in performance is truly the work of creative genius.”  Though this song isn’t the most exciting on the album, it’s probably the best reflection of Kelly’s wise words; credit goes to Rodgers & Hart for writing such timeless words and melodies, and Gil Askey for reimagining them.

9.  Falling In Love With Love:  This is a highlight of the album, a lovely duet between Diana and Mary that was added to the group’s live act and remained there until Ross left in early 1970 (it’s included on the group’s Farewell LP).  Gil Askey is quoted by writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography as giving the credit for the duet idea to Diana:  “We were in the studio getting ready to cut the song when Diane just said, ‘Mary should sing Bobby Darin’s part'” (156).  Ross was referring to the aforementioned ABC-TV special Rodgers & Hart Today, during which the group sang the song with Darin; here, Diana takes the first verse, Mary takes the second, and the ladies harmonize at the end.  The vocals performances here are magnificent; Diana gives a wonderfully controlled reading, her voice delicately landing on each precise note.  Ross is so good here, so mature and elegant; she truly sounds like a singer from another era.  Mary Wilson also really delivers; her low, dusky tone is a stark contrast to Diana’s bell-like voice, and adds some nice dimension to the recording.  Listen to Mary’s wonderful phrasing on the line “Learning to trust is just for children in school” at 1:32, the way she packs in the first few words and then lets her voice breathe on the word “for” — it’s an unexpected touch that proves Wilson was also naturally adept at jazz and blues singing.  Of course, the shining moment of the song comes toward the end, when Diana and Mary share several lines in two-part harmony; their voices are fabulously matched, each one clear and strong, and it sounds so great that it’s disappointing when it ends.  That’s the only problem with this recording — it’s so terrific you wish there were a few more verses.

10.  Thou Swell:  Another sly and playful inclusion, with fantastic lyrics by Lorenz Hart mixing both outdated and modern English terms, set to a splashy arrangement by Mr. Askey and company.  First appearing in 1927’s A Connecticut Yankee, the song would be performed by many vocalists over the years, including Nat King Cole and, later, his daughter Natalie.  Diana Ross is a perfect singer to deliver this song; the rapid succession of plays-on-words and intricate rhymes require a vocalist who can keep the emphasis squarely on the lyrics, and that’s exactly what she does (I mean, how many other contemporary artists could pull off the line “Hear me holler, I choose a sweet Lollapaloosa in thee” so effortlessly?).  Mary and Florence aren’t given quite as much to do on this song; they croon “Thou Swell, thou witty” behind Miss Ross, but there’s not as much harmonizing as one might like to hear.  To be honest, though, it’s the bass player here that really steals the show; listen to the up and down plunking of the strings, and the way it dances through the entire song.  That guy deserved a special album credit!

11.  Dancing On The Ceiling:  An absolutely beautiful song first included in 1930’s Evergreen and later covered by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald among others.  This is another vocal highlight for Diana Ross; she offers up a dreamy interpretation reminiscent of her work on 1965’s superb Merry Christmas LP.  Ross manages to straddle a delicate line of sounding both period-appropriate and modern in her singing; the way her voice lightly dances over the melody evokes images of 1930s supper clubs, while her soulful “oooohs” (beginning at :39 and repeated throughout) are pure ’60s Diana Ross.  Unfortunately, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard aren’t used quite as much here, although they add some nice, surprising vocal flourishes; who can resist their sexy whisper of “Go away…” at 1:57?  This song also boasts a great, danceable instrumental break that really captures just how talented the featured musicians are on this album.  “Dancing On The Ceiling” is so smooth — and so totally effortless — that I think it’s an easy one to overlook on this album; certainly other songs here feature more striking arrangements and stronger hooks.  But this is one of the best inclusions, precisely because it’s so relaxed and unassuming; this is simply a great recording, with no need for any bells and whistles.

12.  Blue Moon:  This is probably the most recognizable tune featured on the album — it certainly ranks up there with “My Funny Valentine” — mainly due to the success of the doo-wop cover recorded by The Marcels (a #1 hit in 1961).  Interestingly, the liner notes to the 2002 CD release of The Complete Recordings notes that this song is the “only Rodgers & Hart success not associated with a stage or screen musical.”  Those familiar only with the upbeat Marcels version are in for a surprise here; The Supremes take the song back to its ballad roots, performing a gorgeous big-band version with stunning group harmonies.  This is a perfect way to end the album, as all three Supremes offer up strong work; Diana’s honeyed voice is sweet and engaging on the lead, while Mary and Florence croon like The Chordettes behind her.  The interplay beginning at 1:17 is especially enjoyable, as Ross sings the melody and Wilson and Ballard repeat “Blue moon, blue moon, blue moon!” behind her, and the song features an especially satisfying climax, as the key changes and the singers really get a chance to let their voices soar.  At its very heart, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart is a feel-good album, a work that’s meant to celebrate the timelessness of love; the optimistic “Blue Moon” sums it up succinctly.

***

The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart was a moderate success for the group; when it was released in May of 1967, it climbed to #20 on the Billboard 200 and #3 on the R&B albums chart, all of this without the benefit of an accompanying single from the LP.  In Diana Ross: A Biography, Gil Askey remembers Berry Gordy, Jr. saying about this album, “This proves what I have been saying all along, these girls are amazing!  Listen to this!  This is absolutely amazing!” (156).  Indeed, as a group, this is the best The Supremes would ever sound; Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard were all operating on a higher plane here, pushing themselves to the peak of their abilities.  Sadly, the three women would never get the chance to do it together again; Florence would be out of The Supremes within months of the LP’s release, and Diana would leave the group just a few years later.

Even if the knowledge of these forthcoming changes makes listening to The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart a bittersweet experience today, this is a triumphant work that deserves far greater attention than it receives.  This is the kind of album that would be showered with Grammys if it were released today; it is perfectly produced and performed, and definitive proof that The Supremes were more than just a carefully-crafted pop group.  The vocal work featured on this album is as good as anything that would ever come out of the Motown fold; one cannot listen to Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard on this album and honestly deny that they were in a class by themselves.

