“And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold…”
By 1967, The Supremes really had nothing left to prove. In just three short years, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard had conquered the music industry, racking up a staggering ten #1 hits (the latest being March release “The Happening”) and several smash albums, including the 1966 chart-topper The Supremes A’ Go-Go. More important in the eyes of Motown executives, the young singers had developed into seasoned entertainers, booking dates at prestigious clubs like New York’s Copacabana. According to manager Shelly Berger, “Adult audiences were not afraid of The Supremes; they looked great, they wore great costumes. They had Diana, Mary Wilson — sexy as all get out — and Florence, who had a great sense of humor. Unlike a lot of black groups at that time who had to prove themselves with the R&B audiences before they could cross over, The Supremes entered the pop market from day one” (The Supremes, 2000).
Still, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was determined to keep pushing his top group, and when they were booked to appear on an ABC-TV special celebrating the music of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, he decided to cut an entire album dedicated to the legendary composers. Diana Ross had already recorded a solo version of the Rodgers & Hart classic “With A Song In My Heart,” which was included on the 1966 LP I Hear A Symphony. But Rodgers & Hart had written countless memorable songs, many of them seemingly perfect for the sophisticated style of The Supremes. Thus, musical director and arranger Gil Askey worked up more than two dozen of them, ranging from “The Lady Is A Tramp” to “My Funny Valentine,” and prepared them for the young ladies. According to Andy Skurow in the 2002 release of The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Recordings, Diana, Mary, and Florence laid down their vocals between October 28th and November 3rd, 1966. The tracklist was eventually whittled down to 12 songs, and released in May of 1967.
Askey is quoted by writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography as saying of the project, “When we finished the entire album, I remember sitting with Berry and playing it for him and he was completely knocked out by it” (156). He should’ve been; although Gordy certainly knew The Supremes were up to any challenge, the resultant album is a masterpiece. Not only are Askey’s arrangements sublime, but this is a true group album, with dynamic vocal work by all three Supremes. As with the earlier trio of Supremes concept albums (A Bit Of Liverpool, The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop, and We Remember Sam Cooke), these songs give Ross, Wilson, and Ballard a chance to both shine as individuals and demonstrate their strength as a group. It’s a gift to fans to have this audio record of the group’s astonishing talent, as The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart marks the beginning of the end of an era. It would be the final LP released before the group’s name was changed to “Diana Ross and The Supremes” — and the last album released before the departure of Florence Ballard.
NOTE: The following reviews are based on the mixes included on the 2002 CD release of The Complete Recordings.
1. The Lady Is A Tramp: Of all the songs featured on The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, “The Lady Is a Tramp” would become the most associated with The Supremes; although no single would be released from this album, the lead-off track was incorporated into the group’s live act and stayed there until Diana Ross left the group (and Ross kept it in her solo act for a good portion of the 1970s after that). In fact, “The Lady Is A Tramp” can be found on the group’s 1968 LP Live At London’s Talk Of The Town…and again on 1970’s Farewell…and again on Diana’s 1974 LP Live At Caesar’s Palace…and again on 1977’s An Evening With Diana Ross! Thus, the Rodgers & Hart classic is afforded more album appearances than most of the actual hits recorded by The Supremes and/or Diana Ross! The reason the upbeat, swinging standard (written for the 1937 music Babes In Arms) became such a go-to is obvious; the song is a Ross showstopper, giving the singer a chance to really belt and display her often-overlooked range. For my money, the best recorded performance of the song is found on the Farewell album, in which Diana, Mary, and Cindy Birdsong exhibit a staggering amount of energy and pizzazz during a medley of the song and “Let’s Get Away From It All.” This studio version is very good, but lacks some of the energy of a live performance. Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are sorely underused on the track; for whatever reason, they don’t chime in until the very end, and their harmonies could have been used to add some verve earlier in the song. That said, Diana’s vocal performance is incredibly fresh. Her vocals at the end of the song are probably the most powerful thus far in her recording career; listen as she holds one of the final notes for a full seven seconds! Those incredibly short-sighted critics who still contend that the singer possesses a “thin” or “airy” voice have obviously never heard her work on this song. They should; with a performance like this, Ross was proving herself in a totally different class of singers.
