“Got me rockin’ and a-reelin’…and I can’t shake the feelin’…”
In April of 1966 — just four months after the release of the turbulent masterpiece “My World Is Empty With You” — The Supremes burst back onto radio airwaves with their funkiest, most danceable song yet. “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” was a turnabout for the sophisticated songstresses, allowing the ladies to ditch the sequins, throw on some jeans for a minute, and let loose over one of the most angular, exciting tracks ever delivered by Motown session band The Funk Brothers. The song was a top 10 hit on both the pop and R&B charts, and led the way for the group’s next single, another vibrant uptempo aimed directly at the massive market of teenaged record-buyers. That song was “You Can’t Hurry Love” — and it brought The Supremes back to #1 (for the seventh time) for two weeks in September of 1966.
The eventual album built around these two hits couldn’t have been more different from the group’s previous LP, I Hear A Symphony. That record featured a lineup composed of several pop standards and lushly arranged songs that seemed to target both teens and their parents. The end result was a good, but uneven and often unexciting album which topped out at #8 on the Billboard 200. For the follow-up, producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier took a completely different approach, filling The Supremes A’ Go-Go with nothing but dance songs, every one of which would have been immediately recognizable to young listeners. With a lineup of proven hits (all but two lifted from the Motown fold) and a cover photo featuring the three Supremes dancing, the LP soared straight to the top, becoming the group’s first #1 pop album. Notably, they were the only African-Americans to score a #1 album on the Billboard 200 that year, and aside from the female members of The Mamas & The Papas, the only women to hit the top.
The Supremes A’ Go-Go is certainly the most upbeat recording ever released by The Supremes; the songs here have energy and bounce to spare. Unfortunately, filling it with so many then-current hits causes the LP to sound dated, especially when it comes to kitschy inclusions “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and “Hang On Sloopy” (some of the songs were also cut in Los Angeles, which means certain tracks also lack the fire provided by the Detroit musicians). The standouts here are the two singles, of course, especially the sublime and infectious “You Can’t Hurry Love” — pop/soul rarely gets better. But much of the joy of past Supremes albums was discovering the deep cuts, songs like “(I’m So Glad) Heartaches Don’t Last Always” and “Any Girl In Love (Knows What I’m Going Through)” that never even made it to the b-sides of singles but are as good in their way as anything else recorded by the group. The Supremes A’ Go-Go doesn’t contain any of those surprises, and thus feels a little superficial today. That said, as a “concept” album — one celebrating youth and the dance culture of the mid-1960s — it works very well.
(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the “Mastered for iTunes” version of the album currently available for download.)
1. Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart: If ever a song captured the sound of Detroit — the honking of horns, the cranks and gears of the assembly lines, and the jingling of brand-new car keys — it’s “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart.” Interestingly, session notes found in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes list recording dates for this song stretching back to June of 1965, nearly a year before the its eventual release. Whatever the reason it took so long to finish the song, it came at the right time; following the releases of the stately The Supremes At The Copa and I Hear A Symphony, this track gave The Supremes a shot in the arm, providing them with something youthful and funky and perfect for the dancefloor. Opening with Benny Benjamin’s pounding backbeat and James Jamerson’s soul-stirring bass, the track explodes into a muscular symphony of blaring horns and chunky piano chords. The brilliant Funk Brothers play these instruments with and against each other, creating musical angles and hard edges that crackle with energy. The lyrics are some of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s most playful, a series of clever and blunt rhymes decrying the pain of falling in love (i.e. “Love is a nagging irritation/Causing my heart complication/Love is a growing infection/And I don’t know the correction”). Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard have a ball with the song; after hearing them labor through so many standards on recent releases, it’s a joy to hear the ladies really cut loose. Ross takes the lead here and matches the tone set by The Funk Brothers; her vocal is urgent and edgy, as if she’s really feeling that “nagging irritation” in the studio. Listen to the way she growls when she delivers “tearing it all apart” — it’s the kind of thing she really hadn’t done on record yet, and it lends a nice depth to her voice. She also goes for higher notes with great confidence; I love the way she sails upward on “What you gonna do?” at roughly 1:18 in. Ballard and Wilson ably support her; they are in fine voice, and their repetitions of “Keeps me sighin’/keeps my cryin'” etc. are a terrific hook. When it was released on April 8, 1966, the song climbed #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #7 on the R&B chart. Considering six of the group’s previous eight singles had soared to #1, this song’s performance was probably considered lackluster around the company. Still, this is a fantastic recording and is certainly looked upon as a Supremes classic today; more than that, it’s one of the great instrumental tracks to come out of the Motown, and another sterling example of just what this talented group of musicians was capable of.
