“I Will Survive” Billboard Article (2/17/96)

U.S. MUST WAIT FOR DIANA ROSS CLIP read a headline in the February 17, 1996 issue of Billboard magazine, and the accompanying article provides a telling insight into the obstacles facing Diana Ross in the 1990s.

Diana Ross I Will Survive Article 2-17-96The “clip” being referred to is the music video for “I Will Survive,” a song from Diana’s 1995 album Take Me Higher.  Miss Ross shot the video in West Hollywood, dancing on a gay pride parade float with drag superstar RuPaul and a bevy of Ross impersonators and fans; she even famously crowd dives at the end, something I’ve heard she decided to do on the spot.  The video was daring enough that it began to gain attention in the media, as noted in the Billboard article; Ross also started promoting the song, performing it on the Super Bowl halftime show and in a hilarious and well-received skit on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”  Certainly, with this kind of attention (the song would even later be included on the soundtrack to the 1997 film In & Out), “I Will Survive” seemed poised to bring Diana back onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in nearly a decade.

Diana’s international record label EMI released the song and video, and “I Will Survive” climbed into the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart (becoming her best-performing single from the album there).  But in America, Ross was signed to Motown, which had just issued a double-sided single of “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” and “Voice Of The Heart.”  Instead of striking while the iron was hot (or, at least, heating up), Motown decided to stay the course; product manager Thornell Jones is quoted in the article as saying, “It’s not that we don’t recognize that there is interest in this clip, but we are concentrating on positioning other songs by her to radio right now.”

Of course, we know how the story ends; neither “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” nor “Voice Of The Heart” even got music video releases, and the songs only charted modestly on the R&B and Adult Contemporary listings, respectively.  The “I Will Survive” music video did eventually make it to the U.S. airwaves, but a single was never released and it was never really promoted (aside from Diana’s handful of televised performances), therefore killing any chance for the song to make a significant impact.  For Ross fans in the United States, it was another frustrating case of a missed opportunity, something that seemed all-too-common in the 1990s.  Even if the song hadn’t been a huge hit, it likely would have charted higher than her other singles of the decade; a readily-available video and maxi-single could have also lifted the song to the top of the dance chart, as the success of “Take Me Higher” proved DJs had no problem spinning Diana’s records.

The biggest bummer of all us that more people stateside didn’t get to see the video, and it was really something special to see such a celebration of the LGBT audience twenty years ago.  Diana Ross has been fairly apolitical throughout her career, rarely speaking in-depth about her personal beliefs and choosing instead to let her music speak for her.  But the “I Will Survive” music video speaks volumes, even today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

BATTLE OF THE ADS, Part 2: Billboard Magazine (12/26/64)

The December 26, 1964 issue of Billboard (available online via Google Books) features another promotional “battle” of sorts — this time, pitting the first Queen of Motown against the record label’s newest Golden Girls.

Supremes Christmas AdMary Wells Christmas AdMary Wells, of course, began the year as Motown’s biggest star, ascending to new heights when “My Guy” topped the Billboard Hot 100.  In his memoirs To Be Loved, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. wrote of the singer, “Mary was hot.  All the producers wanted to record anything on her — they didn’t give a damn what it was.  Whether it was an A side, B side or just a tune in one of her albums, they knew it would make money” (186).

But in the wake of “My Guy” — the peak of her success — Wells decided to leave Motown.  Losing their top star was a major blow to Gordy and company, who fought to keep the singer from jumping ship.  But as legal wrangling dragged on, the group formerly known as the “no-hit Supremes” finally broke through in a big way: “Where Did Our Love Go” became the first #1 hit for Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard in August, elevating The Supremes to Motown’s top-tier status.  Label focus shifted squarely onto the group, and by October, Wells was officially an artist with 20th Century Fox Records.

Thus, in the last Billboard issue of 1964, the former labelmates squared off in full-page “Seasons Greetings” ads placed by different record companies.  “Use Your Head” (a bouncy tune which bears more than few hallmarks of “The Motown Sound) was a moderate hit for Mary Wells, climbing into the pop top 40, but the singer’s tenure on 20th Century Fox was brief and she ended up bouncing around to a few other labels.  The Supremes, of course, would have a very Happy New Year — 1965 would bring three more #1 hits and a triumphant opening at New York’s top club, the Copacabana.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

BATTLE OF THE ADS: Billboard Magazine (11/7/64)

Check this out — the November 7, 1964 issue of Billboard (available online via Google Books) was an unusually snarky one, thanks to two record companies battling it out over the song “Come See About Me.”

Supremes Billboard AdNella Dodds Ad

A full-page ad from Motown proclaims an “unprecedented” move — rushing out “Come See About Me” by The Supremes while the group’s “Baby Love” was still sitting at #1. Why the hasty delivery? The Motown ad claims radio had already jumped on the song, forcing an official release.

Of course, what the Motown ad fails to mention is that another version of “Come See About Me” was about to hit the charts. “My single was out first,” boasts the ad promoting the Nella Dodds recording of “Come See About Me,” released on Wand.

So what’s the story?  The Supremes recorded “Come See About Me” first, and the song was placed on the smash LP Where Did Our Love Go.  The folks at Scepter Records apparently heard it, cut it on Dodds, and quickly released it.  Of course, once Motown did the same with their original recording of the song, the competition was short-lived.  Both singles debuted on the Hot 100 in the next issue of Billboard; the Dodds version eventually peaked at #74,  while The Supremes would soon enjoy their third consecutive #1 hit with the song.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

NEWS: “Diana Ross” Returns To Vinyl

Back in 1976, Motown declared July “Diana Ross Month” — celebrating the recent success of her smash LP Diana Ross and the release of the singer’s latest single, “One Love In My Lifetime.”  Now, a full forty years later, that classic album is returning to store shelves — and as with its original release, it’s on vinyl.

DR1976

Check out this article from Classic Motown detailing the 40th anniversary reissue of Diana Ross this month.  According to the news release, the vinyl reissue won’t include any bonus tracks or additional materials, just the original album lineup (which featured the #1 hits “Theme From Mahogany” and “Love Hangover,” along with the fan favorite “I Thought It Took A Little Time”).  Of course, a few years ago Hip-O Select released a deluxe expanded edition of Diana Ross on CD, which included several vault tracks and alternate mixes.

Although it’s not one of my personal favorites, I’m thrilled to hear Diana Ross will return to vinyl; dozens of classic albums are getting vinyl reissues and it’s time a Ross album entered the marketplace again.  The singer’s full-length albums continue to be overlooked by critics, who consider Miss Ross more of a “singles” artist.  And even if the LP’s material is a little bit uneven, the cover is easily one of Diana’s most stunning — won’t it be awesome to see that face staring out from the racks again?

The reissue will apparently be released July 15, and can be ordered here.  Hopefully we’ll see it in stores that are selling vinyl again, like Barnes & Noble and others.  And in the meantime, check out my original review of the album here!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

There’s A Place For Us (Released 2004)

There's A Place For Us The Supremes cover

“Our day will come…if we just wait awhile…”

1965 was undoubtedly “the year of The Supremes” — the group began the year at #1, with “Come See About Me” topping the Billboard Hot 100 for a week in January, and ended it with the release of the classic “My World Is Empty Without You,” which would peak in the top 5 in early 1966.  In between, three other singles topped the charts (“Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” and “I Hear A Symphony”), and the album More Hits By The Supremes was a smash success.  Better yet, the group took major steps toward transcending the label of “rock ‘n roll group” with the incorporation of pop standards and show tunes into its live act and television appearances, and completed a historic run at New York’s Copacabana nightclub in the summer (which resulted in the live album At The Copa, released in November).

Amazingly, along with five full-length albums released in 1965, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard recorded tracks for even more projects which ultimately went unreleased.  One of these was a planned album of pop standards and showtunes recorded mainly in March and April (along with a few Motown originals that sounded like standards).  Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. put several producers on the project; Harvey Fuqua, Hal Davis, and Marc Gordon cut tracks in Los Angeles, and Henry Cosby, Ron Miller, Ivy Jo Hunter, and Mickey Stevenson worked up tracks in Detroit.  An eventual tracklist of twelve songs was chosen, and the album named There’s A Place For Us; it was designated as Motown 628, scheduled to follow More Hits (which was released in July as Motown 627).  However, There’s A Place For Us ended up being cancelled; all twelve songs were shelved, and Motown waited until November to issue the next Supremes albums (At The Copa and Merry Christmas).  

