Meet The Supremes (1962)

Meet The Supremes 1962

“Funny how time changes, rearranges everything…”

The legacy of The Supremes is so firmly established today — from the group’s influence on fashion, to music, to Broadway musicals and films — that is seems impossible to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.  From 1964 until the end of the decade, The Supremes would become the savior of American music, almost single-handedly defending a corner of the industry from the British Invasion while conquering the rest of the world through sell-out tours and hit singles.  The group’s astounding string of a dozen number one singles (racked up in just five years) is something modern pop acts still struggle to match, and those hits continue to win over audiences though appearances in movies, commercials, and through radio airplay and album reissues.

But success wasn’t overnight for Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard (and, in the beginning, Barbara Martin, who is featured on most of this album); after signing with Motown Records, the group suffered through eight lackluster singles before finally striking gold with “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964.  The earliest of those singles were collected and released as Meet The Supremes in late 1962, an album that’s basically a patchwork of songs recorded during various sessions at the beginning of the decade.  It’s interesting to note the talent involved in this debut album; along with the four young vocalists, names like Smokey Robinson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and even Berry Gordy, Jr. pepper the credits.  Still, without a sizable hit or much audience demand for its existence, Meet The Supremes failed to make an impact.

So what happened?  Well, first of all, the top-notch material wasn’t there.  But more importantly — in the vaguest of terms — The Supremes weren’t quite The Supremes yet.  The elements are all there on Meet The Supremes; the unique style of each singer is immediately discernible, as is the endearing, primitive grit of what would become known as The Motown Sound.  But the smooth, sophisticated polish that would set The Supremes apart from every other vocal group — male or female — is missing.  There’s a roughness around the edges here (and, in some cases, more than just the edges) far more akin to The Marvelettes and The Contours than to later Supremes efforts.  Meet The Supremes is the work of a group still finding itself; while it’s a fascinating listen, it’s no surprise that the songs featured here struggled to stand out.

***

(NOTE: Writing about the discography of The Supremes is challenging, due to varying versions of the group’s early albums; mono and stereo versions often feature alternate vocals on certain songs.  Although Meet The Supremes was initially pressed as a mono release only, the following summaries are based on the more widely-available stereo mix of the LP.)

1.  Your Heart Belongs To Me:  Meet The Supremes opens with perhaps its best song, a Smokey Robinson tune that was released as the group’s third single (and first on the Motown label, as the previous two had been placed on the company’s Tamla imprint).  More than any other song on the album, “Your Heart Belongs To Me” hints at the sophistication these young ladies were capable of; there’s a sexy maturity to the vocals here, especially those of Diana Ross, that would become much more pronounced in the next few years.  This is a softly-swinging ballad, driven by surf-style guitars and snapping percussion; with lyrics that mention “faraway sand” and the sea, listeners can practically hear the rolling of waves in the background.  The sweet yearning of Diana’s lead vocal is expertly done; there’s an appealing roundness of tone here, devoid of the nasally sound that sometimes plagued the singer’s early work.  Of course, Miss Ross had been singing for a few years by this time, and her experience in the studio shows; the way she stylishly stretches the word “me” at the end of the second chorus to “me-e-e” demonstrates her innate ear for pop flourishes.  Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Barbara Martin provide able support, although there’s far less precision in the background here than would later become standard for the group, resulting in a hint of flatness in some of the harmonies.  Because Robinson’s lyrics are so timely — the song is a love letter from a young woman to her boyfriend, who is serving overseas — it seems hard to believe this song wasn’t a bigger hit; it ended up charting at #95 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Still, it remains one of the group’s best early recordings, and a sign of greater things to come.