2. This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You): A classic song written by H-D-H (along with writer Sylvia Moy), this one was a hit for The Isley Brothers in early 1966 and has been recorded many times, including versions by Tammi Terrell and Rod Stewart. According to the website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this version was produced (uncredited on the original LP release) by Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, which would mean the track was cut in Los Angeles, where the pair was based. As is typical of many of those LA recordings, this is a very good facsimile of the Hitsville sound but is missing the strong bass that distinguished the Detroit players; thus, as good as it is, it immediately feels a little more “lightweight” than the previous track. Still, “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)” is a great fit for The Supremes, as one would expect from another song penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland; there are even shades of past Supremes singles in the song’s melody (personally, I hear “Back In My Arms Again”). Diana offers a crisp, precise performance; there’s a real confidence to her spirited work here, and she delivers a very different interpretation (but easily just as good — if not better) than that of the less-controlled, raw Ronald Isley. Mary and Florence serve up classy background vocals, displaying a nice two-part harmony behind Diana. It’s easy to understand why this song has had a long shelf life (Isley and Rod Stewart recorded it as a duet in 1990 and took it to the top 10); it’s upbeat and infectious and full of hooks. Had the instrumental track here been just a little bit punchier and carried more weight, it could have been a hit for The Supremes, too.
3. You Can’t Hurry Love: If the summer of ’66 was already a hot one, The Supremes made it even more sizzling with the July release of this song, which soared to #1 on both the pop and R&B chart (peaking in September). According to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, “The Supremes probably taped their vocals for ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ in Detroit on June 14, 1966, at a session sandwiched between concert engagements in San Francisco and Toronto. By this time, the group had been at the top of their game for two straight years; their itineraries were crammed with concert and television dates, personal appearances, and overseas tours” (21). Indeed, it must have seemed impossible to get the ladies in the studio at all, considering the group’s packed schedule; this makes it all the more impressive that in such limited time, The Supremes could create such important and iconic music. At the helm again was the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland; having already delivered a half-dozen #1 hits to The Supremes (not to mention successful singles for other groups), H-D-H whipped up its most neatly-packaged chunk of pop/soul yet. According to Dozier (quoted in The Supremes box set booklet), this song is another one incorporating the influences of the church: “It had that spiritual, church element to it. We pulled out some stuff because it was too gospelly, then we found a nice little bed that it floated on.” The end result is another beat-driven song, but one that’s not nearly as hard-edged as “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” — there’s still an urgency and a freshness, but it’s smoother and easier to digest. The track here is absolutely sublime; The Funk Brothers are so tight it’s tough to figure out which instrument is which. According to bandleader Earl Van Dyke, “When Robert [White, guitarist] and I played parts in unison, they would stop the session in the middle of a tune and say, ‘I can’t hear the piano’ or ‘I can’t hear the guitar,’ because they couldn’t separate us — like on ‘You Can’t Hurry Love'” (Billboard 22). What is immediately audible is the earthier sound of the track; after so many lean, percussive Supremes hits, there’s a folksier feel to “You Can’t Hurry Love” that signals another step in the group’s evolution. Diana Ross mints one of her greatest Supremes-era performances on this track, embodying every listener in the world who’s ever questioned “How long must I wait?” This vocal is the perfect example of the unique “edge” that many talk about when assessing the Ross sound; there’s a real, heartfelt pleading in her voice as she sings, “Right now the only thing/That keeps me hanging on/When I feel my strength/Yeah, is almost gone” and the words cut straight through the track. This is also powerful singing; listen closely around :40, as she wails the words “must I stand,” and note the strength of voice that Diana Ross is rarely given credit for. Although the background vocals never quite break through the breathless lead vocal, they absolutely sweeten the track, and it’s hard to imagine the song without them. And that’s the thing about “You Can’t Hurry Love” — it’s hard to imagine the song without any of the elements that are present. It’s simply a perfect song, one that’s timeless and remains as compelling today as it must have been in the summer of ’66.
4. Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over): The Supremes A’ Go-Go follows its seminal track with a fantastic cover of the song made famous by The Four Tops. As with “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You),” this tune was written by H-D-H, so it makes sense that it’s here and that The Supremes do so well by it. Don’t Forget The Motor City lists Hal Davis and Frank Wilson as producers of this track (again, this wasn’t credited on the original LP), and I’d imagined this was the case before reading it; this is another extremely polished recording, lacking a bit of the raw, oil-smudged feel of the original. Aside from that, this is a faithful rendition of the song, opening with the same deep, staccato piano riff leading to a punchy beat that seems to take literally the singer’s command to “Shake me!” Diana sings the song’s opening in an appealingly low voice; there’s a sultriness to her lower range that’s a nice counterpoint to the higher singing more closely identified with her. Ross possesses a great control over her lower range, something she’d further exploit during her solo work. Later in the song, she lets loose with a few nice ad-libs; I love her “Wake me, somebody!” at 1:05 and her read on the line “I can’t bear to be losing you” at 1:26 is wonderfully soulful. Diana’s performance isn’t passionate in the way that Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs’s was; he sang as if in complete emotional turmoil, whereas Ross sounds more urgent and agitated, as if she really does just want it to be “over.” Likewise, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard don’t oversing to match the boisterous backgrounds of the original, but instead deliver statelier vocals (both ladies ring through loud and clear, particularly Ballard in spots). The result is a recording that’s not radically different in sound, but is new and fresh in terms of tone. It’s really good, and could have been a big hit for the group. (NOTE: Much would be made of The Supremes covering Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl soundtrack in a few years; interestingly, Streisand would cover this song in the following decade, releasing it in a disco version.)
5. Baby I Need Your Loving: The second Four Tops cover in a row, “Baby I Need Your Loving” is a powerful classic that gave the male quartet its first Motown hit (reaching the top 20 in 1964). This version is quite different, sonically closer in beat and background arrangement to the 1966 Stevie Wonder hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” than the Four Tops original. The instrumental is arranged at a faster pace, and has a much “cleaner” sound — this is a tight, compact track, with a prominent guitar line that gives it a more urgent feel than the rawer, bass-heavy Tops recording. Interestingly, Diana’s voice sounds to my ears like it’s doubled during the chorus; if this is the case, that touch and the guitar work strongly foreshadow the group’s next single, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (released in October of 1966). Diana’s performance here features none of the sorrow displayed by Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs; Ross delivers a clipped vocal that doesn’t necessarily sound like she’s “begging” — as the lyric suggest. Still, it’s a compelling lead simply because of Diana’s unique vocal precision; there’s great authority in the way she sings with such unwavering intention. She’s matched by the effectively understated work by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who particularly shine toward the end of the song, while repeating the chorus. Because this version of “Baby I Need Your Loving” sounds so different from the many others that have surfaced over the years (Johnny Rivers would make it a hit again in 1967, with The Blossoms on background vocals), it’s easy to appreciate for what it is. It’s not the best song on the album, but it’s a deserves a place here.
