“You persuaded me to love you, and I did…”
“We had no idea…we were just shooting from the hip, a gut reaction. If it felt good and it stood up and we could remember it a couple of days later, we figured that we’d done our job.”
The above quote by Lamont Dozier (from The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits) is an astonishing one, considering what we now know about the outcome of this “gut reaction” method to choosing singles. Between late 1963 and early 1968, The Supremes released a whopping eighteen singles written by the team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland (and produced by the latter two). Of those, fourteen hit the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and ten peaked at #1. Think about that for a moment — more than half of the records released by The Supremes under the guidance of Holland-Dozier-Holland topped the pop charts. And all of this happened, according to Dozier, without any kind of master plan; “We were trying to make quality songs, quality music,” he says, simply, in the booklet to The Supremes box set.
Of course, beyond making quality music, H-D-H was busy making relevant music; the writers admittedly watched John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson closely, listening to the way The Beatles and The Beach Boys evolved as the decade progressed. As the trio’s star group, The Supremes — Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard — matured and became more seasoned singers and entertainers, H-D-H obviously knew their sound needed to evolve too; Ross, in particular, had developed into a dramatic singer capable of great range and power. Beginning with “My World Is Empty Without You” in late 1965, H-D-H began stepping forward in terms of lyrical content and production, delivering a turbulent masterpiece to The Supremes and following with danceable funk (“Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart”) and irrepressible pop/soul perfection (“You Can’t Hurry Love”). And then, in October of 1966, came one giant leap for H-D-H and The Supremes, a song so modern and striking that it blazed a trail to #1 in roughly one short month.
That song, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” is arguably the most dazzling Supremes single ever, featuring the writers/producers, vocalists, and Motown musicians (the fabulous Funk Brothers) all in peak form. Its success led Motown to release The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, a tribute to the men behind the music. The LP was another big seller, featuring only songs written by H-D-H and containing a second #1 hit (“Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone”). These singles, along with a handful of b-sides and filler tracks, are the heart of the album; these are some of the best songs ever recorded by the group. Unfortunately, the rest don’t measure up; covers of songs by Martha and The Vandellas and The Isley Brothers feel hollow, and a few of the originals are weak. Thus, like the previous two Supremes LPs, this one ends up a good, but uneven project. Still, this is an essential simply because of what it represents; in listening to these songs, you’re listening to six of the most important people in pop music history, each of them undoubtedly talented and as a unit, unstoppable.
(NOTE: The following summaries are based on mixes from the UK 2-on-1 CD reissue More Hits By The Supremes/The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, released in 2000.)
1. You Keep Me Hangin’ On: This song is the musical equivalent of pure adrenaline, a rush of energy and excitement that’s heady and exhilarating. Past recordings like “Nothing But Heartaches” and “He’s All I Got” barely hinted at the breathless urgency that Holland-Dozier-Holland would deliver to The Supremes with this song. Says Lamont Dozier, “We had four or five guitars playing that main figure. I remember hearing something like that on the radio while I was driving to the studio — the news was coming on, and the thought occurred to me in the studio…Da-da-da, da-da, like a news flash” (The Supremes booklet). That blaring guitar opening is iconic; it’s one of the great musical intros in popular music, soul-stirring in its intensity and made even more disconcerting by the back-and-forth switching of audio channels on the stereo master. This recording is a shining moment for Motown studio band The Funk Brothers — it’s perhaps the shining moment — featuring a tough and edgy playing by every single musician involved. The staccato guitars are the stars here, but really focus on the galloping percussion or the bouncy bassline and you’ll understand how ridiculously intricate these musical signatures are. The track is thick with sound; Dozier comments in The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, “We didn’t have certain echo and sophistication we have today, so we discovered that the more instruments — even if the guys only played units and all the same licks together — only enhanced the sound, gave us a more dynamic sound” (26). That philosophy carries over to the vocals on this recording, with the brilliant idea of multi-tracking the lead; because the established Diana Ross sound was one of acute emotional urgency, the doubling of her voice only intensifies that quality. The singer’s performance here is masterful; never before had she pushed her unique, piercing tone to such a devastating place, delivering the lyrics as one breathless plea for help. There’s also a real skill in the way she couples emotional fragility with vocal strength; although she sings from the point of view of a woman in total desperation (“And there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it”), her performance is anything but weak. She’s buoyed by the fantastic work of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who are given their best vocal opportunities on a Supremes single since “Nothing But Heartaches” — here, the work of Wilson and Ballard is essential, and the ladies wail on this track, particularly at the 1:34 mark, at which their voices explode with the powerful, “Set me free, why don’t you, babe!” Because this track feels so modern — so ahead of its time, in many ways — it’s surprising to learn that it was actually finished at the same time as the group’s previous #1 hit. According to Brian Holland, “I liked ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ better, but Billie Jean Brown, who worked in Quality Control, said, ‘We have to go with ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ first. I was listening to the production and the melody thing; but I think she was taken with the lyric, and convinced Berry” (The Supremes booklet). In retrospect, Brown made the right call; “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a perfect Supremes single, but it might have sounded like a step back coming on the heels of something so genre-busting. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is rock n’ roll, and pop, and soul…it’s a song that better than any other defines the talent of the young men and women who created it.
