“Together just you and me, just livin’ on pure ecstasy…”
In the beginning, there was tremendous pressure to get The Supremes a hit. The Motown girl-group struggled for years, releasing a batch of failed singles produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Smokey Robinson among others. Finally, things clicked in 1964, and the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland delivered the now-classic “Where Did Our Love Go,” which took Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard straight to the top. As the hits piled up, a new kind of pressure developed: Keeping them there. After five straight number one hits, the 1965 H-D-H single “Nothing But Heartaches” stalled at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, a respectable chart peak but a relative failure for the superstar singing group and its writing-producing team. “We just went back to the drawing board,” says Lamont Dozier in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes.
Going back to the drawing board meant coming up with a new song that retained the unique pop sensibilities of the previous hits while updating the sound to keep The Supremes relevant to young audiences. That song turned out to be “I Hear A Symphony,” recorded in September of 1965 and released early the next month. The song was a smash, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in mid-November. Follow-up single “My World Is Empty Without You” hit shelves in late December — and an accompanying album was quickly assembled and released in February of 1966. I Hear A Symphony would be something of a departure for The Supremes; rather than surrounding the hits with strong filler also written by H-D-H (as had been done on More Hits By The Supremes), just five Motown originals were included. Along with those songs (all of them terrific, by the way), a group of pop standards and contemporary covers were recorded and placed on the LP.
Including classic pop songs like “With A Song In My Heart” and “Stranger In Paradise” makes sense, considering The Supremes had recently conquered New York’s Copacabana nightclub with a show consisting mainly of standards; Gordy had a strong vision of the group as a crossover act appealing to all ages and races, and these tunes were an important part of that plan. It’s to the credit of The Supremes that I Hear A Symphony works as well as it does as an album; due to the top-notch performances of Ross, Wilson, and Ballard, quality becomes the common thread binding the LP’s dozen songs. The highlights are the five H-D-H tunes; they are five of the strongest ever recorded by the group, and any one could have been plucked as a single. The rest are good, but not necessarily great; it’s tempting to wonder how much better the LP would have turned out had H-D-H worked up a few more originals to complete the lineup.
(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the “Mastered for iTunes” version of the album currently available for download.)
1. Stranger In Paradise: I Hear A Symphony opens with one of those classic songs that The Supremes had begun incorporating into their stage act; this one was first introduced in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet. It could be considered a bold act to place this song up top; after all, most of the teenagers buying this album weren’t in the market for showtunes. Still, if the idea was to construct an album of romantic, symphonic songs, then “Stranger In Paradise” sets a definite tone. The arrangement turns the song into a mini-symphony itself, with a sprightly, orchestral opening lasting nearly thirty seconds before The Supremes finally begin crooning. Diana Ross delivers a sensitive lead performance here; she’s sweet and engaging, but manages to never quite cross the line into “too saccharine” territory. This is a real achievement, given the song’s sometimes-piercing strings and syrupy lyrics like “I saw your face/And I ascended/Out of the commonplace/Into the rare.” Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard strongly support her, singing several lines in unison with Ross before breaking into some lovely harmonies. This song would remain in The Supremes stage act for quite some time, as part of a medley with other tunes from this album; it’s a nice fit for a group so comfortable with sophistication.
2. Yesterday: This song was another smash hit for The Beatles; the original version topped the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 1965 (interestingly, it was knocked from #1 by The Rolling Stones with “Get Off Of My Cloud” — and that song was replaced at the top by “I Hear A Symphony”). The Supremes were no strangers to the music of The Beatles, having released A Bit Of Liverpool in 1964, which featured several songs originally recorded by the British group; Diana, Mary, and Florence were also quite vocal in their admiration for the Fab Four. “Yesterday” was something of a departure for The Beatles; it’s a sad, stripped down ballad featuring solely the vocals of Paul McCartney, who wrote it. The heavy presence of haunting strings on the original record makes it seem like a natural for I Hear A Symphony, especially coming on the heels of “Stranger In Paradise.” Strangely, the arrangement here downplays the strings quite a bit; producers create a far more generic musical track for Diana Ross to sing over, and it comes off as rather uninspired (and also rather dated when listened to today). Ross handles the song much better than she had any of the Beatles songs on Liverpool; she plays it fairly straight here, thankfully avoiding the trap of trying to sound too much like McCartney. She sings with a nice fragility that matches the theme of the song; there is some affectation to her performance (particularly around 1:30 in, during the “Why’d he have to go…” section), but not enough to totally sink the song. Interestingly, in the spirit of the original, this is a solo for Diana Ross; no other voice is featured on the track. (NOTE: Years later, Florence Ballard would record her own oppressively heavy version while signed to ABC Records; it would go unreleased until the appearance of the CD The Supreme Florence Ballard.)