Final Analysis: 5/5 (Simply “Swell”)

Choice Cuts:  “Falling In Love With Love,” “Where Or When, ” “Lover”

Supremes Rodgers & Hart Back Cover

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The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland (1967)

The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland LP cover

“You persuaded me to love you, and I did…”

“We had no idea…we were just shooting from the hip, a gut reaction.  If it felt good and it stood up and we could remember it a couple of days later, we figured that we’d done our job.”

The above quote by Lamont Dozier (from The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits) is an astonishing one, considering what we now know about the outcome of this “gut reaction” method to choosing singles.  Between late 1963 and early 1968, The Supremes released a whopping eighteen singles written by the team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland (and produced by the latter two).  Of those, fourteen hit the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and ten peaked at #1.  Think about that for a moment — more than half of the records released by The Supremes under the guidance of Holland-Dozier-Holland topped the pop charts.  And all of this happened, according to Dozier, without any kind of master plan; “We were trying to make quality songs, quality music,” he says, simply, in the booklet to The Supremes box set.

Of course, beyond making quality music, H-D-H was busy making relevant music; the writers admittedly watched John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson closely, listening to the way The Beatles and The Beach Boys evolved as the decade progressed.  As the trio’s star group, The Supremes — Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard — matured and became more seasoned singers and entertainers, H-D-H obviously knew their sound needed to evolve too; Ross, in particular, had developed into a dramatic singer capable of great range and power.  Beginning with “My World Is Empty Without You” in late 1965, H-D-H began stepping forward in terms of lyrical content and production, delivering a turbulent masterpiece to The Supremes and following with danceable funk (“Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart”) and irrepressible pop/soul perfection (“You Can’t Hurry Love”).  And then, in October of 1966, came one giant leap for H-D-H and The Supremes, a song so modern and striking that it blazed a trail to #1 in roughly one short month.

That song, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” is arguably the most dazzling Supremes single ever, featuring the writers/producers, vocalists, and Motown musicians (the fabulous Funk Brothers) all in peak form.  Its success led Motown to release The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, a tribute to the men behind the music.  The LP was another big seller, featuring only songs written by H-D-H and containing a second #1 hit (“Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone”).  These singles, along with a handful of b-sides and filler tracks, are the heart of the album; these are some of the best songs ever recorded by the group.  Unfortunately, the rest don’t measure up; covers of songs by Martha and The Vandellas and The Isley Brothers feel hollow, and a few of the originals are weak.  Thus, like the previous two Supremes LPs, this one ends up a good, but uneven project.  Still, this is an essential simply because of what it represents; in listening to these songs, you’re listening to six of the most important people in pop music history, each of them undoubtedly talented and as a unit, unstoppable.

***

(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.  You Keep Me Hangin’ On:  This song is the musical equivalent of pure adrenaline, a rush of energy and excitement that’s heady and exhilarating. Past recordings like “Nothing But Heartaches” and “He’s All I Got” barely hinted at the breathless urgency that Holland-Dozier-Holland would deliver to The Supremes with this song.  Says Lamont Dozier, “We had four or five guitars playing that main figure.  I remember hearing something like that on the radio while I was driving to the studio — the news was coming on, and the thought occurred to me in the studio…Da-da-da, da-da, like a news flash” (The Supremes booklet).  That blaring guitar opening is iconic; it’s one of the great musical intros in popular music, soul-stirring in its intensity and made even more disconcerting by the back-and-forth switching of audio channels on the stereo master.  This recording is a shining moment for Motown studio band The Funk Brothers — it’s perhaps the shining moment — featuring a tough and edgy playing by every single musician involved.  The staccato guitars are the stars here, but really focus on the galloping percussion or the bouncy bassline and you’ll understand how ridiculously intricate these musical signatures are.  The track is thick with sound; Dozier comments in The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, “We didn’t have certain echo and sophistication we have today, so we discovered that the more instruments — even if the guys only played units and all the same licks together — only enhanced the sound, gave us a more dynamic sound” (26).  That philosophy carries over to the vocals on this recording, with the brilliant idea of multi-tracking the lead; because the established Diana Ross sound was one of acute emotional urgency, the doubling of her voice only intensifies that quality.  The singer’s performance here is masterful; never before had she pushed her unique, piercing tone to such a devastating place, delivering the lyrics as one breathless plea for help.  There’s also a real skill in the way she couples emotional fragility with vocal strength; although she sings from the point of view of a woman in total desperation (“And there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it”), her performance is anything but weak.  She’s buoyed by the fantastic work of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who are given their best vocal opportunities on a Supremes single since “Nothing But Heartaches” — here, the work of Wilson and Ballard is essential, and the ladies wail on this track, particularly at the 1:34 mark, at which their voices explode with the powerful, “Set me free, why don’t you, babe!”  Because this track feels so modern — so ahead of its time, in many ways — it’s surprising to learn that it was actually finished at the same time as the group’s previous #1 hit.  According to Brian Holland, “I liked ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ better, but Billie Jean Brown, who worked in Quality Control, said, ‘We have to go with ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ first.  I was listening to the production and the melody thing; but I think she was taken with the lyric, and convinced Berry” (The Supremes booklet).  In retrospect, Brown made the right call; “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a perfect Supremes single, but it might have sounded like a step back coming on the heels of something so genre-busting.  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is rock n’ roll, and pop, and soul…it’s a song that better than any other defines the talent of the young men and women who created it.

2.  You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart):  This is the Motown version of a funeral dirge, a slow and depressing song that nearly manages to suck away all of the life and energy provided by the previous track.  This song first surfaced as the b-side to “Come See About Me” back in October of 1964, when it was simply titled “Always In My Heart.”  The tune was left off of Where Did Our Love Go and More Hits By The Supremes (thank goodness, as the latter was way too good for this song), but for whatever reason resurrected for inclusion here.  Set to a plodding (almost non-existent) beat and opening with ominous drums that sound appropriate for a march to the guillotine, the instrumental track here is spare but still quite heavy; the playing is accomplished, but not particularly enjoyable.  Diana Ross was clearly much younger when she recorded this song; she’s high and girlish here, and rather affected during several passages.  It’s not a terrible vocal performance, but it’s raw and lacks the technical skill she’d picked up by 1967.  Better than the lead is the work on the backgrounds; Florence and Mary offer up haunting vocals, howling like ghosts behind Ross during the verses.  Similar to early Supremes songs like “Run, Run, Run” and “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” there are other voices featured on this track, too, noticeable during the refrain.  Considering it’s sandwiched between two of the most dramatic and modern songs recorded by The Supremes thus far, “You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart)” sounds especially out of place; it’s always nice to hear a change of pace from H-D-H and The Supremes, but this one just weighs the album down.