2. You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart): This is the Motown version of a funeral dirge, a slow and depressing song that nearly manages to suck away all of the life and energy provided by the previous track. This song first surfaced as the b-side to “Come See About Me” back in October of 1964, when it was simply titled “Always In My Heart.” The tune was left off of Where Did Our Love Go and More Hits By The Supremes (thank goodness, as the latter was way too good for this song), but for whatever reason resurrected for inclusion here. Set to a plodding (almost non-existent) beat and opening with ominous drums that sound appropriate for a march to the guillotine, the instrumental track here is spare but still quite heavy; the playing is accomplished, but not particularly enjoyable. Diana Ross was clearly much younger when she recorded this song; she’s high and girlish here, and rather affected during several passages. It’s not a terrible vocal performance, but it’s raw and lacks the technical skill she’d picked up by 1967. Better than the lead is the work on the backgrounds; Florence and Mary offer up haunting vocals, howling like ghosts behind Ross during the verses. Similar to early Supremes songs like “Run, Run, Run” and “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” there are other voices featured on this track, too, noticeable during the refrain. Considering it’s sandwiched between two of the most dramatic and modern songs recorded by The Supremes thus far, “You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart)” sounds especially out of place; it’s always nice to hear a change of pace from H-D-H and The Supremes, but this one just weighs the album down.
3. Love Is Here And No You’re Gone: “That was one of the first times we went out of the confines of the Motown studio,” recalls Lamont Dozier (in the booklet to the box set The Supremes), and one listen to this song immediately proves that Holland-Dozier-Holland were expanding their horizons. Released as a single in January 1967 (the same month of release as this LP), “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in early March, and then hit #1 on the R&B chart the following week. According to The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland cut the track in Los Angeles, and “Love Is Here” certainly sounds inspired by the location; it’s a big, dramatic song broken up by spoken passages and featuring an intricate, baroque musical track. The song kicks off with an unusual keyboard opening, staccato chords accompanied by ethereal, otherworldly voices; the rest of the track is driven by a steady beat and swirling strings, expertly performed by the LA musicians. As with previous single “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson are crucial to the song’s success; their prominent responses to the “call” of Diana Ross harken back to the earliest Supremes recordings. Wilson and Ballard provide some of the recording’s most memorable moments, including their repetition of the phrase “Look what you’ve done” under Diana’s spoken sections. Miss Ross, meanwhile, mints one of her most passionate performances; her emotive singing and spoken lines are predictive of her work on the 1970 #1 single “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (a solo hit which remains arguably the greatest performance of her career). Although Ross hadn’t ventured into acting yet, she gives a “movie star” reading here, pronouncing the word “here” as “he-ah” and “darling” as “dah-lin'” like a Tallulah Bankhead-in-training. Ross is brassy and powerful in her singing, really pushing her voice and attacking certain phrases (listen to her really go for the notes at 1:20, on the line “Just walked away!” and again at just past the two-minute mark). Ross drops her voice during the spoken words, soulfully delivering the dialogue and ending with a little “hiccup” tic that’s pure genius; this touch is something Ross would further incorporate into her live performances and recordings, and would be mimicked by Michael Jackson for years afterward. Everyone is operating at full speed here; the musicians, the singers, and especially the writers-producers, who are working in a totally different universe than “Baby Love” here; the end result is one that Eddie Holland would later call, “My personal favorite. That song just had an exotic feel to it, as well as the song ‘Reflections.’ There was a provocative feel about them, due to the orchestration and production” (The Supremes booklet). It remains an exotic and provocative record today.
