“It’s been a long, long time coming…”
In late 1964, just as Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard were about to rack up their third consecutive #1 single with “Come See About Me,” the music community received some devastating news out of California. Soul singer Sam Cooke — who’d written and recorded a string of classic songs beginning with “You Send Me” in 1957 — was shot to death at a Los Angeles motel on December 11th. At just 33 years old, Cooke had already put an indelible stamp on popular music; as Bruce Eder would write in the All Music Guide, “Sam Cooke was the most important soul singer in history — he was also the inventor of soul music, and its most popular and beloved performer in both the black and white communities.” Cooke’s songs — including the powerful Civil Rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” — continue to be recorded and performed today.
There is no doubt Cooke’s massive crossover success was noted by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. — especially Cooke’s appearance at the Copacabana nightclub in New York and the subsequent live album cut there. This kind of mass appeal was Gordy’s dream for The Supremes; the Motown group would famously follow in Cooke’s footsteps at the Copa later in 1965 (even performing some of Cooke’s songs there). So in the wake of Cooke’s untimely death, Gordy rushed his top female trio back into the studio for a tribute album, despite the fact that the group’s schedule was already packed. As with the previous release A Bit Of Liverpool, the tracks were cut in Los Angeles by producers Hal Davis and Marc Gordon (although it appears from various session notes that vocals were completed in Detroit, probably under the direction of credited co-producer Harvey Fuqua).
Hitting store shelves in April of 1965 (just as “Stop! In The Name Of Love” vacated the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100), We Remember Sam Cooke climbed to #5 on the R&B albums chart (it stalled at just #75 on the Billboard 200); it would be the second of a staggering five LP releases by the Supremes that year. Although arriving just a few short months after Cooke’s death, the album manages to avoid feeling exploitive or like a rush job; there’s an elegance and an ease to the recording that was sorely missing from the Liverpool project. Beyond that, it reveals just how confident Diana, Mary, and Florence were becoming as vocalists; Miss Ross offers up some of her smoothest and most mature work yet, and Ballard mints her shining moment as a Supreme. We Remember Sam Cooke isn’t the group’s best album, nor the most exciting, but it is one of the most consistently enjoyable; largely forgotten for many years, it deserves to be listened to and rediscovered.
1. You Send Me: We Remember Sam Cooke opens, appropriately, with the singer’s first hit; the self-penned song was released as a single in 1957, and went on to enjoy major success. This smooth, softly-swinging song would set the tone for much of Cooke’s career; as noted earlier, his soulful crooning appealed to audiences regardless of race or gender, and his romantic, relatable lyrics remain unforgettable to this day. “You Send Me” is a great fit for The Supremes; the light, sweet melody could have been written for Diana Ross, who had never sounded so laid-back or confident on record. The song is cut in a lower key than much of what Diana had recorded previously, which exploits the sexier, more mature sound she’d first displayed on “Where Did Our Love Go.” Her ad-libs (which actually follow Cooke’s pretty closely) are expertly done; listen, for example, to her “Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” at roughly :20 in and repeated several times throughout, as her voice glides over each note with skillful precision and clarity. The production is clean and classy; because the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, they don’t really have the “Motown sound” — thus, they lack the kind of excitement that only Detroit players The Funk Brothers could generate. This will become more of an issue later in the album, but it works on a song like “You Send Me,” which is supposed to feel like a soothing daydream anyway. Perhaps the only real issue with the song is that Mary and Florence don’t offer much in the way of support; the ladies are mixed rather low, and aren’t given a particularly strong vocal arrangement to follow. In the original Sam Cooke recording, the choir of angelic voices cooing behind the lead vocal elevates the entire song, adding to the “reverie” feel of the production. Here, Wilson and Ballard hypnotically echo Diana, mainly in unison; when they finally break into harmony, it’s a welcome change and an indication of what could have been had there been a little more creativity in the studio. Still, “You Send Me” is a very strong opener, thanks to the sterling performance of Diana Ross.