3.  Love Is Here And No You’re Gone:  “That was one of the first times we went out of the confines of the Motown studio,” recalls Lamont Dozier (in the booklet to the box set The Supremes), and one listen to this song immediately proves that Holland-Dozier-Holland were expanding their horizons.  Released as a single in January 1967 (the same month of release as this LP), “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in early March, and then hit #1 on the R&B chart the following week.  According to The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland cut the track in Los Angeles, and “Love Is Here” certainly sounds inspired by the location; it’s a big, dramatic song broken up by spoken passages and featuring an intricate, baroque musical track.  The song kicks off with an unusual keyboard opening, staccato chords accompanied by ethereal, otherworldly voices; the rest of the track is driven by a steady beat and swirling strings, expertly performed by the LA musicians.  As with previous single “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson are crucial to the song’s success; their prominent responses to the “call” of Diana Ross harken back to the earliest Supremes recordings.  Wilson and Ballard provide some of the recording’s most memorable moments, including their repetition of the phrase “Look what you’ve done” under Diana’s spoken sections.  Miss Ross, meanwhile, mints one of her most passionate performances; her emotive singing and spoken lines are predictive of her work on the 1970 #1 single “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (a solo hit which remains arguably the greatest performance of her career).  Although Ross hadn’t ventured into acting yet, she gives a “movie star” reading here, pronouncing the word “here” as “he-ah” and “darling” as “dah-lin'” like a Tallulah Bankhead-in-training.  Ross is brassy and powerful in her singing, really pushing her voice and attacking certain phrases (listen to her really go for the notes at 1:20, on the line “Just walked away!” and again at just past the two-minute mark).  Ross drops her voice during the spoken words, soulfully delivering the dialogue and ending with a little “hiccup” tic that’s pure genius; this touch is something Ross would further incorporate into her live performances and recordings, and would be mimicked by Michael Jackson for years afterward.  Everyone is operating at full speed here; the musicians, the singers, and especially the writers-producers, who are working in a totally different universe than “Baby Love” here; the end result is one that Eddie Holland would later call, “My personal favorite.  That song just had an exotic feel to it, as well as the song ‘Reflections.’  There was a provocative feel about them, due to the orchestration and production” (The Supremes booklet).  It remains an exotic and provocative record today.

4.  Mother You, Smother You:  This song was originally scheduled as the b-side for “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — that release was cancelled, and “Remove This Doubt” ended up on the flipside of the hit single instead.  Perhaps Motown felt “Mother You, Smother You” had potential as an a-side and decided to hold off on releasing it; it’s certainly one of the better tracks on this album and sounds like it could have done well at radio.  After the emotional double-whammy of the #1 hits on this LP, “Mother You, Smother You” is a easy-going tune that pairs a mature, sexy lyric with softly-swinging instrumental track; it feels like a grown-up version of “Whisper You Love Me Boy” from More Hits By The SupremesDiana’s lead vocal is relaxed and soulful; there’s a nice confidence in her delivery, and she does quite well keeping up with the tightly-packed lyrics during the verses.  I love her phrasing at around 1:30, as she throws in a “Oh!” before the line “I’ll be standing by your side” — it’s a perfect example of the kind of seemingly insignificant vocal flourishes Ross would toss into a recording which, when listened to today, are clearly an essential part of her magic as a vocalist.  Interestingly, “Mother You, Smother You” did end up being released as a Supremes single — but not one featuring Diana Ross.  In 1966, Detroit radio station WKNR and DJ Scott Regen hosted a contest called “Record A Record With The Supremes” — it was won by a local teen named Christine Schumacher, who recorded this song as her prize.  Ms. Schumacher laid her vocals down over the backing track and Supremes background vocals, and it was released as a double-side promo single in December of that year, credited to Christine Schumacher Sings With The Supremes.  (NOTE: You can read more about Schumacher and the contest on the website Motor City Radio Flashbacks — it’s a cool story and she does a really nice job with the song.)

5.  I Guess I’ll Always Love You:  This song was originally recorded by The Isley Brothers and included on that group’s 1966 LP This Old Heart Of Mine; it was released as a single in June of that year.  H-D-H cut the song in a high key, perfect for the wobbly falsetto of Ronald Isley and the crowd of voices singing behind him during the chorus.  The version here utilizes the same backing track, and unfortunately it doesn’t work nearly as well for The Supremes.  Ross never sounds completely comfortable going for the higher notes, and the result is a performance that’s fairly weak, especially in light of the powerhouse vocals she’s already displayed on this album’s two singles.  Wilson and Ballard offer up good background work, faring better than Miss Ross mainly because they don’t have to keep reaching to the top of their ranges like she does; they’re at least finally given a chance again to do some nice harmonizing and provide full-bodied “response” work throughout.  Interestingly, considering this is not one of the LP’s best tracks, this song was placed on the b-side of “In And Out Of Love,” a top 10 single released in October of 1967 (the a-side would be included on the group’s 1968 LP Reflections).

6.  I’ll Turn To Stone:  This is a bouncy H-D-H composition (co-written with R. Dean Taylor) also recorded by The Four Tops and included on their 1967 LP Reach Out (it was also featured as the b-side to the group’s top 20 single “7-Rooms Of Gloom.”  This song is classic H-D-H, featuring an urgent lyric about the fear of losing love and set atop a chunky Funk Brothers instrumental, and in theory it should be perfect for The Supremes.  The problem here is that it sounds tired and outdated alongside the sophisticated singles included on the LP.  There’s no experimentation or boundary-pushing on this track, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except that neither is the song terribly distinguished.  Part of the issue is the lyrics, which are quite clunky; “If from my life/You were ever gone/I’d fall to pieces/You I depend on” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.  Ross, Wilson, and Ballard do an admirable job here, and the instrumental is up to par — but the end result doesn’t like the potential hit that “Mother You, Smother You” and some of the later songs do.