Then, in 2004, the fantastic team at Hip-O Select finally unearthed this “lost” album, releasing it in a deluxe package that also featured a whopping fourteen other unreleased tracks, most of which were intended for a pair of unfinished albums (A Tribute To The Girls and The Supremes And The Motown Sound: From Broadway To Hollywood).  The original dozen recordings meant for There’s A Place For Us didn’t really offer any major surprises; half of them were performed at the Copa engagement and feature on the live album recorded there, and several others had been released on various collections over the years, including The Never-Before-Released Masters (1987) and 25th Anniversary (1986).  Still, to finally hear these songs together, in sequence as originally intended, does shed added light not only on Berry Gordy, Jr.’s plan to widen the appeal of The Supremes, but also on the continued growth of Wilson, Ballard, and especially Ross as vocalists and interpreters.

***

1.  Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody:  The album opens with a song familiar to Supremes fans, thanks to its inclusion on At The Copa and a performance on “The Red Skelton Show” in 1965.  Diana, Mary, and Florence had energy to spare on the live recording of this song; the swinging arrangement afforded Ross a perfect opportunity to deliver a brassy lead vocal, and Wilson and Ballard buoyant backup.  Although this studio version does suffer a bit from the lack of live audience reaction, it’s an accomplished opener and features a superb track laid down by the Detroit musicians.  Of particular note is Diana’s elastic vocal performance; she naturally sounds quite young, and there’s a rawness to her voice that would disappear by the time she tackled the Rodgers and Hart songbook just a few years later, but she really dives into the melody here, and engages in some thrilling ad-libs.  Listen to her jump to an unexpected high note at 2:12, and then do it again at 2:33, ending the song on what is surely one of the highest and most satisfying notes she’d recorded while with The Supremes.  Though “Rock-A-Bye” features a rather standard background arrangement and, again, works better with the electricity of a live setting, it’s a highlight of this collection thanks to Diana’s vivacity and sparkling vocals.

2.  Fancy Passes:  Although it certainly sounds like a club standard and comes from the very proper-sounding publishing company Stein & Van Stock, this song is actually a Motown original, co-written by Ron Miller, the man who’d later help pen Diana’s 1972 #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning” (Stein & Van Stock, by the way, was reportedly created by Berry Gordy to trick people into thinking certain songs were tried-and-true classics rather than Motown compositions).  This cutesy little ditty gives Miss Ross a chance to channel one of her admitted idols, Eartha Kitt; indeed, “Fancy Passes” is basically a non-holiday version of Kitt’s 1950s Christmas classic “Santa Baby.”  Thus, Ross purrs her way through lyrics celebrating the joys of dating a rich man, which the background singers behind her punctuate with sassy retorts and sound effects (i.e. the “meow” of cats).  I say “background singers” because I’m not totally convinced it’s Mary Wilson and/or Florence Ballard on this recording; something about the vocals sound more like Motown’s session singers (Mary and Florence do figure prominently on the reworked version of this song, which closes out the bonus tracks included on Motown Select’s There’s A Place For Us).  This version of “Fancy Passes” is pretty slight, and never really feels like anything other than a novelty song, but it is a fun listen; Miss Ross injects plenty of personality without every being too cloying.  (NOTE:  Years later, Motown would recycle “Fancy Passes” by including it in Diana’s debut film, Lady Sings The Blues; listen for it in the scene when Billie Holiday is passed over for a chance to song on the radio.)

3.  The Boy From Ipanema:  This is classy rendition of one of the most recorded songs in history, and a tune that was a big hit and Grammy-winner in 1964-1965.  Part of the song’s universal appeal (it was originally written and recorded as “The Girl From Ipanema”) lies in its soft, hypnotic structure; the melody is limited and very repetitive, and the lyrics quite simplistic.  Because The Supremes were such masters at emotionally-charged material — from the “yearning” and “burning” of “Where Did Our Love Go” to the scorching intensity of “Love Child” — such a cool, detached song feels rather unexciting, although the ladies do a fine job vocally.  The group also performed this song during its run at The Copa, and it’s included on the live album recorded there; while that version was rather murky in terms of sound, it did boast a little more energy than this one.  “The Boy From Ipanema” isn’t a standout here, but it’s not a total dud, either.

4.  Put On A Happy Face:  This bouncy showtune, taken from the Broadway hit Bye Bye Birdie, is another one that became part of the stage act for The Supremes; it’s the opening number on the At The Copa recording, and the group continued to perform it for quite some time.  This studio recording is outstanding; the arrangement gives Diana, Mary, and Florence numerous opportunities to break into three-part harmony, and all three young ladies sing with confidence and verve (although The Andantes could very well have been added here, as Motown was wont to do, it certainly sounds to me like Ross, Wilson, and Ballard are most prominently featured).  This recording is unique in that Miss Ross never sings a line solo; this is a shared lead, something that was becoming less common by 1965.  Of particular note is the section beginning at 1:38, as the group sings “Pick up a pleasant outlook/Stick out that nobel chin” in a complex harmony that remains thrilling to listen to; this is the kind of vocalizing that really set The Supremes apart from other female groups at Motown.  Even members of those other groups acknowledged the talent possessed by The Supremes for harmonizing and tackling pop standards; in Marc Taylor’s 2004 book The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group, Betty Kelly of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas is quoted as saying, “The Supremes were easier to work with because they kind of had something, the three of them.  I think Berry picked the right group to go into the direction he wanted to go in” (90).  Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes is later quoted in the same book: “We had to work at our harmony.  The Supremes could walk in and hit a song right away…What we did on each record was great, but on something like the Andrews Sisters’ material and songs like ‘Canadian Sunset’ that the Supremes could sing, we couldn’t do that” (127).  Indeed, the combination of Ross, Wilson, and Ballard was unique and potent.

5.  Our Day Will Come:  This is a lovely inclusion on There’s A Place For Us, unique for two reasons; first, it’s not a song that features on any of the group’s live recordings, and second, Mary Wilson is given the chance to sing lead.  Like many of the songs included here, “Our Day Will Come” was actually a fairly new composition in 1965; it had been a #1 hit for Ruby & The Romantics only two years earlier.  Still, with its unique Bossa Nova arrangement and romantic lyrics, the tune certainly fit the bill as easy listening pop/soul, and it’s a welcome addition to this lineup.  Wilson’s soft, misty voice slips into “Our Day Will Come” like a satin glove; her warm vocal here is beautifully rendered.  In just a few short years, Wilson’s voice had transformed from that of a brassy, Darlene Love-esque girl-group singer to one more suited to a sultry chanteuse; compare her throaty vocals on”Baby Don’t Go” from Meet The Supremes to this performance, and her evolution in style is both startling and incredibly satisfying.  In the way that Diana Ross possessed a voice perfect for the Holland-Dozier-Holland tunes that rocketed the group to stardom, Wilson’s was (and remains) an ideal vehicle for dreamy, jazz-tinged numbers like this one.

6.  You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You:  Berry Gordy, Jr. once wrote of The Supremes, “When we started working together and I was trying to impress people with them, I knew that they could take any song, a Broadway song, a standard, and sing in perfect harmony without music.  We took advantage of that.  My personal favorite was ‘You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You’ which was the first song they did on national television, on Hullabaloo” (The Supremes box set booklet).  Indeed, this song was something of a breakthrough for The Supremes; although the group had already performed hits on television, this was the first pop standard it sang for a major national audience, and it opened the door for similar performances on programs like “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  The group’s initial displeasure with this song — especially from Diana Ross — has been well-documented by Mr. Gordy, and is even dramatized in the Broadway hit Motown The Musical; Ross did not want to sing something she felt her fans wouldn’t like.  However, you’d never know it by listening to any of her performances of the tune, including this studio recording; she turns in a full-bodied, sophisticated reading here.  The background vocal arrangement is quite different from that which features on live recordings of this song (it’s featured on both At The Copa and Live At London’s Talk Of The Town), and the voices don’t really sound like Mary Wilson and/or Florence Ballard; my hunch is that session singers are backing up Diana.  But this recording really belongs to Ross, anyway, and she delivers in a way that must have thrilled Gordy; this isn’t a showy performance for the singer (she shows far more range in the album’s opener, “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”), but it’s a strong one, and Diana’s voice is rock-solid in terms of pitch and phrasing.  At just 21 years old, the singer’s mature approach to singing is impressive.