2.  Who’s Lovin’ You:  Perhaps the most recognizable song on Meet The Supremes, “Who’s Lovin’ You” is a widely covered Smokey Robinson tune first recorded by The Miracles in 1960.  This was one of the earliest songs recorded by The Supremes at Motown; it had been placed on the b-side of the group’s second single, “Buttered Popcorn,” released in 1961 on Tamla (the single failed to chart).  The decision to include the song directly following “Your Heart Belongs To Me” is an interesting one, as it really highlights the dramatic growth The Supremes made as vocalists in such a short period of time.  “Who’s Lovin’ You” is everything the previous song is not; it’s raw and imperfect, dominated by a high, “go-for-broke” lead vocal by Diana Ross over a bluesy, oil-smudged track.  Diana really reaches for the notes here, and doesn’t always nail them; she is far less controlled than in the album’s previous track, with her voice here wavering around notes and attempting soulful runs that she would later eschew completely.  There’s a reason, of course, for that youthful abandon in Diana’s singing; she was still a high school student when the song was recorded (eventually graduating from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School in 1962).  Wilson, Ballard, and Martin could pass for the Marvelettes in the background; their loud, girlish voices have a slightly discordant sound that’s quite endearing (Mary Wilson writes about recording this song in her book Dreamgirl, recalling that Barbara Martin sang “loud and flat” and cracked up the other girls in the booth).  I’ve read that Berry Gordy, Jr. preferred this song to “Buttered Popcorn,” but the truth is that neither recording really stood a chance at becoming a timeless classic.

3.  Baby Don’t Go:  It’s interesting that for all the online chatter focused on Diana and Florence, one of the most accomplished lead vocals on Meet The Supremes comes from…neither one.  Mary Wilson takes the lead on the album’s third track, and knocks it out of the park; she offers up a confident performance reminiscent of fellow girl-group singer Darlene Love.  The song, credited to Berry Gordy, Jr., is a doo-wop ballad similar to “Who’s Lovin’ You” — it’s not a particularly memorable song, but Wilson’s solid vocal easily sells the rather banal lyrics.  Wilson would later become known for her unique misty tone, which served as a perfect tool to blend Ballard’s strength and the sharp urgency of Ross.  But here, Mary displays something of a brassy swagger that’s both impressive and appealing.

4.  Buttered Popcorn:  This song would be the group’s second (and final) single released on the Tamla imprint; it also bears the distinction of being the sole Supremes 45 release featuring a lead vocal from Florence Ballard.  “Buttered Popcorn” is unlike anything the group had recorded before, or ever would; it’s a rollicking, bottom-heavy tune with gutsy vocals and totally bizarre lyric (which, if taken literally, really is about a man’s obsession with buttered popcorn.  If not taken literally, than the meaning might not be fit for print).  Mary Wilson would later write, “The song had a great dance riff, and I think ‘Popcorn’ was the most raucous thing we ever released.  The musicians were pleased with the session, and we all left the studio believing we had a hit” (Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith 97).  Of course, the song was not a hit, and while it’s a hilarious listen today, it’s not hard to understand why it didn’t click.  There’s no denying the soul present in Ballard’s voice, but her guttural growls are not particularly pleasant listening here; furthermore, she’s given the task of selling a rather unappetizing lyric (it’s perhaps the only pop song to feature the words “salty,” “sticky,” and “greasy”).  The song doesn’t require much range from its vocalists, either; Ballard doesn’t stretch far beyond a few notes, and the backgrounds consist of a constant repetition of the song’s title.  Several versions of this song can be found floating around (in fact, the single was withdrawn, re-recorded, and re-released), but the fact is “Buttered Popcorn” remains more of an interesting experiment than anything else.  (NOTE: The song would get something of a “second life” when a snippet was performed in the 2013 Broadway smash Motown The Musical — used as an example of the early Supremes songs nobody considered “hit” material!)