6. These Boots Are Made For Walking: For the first time, The Supremes A’ Go-Go reaches outside of the Motown fold for a recording; this song was a #1 hit for Nancy Sinatra in early 1966, released on Reprise Records (the label formed by her father, Frank Sinatra). “These Boots Are Made For Walking” is an iconic song, capturing the mood and flavor the swinging 1960s, although it’s been covered many times over the years and updated by artists like Jessica Simpson and Geri Halliwell, it always ends up sounding “retro” and like a novelty tune. That’s how Diana’s version feels here, and enjoyment of the song probably depends on the mood of the listener more than anything else. As a cover, Motown’s “These Boots” is actually pretty good; it’s played fairly straightforward, without much deviation from the original. The instrumental is accomplished, with a slinky start and brassy finish, and Diana sounds good; there was certainly a risk of Ross crossing the line into total kitsch, but she doesn’t, which is a relief. It’s a solo song for her, with no background vocals, and she carries it well. Still, this inclusion comes off dated in a way the previous five don’t, and there’s probably nothing anybody could have done to change that.
7. I Can’t Help Myself: After a brief diversion, The Supremes return to Four Tops territory, covering the song that knocked “Back In My Arms Again” from the #1 spot on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart in June of 1965. Penned by H-D-H, this is one of the great Motown songs of all time, with a driving beat and brilliant lyrics impossible to forget. The Supremes deliver a fabulous version; Diana offers up a chirpy lead vocal that’s commanding and quite endearing (I particularly like her little high-note riff on the word “you” at 2:00). Behind her, Mary Wilson is really audible; if Florence Ballard is singing with her, she’s totally overshadowed by Mary’s misty tone (it’s particularly easy to hear Mary’s singing because on the stereo master of the song, Diana is placed on one channel and the backgrounds stuck on the other). The Funk Brothers mint another great take on the song, emphasizing strings and New Orleans-style horns this time; the only minor complaint is that the heavy strings on the instrumental break do sound dated and just a little campy. Still, this is pleasant and spirited addition to the album’s lineup.
8. Get Ready: A #1 R&B hit for The Temptations in April of 1966, this song was written by Smokey Robinson; this makes it the first Smokey song released by The Supremes in quite some time (Robinson had written several of the group’s early singles, and they turned in a fantastic version of his hit “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” on 1964’s A Bit Of Liverpool). This is one of those songs that’s so well-written that it’s really hard to mess up; The Supremes deliver an energetic version about whichBruce Eder of AllMusic says, “…even if it was no threat to The Temptations, [it] still could have been a hit.” According to Don’t Forget The Motor City, this is one of the tracks cut in LA and produced by Frank Wilson/Hal Davis; it’s actually one of the better ones, with a driving beat and extremely tight playing by the West Coast musicians. The Supremes sound really good; maybe this isn’t the group’s most distinguished or engaged performance, but it’s solid. This probably got plenty of teenagers dancing in 1966, which is exactly what it was meant to do.
9. Put Yourself In My Place: This was (and surely still is) the most obscure of the songs featured on The Supremes A’ Go-Go, although it was recorded by plenty of Motown acts in its day. It was first cut on The Elgins in 1965, then became a b-side when it was placed on the “You Can’t Hurry Love” 45 release by The Supremes; it was relegated to “b” status again when it was featured on the flipside of Motown singer Chris Clark’s “Love’s Gone Bad” single in 1966, and there’s also a version out there by The Isley Brothers! “Put Yourself In My Place” is an unusual composition, and this particular version (with its keyboard-driven track) sounds ahead of its time; had it been held back a little longer, it would have been a good fit for the Reflections LP in 1967. The song is perfect for Diana Ross, whose voice glides effortlessly over the melody; she sounds really strong here. The voices behind her sound like Motown session singers The Andantes; this isn’t a huge surprise, considering the song was cut on so many different artists, the backgrounds were probably already done by the time Diana Ross recorded her own lead. The Funk Brothers offer up a superb track, with a great bassline and classic Motown percussion; it’s one of the best on the album. The more I listen to “Put Yourself In My Place,” the more I like it; it probably could have made a nice single release for The Supremes later in the decade.