7.  Somewhere:  The title There’s A Place For Us comes from the opening line of this song, something that’s fitting given the importance of  “Somewhere” to The Supremes.  This song would become a staple of the act’s live appearances, and was probably performed by the ladies more than most of their actual hit songs.  The fact that this became a showstopper for Diana Ross is likely a reason it gained a place of such importance for The Supremes; 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).  The song also gave Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard a chance to display some nice harmonizing behind Ross, something that’s on full display during this studio recording.  Although “Somewhere” sounds pretty schmaltzy today — especially with the syrupy arrangement presented here — the full-throated backgrounds of Wilson and Ballard really help anchor this recording.  Diana Ross turns in a nice performance, although she veers dangerously close to cloying at times; her tone is also bit piercing on certain sections, reminiscent of her very early work with The Supremes.  Diana’s interpretation of the song improved over time, and the song’s meaning evolved for the group; by the late 1960s, a monologue referencing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been added, and it was being used as a plea for racial harmony.  This gave the song added weight, helping to balance out its saccharine qualities and providing Ross a better platform on which to demonstrate her vocal abilities; listen to her performance of “Somewhere” on the 1968 TCB soundtrack and you’ll hear how much she and the song had grown.  This “Somewhere” is an interesting listen and a great showcase for the sublime singing of Wilson and Ballard, but it’s merely a teaser of what would come in the next few years.

8.  Something For My Heart:  This is such an achingly pretty song that you’d be forgiven for thinking it comes from a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical; certainly “Something For My Heart” could have fit into The Sound Of Music somewhere.  However, like the earlier “Fancy Passes,” this is a Motown original, co-written again by Ron Miller with Richard Jacques and Avery Vandenberg; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, it had also been recorded by singer Liz Lands, and was done by Marvin Gaye as “Something For Her Heart.”  Diana Ross turns in a very sweet lead vocal here; her delivery of the opening lyrics “On my very next birthday/I hope I’ll receive/Pleasant little presents/Things that I believe in…” is stunningly pure and girlish.  The background singers are almost certainly not Supremes; the ringing harmonies sound suspiciously similar to those of The Andantes on the 1965 Merry Christmas album, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they’re tasteful and sophisticated.  Though “Something For My Heart” lacks a really strong hook, and thus isn’t particularly memorable, it is a pleasant listen and nice addition to the album.

9.  Make Someone Happy:  During their run at New York’s Copacabana nightclub, The Supremes performed this song in a medley with “Time After Time” — in the August 7, 1965 Billboard review of the Copa act, this song was singled out as “the showcase act for Diana’s solo potential.  Her distinctive phrasing and amazing vocal range in every song confirms that she truly is one of the best in the business.”  Indeed, on the resulting live album, the medley is one of the unqualified highlights, and Diana’s vocal performance is chill-inducing.  Unfortunately, the studio recording of “Make Someone Happy” isn’t nearly as effective; the production feels hollow, and there are some strange instrumental flourishes which steal away attention from the vocal performance.  Ross delivers a sterling performance here; her velvety voice languidly glides along the melody, and the singer offers up some delicious vocal runs (listen to her croon the word “everything” at 1:06, and the way she skillfully stretches it down the scale).  That said, the producers drown the singer in echo, and she sounds like she’s being forced to sing through a tin can.  Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard harmonize nicely behind Ross, and the three voices meld together beautifully at the climax of the song, but it’s not enough to save the recording.  Had “Make Someone Happy” been given a classier, crystal-clear production, it could have been the best song on There’s A Place For Us.  Instead, it’s the live version that truly reigns Supreme.

10.  Little Miss Loser:  This is an astounding recording that first surfaced on 1987’s The Never-Before-Released Masters.  The song is another Motown original, published under the Stein & Van Stock monicker and co-written by — you guessed it! — Ron Miller, along with Richard Jacques and Avery Vandenberg.  According to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, the tune had already been recorded by Brenda Holloway, Liz Lands, and Marvin Gaye by the time The Supremes tackled it in 1965; the Holloway and Gaye versions went unreleased for decades, but can be heard on various collections today, and both are soft and somber jazz-tinged ballads.  This version is brash and startling, with an instrumental that sounds like it could have been lifted from a hard-edged film noir from the 1950s.  The blaring introduction is fabulous; there’s a foreboding quality similar to that of the intro to Dinah Washington’s brittle take on “Cry Me A River” from 1959.  Miss Ross is a heartbreaker on the opening lines; her perfect delivery of “Set the table, supper’s done/Candlelight and wine for one” is sultry and mature far beyond the singer’s then 21 years.  The howling voices behind Ross are haunting and a perfect complement to her sensitive singing.  If there’s any issue with the song, it’s that the lyrics aren’t quite up to the standard of rest of the production; “Christmas Eve, you waited for/But all your dreams stayed in the store” is a clunky couplet, among other passages that probably could have been smoothed out.  Still, this is a superlative recording, and one that easily could have been placed on an album like I Hear A Symphony in place of a weaker inclusion instead of left in the vaults for so long.

11.  Sleepwalk:  An interesting, if not wholly successful cover of the 1959 hit by Santo & Johnny.  The original recording was an instrumental, driven by an unforgettable steel guitar sound; an early cover featuring lyrics was released by Betsy Brye, also in 1959.  The Supremes sing the bulk of those lyrics in three-part harmony here, which is always exciting, and all three voices are strong and clear on this recording.  That said, Florence Ballard’s soprano cuts a little too sharp for my ears here; her thick vocals draw attention away from the song’s pretty melody, and causing parts of the song to sound discordant.  While Ballard possessed undeniably powerful pipes, she sometimes lacked the vocal control of her groupmates; Miss Ross almost always sang in the dead-center of a note, and Wilson’s misty voice settled nicely into whatever she was singing, but Ballard was capable of tugging a song off-center a bit with her vocals, which I think is the case here.  Aside from the vocal performances, this “Sleepwalk” faces a major disadvantage due to the lack of the steel guitar; the original is so haunting and iconic that any cover deviating from the tried-and-true instrumental arrangement would feel hollow.  This one does, even though there are some nice elements and it’s a mainly pleasant listen.  I have a feeling this is a favorite of many fans, especially those particularly fond of Florence Ballard’s voice, but to me it’s a recording that lacks the spark of the best of The Supremes.

12.  Big City Babies Don’t Cry:  The final song of the original There’s A Place For Us lineup is another Ron Miller composition (written with William O’Malley), and while it’s another good song, it’s probably the least memorable of the quartet of originals here.  The song begins with a horn-filled, “Dragnet”-style opening, as blaring and bold as that featured on “Little Miss Loser.”  The rest of the recording, however, doesn’t quite live up to that introduction; there’s a pretty melody, but it doesn’t grab the listener in the way “Loser” or “Fancy Passes” does.  Diana’s vocal performance is sterling; her voice oozes like honey, and she reaches up for some lovely high notes, which she easily nails.  The bridge, beginning at 1:17, is an especially strong section for Miss Ross; there’s a lovely tenderness in her voice that manages to convey a wistfulness without ever sounding thin or weak.  Although “Big City Babies Don’t Cry” isn’t a highlight here, it is a professionally produced track that merits its long-awaited release.

***

Had There’s A Place For Us been released back in 1965, it’s not likely it would have been a huge success for The Supremes; none of the “theme” albums released by the group had been huge sellers (The Supremes Sing County, Western & Pop and We Remember Sam Cookeboth from earlier that year, had stalled outside the top 50 of the Billboard 200) and fans were really hungry only for more Holland-Dozier-Holland hits.  The Copa album would feature most of these songs, anyway, and was probably the more effective strategy for getting them into people’s homes, considering the live album also featured several of the group’s popular hits.  Still, hearing these dozen tracks together is enlightening; there was definite care taken in shaping these songs, which demonstrates how important they were to Berry Gordy, Jr. and his vision for The Supremes and Motown.  And more than that, they’re a glimpse into the deepening talent of Diana Ross, who never for a second shows any discomfort with the material.  Ross would get better and better on this type of music, soaring forward on 1967’s masterful The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart and her triumphant 1968 album of Funny Girl songs, but these early recordings were part of the progression from girl-group singer to sophisticated stylist.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (An Early Glimpse Of What “Will Come”)

Choice Cuts:  “Little Miss Loser,” “Put On A Happy Face,” “Our Day Will Come”

COMING SOON: A full analysis of the fourteen “bonus tracks” featured on the Hip-O Select release of There’s A Place For Us.

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

Farewell (1970)

Diana Ross and The Supremes Farewell“As of tonight, one of the greatest attractions of the 60s becomes two of the greatest attractions of the 70s.”

January 14, 1970.

At 11:54 p.m., Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong took the stage at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada for their final performance as Diana Ross and The Supremes.  Only nine years earlier, Ross and Wilson had signed with Motown Records (along with their friends and singing partners Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin), and went on to literally change the course of popular music history.  With twelve #1 pop singles, three #1 albums, iconic television appearances and sell-out live engagements, The Supremes effectively eradicated barriers for both women and African-Americans in the music industry, setting new benchmarks that artists would still be trying to match fifty years later.

