Cream Of The Crop (1969)

Cream Of The Crop Diana Ross and The Supremes

“Could this be the beginning, the beginning of the end?”

It is perhaps the most poetic ending in popular music history.  In late December, 1969, “Someday We’ll Be Together” ascended to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming not only the final chart-topping hit by Diana Ross and The Supremes, but also the final #1 of the decade.  On the R&B side, the song hit the top spot on December 13, and remained there for a month, finally relinquishing the throne to the Motown act that would serve as the natural successor to The Supremes in terms of global success, The Jackson 5.  Nobody could have penned a better close to the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes, a group which had done so much more than just make chart history with its even dozen #1 singles and trio of chart-topping albums.  Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Cindy Birdsong had also broken down racial and gender barriers, achieving the kind of success generally reserved for white male performers and laying out the blueprint for every female singing group to follow.

Motown made the departure of Ross official in November, 1969, but in fact, Diana Ross and The Supremes had been recording as separate entities for quite some time.  In her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson notes a recording session with new lead singer Jean Terrell all the way back on June 23, and producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were already cutting tracks for Diana’s solo debut when “Someday We’ll Be Together” was climbing the charts.  Thus, building a final studio LP for Diana Ross and The Supremes meant reaching back into the Motown vaults; the eventual tracklist for Cream Of The Crop (released in November) contained songs mainly recorded in 1968, and at least one that dates back to 1966 (“Blowin’ In The Wind”).  As with the previous several group releases, various voices back Miss Ross on Cream Of The Crop, including Wilson, Birdsong, Ballard, Motown session singers, and even Syreeta Wright, who’d apparently been considered as Diana’s replacement in The Supremes.

The end result is an album that never stood a chance at being a cohesive work; it seems the only real purpose behind Cream Of The Crop was getting “Somebody We’ll Be Together” onto a full-length album.  The LP certainly wasn’t a big hit, charting worse than both of the previous albums released in 1969, Let The Sunshine In and Together (it peaked at #33 on the Billboard 200, although it did better than those other albums on the R&B chart, hitting #3).  All of that said, the album isn’t a total loss, and there are some surprising highlights here; aside from “Someday We’ll Be Together,” nothing sounds like a major hit single, but there are tunes that merit rediscovery.  Diana Ross especially shines, offering up an energetic take on The Beatles classic “Hey Jude” and exquisitely closing the album with quiet confidence on “The Beginning Of The End.”  If nothing else, the album is the final piece of evidence that Miss Ross was ready for a career beyond The Supremes, and that Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong were deserving a group more focused on their own talents.

***

1.  Someday We’ll Be Together:  This song had a long life before it ever became a #1 hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes; written by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua, it was recorded by Bristol and Beavers and released in the early 1960s.  According to Bristol, he’d re-recorded the track in 1969 with the intention of cutting it on Junior Walker; Bristol had co-written and produced Walker’s recent #1 R&B hit “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love).”  Fate intervened, however, when Motown chief Berry Gordy, Jr. had a different idea: “When Mr. Gordy heard the track, he said, ‘How would you like to do this on Diana Ross and The Supremes?’  There was no contest.  The track was complete when Mr. Gordy heard it; it was totally loaded with what you hear now, including the backup vocals and strings, except for the lead vocal.  Since I didn’t cut it with The Supremes in mind, you’ll notice it has a little more R&B flavor in it than most of The Supremes’ material” (The Supremes box set booklet).  Indeed, “Someday We’ll Be Together” is a gentle but potent mix of R&B, gospel, folk, and pop, a perfect blend of sounds for the changing musical landscape as the 1960s gave way to a new decade.  Opening with an immediately recognizable string riff (later sampled by Janet Jackson on her huge 1993 hit “If”), the track gives way to an easygoing beat dominated by strumming guitars, swirling strings, and the powerful background vocals of Maxine and Julia Waters.  Certainly hearing Diana Ross croon “Someday We’ll Be Together” with the knowledge that she was about to leave her longtime groupmates lent the song a bittersweet tone, but the vague lyrics carried a universal appeal; according to Bristol,  “There were a lot of circumstances around — like the war going on — that helped carry it to its success.  Its message was taken in so many different ways; you could be talking about your mom and dad who’ve passed on, or a loved one who’s in the war” (The Supremes booklet).  But the key ingredient for success here is the hypnotic performance of Miss Ross; never before had she seemed so completely relaxed on record, and it’s a startling change for the singer so often identified with an edgy, urgent sound.  In order to help create that mood, producer Bristol stepped into the booth and sang with her; his soulful words of encouragement remain on the record, and they’re a haunting touch, as if the disembodied voice of the missing loved one is responding to Diana’s hushed cries (NOTE: Bristol also sang along with Junior Walker on “What Does It Take,” his harmonies creating a similar effect).  According to Motown legend, the end result was good that “Someday We’ll Be Together” was considered for Diana’s solo debut; instead, the group’s manager Shelly Berger apparently heard the song and convinced Gordy to release it as the final single from Diana Ross and The Supremes.  The decision was brilliant; the song did exactly what everyone hoped it would do, which was to top the charts and provide the group with a high note upon which to end.  But more than that, “Someday We’ll Be Together” really captured the feeling of an era, and remains one of the most touching recordings in the Motown canon.

2.  Can’t You See It’s Me:  According to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this song was completed in June, 1968; it’s surprising it hadn’t found its way onto an earlier album, as it’s a polished piece of light funk that’s better than many of the older recordings eventually placed on 1969’s Let The Sunshine In (and even superior to one or two on 1968’s Love Child).  The song, written by Motown stalwarts Jack Goga, Ivy Jo Hunter, and Pamela Sawyer, isn’t a particularly memorable one — there’s a distinct lack of a strong hook — but it’s bouncy enough to create some momentum and the production is quite good.  Diana Ross offers up an exciting vocal performance; she’s fiery and engaging on the verses and the “Can’t You See…” refrain, and her ad-libs beginning at 2:10 are amazing.  Listen to the way she’s really pushing her voice as she wails, “You must be blind if you can’t see how much I love you, babe!”  She displays real power and range here, aspects of her voice that Ross is rarely given credit for.  It should be obvious to anyone who’s explored the deep cuts of the late-1960s Supremes that Ross is a superb soul singer, and this song is just further proof of how much her technical skill had developed.

3.  You Gave Me Love:  Cream Of The Crop continues with another surprisingly strong song, this one also written by Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua (of “Someday We’ll Be Together”), along with Marv Johnson.  “You Gave Me Love” must be one of the most upbeat, joyful songs ever released by The Supremes; perhaps not since she trilled “I Hear A Symphony” back in 1965 had Diana Ross sounded so optimistic about love.  “With just your touch/I feel such joy and ecstasy,” she sings, delivering the words in a warm, spirited performance; her work here is extremely skillful, especially in the way she perfectly enunciates during some of the more rapid-fire passages.  The production here is full of whimsical touches, from the brief symphonic overture to the plucking of harp strings; Ross even belts out “I’m satisfied” during then song’s final fade, a sly little throwback to the earlier Supremes hit “Back In My Arms Again.”  I’d love to believe the angelic background vocals are those of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, but I have a feeling it’s The Andantes providing the hooting harmonies behind Miss Ross; in any case, the vocal arrangement here is solid and reminiscent of something Smokey Robinson would have produced on the group.  “You Gave Me Love” is probably a little too retro in feel to have stood a chance at being a big hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes, but it’s delightful and much better than the usual album filler; it’s nice to hear something so positive from the group, and its inclusion here serves as a reminder of the kind of compact love songs that made the ladies superstars in the first place.

4.  Hey Jude:  I was hoping we could get through the final few Diana Ross and The Supremes albums without another Beatles cover; however, along comes “Hey Jude” just in the nick of time.  The original recording, of course, was a blockbuster hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for an astounding nine weeks in 1968; coincidentally, it was none other than “Love Child” by Diana Ross and The Supremes that finally knocked the song out of the top spot.  The Supremes had covered their male British counterparts several times in the past, beginning with their tribute album A Bit Of Liverpool in 1964; by all accounts, both groups were fans of each other’s work and always remained on friendly terms.  That said, The Supremes had never fared particularly well when tacking material written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; the Liverpool LP was disastrous, and Diana’s reading of “Yesterday” on 1965’s I Hear A Symphony uninspired.  The good news is that “Hey Jude” is easily the best Beatles cover ever released by Diana Ross and The Supremes; by quickening the pace and focusing attention on the beat, there’s at least an energy here that buoys the production.  Diana’s vocal performance is warm and appealing here; there’s a real vivacity to her singing, especially as the song progresses and she offers up some powerful ad-libs.  Her work on this track is similar to what she’d do with another Beatles tune, “Come Together,” on her 1970 solo LP Everything Is Everything.  In both cases, Ross adds a lot of soul to the recording, putting her own stamp on the material rather than delivering an affected, lifeless performance (i.e. “Yesterday”).  According to Don’t Forget The Motor City, production here comes courtesy The Clan (the collection of writers responsible for earlier hit singles “Love Child” and “I’m Livin’ In Shame”); much of the credit must also go to them for sidestepping the trap of making this sound like a cheap imitation of the ubiquitous original.

5.  The Young Folks:  This is an interesting little addition to the Supremes discography, a song which shows up on various compilations due to the fact that it somehow managed to claw its way onto the pop chart in mid-1969.  “The Young Folks” was recorded in December ’68/January ’69 and initially placed on the b-side of the May release “No Matter What Sign You Are.”  That song was only a minor hit for the group (peaking at #31 pop and #17 R&B), but Motown eventually serviced some promo singles of the b-side to radio (I’ve seen a few copies on red vinyl over the years), and “The Young Folks” managed to squeak its way to #69 on the Billboard Hot 100.  As far as I can tell, there wasn’t much promotion for the song — the group never performed it on television and I don’t think it was ever part of the live act — so it was really nothing more than a “placeholder” on the charts until “Someday We’ll Be Together” came along in October.  It’s interesting to ponder what the fate of the song would have been had it really been pushed by Motown; it’s not terribly removed from “Someday We’ll Be Together” in terms of tone, and the lyrics were certainly relevant to young record buyers.  Written by George Gordy and Allen Story, the song is a gentle, folksy anthem about the changing political attitudes of youth during a time of great unrest in America; lyrics like “They’re marching with signs/They’re standing in lines” evoke images of Civil Rights and anti-war protestors.  The track is quietly produced, with just a shuffling beat and Diana’s echo-heavy vocals carrying the action.  Ross gives a wise, knowing reading of the lyrics; although she’s rather subdued here, there’s an unmistakable spark in her vocals, and she gets a chance to display some range when she pushes her delivery of “You may not like it/But I’ve got to tell you…” at 2:17 (and again a few times thereafter).  Ross is backed by some pretty, soulful harmonies; I doubt it’s Mary Wilson and/or Cindy Birdsong we’re hearing here, but the backgrounds are very well-done.  Certainly “The Young Folks” doesn’t have the immediacy of “Someday We’ll Be Together” — nor does it even sound as radio-ready as “No Matter What Sign You Are” — but it’s a song that gets better with every listen.  The message here never sounds forced, nor does it sound inauthentic or campy; with a few televised performances and a decent promotional push, perhaps “The Young Folks” could have attained greater importance in the Supremes canon.  (NOTE: The song would gain a much broader audience a year later, when it was covered by The Jackson 5 and placed on the b-side of the #1 single “ABC.”)

6.  Shadows Of Society:  Every wonder what “Love Child,” “Forever Came Today,” “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” and “Born Of Mary” (from 1965’s Merry Christmas) would sound like had they been crammed into one song?  “Shadows Of Society” provides the answer…and it’s not pretty.  The socially-relevant lyrics of “Love Child” are recycled into generic, vague pleas for understanding here; “Young mothers’ faces filled with shame/It’s not enough to give her baby life, they say” makes a point, but lacks the searing specificity of the story told in the earlier #1 hit.  The instrumental track here is just as unfocused; it opens with a mysterious, Middle Eastern-flavored intro before a “Reflections”-style beat takes over, complete with bouncy bassline and rhythmic tambourine.  Diana Ross offers up an energetic lead vocal, sounding appropriately engaged and anguished, but the spoken passages are unbelievably laughable; seriously, what does “As I rush through the shadows, seeking me/May the torch of love light my way” mean, anyway?  The end result here is a track that’s the complete opposite of “The Young Folks” — this one sounds totally forced, and the message is never convincing.

7.  Loving You Is Better Than Ever:  Thank God, after the dreadful “Shadows Of Society,” Smokey Robinson comes along to save the day.  “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” was written and produced by Robinson, who’d been cutting some awesome tracks on Diana and The Supremes since the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown a few years earlier.  His “Then,” “He’s My Sunny Boy,” and “Will This Be The Day” were all highlights of their respective albums, and “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” is similarly a dazzling display of artistry from everyone involved.  Much of Robinson’s songwriting and production incorporates elements of light jazz, and that’s the case here, with a swinging melody and big band instrumental track; this song sounds tailor-made for one of the group’s Vegas engagements.  That instrumental seems to foreshadow the coming wave of Disco, too; there’s something about the swirling strings and blaring horns don’t sound far removed from the dance club hits that would dominate R&B and soul music in the following decade.  Diana Ross gives a smooth, easy performance here; there’s a real warmth to her voice, and if you ask me, her vocals here are very similar to what she would deliver nearly a decade later on her superb solo disc Baby It’s Me.  The real joy in this recording is how effortless it all sounds; unlike some other late-era Diana Ross and The Supremes tracks that seem too calculated and/or overworkedthis one is merely an appealing chunk of pop/soul that exists on its own terms.  “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” is continued proof that Smokey Robinson was a great match for Diana Ross and The Supremes; had Ross not left the group so quickly after H-D-H departed Motown, perhaps Smokey could have led the group to a new creative peak.  (NOTE: Robinson did work with The Supremes again; he produced 1972’s lovely Floy Joy LP, featuring Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong.)

8.  When It’s To The Top (Still I Won’t Stop Giving You Love):  It’s won’t come as a big surprise that this song was produced by James Dean and William Weatherspoon (and co-written along with Ronald Weatherspoon); both men had written the huge Motown hit “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted,” and were responsible for several other recordings (including producing the notable Marvelettes single “When You’re Young And In Love”).  It’s not surprising because “When It’s To The Top (Still I Won’t Stop Giving You Love”) has a real Hitsville sound; there’s a driving, percussive beat and classic background vocal arrangement, not to mention a melody that strongly echoes those of Holland-Dozier-Holland.  Miss Ross is right in her comfort zone here, offering up an urgent vocal and easily riding the melody with her crisp delivery.  Unfortunately, the song is a bit too rambling to have the immediacy of the very best Supremes recordings; the lyrics are pretty clunky (as indicated by the 12-word title) and there’s not a particularly memorable hook.  Still, this is decent album filler, and it’s a nice throwback to the kind of stirring hits being cranked out during the group’s heyday.

9.  Till Johnny Comes:  Smokey Robinson returns to the writing-producing chair for this song, which had been cut earlier on Motown singer Brenda Holloway; her version wasn’t released until years later, but it’s availability now makes for an interesting comparison with the recording included on Cream Of The Crop.  Holloway’s version is spare and haunting, with an angular instrumental and torchy performance by Holloway and the background vocalists.  Robinson’s production for Diana Ross and The Supremes is far more polished and pop, with a lush instrumental and a sweet, yearning vocal from Ross.  Between the two, I’d say Holloway’s earlier recording is the more effective; there’s something raw and unpretentious about the cut that gives it a timeless feel when listened to today.  The Supremes version is competent and an easy listen, but it’s not as exciting as Robinson’s earlier “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” and it doesn’t age as well as the best songs the writer-producer created for the group.  You’d never mistake this for anything other than filler, but it’s a pleasant listen.

10.  Blowin’ In The Wind:  It’s ironic that the men responsible for the highest of high points in the career of The Supremes are also to blame for the absolute nadir of Cream Of The Crop.  “Blowin’ In The Wind” is, of course, the most famous song title here, a Bob Dylan classic that’s now considered one of the greatest songs ever written.  Fellow Motown artist Stevie Wonder covered the song and took it to #1 on the R&B chart in 1966, the same year The Supremes recorded it under the direction of producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.  That version finally surfaces here, and the question isn’t why it was held back for so long…it’s why the song was ever lifted out of the Motown vaults.  This is a limp, totally vanilla production, featuring the sleepiest vocals from Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard since they yawned their way through the dreadful “What The World Needs Now Is Love” on 1968’s Reflections.  Diana’s high, affected vocal verges on painful at times; her voice even seems to unintentionally crack at 2:00 in, an unappealing moment that could have easily been cut.  What made Wonder’s version successful was the soulful arrangement; his bluesy take on the song remains distinctive and injects the song with a lot of life.  This version doesn’t even sound finished; that Holland and Dozier produced it during a year in which they created some of the greatest pop/soul songs of all time is astonishing.

11.  The Beginning Of The End:  And finally, we come to the very last song on the final studio album by Diana Ross and The Supremes, and a more fitting song couldn’t have been chosen.  “The Beginning Of The End” is a quiet, bluesy song written by Margaret Johnson and originally released as a b-side by Motown artist Chris Clark; the version here was also a b-side, having been placed on the flipside to “The Composer” earlier in the year.  And talk about a rush job; the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes notes that this song was recorded March 20-22, 1969 — “The Composer” single was released just five days later, on March 27!  That said, “The Beginning Of The End” never feels like a quickie production; it’s a beautiful, understated recording that is one of the highlights of Cream Of The Crop.  Frank Wilson and Billie Jean Brown offer up a haunting production with an instrumental that seems to be swirling through the halls of a church sanctuary; the arrangement of the background vocals is particularly notable, as Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong croon “The beginning…the beginning…” like echoing bells.  Interestingly, there’s another notable voice gracing the track; Motown singer Syreeta Wright is prominently featured at the end of the bridge, singing “Mind, mind, mind” at 1:40.  Wright had already been recording for the label and provided at least one demo vocal for Diana Ross (on “Love Child”); Mary Wilson famously tells a story in her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme of Berry Gordy, Jr. wanting to bring Wright into The Supremes even after Jean Terrell had been announced as the third Supreme.  It’s interesting to hear Wright on a Supremes cut here, and certainly makes one wonder what would have happened had she stepped into Diana’s shoes the following year.  Speaking of Diana, her performance here is gorgeously controlled; she does what she does best, which is to honestly interpret the lyric without oversinging or detracting from the song’s message.  This song is a perfect bookend with “Someday We’ll Be Together,” a less-hopeful but no less effective reflection on the end of an era.

***

“Someday We’ll Be Together” is such a perfect final single for Diana Ross and The Supremes that one might expect the group’s final studio album would be just as carefully composed; however, that’s a totally unrealistic expectation given the circumstances surrounding the group at the time.  By the time Cream Of The Crop hit shelves in November, 1969, its release was merely a formality and Diana Ross and The Supremes was a group solely for the sake of live appearances.  The final performance would come on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, and all parties would immediately move forward; the debut single by The Supremes featuring Jean Terrell (“Up The Ladder To The Roof”) was released in February, and Diana’s first solo single (“Reach Out And Touch [Somebody’s Hand]”) followed in April.  It would have been nice had Cream Of The Crop lived up to its name and given the group one final blockbuster album; still, it’s hard to complain too much when the “crop” sown by The Supremes and reaped by fans had already been so damn good.

Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (A Predictably Uneven “End”) 

Choice Cuts:  “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “You Gave Me Love,” “Loving You Is Better Than Ever”

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Together (1969)

Diana Ross and The Supremes With The Temptations Together“For so long we shared each other’s lives…gave up everything to keep love satisfied…”

Although Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations shared many of the same milestones in their long and storied careers, the groups couldn’t have been in two more different places by 1969.  The Temptations were enjoying a creative renaissance which would continue into the next decade, crafting psychedelic soul masterpieces with producer Norman Whitfield; 1968’s “Cloud Nine” won them (and Motown) their first Grammy award, and the group would take home another a few years later for “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.”  Meanwhile, Diana Ross and The Supremes were at the end of their platinum-paved road; Motown was busy plotting the launch of Diana’s solo career, and Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong spent the latter half of the year recording with the woman who would lead The Supremes into the 1970s, Jean Terrell.

Still, Motown could never be accused of letting a good thing get away, and so the label released Together, a third collaboration between Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, in September, 1969.  The groups’ first joint effort, Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations, had been a major hit in 1968, and was followed by the soundtrack album to the hit television special TCB.  That soundtrack topped the Billboard 200 in February of 1969, and the groups were immediately sent back to the studio for a follow-up; according to the first appendix in Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, six songs for Together were recorded on February 24, 1969.  As with Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations, the bulk of this album was handled by Motown producer Frank Wilson, and featured covers of popular Motown songs as well as hits from outside the Hitsville fold.

The highlights on Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations had been the pair of magical singles, both so good they helped give an otherwise solid but unspectacular album an identity.  Unfortunately, Together lacks anything even close to the timelessness of those two earlier recordings.  More than that, the album is extremely lopsided in terms of material; it’s as if halfway through the recording of a lean, soulful project, everyone got cold feet and decided to throw in some sappy pop songs.  Thus, Together — while interesting and, in some cases, a more challenging work — ends up feeling incomplete and not totally necessary; certainly The Temptations didn’t need it (it was released on the same day as their own Puzzle People LP, which was a massive hit) and Diana Ross and The Supremes didn’t really need it, as the group was preparing to split into two separate entities.  In the end, Motown didn’t really need it either, as it failed to match the success of the previous two Supremes/Temptations groupings.

***

1.  Stubborn Kind Of Fellow:  The opening track was scheduled for single release, to be backed with earlier recording “Try It Baby,” but after being assigned as Motown 1150, it was cancelled and the label went with “The Weight” instead.  Listening to “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” today, it’s pretty clear that Motown made the right choice; this Marvin Gaye cover is interesting, but it’s a mess.  The song had been Gaye’s first hit when released back in 1962; it’s deservedly a classic, full of grit and featuring the notable voices of Martha Reeves and The Vandellas in the background.  In the hands of producer Frank Wilson, the tune loses much of its melody due to a strange, scaled-back track.  Although Motown’s studio musicians were never anything less than astonishing, there’s just no momentum in this recording; the production feels like a locomotive that can’t quite pick up speed, and the endless, halting “stops” in the beat don’t help.  The jazz flute solo on the original recording was charming, but it sounds out-of-place on this version, especially when placed to next to electric guitar licks.  The vocalists all sound good; Diana Ross trades off lines with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, and the ensemble behind them is a boisterous one (Mary Wilson is very audible, as is the deep tone of bass singer Melvin Franklin).  Ross does a lot of screeching, which works up to a point but then begins to feel a bit too forced; still, she makes for a soulful counterpart to the male vocalists.  There are certainly moments here when things begin to gel; it’s not a total dud.  But it never sounds like a record that could have been a successful single for the group; it pales in comparison to what they’d already accomplished together.

2.  I’ll Be Doggone:  This song’s another Marvin Gaye cover; the original version was the singer’s first R&B chart-topper, way back in 1965.  It’s a far better fit for Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations; the arrangement here is slowed just a bit, resulting in an even more soulful record than the original.  This time, the production is perfect; there’s no denying the “classic Motown” sound inherent in then track, but there are modern, psychedelic soul touches that tie the recording directly to the Norman Whitfield-helmed work The Temptations were producing at the time.  The vocal arrangement here is also perfection; The Supremes and The Temptations echo back and forth like rolling waves, allowing each group ample time to shine (I love the ringing roundness of Wilson and Birdsong singing “I’ll be long gone” at 1:55).  Paul Williams and Diana Ross take the lead here; his emotional baritone and her crystal-clear tone had worked together beautifully on previous recordings including “The Impossible Dream.”  “I’ll Be Doggone” is no exception; the song is cut rather high for Miss Ross, but she uses the challenge to her advantage, delivering her sections with a textured breathiness that’s incredibly appealing.  This track emerges as one of the most solid moments of Together, and if Motown was intent on releasing a single from this project, this one probably could have merited consideration.  It’s not necessarily a classic, but it’s one of the more compelling inclusions here; there’s an epic quality that befits the supergroup recording it.

3.  The Weight:  This is the song that did get a chance at radio; “The Weight” was released as this album’s only single in the US, and it peaked at a dismal #46 (the worst showing for both groups in quite some time).  Interestingly, that was apparently a higher chart position than the previous two releases of the song, the original recording by The Band in 1968 and a cover by singer Jackie DeShannon the same year.  In the years since its release, the original recording by The Band has become a classic and is considered one of the most iconic and influential songs of the decade; because of this, the Motown version has faded far into the background, and doesn’t even show up on most Supremes or Temptations compilations.  This is unfortunate, because it is a strong recording; the production (by Frank Wilson and Tom Baird, according to Don’t Forget The Motor City) is superb, with the musicians providing a funky yet restrained track.  The background vocals are also superb, as The Supremes and Temptations offer up ghostly echoes behind the lead singers before delivering the chorus in almost gospel-like fashion.  Diana Ross, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams trade-off lines again on this song, and all three are in fine voice; this is one of Diana’s most soulful vocals on the LP.  Listen to the way she turns “ha-ha” into a spectacular four-beat riff at :31; it’s totally unique to her, and I can’t think of another singer who’d be able to replicate it.  Similarly, Kendricks shines on the second verse; his falsetto works here beautifully.  This recording certainly doesn’t equal the cinematic scope of The Band’s original; there’s something about that recording that transcends time and/or genre.  But Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations turn in a terrific rendition here, one that easily equals the many other covers.

4.  Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing:  This is the third Marvin Gaye cover out of four songs; thus far, the album’s feeling more like a Gaye tribute LP than anything else.  It makes sense that “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” would show up, though, since it was one of Motown’s most popular duets, having hit #1 on the R&B chart in June, 1968 when originally released by Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  That original recording is a bona-fide classic, boasting passionate, simmering performances by the vocalists and a memorable production by its writers, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.  The version features a similar arrangement, but is softer in tone; the track isn’t quite so punctuated by percussion, and the performances are much more laid-back.  This makes for a good recording, but one that’s a little too sleepy to stir up the same kind of emotion as the original; think of this as the “easy listening” version of the song.  Diana Ross turns in a silky reading, but there’s no fire in her delivery; it would have been nice to hear a little more “bite” in her performance here, something to really bring the lyrics to life.  That said, she’s very well-matched with the gruff and soulful voice of Dennis Edwards; although he’s not quite as expressive as Marvin Gaye was on the song, he has some fun with the song and ad-libs some asides to “Diane” which are sweet touches.  It would be nearly impossible for anyone to capture the magic of the original “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” — but this is pretty good album filler.  (NOTE: The following year, the Jean Terrell-led Supremes would record this song again, this time as a collaboration with The Four Tops for their joint LP The Magnificent 7.)

5.  Uptight (Everything’s Alright):  After two fairly straight-forward covers in a row, Together takes another big detour with a modern funk/rock twist on the 1966 Stevie Wonder hit “Uptight (Everthing’s Alright).”  The original recording is classic Motown, featuring soul-thumping drums and blaring horns and Wonder’s urgent declaration that “everything is alright.”  This version retains muted traces of all of those things, but surrounds them in a wild, schizophrenic arrangement complete with a weird electric guitar opening and a Middle Eastern-inspired string section.  Once the song gets chugging along, it becomes a sly and slinky version of Wonder’s original recording, stripped down and surprisingly haunting in tone.  Diana Ross and Dennis Edwards again take the leads; both sound good and sufficiently engaged, although (through no fault of theirs) the song’s catchy melody gets lost in this arrangement.  As a result, I’m not sure this version totally stands on its own; had this been the only “Uptight” ever produced, it probably wouldn’t have been particularly memorable.  Instead, it’s a fascinating counterpart to the more famous version, a peek into how Motown was willing to experiment with and rework its most classic recordings for other artists.

6.  Sing A Simple Song:  After covering Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” on their 1969 LP Let The Sunshine In, Diana Ross and The Supremes bring along The Temptations for that song’s original b-side, “Sing A Simple Song.”  The original version is fabulously funky, with a swaggering James Brown-worthy beat and odd, shouted declarations of the song’s title.  There’s no shortage of funk on this version either; although the track isn’t quite so wild, the session players here really turn it out, producing a chunky instrumental with a tight brass section and deep bass strut.  The vocalists have an absolute field day with the song, especially Diana Ross, who screams and shouts and offers up one of her most gloriously unhinged performances of the decade.  Ross gives such a gutsy reading that she practically lays out the blueprint for the young Michael Jackson; listen to her yell out “Sing A Simple Song!” at 1:02 and just try to deny that Jackson wasn’t imitating her sound.  The harmonies of The Temptations are unbeatable here, serving as an indelible thread in the fabric of the track; the guys all get “step-outs” here and there, with Melvin Franklin taking top honors with his “do…re…mi…” recitation at 1:16.  Although the arrangement here is so close to the original that it doesn’t really add much to the song, it’s great fun to hear Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations take something on that’s this bold and tough (it’s certainly a far cry from the tender “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”).  For that reason alone, it’s one of the best tracks on Together; the album could have used some more pleasant surprises like this one.

7.  My Guy, My Girl:  And from something so exciting…Together moves into its most dull and ill-conceived cover.  This is a lame mash-up of the Smokey Robinson classics “My Guy” (a huge hit on Mary Wells) and The Temptations’ own “My Girl.”  Although the songs boast similar themes and titles, they’re really not that much alike, which makes combining them into one recording a mistake.  Flipping back and forth between the tunes is jarring, and the drippy track robs both songs of their magic.  Meanwhile, both groups offer up rather unexciting vocal performances; The Temptations were probably thinking “Why bother?” and Diana Ross and The Supremes are smooth but way too crisp and polished to lend the song any real sensuality.  Perhaps this could have worked as a little segment during one of the groups’ television specials, but as an album cut, it’s a disaster.

8.  For Better Or Worse:  Written by Joe Hinton and Pam Sawyer, this bouncy pop tune is a reasonably good facsimile of the lilting pop songs Burt Bacharach and Hal David were writing for Dionne Warwick in the 1960s; that said, it certainly lacks the complexity of the best Bacharach-David compositions.  “For Better Or Worse” never really seems to go anywhere; it lacks a memorable chorus, leaving only a repetitive melody to sell the story of a couple on its wedding day.  Because Diana Ross was so accomplished at delivering light, easygoing melodies, “For Better Or Worse” ends up being a showcase for her; she offers up a relaxed, effortless performance here.  Her male counterparts don’t fare nearly as well; the key here doesn’t seem to work for the voices of any of The Temptations, and the verses led by the men are pretty weak.  In the end, it’s an innocuous listen — pleasant mainly for Diana’s polished vocal performance — but it feels like a big step backward for both groups.  (NOTE: “For Better Or Worse” was placed on the b-side of “The Weight,” which was released on August 21, 1969.)

9.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You:  Die-hard fans of The Supremes know this as Mary Wilson’s signature song while still with the group; it was incorporated into the act and served as Wilson’s solo spot, and she delivered a sultry and stunning performance of it on an episode of “The Hollywood Palace” hosted by Diana Ross and The Supremes in October 1969.  Wilson certainly deserved a moment alone in the spotlight, considering she was a founding member of the group and undeniably talented; it’s also likely that at this point, Motown was using Wilson’s solo to prepare audiences for the idea of a Supremes without Diana Ross.  Not long after the release of this album and that television performance, an official press release announced that Ross was leaving The Supremes; according to Mary in her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, “Speculation was that I would be taking over her spot as lead singer; Diane [Diana Ross] had said so in interviews” (232).  Certainly the fact that Mary was being presented on national television singing this song lends credence to the idea that Motown at least considered putting her up front; even though singer Jean Terrell was eventually named lead singer of the group, Mary’s performances on “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” prove she would have been a capable front-woman (and, indeed, she would increase her visibility in The Supremes throughout the 1970s).  Here, Wilson shares the lead with Eddie Kendricks; interestingly, her solid alto and his sweet falsetto sound remarkably alike at times.  Kendricks offers up a fine reading here, but it’s Wilson who predictably knocks it out of the park; she’s sexy and dramatic, and her voice is really strong.  Mary also offers up some great little ad-libs; she hums prettily behind Eddie, and her soulful “Am I, baby?” at 1:08 is one of this album’s single best moments.  Diana Ross, Cindy Birdsong, and the rest of The Temptations are absent from this recording; this is strictly a duet between Wilson and Kendricks.  The lack of group vocals doesn’t really hurt, although the track lacks some depth because of it and feels a little unfinished.  Still, it’s nice really hearing the vocal interplay between the two singers, and again, it’s fitting that the focus is on a Supreme often underutilized during the latter-part of the decade.

10.  Why (Must We Fall In Love):  If there’s been one single problem plaguing Together more than any other thus far, it’s the fact that most of the material just doesn’t feel fully-formed.  There have been a lot of interesting ideas, and some very good vocal performances, but none of the previous nine tracks have screamed “HIT!” — or really sounded like anything more than filler.  Finally, along comes “Why (Must We Fall In Love),” which isn’t a particularly great song, but at least sounds like it was produced with care and attention to detail.  There’s an interesting complexity to this song, which was written by Deke Richards and the prolific songwriter and background singer Sherlie Matthews (and, according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, produced by Richards).  The unique chord changes and almost-discordant strings bring to mind the forthcoming work of The Carpenters; in a way, “Why (Must We Fall In Love)” sounds ahead of its time and is better-matched to the material on Diana’s 1970 LP Everything Is Everything and 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning.  The instrumental here is more sophisticated than most of the other songs on Together, as is the vocal arrangement; the harmony singing by Diana Ross and Eddie Kendricks on the chorus is fantastic, and the backgrounds are full-bodied and exciting.  Both lead singers also provide excellent work during the final fade, with such powerful ad-libs that it feels unfortunately the song only runs for three minutes.  Interestingly, Motown chose not to release this song as a single in the United States, but did release it in the UK; it peaked at #31 there.  I’m not sure this song would have been a huge hit for the groups at home, but it’s too bad it wasn’t given a chance; there’s at least a degree of quality and originality here that’s been missing for a good chunk of the album.

***

Without a memorable single like “I’ll Try Something New” or “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” — or an album track as epic as “The Impossible Dream” — Together really never stood a chance at becoming an important addition to the discographies of either Diana Ross and The Supremes of The Temptations.  The emphasis on harder-edged funk and soul is fantastic, but it’s never fully explored in a satisfying way; instead, the first half of the album merely teases a work that could have been so much more exciting.  That said, everyone involved would turn to far more innovative projects in the wake of this release; the following year would bring the barrier-breaking Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations, Diana’s powerful self-titled solo debut, and the glorious reinvention of The Supremes with Right On.  So when listening to the very best moments of Together, just think of them as a warm-up for what’s to come; there’s a creativity bubbling beneath the surface that will soon burst forth and help redefine R&B music for generations to come.

Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (Could’ve Been Much “Better”)

Choice Cuts:  “I’ll Be Doggone,” “Why (Must We Fall In Love),” “Sing A Simple Song”

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Satisfaction: Mary Wilson In Macon (4/2/16)

Mary Wilson Macon 1

When Diana Ross would call Mary Wilson “the sexy one” back in the 1960s, she wasn’t kidding.

During her concert Saturday night at The Grand Opera House in Macon, Wilson played her flirtatious stage persona to the hilt, dedicating not one, but two songs to her “favorite things — men,” and teasing the audience with suggestive one-liners and stunning, form-fitting costumes.  During the breathless ninety-minute show, Wilson also presented a surprisingly eclectic setlist, mixing the hits she enjoyed as a founding member of The Supremes with songs by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Sting to The Rolling Stones.  “I’m a little Tina Turner,” she said at one point, and her frenetic presence and searing vocals went a long way toward proving that statement true.

The bulk of the show was comprised of Wilson’s Motown hits, and it was nice to hear full versions of songs ranging from “Love Child” to “My World Is Empty Without You” to “Reflections.”  With her talented background singers (Parnell Marcano and Hollis Paysuer) and a fantastic four-piece band, Wilson easily evoked the crisp urgency of those Hitsville recordings, delivering each one with her own brand of drama.  Wilson’s voice is different enough from that of Diana Ross that it’s easy to judge her performances on their own merits, and the still-considerable range and power of Wilson’s misty alto were extremely impressive.  She particularly put her own stamp on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” during which she added riffs and ad-libs so strong and soulful, you kind of wish they were there on the original studio recordings.

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Interestingly, Wilson’s best moments came during her interpretations of songs from outside the Motown fold.  She sang a gorgeous version of Sting’s “Fields Of Gold,” during which she allowed Mr. Marcano to take some of the spotlight (and reminded audiences that she’s one of the best harmony singers in the business while backing him up), and turned in a lovely reading of the classic “You Are So Beautiful.”  Wilson also performed her own 1992 single “Walk The Line,” which sounds better live than it ever did on record.  Her final song of the night was an energetic rendition of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” which gave Wilson a chance to demonstrate some chill-inducing high notes.  Donna would have been proud.

But the night’s ultimate performance was Wilson’s take on “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls, with she dedicated to fellow Supreme Florence Ballard.  Wilson introduced the song with a lengthy monologue concerning her conflicted feelings about the musical (“I didn’t get paid,” she repeated a few times to the chuckling audience), but it’s obvious that the song is close to her heart, and she absolutely tore it to shreds.  Because Wilson was generally relegated to singing soft ballads during her time with The Supremes, and rarely got a chance to tackle really soulful material until the mid-1970s, it’s easy to forget what a superb soul singer she really is.  But on “I Am Changing,” Wilson’s voice reached stratospheric heights, and the resulting ovation was well-deserved.

Mary Wilson’s ups and down have been well-documented, mainly in her own pair of autobiographies, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme and Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together.  But watching her perform in Macon, just weeks after her 72nd birthday, it seems as if the singer has finally settled into a comfortable groove.  Wilson’s love of performing is obvious, and her voice is in far better shape than many of her contemporaries.

She might still be “the sexy one” — but she’s also proven to be much, much more.

Mary Wilson Macon 3

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Let The Sunshine In (1969)

Diana Ross and The Supremes Let The Sunshine In“Good morning, world…how will today greet me?”

Although Diana Ross and The Supremes had lost the writing-producing team behind all of its biggest hits (Holland-Dozier-Holland, who’d left Motown in a dispute over money), the group had weathered the storm and enjoyed a successful year in 1968.  Musically, the highlight of the year was the #1 smash “Love Child,” a song written expressly with the purpose of taking the group back to the top of the charts.  When it did exactly that, it was only natural for Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. to look to the group of writers behind that hit to deliver a follow-up single.  Dubbed “The Clan,” writers Pam Sawyer, Henry Cosby, Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor, and Gordy himself worked up “I’m Livin’ In Shame” and recorded it on Diana Ross (backed by The Andantes, Motown’s session singers) in November/December of 1968.  When it was released in January of 1969, the song became a solid hit, peaking at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #8 on the R&B chart.