2. Nothing Can Change This Love: Cooke’s performance on this bluesy song is more raw and soulful than his crooning on “You Send Me” — the song, in fact, is something of a deeply-felt sequel to that earlier recording. The Supremes handle it very well; Diana again sings the lead in a lower key, allowing her to give a relaxed and effortless vocal performance. Although Miss Ross was also capable of delivering raw and soulful vocals (particularly in her live performances from this period), she strays from Cooke’s interpretation and remains firmly in “pop” territory here; thus, she is silky-smooth and nails every single note dead-center. It’s a gorgeous performance, but not particularly exciting; had Diana shaded her vocal with just a touch of blues singing (think the superb “Lazy Bones” from The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop) it would have helped this recording stand out a little bit more. Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard offer up sophisticated work behind Diana, but unfortunately are placed deep into the mix again; had their audio levels been raised, the recording would feel much more like that of a group. Considering the previous two Supremes albums had featured very prominent group vocals, the way Wilson and Ballard are buried here is something of a letdown. “Nothing Can Change This Love” is a nice addition and a solid recording, but it’s not a highlight of the set.
3. Cupid: This is one of Sam Cooke’s most enduring classics, released in the early 1960s and famously covered by The Spinners two decades later. Cooke’s original “Cupid” was driven by a snappy percussion line that lent the song a bit of a Latin feel; this version lacks that beat, instead featuring a generic ’60s rock arrangement that’s really the only major fault of this particular recording (too bad The Funk Brothers hadn’t cut the tune — just imagine what the Detroit musicians could have added to the mix). The good news — the vocal arrangement here finally makes use of all three Supremes, allowing the ladies to sing a good chunk of the song in three-part harmony, on which they sound fantastic. Florence’s ringing soprano is especially strong, and is gorgeous coupled with Diana’s honeyed delivery; meanwhile, listen closely for Mary mining the depths of her range to hit some very low notes. The verses here are wordier than on the previous tunes, forcing Diana to muster up a little more energy in her singing; she certainly doesn’t match the urgent edge of her best Holland-Dozier-Holland recordings, but she sounds comfortably engaged. The clarity of the vocals here is really the reason “Cupid” comes off as well as it does; I doubt any of Motown’s other female singing groups could produce the purity of tone or the elegance achieved by The Supremes.
4. Chain Gang: This song was a huge hit for Cooke; as the title suggests, it references prisoners working as part of a chain gang, and is led by the distinctive “Oooh! Aaah!” hook that repeats several times throughout the recording. Although The Supremes sound wonderful — again, making use of three-part harmony during a good portion of their version — “Chain Gang” isn’t nearly as good a fit for the group as the previous songs. For starters, Diana, Mary, and Florence belt out the “Oooh! Aaah!” with gusto, but they definitely never sound like men working on a chain gang; it’s a wonder producers didn’t have the idea to add some male voices to the recording (where are The Four Tops when you need them?). Their singing is also a little too clipped; Diana sounds way too prim and proper on her “All day long they’re saying…” to really set up the image of sweaty prisoners along the highway. More than all that, “Chain Gang” is the best example yet how much Motown’s Detroit musicians could have elevated the material; imagine the pulsing Motown machine creating a sonic pickaxe upon which The Supremes could have exhibited more muscular vocals. For some reason, my mind goes to Marvin Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” — that kind of hard-edged, raw playing is exactly what this song needs. That’s not to say the LA musicians completely sink this or any other song on We Remember Sam Cooke — they don’t. But The Supremes sounded best when navigating lean, rhythmic tracks — something “Chain Gang” could have used.
5. Bring It On Home To Me: Really nice work by The Supremes anchor this soulful reading of the song that I believe was first released by Cooke as the b-side to his “Having A Party.” Cooke’s version features the great Lou Rawls on backing vocals; in fact, the song is really more of a duet between the two men, with Rawls mirroring the lead vocal closely. This makes it a natural for The Supremes; the ladies deliver the bulk of the song in harmony, and Florence and Mary are full-bodied and powerful behind Diana’s sweet, assured lead. I particularly enjoy the call-and-response of the “yeah” refrain between the ladies; there’s something appealing about the interplay between the distinctive Ross sound and the sexy, unison vocals of Ballard and Wilson. Years later, Diana would write, “Despite the fact that Mary mostly sang the lower tones, she had a beautiful harmony voice with a great deal of warmth to it. She fit so well with Florence and me; she carried the exact sound just between the two of us that blended all our voices together, the sound that made up the perfect harmony so that we were like one voice” (Secrets Of A Sparrow, 93). A song like “Bring It On Home To Me” is a good example of that unique and winning combination.