“[The] three of us had created the Supremes; we’d made ourselves into our image of what we could be, in our homemade dresses and fake pearls.  Now, here Diane and I were, dripping in real diamonds and adorned in black velvet and pearls by Bob Mackie.  And this was the end.”  (Mary Wilson, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme)

Diana’s impending departure had been announced in November of 1969, along with the news that singer Jean Terrell would be joining the group in her place.  In fact, plans for Ross to go solo had been in the works for quite some time, and Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong had been recording with Terrell for several months.  The unique qualities that Diana Ross brought to the group as a vocalist and performer were undeniable and obvious from the very beginning; her voice — crisp and compelling and totally modern — had led a whopping 25 singles to the Top 40.  So it was only natural that the singer would eventually break away from the group to pursue other opportunities, just as it made sense that The Supremes would continue with a new addition, someone who could restore harmony to a group that had been lopsided in focus for quite some time.

“I guess I hadn’t been completely ready yet.  But I finally was ready.  Ready to try something different, to give myself a new set of expectations about what I wanted in life, what would make me happy, how I wanted to behave.  Ready to take responsibility for my own life, to be in charge of my own destiny.” (Diana Ross, Secrets Of A Sparrow)

“After years of hard work, I felt I was embarking on another wonderful adventure.  I had been blessed to have been in the Supremes the first time; now it could happen all over again.” (Mary Wilson, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme)

And so Ross, Wilson, and Birdsong took the stage at the Frontier for the final time on January 14, 1970, likely filled more with optimism and hope for the future than with sadness at the closing of this chapter of their careers.  The resultant album, titled Farewell (recorded over several nights during the Frontier engagement, then pieced together by producer Deke Richards), certainly displays the group at its giddy best, with an expansive lineup of hits, standards, and Broadway showtunes performed by The Supremes with exuberance and slick sophistication.  Perhaps tellingly, the ladies are looser and more relaxed than on any of their previous live albums; however tightly-rehearsed it all might have been, the jokes and banter all sound off-the-cuff, resulting in an extremely enjoyable listening experience.  Farewell is the best live set released by the group, and remains one of the single most enjoyable Supremes albums from start to finish; when Diana Ross says “We’re gonna swing right on outta here,” she means it.

***

1.  T.C.B.:  This is the best opening number of any Supremes live set, and possibly of any Diana Ross solo live set, too; no song better builds a sense of anticipation and excitement than this one, which had originally served as the title song for the 1968 television special of the same name featuring Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations.  The long drum roll and piano vamp at the beginning must have been thrilling to the crowd sitting in the audience that night, and the audience hearty applauds the eventual appearance of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong.  All three women come on strong right from the start; Diana’s delivery is so crisp and clear that she seems to be singing straight into the listener’s ear, and Mary and Cindy back her up with a brassy confidence.  The electricity that these three women generate is still astounding all these years later; Gil Askey’s band matches them note-for-note, with special honors going to the frantic bass player whose fingers seem to be moving at warp speed.  This is classy entertainment at its very finest; any worries that Diana Ross and The Supremes might coast through their final performance are dashed right away.

2.  Medley (Stop! In The Name Of Love/Come See About Me/My World Is Empty Without You/Baby Love):  As they did on the TCB television special and soundtrack, The Supremes immediately segue from the “Stop! Whatever you’re doing…” lyric of the title track to their #1 hit, “Stop! In The Name Of Love.”  As with recent recordings on Live At London’s Talk Of The Town and TCB, the arrangement here bears little resemblance to Motown; this is a breathlessly-paced, splashy reimagining of the song which remains the group’s signature recording.  Ross certainly doesn’t sound like a weak-willed woman desperately clinging to her man anymore; her performance is full of swagger, as though the entire “Think it over” refrain is really just an ironic joke.  Still, the singer is in fine voice and effortlessly matches the band’s charging energy, and Cindy Birdsong in particular offers tuneful support behind her.  Next, the group steps back in time to its third #1 hit, “Come See About Me.”  The ladies only sing about thirty seconds of the song, but they sound great doing it; the faster arrangement here brings out the gospel undertones of the song, even when it’s all dressed up in big-band razzle-dazzle.  Next up comes the late-1965 release “My World Is Empty Without You,” notable due to the extra emphasis on background vocals here (they’re nearly impossible to hear on the original recording), and finally, the medley wraps up with Diana’s distinctive “Oooooh” sound, signaling the 1964 smash hit “Baby Love.”  Again, the song sounds like a very distant relative of the one released all this years ago, but it’s to the credit of songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland (who penned every single one of these songs) that it works as well as it does even in such a different context.  There remains something irresistible about “Baby Love,” not to mention Diana’s delivery of its sweet lyrics.  Although the singer’s voice had greatly matured over the years, deepening and becoming brassier, her crisp urgency remains intact, and serves all of these songs well.  Motown purists won’t be crazy about the snazzy updates to each of these songs (or the fact that each one is so truncated), but it’s hard not to be impressed at how much great hit material The Supremes recorded during just a few short years.

3.  Medley (The Lady Is A Tramp/Let’s Get Away From It All):  This is one of the best moments of the entire set, an absolutely uproarious and jaw-droppingly energetic version of the medley first featured on the 1968 LP Live At London’s Talk Of The TownIt was a showstopping moment on that album, and incredibly, it’s even better here; the vocal expertise displayed by all three Supremes is stunning.  Gil Askey’s swinging band is on fire by this point, with blaring horns and a twinkling piano providing exactly the kind of classy accompaniment the song needs.  Ross, meanwhile, offers up some of the best live singing of her career, letting her voice naturally grow in strength and power throughout the medley’s three-and-a-half minutes, finally letting loose with hurricane-force belting in the song’s final few notes.  And Mary and Cindy match her intensity; Wilson particularly shines, hooting and hollering behind Ross, tossing out one-liners and providing thick, hearty background vocals.  Listening to this medley, it’s clear why Diana Ross and The Supremes reached the level of success they did; all of the Motown female singing groups were talented, and added something unique to the label, but The Supremes were simply in a class of their own.  The clarity of tone, the precision and personality, and the wild energy of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong remain unparalleled.

4.  Monologue (Diana Ross):  After nearly ten straight minutes of high-octane singing, Diana Ross finally takes a moment to welcome the audience and acknowledge “the last show for Diana Ross and The Supremes.”

5.  Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone:  Next, the ladies quickly move into a hit that Diana misidentifies as being from 1965 (it was actually recorded in 1966 and released in early 1967); “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” became the ninth #1 hit for the group, and remains perhaps the most theatrical of the group’s singles.  The performance here is a bit too rushed and tightly-orchestrated to truly capture the magic of the original recording; the studio version’s baroque track is replaced by a wash of instruments that doesn’t sound distinctive nor worthy of the song’s dramatic origins.  I wish “In And Out Of Love” had been placed here instead; although that song wasn’t as big of a hit, it was beautifully done by the group on Live At London’s Talk Of The Town and better lent itself to live performance.  Still, it’s hard to complain about any performance of a hit song by Diana Ross and The Supremes; certainly the ladies provide the requisite energy and style to their reading of this classic tune.

6.  I’m Gonna Make You Love Me:  Next comes a real treat, as this is the only recorded live performance of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” by Diana Ross and The Supremes (aside from a version by Ross and Stevie Wonder on Motown At The Hollywood Palace).  The song had been a big hit for The Supremes and The Temptations in late 1968; unfortunately, the groups had taped their joint television special TCB before the single was released, which meant it was left off of the broadcast program and the resulting soundtrack album.  Of all the hits performed during this Farewell show, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is closest in arrangement to its original recording; the pace isn’t altered quite as much, and the band does a great job replicating the quiet dreaminess of the studio track.  Without Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations present to deliver his verse, Diana takes the entire lead here, and she sounds sublime; this is a song that is well within her comfort zone, allowing her to give a soulful, relaxed performance.  I absolutely love her little ad-libs, from her “No tricks!” at 1:08 to her breathy moan at 1:57 coming out of the bridge.  These little stylistic choices are what make Ross such a unique vocalist; she has an innate sense of phrasing and timing, something she’d further develop during her solo career.

7.  Monologue (Mary Wilson):  For the first time on a Supremes live set, Mary Wilson speaks!  Ms. Wilson delivers a cute introduction where she builds up a special guest singer “brought to you at a great expense…me.”