4. Mother You, Smother You: This song was originally scheduled as the b-side for “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — that release was cancelled, and “Remove This Doubt” ended up on the flipside of the hit single instead. Perhaps Motown felt “Mother You, Smother You” had potential as an a-side and decided to hold off on releasing it; it’s certainly one of the better tracks on this album and sounds like it could have done well at radio. After the emotional double-whammy of the #1 hits on this LP, “Mother You, Smother You” is a easy-going tune that pairs a mature, sexy lyric with softly-swinging instrumental track; it feels like a grown-up version of “Whisper You Love Me Boy” from More Hits By The Supremes. Diana’s lead vocal is relaxed and soulful; there’s a nice confidence in her delivery, and she does quite well keeping up with the tightly-packed lyrics during the verses. I love her phrasing at around 1:30, as she throws in a “Oh!” before the line “I’ll be standing by your side” — it’s a perfect example of the kind of seemingly insignificant vocal flourishes Ross would toss into a recording which, when listened to today, are clearly an essential part of her magic as a vocalist. Interestingly, “Mother You, Smother You” did end up being released as a Supremes single — but not one featuring Diana Ross. In 1966, Detroit radio station WKNR and DJ Scott Regen hosted a contest called “Record A Record With The Supremes” — it was won by a local teen named Christine Schumacher, who recorded this song as her prize. Ms. Schumacher laid her vocals down over the backing track and Supremes background vocals, and it was released as a double-side promo single in December of that year, credited to Christine Schumacher Sings With The Supremes. (NOTE: You can read more about Schumacher and the contest on the website Motor City Radio Flashbacks — it’s a cool story and she does a really nice job with the song.)
5. I Guess I’ll Always Love You: This song was originally recorded by The Isley Brothers and included on that group’s 1966 LP This Old Heart Of Mine; it was released as a single in June of that year. H-D-H cut the song in a high key, perfect for the wobbly falsetto of Ronald Isley and the crowd of voices singing behind him during the chorus. The version here utilizes the same backing track, and unfortunately it doesn’t work nearly as well for The Supremes. Ross never sounds completely comfortable going for the higher notes, and the result is a performance that’s fairly weak, especially in light of the powerhouse vocals she’s already displayed on this album’s two singles. Wilson and Ballard offer up good background work, faring better than Miss Ross mainly because they don’t have to keep reaching to the top of their ranges like she does; they’re at least finally given a chance again to do some nice harmonizing and provide full-bodied “response” work throughout. Interestingly, considering this is not one of the LP’s best tracks, this song was placed on the b-side of “In And Out Of Love,” a top 10 single released in October of 1967 (the a-side would be included on the group’s 1968 LP Reflections).
6. I’ll Turn To Stone: This is a bouncy H-D-H composition (co-written with R. Dean Taylor) also recorded by The Four Tops and included on their 1967 LP Reach Out (it was also featured as the b-side to the group’s top 20 single “7-Rooms Of Gloom.” This song is classic H-D-H, featuring an urgent lyric about the fear of losing love and set atop a chunky Funk Brothers instrumental, and in theory it should be perfect for The Supremes. The problem here is that it sounds tired and outdated alongside the sophisticated singles included on the LP. There’s no experimentation or boundary-pushing on this track, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except that neither is the song terribly distinguished. Part of the issue is the lyrics, which are quite clunky; “If from my life/You were ever gone/I’d fall to pieces/You I depend on” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Ross, Wilson, and Ballard do an admirable job here, and the instrumental is up to par — but the end result doesn’t like the potential hit that “Mother You, Smother You” and some of the later songs do.
7. It’s The Same Old Song: In the same way that the Hollands and Lamont Dozier were essential to the success of The Supremes, so were the writers instrumental in making The Four Tops the legendary group it would become. Although the Tops had been recording professionally since the 1950s, it wasn’t until the group signed to Motown and released the H-D-H song “Baby I Need Your Loving” in 1964 that it broke into the mainstream. A string of huge hits followed, mostly written by H-D-H, including two that topped the Billboard Hot 100 (“I Can’t Help Myself” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There”). “It’s The Same Old Song” was the follow-up to the first of those #1 hits; released in 1965, it was a top 5 pop and R&B hit. The Supremes offer up a peppy version of the hit here; similar to the cover of “Baby I Need Your Loving” featured on The Supremes A’ Go-Go, the tempo is picked up, which robs the song of some emotional power. Diana really races through it, charging ahead like a sprinter running for the finish line; she sounds good and handles the pace well, but it would have been nice had she been given a chance to dig into the lyrics a little more. Ditto for Mary and Florence, who do a fine job but are fairly buried in the mix (and honestly, I’m not totally sure it’s those two in the background). In the end, it’s the songwriters who come off best here; their composition is so good that even a faster, less distinguished arrangement can’t sink it. Holland-Dozier-Holland were truly masters of the pop/soul sound, and both The Supremes and The Four Tops were the perfect groups to take that sound to the masses.