7.  It’s The Same Old Song:  In the same way that the Hollands and Lamont Dozier were essential to the success of The Supremes, so were the writers instrumental in making The Four Tops the legendary group it would become.  Although the Tops had been recording professionally since the 1950s, it wasn’t until the group signed to Motown and released the H-D-H song “Baby I Need Your Loving” in 1964 that it broke into the mainstream.  A string of huge hits followed, mostly written by H-D-H, including two that topped the Billboard Hot 100 (“I Can’t Help Myself” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There”).  “It’s The Same Old Song” was the follow-up to the first of those #1 hits; released in 1965, it was a top 5 pop and R&B hit.  The Supremes offer up a peppy version of the hit here; similar to the cover of “Baby I Need Your Loving” featured on The Supremes A’ Go-Go, the tempo is picked up, which robs the song of some emotional power.  Diana really races through it, charging ahead like a sprinter running for the finish line; she sounds good and handles the pace well, but it would have been nice had she been given a chance to dig into the lyrics a little more.  Ditto for Mary and Florence, who do a fine job but are fairly buried in the mix (and honestly, I’m not totally sure it’s those two in the background).  In the end, it’s the songwriters who come off best here; their composition is so good that even a faster, less distinguished arrangement can’t sink it.  Holland-Dozier-Holland were truly masters of the pop/soul sound, and both The Supremes and The Four Tops were the perfect groups to take that sound to the masses.

8.  Going Down For The Third Time:  This is one of the great “should-have-beens” in The Supremes discography, a rollicking song that ended up as the b-side for “Reflections” later in the year.  But “Going Down For The Third Time” is so superb it easily could have been a hit on its own; spotlighted by a ferocious lead vocal and boisterous backgrounds, this recording is gem waiting to be discovered by those only familiar with the group’s big hits.  Opening with a pounding piano line and the loud “Save me!” refrain, the song explodes into a percussive soul-stirrer, almost as frantic as “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” but less stylized and rougher around the edges.  Diana Ross offers up one of her most dynamic vocal performances of the decade here, displaying a power that some critics are still unaware she possesses.  There’s a rawness to the singer’s voice here that’s exciting and extremely appealing; she growls and wails and goes for notes with the confidence of a performer who’s not worried about perfection.  Listen, for example, to her read on the lyrics “I’ll forgive your lies and alibis/If you’ll wipe my crying’ eyes” at 1:53; she full-on attacks the words.  The background vocals are also a key ingredient on the record, filling in what little empty space there is with uncontrolled pleas for help.  Of course, none of this would work without a fiery Funk Brothers instrumental track, and the Detroit players deliver the goods here; the piano really rocks on this track, lending echoes of gospel and early rock n’ roll, and the guitar work during the “I’m lost in a world without your love…” section (at roughly :25 in, and repeated a few times) is reminiscent of the terrific work on this LP’s lead-off track.  Although a mono mix was issued on the 2000 box set The Supremes, “Going Down For The Third Time” has been unfairly overlooked through the years; it’s one of the best Supremes album tracks of the 1960s, and a shining moment for Diana Ross as a soul singer.

9.  Love Is In Our Hearts:  All the fire and fury whipped up by the previous track disappears with this one, a song that (according to J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography) was actually recorded back in 1964.  If indeed that’s the case, it’s not a big surprise that it was held back; this is a meandering song that’s pretty forgettable.  Built around a simplistic, major-chord melody, the song is at least one of the more optimistic in the H-D-H cannon, featuring saccharine lyrics like the opening couplet, “We’re happy holding hands/To us, love’s been grand.”  There’s not much of a discernible structure here, no real verses or choruses, and only the semblance of a bridge; The Supremes just keep singing about love until the song is finally over.  The singing is the saving grace; if this is the original lead vocal recorded by Diana in 1964, then she certainly offered up a seasoned reading at the time, with intelligent and dreamy phrasing that’s better than the song deserves (but it’s possible the singer dubbed in a new vocal in 1966).  Likewise, Mary and Florence contribute strong support, their voices riding comfortable over the melody.  It’s not as bad as the earlier “You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart)” — thanks mainly to a better vocal performance by the group — but it never sounds like anything other than generic album filler.

10.  Remove This Doubt:  This is another holdover from 1964, but the story couldn’t be more different from that of “Love Is In Our Hearts” — this is a dark, cinematic track that’s another one of the great Supremes b-sides.  In fact, scratch that — it’s got to be one the all-time great Motown b-sides, period.  From the epic, thunderous opening to the swirling strings and ghostly background vocals, “Remove This Doubt” is just different; it’s musically sophisticated and lyrically wise in a way that’s far beyond the years of the artists who were creating it.  There’s the kernel of ’50s doo-wop here, but the doors have been blown wide open, expanding it into a haunting rock theme; this song really is a rock n’ roll ballad, and it’s not a surprise that while the song was apparently never covered by any Motown artists, it was recorded by Elvis Costello for this 1995 disc Kojak Variety.  Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard are superb on this track; all three signers are dreamy and hypnotic, with Ross transmitting a numb sadness on the lead vocal and Wilson/Ballard wailing behind her like tortured spirits.  The way the ladies deliver the song’s key phrase — as “re-MOOOOVE this doubt” — is a brilliant hook, instantly memorable and totally unique.  The musicianship on display here is also staggering; this must be one of the most devastating string arrangements ever featured on a classic Motown song, with the instrumental break in particular worthy of a place at the beginning of a film.  Though it was apparently held back for quite some time, “Remove This Doubt” was finally placed on the flipside of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” ensuring it a wide audience.  It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened it the song was released as an a-side; chances are, it was a little too esoteric for pop radio.  Still, this is a key Supremes track, and a demonstration of how far the talent of Holland-Dozier-Holland extended.