8.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You:  Also for the first time on a Supremes live album, someone other than Diana Ross takes the lead vocal on a selection.  “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was first included in duet form between Mary Wilson and Eddie Kendricks on the 1969 LP Together, and incorporated into the group’s live act as a solo spot for Mary.  Wilson performed a stellar version of the song on an episode of “The Hollywood Palace” hosted by Diana Ross and The Supremes, and she does it again here, turning the Frankie Valli hit into a simmering, sultry torch song showcasing her misty alto.  Although Mary had led several album cuts over the years (beginning with “Baby Don’t Go” on 1962’s Meet The Supremes) and always rose to the occasion, this is perhaps her very best recorded performance of the Ross/Supremes era; the vocal control and confidence she displays here are astounding.  Listen to the way her voice caresses the lyric “You’d be like heaven…to touch” at :26, and then again at 1:06, as she purrs, “Ohhhh…and there are no words left to speak” — there is no doubt that’s she’s grown tremendously as a vocalist since her work on early Supremes cuts.  The final minute of the song kicks into high gear, with the familiar swinging “I love you, baby!” refrain, and Wilson, Birdsong, and Ross really belt it out, bringing the number to a satisfying conclusion.  Although by this time Jean Terrell had already been named as Diana’s replacement in The Supremes, performances like this one prove Mary Wilson was ready for more time in the spotlight.  Thankfully, producers would take note, and her role in the group would increase substantially over the next several years.

9.  Dialogue (Diana Ross & Mary Wilson):  Here’s a brief, fun little transition in which Diana and Mary “fight” over the microphone.  Although tensions might have been running high behind the scenes, both ladies are effective enough as actresses to make the little scene sounds playful and natural.

10.  Reflections:  The first disc’s first side comes to a close with this, a performance of the group’s 1967 #2 hit, and a song that was previous included on Live At London’s Talk Of The Town.  I wasn’t crazy about the arrangement on that album, which strayed so far from the original recording that it didn’t really sound like the same song.  I like it better here, although it’s also quite removed from the studio version featured on Reflections.  That recording’s strange, psychedelic effects really couldn’t be replicated in a live performance, so instead the song becomes a toe-tapping, jazzy number with strumming electric guitar and almost mariachi-styled horns during the refrain.  The Talk Of The Town performance of this song really showcased strong background vocals from Mary Wilson, who nearly turned the song into a duet between herself and Diana Ross; what’s evident this time around is how much Birdsong’s confidence has grown, and now it’s her voice that emerges as the most prominent behind Diana’s.  The way Cindy’s voice rides the background line is really quite lovely, and further proof of her own unique talent.

11.  My Man:  This is a fascinating inclusion on Farewell, as it marks the first time we’re hearing Diana Ross sing a song that would figure prominently into her solo career.  Miss Ross introduces this as a song “written for a lady by the name of Fanny Brice” — Brice, of course, was the subject of the Broadway musical Funny Girl, and “My Man” was added to the film version as an emotional finale to be sung by Barbra Streisand.  Just a few years later, Berry Gordy, Jr. and Gil Askey would do the exact same thing for Diana’s film vehicle Lady Sings The Blues, in which she starred as singer Billie Holiday, placing the song at the end of movie and emphasizing it as a dramatic high point.  Diana’s accomplished reading of “My Man” on the Lady soundtrack is a staggering piece of artistry; it’s one of her great all-time performances, a deeply-felt delivery that showcases both the power and the vulnerability in her voice.  The version here, although not particularly different in arrangement, serves a different purpose; without being bolstered by Holiday’s dramatic storyline, it becomes more of a traditional ballad, lacking the melancholy so prevalent in later versions.  It’s interesting to hear how much Diana’s abilities would develop in just a few short years; although she easily hits all the notes here and adds in many of the vocal flourishes she’d keep for the film, this is more of a “surface” performance.  It’s pretty and it’s showy; it’s certainly impressive in the context of the surrounding material.  But there’s a different kind of artistry in her 1972 recording of the song; there’s a depth and maturity in her voice that adds so much more complexity.  Taken on its own terms here, “My Man” is a highlight of the show.  However, it also makes a great case for how much more intuitive of an interpreter Diana Ross would become over the next few years; as Billie Holiday, her reading of “My Man” is heartbreaking.

12.  Didn’t We:  As with the previous selection, this number is performed by Diana Ross alone; it’s another slow torch number that gives the singer a chance to really dig into some material and take her time interacting with the audience.  “Didn’t We” was written by the great Jimmy Webb and initially recorded by Richard Harris; it would later famously be done by Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, among others.  The song’s structure smartly echoes its lyric about a “long uphill climb” with a series of upward musical steps; Ross uses this progression as a guide for her performance, letting her vocal grow in intensity until the song’s climax.  Her crystal-clear voice lands on each and every note like a drop of water, and she transmits a real vulnerability through her tone; listen to the way she sounds choked with emotion on the line “Didn’t we almost make it…” at 2:20.  For me, the highlight comes at the end of the song, as she wordlessly ad-libs for about 45 seconds; there’s a real passion and earthiness that comes through in her voice here, and it’s rewarded with a huge ovation from the audience.  This performance is a triumph for Miss Ross; the song is such a good fit for her that it’s a shame she never recorded it for a studio album.

13.  It’s Alright With Me:  Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong return to the stage and join Diana Ross for a swinging rendition of this classic Cole Porter tune.  After the previous two ballads — both big, dramatic statements on the misery of love — “It’s Alright With Me” serves to lighten the mood and let off a little steam.  Gil Askey’s band offers up a twinkling instrumental, upon which the vocals seem to dance; it’s impressive the way Diana Ross is able to shake off the emotion of the past two songs and effortlessly sound so carefree again.  Likewise, Mary Wilson and especially Cindy Birdsong provide sophisticated “responses” behind Ross; for whatever reason, Cindy’s voice really seems to shine on this song, her smooth soprano ringing clear as a bell.  Although “It’s Alright With Me” isn’t the most distinctive or memorable addition to the group’s live repertoire, it’s a good bridge between the drama of “Didn’t We?” and the sexual energy of the next selection…

14.  Big Spender:  This is one of the most fun moments of Farewell, a very sexy version of a song which found fame as part of the 1966 Broadway musical Sweet Charity.  Diana Ross and The Supremes were many things in their music over the years — sweet, sincere, urgent, desperate — but rarely were they ever very suggestive.  That changes here, as they playfully deliver musical come-ons including “I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see” and “I can show you a good time.”  They seem to be having a ball, especially Diana; she grunts a few times (joking, “Thought I was James Brown for a minute!”) and laughs with some members of the audience, and I love her high-note “yoo-hoo!” at 1:27.  In the past, some of the standards performed by The Supremes in concert and during televised performances were a little too monotonous and saccharine (i.e. “More” and “The Boy From Ipanema”), and it’s nice to have a number like this instead, which allows the ladies to show some personality and have a little fun (…fun…fun…).

15.  Falling In Love With Love:  Mary Wilson takes center stage again, serving up a delicious take on a song she first recorded on The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart back in 1967.  “Falling In Love With Love” was one of the clear highlights of that album, featuring stellar vocal interplay between Wilson and Diana Ross; here, Mary gets the spotlight alone.  The pace is really quickened here; Mary races through the song, her voice swiftly bouncing over the melody without ever bogging it down.  Although the singer’s misty voice was the perfect blending tool for harmonizing, Wilson was also capable of impressive power during her vocal performances; listen to her wailing at 1:37, and it’s obvious how much strength she possesses.  Although it doesn’t rival the sheer perfection the studio version from ’67, this is another fine moment for the group; as with “Can’t Take Me Eyes Off You,” it’s fitting that Mary Wilson gets some recognition after nearly a decade of important but often underrated contributions to Motown and The Supremes.

16.  Love Child:  After five non-Motown songs in a row, Farewell finally gets back to basics with this, a live version of the group’s monster #1 hit from 1968.  As good as the showtunes and standards are — and as important as they clearly are to the group’s legacy — let’s be honest, the dearth of actual hits can be a little irritating on Supremes live sets.  So, it’s nice to get a full version of “Love Child” here (especially since it came out after the group’s other live albums, and thus isn’t on them), even though the orchestration bears more resemblance to “Tears Of A Clown” than the actual studio recording.  Diana introduced this as “the song our managers told us would never make it” — likely not a true statement, considering Berry Gordy, Jr. had a hand in writing it and rush-released it because it sounded so hot.  Still, “Love Child” was a major departure for the group when it was released, dealing with the then-controversial subject matter of children born out-of-wedlock and featuring a harder, more soulful edge than previous releases.  Here, that edge is totally sanded down; as expected, the song douses any chance of a simmer with big-band touches and a breathless tempo.  It’s nice to hear Wilson and Birdsong on the background vocals, since the original single featured The Andantes instead; that said, one does miss the thicker, fuller sound featured on the studio version.  Meanwhile, Diana offers up a lively, engaged vocal; it’s certainly not a searing performance like the one she minted in the studio, but she charges through it with a different kind of intensity, and doesn’t skimp on the famous ad-libs at the song’s conclusion.  “Love Child” doesn’t exactly lend itself to a Vegas treatment, but again, it’s always nice to hear The Supremes sing one of the songs they made famous.