2. Mountain Greenery: The lack of group vocal work on the previous track is rectified here, with Florence Ballard particularly prominent on this sprightly tune, first featured in 1926’s The Garrick Gaities. There’s terrific vocal interplay here, with Florence and Mary echoing many of Diana’s lines, creating a musical “round” at times. Miss Ross lends the clever lyrics the perfect light touch, letting her voice effortlessly dance over the melody (and note that she changes the lyrics from “just two crazy people together” to “just three crazy people together”). There’s a nice little rhythmic section in the middle, with Wilson and Ballard punctuating each line with staccato harmonies, and listen to the gorgeous work at the very end the song (at roughly 1:40), as Flo and Mary hold the word “home” for six or seven seconds. This is truly sophisticated singing, far beyond what most popular vocal groups were capable of at the time.
3. This Can’t Be Love: Because The Supremes had recorded to many songs dealing with the aches and pains of love (with lyrics ranging from “yearning” to “burning” to “itching” and beyond), “This Can’t Be Love” turns out to be a sly inclusion here, as the song opens with the words, “This can’t be love/Because I feel so well.” Although the song comes from the popular 1938 musical The Boys From Syracuse, it’s given a more modern treatment here, with a pseudo-Motown beat and brassy arrangement. Florence and Mary open the song with a hip “hey-hey-hey” repetition, and they offer very strong support behind Diana’s lead vocal here. Ross races through her performance; it’s another very good one, although it’s not quite as precise as her work on the rest of the album (to my ears, there are a few spots where she doesn’t quite nail the notes she’s going for). Still, this is a nice change of pace, albeit a very brief one; at just 1:44, this is the shortest song on the album, and certainly one of the shortest ever released by the group.
4. Where Or When: As with “The Lady Is A Tramp,” this Rodgers & Hart classic was written for the 1937 musical Babes In Arms; it has to rank among the most achingly beautiful melodies ever penned by the pair, if not among the most achingly beautiful melodies ever penned…period. “Where Or When” has been recorded countless times by countless artists, ranging from Dion and The Belmonts to George Michael; even without hearing all the others, it’s safe to say the version recorded by The Supremes is one of the very best. Everything is right about this track; the arrangement by Mr. Askey is sweepingly elegant, with polished playing by the phenomenal studio musicians (the strings in particular are lovely). Diana Ross delivers one of her very best readings on this or any other album; her delicate crooning is simply spellbinding. There’s a quiet confidence from her very first line (“It seems we stood and talked like this before”), and she sings with an intelligent restraint until the moment when the song dictates she let go; as we’ve said over and over on The Diana Ross Project, the singer’s strength is her ability to perfectly interpret a lyric, and this song is a stellar example of that. When she does finally open up at the end of the song, her voice building and building until it soars at the climax, it feels earned; it isn’t just cheap vocal gymnastics, it’s the organic progression of the song. Although the song is really a showcase for Diana Ross, her groupmates contribute some beautiful moments; I love the way Mary Wilson purrs “Like this…” at :15, and the three ladies really wail together on the song’s final few words. No single was ever released from The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, and if one had been, chances are it wouldn’t have been an enormous hit. But this is a song more people should hear; it’s one of the very best Supremes album tracks, and certainly a testament to how much these young ladies had matured as vocalists.
5. Lover: Jeanette MacDonald first sang “Lover” in the 1932 film Love Me Tonight; here, the song gets a bopping “Baby Love”-style makeover perfect for The Supremes. All three ladies sing the opening lines in unison; their voices are strong and clear, with each unique tone equally audible. Diana offers up a playful, breathy performance here; she should have obtained a trademark on the sexy way she murmurs the song’s title at :23. The arrangement here gives The Supremes plenty of opportunities to harmonize, and once again Mary and Florence demonstrate their excellent ears for intricate vocal work; listen closely for the ringing high notes, and the way Mary’s misty alto anchors the background line. The “What a lover, oh yes he is!” repetition during the final fade is classic; it brims with the kind of personality demonstrated during the group’s live performances. As far as group vocals go, “Lover” is one of this album’s strongest songs, and it’s one of the best existing representations of what made The Supremes so special; no other Motown group had such unique and distinct voices adding to the mix. (NOTE: Along with echoing early H-D-H productions, “Lover” certainly seems to foreshadow one of the great album tracks of Diana’s career, “All Night Lover” from 1977’s Baby It’s Me.)