8. Going Down For The Third Time: This is one of the great “should-have-beens” in The Supremes discography, a rollicking song that ended up as the b-side for “Reflections” later in the year. But “Going Down For The Third Time” is so superb it easily could have been a hit on its own; spotlighted by a ferocious lead vocal and boisterous backgrounds, this recording is gem waiting to be discovered by those only familiar with the group’s big hits. Opening with a pounding piano line and the loud “Save me!” refrain, the song explodes into a percussive soul-stirrer, almost as frantic as “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” but less stylized and rougher around the edges. Diana Ross offers up one of her most dynamic vocal performances of the decade here, displaying a power that some critics are still unaware she possesses. There’s a rawness to the singer’s voice here that’s exciting and extremely appealing; she growls and wails and goes for notes with the confidence of a performer who’s not worried about perfection. Listen, for example, to her read on the lyrics “I’ll forgive your lies and alibis/If you’ll wipe my crying’ eyes” at 1:53; she full-on attacks the words. The background vocals are also a key ingredient on the record, filling in what little empty space there is with uncontrolled pleas for help. Of course, none of this would work without a fiery Funk Brothers instrumental track, and the Detroit players deliver the goods here; the piano really rocks on this track, lending echoes of gospel and early rock n’ roll, and the guitar work during the “I’m lost in a world without your love…” section (at roughly :25 in, and repeated a few times) is reminiscent of the terrific work on this LP’s lead-off track. Although a mono mix was issued on the 2000 box set The Supremes, “Going Down For The Third Time” has been unfairly overlooked through the years; it’s one of the best Supremes album tracks of the 1960s, and a shining moment for Diana Ross as a soul singer.
9. Love Is In Our Hearts: All the fire and fury whipped up by the previous track disappears with this one, a song that (according to J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography) was actually recorded back in 1964. If indeed that’s the case, it’s not a big surprise that it was held back; this is a meandering song that’s pretty forgettable. Built around a simplistic, major-chord melody, the song is at least one of the more optimistic in the H-D-H cannon, featuring saccharine lyrics like the opening couplet, “We’re happy holding hands/To us, love’s been grand.” There’s not much of a discernible structure here, no real verses or choruses, and only the semblance of a bridge; The Supremes just keep singing about love until the song is finally over. The singing is the saving grace; if this is the original lead vocal recorded by Diana in 1964, then she certainly offered up a seasoned reading at the time, with intelligent and dreamy phrasing that’s better than the song deserves (but it’s possible the singer dubbed in a new vocal in 1966). Likewise, Mary and Florence contribute strong support, their voices riding comfortable over the melody. It’s not as bad as the earlier “You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart)” — thanks mainly to a better vocal performance by the group — but it never sounds like anything other than generic album filler.
10. Remove This Doubt: This is another holdover from 1964, but the story couldn’t be more different from that of “Love Is In Our Hearts” — this is a dark, cinematic track that’s another one of the great Supremes b-sides. In fact, scratch that — it’s got to be one the all-time great Motown b-sides, period. From the epic, thunderous opening to the swirling strings and ghostly background vocals, “Remove This Doubt” is just different; it’s musically sophisticated and lyrically wise in a way that’s far beyond the years of the artists who were creating it. There’s the kernel of ’50s doo-wop here, but the doors have been blown wide open, expanding it into a haunting rock theme; this song really is a rock n’ roll ballad, and it’s not a surprise that while the song was apparently never covered by any Motown artists, it was recorded by Elvis Costello for this 1995 disc Kojak Variety. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard are superb on this track; all three signers are dreamy and hypnotic, with Ross transmitting a numb sadness on the lead vocal and Wilson/Ballard wailing behind her like tortured spirits. The way the ladies deliver the song’s key phrase — as “re-MOOOOVE this doubt” — is a brilliant hook, instantly memorable and totally unique. The musicianship on display here is also staggering; this must be one of the most devastating string arrangements ever featured on a classic Motown song, with the instrumental break in particular worthy of a place at the beginning of a film. Though it was apparently held back for quite some time, “Remove This Doubt” was finally placed on the flipside of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” ensuring it a wide audience. It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened it the song was released as an a-side; chances are, it was a little too esoteric for pop radio. Still, this is a key Supremes track, and a demonstration of how far the talent of Holland-Dozier-Holland extended.