6. Only Sixteen: The aural equivalent of a vanilla milkshake, this is a smooth and sweet confection that gets better with every listen. “Only Sixteen” was an early Sam Cooke recording, an ode to puppy love that features a knowingly naïve lyric and finger-popping beat (Cooke’s version apparently made the pop top 30, but it was later a bigger hit for Dr. Hook in the 1970s). The Supremes embrace the song’s simplicity, with Diana’s light-as-air delivery skating over the melody with ease and leaving plenty of room for the sterling background vocals. It would have been easy for Ross to go “cutesy” here, to embellish the song with some of the coy and girlish flourishes that she’d come to inject into certain Supremes recordings; thankfully, she takes a different approach, keeping her vocal focused and coloring the sweetness with just an edge of wisdom. Listen to her masterful way with the lyric “Why did I give my heart so fast?” at :43 and the following few lines; she sounds youthful, of course, but there’s a maturity there reminiscent of seasoned club singer. Mary and Florence are extremely controlled behind her, their classy vocals a world away from the sometimes messy sound present on the Liverpool LP. Had there been a single pulled from We Remember Sam Cooke, it’s tempting to think this could have done well at radio, particularly with a stronger beat behind it. Still, this is one of the better Diana-Mary-Flo album tracks; the ladies certainly never sound better on this album.
7. Havin’ A Party: The title of this song says it all; this is an upbeat dance tune that was a huge hit for Mr. Cooke and a hit again for rocker Rod Stewart in the mid-1990s (on other recordings, I believe the title is spelled as “Having A Party” — but on this album, it’s printed as “Havin’ A Party”). The Supremes version is solid, if a little limp; the arrangement is about as generic as it gets, and cries out for strong Motown backbeat. The slicing strings present in Cooke’s original recording are repeated here, but come off as garish and corny; they bear more similarity to the cooky “rock” song featured in the 1962 film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? than to the anything in Cooke’s soulful classic. Although there’s nothing technically wrong with Diana’s lead vocal, she’s just a little too cutting here; her voice is high and crisp and lacks the unpolished edge that made Cooke’s delivery so memorable. His party sounded like one for adults, a place to blow-off steam after a long day at work; Diana seems to be bragging to the cool kids about her after-school shindig. It would have been interesting to hear Mary Wilson have a go at the song; her endearing voice probably could have well-conveyed the warmth and intimacy of a gathering where “the Coke’s are in the icebox, popcorn’s on the table.” In the end, “Havin’ A Party” isn’t a total dud, but it’s not an event you’d necessarily feel compelled to RSVP “yes” to. (NOTE: It is fun to hear The Supremes reference other Motown recordings, calling for the DJ to play “Shotgun” and “My Girl” toward the end of the song!)
8. Shake: Even though no single was ever released from We Remember Sam Cooke, “Shake” became fairly well-known to Supremes fans thanks to the group’s performance of the song on the UK show “Ready, Steady, Go!” in 1965 (which also happened to be the special on which the group first performed its iconic hand motions during “Stop! In The Name Of Love”). If you’ve ever seen video of that performance, you know The Supremes acquit themselves well; they do plenty of shaking in their red-fringed dresses, and offer up aggressive and engaging vocals. The recorded version here is pretty good — it’s certainly a better fit for the group than “Havin’ A Party” — and there’s a refreshing energy that was missing from the previous track. The producers wisely keep a little rawness in the vocals; the group doesn’t sound too processed or plastic, and Diana, Mary, and Florence seem to be having a good time. As with “Havin’ A Party” — I wish the key was a little lower on Ross; she’s very engaging, but her lower range has sounded so good on other songs here that it’s a bit of a shock to hear her pushing so high again. The result is that the vocal comes off a bit weaker, although it really isn’t; Diana is sometimes accused of having a “thin” voice, but these critics are reacting to (and confused by) the startling purity of her tone and the ultra-precise way she has of nailing each note dead-center. Mary and Florence really wail on the track; they punch the word “Shake!” aggressively and are full-bodied throughout. The ladies even get a fun call-out from Diana, as she commands, “Come on now, Florence” and “Come on now, Mary” just before the final fade. This isn’t the best uptempo ever recorded by The Supremes, but it’s certainly enjoyable. (NOTE: A live version of The Supremes performing “Shake” in Paris was also included in the 2011 CD release More Hits By The Supremes Expanded Edition.)