11.  There’s No Stopping Us Now:  This is a song that’s so good — so quintessential Supremes — that many listeners would probably assume it was another in the group’s long string of #1 hits.  In reality, “There’s No Stopping Us Now” was featured as the b-side of “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” — although it proved popular enough that Motown placed it on the group’s double-LP Greatest Hits.  This is a crisp, exciting track with a strong melody and lyric; it easily could have been a big hit for the group.  Although it’s a more traditional song than this album’s more experimental singles, it’s a solid enough composition that it doesn’t need to push boundaries; thanks to an excellent Funk Brothers instrumental (with fantastic percussion work and a triumphant piano line), there’s a stirring energy that carries the song.  The lyrics here ring with optimism (“There’s no stopping us now/Now we have found our way”), and are delivered with verve by Diana Ross.  The singer sounds as assured and confident here as she does on any of the album’s inclusions; the melody makes good use of her range, letting Ross display her relaxed lower tones as well as push for some higher, more powerful notes.  Listen to the way she punches certain words at 1:55, delivering the lyrics as “NOW that we’ve FOUND love we’ve GOT to hold ON love…” before leaping back to the refrain; this is incredibly skillful phrasing that lends a necessary eagerness to the song, and the kind of thing that apparently always came naturally to the singer (in the 2000 box set booklet, Eddie Holland would comment, “Her ear and her feel — she had a natural feel, she had a natural understanding for that kind of lyric”).  When listened to today, there’s also a bittersweet quality to this recording, considering H-D-H would soon leave Motown and The Supremes would experience irreparable issues within the group.  At least for these three minutes, the ladies and their writer-producers sound poised to keep on conquering the world together.

12.  Love Is Like A Heat Wave:  “There’s No Stopping Us Now” would have made a dynamite finish to The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland; instead, the LP ends with this unnecessary cover of the song made famous by fellow Motown girl-group Martha and The Vandellas.  “Heat Wave” was the second collaboration between H-D-H and The Vandellas (after “Come And Get These Memories” — already covered by The Supremes on The Supremes A’ Go-Go), and it was an enormous hit, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.  As the title implies, it’s a blistering piece propelled by an incredibly soulful instrumental track and a fiery vocal performance by Martha Reeves.  The version included here offers none of those elements; the track is really watered down, and Diana Ross works a little too hard to summon the grit and gutsiness needed to pull the song off.  Some of the singer’s ad-libs are actually pretty impressive; she’s certainly pushing here, and doesn’t seem concerned with sounding pretty or polished.  Still, there’s an inconsistency to her work and it’s just too easy to compare it to the iconic performance of Ms. Reeves.  Likewise, the backgrounds are lackluster; the Vandellas were loud and uncontrolled, egging on Martha and warning her “Don’t pass up this chance!”  The voices behind Ross (it’s tough to tell if it’s Mary and Florence or session singers) sound a little too prim and proper, less like schoolgirls than student teachers.  Though it’s not a total misfire, Andrew Hamilton nails it in his AllMusic review of this album, writing, “The Vandellas’ version was special, while this one comes off like another song for the session.”

***

The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is an album of tremendous highs and lows.  The very best songs here (six of them, including the two #1 hit singles and their b-sides) represent the best of Motown, and are just about as good as pop music would ever get; the way H-D-H and The Supremes blur lines between pop, soul, and rock music is still as spellbinding as it must have been in 1966-1967.  But the fact that there are so many peaks and valleys is perhaps appropriate given the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.  Less than a year after the release of this album, Florence Ballard would be out of the group, forever ending the dream of the three young girls from the Brewster Projects who once said, “We’re going to always continue to make records for our fans, because this we love and we want to do something that will make them happy and that also makes us happy, too.”  Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, who’d been a member of Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles.

1968 would also bring about the breakup of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Motown, due to a dispute over money.  According to the British music magazine MOJO, “[Motown founder Berry] Gordy offered them $100,000 a year each to stay but HDH didn’t accept and left” (February 2009).  Both The Supremes and H-D-H would score successes without each other, but neither would ever reclaim the kind of chart supremacy (pardon the pun) they’d enjoyed together from 1964-1967; the last of their collaborations would appear on 1968’s Reflections, but this LP is truly the end of the halcyon years.  For whatever reason, the combination of these six young men and women was magical; the guys crafted songs that spoke directly to millions and millions of listeners, and the ladies possessed the talent to bring those songs to life.  And because of the legacy of their music, these lyrics to “There’s No Stopping Us Now” remain relevant today:

Nothing can shake us,
Nothing can break us,
We’ll be together
Forever and ever…

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Six Classics, But The Rest Leaves Us “Hangin'”)

Choice Cuts: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” “Going Down For The Third Time”

The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland Back Cover                           

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It’s Here! Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition

The Supremes Merry Christmas Expanded Edition

Merry Christmas to us!  Just days after the release of the long-awaited Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wizfans are being treated to another holiday gift.

Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition by The Supremes is now available as a digital download, and it’s packed with every single one of the group’s holiday recordings.  This means it’s got the 1965 LP’s original 12 tracks, plus several others that have surfaced over the years (including two leads from Florence Ballard, on “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night”).  Expanded Edition also includes both the stereo AND original mono versions of the LP — great news, considering many fans have always preferred the mono mixes of the songs (the mono “White Christmas” is stunning).  There’s also a full-color digital booklet, with a few new tidbits (hint: there’s something VERY surprising about the background vocals on “Children’s Christmas Song”).

Check it out and let me know what you think — and read along with my review of the original 1965 LP here (which has garnered the only 5/5 rating thus far in my Supremes reviews!).

Posted in Previously Unreleased Tracks, Unreleased Tracks | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz (Released 2015)

Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz

“Believe that you can go home…just believe you can float on air…

Of all the known treasures resting in the Motown vaults, one of the most tantalizing had always been Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz. Not a lot was known about the project, aside from the fact that Ross recorded it soon after she’d filmed her role as Dorothy for the 1978 movie musical The Wiz. Of course, the reason for recording the album was obvious; MCA Records released the film’s actual soundtrack, and Motown wanted to be ready with its own project to capitalize off of the anticipated success. After all, Diana Ross was still a Motown artist, and her previous two films (Lady Sings The Blues and Mahogany) had led to a #1 album and a #1 single, respectively; surely this — a full-fledged musical — would do the same. But when The Wiz finally opened in October 1978, it performed far below expectations, despite boasting a big budget and an all-star cast. Thus, the planned Motown Wiz LP was put on the shelf, and Miss Ross moved forward with another album (1979’s The Boss, restoring her to popular favor).

