“I will never forget the first time we worked at the Copacabana. I did our makeup and hair, and this was the first time we ever signed autographs. I stood there in amazement, holding a piece of paper that someone had asked me to sign, knowing for certain that life had changed.” (Diana Ross, Secrets Of A Sparrow)
“We were cooking, and after the show we all hugged, knowing we had been a real smash. Now everyone in the entertainment world knew the Supremes had what it takes, and we weren’t just girl singers anymore. We had arrived.” (Mary Wilson, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme)
It’s telling that in their respective autobiographies, both Diana Ross and Mary Wilson write about their experiences opening at New York’s famed Copacabana nightclub. Though The Supremes had already performed internationally, and would go on to conquer the world’s best venues, the group’s opening night at the Copa (on July 29th, 1965) was more than just another engagement. This would become the defining moment for The Supremes, and arguably the defining moment for Motown Records; it was a culmination of a plan to establish Berry Gordy, Jr.’s stable of stars as more than just rock n’ roll singers, to elevate them to a league of highly-paid supper club singers who could win over upper-class audiences around the world.
“Taking them to the Copacabana was a big plan of mine. We tried to book various supper clubs and they would not use The Supremes. The only way we could break into that circuit was to play the Copa in New York.” (Berry Gordy, Jr., The Supremes box set)
Gordy knew that if anybody could win over the exclusive Copa crowds, it would be Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard. Since joining the Motown roster just a few years earlier, the group had demonstrated its fortitude singing all kinds of music, and doing it with an innate sense of elegance and poise. The group’s previous six LPs covered a wide spectrum of musical styles, from doo-wop to soul to country and pop; to play the Copacabana, the ladies would now need to master sophisticated standards and showtunes. To that end, musical director Gil Askey was tasked with designing the show; he would remain with The Supremes and Diana Ross for many years thereafter (later gaining an Oscar nomination for his scoring work on Diana’s film debut, Lady Sings The Blues). According to Mary Wilson, preparations for the Copa booking lasted more than four months; by opening night, it was apparently obvious to everyone inside the club that group’s hard work had more than paid off.
“Any doubts that the Supremes will be around for a long time as a top adult act were erased at the Copacabana on Thursday night, as the three Detroit girls put on a performance the likes of which the famed bistro has seldom experienced.” (Billboard, August 7, 1965)
The resultant album also performed well, climbing to #11 on the Billboard 200 and the runner-up spot on the R&B album chart. Interestingly, according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, “Diana overdubbed all of her lead vocals because of inferior sound quality on the original recordings made at the Copa” (481). In other words, the singer re-sung the entire show in the studio; this is remarkable, considering everything sounds live on the recording, aside from a few instances in which Diana’s voice is audibly echoed. If there’s an issue with the album, it’s not the audio quality; enjoyment of the LP is dependent on one’s tolerance for the setlist. The Supremes At The Copa is light on Motown, heavy on pizzazz; those seeking the hard-edged funk of Detroit had better look elsewhere. Still, The Supremes At The Copa is an invaluable addition to the group’s discography; this is a document of an important moment in music history, and a testament to the groundbreaking talent of The Supremes.
(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the album remaster currently available for download on iTunes.)
1. Opening Introduction: A brief, roughly 20-second musical introduction, and those immortal words, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Jules Podell proudly presents…The Supremes!”
2. Put On A Happy Face: The album opens with a brisk rendition of a song so familiar, it’s hard to believe that in 1965, it was still a relatively new composition! “Put On A Happy Face” initially gained fame in the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie and the subsequent film adaptation starring Ann-Margret. Certainly the New York crowds would have immediately recognized the time, and The Supremes glide through a chirpy performance that serves as a nice introduction to the rest of the show (although the actual live show opened with a different song, “From This Moment On,” which was cut from the LP). The months of preparation are obvious; if there were nerves for Diana, Mary, and Florence, they’re never audible for a second. The ladies sound particularly good when they break into three-part harmony, something that had been largely missing from previous LP More Hits By The Supremes. Gil Askey’s band is really swinging, too; listen to that fantastic bassline!
3. I Am Woman: And on to another showtune, this one from Funny Girl; the Barbra Streisand vehicle had just opened on Broadway in 1964, so it was also relatively new. Of course, The Supremes would go on performing songs from the hit musical for many years, culminating with the group’s 1968 LP Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform “Funny Girl.” Here, The Supremes deliver a spirited take on the song; Diana really gets to belting by the end, especially around 1:25 when she’s singing “But man, I love the subterfuge!” Florence and Mary deliver gorgeous harmonies about 30 seconds later, as the group croons “I Am Woman, you are man…” — again, this kind of sophisticated three-part harmony is what really elevates The Supremes above “girl group” territory, and it’s wonderful to hear it on a live album.
