“I’m gonna let you down…and leave you flat…”
By October/November 1964, America was deep in the throes of Beatlemania. The British group had scored its first stateside #1 hit early that year, when “I Want To Hold Your Hand” took over the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for an astounding seven weeks; the group then followed itself at number one not once, but twice (!), as “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” followed suit. John, Paul, George, and Ringo would score three more chart-toppers in 1964, setting an all-time record of six #1 hits in one calendar year. It seems the world just couldn’t get enough of The Beatles…and apparently, that included The Supremes.
Just a couple of months after releasing Where Did Our Love Go, a massively successful album that helped catapult The Supremes to stardom, Motown followed it up with this LP, which the liner notes by Scott St. James call a “tribute to their brothers — their brothers in song.” Although positioned as a kind of love letter to the British sound (indeed, in the UK this album was titled With Love From Us To You), it also must have seemed like a surefire hit to have the top female group in the world record the songs of the top male groups in the world (including The Beatles, The Animals, and The Dave Clark Five). Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was also admittedly interested in doing everything possible to broaden the appeal of The Supremes; this would be the first of three “theme albums” released in rapid succession, each focused on very different styles of music.
Although the album didn’t turn out to be a huge hit, it was a modest success and peaked at #21 on the Billboard 200 (it climbed to #5 on the R&B album chart). Timing had far more to do with that than quality; the album appeared around the time “Baby Love” was enjoying a four-week stint at the top of the pop charts and “Come See About Me” was poised to end up there, too. Timing had to be the driving force behind A Bit Of Liverpool, because the fact is, it’s a pretty dreadful album. The LP feels like a rush job (according to Lost & Found: Supremes Rarities, the songs were recorded in October during a stop in Los Angeles to appear on The T.A.M.I. Show) and it features some truly bizarre vocals from Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard. Over the next few years, the ladies of The Supremes — especially Miss Ross — would prove they could pretty much do anything. But making this album really work? Well, in the words of Lennon-McCartney — “You Can’t Do That.”
1. How Do You Do It?: A Bit Of Liverpool opens with one of its weakest entries, an unbelievably irritating cover of the #1 UK hit by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The arrangement here is faithful to the original recording; the tracks are basically identical. The big difference is that while the British version featured just the voice of Gerry Marsden, this Motown remake is led by all three Supremes singing in unison. And therein lies the problem; Diana, Mary, and Florence offer up equally cloying performances that sound like three cartoon characters gradually increasing their helium intake over the course of two minutes. By the time the ladies (and Diana, in particular) deliver the line “like I fell for you” at 1:40, they could easily be mistaken for a swam of buzzing insects. Aside from the grating tone of the voices, the pronunciation of various words is extremely odd; the ladies deliver “heart” as “hot” and “smart” as “smot” among other weird, pseudo-British affectations that even Gerry Marsden didn’t produce — and he is from Liverpool! The LP liner notes here mention The Supremes taking on certain songs “with tongue in cheek” — and perhaps that’s what’s happening here. But if the ladies were recording this track with a sense of humor, well, the joke is on all of us. This is a low point for The Supremes. Thankfully, it’s followed…
2. A World Without Love: …by this far superior recording. This is a gentle, romantic Lennon-McCartney tune originally made famous by Peter and Gordon (interestingly, it was never released by The Beatles), and it also topped the UK chart. As with the previous song, The Supremes sing almost entirely in unison, aside from a brief Diana solo and some bits of harmonizing. However — unlike in “How Do You Do It?” — Diana, Mary, and Florence sound absolutely gorgeous, offering up smooth, dreamy performances that seem to gently ride atop the instrumental track. Their harmony on the words “…stay in A World Without Love” at :43 is sublime, and Mary’s low notes during the phrase “…don’t allow the day” at 2:09 are beautifully sophisticated. That’s probably the most apt word for this entire recording — sophisticated. After the caricature of an opening to A Bit Of Liverpool, The Supremes finally sound like a polished group again. (NOTE: The “Peter” of Peter and Gordon is Peter Asher, who went on to a long career in music and has produced several songs for Diana Ross, including material for her 2006/2007 release, I Love You.)
3. The House Of The Rising Sun: A smash hit in 1964 for The Animals, this haunting folk song has been recorded dozens of times over the years (including versions by Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton). Interestingly, this song as done by The Animals knocked “Where Did Our Love Go” from the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in September of 1964, so it was still fresh in the minds of record buyers when it was included on A Bit Of Liverpool. As a composition, “The House Of The Rising Sun” is one of the strongest on this LP; there is something deeply affecting about the minor chord arpeggio that repeats throughout the song, and the personal “story-song” lyrics are darkly memorable. All three Supremes really bite into the material here; Diana opens the song with the first verse, and she offers up a dramatic reading that’s good, if not wholly successful. There’s an air of artifice to her performance; Ross never really sounds like a woman who’s spent her life in “sin and misery.” She also lays that drama on fairly thick, particularly during her second solo verse; a little more restraint could have sold the story better. Mary and Florence take over for a good chunk of the song, and they sing their hearts out; Ballard drops in a fantastic, soulful flourish on the word “jeans” at :54 and Wilson’s belting at 1:25 is as forceful as she’d ever sounded on a Supremes recording. As with Diana’s performance, Wilson and Ballard push things a little too far; at times, it sounds like they’re trying to outsing each other, which leads to a noticeable lack of control. The best part of the track comes at the tail end, as the ladies quietly hum during the fade-out; it’s an eerie, otherworldly addition that actually elevates the entire recording. “The House Of The Rising Sun” could have used more of that understatement.