3. I Hear A Symphony: Released in October of 1965, “I Hear A Symphony” became the sixth #1 hit for The Supremes on the Billboard Hot 100, an astounding tally for any group and especially impressive considering their first chart-topper had only been released in the summer of ’64. “I Hear A Symphony” remains one of the group’s most enduring hits, and it’s easily the most romantic song ever released by the Diana-Mary-Florence lineup; it was also the most lyrically challenging single delivered by H-D-H up until that point. In the accompanying booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, Lamont Dozier is quoted about the song: “We were aiming for a classical feel. If I don’t have a lyric coming in, or a title, I listen to a track and try to get a feeling of what the track is saying.” The track here says a lot; without the clacking footstomps that opened the group’s first major hits, “Symphony” already feels softer, and the series of upward key changes signals something more hopeful than “Where Did Our Love Go.” This is also a song that builds in intensity; whereas previous single “Nothing But Heartaches” hit the ground running and never let up, this time H-D-H give the composition room to grow, easing listeners in with a spare, vibe-dominated intro before layering in the swirling strings and celebratory piano. The structure of the song is more interesting than most probably give it credit for; instead of the typical verse-chorus-bridge framework, the writers separate each section by mood rather than melody. Consider this: The Supremes sing basically the same succession of notes over and over again, even as the key changes. What transforms over the course of the song isn’t that repetitive melody, it’s the strength of the of the musical track and potency of lyrics that accompany it. Those lyrics are passionate and poetic, and more expansive in scope than on anything the creative team had given The Supremes thus far; lines like “As you stand up holding me/Whispering how much you care/A thousand violins fill the air” feel far more mature than the “burning” and “yearning” of earlier hit singles. Of course, none of this would matter had the vocalists not risen to the challenge, and Diana Ross effortlessly picks up the musical cues and delivers an iconic performance. As Eddie Holland explained, “Her ear and her feel — she had a natural feel, a natural understanding for that kind of lyric. It wasn’t anything you could learn or that someone could give her. It was just very fortunate that it clicked” (The Supremes booklet). Indeed, the singer’s great talent has always been interpreting a lyric with honestly and clarity; Ross is a vocalist who, at her best, never gives more or less than a song demands. She is coolly relaxed on the opening lines (“You’ve given me a true love…”), but builds in intensity right along with the music until she’s brimming with emotion; listen to her wring an aching joy out of the brilliant lines, “Those tears that fill my eyes/I cry not for myself/But for those who’ve never felt the joy we’ve felt.” Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard offer up their patented hypnotic background vocals; it’s always great to hear them, but the ladies are more muted here than on past hits and don’t get much time to really break out beyond Diana’s commanding lead vocal. Still, this is a classic Supremes recording, and an important one to the group’s legacy; it wasn’t necessarily a radical departure, but it was a perfectly measured step forward, and the beginning of a wonderfully creative period between H-D-H and the Queens of Motown.
4. Unchained Melody: I Hear A Symphony follows one powerful love song with another; “Unchained Melody” dates back to the 1950s film Unchained, but truly attained “classic” status when recorded by The Righteous Brothers in 1965. That recording is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to listen to any other version and not hear the echo of Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield, especially in the wake of the song’s massive revival thanks to the 1990 film Ghost. The charm of that popular recording is just how overwrought it is; Hatfield’s vocal is bombastic, exploding all over the scale and matched by the epic, cinematic orchestration behind him. The Supremes version here is actually pretty solid, but it feels watered down in terms of both the production and the vocals. There’s no denying that Diana Ross sounds gorgeous here, her lower notes in particular quite stunning; listen as she drops her voice on the word “lonely” at :34, and note the precision and control she’s demonstrating. Unfortunately, Miss Ross doesn’t offer up much variation in her vocal; rather than let it build to thunderous heights as Hatfield had, she remains pretty much on the same relaxed level through the entire piece, which becomes a bit boring by the end. This isn’t to say she shouldn’t have come up with her own interpretation or needed to just mimic Hatfield’s performance; but the lyrics here are so passionate and pleading that they really call for an unbridled reading. Mary and Florence are full-bodied behind her, adding some lovely vocal flourishes; they sound particularly haunting while chanting “need your love” at around 1:15 in. The instrumental track is pretty, but it lacks fire, especially compared to the “Wall of Sound” featured on the more famous version of the recording. As with Diana’s vocal, there’s no real progression to the music, and consequently it verges on Muzak. “Unchained Melody” is a pleasant listen, and can certainly be enjoyed on its own merits; that said, it could never measure up to the impossibly high bar set by the The Righteous Brothers.