17.  Monologue (Diana Ross):  Here, Diana takes some time to introduce the women that go “way, way back” for The Supremes — the mothers.  It becomes a comical moment when Diana’s mother turns out to be missing from the audience, prompting some jokes that Mrs. Ross is probably gambling instead of watching the show.  Ross also introduces Smokey Robinson (with his wife, Claudette), quipping, “You lost all your money, that’s why you’re here, right?”

18.  Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures):  This is the centerpiece of the Farewell album, a staggering fifteen-minute performance of the famous medley from the Broadway musical Hair during which Diana Ross leaves the stage and coerces the star-studded audience to sing along with her.  This is something for which Miss Ross would become famous; during her solo career, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” would become her crowd-participation number, allowing her to demonstrate the incredible warmth and skill she possesses as a performer.  However, never was this stunt better employed than it is here; the effortless way in which Diana controls the crowd and compels them to do her bidding is incredible, and is the final piece of definitive proof that the singer was ready for a solo career.  Diana, Mary, and Cindy begin by racing through the first half of the medley, with Ross finally breaking out and crossing the footlights after a few repetitions of “Let The Sunshine In.”  First up, she calls on Billy Davis to dance with her; Davis was a longtime friend of Berry Gordy, Jr., and a man Diana and Mary refer to as their “dancing partner.”  Eventually, she weaves her way back to Smokey and Claudette Robinson; Smokey softly croons the refrain in his sweet, distinctive style, followed by his wife (who, it should be noted, was also a member of The Miracles).  Diana then makes a note to stop at the Gordy table, calling out Anna, Gwen, and Esther as her “sisters” and allowing them to laugh through a few lines with her.  But it’s Anna’s husband who get the most attention; the one and only Marvin Gaye takes the mic next, and delivers a stirring rendition of “Let The Sunshine In” that sounds like it could have been released as a single that very day.  Seriously, in only about twenty seconds of singing, Mr. Gaye seems to deliver an entire hit song; the audience reaction tells the story, as there seems to be a collective gasp and then a wave of cheering.  The next celebrity target isn’t quite so pitch-perfect, but Dick Clark playfully moans “Oh, yeah!” a few times before Diana moves on to the legendary Lou Rawls, who expertly lends his throaty vocals to a few refrains.  Steve Allen cracks up the crowd with some silly ad-libs, and Diana helps out Bill Russell for a moment; finally the singer begins to wind her way back to the stage, stopping again to let Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls get a few more moments behind the microphone.  While all of this is going on, Mary and Cindy are wailing behind her; Cindy’s brief solo at 12:49 is probably the most powerful singing she’d put on record thus far in her Supremes career.  The actual live performance likely went on far longer than the nearly sixteen minutes included on this album; producer Deke Richards finally just fades it down to an end.  It’s fun to hear all the star cameos, and certainly a joy to hear Mary and Cindy having such a good time on stage, but the real attraction is Diana Ross. She is totally in command, clearly captivating the audience and allowing others to bask in the glow of the spotlight without ever eclipsing her role as mistress of ceremonies.  What Diana Ross displays here is that rare, intangible thing — real star power.  If it accomplished nothing else (and, fortunately, it does), Farewell would be an important album simply for capturing that essence.

19.  Monologue (Diana Ross):  This is a “fake out” moment, with Diana pretending the show is over; of course, the audience cries out for more, and Ross introduces the next song, “one that can kind of explain the things that have happened to us over the last couple of years.”

20:  The Impossible Dream:  No song could be more appropriate for Diana Ross and The Supremes to sing than this one; a soaring, triumphant ballad lifted from Man Of La Mancha, this is a song of fighting toward a goal with single-minded fierceness and making one’s dreams come true.  This is what The Supremes had done over the past decade; with a poised determination to become stars, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Cindy Birdsong had surpassed every expectation, achieving a success so grand in scale that many critics and music historians still can’t quite comprehend it.  Television icon Oprah Winfrey would put it best years later, when she told Diana Ross, “For me, being a 10-year-old girl, watching you and having dreams…I carried that dream inside me for years because there wasn’t anybody who was on television who looked like me and that night that we all saw you, I think around the world…our hearts lit up with the possibility of what it meant to be a little black girl” (“The Oprah Winfrey Show,” February 25, 2011).  Here, the group delivers a wholly convincing message about their fight to reach the top, and their voices are in peak form; it’s hard not to be moved as the ladies sing, “This is my quest/To follow that star.”

21.  Monologue (Diana Ross):  This is a brief ovation interlude, as Askey’s band plays a slowed down version of “I Hear A Symphony” and the audience cheers for more.  Of course, the group is going to oblige; Diana, Mary, and Cindy hadn’t performed their most recent #1 hit yet…

22:  Someday We’ll Be Together: …and, here it is, the song which brought Diana Ross and The Supremes back to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the twelfth and final time.  This is a terrific performance of the song, too; considering the studio version is a seamless mix of pop, soul, gospel, and folk, it’s astounding how well it translates to the Vegas stage.  Appropriately, for the final recorded performance featuring Diana, Mary, and Cindy together, all three ladies sing with great feeling, and each displays the qualities that makes her voice unique.  Diana’s lead is crisp and relaxed; her voice dances comfortably onto each note, never lingering too long.  Behind her, Mary loudly projects her brassy alto, and she takes on many of the encouraging ad-libs which had been delivered by Johnny Bristol on the recorded version; Cindy’s bell-like soprano, meanwhile, rides high atop the harmonies, sweetening the performance.  As with the earlier “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” the ladies really take their time here; Diana delivers some lovely sentiments to the audience, including, “In the next coming year, Mary and Cindy and I won’t be together, but we’ll always be together in our hearts” and heartfelt calls for racial harmony and the end of the Vietnam War.  She also entices the audience to sing along with her, and they do; hearing the entire room singing the song in unison is quite a striking and moving moment, and it’s a fitting end to the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes.  After all, that’s what the group had been doing over the past several years — creating music the entire world could sing along to.

23.  Closing Dialogue (Diana Ross and The Supremes):  United Stated Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada kicks off this closing pomp and circumstance, reading a telegram from TV host Ed Sullivan which states in part, “As of tonight, one of the greatest attractions of the 60s becomes two of the greatest attractions of the 70s.”  Sullivan’s telegram does contain some cringe-worthy statements (those in the audience aware of the group’s long-running internal struggles must have winced at the mention of “backstabbing and hypocrisy”), but his words about the ladies having achieved the American Dream certainly ring true, considering their humble beginnings.  Next up comes Frontier Hotel entertainment director Frank Sennes, who provides another cringe-worthy moment by focusing attention almost entirely on Diana Ross, announcing that “we all predict that you will be the greatest star of our time” before adding a perfunctory “and The Supremes will continue being the stars that they are” (wouldn’t you love to know what Mary and Cindy were thinking in that moment?).  Sennes then presents the ladies with gold watches, and the hotel’s general manager joins the stage to present a Frontier Hotel Wall of Fame plaque.  Finally, Diana Ross brings Jean Terrell onto the stage for an ovation; Terrell, of course, is the woman who would replace Ross in The Supremes, and had already been recording with Mary and Cindy for quite some time.  It’s truly a “passing of the torch” (or, in this case, passing of the microphone) moment, and a touching way to end the album.

***

By the time Farewell was released in April of 1970, everybody involved had moved on to the next chapter…including the record-buying public.  Faced with the choice between this live set and the first studio album by the “new” Supremes (also released in April), fans chose Right On, which easily beat Farewell on the charts.  Meanwhile, Diana’s first solo single was also released in April, and while “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” wasn’t a monster hit, it set the stage for her spectacular follow-up, the #1 anthem “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  Indeed, in the first two or three years of the new decade, The Supremes and Diana Ross proved Ed Sullivan’s predictions correct; Jean, Mary, and Cindy remained the country’s top female singing trio, and Miss Ross continued her ascendency to music and movie superstardom.