5.  I Want A Guy:  In her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow, Diana Ross writes of this song, “I vividly remember this recording session.  I felt so important.  With my eyes closed and my arms outstretched, I poured my heart into this song.  When I listen to it now, I feel nostalgic; I can hear that teenage yearning in my voice” (104).  It makes sense that Miss Ross would recall the recording of “I Want A Guy” — it would become the group’s very first single, issued in March of 1961 as Tamla 54038.  Opening with an eerie organ motif, the song eventually evolves to include a galloping beat that sounds more like the theme music to a Western TV series than a Motown release.  One can hear easily hear that “teenage yearning” in Diana’s lead vocal; as with “Who’s Lovin’ You,” she’s singing in an awfully high key here, so much so that the All Music Guide review of the album calls her performance “whiny” — which it often is.  The odd, almost operatic delivery of the single letter “I” is probably the most notable “hook” of the recording; it’s memorable, but not necessarily strong.  And that’s the big issue with the song; it’s just not very strong.  Compare it to “Please Mr. Postman,” released later the same year by The Marvelettes; both were co-written by Freddie Gorman and Brian Holland and contain similarly raw and youthful vocals, but the latter’s song structure is tighter and the melody much cleaner.  That song easily climbed to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, while “I Want A Guy” didn’t chart at all.  (NOTE: Coincidentally, The Marvelettes would cover “I Want A Guy” and include it on their Please Mr. Postman LP.)

6.  Let Me Go The Right Way:  The group’s fourth single was one of its best yet; featuring a gutsy and soulful lead by Miss Ross, it managed to climb into the Billboard R&B Top 30, easily the best chart showing for the group thus far and likely an indication to Motown head Berry Gordy, Jr. (who wrote and produced the song) that the group was capable of major success.  By the time of this recording, Barbara Martin had exited the group to give birth to her child, leaving The Supremes as a trio.  The change is noticeable; there’s a cleaner sound to the background work here, and the three voices are fairly distinct.  Of the group’s first four singles, “Let Me Go The Right Way” is the most classically Motown; there’s a fire and a real spunk to the recording, with a gritty, syncopated beat courtesy The Funk Brothers.  Though Diana’s delivery is undeniably girlish (imagine the more mature Martha Reeves attempting the song; it doesn’t work), she displays an impressive range and puts some muscle behind her lead vocal; those who believe Ross was always a “pop” singer might want to listen to her soulful performance here.  Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson really belt the backgrounds here, and the three young women sound like they’re having a ball in the studio.  Though it wasn’t the hit it deserved to be, The Supremes energetically performed this tune during early concerts; a great version recorded live at the Apollo Theater in 1962 was released on the 2000 four-disc box set The Supremes (during which Diana uses the “A little bit softer now!” routine that she allegedly cribbed from Smokey Robinson!).

7.  You Bring Back Memories:  Speaking of Robinson, this song is his third and final contribution to Meet The Supremes.  This song would later end up the b-side to “My Heart Can’t Take It No More,” the group’s fifth single (the a-side was included two years later on The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop), but it’s one of the lesser-known early Supremes recordings.  The ladies sing a generous portion of the song in unison, and each voice is clear and strong; indeed, that’s a problem, as the simultaneous vocal attack is quite startling at the beginning of the song (not to mention the clumsy lyrics they’re forced to recite don’t exactly seem to roll off the tongue).  Once it gets going, the recording has that real, definable Motown sound, led by a rocking piano line typical of an early Marvin Gaye release.  Unfortunately, what it lacks is a great Motown hook; atypical of Smokey’s work, there’s not a memorable refrain.  This one is filler — not the worst song the Supremes would ever record, but certainly not an essential.

8.  Time Changes Things:  More than any other song on Meet The Supremes, “Time Changes Things” foreshadows the formula that would eventually send The Supremes into the pop stratosphere.  And this isn’t a surprise; it was co-written by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, two-thirds of the team that would pen nearly all of the group’s future chart-toppers.  “Time Changes Things” was a late addition to the album, initially appearing as the b-side to “Let Me Go The Right Way” about a month before the LP was issued.  Although there’s still a primitive roughness to the recording, the evolution in the group’s sound is audible; the background work by Mary and Florence is light years ahead of something like “I Want A Guy.”  Diana offers up a confident lead vocal; she is naturally gifted with a sense of how to twist a word or a phrase to give it more emphasis than it would otherwise receive.  Listen to the way she coyly blurs the word “guys” during the line “I already had many guys in my telephone book” — it’s a masterful way to direct attention to the lyric without seeming crass.  The production is a little too cluttered; the instrumental is dense with what sounds like every single member of The Funk Brothers, and the song probably would have been more successful had the track been slightly more spare.  Still, this is the first definitive step toward greatness; Lamont Dozier would later comment, “…they had a certain poise that came innately; they were born with a certain presence” (The Supremes box set booklet).  “Time Changes Things” begins to take advantage of that poise and presence; it wouldn’t be long before the team perfected it.