Though the movie was not a hit, and the accompanying soundtrack only did moderately well (it did gain a Grammy nomination for Ross and Michael Jackson, for their duet on the bouncy “Ease On Down The Road”), both have since become classics in their own right; the movie is far more favorably judged today, and still airs regularly on television, while the soundtrack remains in print and regained interest after the passing of Michael Jackson. There is no doubt that the soundtrack features Diana Ross at the absolute peak of her vocal abilities; her takes on “Home” and particularly “Be A Lion” are astounding, earning her tremendous respect from producer Quincy Jones (“Diana Ross is probably the hardest working performer I’ve ever worked with,” he wrote in the soundtrack’s liner notes). When her stellar Motown studio version of “Home” finally surfaced on the 2001 compilation The Motown Anthology, it led to much speculation about the rest of her recordings for Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz. Could the remainder of the album — featuring every character performed by Ross — be as good?

The answer is an unequivocal and enthusiastic yes. Finally released digitally in November 2015 (acknowledgment must go to Andrew Skurow, George Solomon, and Harry Weinger for making it happen), Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz showcases the singer at her creative best, having an absolute ball acting out various roles from the musical. Producer Lee Holdridge crafted smart arrangements for the 13 inclusions here, tightening the songs up just enough that they work individually, but never removing them too far from their movie-musical origins. Miss Ross (who produced the vocal sessions with Suzanne dePasse) uses these songs to demonstrate her impressive versatility; she croons, she squeaks, she hisses, she growls, and most impressively, she belts in a way many people are unaware that she’s capable of. This is dynamic, soulful singing, coming from an artist who is feeling the lyrics with a deep intensity. Although Diana Ross has enjoyed legendary success in her decades-long career, she remains vastly underrated as a vocalist; this is precisely the kind of work that proves how unique and powerful her voice is and always was.

***

1.  The Feeling We Once Had:  This is the perfect album opener, a warm ballad delivered with maturity and heart by Miss Ross. It’s one of the few songs from the film that really works in or out of the context of the story, and the version arranged by producer Holdridge could fit into any Ross album of the period (in fact, it’s not far removed sonically from the tracks on 1977’s masterful Baby It’s Me). Opening with a soulful piano line, the song incorporates folksy bongos and smooth strings to create a comfortable, “shoes off” atmosphere, evoking the kind of family get-together portrayed at the beginning of the film. Miss Ross has rarely sounded as relaxed or wise as she does on the opening lines, warmly advising, “Put your arms around me child/Like when you bumped your shin…” as though she’s singing directly to her own children. There’s great power in her delivery of the song’s chorus; listen to her dynamic singing at 1:54, as she really wails the lyrics, “I’d like to know it’s there/The feeling that we have” — this is great, deeply-felt singing. For those who still don’t consider Diana Ross a true “soul” singer, this should he required listening; it would have been a standout on any of her albums from the 1970s. Amazingly, it’s only the beginning here, and there are more exciting performances to come.

2.  He’s The Wizard:  A sultry, jazzy version of this playful song from The Wiz; the track here sounds like it could have come from the same session that produced Diana’s earlier single “Gettin’ Ready For Love.”  The keyboards, sax, and ringing chimes are beautifully done; it’s a real feat that the track here transforms a story-specific song into something that sounds like it could exist outside the rest of the album. Diana Ross shades her voice nicely here, delivering the bulk of the song in a breathy, hushed tone reminiscent of her work on “You’re Good My Child” from 1976’s Diana Ross — and it works far better here, because she’s using it to convey a distinct character rather than simply making a strange interpretive choice. The singer does let loose a few times here, her voice exploding at 1:55 as she wails the line, “And in a flash you will be home” and again, particularly during the final minute of running time (don’t miss her delightful growls at 2:37). There’s also a great instrumental break here; again, kudos to producer Holdridge and the studio musicians for lifting this track far above standard “showtune” territory.

3.  Soon As I Get Home:  This is the first of the album’s “Dorothy ballads” — a series of songs about self-discovery that Ross also performed in the movie. Diana has been quite forthcoming about her connection to these songs, writing in her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow about how they spoke directly to her personal situation at the time of recording: “They were so perfectly related to what was going on inside of me: my fear of showing my true feelings, the confusion of being in a new and unfamiliar place, the isolation of being alone, having no friends, trying to find my way one step at a time.  It was all there, in the words to these wonderful songs, and I got to voice them each time I opened up my mouth to sing” (187-8).  “Soon As I Get Home” was truncated on the film’s soundtrack, and so the version here features additional lyrics from the Broadway musical; still, it’s a rather meandering tune that feels more like a bridge between two songs than a distinct composition itself (in fact, in both the film and stage versions, the song segues into an early rendition of “Home”).  Diana is really “acting” this piece, rather than singing; she sounds wonderful, skillfully conveying the feeling of a lost soul.  I especially enjoy how bell-like her voice is on certain phrases, such as at 1:02, as she sings the word “frowning” — the clarity of tone is breathtaking.

4.  Trio Medley: You Can’t Win/Slide Some Oil/(I’m A) Mean Ole Lion:  The original 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz gave its trio of sidekick characters variations on the same song; the Scarecrow sang “If I Only Had A Brain,” the Tin Man crooned “If I Only Had A Heart,” and the Cowardly Lion roared through “If I Only Had The Nerve.” In The Wiz, each of the characters is similarly given solos that convey his unique personality and predicament, and Diana Ross tackles each one here in a nearly-six minute suite. She begins with “You Can’t Win” — sung on the film’s soundtrack by the young Michael Jackson, whom Ross had championed for the role of the Scarecrow. Ross chooses to deliver the song in a high, nasal tone, and one has to wonder if she’s simply trying to convey the character’s innocence and sweetness…or if she’s slyly doing an impression of Mr. Jackson. If she is, it’s certainly good-natured, as the two were lifelong friends; still, Diana is a clever singer and a gifted mimic, and at times here she sounds startlingly like Michael (for an example, listen as she sings the song’s title phrase at 1:11; she captures his tone spot-on).  “You Can’t Win” takes up the bulk of this medley, and it’s mainly silly fun, although Ross does offer up some soulful vocal flourishes and some cute laughter toward the end, which might or might not have been planned.  As the first song fades out, Diana returns in deeper voice, channeling the Tin Man on a very brief rendition of “Slide Some Oil.”  Her work here is reminiscent of her rendition of “Behind Closed Doors” from 1974’s Last Time I Saw Him; it’s rootsy and soulful, and her reading adds just a tinge of country-and-western to the song.  Finally, electric guitars burst forth, and Diana lets loose with a “Roar!” that signals the final character of the trio, the Cowardly Lion.  “(I’m A) Mean Ole Lion” is set to a driving rock beat, and Ross really attacks the vocal, growling through most of the song and clearly having a blast behind the microphone.  And that’s the pervasive feeling throughout this entire medley; Ross really sounds like she’s having fun.  The singer certainly manages to create three distinct sounds here, something that shouldn’t be surprising considering she’s an Academy Award-nominated actress.