But the lackluster showing of Farewell (which peaked at #46 on the Billboard 200) is disappointing, because it truly does capture Diana Ross and The Supremes at its very best. Although it lacks the raw excitement of At The Copa or the breathless precision of Live At London’s Talk Of The Townthe album is the best example yet of the group’s electric live presence and ability to connect with its audience.  That it marks the end of a musical era makes it all the more significant.  If the album sometimes feels a little overblown, it has a right to be; The Supremes are rarely given the credit they deserve for being trailblazers, but this lavish, double-LP set treats the group with the reverence and respect it deserves.  Thirty years after the release of Farewell, Berry Gordy, Jr. would sum it up best:  “I think their legacy is what they did for all people, but especially black people, in terms of class and style and how they carried themselves.  The Supremes have a rich, powerful, meaningful legacy and they have affected many, many others who have come along since” (The Supremes box-set booklet).

Final Analysis: 5/5 (A Stunning End To The “Dream”)

Choice Cuts: “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures),” “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “Didn’t We”

Posted in Live Album | Tagged , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Greatest Hits Volume 3

Supremes Greatest Hits Volume 3

This collection of late-era hits by Diana Ross and The Supremes was released in December of 1969, likely in an effort to benefit from the busy holiday shopping season.  The group’s previous collection Greatest Hits (considered Volumes 1 and 2, as it spanned two albums) had hit store shelves in August, 1967 and eventually topped the Billboard 200 for five straight weeks late that year; on the R&B album chart, it remained at the top for an astonishing twelve weeks, dominating sales over October, November, and December. Although Volume 3 didn’t come close to equalling that success, only peaking at #31 on the Billboard 200, it contained some huge hits, including the #1 singles “Love Child” and “Someday We’ll Be Together” and the #2 “Reflections.”  The fact that a single group could fill three albums with its successes (and some fan favorite b-sides) remains a remarkable achievement nearly fifty years later.

Supremes Greatest Hits Volume 3 Rear LP

Looking back, what’s really interesting about Greatest Hits Volume 3 is what isn’t included.  Unlike 1967’s Greatest Hits, this is not a glossy package; there are no rapturous liner notes here, nor are the graphics given any real attention.  There are also some holes in the tracklist; although Motown decided to include “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening” — both of which had already appeared on the previous double-LP collection — a pair of hits with The Temptations was left off.  A few lackluster singles were also given spots here, even though there are far superior b-sides which are more favorably looked upon by critics and fans.  Clearly, everyone involved with Diana Ross and The Supremes was far more focused on the future, which included launching Ross as a solo star and smoothly transitioning Jean Terrell into the group’s lead role; still, had Motown been a little more creative when assembling this disc, it could have ended up a far more exciting collection and worthier successor to the previous blockbuster Greatest Hits release.

Here’s a single-disc tracklist that I’d consider a better choice for Greatest Hits Volume 3, made up of hits and b-sides which I think represent a better sampling of the work released by Diana Ross and The Supremes (and includes more actual vocals by all three Supremes):

1.  Reflections (#2 pop)
2.  Going Down For The Third Time (b-side to “Reflections”)
3.  In And Out Of Love (#9 pop)
4.  Then (from Reflections)
5.  Love Child (#1 pop)
6.  He’s My Sunny Boy (b-side to “Someday We’ll Be Together”)
7.  I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (with The Temptations, #2 pop)
8.  I’m Livin’ In Shame (#10 pop)
9.  I’ll Try Something New (with The Temptations, #8 R&B)
10. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (Mary lead, from “The Hollywood Palace”)
11.  The Beginning Of The End (b-side to “The Composer”)
12.  Someday We’ll Be Together (#1 pop)

Now, it’s your turn.  Please leave your own Greatest Hits Volume 3 choices (if you feel it could be improved) in the comments section!

Posted in Compilation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

On Broadway (1969)

Diana Ross Supremes Temptations On Broadway cover

“I’ve always wanted to be a Broadway leading lady…”

The 1968 television special TCB starring Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations was a breakthrough program for both groups and for Motown; it proved to the world once and for all just how charismatic and talented these Detroit performers really were, as they effortlessly filled an hour with elegant harmonies, dazzling choreography, and a bold glamour.  Their powerful performances of “The Impossible Dream” and “Somewhere” could arguably be counted among the most eloquent arguments for racial harmony of the entire decade, and the endless parade of hit songs a reminder of what a potent force Motown was (and still is) in popular music.  The special was a smash hit with audiences, and the soundtrack album a #1 hit on the Billboard 200; in its wake, Diana Ross appeared solo in the Dinah Shore TV special Like Hep (airing in April, 1969) and The Temptations headlined their own one-hour special in July, The Temptations Show.

Finally, Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations re-teamed for G.I.T. On Broadway, aired in November of 1969.  This time, there were no Motown hits featured; the setlist was composed entirely of Broadway standards, Broadway-themed songs, and silly skits similar to those seen on the then-popular show Laugh-In (which was produced by George Schlatter and Ed Friendly, who also co-produced this special).  The focus on Diana Ross was also heightened this time around; her imminent departure from The Supremes was officially announced the same month that the program aired on NBC-TV.  The standout of the special and resultant soundtrack album is a “Leading Lady Medley” performed entirely by Diana Ross; designer Bob Mackie later remembered, “With every costume I designed for her in that medley, Berry told me to try to create the impression that she originated the role on Broadway.  I got the impression that he and she both wished she had” (Diana Ross: A Biography, 204).

Not surprisingly, this “Leading Lady Medley” is the only time On Broadway (the G.I.T. — which stood for Gettin’ It Together — was dropped on the album title) really comes alive; even without the benefit of seeing those eye-popping costumes, Diana’s talent and enjoyment of the material rings through loud and clear.  The rest of the album is dreadfully laborious, an exercise in forced enthusiasm and dated humor that doesn’t translate to a sound recording at all.  The success of the TCB soundtrack is that it sounds like an event; there’s an excitement woven into the fabric of the record.  Without the benefit of any hit songs or magical collaborations, On Broadway plods along like a mediocre episode of variety television.  Beyond that, if a major goal of the project was to definitively prove that Diana Ross was capable of transcending music and conquering Broadway and film, she’d already done that with her superb reading on the 1968 LP Diana Ross and The Supremes Sing & Perfect “Funny Girl.”  So what’s left is an album that feels like a cheap way to milk a winning combination.

***

1.  G.I.T. On Broadway:  Whereas the title track to TCB was a jazzy, energetic tune that set the tone for a glitzy evening of entertainment, “G.I.T. On Broadway” it a snoozer of a song that unfortunately portends the dullness to come.  Capturing very little of the excitement of a Broadway opening night, the song sounds more like a commercial jingle for fabric softener, with vague lyrics referencing famed restaurant Sardi’s and “David Merrick parties.”  Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations trade-off lines, with each group singing in unison; without any of their trademark harmonies or even much enthusiasm evident in their voices, the entire opening falls fairly flat.  Perhaps it’s unfair to harshly judge such a brief introductory number, as its intended purpose was really as much a visual as a musical one; still, “T.C.B.” managed to stand on its own as a piece of music, something this track doesn’t accomplish.

2.  Broadway Medley:  The opening number immediately leads into a medley of songs about The Great White Way, including the standards “Broadway Rhythm,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “Broadway Melody,” and a snippet of the 1963 Drifters hit “On Broadway.”  The strength of the medley comes at the beginning, as Diana Ross and The Supremes take on the classic “Lullaby Of Broadway,” which is set to a pulsing Motown beat; Diana sings the song as though she’s recording a Holland-Dozier-Holland original, injecting it with a surprising style and modernity, and Mary and Cindy prominently back her up with sweet sophistication.  It’s all downhill from there, however; the manic arrangement doesn’t make a bit of sense, with little bits and pieces from numerous songs strewn throughout without any sense of order.  The singers do their best to keep up, but The Temptations in particular never even get a chance to demonstrate their interpretive skills.  Aside from Diana, Mary, and Cindy getting a few good moments in on “Lullaby Of Broadway,” this is a mess.

3.  Malteds Over Manhattan:  This is the first of the special’s comedic skits, introduced by Diana Ross as “the story of a little girl behind an ice cream fountain, who soda jerks her way to stardom.”  In essence, this is a parody of the classic movie musicals in which unlikely young ingenues suddenly find themselves thrust into Broadway stardom (i.e. 42nd Street), which sounds like a terrific idea until you realize it’s really just a lengthy medley of songs involving ice cream puns.  Here, The Temptations must suffer the embarrassment of singing “We’ll take banana/And sarsaparilla from a vat” to the tune of “Manhattan” while Diana croons, “Hot fudge sundae, it’s got me/Everybody dance!” to the melody of “Broadway Rhythm.”  The only real fun here is hearing all three Supremes do a little acting; even if their lines are ridiculously juvenile, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong sound as comfortable with the comedic dialogue as Miss Ross.  Aside from this, the segment goes on for far too long, and without the benefit of the visuals, there’s just no real point to its being here.