4. Baby Love: After a cute little intro in which the ladies sing, “Here’s a little song that you made popular, and we hope you like it now…,” Diana Ross delivers her patented “Ooooh” and the crowd goes wild, shouting and applauding this chart-topping hit from the previous year. As one would expect, it’s arranged like a showtune, blaring big-band brass replacing the aggressive precision of Motown’s studio musicians. Still, the showbiz arrangement doesn’t hurt “Baby Love” — the song is so undeniably catchy and skillfully written that it works, even in a different set of clothes. Listen closely, and there are sections in which Diana’s voice sounds doubled; my guess is that we’re hearing her studio dubs along with her original live vocal being picked up through other microphones. Still, Diana sounds terrific; there’s a sparkle to her performance here, perhaps due to the fact that she’s finally singing one of her own songs. Mary and Florence really wail behind her, displaying far more vivacity here than they do on the original recording; listen particularly to Flo’s ringing soprano as she sings “I need you! I want you!” at 1:50. This song is where the show really kicks into high gear; even without seeing the audience, listeners can feel the shift in the room.
5. Stop! In The Name Of Love: The ladies quickly transition into a fiery rendition of their recent #1 hit, which had topped the Billboard Hot 100 only a few months prior to the Copa engagement. The stark drama of the original recording is given something of a makeover, particularly with the addition of a frantic pace, but the song remains wildly successful; credit must be handed to songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland for crafting music that really transcended genres. Diana again sounds strangely doubled; listen closely to her “Baby, baby, I’m aware of where you go…” and you’ll hear something of an echo. Still, she acquits herself beautifully to the faster beat, never missing a syllable and nailing each note. Florence and Mary sound a little sharp on their “baby, baby” repetitions at roughly :24 in; Ballard in particular produces an oddly “pinched” tone during this section, but they otherwise offer up energetic backgrounds. “Stop! In The Name Of Love” would further transform from pop/soul masterpiece to big-band razzle-dazzle during Supremes performances over the years; at least here, there’s still some of the Motown magic around the edges.
6. The Boy From Ipanema: A frankly lackluster follow-up to two high-energy performances, this was another extremely popular song at the time of the Copa show. Originally recorded as “The Girl From Ipanema,” the song was a Grammy-winning hit for Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz; it has since been recorded by pretty much every pop/jazz singer ever. The tune, with it’s subdued, almost monotone melody, is not a great fit for Diana Ross, who always sounds best when letting her voice ride atop a more varied melody line. The recording also feels murky; aside from Ross, it’s hard to hear what Wilson and Ballard are doing, and if there’s any real harmonizing going on (aside from the opening few lines). This is a song that probably sounded much better in person; here, on record, it falls flat.
7. Make Someone Happy/Time After Time: In the August 7, 1965 Billboard review of the Copa act, this song was singled out as “the showcase act for Diana’s solo potential. Her distinctive phrasing and amazing vocal range in every song confirms that she truly is one of the best in the business.” Indeed, “Make Someone Happy” gives Diana Ross her first chance to really dig into some meaty material, and that’s exactly what she does, her velvety voice sliding up and down the scale like a seasoned torch singer. This is truly terrific vocal work; listen to her soulful run on the word “everything” at a minute in, and just try not to get chills. As the song progresses, and then shifts into “Time After Time,” Diana’s voice just gets better; Florence and Mary ably support her with sophisticated harmonizing. Thus far into the LP, The Supremes have met expectations for a high-powered, polished show; here, they transcend all expectations, truly coming into their own as the kind of supper club singers Berry Gordy, Jr. envisioned. I like that the aforementioned write-up points out Diana’s “amazing vocal range” — something she’s rarely given credit for. Indeed, she’s all over the scale on this particular performance, nailing high and low notes with a rich, smooth tone that’s stunning. It might have taken months of perfecting to get Diana to this point, but she makes it all look so effortless.
8. Come See About Me: After the slow burn of the last number, The Supremes return to familiar territory. This song, of course, was the group’s third #1 hit, having topped the charts into the very beginning of the year. Their performance here is full of energy; arranged at a faster pace than the original recording, the composition’s gospel undertones come through loud and clear, even with the blaring, big-band brass. This is one of Diana’s best vocals on the LP; she injects the song with a contagious vivacity, and it must have been impossible for Copa audiences to sit still during this number. Mary and Florence are full-bodied behind her; Mary in particular is audibly belting during the “Come See About Me!” refrain. Diana also orders the audience to “Let me hear everybody clap their hands! Come on!” — she is obviously having a great time here, totally in command of the crowd and her craft.
9. Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody: A swinging classic, made famous by Al Jolson and later performed by a wide array of artists, including Judy Garland during her legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall show. Coming off the energy of “Come See About Me,” The Supremes dive right in to the song, Diana coming on strong with another staggering display of vocal energy. The ladies famously mastered a complicated song-and-dance routine including hats and canes for this song, and it’s unfortunate that there’s no visual to accompany this recording; there’s a lengthy instrumental break during which the group is obviously displaying some impressive moves. Still, this is another fun entry into the lineup; it remains impressive how easily The Supremes mastered a song like “Rock-A-Bye…,” which was written in the early 1900s!
10. Queen Of The House: The aforementioned Billboard review of the Copa show references this song, the writer commenting, “the trio’s treatment of pop material like ‘Queen Of The House’ demonstrated that the girls have a sharp comic sense and a repertorial range worthy that of a veteran group having been in the business for some time.” Indeed, this song is a comic novelty, an play off of the classic song “King Of The Road.” This version replaces the original’s vagabond lyrics with those about an ordinary housewife lamenting her daily chores, all the while dreaming, “I’ll get a maid someday, but ’til then, I’m Queen Of The House.” The Supremes have a ball with the song, acting it as much as singing it, with Diana’s offering a beautifully wry reading on the line, “I need a new wig to wear.” Florence and Mary really ham it up, yawning loudly and lazily pacing their responses (listen to the way they drag out “Wax and scrub” — it’s great). You can hear the audience laughing loudly and possibly even a few shouting out a few comments to the ladies, demonstrating just how much the crowd was enjoying the show and how engaging The Supremes were as performers. Their reading of this song would get better over time; there’s a recording of a 1966 show during which Florence delivers a classic “Uh-uh, honey” after Diana sings about having another kid on the way!
11. Group Introduction: Diana quickly introduces the group here, establishing a bit of patter that would pretty much continue through the decade. She refers to Florence Ballard as “the quiet one” (listen closely and you can hear Flo utter a quick thanks), Mary as “the sexy one,” and herself as “the intelligent one.” It is interesting to hear Diana call herself “Diane” here — a name used by family and friends.
12. Somewhere: This is a song that would stay in The Supremes repertoire for a very long time, first as an opportunity for Diana Ross to really belt out a showtune, but later as a call for Civil Rights and social justice. The first line, “There’s a place for us,” was actually the intended title for a 1965 Supremes LP of standards that was shelved at the time, and finally released on CD by Hip-O Select in 2004. The tune (from the stage hit West Side Story) is admittedly schmaltzy by today’s standards, especially with the trite monologue Ross is forced to recite; “Let our efforts be as determined as that of a little stream that saunters down a hillside, seeking its level, only to become a huge river destined to the sea…” is far more suited to a greeting card than a show-stopping love song (later, the monologue would be much improved it was refashioned as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). There’s some really nice harmonizing by The Supremes at the beginning of this performance, but the song is basically a showcase for Diana, and she lays it on pretty thick here. There’s no denying that Miss Ross delivers an impassioned performance, but it does sound a little forced; where she was bluesy and sultry on “Make Someone Happy,” she’s syrupy here, too preening. Some would probably argue that this is a highlight of the set, but the intended emotion just doesn’t quite connect.
13. Back In My Arms Again: This really is a highlight of The Supremes At The Copa, a rare performance of the group’s then-latest #1 hit and a song that would slowly fall out of their concerts over the years. It makes sense that as the group continued racking up hits, certain songs would be dropped from the act, but while “Baby Love” and “Stop! In The Name Of Love” pretty much secured permanent placement, “Back In My Arms Again” became something of a rarity (at least on television specials and live albums). Listening to the ladies perform the song here, it seems a real shame that live performances of the song weren’t captured on record more frequently; they nail it, and bring an energy that’s not even present on the original record. As with all of the group’s hits during this show, the arrangement is faster, basically a race from beginning to end; similar to “Come See About Me,” that quicker pace lends the song a nice gospel flair. Listen closely for the male voice roaring “Oh, yeah” during the first chorus (at roughly :44) — I have no idea if that’s Gil Askey, a band member, or a someone in the audience, but it’s a great moment — as Mary Wilson later wrote, The Supremes were really “cooking” by this point.