5.  Ease On Down The Road:  Aside from the ballad “Home,” this is the most famous song from The Wiz, a vibrant and funky take on “We’re Off To See The Wizard” from the original The Wizard Of Oz.  Ross and Michael Jackson shared the song in the film (and also reprised it a few times with other characters); their version hit #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, and earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (Earth, Wind & Fire won the award).  In recent years, Miss Ross has performed the song in concert again, always to great enthusiasm from audiences; it’s a joyful, celebratory song, and one that’s immediately recognizable to fans of the film.  Here, producer Lee Holdridge crafts a track fairly close that which features on the soundtrack; it’s smoother and less brassy, but remains upbeat and provides a nice bed for Diana’s elastic vocal.  Ross sounds terrific; she races through the lyrics with barely a second to breathe, but manages to nail the notes and add a few nice vocal flourishes.  Although Diana capably handles the lead vocal, it would have been nice to hear background singers behind her; along with including Michael Jackson, the soundtrack version also features a boisterous choir of background voices (noted singers Patti Austin, Roberta Flack, Cissy Houston, and Luther Vandross are all credited).  The fact that Ross is all alone on this recording does lead it to feel a little less energetic than it could have been, but it’s still an enjoyable listen and a reputable rendition of a classic.

6.  Be A Lion:  This song was the absolute standout on the Original Soundtrack Album to The Wiz, and that version remains one of the best vocal performances of Diana’s entire career.  I’ve long contended on this site that “Be A Lion” is the great hidden gem of the Ross discography, including it in this article as a “hit that got away.”  Because it’s a song that had only appeared on the soundtrack album (to my knowledge, Miss Ross was never recorded performing the song live), this unearthed studio version is especially exciting.  Of course, it faces an almost impossibly high bar, as Quincy Jones had produced a sumptuous orchestration for the film and coaxed a career-defining performance from Diana.  So how does this “Lion” stack up?  It’s a masterpiece.  This is the only song on Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz not arranged by Lee Holdridge; instead, it’s credited to Peter Myers, who paces the verses differently but retains the dreamy feel of the soundtrack version.  The production here is classy and warm — it could be classified as “Quiet Storm” — featuring a crisp piano line and beautiful guitar work.  Diana’s voice is rich and velvety at the beginning, her lower tones full and controlled, and the higher notes as round and clear as drops of water; listen to her sing the words “a summer storm” at :50 and hear how healthy and strong her vocal sounds.  There’s no doubt Ross was in top vocal shape at the time she recorded this track (in late 1978, according to the accompanying digital booklet); she’d spent the previous few years touring with her demanding “An Evening With Diana Ross” extravaganza, and had worked with Richard Perry on what is arguably her best single disc ever, Baby It’s Me As the song progresses, it builds toward a thunderous climax; in The Wiz, it’s used to musically illustrate the ideas of finding one’s voice and “standing strong and tall” against adversity, and that’s exactly what it affords Ross the opportunity to do here.  The final minute-and-a-half of the song contain possibly the most powerful vocals ever recorded by Diana Ross; her belting as she repeats the word “tryin'” at 2:34 is jaw-dropping, and she pushes even further here than she had under the direction of Quincy Jones.  This is the kind of lung power that just isn’t associated with Diana Ross, and it’s something short-sighted critics have spent years convinced the singer wasn’t capable of.  Of course, fans always knew better — but even for longtime Ross devotees, her work on this track is illuminating.  Later, Miss Ross would write of the songs included in The Wiz, “I had great joy in performing them and felt that I was taking in and putting out an important, positive, meaningful message” (Secrets Of A Sparrow, 189).  Indeed, not only does Diana Ross sound inspired on “Be A Lion” — she’s also brilliantly inspiring.

7.  So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard:  Ever wonder what “Love Hangover” would’ve sounded like as performed by Linda Blair in The Exorcist?  Well, here’s your chance.  Diana Ross has recorded some strange material in her career; from her take on hard rock (“Fool For Your Love”) to her wacky attempt at synth-pop (“Nobody Makes Me Crazy Like You Do”), the singer has clearly never been afraid to climb out on a musical limb.  Enter “So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard” — which swoops in and officially claims the title of Most Insane Diana Ross Recording Ever.  The team here manages to create a nearly three-minute disco acid trip, a vortex of wild audio effects set to a dark, driving 70s club beat.  Ross screeches and growls through most of the piece, laughing maniacally and barking orders at the listener; at 1:10, she eerily recites a few lines (“So keep your eyes open/And the magic you’ll see/It will whistle through the wind/As it emanates from me”) and suddenly sounds like Nina Simone on the chilling “Pirate Jenny.”  Ross is all over the place, thunderous in one moment, then helium-filled in the next — the only thing missing is Max von Sydow wailing “The power of Christ compels you!”  It’s a completely crazy creation, a “song” that must be heard to be believed — it’s also a highlight of this album, simply because you’ll never hear anything else like it coming from Diana Ross.

8.  Is This What Feeling Gets? (Dorothy’s Theme):  After the terrifying ride of the previous track, the album returns to familiar territory with this song, another “Dorothy ballad” about self-discovery and empowerment.  What makes this an interesting inclusion is the fact that it wasn’t written by Charlie Smalls, who composed the Broadway musical upon which The Wiz film was based; it was written specifically for the film by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.  Any Diana Ross fan will instantly realize the significance of these names; Ashford and Simpson wrote and produced the singer’s 1970 solo debut, along with her seminal soul album from the following year, Surrender.  Here, the duo (along with Quincy Jones) work up a simple and loose melody with lyrics that basically spell out Dorothy’s dilemma; namely, if she can release the fear that’s holding her back.  Diana really sings this one in character, evoking the vulnerability of her character by delivering the lyrics with restraint and deep feeling.  Her lower notes are beautifully controlled and soulful, and toward the end of the song, she opens up and releases the kind of power she’d earlier displayed on “Be A Lion” — her reading of the lyrics “There’s nothing here/But the fear/Of will I try?” is revelatory.  As with the earlier “Soon As I Get Home,” this never quite feels like a fully-formed song, but it does feature another stellar vocal performance.