5. With A Song In My Heart: In a few short years, The Supremes would record an entire tribute album to the legendary composing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; here, the group offers an early version of one of the team’s most popular compositions. Originally dating back to the 1920s, the tune found further fame as the title song to the 1952 Hollywood biopic of singer Jane Froman, starring Susan Hayward. Although the song would remain part of the group’s act for a long time (featured in the same medley as “Stranger In Paradise”), only Diana Ross is featured on this particular recording; this turns out to be an unwise decision, as some group harmonies could have really given this entry some distinction. As it is, this is an undeniably schmaltzy recording; the track is basically one big marshmallow of strings, fluffy and overblown, and just a touch too grand for a song with a somewhat-limited melody. Diana’s performance is fine, but it’s definitely not one of my favorites; for lack of a better word, the singer is a little soulless here. No matter what critics have said over the years, Diana Ross is — and always was — a true soul singer. Her unique, cutting voice can pierce straight through the heart, and with a startling clarity she can twist emotion from the most cliché lyrics. But that power isn’t on display here; she forces affectation on certain lines (i.e. “I behold your adorable face”), rather than letting the lyrics flow through her, as she’d learn to do so well on her Billie Holiday recordings years later. The Supremes would re-record this song for 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, although it would be left off the album and remain unreleased until 1987. It’s a better reading of the song; all three Supremes are featured, the arrangement is a bit more stripped down, and Diana is a more seasoned vocalist, delivering a brassier and more interesting performance.
6. Without A Song: Another standard, this one co-written by Billy Rose and recorded by artists including Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. This one is a better fit for The Supremes; there’s an inherent bluesy quality to the song’s melody line, and it allows for a deeply-felt performance by the vocalists. On top of another accomplished, swirling instrumental, Diana delivers a stunning performance; her reading is wise and knowing, with just a tinge of melancholy shading lyrics like, “When things go wrong/A man ain’t got a friend/Without A Song.” I’d assume it’s Mary and Florence backing Diana here, although there are a few times when the voices sound more like The Andantes than The Supremes; in either case, the backgrounds are smooth and relaxed, if sometimes mixed a little low. As with the album’s track, it would be nice to hear more group harmonizing; The Supremes At The Copa proved how much The Supremes could elevate a standard with tight harmonies and some vocal interplay, and it feels like a wasted opportunity to feature such songs on a studio album and not take advantage of the sophisticated singing Diana, Mary, and Florence had been mastering for several years at this point. Still, as far as album filler goes, this is a nice inclusion thanks to the sterling lead vocal.
7. My World Is Empty Without You: Holland-Dozier-Holland followed their most romantic composition for The Supremes (“I Hear A Symphony”) with their darkest, most anguished one; “My World Is Empty Without You” was recorded in October-December of 1965, and released as a single on December 29, 1965. It’s amazing to think this masterpiece of angst and depression hit the airwaves just days after Christmas, when the world had been celebrating to the upbeat sounds of the group’s Merry Christmas LP. If “I Hear A Symphony” was a step forward for H-D-H and The Supremes in terms of lyrical sophistication, its follow-up single amount to a giant leap; this is possibly the most soulful single ever released by the Diana-led Supremes, and is one of the most challenging hits to ever come out of the Motown machine. Opening with a skipping-heartbeat kick-drum matched by the low whirring of Earl Van Dyke’s organ, the song kicks into gear with the patented Funk Brothers machine-gun drums and shrill, shivering vibes; for the next two-and-a-half minutes, the musicians charge along like a steam engine, slicing through time and space with a dense gothic arrangement. Similar to the progressive approach taken in “I Hear A Symphony,” H-D-H allow the lyrics to become more specific, and thus increasingly devastating; “I need your strength, I need your tender touch” builds to “Inside this cold and empty house I dwell” before exploding to the exquisite couplet “And each time that darkness falls/It finds me alone with these four walls.” The songwriting here is truly astounding; writers Brian Chin and David Nathan call it “a complex and emotionally risky interior exploration” (The Supremes box set booklet), and the lyrics crafted by the team amount to one massive plea for help, which is effortlessly voiced by Diana, Mary, and Florence. This is one of the great vocal performances of Diana Ross’s career; her voice is razor-sharp, slicing through the baroque track with an icy desperation. Because her voice is so totally unique, it can be tough for some listeners to discern just how versatile she was during her early Supremes work. But for confirmation of her skills, listen to this song back-to-back with 1964’s “Baby Love” — the warmth on that earlier record, all the teenaged “yearning” on display, is transformed into a mature, cold bitterness here. This is great singing, period; it’s a performance that should have earned the group a Grammy (the song wasn’t even nominated, which is a shame). Behind her, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson offer up detached, almost-robotic responses; although the ladies might seem muted and underused here, they literally become the sad echoes inside the narrator’s head. When released as a single, “My World Is Empty With You” peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100; that it didn’t reach the top of the chart is possibly due to the fact that this is a darker single, lacking the brightness of the group’s previous hits (surprisingly, the song only rose to #10 on the R&B chart). Still, it’s as good as any of the group’s chart-toppers; this is a career highlight for everybody involved. (NOTE: A great new interpretation of this song was included on the 2005 release Motown Remixed, entitled “My World Is Empty Without You” [Tranzition Remix] — with the original vocals laid over a new spare and soulful track, it’s easy to really appreciate the stunning work of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.)