Diana Ross and The Supremes wouldn’t be so lucky with the next few releases, but in reality, Motown was focused on more pressing issues for The Supremes rather than promoting these singles.  Ross was being heavily groomed for solo stardom at this point, and began appearing on television without Cindy Birdsong or Mary Wilson.  A notable example of this was the television special Like Hep, co-starring Dinah Shore and Lucille Ball, in April of 1969.  That special contained an energetic sequence in which Ross (dressed in an eye-popping futuristic costume) danced along to a recording of herself singing a medley including “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.”  A month later, Motown released Let The Sunshine In, with liner notes by Ms. Shore.  Although the album is credited to Diana Ross and The Supremes, it was probably pretty obvious to most fans that it was mainly a solo project for the singer; the liner notes by Ms. Shore praise Ross alone: “I was witness a to that uncommon tireless application of talent she puts into everything she does.”

So clearly, by 1969, Ross was “one foot in, one foot out” of The Supremes, and that explains why Let The Sunshine In ends up feeling like two-albums-in-one.  The first of these albums is a Diana Ross album filled with trendy, contemporary songs and featuring soulful and vibrant performances by the vocalist.  The other one is cobbled together with Supremes tracks recorded years earlier and finally lifted from the Motown vaults.  The end result is another patchwork LP, similar to 1968’s Reflections in some ways (although Ross offers up far stronger vocal performances here).  Amazingly, given its disjointed nature, Let The Sunshine In isn’t a total dud; it’s nowhere near as seamless as 1968’s wonderful Love Childbut it does partially continue that album’s focus on more complex and mature material.  Although this album’s singles are underwhelming, Ross acquits herself very well to the covers of contemporary songs, and there are a few hidden gems here worth a second listen.

***

1.  The Composer:  When this song was released as a single in March of 1969, it became the first Supremes single written and produced by Smokey Robinson since “A Breathtaking Guy” way back in 1963.  This is significant, because Robinson had been a driving force in the group’s pre-stardom days at Motown; he’d helped facilitate their initial audition at the label, and penned the first songs the ladies recorded at Hitsville, “After All” and “(You Can) Depend On Me.”  After the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown, Robinson increased his involvement with Diana Ross and The Supremes; he produced a pair of tracks on the group’s 1968 Reflections LP and another on Love Child later that year.  Two of those songs — “Then” and “He’s My Sunny Boy” — are among the best of the group’s late-1960s output; both could have (and should have) been at least considered for single release.  Unfortunately, when Robinson finally got a single on The Supremes again…it was this song.  “The Composer” was initially cut by Robinson’s own group, The Miracles, as a mid-tempo love song with strong harmonies and grand string flourishes; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, that recording was finished in March of 1967.  The version Robinson produced for Diana Ross is radically redesigned; it’s now an angular, uptempo tune with wah-wah guitars and halting breaks in the melody.  Perhaps in an attempt to channel the edgy urgency of the best H-D-H recordings, Smokey Robinson indulges in a rare case of over-production; the track immediately feels too complicated and heavy, and it’s filled to the brim with dated touches.  Had the track been stripped down, it might have improved the end result — however, the production isn’t the only issue here.  Diana’s lead vocal is unusually uninspired; there’s a distinct lack of energy in her performance, to the point that the singer seems to be consciously avoiding an “attack” on the lyrics.  The problem is that Robinson’s lyrics call for a vibrant reading; they’re a playful celebration of love, and Ross just doesn’t ever sound convincing (especially when compared to the aforementioned “Then” and “He’s My Sunny Boy”).  “The Composer” was a commercial disappointment when it was released, peaking at #27 on the Billboard Hot 100 and missing the R&B Top 20.  In this case, the chart positions seem justified; this one just doesn’t stand up.

2.  Everyday People:  There’s a good chance that at the very moment Diana Ross was recording her vocal for “Everyday People,” the original recording by Sly and the Family Stone was sitting at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Stone’s version topped the charts for several weeks in February/March of 1969, instantly becoming one of the most iconic songs of the decade; in the years since, it’s turned up in several films and television commercials.  Although the song’s been covered countless times, it would be impossible for any remake to equal the power of the original; thankfully, Motown producer Henry Cosby seems to know this, and doesn’t try to do anything but echo it in a professional manner.  Cosby’s arrangement is basically identical to that of Stone’s recording; the musicians turn in a solid track with strong percussion work and a joyful brass section.  But the real key to success in this case is Diana Ross, who delivers a soulful and engaging vocal performance.  Her work on this track is a full 180 degrees from her singing on “The Composer” — she sounds alive here, offering up a refreshingly unaffected take on Stone’s smart and memorable lyrics.  Listen to her work on the second verse, beginning at 1:07 (with the lines “I am no better/And neither are you!”); the further she gets into the verse, the more gutty her performance becomes, foreshadowing the powerful singing she’d unveil on her 1970 solo debut album, Diana Ross.  While some critics over the years have labeled Ross as simply a “pop” singer, unable to match the soulful performances of some of her peers, recordings like “Everyday People” prove that notion false.  (NOTE: The following year, the Jean Terrell-led Supremes would record this song again as a collaboration with The Four Tops on their joint album The Magnificent 7.)

3.  No Matter What Sign You Are:  There’s some intriguing information about this song printed in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, and it indicates that this song experienced many changes before finally being released as a single on May 9, 1969.  The song apparently went though two working titles (“Don’t Destroy Me” and “The Paper Said Rain”) and recording was stretched over several dates from February through April of that year.  My guess is that the smash success of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” by The 5th Dimension (which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on April and remained there for a whopping six weeks) and Diana’s well-received performance of the medley on the Like Hep television special spurred Berry Gordy, Jr. and Henry Cosby to hurriedly rework an already-in-progress song into something similarly-themed for single release.  Whereas “Aquarius” only references one astrological sign, “No Matter What Sign You Are” throws in the entire zodiac, running through the star signs in a boisterous opening sung by session vocalists The Andantes and punctuated by the shrieks of an amped-up Diana Ross.  The lyrics here are hopelessly silly and dated — of course they are — with lines including “Your water sign just lit my fire” and “I don’t care about your rising sign.”  The production isn’t exactly timeless, either; in his AllMusic review of the album, Bruce Eder notes “a sitar in the arrangement that was dated by 1969.”  These are hurdles to get over when listening to the track, but once they’re cleared, they reveal a song that merits more attention than it generally receives.  Listen to the melody of the memorable refrain and you’ll hear the kernel of a really good song; it’s a pleasant hook, surrounded by playful verses, unfortunately dressed up in the trappings of campy New Age mysticism.  The highlight of the recording is Diana’s spirited performance, which is sultry and soulful and full of fun, surprising moments.  The singer had never sounded sexier on record than she does at :48, as her voice drops to delivery “I love you boy/I really love you boy…” — likewise, when she repeats the lyrics at 1:36, she’s as energetic as she’d ever been on a Supremes single.  Her ad-libs during the final 30 seconds of runtime are stunning proof of how “loose” and relaxed Ross could be with her voice.  When “No Matter What Sign You Are” was released as a follow-up to “The Composer” in May of ’69, it stalled out at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s been basically ignored ever since.  Is the song a classic?  Not really.  Does it come close to the quality of the biggest Supremes hits?  Not at all.  But it’s also not the disaster many people write it off as; there’s some territory worth mining here.

4.  Hey, Western Union Man:  This is a cover of a recording by Jerry Butler which topped the R&B charts in November of 1968.  The song was written by Butler and two of the architects behind the Philly Soul sound, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who eventually founded Philadelphia International Records.  The song is a really repetitive one — really repetitive — with Diana singing the words “send a telegram” roughly 30 times during the three-minute running time.  That can make listening to the song a bit tedious; still, this is a solid cover, featuring another noteworthy performance from Diana Ross.  The singer’s work here is raw and earthy; she eschews her classic smooth sophistication, opting instead for a surprisingly unpolished vocal.  This turns out to be a good thing; I’m not sure the Ross sound had ever been so rough on record, and the texture helps bring a lot of character to the recording.  Listen to her sing at 1:02, as she absolutely shreds the word “union,” and again at 1:39 to her raspy delivery of “Man, send a telegram!”  This is a new side to Diana Ross, and it adds a lot of soul and authenticity to her reading.  As with the earlier “Everyday People,” producer Henry Cosby keeps the arrangement closely matched to that of the original; really, it would be tough to tell the two the instrumental tracks apart.  Thus, this version of “Hey, Western Union Man” isn’t exactly an exciting one, but it is a striking addition to the Diana Ross and The Supremes discography due to the vocal performance.

5.  What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted:  This recording sat on the shelf for quite some time before finally getting a release; website Don’t Forget The Motor City lists a date of July 8, 1966 for the completion of this recording, and according to J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, the song had previously been scheduled for an unreleased album built around the single “Some Things You Never Get Used To.”  It’s yet another cover, of course; Jimmy Ruffin made the song a hit in 1966, and it would be a big hit again in the early 1990s, when covered by Paul Young.  What immediately makes this version by The Supremes unique is the spoken introduction, which was cut from Ruffin’s original release (though it has since surfaced on some Motown collections). It quickly becomes apparent that this is an earlier recording; although I’ve read that Diana Ross re-recorded her lead vocal before this was finally released, it sure doesn’t sound like it, and her crisp, girlish vocal comes as a sharp contrast to soulful abandon of the previous three tracks.  Not that the crisp, girlish sound is an inferior one; what would “Baby Love” or “Come See About Me” be with anything else?  But “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” is a big, emotional song, and the lyrics cry out for something grander than we get here.  I’m not sure who all’s backing Ross; I think her own voice appears on the background line, and Mary Wilson’s voice is there, too; it’s possible that ex-Supreme Florence Ballard is also singing on the record, since it was recorded in 1966.  There are some very pretty harmonies featured on this recording, although the backgrounds suffer the same issue as the lead vocal; had they been more dramatic, they’d make a much bigger impact.  This isn’t a terrible recording, but it does sound decidedly “retro” placed among the more modern songs here; it probably would have fit better on an earlier Supremes album, and even then it would have been filler and nothing more.

6.  I’m Livin’ In Shame:  Diana Ross and The Supremes kicked off 1969 with “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” which was released as a single on January 6; the song had been recorded in November-December, exactly the time the group’s previous single, “Love Child,” was perched atop the Billboard Hot 100.  “I’m Livin’ In Shame” didn’t get to #1, but it did make it to the Top 10 on the pop and R&B listings, respectable showings and far more successful than the other two singles contained on Let The Sunshine In.  “I’m Livin’ In Shame” is really no more than “Love Child, Part II” — similar in sound and tone and featuring “story-song” lyrics reflecting issues of the modern family.  In her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson (who does not appear on this recording) calls the song “melodramatic” and she’s 100% right; the lyrics compose a mini-melodrama of a young women desperately sorry for mistreating her mother.  Wilson also says the song “lacked a message” and she’s probably right, although I’d imagine there were at least a few listeners at the time who identified with the broader theme of changing times and struggling to find one’s own identity, sometimes at the cost of others.  In any case, there’s no denying that The Clan (Berry Gordy’s hand-chosen group of writers) were trying to make lightning strike twice, and though they don’t quite succeed, they did come up with something fairly catchy and appealing.  The Funk Brothers — Motown’s in-house crew of musicians — provide a bouncy track comprised of jangling guitars and a complex, scooping bassline; bold flourishes of strings add to the drama, as does the thick web of background vocals provided by The Andantes.  As with “Love Child,” it’s disappointing that Mary Wilson and/or Cindy Birdsong aren’t featured here, but the Motown session singers hit all the right notes, providing exactly the kind of musical cries of anguish the song calls for.  Diana Ross, as one would expect, aces her assignment; although Miss Ross would later comment in her own book (Secrets Of A Sparrow) that the song was “about somebody else’s life,” she’s a gifted enough interpreter to make the story believable.  The melody is a challenging one, requiring the singer to cleanly jump up and down the scale; Ross effortless does this, while never losing any lyrics or sounding too strained.  Listen to her work at roughly one-minute in, as she sings the lines, “I must have been insane/I lied and said Mama died on a weekend trip to Spain” — let’s be honest, the lyrics are pretty silly, but Ross sells them beautifully with her grief-stricken delivery.  The sum of all these parts is a song that never comes close to approaching the greatness of The Supremes’ best, but it’s a decent late-era single that deserved its success.

7.  Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures):  When Let The Sunshine In was released on May of 1969, the #1 album on the Billboard 200 was the Original Cast Soundtrack to the Broadway hit Hair.  That album wasn’t just a hit, it was a monster hit, topping the chart for months.  Pop group The Fifth Dimension, meanwhile, recorded two of the show’s most popular songs as a medley (“Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”) and took it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for six weeks.  Thus, it’s safe to say the nation was in the middle of Hair-fever, and it’s no surprise that Diana Ross would perform the songs on the Dinah Shore special Like Hep in April of that year (also incorporating the song “Don’tcha Hear Me Callin’ To Ya,” which was the b-side to Fifth Dimension single).  The recording here is the same one Diana lip-synced to on the television special (but with that third song edited out), and it’s a faithful rendition of the more popular version by topping the charts at the time.  The production is nicely done; it’s lush and ethereal, as one would expect considering the mystic subject matter.  Diana Ross mints a fine vocal, too; her voice is strong and expressive throughout, and her ad-libs over “Let The Sunshine In” are vibrant and soulful.  The real bummer about this track is that the whole thing feels like a wasted opportunity.  What makes the version by The Fifth Dimension so special are the otherworldly harmonies from the group; the absolutely exquisite vocal arrangement soars out of the grooves and into the heavens.  Miss Ross can only do so much by herself, and when she’s backed by other voices here, they are flat and generic.  Imagine how much better this recording would have been had Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong created rich harmonies throughout; the potential was there for this to be a fantastic group showcase.  Imagine the juxtaposition of Diana’s sharpness, Mary’s misty tone, and Cindy’s smooth, round soprano belting out “Aquarius” — had all three been allowed to share the spotlight here, it could have given this rendition the freshness to completely stand on its own.

8.  Let The Music Play:  I’m sure there are many who will passionately disagree, but for me, “Let The Music Play” is the dreadful low point of Let The Sunshine In.  The track for this version of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune dates back to 1965, and the group added its vocals in June of 1966.  This means Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard appear on this recording; of course, by the time Let The Sunshine In hit shelves, Ballard had been out of the group for nearly two years.  There’s always a joy hearing the original three Supremes sing together; the good news is, there are plenty of great recordings on which all three appear.  However, this is not one of them; the song is slow and laborious, and the arrangement is dated and so syrupy you’re liable to get a toothache listening to it.  Miss Ross is quite saccharine in her delivery, too; she’d matured into a much better vocalist by 1969, and (as with “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted”) hearing her singing here feels like a step backward.  More than anything, this production is   lacking any kind of spark, which is surprising considering it was helmed by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, crafters of the group’s most exciting records.  There must have been a reason this remained in the vaults for so many years, and it really could have stayed there.

9.  With A Child’s Heart:  According to Don’t Forget The Motor City, this song is yet another holdover from 1966 (!); that makes three songs lifted from the vaults and placed on this album.  Of the trio, this one emerges the best; it’s a sweet slice of pop/soul that was first made famous by Stevie Wonder, who included it on his 1966 LP Up-Tight (it would later get a notable cover by Michael Jackson).  The reason this particular song works better as part of Let The Sunshine In than the other “vault” tracks is that Diana’s vocal sound makes sense here; she delivers another girlish, youthful performance, and it’s totally appropriate given the lyrics and theme.  This is a piece that demands a childlike delivery, which is probably why it worked so well when sung by Wonder (who was 16 years old when he released it) and Jackson (who was 14).  The instrumental track is also classic Motown; the dusky percussion and ringing piano chords, not to mention that fabulous tenor sax, are Funk Brothers hallmarks and are impossible to dislike.  There’s something about this gentle recording that recalls the 1965 Merry Christmas LP; it definitely would have fit better on an earlier album, but it’s good enough that it deserves a place here.

10.  Discover Me (And You’ll Discover Love):  After a little trip through the past, Let The Sunshine In returns to 1969 with this exciting, soulful recording produced by Johnny Bristol (the man who’d help provide Diana Ross and The Supremes with one final #1 hit later that year, “Someday We’ll Be Together”).  Interestingly, the instrumental track here isn’t terribly far removed from that of “I’m Livin’ In Shame” — this recording is also led by jangling guitars and features an instrumental bridge constructed of swirling strings.  That said, the tone is completely different; the theme of “Discover Me (And You’ll Discover Love)” is much closer to the earlier #1 hit “You Can’t Hurry Love,” with Ross convincingly crooning, “I’ve got so much to give someone/So many dreams to share/And a promise of a faithful love/If someone would only care.”  Diana’s performance is quite skillful; the verses here are packed with lyrics, and the singer’s voice lightly dances over the melody, never getting tripped up or allowing the words to sound too clunky (had a vocalist more prone to oversinging or melisma attempted the song, it could have been disastrous).  The natural urgency in her voice also works to sell the impatient lyrics, and she lets loose with some strong ad-libs toward the end.  This is far more compelling song than “The Composer” or even “No Matter What Sign You Are” — it’s rough around the edges, but it’s also compact and straight to the point.  It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Motown tried this song out as a single; it probably wouldn’t have added to the group’s string of #1 hits, but it certainly could have done well at R&B radio.

11.  Will This Be The Day:  This is an absolutely sterling track, a wonderful gem that originally surfaced as the b-side to the group’s “Love Child” single in September, 1968.  It’s no surprise that this is a Smokey Robinson tune, co-written with Warren Moore and Beatrice Verdi and produced by the Robinson and Moore; this lush slice of pop/soul bears many “Smokey hallmarks,” including impossibly sweet lyrics and a symphonic production backed by a gentle beat.  Best of all, this is the only track on Let The Sunshine In on which Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong seem to be actually singing together, and all three ladies sound terrific (if it’s not Mary and Cindy, then the background singers are doing a masterful job mimicking The Supremes).  Miss Ross offers up an accomplished vocal full of warmth and yearning; the textured maturity of her voice at this point in her career serves the song well, lending some depth to the recording.  Listen to her sing the song’s title at :38; she’s channeling the girl who once cooed “Baby Love,” but filtering it through the wisdom of a sophisticated young woman who’s not so naive anymore.  Behind her, the background vocals are smooth as silk; the soft, sophisticated harmonies are exactly what one would and should expect from a superlative Supremes track .  The overall production is light and airy; this is a song that simply floats along, revealing itself to be better and better with each listen.  Let The Sunshine In is the third hit-oriented LP in a row that contains a highlight written and produced by Smokey Robinson (“Then” on Reflections and “He’s My Sunny Boy” on Love Child); it’s criminal that the one Smokey-helmed single Motown chose to release was the ridiculous “The Composer.”  At least this song gained a wide audience thanks to the fact that it backed a massive #1 hit; “Will This Be The Day” deserves to be heard and appreciated.

12.  I’m So Glad I Got Somebody (Like You Around):  The album closes with another b-side; this one backed “I’m Livin’ In Shame.”  The song features a quartet of familiar Motown names in the writing credits (Lawrence Brown, Allen Story, George Gordy, and Anna Gordy Gaye), thus it’s no surprise that the song has a real Hitsville stamp on it; the arrangement of the background vocals and certain sections of the instrumental make this sound like an updated take on a classic Four Tops track.  That said, The Funk Brothers are really funking this one up; there’s a nice hard edge to the playing here, with horn work that’s predictive of later hits and strong bass and percussion lines.  Diana Ross contributes a tough vocal performance, an early example of the earthy singing she’d deliver on the 1970 solo LP Everything Is Everything.  She really goes for the notes here, displaying a great confidence in her own vocal abilities.  As with the previous track, it’s fortunate that this was at least placed on the flip side of a successful single; it’s one of the better Ross recordings of the period.