6. My Funny Valentine: Imagine Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. first listening to the playback of songs from The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart; if indeed he was “knocked out,” as Gil Askey remembers, then he must have completely fallen out of his chair by the time “My Funny Valentine” finished playing. This popular ballad exists here for one reason and one reason alone — as a vocal showcase for Diana Ross. Although Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are given a few perfunctory background parts, this is basically a solo performance, and Diana Ross grabs hold of this song and digs into it like it’s the only thing keeping her alive. The arrangement is breathtaking, with an acoustic guitar line that foreshadows the opening of Diana’s “Little Girl Blue” (also written by Rodgers & Hart, from 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning), haunting strings, and muted horns; the musical elements weave just the right tapestry upon which Ross unfurls her lead vocal. This is easily the singer’s most dramatic performance on the album; each and every lyric drips with passion. This leads to moments of brilliance; her reading of the line “Don’t change a hair for me” at 2:23 sounds like an audition for her later role as Billie Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues, and she exhibits real lung power during the climactic “Stay!” at 2:42. Of course, a no-holds-barred performance means there are also some moments that seem overdone; Ross could have used some restraint at the beginning of the song, as she had on “Where Or When,” instead of wringing emotion from lines that don’t necessarily seem to call for it. Still, this is a great moment for Diana; she is proving herself a vocalist capable of carrying more than just pop/soul songs. Although many people would be shocked at how well she pulled off the songs of Billie Holiday, this song was an early indication that jazz singing was well within her wheelhouse.
7. My Romance: After a showstopping end to the first side of the album, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart picks back up with a bouncy rendition of this classic R&H composition, first introduced in 1935’s Jumbo. This is another song featuring great three-part harmonies by The Supremes Listen, for example, to the masterful way they sing the line “My Romance doesn’t need a castle rising in Spain” at :45; Diana stays on the melody, while Florence and Mary break apart on their own, and resulting sound is heavenly. Ross is relaxed and assured here; I love the way she drags down the notes on the words “Romance” and “need” beginning at 1:04. All three Supremes sound fabulous on this song, and there’s a real “twinkle” to their performances, indicating just how much the young ladies enjoyed recording this classic material.
8. My Heart Stood Still: If Gil Askey ever wanted to match the edgy, urgent material being written for The Supremes by Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier — this was his chance. “My Heart Stood Still,” so often performed as a saccharine ballad, is transformed into a driving dance number here, complete with a little sax line that sounds ripped from “Back In My Arms Again.” The ladies sing a good portion of the song in unison, and the lack of harmonies creates a sense of modernity to the production; they also get to riff a little at the end, throwing in a few trademark “baby, baby” lines. It’s surprising that the arrangement works as well as it does; as a ballad, “My Heart Stood Still” doesn’t quite have the immediacy of something like “Where Or When,” but the thumping beat and brassy soul give it some distinction and also adds some variety to the album. It’s no surprise that Diana, Mary, and Florence sound quite comfortable on the song; Diana’s vocal is crisp and engaging, and she’s matched by her groupmates. In the original liner notes to the LP, the great Gene Kelly wrote, “Whatever survives through changing tastes and is adaptable to any variation in performance is truly the work of creative genius.” Though this song isn’t the most exciting on the album, it’s probably the best reflection of Kelly’s wise words; credit goes to Rodgers & Hart for writing such timeless words and melodies, and Gil Askey for reimagining them.
9. Falling In Love With Love: This is a highlight of the album, a lovely duet between Diana and Mary that was added to the group’s live act and remained there until Ross left in early 1970 (it’s included on the group’s Farewell LP). Gil Askey is quoted by writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography as giving the credit for the duet idea to Diana: “We were in the studio getting ready to cut the song when Diane just said, ‘Mary should sing Bobby Darin’s part'” (156). Ross was referring to the aforementioned ABC-TV special Rodgers & Hart Today, during which the group sang the song with Darin; here, Diana takes the first verse, Mary takes the second, and the ladies harmonize at the end. The vocals performances here are magnificent; Diana gives a wonderfully controlled reading, her voice delicately landing on each precise note. Ross is so good here, so mature and elegant; she truly sounds like a singer from another era. Mary Wilson also really delivers; her low, dusky tone is a stark contrast to Diana’s bell-like voice, and adds some nice dimension to the recording. Listen to Mary’s wonderful phrasing on the line “Learning to trust is just for children in school” at 1:32, the way she packs in the first few words and then lets her voice breathe on the word “for” — it’s an unexpected touch that proves Wilson was also naturally adept at jazz and blues singing. Of course, the shining moment of the song comes toward the end, when Diana and Mary share several lines in two-part harmony; their voices are fabulously matched, each one clear and strong, and it sounds so great that it’s disappointing when it ends. That’s the only problem with this recording — it’s so terrific you wish there were a few more verses.