9.  Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News:  This is a rollicking tune performed by wicked witch Evilene in the Broadway and film productions of The Wiz.  The arrangement here is great; it’s pure gospel, with sizzling organ work and a pervasive backbeat.  Ross really digs into the song, growling her way through the lyrics with a throaty, go-for-broke performance.  Diana delivers plenty of fire but remains within a fairly limited range; that said, it’s such a short track (running barely more than two minutes) that she isn’t given much of a chance to demonstrate vocal gymnastics.  Not necessarily a highlight of the album, this song is still an awfully fun inclusion.

10.  Wonder Wonder Why:  A stunning ballad that serves as the album’s biggest surprise, “Wonder Wonder Why” was written by Charlie Smalls for the original stage version of The Wiz, but the song was cut before the show opened on Broadway.  Although it’s surfaced in later productions, it wasn’t included in the 1978 film, and is thus a little-known addition to the musical’s score.  Admittedly, the song doesn’t differ much from the other “Dorothy ballads” that did make the soundtrack; the song mines familiar lyrical territory.  Still, it emerges as a standout on this album, thanks to the achingly beautiful production and another stellar performance by Diana Ross.  Holdridge creates a spellbinding instrumental track dominated by delicate acoustic guitars and dreamy, ringing vibes; it’s one of the best arrangements on the album.  And Diana’s vocal is simply gorgeous, ranking among the best of her ballad work; she is so mature here, so effortless, that it really takes several listens to fully realize how accomplished this performance really is.  The way she shifts between a lighter, more vulnerable sound to strong, impassioned singing is a marvel of control; I can’t think of many other singers able to convey emotion with such efficiency.  It’s a shame this song took so long to surface; it would have been a perfect addition to any of the singer’s albums of the period.  That said, it’s a “wonder”-ful gift to have now.

11.  A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice):  This is the “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” moment in The Wiz, a massive celebration now that Oz has been freed from the tyranny of Evilene.  On the soundtrack version, it features several characters trading off lines, including the voice of Luther Vandross, who wrote the song (he also recorded it for the 1976 LP Luther).  Here, Diana Ross tackles the upbeat song alone, which turns out to be an unfortunate choice, as it robs the song of its celebratory feel (it’s possible producer Holdridge intended to add backgrounds to some of the songs, but never did after the release was called off).  Ross certainly does her best with the song, racing through the lyric-packed verses and nailing the powerful chorus.  But listen closely and you’ll hear how out-of-breath she sounds; she’s practically panting during the verse that begins at 1:58.  Toward the end, Diana’s voice is doubled, which only accentuates how much better she would have sounded backed by a choir of soulful voices.  Too bad we couldn’t have gotten a Diana/Luther duet on this song — now that would be cause for rejoicing.

12.  Believe In Yourself:  This is a very pretty song, another one that spells out the musical’s themes of self-exploration and discovery.  It’s not a vocal standout for Ross, but she offers up a solid reading; she refrains from the kind of vocal fireworks present on “Be A Lion” or “Is This What Feelings Gets?” — but certainly puts some muscle behind her delivery of the song’s climax.  There’s a quiet confidence to “Believe In Yourself,” which is exactly what the message behind the song calls for.

13.  Home:  Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz closes what what is probably the musical’s most famous song, a classic “11 o’clock number” that helped make Stephanie Mills a star back in 1975 (Mills originated the role of Dorothy in the Broadway production of The Wiz, and she would later re-record “Home” in the 1980s and take the song to #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart).  Although there’s no doubt that Mills “owns” the song, it became an important one to the career of Diana Ross; after recording it for the film, Ross kept it in her stage act for many years, and included it on several televised performances (which you can read about in this Diana Ross Project article).  It obviously means enough to Ross that she built an entire chapter around the lyrics for her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow —  almost devoting as much time to this song and the making of the movie as she did her entire decade-long stint with The Supremes!  The singer’s performance on the film’s soundtrack was raw and emotional; she wasn’t so much singing the song as she experiencing it, something pointed out by James Lipton on Inside The Actor’s Studio, who called it “a definitive acting performance.”  The version included here is a little smoother — a little more Diana Ross — but it’s a powerful listening experience, nonetheless.  Holdridge offers up a shimmering arrangement, taking the whimsy of the film version and mixing in more pop-oriented instrumentation, notably a fabulous acoustic guitar accompanying Diana during the opening few lines.  Diana delivers another sublime vocal performance, singing the ballad with warmth and experience; her voice is deep and soulful in the beginning, with just a slight rawness around the edges, before building to a less-controlled, powerful finish.  The singer’s belting at the end is impressive, although she’s a bit wobbly on a few of the notes; the vocals aren’t as precise as those on “Be A Lion,” but the point of the song isn’t to be polished.  “Home” is a song designed to pack a wallop of a message, to quite literally “bring it on home,” and that’s exactly what Ross and Holdridge achieve here; when Diana Ross sings that she’s found a world full of love, it’s impossible not to believe her.

***

Had Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz been released in January of 1979 as planned, there’s no telling what the reaction would have been; certainly, given the limited success of the film and soundtrack, it’s not likely the album would have sold very well.  But late 2015 is the perfect time for the project’s release; for starters, interest in the musical has been revived thanks to a star-studded live production of The Wiz on NBC.  But more than that, Diana Ross has finally started to gain some of the critical favor she was unfairly denied earlier in her career; it’s no longer possible to ignore the incredible impact the singer has had on music, film, and pop culture.  And although many still consider her a “lightweight” soul singer, this collection proves otherwise; Diana’s work here is on par with anything else being produced by her peers at the time.  The Wiz was a journey that began with a dream (Ross says she literally dreamed she would play Dorothy) and led to several ups and downs for the singer; it comes to a satisfying end here, with the release of this astonishing album.

Time has been a friend, indeed…

Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Wonder”-Ful Collection)

Choice Cuts:  “Be A Lion,” “Wonder Wonder Why,” “Home”

Posted in Previously Unreleased Tracks, Studio Album, Unreleased Tracks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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 | 19 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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