***

It would only be a few months following the release of Let The Sunshine In that Motown would confirm the obvious; according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, a press release from November, 1969 proclaimed, “Diana Ross a Single in 1970 — Jean Terrell Becomes Third Supreme in January — All Stay With Motown” (209).  Astute fans probably surmised that Ross was basically a “single” already; again, it’s hard to really consider Let The Sunshine In a Supremes LP.  Still, it shouldn’t be written off as quickly as I imagine it often is; it’s uneven and dated, but no more than many other Motown albums being released at the time.  It’s also defiant proof that no matter how many critics derided the group for “selling out” to white audiences, their music was as soulful and funky as ever.  Diana Ross and The Supremes were still evolving…and that evolution would take a major leap forward by the end of the year.

Final Analysis: 3/5 (An Uneven “Sign” Of Changes To Come)

Choice Cuts:  “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” “Will This Be The Day,” “I’m So Glad I Got Somebody (Like You Around)”

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To Miss Ross, On Her Birthday…

wpid-img_20150522_192039.jpgIt’s been more than four years since I created The Diana Ross Project, in an effort to re-focus the conversation around Diana Ross on her music and her impact as an artist.  I’ve always believed that Diana’s legacy has been unfairly affected by attention on her personal life, something that’s probably the result of many factors, not the least of which stem from her being 1) a woman and 2) an African-American.  Although the success of The Supremes rivaled that of The Beatles in the 1960s, and Diana’s solo career blazed the trail for every single pop/soul songstress to follow, Miss Ross isn’t always afforded the same respect by critics, or even fans.

It’s hard to summarize the impact she’s had on my life over the past 36 years, but I think fellow readers of this blog can probably understand it better than I could ever explain.  Diana’s voice has been a soothing calm at times, a fiery encouragement at others, and always a warm reminder of the many things for which I can be thankful.  Her vast catalog is endlessly fascinating to me, and remains inspiring fodder for my writing; just when I think I’ve penned my final words on a recording, that familiar Ross sigh will turn my attention right back to the keyboard, and I’ll find myself stumbling upon an entirely different interpretation of a song I’ve listened to a thousand times.

I’m not sure if Diana Ross has any idea that The Diana Ross Project exists, or if she’d give much thought to the musings of a verbose fan who feels the need to meticulously research every one of her recordings and place them into some kind of historical context.  But I hope on this day — her 72nd birthday — she truly understands the role she’s played in shaping the modern world.  In writing about her vocal style and the terrific songs she’s chosen to interpret over the years, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the evolution of Civil and Human Rights in the United States and beyond, and realized the importance of having an artist’s voice deliver the basic truths that bind us together as a society.

Happy Birthday…and here’s to many more.

This is a picture I drew in 1985, at the age of five, inspired by the album cover to WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE.

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TCB – The Original Cast Soundtrack (1968)

Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptataions TCB“Our business is singing…and tonight, we’re gonna take care of business.”

Despite adjusting to a new member and losing the creative team behind all of its previous hit records, Diana Ross and The Supremes enjoyed one of its most successful (and busiest) years in 1968.  Of the four singles released during that calendar year, two were major hits for the group (the #1 hit “Love Child” and a duet with The Temptations, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”).  Additionally, an astonishing six full-length Supremes albums hit shelves in 1968, and four of them peaked within the top 20 of the Billboard 200 and went top 5 R&B.  But perhaps most importantly, Diana Ross and The Supremes truly conquered primetime television.  Although the group was already famed for its performances on variety programs such as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and had guest-starred in a highly-rated episode of “Tarzan” aired in early 1968 (the ladies played…nuns!), it was the historic one-hour primetime special TCB (with The Temptations) which proved Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong were the queens of TV along with music.

According to Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. in his book To Be Loved,  “Shortly before the release of ‘Love Child,’ we had made a deal to do three television specials in partnership with the producers of Laugh-In, George Schlatter and Ed Friendly. I had heard that there was nobody better at comedy or variety shows than George Schlatter, so I was looking forward to working with him” (266).  The first of those specials would be a musical extravaganza pairing Motown’s top groups and featuring a non-stop lineup of their hits and covers of popular songs.  Performing on a striking, elevated set in front of an appreciative audience, Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations put on a spellbinding show; when TCB aired on December 9, 1968 on NBC, it was a smash success.  In her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson recalls the show receiving “rave reviews” and writes, “When we were all singing together it was just like old times…the special was a great boost to all of us, and plans were put in motion for a second programs with the Supremes and the Tempts” (223).

Naturally, Motown paired the special with a soundtrack album, and it soared to #1 on the Billboard 200, becoming the third chart-topping LP for The Supremes and the first for The Temptations (on the Billboard R&B albums chart, TCB actually replaced Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations at #1).  The soundtrack contains the entire special save for a dance number performed solo by Diana Ross; thus, it’s a breathless, razzle-dazzle revue that’s heavy on the gloss, far more Hollywood than Motown.  Years later, Andrew Hamilton would review the album for AllMusic and describe it in disparaging terms including “unlistenable,” “campy,” and “watered down.”  This is unfair; TCB is a very enjoyable album, filled with energy and an undeniable chemistry between the two groups.  The hits — especially those of The Supremes — are far removed from their original arrangements, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’d heard their earlier live LPs.  The purpose of TCB was never to be an examination of the Motown Sound; it was to entertain television audiences.  More than that, it emerges as an important record of the elegant way through which Motown broke down racial barriers.

***

1.  T.C.B.:  The opening number and title song is a splashy Vegas-style tune written by Buz Kohan and Bill Angelos, both credited as writers for the television special.  It’s a terrific way to kick off the program (and album); the orchestra really swings behind the groups and both Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations sound totally at-home on the material.  Ross opens the piece, ordering audiences to “Stop whatever you’re doing/Hold it right there!” before Wilson and Birdsong take over and harmonize “Drop whatever you’re doing/There’s not a minute to spare!”  The three ladies sing with the confidence of seasoned club performers, and even though Birdsong had only been with the group about a year when this special was recorded, the ladies’ voices gel in a tight, satisfying way (of course, they’d had plenty of practice touring to rave review overseas earlier that year, recording the LP Live At London’s Talk Of The Town in the process).  The Temptations eventually take over with only about 30 seconds left on the clock, delivering their vocals in perfect unison, and carrying the piece though its quick conclusion.  An instrumental break and additional lyrics were featured in the special but are edited out here, chopping the runtime down to less than two minutes.  Thus, it’s a quick opener, but there’s energy to spare, even without the added benefit of seeing the fancy footwork displayed by both groups during the televised performance.  (NOTE: A longer mix of “T.C.B.” featuring the instrumental break and added lyrics was eventually included on the 2000 box set The Supremes.)

2.  Stop! In The Name Of Love:  “T.C.B.” segues into a breathless rendition of this 1965 #1 hit, utilizing a seamless lyrical transition from “Stop whatever you’re doing” to “Stop! In The Name Of Love” that would be kept in the group’s show and featured during their farewell engagement at the Frontier Hotel in early 1970.  The arrangement here is predictably “showbiz” — but there’s some phenomenal percussion work (check out those bongos!) backing it up which at least hints at the song’s Hitsville origins.  Diana’s brassy delivery cuts straight through the instrumental here, commanding attention and injecting the song with a gleeful urgency; meanwhile, Cindy Birdsong’s lilting, bell-like voice is especially audible in the background parts.  This truncated version runs only about a minute in length, but it’s nice to hear the song outside of a longer hits medley (as it was presented on Talk Of The Town and would be again on Farewell) and it remains an exciting part of the group’s repertoire.

3.  Introduction Of Diana Ross & The Supremes:  This is just a quick bit of group banter, as Diana Ross introduces herself and her group mates, and assures the audience that along with singing, “We also talk!” — affording Mary and Cindy the chance to deliver their comically succinct “Hi!” and “Hello!”

4.  You Keep Me Hangin’ On:  Diana and The Supremes then forge ahead into this dazzling version of their 1966 #1 hit, again featuring a maniac on the bongos (seriously, whoever is responsible for playing should have gotten an album credit — he’s amazing) and a decent replication of the guitar work featured on the original recording.  This live performance is accomplished in every sense of the word; along with hard-driving orchestra behind them, The Supremes really wail here, unleashing powerful vocal performances that match the energetic instrumental.  Diana Ross barely gets a chance to breathe, but never sounds anything less than totally engaged, and Mary and Cindy belt the prominent background line, especially at 1:22 during their “Set me free, what don’t ya babe?” bridge section.  Perhaps I’m a bit biased, since I consider “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to be the best of the group’s dozen #1 hits, but hearing them set the song on fire here is a highlight of the album.

5.  Introduction Of The Temptations/Get Ready:  The ladies sing an introduction of their male counterparts set to the melody of the male group’s #1 hit “My Girl” — and then The Temptations launch into a  rapid-fire rendition of their 1966 Smokey Robinson-penned hit “Get Ready.”  Although this song wasn’t a huge hit for the group upon its release (it peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100) it’s become a classic and is a great inclusion here, as it easily matches the high-energy bar set by the previous performances.  Eddie Kendricks sings lead, and his soulful falsetto rings through loud and clear; Melvin Franklin also shares the spotlight by playfully mirroring several lines with his impossible deep bass voice.  Although “Get Ready” stands totally on its own here, it’s more than worth it to find a copy of the special to watch this particular performance; the group’s choreography is astounding.

6.  Introduction Of Diana Ross/The Way You Do The Things You Do:  Diana Ross joins The Temptations here (without The Supremes) for a swinging performance of the first big hit released by The Temptations (“The Way You Do The Things You Do” was a Top 20 record in 1964, just months before The Supremes broke through with “Where Did Our Love Go”).  The “introduction” of Diana Ross is again set to the melody of “My Girl” and contains a corny joke about the group forgetting her name (this special did air in place of Laugh-In, after all).  Miss Ross and Mr. Kendricks lead the song; the crisp “bite” of her delivery and his honeyed falsetto bounce off of each other perfectly, confirming what a strong match their voices were (the two, of course, shared lead on the smash single “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” — which was recorded after this special, and thus doesn’t feature on this soundtrack).  Ross also sounds quite soulful on some of her runs; listen to the singer at 2:25, as she skillfully stretches out the world “tell” over several notes.

7.  Medley (A Taste Of Honey/Eleanor Rigby/Do You Know The Way To San Jose/Mrs. Robinson):  This is a lengthy medley of then-popular songs, opening with The Temptations tackling the pop standard “A Taste Of Honey,” which was a big instrumental hit for Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass in 1965.  Although the song may be a bit too vanilla for some listeners who prefer their Temptations heavy on the soul, Eddie Kendricks    is a stellar interpreter for the piece; after all, his smooth voice is basically the musical equivalent of honey.  His groupmates also offer just the right light touch on the backgrounds, something at which they excelled; their voices seem to just bob along the surface of the song.  “Honey” segues into a dramatic version of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which is presented as a solo spot for Diana Ross and given a great Bossa Nova touch in its arrangement; it’s far smoother than the original recording, which was dominated by slicing strings.  This is a vocal standout for Miss Ross, who sings a nearly a cappella opening (she’s accompanied by some very soft strings) and then croons over the Latin-inspired beat with her controlled, velvety tone.  Next, Ross is joined by The Temptations for an upbeat version of the Dionne Warwick hit “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” penned by the great team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  Miss Ross takes the lead, and delivers the lyric-packed song with just the right light touch; she sounds wonderful backed by the intricately-arranged male voices.  Finally, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong return for a bouncy rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Mrs. Robinson,” and the song gives the three ladies an unexpected opportunity to harmonize; Mary gets a brief and deserved solo on the line “We’d like to help you learn to help yourself” and Cindy’s soprano loudly mirrors Ross throughout.  Although each of the four songs here are given rushed treatments and certainly don’t sound much like their original recordings, The Temptations and Diana Ross and The Supremes handle all of them quite well, and with an abundance of class and style.

8.  Respect:  Although it’s separated into its own track here, “Respect” is essentially a continuation of the previous medley; the song had topped the charts roughly a year earlier when it was covered by Aretha Franklin, and thus continues the medley’s theme of then-popular songs from outside the Motown fold.  While Franklin’s “Respect” is such an iconic performance that it’s impossible for any other version to live up to its standard, The Temptations and The Supremes do quite well with it, thanks to the fact that the song lends itself well to a duet arrangement; sung by the male and female groups, it because a “battle of the sexes” fight for R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  The sandpaper voice of Paul Williams and Diana’s sharp delivery fit together well; it’s especially fun to hear the vocal interplay at around a minute in, when Diana sings “Ooh, your kisses, sweeter than honey” and Williams responds, “You’re right!”  Both groups are really grooving by climax, which continues for quite some time; Ross and Williams are fairly understated in their ad-libbing (although Ross reaches for some nice, powerful high notes), which allows the choir of voices behind them to really shine.  Although it’s no threat to Aretha, this performance is definitely a highlight of TCB and evidence of why putting these two groups together was such a brilliant idea.

9.  Somewhere:  In the actual television special, “Respect” was followed by Diana’s wild, mod “Afro-Vogue” number, which featured her frantically dancing in various costumes made from bold, African-style prints intercut with colorful photographs of her posing in those costumes (Ross fans will no doubt notice a similarity to the opening of her 1983 Central Park special, during which the opening featured striking photographs of the singer posing as an African warrior).  That dance number then transitioned into “Somewhere,” which is basically sung solo by the singer (there is scant accompaniment from The Supremes, who earlier in their career were featured more heavily during the song).  This ballad from West Side Story had been part of the group’s repertoire for a long time, and was first heard on the 1965 live At The Copa LP.  The song was always a showstopper for Ross; Berry Gordy, Jr. would later recall, “I look at something like a ‘Somewhere,’ where Diana would cry every night…When Diana did that last part and built it up so great, she had to wring herself out.  That’s how much she put into it.  Every time she did ‘Somewhere,’ she left everything out there on the stage” (The Supremes box set booklet).  There’s no denying the power of the singer’s voice during the final few notes of the song; she’s really belting, and her vocals sound incredibly strong.  Still, the highlight here is her spoken monologue, which serves as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; it’s important to remember the Civil Rights pioneer had been killed only a few months before this special was taped, which makes the words even more poignant.  To have a glamorous, powerful African-American woman deliver such a call for racial harmony — on primetime national television — is pretty amazing to consider, even nearly fifty years later.  Diana Ross and The Supremes are rarely given credit for being pioneers during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and they were (as were The Temptations, and everybody at Motown, really).  Through music, these young artists helped bridge a racial divide and paved a path still being walked by artists today.  Although “Somewhere” is given a rather treacly and overwrought arrangement, and I’d imagine Diana’s performance is a bit too affected for some listeners to appreciate today, the message behind this song makes it an enormously important moment.

10.  Ain’t Too Proud To Beg:  After the emotional bang of “Somewhere,” The Temptations return to the stage to ramp up the energy level with a spirited rendition of their 1966 #1 R&B hit “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”  The song had been recorded with a lead vocal by David Ruffin, who had since exited the group; here, new Temptation Dennis Edwards attacks the song with a rough, fiery vocal.  Edwards doesn’t try to match Ruffin note-for-note, which is a wise decision; his own gutty performance is a winning one, with predictably solid support from the rest of The Temptations.  The orchestra behind them is also in top form; although these players are definitely not The Funk Brothers, they provide a dynamic musical accompaniment that serves the song well.

11.  Introduction Of The Temptations:  The guys take a brief moment to “introduce themselves” — the joke being that they’re introducing themselves to each other, not the audience.

12.  Hello, Young Lovers:  Although The Supremes are the Motown act most associated with performing pop standards and showtunes, they certainly weren’t the only ones who did; here, The Tempts take on a signature song from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway hit The King And I.  The song had already been featured on the group’s 1967 LP In A Mellow Mood (on which they also recorded “A Taste Of Honey,” “Somewhere,” “For Once In My Life,” and “The Impossible Dream”) with the same jazzy and boisterous arrangement performed on this special.  What the guys do with “Hello, Young Lovers” is analogous to what The Supremes had been doing for years with “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” — transforming the tune into a hand-clapping, head-bopping showstopper.  Although many Motown purists might cringe at the idea of The Temptations singing big-band, this performance is one of the great moments of TCB; the harmonies and vocal interplay delivered by The Temptations are spellbinding.  The sheer talent of these young men remains awe-inspiring nearly fifty years later; their voices snap together with the precision of a beautiful machine.

13.  For Once In My Life:  After a huge ovation for “Hello, Young Lovers,” The Temptations launch into another song the group had recorded for In A Mellow Mood, “For Once In My Life.”  Co-written by Ron Miller (who would later co-write the #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning” for Diana Ross), the song was recorded by several Motown artists, most notably by Stevie Wonder, who took an uptempo version to #2 on the pop charts in 1968.  In his memoir To Be Loved, Berry Gordy, Jr. wrote, “Paul Williams, who I always considered the heart of the group with his emotional baritone voice, soul, rhythm and style, had sung one of the most heart-wrenching versions of ‘For Once In My Life’ that I had ever heard” (254).  Indeed, Williams turns in a striking performance here; he begins the song with a controlled, deliberate vocal and allows it slowly build in emotional intensity; his reading of the line “For once I can feel that somebody’s heard my plea” at 2:32 is searing in its intensity, and defies anyone listening not to feel chills.  While Stevie Wonder seemed to be truly celebrating love in his recording of the song, Paul Williams and The Temptations sound tortured by it, as though the happy ending won’t be so happy, after all.  This is a totally compelling performance, and a wonderful showcase for “the heart of the group.”

14.  (I Know) I’m Losing You:  Another #1 R&B hit for The Temptations in 1966 (in fact, it directly followed “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” at the top), this was another song led by David Ruffin, who’d left The Temptations shortly before the taping of TCB.  As with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Dennis Edwards takes over the lead, and he seemingly tears into the song with everything he’s got.  The recording of this performance sounds great, but here’s another instance where viewing it from the actual special really enhances the experience; The Temptations and Dennis Edwards absolutely whip the crowd into a frenzy with their wild choreography and sizzling vocals.  The Temptations were consummate performers, and this performance is undeniable proof of their unparalleled skills.

15.  Medley (With A Song In My Heart/Without A Song):  This is part of a longer medley that The Supremes had been performing in concert for several years; both standards were originally recorded for the group’s 1966 I Hear A Symphony LP, and that extended “Symphony” medley was featured as the opener on 1968’s Live At London’s Talk Of The Town.  This mash-up serves two purposes; it’s a wonderful showcase for the power in Diana’s voice, and also spotlights some beautiful harmonies from the three ladies.  Diana’s performance is brassy, and at times her tone might cut a little too sharp for listeners, but her vocals are incredibly strong, especially at the end of each of the two songs.  As Funny Girl writer Jule Styne would later comment (after working with Ross on the group’s own Funny Girl LP), Miss Ross was “a real belter” — and that’s more than obvious here.

16.  Medley (Come See About Me/My World Is Empty Without You/Baby Love):  Here’s another one of those breathless hits medleys, which manages to pack three big hits into less than three-minutes of running time.  The 1965 #1 “Come See About Me” opens the piece, and it’s a terrific (albeit blink-and-you-miss-it) performance, with all three ladies in fine voice.  Since the beginning of the song employs a call-and-response effect, Diana, Mary, and Cindy are all very audible here; they sound so good together that it’s a disappointment when it ends so quickly.  “My World Is Empty Without You” is next, bearing little resemblance to the dark, tumultuous studio version from 1965; that recording remains one of the best and most compelling Supremes recordings of all time, but it’s all dressed up in big-band trappings here.  The ladies still sound great, though, and it’s to the credit of songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland that it’s a strong tune even without the benefit of the Hitsville backing track.  Finally, Diana launches into her trademark “Oooooh” — which never gets old — and The Supremes sing a snippet from one of their biggest hits of all time, 1965’s “Baby Love.”  This is a song that’s irresistible in any form; although the arrangement here is splashy and unlike the spare studio recording, it’s such an iconic tune that hearing the melody instantly tugs at the heart.  Diana is kittenish in her delivery, and Mary and Cindy contribute full-bodied backgrounds.  Though it won’t satisfy those looking for The Motown Sound, it’s always a thrill hear Diana Ross and The Supremes on the songs that made them stars.