9.  Play A Sad Song:  This is one of the few tracks on Meet The Supremes that didn’t end up on either side of a 45 release; a Berry Gordy, Jr. composition, Diana Ross handles lead vocal duties again, and offers up one of her best performances on the album.  Ross sings in a slightly lower key here, allowing her voice to shake off the tinniness present on many of the other songs here; she produces a thicker, richer tone and really digs into the melody.  The song isn’t a great one; it’s a morose, 50s-style doo-wop ballad with touches of country-western (it’s not that far off from the material included on 1965’s The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop).  Still, this one’s worth listening to for Diana’s lovely performance.

10.  Never Again:  This song has the distinction of being one of the first two that listeners ever heard from The Supremes; it was placed on the b-side of the group’s very first single.  This song was also written and produced by Gordy, and is again a classic 50s doo-wop ballad; the All Music Guide review of the album states, “…if you didn’t know, you’d think it was The Chantels.”  Indeed, “Never Again” is a close relative of 1958’s “Maybe” — Diana and company sound like they could be The Chantels’ kid sisters.  This song itself is no stronger nor weaker than the album’s previous tune; the biggest difference is in the vocal performances, which are far less controlled here.  Diana never quite seems totally sure what note she’s going to land on, and Ballard, Wilson, and Martin likewise never really come together behind her.  That said, it’s hard to harshly judge the work of four young, excited girls taking a shot at their dreams; there’s an endearing quality to a song like “Never Again,” especially in light of the great achievements still in store for The Supremes.

11.  (He’s) Seventeen:  Meet The Supremes closes with this cute, bopping little number that serves as a virtual blueprint for the theme song to the hit cartoon “Muppet Babies” more than twenty years later.  That I’m comparing this song to one featured in a cartoon should pretty much sum things up; it’s catchy and silly, without much depth.  Diana Ross gives an unusually bland vocal performance; nobody could ever accuse the singer of not working hard in the studio, but she doesn’t project much energy or personality this time around.  Florence Ballard is just about the only other audible singing voice and unfortunately, in this celebratory song about being a teenager, her loud soprano sounds more like that of an older aunt.  Perhaps the most notable aspect of the song is that Barbara Martin is featured on a brief spoken interlude (something that probably really confused fans at the time, considering her picture wasn’t featured on the album cover), which at least gives us a chance to hear something extra from the lady considered for years as the “lost” Supreme.  It’s interesting that Motown decided to place this song on the album (likely only because it had already been placed on a single); the unreleased song “The Boy That Got Away” is similar in style, but a superior recording, and would have made a better closer. (NOTE: “The Boy That Got Away” was actually listed on some pressings of Meet The Supremes, but never included on the album).

***

Had Meet The Supremes been the only album ever released by The Supremes, it almost certainly would have faded into obscurity; this isn’t an album of lost classics, and the material isn’t close to the best Motown was churning out in the early part of the decade.  There’s undeniable talent in the four young voices featured, but it’s young and unformed talent.  In the wake the LP’s release, Diana, Mary and Florence would tour the country, opening for and learning from more seasoned performers; they would continue to practice their harmonies and refine their style.  Dick Clark later remembered, “They were smooth, their choreography was down, the costuming was good, they were ladies, they were impressive” (The Supremes box set booklet).  Less than two years after the release of this album, with all of those elements firmly in place, The Supremes would change the course of history, both for themselves and for the pop music.

Time Changes Things, indeed.

Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (An Uneven Start, But Going “The Right Way”)

Choice Cuts: “Your Heart Belongs To Me,” “Let Me Go The Right Way,” “Baby Don’t Go”

Meet The Supremes 2nd Cover

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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24 Responses to Meet The Supremes (1962)

  1. Nate says:

    Great review! I had totally forgotten that there had been a fourth Supreme. Also, I am more than a little interested in hearing Buttered Popcorn. Sounds like it must be a totally bizarre number.

  2. jamesrainbowboy says:

    Fantastic, I’m looking forward to exploring the Supremes discography now :-))

  3. V16TROLA says:

    I was delighted to see a new review from you Paul. I really think you should publish all of these reviews in a book!!

    I do have a bit of a fondness for this album. When I first discovered Diana Ross in about 1978-79 as a young teenager, I started looking into her recordings with the Supremes too and found the UK version of the Where Did Our Love Go album in our local library which, if I am not mistaken combines tracks from both of these albums. Some of the songs really do sound rather rough around the edges but it is fascinating to see how the sound evolves in these early recordings. The plethora of previously unreleased tracks from the early Supremes era that are now available really give an idea of just how much experimentation went on at that time. That so much time and energy (not to mention money!) went in to recording, remixing and rerecording a song like Buttered Popcorn is really very telling. Now I am off to listen to this song again and try and re-interpret those lyrics!!! You have got my mind boggling now!

    • Paul says:

      Hey! Thanks for the kind words — a book would be pretty amazing — who knows what the future holds?? 🙂
      You’re right — the UK version combines the LPs with tracks from MEET and WHERE — placing these tracks together really proves much the ladies had grown as vocalists in a few short years. From “(He’s) Seventeen” to “Come See About Me” to (later) “Love Child” — what a major transformation. And then, of course, only a decade after MEET THE SUPREMES…Diana would be nailing Billie Holiday songs, which is totally astonishing!

  4. Did you just suruptitiously commence covering The Supremes discography… Okay I’m all in. 😀

  5. Pingback: Where Did Our Love Go (1964) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  6. pnyc1969 says:

    Hi, Paul–I am reposting after losing this a few days ago. I’m glad the Supremes work has begun. I bought this on cassette in 1987 after my Ross obsession began in earnest (although I had been a fan of her hits starting with the Touch Me in the Morning, the first Ross song I remember at its release). I agree that Your Heart is the most polished but I have long loved the early, hungry, nasal sound Diana delivers in Who’s Lovin You. Her spunk, pluck and energy create a charm that is missing even in MJ’s later cover. And why should we expect sophistication of a 17 year old? I think it’s worth mentioning Diana’s high notes in Play a Sad Song. Best song overall is Let me Go the Right Way. It’s raucous, crazy and would have been a great concert staple for a few years. I love Diana’s low note in “waaaaaay”. Although her notes aren’t as pure and elegant as they would become by the time of LSTB, her range is on display and it’s impressive. High and low are belted over the course of this debut.

    • Paul says:

      You’re right — the young ladies were just teenagers, and nobody can expect them to be totally polished or sophisticated yet. That’s what can be hard about writing about these early albums — we all know how far Diana would come as an artist over the next several decades. It’s pretty amazing that only TEN years separates these recordings and LADY SINGS THE BLUES!

  7. Having been an equal Supremes & Diana Ross fan this record is one that I have owned for a while (with its Expanded release), however it’s been in and out of my iPod on a number of occasions due to its early placement in the group’s evolution of their sound. This post has given me an opportunity to listen more intently to the individual tracks, that said I had found an appreciation Meet the Supremes” prior.

    I think the reason that Mary’s lead on “Baby Don’t Go” is so impressive is that it is the classic girl group lament and Mary has that classic girl group voice. I think the reason that the record as a whole is do clunky is that this is a group searching for a sound that didn’t yet exist, the lack of success is that the songwriters & producers were looking backwards or to current pop hits to get the ladies their first big hit.

    To your point Paul if this had been The Supremes only produced record they would simply have been a musical foot note (if at all), see The Velvelettes for example (and at the very least they have “Needle in a Haystack” as a big chart hit).