9. Wonderful World: There’s a big drop in energy between “Shake” and this track, a much-covered classic that features the famous opening line, “Don’t know much about history.” Though it’s a lovely song and a competent recording, The Supremes seem to be sleepwalking through this one; Miss Ross offers up a smooth lead vocal, but she’s so relaxed that she doesn’t display much personality. Mary and Florence sound equally tired, laboring through their perfunctory echoes as if they’d just woken up from a nap. None of this means the inclusion is a bad one; it’s not. But compare this song to “Only Sixteen” — there’s a sparkle in that recording that’s missing here, a little bit of playfulness that The Supremes were able to exploit and spin into magic. “Wonderful World” lacks that magic, although it’s a serviceable cover.
10. A Change Is Gonna Come: A powerful song that’s one of Cooke’s most enduring, “A Change Is Gonna Come” features heartfelt lyrics of hardship and faith set to an achingly beautiful melody. The instrumental track here is superb, probably the best on the LP; the string and horn sections are majestic and lend the song an epic scope that it deserves. Miss Ross likewise offers a stunning performance, her work a study in poise and clarity; she never pushes too hard nor detracts attention from the words she’s singing. This is the true gift possessed by Diana Ross; she is a singer who, in her best work, never gives any more or less than a song requires. Here, the focus is deservedly on the message of the music, which Miss Ross elegantly delivers. Although the key here is high, it works; Diana produces a round, ringing tone that never sounds shrill nor too sharp. Listen to her very first line (the famous “I was born by the river…”) — she’s absolutely heartbreaking. Ross peppers her vocal with a few soulful flourishes, like the riff on the word “die” at :47 in, and they’re incredibly effective. Supremes fans may quibble with the fact that the background vocals are pretty muted on the recording, but it’s no disrespect to Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson to say their presence really isn’t that necessary; this is a song on which the vocals should remain uncomplicated. There are a lot of great versions of “A Change Is Gonna Come” out there — way too many to list here. But Diana Ross contributes something to the song that easily stands with the best; her moving performance deserves to be recognized.
11. (Ain’t That) Good News: We Remember Sam Cooke ends on a high note, with the album’s best uptempo recording and certainly the most energetic. Florence Ballard takes the lead here, and she really shines; there’s excitement and swagger and personality to spare as she celebrates that her “baby’s coming home tomorrow.” The song couldn’t be a better fit for Ballard’s thick and throaty vocals; the singer’s high soprano could sometimes veer off-course, sounding a little too sharp on Supremes recordings, but “(Ain’t That) Good News” lets her really dig into her lower range, and it’s a great place for her to be. There’s something so playful about Ballard’s work; she seems to be winking the entire time, sending a message that there’s gonna be quite party when she’s reunited with her lover! Her delivery of the word “disconnect” (as DIS-con-NECT!) at roughly the 2:00 mark is one of the great vocal moments on the entire LP. The charging instrumental track ably supports Flo; it builds and builds like a train picking up steam, finally erupting into the joyful “Ain’t that news!” climax (during which it’s also great fun to hear Diana and Mary backing her up). We Remember Sam Cooke has been a very good LP up until this point, but the final two inclusions really take it over the top.
Of the early trio of “theme” albums by The Supremes, We Remember Sam Cooke emerges the best; from start to finish this is a strong collection of material, and the high points are not only highlights on the LP, but of the group’s early output. Sam Cooke was a pioneer, and deserved a tribute album like this one; many others have covered his songs and honored the man, but The Supremes are surely among the best of them. To that end, the artistic contributions of The Supremes to popular music remain overlooked today; the group is overshadowed by image and gossip and — most of all — emphasis on the men behind the group (Berry Gordy, Jr. and Holland-Dozier-Holland). But to churn out the kind of accomplished vocals as those featured on We Remember Sam Cooke, The Supremes couldn’t be anything other than true artists; this album is audible proof that each woman was developing into a gifted stylist.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Wonderful” Tribute)
Choice Cuts: “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “(Ain’t That) Good News,” “Only Sixteen”