4. A Hard Day’s Night: In the same way that artists struggle to match the unique energy and excitement of original Supremes recordings, there’s something so distinctive about The Beatles that it’s nearly impossible to do the group’s songs justice. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a quintessential Beatles song, written by John Lennon and featured on the soundtrack to the group’s first film, also titled A Hard Day’s Night. As with the previous three songs on A Bit Of Liverpool, the arrangement here closely follows the original, right down to the startling opening chord (although the musicians here can’t capture the complexity of George Harrison’s guitar work). The limited melody of the song doesn’t quite suit The Supremes, who struggle to match the punchy performances of John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Ballard’s voice in particular is just too heavy for the rapid-fire pace of lines like “but-when-I-get-home-to-you,” and she drags them down. Her high notes during the song’s harmonies are also a little brassy for a song that’s driven by guitars; consequently, the “When I’m home…” bridge is more Andrews Sisters than British Invasion. Just as one probably wouldn’t want to hear The Beatles taking on the dramatic flair of “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” — this one was best left uncovered.
5. Because: A U.S. hit for The Dave Clark Five earlier in 1964, this is a sonically similar recording to “A World Without Love,” again featuring easy, uncluttered performances by The Supremes. Diana, Florence, and Mary sing most of the song together, and it’s cut in just the right key for each one; each singer comfortably croons well within her range, with Wilson’s soft and smoky tone especially lovely. That said, the vocal production feels rushed; the original recording featured subtle harmonies that added dimension to the otherwise-straightforward song. Because The Supremes eschew most of those harmonies (only breaking into three-parts in a few spots), the song loses any complexity it might have otherwise had. “Because” is a pleasant, inoffensive entry, but it’s too vanilla for a group capable of so much more.
6. You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me: There’s really nothing Liverpool about this song, aside from the fact that The Beatles covered it in 1963. “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is, of course, most closely identified with Smokey Robinson, who wrote the song and released it with The Miracles in ’62. It was a top 10 hit for The Miracles, deservedly becoming one of the group’s best-known songs; it’s a fabulously bluesy song with some of Robinson’s most memorable lyrics (it opens with the perfect “I don’t like you…but I love you…”). Because The Supremes have struggled with the bulk of the British material so far, it’s a relief to hear the ladies return to familiar territory. Diana takes the lead here, and it’s her best performance on the entire album; she is superbly soulful, especially during the first verse, during which she sings in a lower octave and displays a smoldering sex appeal. On his original recording, Smokey Robinson’s voice sounded raw and tortured; Diana is much smoother, but no less expressive. There’s a real soul to the singer’s work here; those who consider Miss Ross a pure pop singer should listen closely to her performance on this song. There’s not much wrong with this cover, aside from the fact that the background vocals (with the weird pronunciation of “…really got a hold on meh”) are a little distracting; because of the classy production and the bluesy elegance of Diana’s performance, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is the best thing about A Bit Of Liverpool.
7. You Can’t Do That: And we’re back to The Beatles, as The Supremes take on a song first released as the b-side to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Of the four Beatles covers on A Bit Of Liverpool, this is probably best, although it’s nowhere near as good as “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” or even “A World Without Love.” Diana Ross offers up a solid performance, staying away from the vocal artifice that bogs down much of the earlier material; that said, the song doesn’t give her much to do, which is unfortunate for a woman who’s such a gifted melody singer. Ballard and Wilson are full-bodied behind her, and ably deliver on the harmonies. In the end, although it’s not terrible (well, the screech at 1:26 is pretty terrible…), the recording does exactly what the lyrics threatens: It leaves you a little flat.