10. Money (That’s What I Want): This it the song that started it all; written by Berry Gordy, Jr. and Janie Bradford, it was released on Barrett Strong in 1959 and became Motown’s first hit record. The version included here is predictably more polished and less soulful than the original, though Diana Ross delivers a great lead vocal. Ross is actually quite soulful on this recording, sounding spirited and passionate about the subject of “green” — her opening lines (the classic “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and bees”) are sung with a kind of abandon she’d further exploit in the next few years (and particularly in her early solo work). Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, however, don’t really rise to the occasion; for lack of a better term, they sound a little “square” — too prim and proper while crooning “That’s what I want” (again, Wilson is really the audible one here, her unique tone immediately recognizable). The arrangement also lacks some of the power you’d expect from such a bold statement of a song; the instrumental work feels superficial and too generic. This one is worth hearing for Diana’s solid performance, but it’s filler.
11. Come And Get These Memories: This is a notable inclusion on The Supremes A’ Go-Go simply because it features Mary Wilson on lead, her first lead vocal work in quite some time. This is a cover of the 1963 single by Martha and The Vandellas, which was that group’s first significant hit (it was also written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team). The recording here doesn’t feature Diana Ross at all; Mary sings lead and she and Florence take background vocals, affording those ladies a deserved moment in the spotlight. The song is an instantly catchy one set to a swinging beat, but its melody line is fairly limited; Wilson acquits herself nicely, but doesn’t dig nearly as deep as Martha Reeves did to give the piece some added substance. The end result is a pleasant and innocuous reading, but one that’s not particularly distinguished. It’s always a treat to Mary out front, but this isn’t as dynamic as her work on the great “Baby Don’t Go” (from Meet The Supremes) or “Sunset” from Country, Western & Pop. (NOTE: This is another one of those songs on which the stereo masters stuck her lead on one channel and the backgrounds on the other; this was corrected on Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities, released on CD by Hip-O Select in 2008.
12. Hang On Sloopy: For the second and final time, the album features a song written and performed by somebody outside the Motown family; “Hang On Sloopy” had been a #1 hit for The McCoys in October of 1965 (shortly before “I Hear A Symphony” took the throne). Similar to “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” this is a song that’s very much of its time — as influential as it was, it sounds like a song that was written and performed in the mid-1960s. Thus, even though the version included here is good, it still sounds like a novelty inclusion. The AllMusic review of this album calls Diana’s performance here “surprisingly strong, passionate” — indeed, she sounds really good, and her vocals are particularly powerful toward the end of the song. But the rest of it doesn’t hold up too well; there’s a timeless quality to the hits and certain album tracks (like “This Old Heart Of Mine” and “Shake Me, Wake Me”) on this album that “Hang On Sloopy” just doesn’t possess.
Listening to The Supremes A’ Go-Go today, it’s no surprise that it was such a smash hit; The Supremes hadn’t sounded this youthful since their very first album, and this is exactly the kind of dance music teens would have wanted to buy and listen to over and over. Certainly the singles here are stellar; in particular, “You Can’t Hurry Love” is perfection, with a vocal by Diana Ross that’s so unique and contemporary it could be a hit all over again today. What this album lacks is depth; as mentioned earlier, it’s one of the very few Supremes albums without any hidden gems just waiting to be discovered by future generations of listeners (“Put Yourself In My Place” is as close as it gets here, by virtue of the fact that the song is lesser-known than the rest). Some of the songs lack some depth, too; without the Detroit musicians present, those productions are missing a key ingredient that make Supremes and Motown recordings so special. Today, The Supremes A’ Go-Go is best listened to as a celebration of being a teenager in the 1960s; in its way, it’s a “theme” LP as much as A Bit Of Liverpool or The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop were, and frankly, it’s much better than those albums. Some of the songs might sound dated, but the hits are timeless.
After all, like The Supremes say — it’s a game of give and take.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (Dated, But Still A Lot To “Love”)
Choice Cuts: “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart,” “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)”