“Now I see life for what it is…it’s not all dreams, it’s not all bliss…”
In August of 1967, fans of The Supremes were treated to a gorgeously-produced “best-of” compilation, featuring twenty classic tracks spread out over two albums. The timing of Greatest Hits made perfect sense from a commercial standpoint, as the group was wrapping up another unprecedented hot streak. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard had recently scored a stunning tenth #1 pop hit with “The Happening” in May of ’67; the song served as the theme to the film of the same name, and was the fourth consecutive Supremes single to reach the summit of the pop chart. Meanwhile, follow-up single “Reflections” had been released in July, and was on its way to the #2 spot. Although the latter song was left off of the hits collection and held for a future album, the remaining twenty tracks consisted of the ten #1s, five other singles of varying chart success, and five popular b-sides. The songs came packaged in a beautiful set, complete with liner notes by Broadway star Carol Channing and a fold-out poster featuring color portraits of each Supreme.
But the timing of Greatest Hits makes sense for another reason; this career retrospective truly marked the end of an era for The Supremes, and officially opened the door to the group’s next chapter. By the time the collection hit store shelves (credited, for the first time, to Diana Ross and The Supremes), Florence Ballard was out of the group; after a period of turmoil within The Supremes, the singer was replaced by Cindy Birdsong of Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles. Meanwhile, the group’s songwriting and producing team of Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier was also breaking from Motown at the time, due to a dispute over money. Holland-Dozier-Holland had penned every single song included on Greatest Hits; with the release of “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” in 1963, the writers had created the perfect Supremes formula, and then evolved it in a series of crisp, clever productions with strong melodies and irresistible lyrics perfectly suited to Diana’s uncanny vocal precision.
The loss of both Ballard and the H-D-H team would result in monumental changes for The Supremes; Motown would show something of a lack of direction in the coming years as to the group’s musical releases. Still, The Supremes remained the top female group in the world at the time of the Greatest Hits release, and it was an astounding success. The double-LP became the group’s second #1 album on the Billboard 200, and remained in the top spot for a full five weeks. Aside from a two-week stint by Bobbie Gentry, The Supremes were the only women to have a #1 pop album that year, and just as significantly, they were the only African-American performers to reach the summit in 1967. The featured songs remain some of the best pop/soul songs ever written; even today, nobody can deny the power of “Stop! In The Name Of Love” or “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The tracklist also traces the evolution of Ross, Wilson, and Ballard from eager, excited young singers to powerful, polished vocalists. This is especially evident in the collection’s newest song, “The Happening” — a big, bouncy pop song created hundreds of miles from Detroit.
(NOTE: “The Happening” is the only new song to appear on Greatest Hits; the other inclusions can be found on previous Supremes albums releases, and are thus discussed in previous articles.)
The Happening: For the 1967 #1 hit “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” Holland-Dozier-Holland created a dramatic track in Los Angeles that sounded like a mini-movie musical, complete with spoken passages and swirling strings. For the follow-up Supremes single, H-D-H went a step further, actually helping to craft the theme song to a Hollywood film. The Happening was a 1967 comedy starring Anthony Quinn and a young Faye Dunaway, with music written by Frank DeVol (who’d already scored several films including Pillow Talk, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Cat Ballou). According to Lamont Dozier (in the liner notes to the 2000 box set The Supremes), “Frank DeVol had done the score of The Happening, and they called us to meet with him and see a print of the movie. We wrote to his string part and cut it once in L.A., went back to Detroit to recut it because the L.A. rhythm guys couldn’t do what we wanted.” With “The Happening,” H-D-H managed an incredible feat; they took DeVol’s fun, bouncy musical motifs and used them to create a compact pop song that ended up being far more successful than the actual film. Opening with a fabulous cinematic intro (the “DAH-da-da-da, DAH-da-da-da” motif can be heard in DeVol’s popular composition “The Fuzz,” also featured on the film’s soundtrack), the song explodes into a swinging, splashy sing-along piece led by the vibrant vocal performances of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard. More than any recent single by The Supremes, “The Happening” makes use of all three singers, allowing Wilson and Ballard to deliver a forceful background line that becomes an essential hook; the song would not be the same without Mary and Florence belting “Beware The Happening!” throughout. Ross leads the way with a brassy performance, her voice cutting right through the crowded instrumental and deftly delivering the song’s clever lyrics (I love the lines “I saw the light too late/When that fickle finger of fate/Yeah, came and broke my pretty balloon…”). Diana was always a singer of incredible precision and crisp pronunciation, but around this time her voice began to pick up another texture, a breathy raspiness that lent an added soulfulness to her later Supremes recordings. This added texture to her voice really benefits “The Happening” — on the surface, it’s a light, poppy song, but the lyrics are actually quite dark, and Diana’s tone works to bridge the two feelings. Also, note the power and confidence in her voice here, particularly during the “Now I see life…” section at around 1:30 in. Much credit for the song’s success must also go to that aforementioned Detroit rhythm section; James Jamerson grounds this recording with a spellbinding, skipping bassline (once you really listen to the bass on this song, you’ll never be able to ignore it again). Although elements of the song are more dated than other Supremes hits (by virtue of the fact that it was born from a 1960s film score — also, listen for shades of Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass here), the recording remains an exciting and interesting addition to the group’s discography; there’s an irresistible energy to the single that still sounds fresh today. (NOTE: The flipside to “The Happening” single was another song written by DeVol and H-D-H, called “All I Know About You.” Although an instrumental version appears on the film’s soundtrack, the Supremes version was left off of Greatest Hits and the group’s other releases at the time. It eventually surfaced again as a bonus track on the CD release of Reflections.)
After “The Happening,” Diana Ross and The Supremes would release just three more singles written and produced by H-D-H, bringing to an end arguably the most important partnership between artist and writer/producer in popular music history. Dozier would later look back on the “golden years” with The Supremes: “Diana Ross is one of the most professional artists in the business…She was the best, and she will go down in history as one of the best…This particular recipe called the Supremes came together because everybody had the right elements, the right seasonings, and the right flavors to make it happen” (Diana Ross: A Biography, 180-1). Nearly fifty years after its initial release, the double-LP Greatest Hits collection remains a delicious platter upon which to enjoy that recipe of perfection.
(Click on the picture below to see the complete tracklist for Greatest Hits.)