“I really knew they were reaching a worldwide audience when ‘Baby Love’ did so well internationally. ‘Baby Love’ was the record that showed they had mass appeal. It went to No. 1 in the U.K. and from then on, they were worldwide stars.” -Berry Gordy, Jr. in The Supremes box set booklet
Although The Supremes are mainly spoken about in terms of their success in the United States (they were American artists, after all, and dominated the pop charts on their home turf), it’s important to remember that by 1968, the group was famous around the world. After “Baby Love” hit to top spot in the UK in 1964 (the first Motown record to do so), the group scored several other top 10 hits there, including “You Can’t Hurry Love” (#3) and “Reflections (#5). Once The Supremes conquered New York’s Copacabana nightclub in 1965, the group was welcome in pretty much every top-notch supper club in the world. According to then-manager Shelly Berger, “What we wanted for The Supremes was to do things that almost no other pop group could do at that time. We wanted them to be the highest-paid group, to become international stars, which they did” (Supremes booklet).
One of those clubs was London’s Talk of the Town. According to the current website of The Hippodrome Casino London, the venue opened in 1900 as a “circus variety theatre” before hosting Talk of the Town from 1958-1982. During that time, the biggest names in entertainment played there, including Sammy Davis, Jr. and Judy Garland. Several of them recorded live albums there, including fellow Motown artists The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. Diana Ross and The Supremes played the club in early 1968, when this live album was recorded; this is why Diana Ross introduces “In And Out Of Love” as “our latest recording” (by the time the album was released in August of 1968, the group had released a pair of other singles). As captured on vinyl, the show was high-energy and fast-paced, with Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong racing through several medleys, a few standards, and some of their most recent hits. The reviews were raves:
“For 55 minutes, and through 30 songs, Diana Ross, in a staggering display of energy and artistry, held the capacity audience in an almost continuous state of applause. –Ray Connolly, The Evening Standard
“I can say no more other than this is the finest opening night I have ever witnessed at the Talk of the Town.” –Alan Smith, New Musical Express
Live At London’s Talk Of The Town is an interesting counterpart to the group’s previous live album (1965’s At The Copa) for several reasons. This is the first chance for fans to hear the lineup of Ross, Wilson, and Birdsong together on a full LP; Birdsong was relatively new to the group when this album was recorded, and had only appeared on a few songs featured on previous LP Reflections. It’s also evidence of the continued evolution of The Supremes as razzle-dazzle performers; though there’d been plenty of polish on display at the Copa show, there were still an appealing rawness to Diana Ross in particular. That’s gone here; all three women are pure sheen, their voices cutting through the Vegas-style arrangements like glass. Everything sounds ultra-rehearsed; there’s no real room for surprise or spontaneity, no little “off the cuff” moments that make this a particularly memorable show. Still, it’s a fine record of what was called “a heady experience” by Christopher Reed in The Sun; the laser-focused energy on display here is pretty remarkable.
1. Medley (With A Song In My Heart/Stranger In Paradise/Wonderful Wonderful/Without A Song): The album opens with a relatively brief medley of songs from the 1966 LP I Hear A Symphony; each song is afforded about a minute of running time, and the ladies briskly move through them with smooth, efficient vocal performances. These four songs were not necessarily standouts on Symphony (they had the unenviable position of being surrounded by stellar Holland-Dozier-Holland originals), and work better as a medley; the arrangements here give the songs a vitality that they lacked on the original Supremes recordings. Diana Ross sounds extremely appealing here; her voice is significantly more mature than it had been on 1965’s At The Copa LP, brassier and a bit deeper, and there’s no mistaking the great confidence behind this and the rest of the performances on this album. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong join her toward the end of “With A Song In My Heart” and they also sound fabulous, providing perfect, on-key harmonies behind Miss Ross; all three women really belt together at the end of “Without A Song,” and it’s a great moment. Though this standards medley isn’t a standout (honestly, it could have been replaced with a medley from 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, which featured much better material), it’s a good way to ease the audience into the rest of the show. (NOTE: The live medley also included a snipped from “Unchained Melody,” which was apparently edited out for this album.)
2. Medley (Stop! In The Name Of Love/Come See About Me/My World Is Empty Without You/Baby Love): Next up is the perfunctory medley of hits, a rush of four classic songs all dressed up in the trappings of Vegas showtunes. The combination of these four tunes would show up again on 1970’s Farewell LP; the arrangement speeds up the tempo and barely gives the singers time to breathe as they race from song to song. It’s to the credit of writers Holland-Dozier-Holland that each of the songs still works without the benefit of the original lean, muscular Funk Brothers instrumental tracks, and to the credit of The Supremes that each one still sounds pretty fresh when performed. Still, at this point “Stop!” and the rest of the hits were far, far removed from Hitsville; the grit and funk of Motown are gone, replaced by a wash of big-band sounds.
3. Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone: This was a relatively recent hit when Diana Ross and The Supremes performed it in London; “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” had topped the US charts in March of 1967, and reached the top 20 in the UK. Because the song had originally been cut in Los Angeles and not in the confines of the Detroit studios, it lends itself better to the jazzier arrangement it’s given here; the inherent drama in the song’s lyrics and melody is also tailor-made for live performance. Ross, Wilson, and Birdsong deliver here; Diana really tears into the song, injecting just about every single line with her signature “hiccup” tic sound that is so unique to her (and which Michael Jackson later incorporated into his own sound). Cindy and Mary are full-bodied and brassy behind her, although buried at times by the boisterous orchestra. After two good but not wholly satisfying medleys, this is where the show really begins to pick up.
4. More: This song had initially been featured in the 1962 documentary Mondo Cane, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Original Song. The Supremes notably performed the tune on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1966 (currently available on the DVD The Best of The Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show) and also sang it at Detroit’s Roostertail nightclub that year, a performance recently released on I Hear A Symphony: Expanded Edition from Motown Select. “More” is strictly easy-listening, and the vocal arrangement is pretty vanilla, with the ladies singing the bulk of the song in unison. This would have been a nice opportunity to hear some of the sophisticated harmonies that Mary and Cindy were capable of, something that really only happens at the song’s climax. In addition, Miss Ross goes a little overboard on her pronunciations here; “sure” becomes “shee-ore” several times, which is a bit grating. Still, “More” is a memorable tune, and a notable inclusion because it never shows up on any other original album release by The Supremes.
5. You Keep Me Hangin’ On: After a little joke about the orchestra conductor drinking (Diana introduces a “beautiful soft, sweet ballad” — and instead this song starts playing), Diana Ross and The Supremes launch into another one of their big hits, originally a US #1 for two weeks in November of 1966. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is the group’s most dazzling single ever, a frenzied rush of energy with wailing guitars and a multi-tracked, urgent lead performance from Diana Ross. The orchestra and singers do an outstanding job replicating that energy here; it doesn’t really sound like the studio version, of course, but it’s an exciting, adrenaline-packed rendition nonetheless. All three singers are really belting here; Mary’s alto is especially audible behind Diana’s cutting, precise vocal. When Christopher Reed wrote in The Sun of the crowd “having leapt to their feet, shouted, whistled, stamped” — it’s easy to imaging him referencing this moment in the show. Diana and The Supremes were on fire here; this is an improbable but perfect melding of supper club entertainment and rock n’ roll.
6. Medley (Michelle/Yesterday): The Supremes were no strangers to the songs of The Beatles, having recorded several of them way back in 1964 on A Bit Of Liverpool. Here they combine two of the group’s most popular songs, the Grammy-winning “Michelle” and “Yesterday,” a song which Diana had already recorded on the I Hear A Symphony LP. “Michelle” is a perfect fit for The Supremes; the French lyrics roll right off of Diana’s tongue, and the singer’s velvety voice is delectable. The group also does an admirable job with “Yesterday,” although it’s a bit more overwrought and Diana’s delivery is quite affected at times. Still, this is a really nice medley; it certainly makes one wish the ladies had recorded “Michelle” in full at some point. And they obviously won over the man who wrote both songs — Paul McCartney is quoted on the back of the LP as calling this engagement “the show business event of the year” — how’s that for praise?!?
7. In And Out Of Love: This was the group’s most recent single at the time of this performance; “In And Out Of Love” was released in October of ’67, and peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the group’s final hit single written by Holland-Dozier-Holland (next single “Forever Came Today” would be released at the very end of February, and would stall at #28 on both the US and UK charts). Although “In And Out Of Love” was a solid success and a good choice for a single, the recording was missing a bit of the Motown magic that made the group’s previous hits so memorable; interestingly, the song works extremely well in this live setting, and sounds as good on Live At London’s Talk Of The Town as it did on the studio LP Reflections. As with “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” this song was initially cut in Los Angeles, and thus translates well to the orchestral arrangement it’s given here (one doesn’t necessarily crave a Funk Brothers rhythm section). Diana gives a confident, bouncy performance and easily matches her work in the studio; her voice sounds really strong here, especially on lines like “Love always somehow all goes wrong for me.” This rendition also benefits from featuring Mary and Cindy on backgrounds and not The Andantes; the Motown studio singers added vocals to the studio version, and their thick, heavy voices really bogged down the recording. Supremes fans who overlook “In And Out Of Love” should check it out here; this is a refreshing take on a song that’s often overlooked today.
8. Medley (The Lady Is A Tramp/Let’s Get Away From It All): “The Lady Is A Tramp” was earlier featured on 1967’s superb The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart; it would remain in the group’s act until Diana Ross left in 1970, and Ross continued to perform the song well into her solo career. There’s no question why it became such a staple; it’s a Diana Ross showcase, a chance for the singer to really go-for-broke and display the immense vocal power she possesses (but is rarely given credit for). This medley, also incorporating the standard “Let’s Get Away From It All,” is a showstopper here; the ladies are fully engaged, appear to be having a ball, and never sound better on this album. The orchestra (conducted by Jimmy Garrett) really cooks, and Diana sounds fantastic; she is brassy and allows her voice to deftly dance over the melodies, and her vocal work on the song’s climax is just stunning. Listen to her deliver the final “That’s why The Lady Is A Tramp!” — this is Broadway-worthy belting. Mary and Cindy add a lot of personality here; Mary in particular tosses out plenty of sassy spoken lines behind Diana, demonstrating the keen confidence she’d developed as a performer. This is an electric moment, perhaps the single best demonstration on this LP of just how vivacious The Supremes were as live entertainers.
9. The Happening: And we’re back to another hit, this one the group’s tenth US #1 single and a song which featured as the theme to the film of the same name. As with the other Supremes originals featured here, the song is taken at a much faster pace, and the ladies charge through it in under two minutes. Because it’s another LA-based song that lends itself to a big-band arrangement, it would have been nice to let this one breathe a little bit; it could have been performed in full, at its original pace, and still sounded perfect surrounded by standards. Still, what’s here is great — Diana gives a compelling performance, adding in some boisterous shouts of “C’mon” and “Let’s go!” while ably backed by Mary and Cindy.
10. Medley (Thoroughly Modern Millie/Second Hand Rose/Mame): A cute medley featuring three tunes which revolve around women; “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is the title song to the 1967 Julie Andrews film, “Second Hand Rose” was a Ziegfeld Follies standard (and would be performed by Barbra Streisand in the film version of Funny Girl), and “Mame” comes from the musical of the same name, which opened on Broadway in 1966 starring Angela Lansbury. Thematically, this is a smart collection of songs; it makes sense to have a female singing trio tackle of grouping of songs celebrating women. The medley is beautifully arranged, and all three women are at the peak of their powers here; Diana deftly skips through a rapid-fire “Millie” and slyly acts her way through “Rose” before belting out a “Mame” worthy of the Great White Way, with Mary and Cindy in full-voice behind her. Although Diana Ross was the group’s focal point and firmly established as lead singer at this point, it would have been nice to hear each lady have a solo turn at a song here; imagine Cindy’s melodic voice taking on “Millie,” Mary’s alto giving life to “Rose,” and Diana bringing it home with “Mame.” Still, this is a dynamic segment — pure, classy entertainment from start to finish. It’s what Diana Ross and The Supremes do best.
11. Reflections: This is an energetic rendition of the group’s big hit from 1967; it gets a big reaction from the crowd, demonstrating the song’s popularly. In terms of singles, “Reflections” was a departure for The Supremes; songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland incorporated psychedelic sounds and abstract lyrics to create an atmosphere of icy resignation. This, of course, really couldn’t be replicated in a live performance; of all the hits performed during this particular show, it’s probably the furthest removed from the studio recording (which is saying a lot). Still, it’s a pleasure hearing Diana, Mary, and Cindy on the tune; Diana’s voice is still in fine shape (a feat, given that she’s been really pushing it for awhile now), and Mary attacks the background line so aggressively the performance practically becomes a duet.
12: You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: In his autobiography To Be Loved, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. wrote, “I loved the way the Supremes could do standards and Broadway songs like ‘Make Someone Happy,’ ‘You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,’ and ‘Put On A Happy Face’ in pure, three-part harmony without a band, a piano or anything. Snapping their fingers, enjoying themselves, they were incredible. I don’t think they ever thought seriously about singing standards and show tunes, but I did” (208). Gordy really pushed the young singers to work on “You’re Nobody…” in particular; by all accounts Diana Ross was initially not happy about performing the song, but it eventually became a staple of the group’s act and a surefire crowd-pleaser. It’s easy to hear why when listening to this recording; The Supremes have mastered the performance of this song, luring in the crowd with some cute patter “dedicating” it to an audience member before launching them into a frenzied, foot-stomping grand finale. There’s not a wasted moment here; there’s real technical skill in the efficiency of Diana’s vocal and the band behind her. Mary and Cindy couldn’t be brassier, wailing behind Miss Ross the entire time, and all three women nail the final notes. Although then song was already featured on At The Copa, it’s a satisfying way to end this LP; the pure adrenaline of this show is perfectly encapsulated in this song.
When it was released in August of 1968 (amazingly, on the very same day as Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform Funny Girl!), Live At London’s Talk Of The Town was only a moderate success; it topped out at #57 on the Billboard 200, and #22 on the R&B album chart. But as mentioned before, the actual engagement was a smash success. Reviews of this engagement are memorialized on the rear cover of the LP, and perhaps they’re best summed up by Derek Jewell of The Sunday Times: “[Diana Ross and The Supremes] are the dynamic essence of what today’s popular music is really about but often is not…” Mr. Jewell could never have known that his statement would be just as relevant nearly 50 years later; in this era of pyrotechnics, visual effects, and a reliance on lip-syncing, Diana Ross and The Supremes are a stunning example of “less is more.” With simply great voices, strong material, and abundant stage presence, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong indeed capture the “dynamic essence” of what live performance should be.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (“Thoroughly” Slick & Entertaining)
Choice Cuts: “The Lady Is A Tramp/Let’s Get Away From It All,” “In And Out Of Love,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie/Second Hand Rose/Mame”