8. A Lover’s Concerto: This is a fascinating inclusion, and merits a little discussion before delving into the merits of the recording. “A Lover’s Concerto” is a pop song built around a classical piece; the melody is taken from the famed Minuet in G major and placed over a 60s girl-group beat. Released as a single in 1965 by female trio The Toys, the song was a hit, topping out at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100; listening to the recording today, it’s clearly inspired by the string of Supremes hits written/produced by H-D-H, directly borrowing a little riff from “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and playing off the pop/soul sophistication mastered by Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard. It also seems pretty likely that “A Lover’s Concerto” was then something of an inspiration for H-D-H and their own “I Hear A Symphony.” After all, “Symphony” — featuring a similarly romantic theme and nod to classical music — was recorded in late September, apparently after “A Lover’s Concerto” was already released and climbing the charts. Certainly the folks around Motown had to be aware of the song’s success, especially considering the latest Supremes release (July’s “Nothing But Heartaches”) hadn’t done as well as expected; Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. couldn’t have been jumping for joy that another female group was doing so well with a song that sounded tailor-made for his group. In any case, “A Lover’s Concerto” was a solid hit for The Toys, and then “I Hear A Symphony” was a smash for The Supremes…and now we get The Supremes coming full circle and covering “Concerto.” When it comes to the contemporary covers featured on I Hear A Symphony, this is easily the best, precisely because it’s such a great fit for the group; Diana delivers a crisp lead vocal (the AllMusic review of the album calls it “a Diana Ross tour de force“) and Mary and Florence are clear and strong behind her. It’s a really enjoyable recording, but listened to today, the song does pale a bit compared to “I Hear A Symphony” and some of the other H-D-H originals here. I don’t know if “A Lover’s Concerto” did indeed inspire “Symphony,” but if it did, Holland-Dozier-Holland created something far more lasting.
9. Any Girl In Love (Knows What I’m Going Through): A great album track that certainly sounds like it could have been a single, this song was written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and recorded in December of 1965. Interestingly, it turns out this one was cut first on Motown singer Kim Weston; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, Weston’s version was completed earlier in 1965, though it apparently went unreleased for many years. Both versions boast the exact same arrangement, and Motown session group The Andantes also provide background vocals on both records. It’s interesting that H-D-H didn’t record this on The Supremes first; it certainly sounds like it was penned for the group, featuring the kind of bittersweet lyric Diana Ross could ace in her sleep. Ross certainly delivers here, offering up a relaxed and pleasant lead vocal; the song doesn’t stretch her much as a vocalist, but it’s good enough that it doesn’t need to (and any song that lets Diana croon her patented “oooooh” is welcome). It’s ironic that of all the songs featured on I Hear A Symphony, this one features the most liberal use of background vocals; “Any Girl In Love” really couldn’t exist without the prominent background line, so it’s unfortunate that Mary and Florence aren’t here (or, if they are, they’re overpowered by The Andantes). Still, the Motown’s in-house singers offer up sublime harmonies and full, thick vocals behind Diana, similar to those heard on the Merry Christmas LP. This is a really strong, classy chunk of pop/soul; although it was never even placed on the b-side of a Supremes single release, it’s one of the best songs on the album.
10. Wonderful, Wonderful: The final cover featured on I Hear A Symphony is a peppy song made famous by Johnny Mathis in the late 1950s. The tempo and arrangement are basically unaltered on this version; it remains a sweet, bouncy love song, the kind Gene Kelly would have danced down the street to in an MGM musical. “Wonderful, Wonderful” is perfect for The Supremes, as it boasts a strong, memorable melody and soaring chorus; as part of that aforementioned medley with a few other songs from this album, it would remain in the group’s stage act for quite some time. This recording is quite good, although to my ears Diana’s lead vocal is uncharacteristically hesitant in spots. It a good vocal performance, but it lacks some of the confidence evident on the rest of the album; in particular, the chorus is cut rather high, and Diana doesn’t really “go” for the notes in the way she’s clearly capable of. That said, she sounds fabulous on the verses, as do The Supremes behind her, and “Wonderful, Wonderful” is pleasant, welcome addition to the album.