4.  Leading Lady Medley:  This is the heart of On Broadway, a ten-minute sequence featuring Diana Ross taking on some of the most famous female roles in Broadway history.  In his book Diana Ross: A Biography, J. Randy Taraborrelli quotes writer Billy Barnes (who helped put together the medley) as recalling, “She was a genius in the way she pulled it off.  She could do anything, really, and do it well” (204).  Indeed, Diana’s performance here almost makes the rest of the album worthwhile; her vocals are fresh and alive, and it’s exciting to hear her take on theatre classics that she’d otherwise never recorded.  After singing a dreamy introduction proclaiming “I’ve always wanted to be a Broadway leading lady,” Ross begins the segment with a swinging version of “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” from Annie Get Your Gun.  Ross certainly doesn’t sound like an Old West sharpshooter, but she really isn’t required to, as the song is given a rollicking Motown makeover; in this context, she sounds great, effortlessly keeping up with the hurried pace.  Next up comes a far funkier version of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” than any Nellie Forbush ever got the chance to sing before in South Pacific; Diana is so convincing in her slinky delivery that the song sounds like it could have been a hit for her and The Supremes.  A brassy rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady follows, giving Ross a chance to show off her considerable (and underrated) range, and it leads directly into a tune Ross was already very familiar with, “People” from Funny Girl.  Diana Ross and The Supremes had already tackled the songs of Funny Girl in a full-length LP the year before, so it’s no surprise she performs the show’s signature song with gusto here; her belting while singing the final “People who need people…” is incredibly powerful, and very much worthy of a Broadway leading lady.  One of the stranger song choices surfaces next, as Diana takes on Mama Rose with a danceable “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” — certainly the 26-year-old Diana Ross couldn’t have been further from Gypsy‘s ultimate stage mother, but the singer acquits herself well.  Finally, Ross brings it on home with another song she’d been performing for a while; the title song from Mame had been part of a medley performed in concert by The Supremes (see: Live At London’s Talk Of The Town), and Diana is absolutely fantastic here, belting out the song with ease.  It’s a perfect way to wrap up the medley (although there is a brief reprise of the introduction), because it really does drive home the message that Diana Ross was more than capable of being a leading lady in “a great, big Broadway show.”  What this segment does more than anything else is demonstrate the astounding versatility of Miss Ross as a vocalist and entertainer; the fact of the matter is that very few (if any) of the singer’s contemporaries could have pulled this medley off as effectively.  This is what makes Diana Ross such a unique presence in popular music; what Mr. Barnes said about her ability to do anything is absolutely true.

5.  Fiddler On The Roof Medley:  The Temptations are given the unenviable task of following up Diana’s tour-de-force performance on the Leading Lady Medley with a collection of songs from the hit Broadway musical Fiddler On The Roof.  You have to hand it to the guys; they are sensationally talented and consummate showmen, but this medley is another mess.  The first part of the segment is dominated by “If I Were A Rich Man,” which is transformed into a weird piece of funk that never rises above being a novelty.  “Sunrise, Sunset” fares even worse; it’s slowed down so much that it ceases to sound like a song anymore, and the harmonies are so strained that it’s impossible to tell if The Tempts are even singing in key.  Finally, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” gets an unnecessary Vegas makeover, again dominated by surprisingly discordant harmonies.  The Temptations never had a problem delivering stirring renditions of showtunes and/or pop standards; their work on “The Impossible Dream” and “Hello, Young Lovers” from TCB is a perfect example.  But nothing about this medley works; certainly there were countless better options for the guys to perform.

6.  Student Mountie:  On Broadway continues with another skit, this one casting The Temptations as Royal Canadian mounties and Diana Ross and The Supremes as Native American princesses in what I’m assuming is a spoof of operettas such as The Student Prince.  This doesn’t work as an album cut at all; thank God for the laugh track, which at least serves as a cue for what’s supposed to be funny.  If you can manage to make it through the whole thing, listen for the moment when two of The Temptations sing “Come, boys, let’s all be gay, boys” after the other three men have paired off with Supremes!

7.  The Rhythm Of Life:  Here’s some good news; after roughly seventeen minutes of total dreck on the album’s second side, On Broadway finally presents Diana Ross and The Temptations doing what they do best…singing.  “The Rhythm Of Life” is taken from the Broadway show Sweet Charity, which was turned into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine in 1969.  For whatever reason, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong were left out of this production number, but the rest of the singers do a nice job with the upbeat tune.  There’s at least some energy here, which has been missing on most of the album, and Diana’s voice nicely plays off of those of the male singers.  Interestingly, this song was apparently released as a single in some overseas markets, although not in the United States or England.

8.  Finale (Let The Sunshine In/Funky Broadway/G.I.T. On Broadway [Reprise]):  A final medley in a special crammed full of them begins with “Let The Sunshine In,” the famous song from Hair which had already been performed by Diana during the Dinah Shore Like Hep television special and included on the Supremes album of the same name earlier in 1969.  It’s too bad that there hadn’t been a larger production number built around “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” and maybe some other songs from Hair, as it would have been a better fit for these two groups than much of the actual material chosen.  As it stands, while there’s not much of “Sunshine” included here, Diana Ross and Dennis Edwards do both provide very soulful ad-libs as the rest of the vocalists wail behind them.  Next up is “Funky Broadway,” which had been recorded by the two groups for their hit 1968 LP Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations.  It actually works better here; the studio version was basically a Temptations track with a few lines thrown to Diana Ross, but here both groups share in the song more equally, although Dennis Edwards remains the star, offering up fiery vocals to the song made popular by Wilson Pickett.  And finally, there really isn’t a reprise of the title track at all, simply Diana Ross saying farewell to the audience.  Which, given how lackluster the title track was, isn’t a bad thing.

***

It’s too bad that a second television special featuring Diana Ross and The Supremes and Temptations wasn’t modeled more closely on the first; certainly both groups had enough hits that an entirely different show packed with recognizable songs could have put together.  “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Love Child,” “Cloud Nine,” “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” and “Run Away Child, Running Wild” all could have made awesome production numbers and showcased some of the best late 60s material recorded at Motown.  Instead, listeners are left with a limp collection of pure kitsch, an album that never stood a chance at making any kind of real impact and remains perhaps the weakest disc in either group’s catalog.  This probably all worked a lot better when it aired on television in 1969…but today, it sounds like a Broadway show worth closing.

Final Analysis: 1/5 (A “Broadway” Flop)

Choice Cuts:  Leading Lady Medley, “The Rhythm Of Life”  

Diana Ross Supremes Temptations On Broadway Inside Gate

Posted in Soundtrack | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

INTERVIEW: Mary Wilson on Good Day Atlanta

Mary Wilson Interview

As Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard once sang…and then it happened.

As a television journalist over the past fifteen years, I’ve conducted countless memorable interviews.  They include movie stars, authors, politicians, and most often, ordinary people doing extraordinary work in their communities.  It’s always a joy meeting these new people, chatting with them and peeking into their lives, and then taking the little bits and pieces of our conversations and crafting them into a compelling story for viewers.

As readers of The Diana Ross Project already know, my passion is writing about music, and it’s always a thrill to sit face-to-face with those responsible for the songs and albums that have shaped my life.  I’m so fortunate that my “day job” often affords me these opportunities; I’ve had the late William Guest teach me the moves of The Pips, and played “name that tune” with Mariah Carey.  Gladys Knight called me “wonderful” one time, which resulted in a ridiculous smile plastered on my face for weeks.

But last month…it happened.  Before her recent show in Macon, Georgia, Ms. Mary Wilson agreed to sit down for an interview to air on Good Day Atlanta, the program for which I serve as a feature reporter.  That it happened now — in the midst of my work reviewing each of the original albums released by The Supremes — seemed particularly serendipitous.  So I drove down to the beautiful Grand Opera House in Macon one Saturday afternoon, and finally met one of the women responsible for informing so much of who I am as a human being.  I’ve had many, many fellow fans relay stories of Wilson’s generosity and warmth over the years; I can happily say she lived up to her reputation of being a genuine, approachable person, not to mention a fascinating and candid interview.

Here, then, are the two stories that resulted from that conversation.  I hope I was able to capture Wilson’s spirit and the remarkable achievements of The Supremes and Motown as Civil Rights pioneers in just the few short minutes we get in television.  There were pages of questions I wanted to ask, of course; they involve obscure Supremes gems and the intricacies of recording sessions and what it was like working with various songwriters and producers.  Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to ask them in the future.  For now…this “happening” was more than enough.

(And, by the way, you can read my review of Mary’s show that night here.)

Part One:

Part Two:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

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 an inoffensive 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”

Posted in Studio Album | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments