“I’ll just have to cry again, so why wait ’til then?”
In our current musical landscape — dominated by viral videos, reality singing competitions, and immediate iTunes availability — it’s easy to forget that not every artist is an overnight star. Once upon a time, performers sang on street corners and in bus terminals, toured with established stars as background singers, and cut demo records for aspiring songwriters. During the dawn of the rock era, there wasn’t necessarily an expectation of sudden stardom; the excitement of “Someday…we’ll make it!” was enough inspiration for most to make ends meet and find the creative outlets they could. False starts were just part of the due-paying process; failed singles and aborted record deals litter the outer space of popular music’s star-filled universe.
The story of The Supremes — and thus, the story of Diana Ross — has more than its share of false starts; the fact that the most iconic girl-group of all-time was not an immediate success is one of the few things that those connected with the group can agree on. Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson began singing together in the Brewster Projects of Detroit in the late 1950s; Mary Wilson dates the creation of The Primettes (named as “sisters” to local men’s group The Primes) as “early 1959” in her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, which means the three girls were young teenagers. Originally including fourth singer Betty McGlown, the Primettes performed at local sock hops and even won the Detroit/Windsor Freedom Festival amateur talent contest.
Only one official release ever bore the name Primettes, and that’s the LuPine 45 single “Tears Of Sorrow” backed with “Pretty Baby.” Considering what a historical artifact this recording is — the earliest to feature the voice of Miss Diana Ross — there are many conflicting accounts surrounding both its recording and release. Diana, in her memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow, writes, “It was 1959, and we were still the Primettes. We had tried writing our own song. It was called ‘Tears Of Sorrow’…I can still hear that song repeating in my head. It’s funny how the mind holds on to certain words” (99). It’s interesting that Ross remembers writing the song, as it’s credited to Richard Morris (who would go on to write and produce songs like “Honey Chile” for Martha Reeves & The Vandellas). That said, the song’s structural similarity to the hit “There Goes My Baby” (recorded by The Drifters in the late 1950s) lends some credibility to the idea that perhaps the Primettes at least offered some input or influence on Morris, considering they frequently performed “There Goes My Baby” and even used it in their audition for Motown.
There are also some questions surrounding the lineup of the group featured on “Tears Of Sorrow.” There is no doubt that Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard are included on the two songs, as their three voices are all audible and distinguishable. Many references online, including this Wikipedia article, list Betty McGlown as being featured on the recordings. Writer J. Randy Taraborrelli, in his Diana Ross: A Biography, meanwhile implies that Barbara Martin had already replaced McGlown and took part in the session (Martin would sign with Motown as the fourth member of The Supremes, and feature on several of their earliest singles). However, Mary Wilson remembers the session as involving two other young women, Barbara Randolph and Betty Kendrick, brought along by Richard Morris “because he was worried that without Betty McGlown, our vocals wouldn’t sound full enough (Wilson 69).
And then there’s the question of release. In the liner notes to the fabulous 2000 boxed set The Supremes, “Tears Of Sorrow” and “Pretty Baby” are listed with the release number LuPine LR120, 1960. Several other writers over the years have said that the single was released in either 1959 or 1960, but it failed commercially (writer Mark Ribowsky notes a 3/11/1960 release date for the single in the discography section of his book, The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams , Success, and Betrayal). However, the incredibly detailed notes to the Hip-O select collection Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities 1960-1969 give a different story: “‘Tears Of Sorrow’ was originally recorded for Robert West’s LuPine Records when the Supremes were still known as the Primettes. Richard Morris wrote and produced that version of the song, but it did not get an immediate release. After ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ hit no. 1 in 1964, LuPine quickly issued the original version…as a single. It didn’t draw much attention and quickly disappeared, eventually becoming one of the most sought after pieces of Supremes memorabilia.” Indeed, fans online have pointed out that the LuPine label on known copies of the 45 indicate it was not pressed in 1960, but rather a few years later.
Whatever the exact facts surrounding this early recording by The Primettes, the two songs do exist, and they are fascinating in what they reveal about Diana Ross and her singing partners, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. “Tears Of Sorrow” is a full-on doo-wop number, featuring rollicking instrumentation and raw, slighty-discordant vocals behind a squeaky lead by Miss Ross. Much has been written about the ascension of Diana Ross to “lead singer” of The Supremes, especially looking through today’s Dreamgirls-colored glasses, so it’s important to note that here, before the group’s association with Berry Gordy or Motown, Diana’s voice is already out-front. Her early sound has been described as “nasally” and “whiney, and while both might be somewhat accurate, they also diminish the fact that Ross could undeniably sing. There’s a youthful energy and an appealing, almost boyish huskiness in a few of the lower notes that balance out the shrill sound of her higher moments. Ross has often pointed to the early influence of Frankie Lymon’s voice on her own style, and it’s abundantly clear listening to “Tears Of Sorrow” — listen to even her pronunciation during the line, “…I just had too much pride…to call you back to me…” about 45 seconds into the song, and the echo of Lymon is there.
Mary Wilson also appears to take some vocal cues from Frankie Lymon during her take on “Pretty Baby,” another flute-driven slice of late-50s doo-wop that features some interesting vocal interludes sung in high soprano by Florence Ballard. Though Wilson gained a reputation for possessing a muted, misty voice that blended well in background vocals, she displays here a rather powerful, brassy instrument that combines the classy crispness of Lymon with the joyful swagger of a Darlene Love. Though Wilson writes in Dreamgirl that “we were convinced that ‘Pretty Baby’ would be the hit” (69), the song has a less-memorable hook and the Ballard-sung sections don’t quite hit the operatic heights they clearly aspire to. In fact, once the girls signed with Motown in January of 1961 (with the provision that they change their name), they would re-record “Tears Of Sorrow” — but not “Pretty Baby.” That second version of “Tears Of Sorrow” would languish in the vaults until the 2008 release of Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities 1960-1969.
“Tears Of Sorrow”/”Pretty Baby” aren’t really good songs, nor are they very good recordings. The talent on display is raw to say the least; as mentioned before, Diana’s voice pushes painfully high during her lead, and Florence Ballard sounds rather uncontrolled and sometimes sharp on both her background vocals and her “Pretty Baby” solo sections. The background arrangements have the girlish, disharmonious sound of an early Marvelettes record; there is certainly none of the smooth simplicity Diana, Mary, and Florence would later become famous for. But then again, why would there be? In the years between this recording and their first notable hit (“When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” in 1963), the young ladies would gain significant experience in the studio and as opening acts on multi-artist tours. Dick Clark would later remember of one of those tours, “I was walking through the backstage area of one of the auditoriums we played and as I passed by a dressing room I heard three a capella voices singing ‘People’ from Funny Girl. It was the Supremes” (Taraborrelli 98). These were three women who clearly knew that hard work would pay off.
And if the LuPine recording isn’t fascinating because it’s a “lost” masterpiece, it is fascinating because of what it contains in its rather primitive engineering. Right there in the grooves are the voices of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard, unaffected by show business or stardom. These are the voices of the young ladies who decided to sing together, performed locally together, and dreamed of having a record on the radio together. Long before anything else — the glamour, the number one hits, the breaking of racial barriers — there were only the dreams of these young ladies. The youthful exuberance of possibility is what really makes “Tears Of Sorrow”/”Pretty Baby” worth listening to, and whatever questions may forever surround the recording, there is no denying that.