17.  I Hear A Symphony:  At this point in their career, it was rare to hear The Supremes perform any of their earliest hits in full-length versions; the songs were typically placed in rushed medleys, such as the one just featured on this LP.  So it’s a surprise and a real pleasure to get a complete rendition of 1965’s #1 smash “I Hear A Symphony.”  The orchestra does a fabulous job here, giving The Supremes a subdued symphony of their own to sing along to, and the ladies are polished and confident in their delivery.  There’s a natural “smile” to Diana’s voice when she sings this song, giving the lyrics an air of authenticity, and Mary Wilson in particular really wails at the end of the song.  “I Hear A Symphony” had apparently been cut from Live At London’s Talk Of The Townand it’s not included on the forthcoming Farewell live recording, so it’s a treasure for fans to have a live version here.

18.  The Impossible Dream:  TCB ends with an outstanding version of the popular ballad taken from the 1965 Broadway hit Man Of La Mancha.  As noted earlier, The Temptations had already recorded the song for the previous year’s In A Mellow Mood LP, and both groups minted an extended studio version which closed their joint album Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations (released shortly prior to the airing of TCB).  “The Impossible Dream” was apparently supposed to be that album’s first single, and was to be released to radio to coincide with this special; instead, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was released and became a major hit for the groups.  Still, “The Impossible Dream” is the unqualified highlight of this television special and resultant album; it’s a stunning, emotional climax that features some of the best singing of the entire program.  Diana Ross and Paul Williams share lead vocals, and both are in absolute peak form; Ross is beautifully controlled, resisting any temptation (no pun intended) to oversing or inject unnecessary emotion into her performance.  She’s matched by Williams, who croons with a stunning, soulful simplicity.  It’s nice to hear The Supremes step out into the spotlight at 1:23, on the line, “No matter how far…” — Cindy Birdsong’s smooth soprano is gorgeous.  Of course, when the two groups begin singing together as an ensemble, the sound is heavenly; it just doesn’t get any better than hearing these eight talented individuals giving their all to a performance.  Diana’s delivery of the final “To dream…” at 2:41 — followed by a powerful exclamation of “Oh!” — may be one of her great vocal moments of all time.  For my money, this shorter, live version of “The Impossible Dream” is even better than the recorded version included on the Join LP, and Motown probably could have released this version as a single immediately following the airing of the television special and had a hit with it.  In the same way that Diana’s monologue during “Somewhere” is a seminal moment for Motown on television, so is this closing number; these eight people dared to dream impossible dreams, and no matter what would happen in the future, at that very moment they’d almost certainly achieved and surpassed them all.

***

In the nearly fifty years since TCB starring Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations aired on NBC, the importance of the television special has been lost on most of the general public.  Aside from those who watched it on TV back in December of 1968, and those who are currently die-hard fans of both groups, most people wouldn’t have any idea what TCB is, let alone recognize many of the standards included therein.  Although the advent of YouTube now makes it possible to view TCB in its entirety, a quick browse of the viewer comments reveals scant discussion of why it was such an important moment not just for Motown, but for music and the Civil Rights movement.  In later years, Diana Ross and The Supremes would be accused of “selling out” to white audiences, but what’s happening in this special isn’t “selling out” at all; Diana’s passionate monologue during “Somewhere” is, in fact, a brilliant way of calling for racial harmony in a way that would appeal to all audiences at the time.

It’s a real shame that TCB isn’t officially available in any format (at the time of this writing); the television special has never gotten a proper VHS or DVD release, and the album is not currently available as a digital download or special-edition CD.  It deserves not only to be watched and heard, but also discussed.

Final Analysis:  4.5/5 (A Soundtrack Deserving Of Much “Respect”)

Choice Cuts:  “The Impossible Dream,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Somewhere”

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Love Child (1968)

Diana Ross and The Supremes Love Child LP

“It’s like a child’s first step, I had to learn to walk all, all over again…”

By his own admission, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. spent the middle part of 1968 in crisis mode.  His star group, Diana Ross and The Supremes, was without a hit record, something that would have seemed inconceivable only just a year earlier; this is the group, after all, that had scored a staggering ten #1 pop hits in a span of just three years.  The problem was that the men responsible for those hits (not to mention several other Top Ten records) were gone; writing-producing team Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier had fled Motown in a dispute over money, consequently leaving The Supremes without any material to record.  The first attempt at recovery came from legendary writers Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who delivered the fiery “Some Things You Never Get Used To.”  Although it contained a brilliant performance by Diana Ross, the song didn’t necessarily sound like a “traditional” Supremes recording and stalled at a dismal #30 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In his memoir To Be Loved, Gordy remembers what happened next: “I took my battle into the studio where my mission was clear — to come up with a record on the Supremes that sounded so much like HDH that nobody would know the difference” (264).  To do this, Gordy assembled a team of talented Motown writers (Deke Richards, Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor, and Pam Sawyer) and put them up at Detroit’s Pontchartrain Hotel with the directive to come up with a #1 hit; within days, the group dreamt up a hard-edged, soulful song with memorable lyrics and a socially conscious message.  “Love Child” was recorded quickly in September of 1968 and released to the public just days later; by late November, it was the #1 record in the country.  In the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, Frank Wilson recalls, “…the track was just tight from the moment we cut it; it was just there.  That same night, perhaps, we arranged the backgrounds that were so singable.  Diana handled her performance so exquisitely, and we just knew.”

The resulting Love Child album (released in December of 1968) takes a nod from its title track and features a more soulful and mature sound for the group.  It’s easily one of the group’s most cohesive and consistently strong albums, which is surprising considering the number of contributing writers and producers.  Along with Ashford & Simpson, recognizable names here include Smokey Robinson, future comedian Tommy Chong, Anna Gordy Gaye (wife of Marvin) and even funk legend George Clinton.  Various voices appear here, too; Diana Ross sings lead on every song, of course, but she’s backed up Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, session singers The Andantes, and even Ashford & Simpson themselves.  The last time an album was this patchwork (Reflections, released in March), it turned out to be a major disappointment.  That’s why it’s so startling that Love Child is so good.  The saving grace here to two-fold; the material is uniformly strong, and the performances by Diana Ross are among the best of her Supremes-era career.

***

1.  Love Child:  Not since “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in 1966 had The Supremes released a single so bold and scorching; the psychedelic sway of “Reflections” and the guitar-strumming pop of “In And Out Of Love” are gone here, replaced by a hard-edged soul and searing, honest lyrics.  The story of the song’s creation has taken on mythic proportions for Motown and Supremes fans; Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was desperate to give the group a #1 hit, and secluded a group of writers in a hotel until it happened.  One of those writers was Frank Wilson, who would later recall, “There were other producers trying to work up material but Berry put coming up with a Number One record in our hands.  It was a wonderful weekend” (The Supremes booklet).  Wilson’s being sarcastic here, but the results of that weekend were wonderful, indeed; “Love Child” accomplished its mission, racing to the top of the pop chart and #2 R&B.  Part of the song’s appeal is its grownup concept; just a few years earlier, The Supremes were trilling about true love and symphonies, and now Diana Ross was singing a song about babies born out of wedlock.  Credit must be given to the writers for realizing how much the musical landscape had changed and how necessary it was to give Diana and The Supremes something more mature; those writers (known collectively as The Clan) smartly turn the song into a personal narrative, casting Diana Ross in the role of the “love child” who doesn’t want to repeat the pattern.  As Gordy writes in his memoir To Be Loved, “We had managed to take a negative image and turn it around in a positive way.  Now it was perfect for the Supremes” (265).  According to session notes printed in the group’s 2000 box set booklet, “Love Child” was recording in just three short days in September of 1968, and amazingly, it was released just ten days after the final recording session.  Perhaps that rush is partially responsible for the sizzling energy that permeates the finished product; this is one of the most exciting Motown singles of the late-1960s.  The Funk Brothers provide a guitar-led track that charges forward without being too heavy-handed, and the slicing strings during the song’s chorus are probably one of the most important musical flourishes in a Supremes single.  The instrumental here is immediate, clean, and effective, and it’s matched by the superb performance of Diana Ross.  This easily ranks as the singer’s best vocal on a Supremes hit single, and it’s certainly one of her best vocal performances of all her Supremes recordings; there’s not a better example of her extraordinary gift of transmitting acute emotional urgency.  Diana’s crisp delivery is necessary to keep the song racing to its conclusion while never losing the power of its message, and her high-note ad-libs at the end of the song provide a soulful, powerful finish.  According to producer Wilson, “Berry wanted that record out in a week.  I thought we had Mary, Cindy, and The Andantes on that record.  If they’re not on it, it was because we were on a bullet train” (The Supremes booklet).  Indeed, Mary Wilson would later recall that she was on vacation when “Love Child” was recorded, and the hectic schedule meant that only the Motown session singers joined Ross in the studio.  It’s disappointing that Wilson and Birdsong aren’t featured here, but the thicker, fuller voices of The Andantes work beautifully, grounding the recording and providing some emotional weight to the desperate pleas of “Wait, wait, won’t you wait.”  The eventual success of “Love Child” was entirely justified (in fact, it’s surprising it didn’t also top the R&B chart), and it’s a shame the recording was overlooked for a Grammy nomination; Diana’s performance is more than worthy of the recognition.

2.  Keep An Eye:  It’s not just any song that can follow up a classic like “Love Child,” but this dark, sinewy tune is the perfect way to continue the album.  “Keep An Eye” comes courtesy Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the talented writers/producers who came to Motown and created a series of classic duet recordings for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  Ashford & Simpson would be given their most important Motown challenge two years later, when they were tasked with producing the first solo LP for Diana Ross.  Interestingly, among a lineup of classic tunes including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” Ashford & Simpson chose to have Ross re-record “Keep An Eye,” which appears on the second side of Diana Ross.  Because both versions are similarly arranged, it makes for fascinating listening; the differences in Diana’s performances might seem subtle to casual listeners, but they’re striking to those who know the singer’s arc as a vocalist.  She is more controlled here; there’s a tightness around her vocal chords, producing a ringing, focused tone that keeps the emphases on Ashford & Simpson’s clever lyrics.  It’s a skillful performance; Ross has clearly put thought into her delivery, and she produces some memorably powerful moments, such as her run on the classic line, “Just like a snake on the limb of a tree!” at 2:07.  But now, listen to her reading of the song on her 1970 solo debut; her voice is breathier, more open, creating more of an atmosphere for the song.  Rather than offering up such a piercing clarity, Ross uses the textures of her voice to inject the words with added meaning.  This is the major difference between the singer’s work with The Supremes and as a soloist; over the years, Diana Ross would get “looser” with her voice, seemingly becoming more confident in her range and comfortable in injecting various aspects of her personality into her performances.  All of that said, both versions of “Keep An Eye” are stellar; it’s a terrific song, as are the gospel-infused backgrounds by Ashford & Simpson.  This is also early proof that the songwriting/producing team were the perfect match for Diana Ross.

3.  How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone:  This is another fantastic soul song for The Supremes, written by Frank Wilson and Pam Sawyer (two of the writers responsible for “Love Child”) and produced by Wilson.  This track is rightly celebrated for the intricate bassline from Motown Funk Brother James Jamerson; it’s singled out in the AllMusic review of the album, and check out YouTube and you’ll find plenty of “tribute” videos by bass players covering this song.  That “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone” warrants that kind of attention without having even been featured as a b-side to a Supremes single demonstrates its strength; it was even given a place on the beautifully-produced Supremes box-set in 2000.  The track is a dusky one with some nice funk to the verses; the arrangement features bluesy backgrounds that predict those of the future Gladys Knight & The Pips hit “Midnight Train To Georgia” with a woo-woo! flourish during the chorus.  The instrumental is so smart, opening with the repeated plunking of deep piano keys that evokes the image of a large locomotive preparing to depart its station, and continuing with a chugging percussion that carries the song forward as if on a railroad track. Diana Ross sounds like she’s really feeling this song; she delivers a playful, soulful performance that matches the tone set by the outstanding Funk Brothers performances.  This one’s definitely a gem of the late-60s Supremes discography.

4.  Does Your Mama Know About Me:  In terms of actual ballads, this one might be the very best ever recorded by Diana Ross and The Supremes; this is a breathtakingly beautiful song, tastefully produced by Frank Wilson and Deke Richards and performed with real sensitivity by the vocalists.  “Does Your Mama Know About Me” was initially released as the debut single for Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers; it was penned by Tom Baird (who would later work with Diana Ross on her Touch Me In The Morning and Last Time I Saw Him LPs) and Vancouvers member Tommy Chong, who’d later find fame as one half of comedy duo Cheech & Chong.  In fitting with the theme of the Love Child LP thus far, the song addresses the issues of an interracial relationship (the narrator asks, “Does your mama know about me?/Does she know just what I am?”).  The original recording is perfection; the smooth, soulful arrangement foreshadows the Philly Soul sound of the 1970s, and Taylor offers up a heartfelt reading of the intelligent lyrics.  The version here sticks very close to the original, which is a good move; the sheer fact that it’s coming from a female’s point-of-view this time gives it enough distinction without muddying up the production with unnecessary touches.  The stretched-out guitar chords and swirling strings give the song a lush, dreamy feel that stands out among the rest of this album’s tracks; it’s got to be one of the loveliest tracks ever recorded for The Supremes.  Diana Ross nails the song, offering up velvety vocals that result in one of her best-ever Supremes-era performances.  Her voice is rich and smooth here; listen to the quiet dignity in her delivery of lines like, “Maybe I shouldn’t worry/But I’ve been through this before.”  Ross is also given the chance to display her considerable range here, as she powerfully ad-libs during the track’s final fade (I love the way she reaches higher on the word “know” at 2:33).  It’s not clear who the voices are behind Miss Ross; it sounds like perhaps Mary and Cindy are there, and joined by other session singers.  In any case, the backgrounds are classy and understated, allowing the narrator to remain front and center while sweetening up the delivery with pretty harmonies.  This is, without a doubt, one of the best Supremes album-only tracks of all time, and a rare occasion when a Motown cover ends up standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the original.

5.  Honey Bee (Keep On Stinging Me):  After four very strong soul songs, Love Child returns The Supremes to more familiar territory with this peppy Motown track, written by Deke Richards, Debbie Dean, and Janie Bradford.  Richards and Dean had already contributed the solid “I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You)” to the group’s Reflections LP earlier in the year, but this is a more memorable song, and one seemingly modeled on the compact, driving pop tunes penned for The Supremes by Holland-Dozier-Holland.  The track here is a real throwback, led by an urgent percussion and featuring a sax solo that sounds like it was ripped straight out of 1965’s More Hits By The Supremes.  Likewise, the lyrics sound delightfully retro, with Diana repeating “Honey Bee” here about as many times as she cooed the words “Baby Love” on that earlier hit.  There’s also a little background bridge featuring the lyrics, “Floor-shaking, soul-taking, ooh, good love-making” the brings to mind a certain early Smokey Robinson-penned Supremes single (can you guess which one?).  Diana Ross and the choir of background singers (almost certainly not Mary and/or Cindy) do a fine job keeping up with the song’s fervent pace; certainly Ross had had plenty of practice on songs like this one.  Make no mistake, “Honey Bee (Keep On Stinging Me)” is not a classic on par with “Baby Love” or “Come See About Me” or any other early HDH hit; it’s repetitive and, frankly, a bit too clunky in its execution.  Still, it’s a fun inclusion here, as it harkens back to “The Sound of Young America” and the classics that truly made The Supremes legends.

6.  Some Things You Never Get Used To:  This must rank as the most under-appreciated single ever released by Diana Ross and The Supremes; when it was released in May of 1968, it was basically ignored by the group’s legions of fans, peaking at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and not even making the R&B Top 40.  For many Motown groups, having a song peak at #30 pop would have been a fine accomplishment, but not for The Supremes; in fact, it was the double-whammy of “Forever Came Today” (which peaked at #28) and this song that compelled Berry Gordy, Jr. to lock up his writers in a hotel and come up with “Love Child.”  “Some Things You Never Get Used To” was the first Supremes single not written by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland since “A Breathtaking Guy” in 1963; the song was penned by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and given to the group following the departure of HDH from Motown.  In light of the fact that Ashford & Simpson would later help make Diana Ross a solo superstar (their production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became her first solo #1 hit), it’s fascinating that this song didn’t catch on; it’s an energetic, challenging composition that features one of Diana’s most powerful Supremes-era performances.  This is a fiery, frantic song, featuring a track punctuated by clicking castanets, a pouncing percussion line, and absolutely roaring background vocals (credited in many sources to The Andantes, though I’d assume Ashford & Simpson themselves also sing on the track, as they typically did).  This is not a song on which Diana Ross can coast; as with the A&S tunes she’d record in the 1970s, there’s a certain level of vocal gymnastics called for here, and a real lung power needed to push through the lyric-packed verses and chorus.  Miss Ross doesn’t just meet those requirements, she exceeds them; she is in full-bodied voice throughout her entire performance, singing with the kind of abandon she’d demonstrated on Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform Funny Girl (released earlier that year).  Listen to her work on the song’s bridge at 1:28; there’s an astounding amount of technical skill required to flip-flop between the high-powered belting and playful breathiness she displays.  The is great singing, period; her performance certainly isn’t the reason the song didn’t chart higher than it did.  If there’s any issue with the recording, it’s probably that it was a little too complex for pop radio at the time; unlike most Supremes songs, it can be tough to discern some of the lyrics (for years, I thought Diana was singing “Sometimes I think my heart is contorted” instead of “Sometimes I think my heartaches come to an end”) and the melody isn’t an easy one to whistle along to.  Still, it’s a really great song, and a great sign of things to come between Diana Ross and Ashford & Simpson.  The songwriting duo certainly knew how to push the singer in the studio, as evidenced by some her finest work of the following decade.

7.  He’s My Sunny Boy:  Plenty of people would get a listen to this song when it was placed on the b-side of “Someday We’ll Be Together” — released as the final Diana Ross and The Supremes single in October of 1969.  It’s a shame, however, that “He’s My Sunny Boy” never got a shot at success on its own; of all the terrific non-singles included on Love Child, this one sounds like it could have generated some real heat at radio.  The song was written and produced by Smokey Robinson, and is even stronger than his previous contribution to the group, “Then” from the Reflections LP (a song which should have been released as a single from that album).  This is a joyous, brassy celebration of love, featuring celebratory horns and a great bongo intro; even though the “sunny” tone of the song might have sounded a little too old-fashioned, the expert guitar picking here helps give the song a  folksy feel that’s totally of the late-60s.  Robinson’s lyrics are as sharp as ever, with Diana, Mary, and Cindy cooing “Looks good in everything from silk to corduroy (Or mohair!)/For him I’d walk from Idaho to Illinois (Or anywhere!)” — and a real joy here is the clarity of all three Supremes’ voices.  Just the three ladies are singing here, and there’s a purity in their sound that makes you wish Motown hadn’t been so reliant on session singers.  Diana Ross is superb in her lead vocal; she effortlessly keeps up the quick pace of the lyrics, and even though she’s singing toward the top of her range, she lets the track pull her along and never sounds like she’s really straining.  Likewise, Wilson and Birdsong are in perfect harmony behind her; Mary’s sexy, smoky tone and Birdsong’s ringing soprano just seem to bob along the surface of the track, buoying the entire recording and sweetening an already sugary confection.  “He’s My Sunny Boy” is a stellar b-side, and Motown should have jumped on this as a single release; it’s infinitely better than the single Robinson would write and produce for the group early the next year (the abysmal “The Composer”).