10. Thou Swell: Another sly and playful inclusion, with fantastic lyrics by Lorenz Hart mixing both outdated and modern English terms, set to a splashy arrangement by Mr. Askey and company. First appearing in 1927’s A Connecticut Yankee, the song would be performed by many vocalists over the years, including Nat King Cole and, later, his daughter Natalie. Diana Ross is a perfect singer to deliver this song; the rapid succession of plays-on-words and intricate rhymes require a vocalist who can keep the emphasis squarely on the lyrics, and that’s exactly what she does (I mean, how many other contemporary artists could pull off the line “Hear me holler, I choose a sweet Lollapaloosa in thee” so effortlessly?). Mary and Florence aren’t given quite as much to do on this song; they croon “Thou Swell, thou witty” behind Miss Ross, but there’s not as much harmonizing as one might like to hear. To be honest, though, it’s the bass player here that really steals the show; listen to the up and down plunking of the strings, and the way it dances through the entire song. That guy deserved a special album credit!
11. Dancing On The Ceiling: An absolutely beautiful song first included in 1930’s Evergreen and later covered by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald among others. This is another vocal highlight for Diana Ross; she offers up a dreamy interpretation reminiscent of her work on 1965’s superb Merry Christmas LP. Ross manages to straddle a delicate line of sounding both period-appropriate and modern in her singing; the way her voice lightly dances over the melody evokes images of 1930s supper clubs, while her soulful “oooohs” (beginning at :39 and repeated throughout) are pure ’60s Diana Ross. Unfortunately, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard aren’t used quite as much here, although they add some nice, surprising vocal flourishes; who can resist their sexy whisper of “Go away…” at 1:57? This song also boasts a great, danceable instrumental break that really captures just how talented the featured musicians are on this album. “Dancing On The Ceiling” is so smooth — and so totally effortless — that I think it’s an easy one to overlook on this album; certainly other songs here feature more striking arrangements and stronger hooks. But this is one of the best inclusions, precisely because it’s so relaxed and unassuming; this is simply a great recording, with no need for any bells and whistles.
12. Blue Moon: This is probably the most recognizable tune featured on the album — it certainly ranks up there with “My Funny Valentine” — mainly due to the success of the doo-wop cover recorded by The Marcels (a #1 hit in 1961). Interestingly, the liner notes to the 2002 CD release of The Complete Recordings notes that this song is the “only Rodgers & Hart success not associated with a stage or screen musical.” Those familiar only with the upbeat Marcels version are in for a surprise here; The Supremes take the song back to its ballad roots, performing a gorgeous big-band version with stunning group harmonies. This is a perfect way to end the album, as all three Supremes offer up strong work; Diana’s honeyed voice is sweet and engaging on the lead, while Mary and Florence croon like The Chordettes behind her. The interplay beginning at 1:17 is especially enjoyable, as Ross sings the melody and Wilson and Ballard repeat “Blue moon, blue moon, blue moon!” behind her, and the song features an especially satisfying climax, as the key changes and the singers really get a chance to let their voices soar. At its very heart, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart is a feel-good album, a work that’s meant to celebrate the timelessness of love; the optimistic “Blue Moon” sums it up succinctly.
The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart was a moderate success for the group; when it was released in May of 1967, it climbed to #20 on the Billboard 200 and #3 on the R&B albums chart, all of this without the benefit of an accompanying single from the LP. In Diana Ross: A Biography, Gil Askey remembers Berry Gordy, Jr. saying about this album, “This proves what I have been saying all along, these girls are amazing! Listen to this! This is absolutely amazing!” (156). Indeed, as a group, this is the best The Supremes would ever sound; Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard were all operating on a higher plane here, pushing themselves to the peak of their abilities. Sadly, the three women would never get the chance to do it together again; Florence would be out of The Supremes within months of the LP’s release, and Diana would leave the group just a few years later.
Even if the knowledge of these forthcoming changes makes listening to The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart a bittersweet experience today, this is a triumphant work that deserves far greater attention than it receives. This is the kind of album that would be showered with Grammys if it were released today; it is perfectly produced and performed, and definitive proof that The Supremes were more than just a carefully-crafted pop group. The vocal work featured on this album is as good as anything that would ever come out of the Motown fold; one cannot listen to Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard on this album and honestly deny that they were in a class by themselves.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (Simply “Swell”)
Choice Cuts: “Falling In Love With Love,” “Where Or When, ” “Lover”