11. There’s No Stopping Us Now: This is a song that’s so good — so quintessential Supremes — that many listeners would probably assume it was another in the group’s long string of #1 hits. In reality, “There’s No Stopping Us Now” was featured as the b-side of “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” — although it proved popular enough that Motown placed it on the group’s double-LP Greatest Hits. This is a crisp, exciting track with a strong melody and lyric; it easily could have been a big hit for the group. Although it’s a more traditional song than this album’s more experimental singles, it’s a solid enough composition that it doesn’t need to push boundaries; thanks to an excellent Funk Brothers instrumental (with fantastic percussion work and a triumphant piano line), there’s a stirring energy that carries the song. The lyrics here ring with optimism (“There’s no stopping us now/Now we have found our way”), and are delivered with verve by Diana Ross. The singer sounds as assured and confident here as she does on any of the album’s inclusions; the melody makes good use of her range, letting Ross display her relaxed lower tones as well as push for some higher, more powerful notes. Listen to the way she punches certain words at 1:55, delivering the lyrics as “NOW that we’ve FOUND love we’ve GOT to hold ON love…” before leaping back to the refrain; this is incredibly skillful phrasing that lends a necessary eagerness to the song, and the kind of thing that apparently always came naturally to the singer (in the 2000 box set booklet, Eddie Holland would comment, “Her ear and her feel — she had a natural feel, she had a natural understanding for that kind of lyric”). When listened to today, there’s also a bittersweet quality to this recording, considering H-D-H would soon leave Motown and The Supremes would experience irreparable issues within the group. At least for these three minutes, the ladies and their writer-producers sound poised to keep on conquering the world together.
12. Love Is Like A Heat Wave: “There’s No Stopping Us Now” would have made a dynamite finish to The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland; instead, the LP ends with this unnecessary cover of the song made famous by fellow Motown girl-group Martha and The Vandellas. “Heat Wave” was the second collaboration between H-D-H and The Vandellas (after “Come And Get These Memories” — already covered by The Supremes on The Supremes A’ Go-Go), and it was an enormous hit, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. As the title implies, it’s a blistering piece propelled by an incredibly soulful instrumental track and a fiery vocal performance by Martha Reeves. The version included here offers none of those elements; the track is really watered down, and Diana Ross works a little too hard to summon the grit and gutsiness needed to pull the song off. Some of the singer’s ad-libs are actually pretty impressive; she’s certainly pushing here, and doesn’t seem concerned with sounding pretty or polished. Still, there’s an inconsistency to her work and it’s just too easy to compare it to the iconic performance of Ms. Reeves. Likewise, the backgrounds are lackluster; the Vandellas were loud and uncontrolled, egging on Martha and warning her “Don’t pass up this chance!” The voices behind Ross (it’s tough to tell if it’s Mary and Florence or session singers) sound a little too prim and proper, less like schoolgirls than student teachers. Though it’s not a total misfire, Andrew Hamilton nails it in his AllMusic review of this album, writing, “The Vandellas’ version was special, while this one comes off like another song for the session.”
The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is an album of tremendous highs and lows. The very best songs here (six of them, including the two #1 hit singles and their b-sides) represent the best of Motown, and are just about as good as pop music would ever get; the way H-D-H and The Supremes blur lines between pop, soul, and rock music is still as spellbinding as it must have been in 1966-1967. But the fact that there are so many peaks and valleys is perhaps appropriate given the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Less than a year after the release of this album, Florence Ballard would be out of the group, forever ending the dream of the three young girls from the Brewster Projects who once said, “We’re going to always continue to make records for our fans, because this we love and we want to do something that will make them happy and that also makes us happy, too.” Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, who’d been a member of Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles.
1968 would also bring about the breakup of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Motown, due to a dispute over money. According to the British music magazine MOJO, “[Motown founder Berry] Gordy offered them $100,000 a year each to stay but HDH didn’t accept and left” (February 2009). Both The Supremes and H-D-H would score successes without each other, but neither would ever reclaim the kind of chart supremacy (pardon the pun) they’d enjoyed together from 1964-1967; the last of their collaborations would appear on 1968’s Reflections, but this LP is truly the end of the halcyon years. For whatever reason, the combination of these six young men and women was magical; the guys crafted songs that spoke directly to millions and millions of listeners, and the ladies possessed the talent to bring those songs to life. And because of the legacy of their music, these lyrics to “There’s No Stopping Us Now” remain relevant today:
Nothing can shake us,
Nothing can break us,
We’ll be together
Forever and ever…
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Six Classics, But The Rest Leaves Us “Hangin'”)
Choice Cuts: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” “Going Down For The Third Time”