    I think if nothing else is proved it is that Diana Ross’ yearning pleading voice is the stand out and a point of difference for a group searching for a distinctive sound and unlike any other lead singer in a girl group at the time other than perhaps Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes.

    It’s interesting to remember that Mary Wilson was initially offered the lead on “Where Did Our Love Go” and as noted she seemed the most appropriate and accomplished of the three girls to pull off this perhaps flippant one hit wonder, and with this more traditional take on the song we would need to wonder what the legacy The Supremes would have (if any).

    However this isn’t how it played out and this first record is a testament to the idiosyncrasy that was a baby Ross voice, one that spoke to tomorrow, not yesterday.

    • Paul says:

      Julius — I think you’re dead on — the biggest “take away” from MEET THE SUPREMES is that Diana Ross had a totally unique sound from the beginning. Her voice stands out on every track — whether she’s lead or not — and she displays a much greater range than many people give her credit for. As talented as Mary Wilson was and is (I really do love her voice on “Baby Don’t Go”) — “Where Did Our Love” needed Diana’s delivery out front. Like Smokey Robinson would later write — say whatever you want about Diana Ross — she has the charisma — the star power to fill stadiums around the world.

  8. pnyc1969 says:

    It’s like Antonio “L.A” Reid said in the Rolling Stones article. He’s often asked singers to sing it like Diana would and apparently no one can. Ever notice when she is spoofed it’s always her spoken passages in Mountain, never her singing?

  9. Rob says:

    Great that you are on to the Supremes albums. You obviously know your subject including who’s singing on these early songs. But I Want A Guy is eerily predictive of what was coming and is one of Diana Ross’s best performances.

    • Paul says:

      Rob — I’m excited to keep moving through the work of The Supremes, too — there’s so much material, thus so much to listen to and write about. Interesting take on “I Want A Guy” — for my tastes, it’s just an odd choice for a single and doesn’t hold up particularly well — but I’ll re-listen with your comment in mind!!

  10. Pingback: The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop (1965) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  11. Pingback: The Supremes A’ Go-Go (1966) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  12. Pingback: Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations (1968) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  13. david wilson says:

    I’ve been a big fan since the early 70’s when Baby Love was rereleased and became a hit 2nd time around in 1974 here in the UK. I was 13 and music was taking centre stage in my life. I had always been aware of the Supremes as a small kid but became laser focussed on Diana around 73 and Touch Me In the Morning. Diana Ross Greatest Hits(70-72), Abba Waterloo the Carpenters singles Diana & the Supremes Anthology, Motown Chartbusters vol 9 & The Three Degrees were the first albums I bought.
    Some of those earliest recordings 61-63 are painful to listen to, Diana’s nasal whine pierces my ears and is far from being a pleasant experience. In my opinion the majority of those records do not stand the test of time. The Supremes sound has yet to synergise and the killer partnership with H-D-H was beginning to coalesce. Let Me Go the Right Way is the rare nugget on this album and the album is only really going to appeal to hardcore fans. The best is yet to come and when it arrives it’s well worth the wait!

    • Paul says:

      David — MEET THE SUPREMES is definitely more a historical curiosity than a strong musical work — there’s no doubt that Diana’s pitch can be maddening on these early recordings, and she wasn’t helped by Motown’s primitive recording techniques at the time. I’d say all the young ladies had a long way to go vocally — listen to the background parts, and you’ll hear how uncontrolled and “pitchy” they all are on this album. I think the touring of 1963-1964 really helped smooth out The Supremes’ sound — many have recalled how hard the ladies worked to perfect their harmonies during this time, and the work definitely shows on future albums.

      • David Wilson says:

        Thanks for taking time to reply Paul. I’m in total agreement with your assessment- The girls were “paying their dues” working hard to develop their sound and iron out the rough spots. They were of course still only kids! The Motown “sound” really began to take shape late 63 early 64 when they began to move away from the Bossa Nova groove of those early recordings and of course when they installed their new recording equipment & H-D-H took the reigns. Thankfully the stars aligned around mid 64 and the rest, as they say, is history!

  14. Pingback: There’s A Place For Us (Released 2004) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

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