“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”