8.  You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me:  Thus far, Love Child has been a nearly perfect album, featuring a succession of strong, soulful songs and superb vocal performances.  “You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me” is the first song that breaks that streak a bit; although it’s not a bad recording, it’s a rather vanilla MOR tune that sounds jarring on the heels of more complex works.  Written by Anna Gordy Gaye (wife of Marvin), George Gordy, and Allen Story, this is a swinging ’60s tunes that could have come straight from a Doris Day movie; the muted horns and major-key melody sound tailor-made for a Vegas performance.  At this point in her career, Diana Ross was no stranger to this type of music (see: Live At London’s Talk Of The Town), and she offers up a relaxed, confident performance.  Perhaps she’s a little too relaxed at times; it would be nice to hear a little more “bite” in the vocal, but she’s engaged enough to carry the day.  The only real weak moment comes when she speak several lyrics beginning at 1:10; nobody’s better at delivering dramatic spoken dialogue than Diana Ross, but her breathless, uninspired reading here sounds like she’s just too tired to sing.  It sure sounds to me like Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are singing the backgrounds; they deliver up a delightful “doo-doo-doo” background line and some gorgeous harmonies behind Diana.  Although this track would have never stood a chance as a single, it would’ve been interesting to hear the group perform it live; I suspect there would be an added energy in a supper club setting that would have elevated the material.  As it is, this song isn’t the most exciting addition to the album, but it’s decent filler.  (NOTE: “You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me” was placed as the b-side to the “Some Things You Never Get Used To” single.)

9.  (Don’t Break These) Chains Of Love:  In terms of lyrics, this is probably the most strangely suggestive Supremes recording since the group’s failed 1961 single “Buttered Popcorn.”  The refrain here has Diana Ross pleading “Tighter!/Pull ’em tighter!/’Til I feel love’s sweet pain!” in reference to the title’s metaphorical chains; perhaps the songwriters were truly aiming for something innocuous, but hearing those lyrics over and over again really makes you wonder what was going on behind-the-scenes in the writing room.  This bouncy, upbeat tune was penned by Harvey Fuqua, John Bristol, and George Beauchamp; the former two would eventually write and produce the final #1 single for Diana Ross and The Supremes, “Someday We’ll Be Together” (Bristol is the male voice heard on that recording).  “(Don’t Break These) Chains Of Love” features an energetic production that seems to foreshadow the work on Diana’s 1970 solo LP Everything Is Everything; listen to this song back-to-back with that album’s title track and you’ll hear the similarities in structure and instrumental arrangement.  This isn’t a particularly memorable song, except for the fact that the lyrics seem like double entendres; Diana Ross opens the piece proclaiming “I’ve been so happy darlin’/Ever since the day you bound me” and ends by wailing “Lock it up! Lock it up! Lock it up!” though the final fade.  She’s definitely “all-in” on this performance, really pushing her voice during the refrain and having a lot of fun during the verses; her playful delivery of the lyrics “I felt so sure I could resist you/My mistake was the first I kissed you” sounds like a mature extension of her work on 1964’s “Baby Love.”  This one isn’t an album standout, but it’s certainly worth a listen.

10.  You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin’:  This is the third and final Ashford & Simpson contribution to Love Child, and a song that would have been somewhat familiar to Motown fans; it was earlier cut on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and was released as the b-side to the duo’s 1968 single “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey.”  The tune was also recorded by several other Motown artists, including The Marvelettes and The Miracles, but this version led by Diana Ross is arguably the strongest.  As with their previous productions on this LP, Ashford & Simpson surround Ross with a soulful orchestration and boisterous background vocals, and provide her with an exciting melody in which to sink her teeth.  There’s an inherent bluesiness to much of the Ashford & Simpson catalog, and that’s evident right off the bat here, in the piano chords that lead off the song (perhaps played by Simpson herself).  This track contains one of Diana’s most refreshing vocals in quite some time; rather than coast on her established sound here, the singer utilizes an appealingly coy, almost-childlike tone for much of her delivery, and it works beautifully on the  playful “I told you so” lyrics.  Although “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin'” lacks the immediacy of something like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” it’s a composition that gets better with repeated listens; this is a more challenging record than much of what Diana Ross and The Supremes had been given, and it’s telling to hear the way Miss Ross effortlessly keeps up with the unusual chord changes.  In the end, this is one of the standout tracks of the Love Child LP, and it’s a song that would have fit well on either of the two early ’70s Diana Ross albums produced by Ashford & Simpson.  (NOTE: A version of this song recorded by the post-Ross Supremes and The Four Tops was eventually released on the 2009 collection Magnificent: The Complete Studio Duets.)

11.  I’ll Set You Free:  It’s interesting that “I’ll Set You Free” ends up as probably the weakest track on the Love Child album, considering it was co-written by none other than Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and is one of the few tracks here that actually features all three Supremes.  Part of the issue is the song itself; it’s a funky little ditty with a compact instrumental, but it lacks any kind of real hook and feels very repetitive.  The other issue here is the uninspired performance by Diana Ross; strangely, as the instrumental track soars higher and higher in a series of upward key changes, Ross seems to hold back more and more, her voice seemingly choked from displaying any real power.  It’s nice to hear so much of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong; the ladies are given a background line that allows them to basically sing non-stop behind Ross, and they fare much better than she does thanks to their full-bodied harmonies.  This track is certainly worth a listen for Wilson and Birdsong, but it suffers in comparison to the surrounding material.  (NOTE:  The 2008 Motown Select collection Lost & Found: Supreme Rarities contains an alternate vocal take of this song, and the booklet notes, “Motown gave this track a lot of attention in the latter part of 1968, indicating it may have earmarked as a possible single for the Supremes” [17]).

12.  Can’t Shake It Loose:  Aside from the title track and possibly “Honey Bee” — this is the most “quintessential Motown” song on the album, featuring an instrumental that sounds like a close cousin to “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and a melody not far removed from the early hits of Mavin Gaye.  It’s surprising, then, that the song began its life at another label; it was penned by a group of writers including future Funk legend George Clinton and recorded by singer Pat Lewis on Detroit’s Golden World Records label in 1966.  Golden World was purchased by Motown that same year, and thus the song ended up being recorded by Diana Ross and The Supremes.  It’s a terrific tune, and the arrangement here follows that of the Lewis recording closely; listen for another gloriously intricate bassline, which is eventually mirrored by a guitar during the verses, and an energetic brass section that truly buoys the entire recording.  Ross is effortless here, and there’s not a wasted breath in her incredibly efficient performance; the singer’s pure tone and crisp delivery harken back to her earliest H-D-H hits.  She also injects the song with moments of soulful power, something that was lacking on the album’s previous track; I love her almost boyish “Yeah!” at 1:21.  I’m not sure who exactly is providing the background vocals here, but the gorgeous harmonies skillfully sweeten the track (interestingly, a quick web search for Pat Lewis turns up information that she eventually started singing some backgrounds at Motown — wouldn’t it be fascinating if she were one of the voices here?).  “Can’t Shake It Loose” is a satisfying end to Love Child, and a recording worthy of some love by fans.

***

It’s worth noting again that Love Child is the first hit-oriented album by Diana Ross and The Supremes to not feature a single song written or produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, and thus, it could have easily failed.  There are still short-sighted critics who consider The Supremes no more than mouthpieces for the writing-producing team, and this album definitively proves Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong were much more than that.  Does Love Child match the magic of 1965’s masterful More Hits By The Supremes?  Not really.  There’s no denying that the songs provided by H-D-H were uniquely suited to The Supremes and that their production resulted in an inimitable sound that remain fresh and vital today.  But there’s a real focus on quality and originality here, and it’s the most present Diana Ross had sounded in awhile (save for her transcendent work on the Funny Girl album); tackling more challenging music allowed her to display new and exciting aspects of her vocal abilities.  Love Child emerges as one of the most cohesive albums in the Supremes discography, and easily the best hit-centered album released under the moniker “Diana Ross and The Supremes.”

Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (A “Wonderful,” Mature Effort) 

Choice Cuts: “Love Child,” “He’s My Sunny Boy,” “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin'”

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Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations (1968)

Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations LP

“I’m gonna use every trick in the book, I’ll try my best to get you hooked…”

In the same way that Diana Ross and The Supremes would dominate the Billboard pop charts between 1964 and 1970, fellow Motown group The Temptations produced a powerful stranglehold on the top of the R&B listings.  Consider this; The Supremes scored a perfect dozen #1 Billboard pop hits, beginning with “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964 and ending with “Someday We’ll Be Together” in 1969.  Similarly, The Temptations scored a massive #1 R&B hit with “My Girl in 1965, and racked up an additional thirteen chart-toppers during the next ten years, ending with “Shakey Ground” in 1975.  The success of both groups was vital to the overall success of Motown, and never was that more evident than in December of 1968, when the record label achieved an incredible feat; as recounted by Berry Gordy, Jr. in his book To Be Loved, five records out of the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 came from the Hitsville fold…and three of those bore the names Diana Ross and The Supremes and/or The Temptations.

The dual success of The Supremes and The Temptations is fascinating because of the groups’ shared history.  Long before they were stars, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard were recruited by future Temptations Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams (then known as The Primes) to become The Primettes, a sister group.  Both groups were managed by Milton Jenkins, and Ross would later remember, “Milton Jenkins thought that our group and Cal (sic), Eddie, and Paul, who called themselves the Primes and were trying to make an act for themselves, might be a good match to sing together.  Although we never performed with them until much later on when we were the Supremes and they were the Temptations, we used to rehearse with them after school” (Secrets Of A Sparrow, 93).  In her own memoir, Mary Wilson remembers the guys teaching them how to sing harmonies and helping to choreograph their stage routines.  There was an obvious fondness between the groups, and after both had achieved stardom, it must have seemed a no-brainer to team them up.

Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations would be the first of four joint albums by Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations; released in late 1968, it served as something of a promotional tool for the upcoming broadcast of the groups’ first primetime television special, TCB (which aired on December 9, 1968 on NBC-TV).  The lead single was slated to be “The Impossible Dream,” a song which served as the special’s dramatic finale; however, Motown opted for “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” instead, a cover of a Dee Dee Warwick song from 1966.  It proved to be a good move; that song quickly climbed the charts, cresting at #2 on both the Billboard pop and R&B listings (and hitting #1 on the Cash Box singles chart).  The massive success of the television special, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” and the incredible popularity of both groups (each was concurrently enjoying its own major hit, “Love Child” for The Supremes and “Cloud Nine” for The Temptations) led Join to the #2 spot of the Billboard 200, a significant improvement over the previous three Supremes releases and the best showing for a Temptations LP thus far.

Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations isn’t a very exciting album in terms of material; there’s not a single original song included, and most of the tracks are covers of oft-recorded Motown hits.  If there is excitement, it lies in the way the voices of these seasoned performers work together in such surprising and satisfying ways.  Producer Frank Wilson had already worked with both groups, producing “All I Need” on The Temptations and “Bah-Bah-Bah” (from Reflections) for Diana Ross and The Supremes; Wilson clearly understood what made each of the group’s vocalists unique, and worked out clever combinations to showcase them to the fullest.  The highlights are the album’s two U.S. singles; although “I’ll Try Something New” didn’t match the first single’s success, it’s one of the most breathtakingly beautiful Motown singles of the era, and deserved to be a much bigger hit.  Much of the rest of the album feels like filler, but at least it’s not bad filler; Join doesn’t break any new ground for the former Primes and Primettes, but boy does the familiar sound sweet.

***

1.  Try It Baby:  In his autobiography To Be Loved, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. remember writing this song: “I imagined a girl like her with a guy like me who was building and guiding her career.  I envisioned this guy investing all of this time and effort in this girl, while at the same time falling in love with her.  What if she got so big, so popular, so caught up in fame and fortune that she no longer had time for him?” (206).  The “her” he’s writing about is Diana Ross; Gordy admits to falling deeply in love with the singer, and using her as inspiration for “Try It Baby.”  Gordy originally cut the song on Marvin Gaye (incidentally, with backgrounds by The Temptations), and it was a top 20 pop and R&B hit in 1964; Gaye’s recording was a dusky blues number punctuated by a sparkling piano line and prominent guitar and horns.  Helmed here by Frank Wilson, “Try It Baby” gets a Vegas makeover for Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, becoming a splashy and brassy production number that sounds tailor-made for a glitzy television special (it was, in fact, performed by The Temptations with Kaye Stevens on 1969’s The Temptations Show).  The soul-stirring bass of Melvin Franklin leads off the song; his voice playfully drops deeper and deeper to almost superhuman levels before Diana coos, “Hey, Melvin” and takes over the second verse.  Miss Ross sounds fantastic here, sexy and confident, and her vocal interplay with Franklin beginning at the 2:05 mark is the highlight of this recording (the juxtaposition of his deep, throaty tone with her high, crisp voice is sublime).  The great Paul Williams, his voice thick and soulful, also gets a verse toward the end, and both vocal groups provide strong, soulful support.  “Try It Baby” is a bit of a stylistic mess, but it’s a fun way to open the album; it’s not a classic recording, and it doesn’t sound like it could have been a hit, but it sure sounds like the groups were having a ball in the studio.

2.  I Second That Emotion:  This version of the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles hit was released as a single in the UK; it was a decent success for Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations there, peaking in the top 20.  Of the many Motown songs that could have been chosen for this album, “I Second That Emotion” is a wise one; both Ross and Temptation Eddie Kendricks easily match Robinson’s high vocal range, which means the song really doesn’t have to be altered from its original arrangement.  That said, there’s a real magic to the Miracles recording, a beautiful simplicity in both the vocal performances and the instrumental track, that’s missing in this version.  Diana Ross delivers a nice, straightforward performance; she follows the melody line closely and keeps the focus squarely on Robinson’s clever lyrics.  On the other hand, Eddie Kendricks is all over the place, tossing in soulful runs and changing up the phrasing; his honeyed falsetto sounds fabulous, but straying so far from the melody does rob the song of some of its charm.  The same can be said for the prominent string flourishes and additional background vocals; none of it is bad, but it just doesn’t feel necessary.

3.  Ain’t No Mountain High Enough:  The most notable aspect about this recording is that is serves as something of a “dry run” for Diana Ross, who would record this song again in 1970 and take it straight to the top of the charts; the singer’s dramatic reinterpretation of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” remains perhaps her defining moment as a vocalist, and is one of the great pop recordings of all time.  “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was originally a hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the version here retains the same basic arrangement featured on that recording, substituting in the gravely voice of Dennis Edwards and the urgent clarity of Miss Ross.  Edwards and Ross are perfectly matched; the contrast between their sandpaper-and-silk voices generates real excitement, but both also wisely stay close to the melody and match each other’s phrasing, thus remaining on the same page musically (unlike what we heard in “I Second That Emotion”).  The Supremes and Temptations offer up soulful work in the background; listen to the way they reach their voices up on “high enough,” and drop them down on “low enough” — it’s a smart way of literally interpreting the lyrics.  Ross and Edwards also ad-lib a bit during the song’s final fade; it’s particularly fun to listen to Diana toss out a “Hey, baby!” considering it sounds like a little “practice run” for the incredible riffing she’d do on her solo version.  This lesser-known version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” doesn’t necessarily add much to the song’s incredible legacy, but it’s a solid recording and worthwhile inclusion.

4.  I’m Gonna Make You Love Me:  Although this song will forever be identified with Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, theirs is not the original recording; the song, in fact, had been done several times before it finally became a major pop hit for the Motown groups.  Earlier versions by Dee Dee Warwick and Madeline Bell had already achieved varying degrees of success, and set the basic blueprint that would be followed by producers Frank Wilson and Nickolas Ashford for this particular version, which was released as a single on November 21, 1968 and raced to the #2 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B chart.  According to Wilson,  “[Motown executive] Suzanne de Passe mentioned ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ to me, and it just sounded perfect.  I could hear Eddie Kendricks and I could hear Diana, because they were in the same range.  It was just a wonderful fit.  It was a powerful presentation” (The Supremes box set booklet).  Although the arrangement here is nearly identical to those featured on Warwick’s and Bell’s recordings, there’s a crispness to the instrumental track (recording at the Hitsville Golden World studios in Detroit) that immediately sets it apart; as with just about every Detroit-recorded Motown song, the players here are absolutely superb, creating a toe-tapping track that’s dreamily soulful.  Another important aspect of this version’s success is the background work by The Supremes and The Temptations; the ethereal choir of voices lifts the recording to a higher plane, and floats along the instrumental track like clouds.  Lead duties here are handled by Eddie Kendricks and Diana Ross, and both deliver flawless readings; listen to the way the Kendricks falsetto bounces around his female counterpart’s brassy voice in a playful interpretation of the song’s “I’m gonna get you” lyrics, and you’ll hear what makes these vocalists among the very best of all-time.  Ross and Otis Williams also share a great spoken interlude, which is unique to this version of the song; it might have been nice to hear one of the other Supremes take the spoken line (imagine Mary Wilson’s sexy voice cooing, “Every breath I take…”), but Diana nails it, of course.  It’s interesting that this wasn’t originally planned as the album’s lead single; it’s a clear highlight of the album, and one of the few songs that really screams “HIT!” here.  Simply put, it’s magic.

5.  This Guy’s In Love With You:  Unfortunately, Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations follows one of its most exciting tracks with one of the least; this cover of the Herb Alpert classic isn’t bad, but it’s about as low-key and “tired” as either The Tempts or The Supremes would ever sound.  Then again, I suppose that’s the point of the song; “This Guy’s In Love With You” pretty much defines easy listening.  There’s no denying the Burt Bacharach-Hal David composition is an achingly pretty one, and it’s been recorded by just about every pop vocalist imaginable; here, Otis Williams takes the male lead and trades off verses with Diana Ross.  It’s nice to hear Williams step out front, since it didn’t seem to happen often; he and the Tempts sound good, but it’s Diana who emerges as the real MVP here.  This is the kind of song at which Ross always excels; the melody line is rather limited, but she resists any temptation (no pun intended) to oversing it, and allows the silken texture of her voice to do all the work.  The lyrics here are simple and elegant, and Miss Ross keeps the focus directly on the words; it’s a classy performance.  The highlight of this recording comes during the “I want your love…” refrain, during which both groups sing in glorious harmony behind Diana; there’s a palpable chemistry during these sections that brings the otherwise sluggish arrangement alive.

6.  Funky Broadway:  As the title implies, this is the funkiest selection on the album, a fiery rendition of the 1967 #1 R&B hit by Wilson Pickett.  As expected, it’s a glorious showcase for The Temptations; Dennis Edwards takes the lead, and he tears the song to shreds with his powerful voice.  Edwards was new to The Temptations when he recorded the songs for Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations; the group had recently chosen him to replace singer David Ruffin, and Edwards first appeared on the group’s hit single “Cloud Nine” (released only about a month prior to “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”).  Here, the singer’s gritty voice muscularly punctuates a deliriously soulful track, and his groupmates provide strong support; they dominate the first minute of the song, until Diana Ross and The Supremes finally join in to provide a brief but sizzling “breakdown” section.  The ladies sound fantastically sultry here, especially as Diana purrs, “Gotta get up outta my seat and groove awhile…”  I’m not entirely convinced it’s only Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong backing Miss Ross up; there seem to be some additional female voices there, although it’s tough to tell.  In any case, this isn’t a Supremes record; this one wholly belongs to The Temptations, and the scorching energy of Dennis Edwards takes center stage.