8. Do You Love Me: The first Motown song on A Bit Of Liverpool provided the album’s highlight; incredibly, the second takes listeners to the absolute nadir. “Do You Love Me” was originally written and produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.; when released by The Contours, it soared to the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song certainly touched a nerve in the UK, and was covered by several groups including Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, who took it to number one. The original “Do You Love Me” remains one of the wildest recordings to come out of Hitsville; the raw, unbridled vocals are instantly recognizable, and were subsequently copied by the bulk of the groups daring to cover the song. So perhaps credit should be given to The Supremes, who go in the totally opposite direction, toning down the soulful passion of The Contours and turning the song into a kooky, teenage ode to dancing. Unfortunately…it doesn’t work. At all. This recording may be, in fact, one of the worst ever released by the Diana-Mary-Florence trio; it is so wrong for them in every way that it’s hard to imagine it being any further off-base. Diana’s lead vocal is thin and whiny, as she’d been on some of her earliest recordings, and for whatever reason she repeatedly delivers the title as “Do You Love Me-Yay-Yeah.” Mary and Florence don’t fare any better, especially when unenthusiastically singing “Work it owwwwwww” in the background. Florence seems to suddenly become British herself when wailing “Tell me baby…” at :45, and comes off like a very un-hip mother through the rest of the song. It’s amazing that multiple British groups could handle a Motown original better than The Supremes, but it’s the truth; The Hollies, The Dave Clark Five, and others all sounded a million times more comfortable with the material when they released it.
9. Can’t Buy Me Love: It would be hard to get much worse than “Do You Love Me” — and although this version of the Beatles classic isn’t particularly good, it’s a big improvement over the previous track. This song became the third consecutive #1 hit for The Beatles in America, replacing the group’s own “She Loves You” at the top. The Supremes don’t stray far from the blueprint of the original; the women sing almost the entire song in unison, similar to how Paul McCartney had double-tracked his own vocals. The Supremes do break into three-part harmony during the chorus, when singing the word “love” — and although they do it well, it doesn’t feel necessary. As on “A Hard Day’s Night,” the harmonies just sound too showbiz, as if being arranged for a Broadway performance. I’ve read that The Beatles decided not to include background harmonies on the song, feeling it worked without them; I think this recording — although it’s not really bad — proves them right.
10. I Want To Hold Your Hand: This is Liverpool‘s final Beatles song; the original became the group’s very first American #1 hit, holding down the top spot for nearly two months, and also spent Christmas of 1963 at #1 in the UK. It’s an inimitable classic in the way that “Stop! In The Name Of Love” would later become; the band’s layered guitar work, the iconic handclaps, and the twin vocals of Lennon and McCartney resulted in pure pop magic. This version’s limp arrangement pales in comparison to the instrumental excitement generated by the Fab Four, so The Supremes are already operating at a major disadvantage. The vocal production again feels rushed and even unfinished, and the ladies are lost in the mix. In the end, the recording just sounds amateur, particularly with the messy harmonizing on the word “hand.”
11. Bits And Pieces: The album closes out with another hit made famous by The Dave Clark Five, a song that bears some interesting structural similarities to Supremes hits. There’s a rhythm-setting, foot-stomping intro (an earthier version of the one featured on “Where Did Our Love Go”) which eventually breaks into a call-and-response vocal pattern similar to that of “Come See About Me.” Here, Mary and Florence repeat “I’m in Pieces, Bits And Pieces” and Diana takes the solo lines in between. Because the ladies have spent so much of this album singing in unison, it’s a welcome change to hear them break apart their voices; Diana sounds good, although there’s very little melody for her to work with. The repetition of the song’s title by Wilson and Ballard becomes a little grating, although that’s not really their fault; the song sounded basically the same when done by The Dave Clark Five. Not the worst song on the LP, but not very memorable, either.
Beatlemania didn’t immediately fade for The Supremes after the release of this album; in 1965, The Supremes performed “I Feel Fine” on popular television show “Hullabaloo” and “You Can’t Do That” and “Eight Days A Week” on “Shindig.” The latter is a really solid performance featuring a solo verse by each group member; many fans have wondered why it wasn’t featured on the album, and the simple answer is that the original wasn’t released by The Beatles until after A Bit Of Liverpool had already been issued (in fact, the song didn’t hit #1 in the states until March of ’65, and was knocked from the top by The Supremes and “Stop! In The Name Of Love”). The Supremes and The Beatles would continue to wrestle on the charts through the remainder of the decade; as late as 1968, the former’s “Love Child” would knock the latter’s “Hey Jude” from #1.
Listened to today, A Bit Of Liverpool is really just a relic, a time capsule reflecting the unbelievable dominance of British groups in the mid-1960s. It also serves as a reminder of Berry Gordy, Jr.’s belief in the group. “I was pushing them all the time,” he reflected in the booklet to the 2000 box-set The Supremes. “I knew that they were major at that time but I wasn’t satisfied, I wanted them to be more major!” The group’s next two albums would demonstrate Gordy’s conviction that The Supremes could do anything; first a country-themed LP, then a collection of Sam Cooke covers. Fortunately for fans, these albums would improve upon A Bit Of Liverpool — and eventually lead to some new, exciting Supremes originals.
Final Analysis: 2/5 (Only “Bits And Pieces” Of Greatness)
Choice Cuts: “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” “A World Without Love,” “You Can’t Do That”
Production on the LP is credited to “Berry Gordy Jr. and Davis & Gordon” — the last two names being Hal Davis and Marc Gordon. This is the same Hal Davis who would produce the smash hit “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross in 1976, and handle Mary Wilson’s self-titled solo LP in 1979.