11. Everything Is Good About You: This is a classic Supremes b-side, initially featured on the flipside of “My World Is Empty Without You” and eventually placed on the group’s Greatest Hits double-LP in 1967. The swinging mid-tempo number features all of the hallmarks of a great Supremes recording; the instrumental track is lean and focused, sweetened with ringing vibes and the purring of strings, and the melody is instantly memorable. The lyrics are definitive Motown; seemingly simplistic couplets like “You’re the summer in the park/You’re the candle in the dark” have a way of burrowing into the brain and staying there forever, something writers Eddie Holland and James Dean (Holland’s cousin, and a Motowner who penned classics such as “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” for Jimmy Ruffin) obviously knew. Diana Ross offers up a sterling vocal performance; unlike in the previous track, she’s in total command here, engaging the listener with her unique blend of sparkling vitality and soulful sensuality. There’s a lovely relaxed quality to her delivery (especially in the way she tosses off the song’s key phrase, making it “Everything’s good about-cha”) that’s imminently listenable; at the same time, she always sounds fresh and alive, as if her eyes are just opening up to the “meaning of love” she sings about. This is such a perfect, compact song that it’s amazing it wasn’t released as an a-side for The Supremes; it just sounds like a hit, and seems a surefire for at least the top ten. A recording this good on any other group would have been rush-released as a single; it speaks to the incredibly high quality of the group’s material in this period that this wasn’t given a chance to ride the charts on its own.
12. He’s All I Got: Another H-D-H (along with James Dean) original, this rollicking track brings I Hear A Symphony to an ebullient finish. This song would eventually find its way to the b-side of the “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” single (released in April of 1966), but it’s another one that easily could have garnered airplay on its own. Although the lyrics speak of a relationship on the rocks, the track is the most funky and upbeat on the entire album; to my ears, there are similarities to “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops (also penned by H-D-H) in terms of the beat and orchestration. Hitsville musicians The Funk Brothers play in such accord that it takes several listens to really pick apart each instrumental line; this was truly a group of master players feeding off of each other and creating magic in the studio. For the first and only time on the album, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are really given a chance to shine here; the ladies are wailing on this track, especially as they repeat “He’s All I Got” and sing along with Diana on the lines, “Go to him/Tell him/Before he finds someone new.” Wilson once wrote that early in their careers, The Supremes wanted to record the kind of fiery songs Motown handed to Martha & The Vandellas and The Marvelettes; this is their chance, and the ladies really run with it. Diana handles the leads expertly, singing with the kind of edgy urgency she’d already displayed on “Nothing But Heartaches” (from More Hits By The Supremes) and would perfect on the group’s next few singles. Along with the full-bodied singing and the powerful track, the lyrical point-of-view is a nice change of pace; rather than pleading with her lover, Diana is singing to another woman, telling her “You’re a girl that hates to see others happy” before asking her to silence her gossip. Because it hasn’t turned up on many compilations over the years, “He’s All I Got” is a lesser known Supremes recording; it deserves more play and attention, and proves that Diana, Mary, and Florence possessed every bit the scorching soul of Motown’s other top acts.
Although I Hear A Symphony was a big success commercially for The Supremes (it was a #1 R&B album, and reached #8 on the pop chart), it’s really only half of a great album. The five originals here are among the best ever recorded by the group; I’d place “My World Is Empty Without You” in the top three best Supremes recordings ever, and “Everything Is Good About You” is one of the all-time great b-sides. That’s not to say the rest of the album is bad – it isn’t – and there’s not one single awful inclusion on the LP. But the covers just don’t compare to the five standouts here; the contemporary covers (aside from “A Lover’s Concerto”) don’t come close to matching the distinction of their original versions, and the pop standards are vanilla and mainly unmemorable. The Supremes would grow much more comfortable with standards over the next few years; they do an admirable job here, but the group’s work on the forthcoming Rodgers & Hart album is far superior. At this point in their career, Diana, Mary, and Florence were still most adept at H-D-H originals; had a few more of those found their way onto I Hear A Symphony, it would have been a perfect album. As it is, it’s an essential because the highlights are so ridiculously good.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Uneven, But “Wonderful” Highlights)
Choice Cuts: “My World Is Empty Without You,” “I Hear A Symphony,” “Everything Is Good About You”