7.  I’ll Try Something New:  Although “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is the signature song of the supergroup known as Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, it’s this album’s second single that’s their collective masterpiece.  “I’ll Try Something New” had a long life at Motown, beginning with its original recording by The Miracles; the Smokey Robinson-penned tune was a moderate hit for the group in 1962.  Producer Frank Wilson clearly liked the song; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, he produced versions for singers Barbara McNair and Kiki Dee, along with cutting it for this album.  The original version by Robinson and The Miracles boasted a Latin-influenced beat and doo-wop inspired vocals; it’s similar in sound to many of the writer’s productions for Mary Wells.  Here, producer Wilson (DFTMC also credits Deke Richards as co-producer) totally changes the vibe, giving the song a quiet, dreamy interpretation; the musicians create a sparkling instrumental, one that’s so light and airy it feels like it’s floating up into heaven.  Eddie Kendricks opens the tune, his creamy falsetto beautifully controlled; he effortlessly bursts into a few soulful riffs without ever detracting from Robinson’s sweet lyrics.  His groupmates prove why they’re considered some of the best harmonizers in history when they break out from behind him; listen at :28 as the men create a chord so perfect it’s breathtaking.  Meanwhile, Diana Ross delivers one of the greatest vocal performances of her late-Supremes career here; she has rarely sounded so relaxed and soulful, her voice oozing over the track like honey.  Her verse contains some quintessential “Smokey” songwriting, with clever lyrics like, “Every day/We can play/On the Milky Way/And if that don’t do/I’ll have to try something new” — and Ross is the perfect vocalist to give those words life.  Behind her, The Supremes create some of their sweetest harmonies, echoing the work featured on Meet The Supremes and other early albums.  The entire production builds to a powerful climax, with both groups repeatedly belting the song’s title and the lead singers ad-libbing until the fade.  There is something eminently listenable about this recording; it’s so tightly pitched and performed that multiple listens reveal little riffs and harmonies just beneath the surface that are easy to miss the first time.  When it was released in February of 1969, the song was only a moderate success; it reached the Top 10 of the R&B chart, but stopped short of the Top 20 on the pop side, peaking at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100.  There were probably several reasons why the song didn’t chart better; the LP had already been available to the public for a few months, and each group was simultaneously charting with other songs (“I’m Livin’ In Shame” by Diana Ross and The Supremes and “Run Away Child, Running Wild” by The Temptations had both been released in January).  Quality was definitely not one the reasons; this is one of the best Motown singles of the period, and a stellar showing for both groups.

8.  A Place In The Sun:  This song was made famous by Stevie Wonder, who took it to the charts in 1966; it’s co-written by Ron Miller, and man who would figure prominently into the solo career of Diana Ross (he’d co-write her #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning”).  This version of “A Place In The Sun” also gained a wider audience when it was lifted as the b-side to the “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” single.  There’s a nice, folksy groove to the arrangement here; it’s not a loud nor a showy song, but The Funk Brothers provide their patented percussion-and-bass-heavy sound, which is always hard to resist.  Likewise, both groups sounds great; Paul Williams and Diana Ross deliver restrained and heartfelt vocals (although Diana comes off a tad too theatrical during the brief spoken section), and there are some soaring harmonies in the background.  This isn’t the most memorable inclusion on Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations, but it’s well-done.

9.  Sweet Inspiration:  As with the previous track, this is a solid if not particularly distinguished cover; the original “Sweet Inspiration” was a hit for The Sweet Inspirations earlier in 1968.  The original was mainly a showcase for that group’s powerful harmonies; the melody is pretty limited, and it’s a repetitive one.  Although The Temptations and The Supremes were both capable of fantastic harmonizing (as heard on previous selections from this LP), both groups also thrived on songs with memorable, hook-filled melodies, and the lack of that here results in an uninspiring listen.

10.  Then:  This is the second recording of “Then” by Diana Ross and The Supremes in less than a year; the group had already included the song on its Reflections album, which hit store shelves in March of ’68.  It was an absolute standout of that album, and a song which should have been released as a single; listened to today, it sounds like a surefire hit.  The fact that it shows up here implies that perhaps Motown also realized how strong the song was; the Smokey Robinson-penned tune had previously only surfaced as a Four Tops album track.  The version of “Then” featured here bears the exact same arrangement as the previous Supremes recording, except for a slightly-lowered pitch during the first verse (likely to suit the voice of Paul Williams better); Diana did re-record her vocals, but she doesn’t stray much from her work the first time around.  The result is another strong record, but interestingly, one that doesn’t work quite well as the Supremes-only version.  Make no mistake; the singers sound fantastic here.  But the addition of extra voices muddies up the simplicity that made the prior recording so charming; this is a joyful, upbeat love song, and the razor-sharp voice of Diana Ross backed by the sweetness of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong was perfect for the delivery of the message.  This is still one of the better tracks on Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations — it’s really, really good — but it doesn’t eclipse the album’s singles.

11.  The Impossible Dream:  It’s no coincidence that this song closes the first joint album by Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations; “The Impossible Dream” would also serve as the emotional finale for the group’s first television special, TCB.  Although today the song is considered a classic, it was still relatively new in 1968; the tune is the standout from the musical Man Of La Mancha, which had opened on Broadway just a few years earlier.  The song is a soaring, powerful declaration of courage and purpose, and it’s given the album’s most sumptuous treatment; at nearly five minutes long, it’s the longest song here, and the arrangement is bold and dramatic.  Rather than surround Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations with an overblown instrumental, Frank Wilson allows their voices to carry the weight of the recording; there are staccato drums, pulses of brass, and a triumphant piano line, but it’s the vocalists who provide the fireworks.  Diana Ross leads a good portion of the song, and she’s at her best; she begins the song with a quiet strength, and allows her voice to build organically through the recording.  It’s nice to finally hear another Supreme get some time in the spotlight, too, as Mary Wilson croons the lines, “This is my quest/To follow that star/No matter how hopeless…”  Paul Williams begins his solo at about two minutes in, and his voice is also a perfect vehicle for the song’s message; in his memoir To Be Loved, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. called Williams “the heart of the group with his emotional baritone voice, soul, rhythm, and style” (254).  That baritone is beautifully showcased here, matching the heartfelt tone already set by Miss Ross, and when all of the voices combine to begin belting the climax, it’s magical.  Interestingly, the song is given its own reprise; after the climax, drums and horns continue and the group then deliver a more syncopated rendition of the song’s final few lines.  It’s not really a necessary touch, but it does present a sense of finality; just as “Try It Baby” provided the album a splashy opening, this coda leaves the listener with a satisfying sense of completion.

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Commercially speaking, the decision to team up Diana Ross and The Supremes with The Temptations was a brilliant one.  As mentioned earlier, Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations was a tremendous success for both groups, reaching the #2 spot on the Billboard 200 in the wake of its November release.  Better yet, when the TCB soundtrack hit shelves a month later, it shot to the #1 spot, becoming the third chart-topping LP for The Supremes and the first (and only) for The Temptations.  But beyond the commercial aspects, it was a creatively winning combination, too; Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong lent some of their dazzling sheen to the project, and the guys countered with a gutsy funk.  Had there been better material included — and some originals, too — this might have been one of the all-time great Motown albums.  As it stands, it’s a testament to the unbelievable talent that grew out of Detroit and was cultivated at Motown.  The eight vocalists here all dreamt an impossible dream — and as the song says, the world is better for this.

Final Analysis:  4/5 (Nothing “New” — But Plenty Of “Sweet” Sounds) 

Choice Cuts: “I’ll Try Something New,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “The Impossible Dream”

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Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” (1968)

Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform %22Funny Girl%22

“Don’t tell me not to fly, I’ve simply got to…”

For proof of just how versatile Diana Ross and The Supremes were, look no further than the six (!) albums the group released in 1968.  Reflections came first, an album of contemporary pop tunes, and was followed by the high-energy live disc Live At London’s Talk of the Town, showcasing Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong as slick, electric entertainers.  Later would come a duet album with The Temptations, a #1 television soundtrack also with the male vocal group, and another studio album filled with more somber, mature soul music.  And smack dab in the middle of this packed schedule, Motown released Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” a full-length album celebrating the smash hit 1964 Broadway musical written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill and starring Barbra Streisand.

Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” was mainly recorded in June of 1968 (with some backgrounds added in July) and released a few months later — not coincidentally, just as the film version of Funny Girl premiered.  According to Supremes musical director Gil Askey, “It was what you would call a rush job.  We did the whole thing in two days in New York.”  By all accounts, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Diana Ross were extremely impressed with the multi-media success of Barbra Streisand, and wanted to demonstrate that Ross was ever bit as capable of a performer.  To ensure the LP’s success, Gordy enlisted the help of writer Jule Styne:  “I got a call from Mr. Gordy saying, ‘Please, Mr. Styne, I need this for Diana Ross and it would give the project so much credibility if you were involved.’  Well, that intrigued me.  From his statement I thought she had left the group and this would be her first solo album.”

Styne wasn’t correct in his assumption; Diana Ross wouldn’t officially leave The Supremes until 1970.  But in a way, he wasn’t incorrect, either; Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” would become the first real DIANA ROSS: SUPERSTAR project.  This is not a group album; other voices occasionally appear on various selections, but the focus here is wholly on Diana Ross, and the singer delivers in a way she’d never delivered before.  This LP features the absolute best vocal work released by Ross during her time with The Supremes; in some cases, it is among the best of her entire career.  Styne would later recall, “She was great, very professional.  She came in and knew those songs inside and out like nobody’s business.”  The ten inclusions here might not be to everyone’s tastes, and those looking for “the Motown Sound” should look elsewhere.  But this overlooked LP is a shining moment for one of the great singers in popular music history.

(NOTE: All of the quotations contained in this article are taken from the digital booklet accompanying the 2014 Expanded Edition release of this album, unless otherwise noted.)

***

1.  Funny Girl:  The first song featured on Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” wasn’t featured in the original Broadway show; this is a “new” tune that was penned by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne specifically for the film version of Funny Girl.  In terms of this album’s sequencing, “Funny Girl” is a nice way to start the LP; unlike beginning with the one-two punch of “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “I’m The Greatest Star” (which lead off the Broadway musical), this lovely ballad helps to ease listeners in to the very different nature of this album and presents the musical’s dominant themes to this unfamiliar with the story of stage star Fanny Brice (upon whose life Funny Girl is based).  Sung from Brice’s point of view, the lyrics speak of her struggle with being “funny” and the loneliness that comes from a lack of conventional beauty (summed up by lines like “Though I may be all wrong for the guy/I’m good for a laugh”).  Producer/arranger Gil Askey ties each song together with various musical motifs, many of which he introduces here; note the way the song begins with the familiar “Who is the pip with pizzazz” refrain.  In this way, “Funny Girl” serves as much as an “overture” as a title song, helping to set up the rest of the album.  Throughout the album, Askey’s orchestra will be stellar; according to session notes, every single track was cut on June 20, 1968.  Remember that — every song was cut in a day.  This would be unheard of in today’s music industry, and it’s a major testament to the strength of the players that the performances are so tight and vibrant.  Likewise, Miss Ross recorded her lead vocal on June 23, along with three other songs, and the rest were cut a day earlier; in just two days, Diana Ross literally found her voice.  It’s clear from her very first notes that this is a different Diana Ross (especially coming on the heels of the sub par studio LP Reflections, released earlier in the year); the singer produces a rich, velvety tone that sounds strong and healthy and most of all, incredibly mature.  Listen to the way Diana lets her words just ooze atop the melody; her voice coats the track like honey.  When she begins to sing “I just keep them…” at 2:50, she begins projecting a real power behind her voice; it’s as good as she’d sounded since her work on 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart.  And here’s the good news — as good as this performance is, she only gets better from here.

2.  If A Girl Isn’t Pretty:  In his original liner notes to the album, Jule Styne wrote, “You will note that many of the songs have that marvelous Motown Sound which makes this show album very special.”  Today’s listeners will probably disagree with that statement; there’s not much classic Motown Sound to be heard here, and the closest it gets is right here.  “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” is transformed into a brassy uptempo by Askey and company; there’s a driving beat here, with drums and bass propelling the tune forward, and that helps give it a sense of modernity missing in several other selections.  The energy and excitement generated on this track makes is one of the real standouts of the LP; the band is absolutely cooking, delivering an electricity that replicates the feeling of a live performance (interestingly, Styne also writes that the album “has the excitement of a great concert”).  Not surprisingly, Diana Ross is right in her comfort zone here; if any singer could handle a fast-paced lyric without losing the cleverness in each phrase, it’s her.  As she’d previously displayed on tracks like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Ross was (and is) capable of enunciating on an almost superhuman level, never throwing away a single word even when the pace seems to be quickening by the very second.  There’s a definite elasticity to her voice here, too; there’s a jump at the end of every line (“Any nose with devia-TION/Is a crime against the na-TION”) and she nails the notes, and the range she projects during the song’s final 45 seconds of running time is actually startling.  Listen to Diana beginning at 2:22, with the line, “Never mind a girl’s deportment” — she is really belting here, and doing it with the finesse of a seasoned Broadway singer.  Her final “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty/Like a Miss Atlanta City” is one of the most satisfying moments of her entire career; the way she jumps into her head voice on the final syllable is breathtaking.  The next time someone argues with you that Diana Ross didn’t have a large vocal range, immediately play this song.  It’s one of her single finest recordings of the 1960s, and easily stands among the best in her legendary discography.

3.  I Am Woman:  This is a song familiar to Diana Ross and The Supremes long before this album was recorded; the group had been performing it in concert for years, and it had already been included on the 1965 LP The Supremes At The Copa.  June Styne is, in fact, quoted in the digital booklet to the album’s 2014 reissue as having seen them perform the song at the Copa: “They did a nice job.  They were a fine group, very versatile.”  That earlier live performance captured a fun, girlish performance by Diana Ross (and boisterous backgrounds by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard); here, the song is delivered as a sexy romp, the musical equivalent of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy.  Ross is beautifully controlled in her vocals, her voice dipping down toward the lower end of her range several times, producing a sung whisper that’s simply mesmerizing.  As with the previous cut, Ross demonstrates the great elasticity in her range here; she gets to murmur, and belt, and even throw out a great spoken phrase (I love her “I’ll drink it all day!” at 1:42).  More than anything, there’s such a joy to the performance here; Ross sounds like she’s having fun in the studio, which she probably was.  If you’re only familiar with the group’s live performances of “I Am Woman,” check this one out — it’s a delightful take.

4.  The Music That Makes Me Dance:  This song is the undoubted crown jewel of Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” — it is perfection in every way, and is arguably Diana’s greatest recorded vocal performance while still a member of The Supremes.  I’ll never forget discovering this song, listening to it carefully and slowly becoming aware of the greatness of it; as with the very best Holland-Dozier-Holland hits written for and performed by The Supremes, there’s a cohesion to every element on this recording that results in a kind of magical listening experience.  Interestingly, “The Music That Makes Me Dance” is probably one of the lesser known Funny Girl selections, given that the song was cut from the film version; thus, it only features on the Original Broadway Cast Album.  This song is placed at the end of the musical; it’s the final “big ballad” and serves as a torch number for Streisand (aka Fanny Brice) to sing to her troubled husband.  Here, without that dramatic context, the song is a lush, romantic ballad served on a bed of swirling strings; rather than being shaded with undertones of sadness, this version feels like a natural progression of “I Am Woman” — as if Diana’s sexy flirt from the previous song led directly to an intense love affair.  The track here is sublime; the sounds of strings and horns seem to slip luxuriously from their instruments, creating a relaxed atmosphere which Ross matches perfectly.  She’s never sounded more confident than she does on this track; there’s a delightful dreaminess to her delivery here, demonstrated in the line “I know he’s around/When the sky and the ground/Start in ringing…”  Listen to the way she plays with these words, injecting each and every one with mood; she punches “he’s” (placing appropriate emphasis on the subject of the song) and practically sighs through “sky” as though she’s swooning.  She begins to sing with real strength just before the jazzy instrumental break, but she really packs a wallop when she returns at 2:52; she belts a good portion of the rest of the song, and her performance on the final phrase “For his is the only/Music That Makes Me Dance” is the best singing you’ll hear on this entire album. She isn’t just singing here; she’s wailing the words, her voice soaring into space and remaining perfectly on pitch.  This is a great performance, period; as noted before, Diana never sounded more seasoned or accomplished during her tenure as lead singer of The Supremes.

5.  Don’t Rain On My Parade:  This is one of the most famous songs featured in Funny Girl, and is another song already familiar to fans of Diana Ross; the singer incorporated it into her live act upon going solo in 1970, and it opens her 1971 television special Diana! as well as shows up on her 1974 set Live At Caesar’s Palace.  It’s easy to understand why; as with another Supremes/Ross stage standout — “The Lady Is A Tramp” — this song is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, a great big showbiz number that allows Ross to demonstrate her considerable vocal range.  Because these live performances are always so triumphant — culminating with a peak moment of Diana yelling, “Hey, y’all, here I am!” — it’s easy to forget this really is a love song, sung in the musical by Fanny in an optimistic and defiant Act I finale.  The version presented here is less defiant and more celebratory, with a rocking track provided by Askey and his players; listen in particular to the hammering bassline for a nice, jazzy take on the traditional Hitsville sound.  Diana begins with quietly sung and spoken intro; the lines “Push a button and I dance/Turn a handle and I sing/Now this machine will fly” seem to eerily relate to Miss Ross, considering she’d later recall being treated like a machine by the controlling forces in her life.  Her vocal performance from here on out is incredibly impressive; this is lyric-packed song, and the pace is far quicker than that featured on the Broadway or film soundtracks.  Thus, Ross really races through, skillfully enunciating the words and never losing the meaning behind each one; her voice cuts through the track like glass as she wails “I got to fly once/I got to try once” at 1:28.  While the aforementioned “The Lady Is A Tramp” gained energy when it was taken from the album (The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart) and incorporated in to the Supremes stage act, the studio version of “Parade” is already bursting with energy; it would be a perfect stage song for Miss Ross, but never better than the version she minted here.

6.  People:  This, of course, is the most famous song featured in Funny Girl — it was a signature song for Barbra Streisand even before the show opened on Broadway.  “People” was also already a part of the repertoire of The Supremes, as the group had long performed the number in its stage act; there are a few live recordings of the song floating around, including a Florence-Diana led version on the 2000 box set The Supremes and a Florence-Mary led version included on 2012’s I Hear A Symphony: Expanded Edition (“Supremes legend” has Diana performing solo lead on this song post-1965’s Copa engagement, but the latter live recording comes from 1966, directly disputing this claim).  It was always a pleasure listening to the group harmonize on this song, and it’s unfortunate that the harmonies are missing here; this is strictly a Diana Ross solo.  Still, Diana sounds wonderful; as she’d sung the song so many times before, she likely needed very little preparation to record it here.  She is fully engaged and really wrings the emotion from the lyrics; she’s perhaps a bit too overwrought at times, but it’s easy to forgive considering the dramatic nature of the song.  There is a spoken interlude here, and interestingly, it’s clearly a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the civil rights pioneer had been killed not long before this was recorded, and Diana’s lines echo King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech (i.e. “People, God’s children, were born to be free, to love…All people have a dream…”).  It’s worth noting that the passing of Dr. King was by all accounts devastating to Berry Gordy, Jr. and the entire Motown family, so it’s not totally surprising that they’d find an opportunity to help keep his message alive.  After this album was released, July Styne would comment, “I thought [Diana’s] performance on ‘People’ was equal in every way to Streisand’s or anyone else’s.  She has a strong and powerful voice, a real belter” (as quoted in the reissue digital booklet).  There couldn’t be any higher praise.