14. Sam Cooke Medley: This is the real “crowning moment” for these Queens of the House, a soulful medley of Sam Cooke songs lasting nearly eight minutes and building from a simmering take on “You Send Me” to a joyful, raucous reading of “Shake.” The Supremes were no stranger to Cooke’s music, of course, having released the LP We Remember Sam Cooke earlier in 1965, not long after the male singer was killed. That album featured some truly outstanding work by The Supremes, and is one of the group’s best early efforts, so it’s a real treat that a mashup of songs from the LP (and one that wasn’t on the album) shows up here. It should be noted that Copa audiences were also no stranger to Cooke; he’d played the club before his death, and released his own At The Copa, which makes this medley even more appropriate. Diana’s take on “You Send Me” is better than the one she delivered on the studio album; she was sweet and angelic on that record, but here she’s a sexy, sultry songstress. Listen to her ridiculously soulful ad-lib on the word “you” at :47 — a single, breathtaking moment that encapsulates what a gifted interpreter of song Miss Ross is. The Supremes transition into “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” — a song which hadn’t been included on We Remember Sam Cooke. It’s just as smooth as “You Send Me,” with Diana’s voice effortless bouncing down the scale like a clear drop of water. The transition to “Cupid” is a bit abrupt, with a sudden shift in key and tempo, but the ladies harmonize nicely on the song’s familiar refrain, before moving right into the gruff “Chain Gang” — Mary and Florence really get to work it here, shouting the song’s signature “Oooh! Aaah!” behind Diana before relaxing into some nice two-part harmony. “Bring It On Home To Me” follows, a brief and playful performance, before The Supremes launch into a full-scale attack on the Cooke classic “Shake.” Diana, Mary, and Flo had done the song justice on We Remember Sam Cooke, offering up a peppy version that certainly evoked images of a teenagers’ dance party. But here, the group is raw and unfiltered, with Diana yelling out “Supremes A-Go-Go!” and tearing into the song like a steam engine racing out of control. Mary and Florence (and some male voices, too — probably the band) yell and wail and sing behind her, letting loose in a way they’d rarely get to on television or in the studio. The last minute or so features Diana really working the crowd, riling it up like a fiery preacher, more proof of just how powerful a vocalist and performer she always was. Think of her work here as a tease to the later audience-participation songs she’d master; long before “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” or “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” there was “Shake” at the Copa.
15. You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You: After “ending” on the high note of “Shake,” The Supremes return for an encore with this popular standard, a song which would also remain in their act for a long time. The tune has also carved itself a special place in the legend of Berry Gordy, Jr. and The Supremes; it was apparently the first standard Gordy asked the group to perform, and the Motown founder has written about Diana’s initial dislike of the song, and her eventual choice to sing it for him (this little episode is also included in the biographical Broadway hit Motown The Musical). If by the time of the Copa engagement Diana still hadn’t warmed up to it, she’s giving us an early demonstration of her Oscar-worthy acting skills; she and her groupmates couldn’t sound more thrilled to be singing the song to the crowd. The opening of the song contains some cute banter between Diana, Mary, and Flo (Mary interrupting with “Don’t nobody care about little old me…” and Florence drolly delivering her classic, “Wait a minute, honey! I don’t know about all that!” to the lyric about gold not bringing happiness) — this stage patter is somewhat subdued here, but there’s a far funnier and more raucous version of it included on the 2000 box set The Supremes, taken from a 1967 Copa show. After singing the first few lines as a ballad, the band pumps it up into a swinging, foot-stomping extravaganza, led by Diana’s confident and brassy lead vocal. All three ladies display real vocal power here, especially on the repetitions of “To love! To love!” and the band is really jamming. It’s a perfect way to end such a high-powered evening, and a perfect way to end the group’s first live album; listeners can feel the magic in the air.
The historical significance of The Supremes At The Copa is obvious; that three young African-American ladies from Detroit could win over the wealthy, mainly white audiences at the supper club speaks to the way music, talent, and style transcended barriers (and still do today). For fans of The Supremes, the LP is additionally important because it’s the only original live album featuring the group’s most memorable lineup (though some have since been unearthed from the Motown vaults and released). There’s an undeniable chemistry between the three women, and their harmonies are exhilaratingly tight. There’s also still a little roughness around the edges here; as polished as the group was for its Copa debut, there remains a soulful earthiness about this performance that would be gone by the time 1968’s slick Live At London’s Talk Of The Town appeared. The Supremes At The Copa isn’t necessarily the best live album by The Supremes, but it’s an essential part of the group’s discography; breaking down walls and opening doors for others never sounded so good.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Supremes Prove Themselves “Queens Of The House”)
Choice Cuts: “Sam Cooke Medley,” “Make Someone Happy/Time After Time,” “Back In My Arms Again”