7.  Cornet Man:  Here’s another song that was cut for the film version of Funny Girl, likely making it a bit more unfamiliar to casual fans; why it was dropped is anyone’s guess, as it’s a delightful tune that adds some nice variety to this album in particular.  The arrangement here is bouncy and brassy, there’s a touch of blues and jazz, but not enough to erase the song’s musical theatre origins.  Ross fans will note a few similarities to her recording of “Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer)” from 1972’s Lady Sings The Bluesthe performance on “Cornet Man” is a kind of trial-run for the challenging jazz tunes the singer would be tackling in only a few short years.  The instrumental here is fantastic, with the “wah-wah” horns really bringing the lyrics to life, and Diana Ross plays off of the musicians beautifully, allowing the bouncy track to heavily influence her vocal.  The only complaint is that this song incorporates a prominent background line, and the audible voices certainly aren’t those of Mary and/or Cindy; it would have been nice to hear those talented ladies behind Ross here (the digital reissue of this album would included an alternate version featuring only The Supremes, and it’s fantastic).

8.  His Love Makes Me Beautiful:  This song provides one of the most memorable highlights of Funny Girl, when Fanny Brice unexpectedly plays it for humor while wearing a fake baby bump.  Without that visual gag, the song falls just a little flat here (no pun intended), although the arrangement adds some nice whimsical touches and Ross and the background singers do their best to keep the atmosphere light.  Diana gives the word “beautiful” an unusual staccato pronunciation (byoo-TI-ful) which helps distinguish the number, and there’s some fun spoken dialogue toward the end (Ross says, “Gee, I sure got some beautiful, beautiful skinny legs…got a beautiful face, and hair…I mean, my wig…”).  It’s also notable that during this dialogue, Mary and Cindy are clearly audible, one of the very few times on the album listeners can really discern their voices.  Diana does some nice, powerful singing toward the end of this number, too; listen to her at 2:20, as she sings “Woman loved/Is glorified/I’m gonna make/A beautiful bride” — it’s a great moment for her.

9.  Sadie, Sadie:  If “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” is the closest this album comes to sounding like Motown, than this song probably comes in second place.  “Sadie, Sadie” is given a bouncy makeover in the style of “Baby Love” — it’s not unlike Askey’s previous arrangement for “Lover” on the Rodgers & Hart album.  Building upon the “Baby Love” vibe, there’s an overall 1960s girl-group feel here; I dare you to listen to the “I think she just got married” background line and not immediately think of “Chapel Of Love” by The Dixie Cups.  Diana Ross gives a beautifully spirited reading of this song, playful, sexy, and relaxed, and is nicely backed by singers who may or may not be The Supremes (it’s tough to tell, although it does sound like Cindy saying, “That’s you!” at 2:34).

10:  I’m The Greatest Star:  The final inclusion on Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” is one of the best; this is another Ross showstopper, a song that sounds like it could have been her anthem at the time.  The song is structured as a musical extravaganza unto itself; although “I’m The Greatest Star” is placed toward the beginning of the Broadway show and film, it’s arranged here as a perfect summation of the entire album that precedes it.  Askey also incorporates snippets of “Funny Girl” and “People” here, basically creating a medley; in the way that the opening track of this album serves as something of an overture, this is a classic reprise number.  Diana Ross sings with an inordinate amount of confidence on “I’m The Greatest Star” and it’s impossible not to believe her when she belts out the title; if indeed this album is the singer’s first real “solo superstar” moment (and I believe it is), then this finale is proof that Diana Ross was only beginning to prove what she was capable of.  Also, if you’ve never seen the clips of Diana and The Supremes performing a version of this medley on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” it’s worth checking out; the ladies are sublime.

***

For decades, Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” was remembered mainly due to its lack of success; when it was released (apparently on the very same day as Live At London’s Talk Of The Town), it was a commercial disaster, peaking at a dismal #150 on the Billboard 200.  Thankfully for the group, it was quickly followed by Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations, which was a smash LP and put the group back on top of the charts.  Still, it’s unfortunately that Motown’s Funny Girl was so unfairly judged based on its poor chart showing, and became something of a “lost” album for many years; because it was never given a proper CD release, it was easy to overlook.  When “The Music That Makes Me Dance” finally showed up on the Love Songs CD compilation years later, it was a clue to what the world had been missing.  Finally, in 2014, Motown Select issued the entire remastered album as a digital download, along with remixed versions featuring only Diana, Mary, and Cindy.  That alternate version is a wonderful listen, but so is the LP as originally issued; this is a key moment in the development of Diana Ross as a vocalist and entertainer.

Final Analysis: 5/5 (Ross Proves She’s The “Greatest”)

Choice Cuts: “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” “I’m The Greatest Star”

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Live At London’s Talk Of The Town (1968)

Diana Ross and The Supremes Live At London's Talk Of The Town

“I really knew they were reaching a worldwide audience when ‘Baby Love’ did so well internationally.  ‘Baby Love’ was the record that showed they had mass appeal.  It went to No. 1 in the U.K. and from then on, they were worldwide stars.” -Berry Gordy, Jr. in The Supremes box set booklet

Although The Supremes are mainly spoken about in terms of their success in the United States (they were American artists, after all, and dominated the pop charts on their home turf), it’s important to remember that by 1968, the group was famous around the world.  After “Baby Love” hit to top spot in the UK in 1964 (the first Motown record to do so), the group scored several other top 10 hits there, including “You Can’t Hurry Love” (#3) and “Reflections (#5).  Once The Supremes conquered New York’s Copacabana nightclub in 1965, the group was welcome in pretty much every top-notch supper club in the world.  According to then-manager Shelly Berger, “What we wanted for The Supremes was to do things that almost no other pop group could do at that time.  We wanted them to be the highest-paid group, to become international stars, which they did” (Supremes booklet).

One of those clubs was London’s Talk of the Town.  According to the current website of The Hippodrome Casino London, the venue opened in 1900 as a “circus variety theatre” before hosting Talk of the Town from 1958-1982.  During that time, the biggest names in entertainment played there, including Sammy Davis, Jr. and Judy Garland.  Several of them recorded live albums there, including fellow Motown artists The Temptations and Stevie Wonder.  Diana Ross and The Supremes played the club in early 1968, when this live album was recorded; this is why Diana Ross introduces “In And Out Of Love” as “our latest recording” (by the time the album was released in August of 1968, the group had released a pair of other singles).  As captured on vinyl, the show was high-energy and fast-paced, with Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong racing through several medleys, a few standards, and some of their most recent hits.  The reviews were raves:

“For 55 minutes, and through 30 songs, Diana Ross, in a staggering display of energy and artistry, held the capacity audience in an almost continuous state of applause. –Ray Connolly, The Evening Standard

“I can say no more other than this is the finest opening night I have ever witnessed at the Talk of the Town.” –Alan Smith, New Musical Express

Live At London’s Talk Of The Town is an interesting counterpart to the group’s previous live album (1965’s At The Copa) for several reasons.  This is the first chance for fans to hear the lineup of Ross, Wilson, and Birdsong together on a full LP; Birdsong was relatively new to the group when this album was recorded, and had only appeared on a few songs featured on previous LP Reflections.  It’s also evidence of the continued evolution of The Supremes as razzle-dazzle performers; though there’d been plenty of polish on display at the Copa show, there were still an appealing rawness to Diana Ross in particular.  That’s gone here; all three women are pure sheen, their voices cutting through the Vegas-style arrangements like glass.  Everything sounds ultra-rehearsed; there’s no real room for surprise or spontaneity, no little “off the cuff” moments that make this a particularly memorable show.  Still, it’s a fine record of what was called “a heady experience” by Christopher Reed in The Sun; the laser-focused energy on display here is pretty remarkable.

***

1.  Medley (With A Song In My Heart/Stranger In Paradise/Wonderful Wonderful/Without A Song):  The album opens with a relatively brief medley of songs from the 1966 LP I Hear A Symphony; each song is afforded about a minute of running time, and the ladies briskly move through them with smooth, efficient vocal performances.  These four songs were not necessarily standouts on Symphony (they had the unenviable position of being surrounded by stellar Holland-Dozier-Holland originals), and work better as a medley; the arrangements here give the songs a vitality that they lacked on the original Supremes recordings.  Diana Ross sounds extremely appealing here; her voice is significantly more mature than it had been on 1965’s At The Copa LP, brassier and a bit deeper, and there’s no mistaking the great confidence behind this and the rest of the performances on this album.  Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong join her toward the end of “With A Song In My Heart” and they also sound fabulous, providing perfect, on-key harmonies behind Miss Ross; all three women really belt together at the end of “Without A Song,” and it’s a great moment.  Though this standards medley isn’t a standout (honestly, it could have been replaced with a medley from 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, which featured much better material), it’s a good way to ease the audience into the rest of the show. (NOTE: The live medley also included a snipped from “Unchained Melody,” which was apparently edited out for this album.)              

2.  Medley (Stop! In The Name Of Love/Come See About Me/My World Is Empty Without You/Baby Love):  Next up is the perfunctory medley of hits, a rush of four classic songs all dressed up in the trappings of Vegas showtunes.  The combination of these four tunes would show up again on 1970’s Farewell LP; the arrangement speeds up the tempo and barely gives the singers time to breathe as they race from song to song.  It’s to the credit of writers Holland-Dozier-Holland that each of the songs still works without the benefit of the original lean, muscular Funk Brothers instrumental tracks, and to the credit of The Supremes that each one still sounds pretty fresh when performed.  Still, at this point “Stop!” and the rest of the hits were far, far removed from Hitsville; the grit and funk of Motown are gone, replaced by a wash of big-band sounds.

3.  Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone:  This was a relatively recent hit when Diana Ross and The Supremes performed it in London; “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” had topped the US charts in March of 1967, and reached the top 20 in the UK.  Because the song had originally been cut in Los Angeles and not in the confines of the Detroit studios, it lends itself better to the jazzier arrangement it’s given here; the inherent drama in the song’s lyrics and melody is also tailor-made for live performance.  Ross, Wilson, and Birdsong deliver here; Diana really tears into the song, injecting just about every single line with her signature “hiccup” tic sound that is so unique to her (and which Michael Jackson later incorporated into his own sound).  Cindy and Mary are full-bodied and brassy behind her, although buried at times by the boisterous orchestra.  After two good but not wholly satisfying medleys, this is where the show really begins to pick up.

4.  More:  This song had initially been featured in the 1962 documentary Mondo Cane, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Original Song.  The Supremes notably performed the tune on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1966 (currently available on the DVD The Best of The Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show) and also sang it at Detroit’s Roostertail nightclub that year, a performance recently released on I Hear A Symphony: Expanded Edition from Motown Select.  “More” is strictly easy-listening, and the vocal arrangement is pretty vanilla, with the ladies singing the bulk of the song in unison.  This would have been a nice opportunity to hear some of the sophisticated harmonies that Mary and Cindy were capable of, something that really only happens at the song’s climax.  In addition, Miss Ross goes a little overboard on her pronunciations here; “sure” becomes “shee-ore” several times, which is a bit grating.  Still, “More” is a memorable tune, and a notable inclusion because it never shows up on any other original album release by The Supremes.

5.  You Keep Me Hangin’ On:  After a little joke about the orchestra conductor drinking (Diana introduces a “beautiful soft, sweet ballad” — and instead this song starts playing), Diana Ross and The Supremes launch into another one of their big hits, originally a US #1 for two weeks in November of 1966.  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is the group’s most dazzling single ever, a frenzied rush of energy with wailing guitars and a multi-tracked, urgent lead performance from Diana Ross.  The orchestra and singers do an outstanding job replicating that energy here; it doesn’t really sound like the studio version, of course, but it’s an exciting, adrenaline-packed rendition nonetheless.  All three singers are really belting here; Mary’s alto is especially audible behind Diana’s cutting, precise vocal.  When Christopher Reed wrote in The Sun of the crowd “having leapt to their feet, shouted, whistled, stamped” — it’s easy to imaging him referencing this moment in the show.  Diana and The Supremes were on fire here; this is an improbable but perfect melding of supper club entertainment and rock n’ roll.

6.  Medley (Michelle/Yesterday):  The Supremes were no strangers to the songs of The Beatles, having recorded several of them way back in 1964 on A Bit Of Liverpool.  Here they combine two of the group’s most popular songs, the Grammy-winning “Michelle” and “Yesterday,” a song which Diana had already recorded on the I Hear A Symphony LP.  “Michelle” is a perfect fit for The Supremes; the French lyrics roll right off of Diana’s tongue, and the singer’s velvety voice is delectable.  The group also does an admirable job with “Yesterday,” although it’s a bit more overwrought and Diana’s delivery is quite affected at times.  Still, this is a really nice medley; it certainly makes one wish the ladies had recorded “Michelle” in full at some point.  And they obviously won over the man who wrote both songs — Paul McCartney is quoted on the back of the LP as calling this engagement “the show business event of the year” — how’s that for praise?!?

7.  In And Out Of Love:  This was the group’s most recent single at the time of this performance; “In And Out Of Love” was released in October of ’67, and peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the group’s final hit single written by Holland-Dozier-Holland (next single “Forever Came Today” would be released at the very end of February, and would stall at #28 on both the US and UK charts).  Although “In And Out Of Love” was a solid success and a good choice for a single, the recording was missing a bit of the Motown magic that made the group’s previous hits so memorable; interestingly, the song works extremely well in this live setting, and sounds as good on Live At London’s Talk Of The Town as it did on the studio LP Reflections.  As with “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” this song was initially cut in Los Angeles, and thus translates well to the orchestral arrangement it’s given here (one doesn’t necessarily crave a Funk Brothers rhythm section).  Diana gives a confident, bouncy performance and easily matches her work in the studio; her voice sounds really strong here, especially on lines like “Love always somehow all goes wrong for me.”  This rendition also benefits from featuring Mary and Cindy on backgrounds and not The Andantes; the Motown studio singers added vocals to the studio version, and their thick, heavy voices really bogged down the recording.  Supremes fans who overlook “In And Out Of Love” should check it out here; this is a refreshing take on a song that’s often overlooked today.

8.  Medley (The Lady Is A Tramp/Let’s Get Away From It All):  “The Lady Is A Tramp” was earlier featured on 1967’s superb The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart; it would remain in the group’s act until Diana Ross left in 1970, and Ross continued to perform the song well into her solo career.  There’s no question why it became such a staple; it’s a Diana Ross showcase, a chance for the singer to really go-for-broke and display the immense vocal power she possesses (but is rarely given credit for).  This medley, also incorporating the standard “Let’s Get Away From It All,” is a showstopper here; the ladies are fully engaged, appear to be having a ball, and never sound better on this album.  The orchestra (conducted by Jimmy Garrett) really cooks, and Diana sounds fantastic; she is brassy and allows her voice to deftly dance over the melodies, and her vocal work on the song’s climax is just stunning.  Listen to her deliver the final “That’s why The Lady Is A Tramp!” — this is Broadway-worthy belting.  Mary and Cindy add a lot of personality here; Mary in particular tosses out plenty of sassy spoken lines behind Diana, demonstrating the keen confidence she’d developed as a performer.  This is an electric moment, perhaps the single best demonstration on this LP of just how vivacious The Supremes were as live entertainers.

9.  The Happening:  And we’re back to another hit, this one the group’s tenth US #1 single and a song which featured as the theme to the film of the same name.  As with the other Supremes originals featured here, the song is taken at a much faster pace, and the ladies charge through it in under two minutes.  Because it’s another LA-based song that lends itself to a big-band arrangement, it would have been nice to let this one breathe a little bit; it could have been performed in full, at its original pace, and still sounded perfect surrounded by standards.  Still, what’s here is great — Diana gives a compelling performance, adding in some boisterous shouts of “C’mon” and “Let’s go!” while ably backed by Mary and Cindy.

10.  Medley (Thoroughly Modern Millie/Second Hand Rose/Mame):  A cute medley featuring three tunes which revolve around women; “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is the title song to the 1967 Julie Andrews film, “Second Hand Rose” was a Ziegfeld Follies standard (and would be performed by Barbra Streisand in the film version of Funny Girl), and “Mame” comes from the musical of the same name, which opened on Broadway in 1966 starring Angela Lansbury.  Thematically, this is a smart collection of songs; it makes sense to have a female singing trio tackle of grouping of songs celebrating women.  The medley is beautifully arranged, and all three women are at the peak of their powers here; Diana deftly skips through a rapid-fire “Millie” and slyly acts her way through “Rose” before belting out a “Mame” worthy of the Great White Way, with Mary and Cindy in full-voice behind her.  Although Diana Ross was the group’s focal point and firmly established as lead singer at this point, it would have been nice to hear each lady have a solo turn at a song here; imagine Cindy’s melodic voice taking on “Millie,” Mary’s alto giving life to “Rose,” and Diana bringing it home with “Mame.”  Still, this is a dynamic segment — pure, classy entertainment from start to finish.  It’s what Diana Ross and The Supremes do best.

11.  Reflections:  This is an energetic rendition of the group’s big hit from 1967; it gets a big reaction from the crowd, demonstrating the song’s popularly.  In terms of singles, “Reflections” was a departure for The Supremes; songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland incorporated psychedelic sounds and abstract lyrics to create an atmosphere of icy resignation.  This, of course, really couldn’t be replicated in a live performance; of all the hits performed during this particular show, it’s probably the furthest removed from the studio recording (which is saying a lot).  Still, it’s a pleasure hearing Diana, Mary, and Cindy on the tune; Diana’s voice is still in fine shape (a feat, given that she’s been really pushing it for awhile now), and Mary attacks the background line so aggressively the performance practically becomes a duet.

12:  You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You:  In his autobiography To Be Loved, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. wrote, “I loved the way the Supremes could do standards and Broadway songs like ‘Make Someone Happy,’ ‘You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,’ and ‘Put On A Happy Face’ in pure, three-part harmony without a band, a piano or anything.  Snapping their fingers, enjoying themselves, they were incredible.  I don’t think they ever thought seriously about singing standards and show tunes, but I did” (208).  Gordy really pushed the young singers to work on “You’re Nobody…” in particular; by all accounts Diana Ross was initially not happy about performing the song, but it eventually became a staple of the group’s act and a surefire crowd-pleaser.  It’s easy to hear why when listening to this recording; The Supremes have mastered the performance of this song, luring in the crowd with some cute patter “dedicating” it to an audience member before launching them into a frenzied, foot-stomping grand finale.  There’s not a wasted moment here; there’s real technical skill in the efficiency of Diana’s vocal and the band behind her.  Mary and Cindy couldn’t be brassier, wailing behind Miss Ross the entire time, and all three women nail the final notes.  Although then song was already featured on At The Copa, it’s a satisfying way to end this LP; the pure adrenaline of this show is perfectly encapsulated in this song.

***

When it was released in August of 1968 (amazingly, on the very same day as Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform Funny Girl!), Live At London’s Talk Of The Town was only a moderate success; it topped out at #57 on the Billboard 200, and #22 on the R&B album chart.  But as mentioned before, the actual engagement was a smash success. Reviews of this engagement are memorialized on the rear cover of the LP, and perhaps they’re best summed up by Derek Jewell of The Sunday Times:  “[Diana Ross and The Supremes] are the dynamic essence of what today’s popular music is really about but often is not…”  Mr. Jewell could never have known that his statement would be just as relevant nearly 50 years later; in this era of pyrotechnics, visual effects, and a reliance on lip-syncing, Diana Ross and The Supremes are a stunning example of “less is more.”  With simply great voices, strong material, and abundant stage presence, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong indeed capture the “dynamic essence” of what live performance should be.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (“Thoroughly” Slick & Entertaining)

Choice Cuts: “The Lady Is A Tramp/Let’s Get Away From It All,” “In And Out Of Love,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie/Second Hand Rose/Mame”

          

Diana Ross and The Supremes Live At London's Talk Of The Town Back Cover

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