“It’s like a child’s first step, I had to learn to walk all, all over again…”
By his own admission, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. spent the middle part of 1968 in crisis mode. His star group, Diana Ross and The Supremes, was without a hit record, something that would have seemed inconceivable only just a year earlier; this is the group, after all, that had scored a staggering ten #1 pop hits in a span of just three years. The problem was that the men responsible for those hits (not to mention several other Top Ten records) were gone; writing-producing team Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier had fled Motown in a dispute over money, consequently leaving The Supremes without any material to record. The first attempt at recovery came from legendary writers Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who delivered the fiery “Some Things You Never Get Used To.” Although it contained a brilliant performance by Diana Ross, the song didn’t necessarily sound like a “traditional” Supremes recording and stalled at a dismal #30 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In his memoir To Be Loved, Gordy remembers what happened next: “I took my battle into the studio where my mission was clear — to come up with a record on the Supremes that sounded so much like HDH that nobody would know the difference” (264). To do this, Gordy assembled a team of talented Motown writers (Deke Richards, Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor, and Pam Sawyer) and put them up at Detroit’s Pontchartrain Hotel with the directive to come up with a #1 hit; within days, the group dreamt up a hard-edged, soulful song with memorable lyrics and a socially conscious message. “Love Child” was recorded quickly in September of 1968 and released to the public just days later; by late November, it was the #1 record in the country. In the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, Frank Wilson recalls, “…the track was just tight from the moment we cut it; it was just there. That same night, perhaps, we arranged the backgrounds that were so singable. Diana handled her performance so exquisitely, and we just knew.”
The resulting Love Child album (released in December of 1968) takes a nod from its title track and features a more soulful and mature sound for the group. It’s easily one of the group’s most cohesive and consistently strong albums, which is surprising considering the number of contributing writers and producers. Along with Ashford & Simpson, recognizable names here include Smokey Robinson, future comedian Tommy Chong, Anna Gordy Gaye (wife of Marvin) and even funk legend George Clinton. Various voices appear here, too; Diana Ross sings lead on every song, of course, but she’s backed up Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, session singers The Andantes, and even Ashford & Simpson themselves. The last time an album was this patchwork (Reflections, released in March), it turned out to be a major disappointment. That’s why it’s so startling that Love Child is so good. The saving grace here to two-fold; the material is uniformly strong, and the performances by Diana Ross are among the best of her Supremes-era career.
1. Love Child: Not since “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in 1966 had The Supremes released a single so bold and scorching; the psychedelic sway of “Reflections” and the guitar-strumming pop of “In And Out Of Love” are gone here, replaced by a hard-edged soul and searing, honest lyrics. The story of the song’s creation has taken on mythic proportions for Motown and Supremes fans; Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was desperate to give the group a #1 hit, and secluded a group of writers in a hotel until it happened. One of those writers was Frank Wilson, who would later recall, “There were other producers trying to work up material but Berry put coming up with a Number One record in our hands. It was a wonderful weekend” (The Supremes booklet). Wilson’s being sarcastic here, but the results of that weekend were wonderful, indeed; “Love Child” accomplished its mission, racing to the top of the pop chart and #2 R&B. Part of the song’s appeal is its grownup concept; just a few years earlier, The Supremes were trilling about true love and symphonies, and now Diana Ross was singing a song about babies born out of wedlock. Credit must be given to the writers for realizing how much the musical landscape had changed and how necessary it was to give Diana and The Supremes something more mature; those writers (known collectively as The Clan) smartly turn the song into a personal narrative, casting Diana Ross in the role of the “love child” who doesn’t want to repeat the pattern. As Gordy writes in his memoir To Be Loved, “We had managed to take a negative image and turn it around in a positive way. Now it was perfect for the Supremes” (265). According to session notes printed in the group’s 2000 box set booklet, “Love Child” was recording in just three short days in September of 1968, and amazingly, it was released just ten days after the final recording session. Perhaps that rush is partially responsible for the sizzling energy that permeates the finished product; this is one of the most exciting Motown singles of the late-1960s. The Funk Brothers provide a guitar-led track that charges forward without being too heavy-handed, and the slicing strings during the song’s chorus are probably one of the most important musical flourishes in a Supremes single. The instrumental here is immediate, clean, and effective, and it’s matched by the superb performance of Diana Ross. This easily ranks as the singer’s best vocal on a Supremes hit single, and it’s certainly one of her best vocal performances of all her Supremes recordings; there’s not a better example of her extraordinary gift of transmitting acute emotional urgency. Diana’s crisp delivery is necessary to keep the song racing to its conclusion while never losing the power of its message, and her high-note ad-libs at the end of the song provide a soulful, powerful finish. According to producer Wilson, “Berry wanted that record out in a week. I thought we had Mary, Cindy, and The Andantes on that record. If they’re not on it, it was because we were on a bullet train” (The Supremes booklet). Indeed, Mary Wilson would later recall that she was on vacation when “Love Child” was recorded, and the hectic schedule meant that only the Motown session singers joined Ross in the studio. It’s disappointing that Wilson and Birdsong aren’t featured here, but the thicker, fuller voices of The Andantes work beautifully, grounding the recording and providing some emotional weight to the desperate pleas of “Wait, wait, won’t you wait.” The eventual success of “Love Child” was entirely justified (in fact, it’s surprising it didn’t also top the R&B chart), and it’s a shame the recording was overlooked for a Grammy nomination; Diana’s performance is more than worthy of the recognition.
2. Keep An Eye: It’s not just any song that can follow up a classic like “Love Child,” but this dark, sinewy tune is the perfect way to continue the album. “Keep An Eye” comes courtesy Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the talented writers/producers who came to Motown and created a series of classic duet recordings for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Ashford & Simpson would be given their most important Motown challenge two years later, when they were tasked with producing the first solo LP for Diana Ross. Interestingly, among a lineup of classic tunes including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” Ashford & Simpson chose to have Ross re-record “Keep An Eye,” which appears on the second side of Diana Ross. Because both versions are similarly arranged, it makes for fascinating listening; the differences in Diana’s performances might seem subtle to casual listeners, but they’re striking to those who know the singer’s arc as a vocalist. She is more controlled here; there’s a tightness around her vocal chords, producing a ringing, focused tone that keeps the emphases on Ashford & Simpson’s clever lyrics. It’s a skillful performance; Ross has clearly put thought into her delivery, and she produces some memorably powerful moments, such as her run on the classic line, “Just like a snake on the limb of a tree!” at 2:07. But now, listen to her reading of the song on her 1970 solo debut; her voice is breathier, more open, creating more of an atmosphere for the song. Rather than offering up such a piercing clarity, Ross uses the textures of her voice to inject the words with added meaning. This is the major difference between the singer’s work with The Supremes and as a soloist; over the years, Diana Ross would get “looser” with her voice, seemingly becoming more confident in her range and comfortable in injecting various aspects of her personality into her performances. All of that said, both versions of “Keep An Eye” are stellar; it’s a terrific song, as are the gospel-infused backgrounds by Ashford & Simpson. This is also early proof that the songwriting/producing team were the perfect match for Diana Ross.
3. How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone: This is another fantastic soul song for The Supremes, written by Frank Wilson and Pam Sawyer (two of the writers responsible for “Love Child”) and produced by Wilson. This track is rightly celebrated for the intricate bassline from Motown Funk Brother James Jamerson; it’s singled out in the AllMusic review of the album, and check out YouTube and you’ll find plenty of “tribute” videos by bass players covering this song. That “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone” warrants that kind of attention without having even been featured as a b-side to a Supremes single demonstrates its strength; it was even given a place on the beautifully-produced Supremes box-set in 2000. The track is a dusky one with some nice funk to the verses; the arrangement features bluesy backgrounds that predict those of the future Gladys Knight & The Pips hit “Midnight Train To Georgia” with a woo-woo! flourish during the chorus. The instrumental is so smart, opening with the repeated plunking of deep piano keys that evokes the image of a large locomotive preparing to depart its station, and continuing with a chugging percussion that carries the song forward as if on a railroad track. Diana Ross sounds like she’s really feeling this song; she delivers a playful, soulful performance that matches the tone set by the outstanding Funk Brothers performances. This one’s definitely a gem of the late-60s Supremes discography.
4. Does Your Mama Know About Me: In terms of actual ballads, this one might be the very best ever recorded by Diana Ross and The Supremes; this is a breathtakingly beautiful song, tastefully produced by Frank Wilson and Deke Richards and performed with real sensitivity by the vocalists. “Does Your Mama Know About Me” was initially released as the debut single for Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers; it was penned by Tom Baird (who would later work with Diana Ross on her Touch Me In The Morning and Last Time I Saw Him LPs) and Vancouvers member Tommy Chong, who’d later find fame as one half of comedy duo Cheech & Chong. In fitting with the theme of the Love Child LP thus far, the song addresses the issues of an interracial relationship (the narrator asks, “Does your mama know about me?/Does she know just what I am?”). The original recording is perfection; the smooth, soulful arrangement foreshadows the Philly Soul sound of the 1970s, and Taylor offers up a heartfelt reading of the intelligent lyrics. The version here sticks very close to the original, which is a good move; the sheer fact that it’s coming from a female’s point-of-view this time gives it enough distinction without muddying up the production with unnecessary touches. The stretched-out guitar chords and swirling strings give the song a lush, dreamy feel that stands out among the rest of this album’s tracks; it’s got to be one of the loveliest tracks ever recorded for The Supremes. Diana Ross nails the song, offering up velvety vocals that result in one of her best-ever Supremes-era performances. Her voice is rich and smooth here; listen to the quiet dignity in her delivery of lines like, “Maybe I shouldn’t worry/But I’ve been through this before.” Ross is also given the chance to display her considerable range here, as she powerfully ad-libs during the track’s final fade (I love the way she reaches higher on the word “know” at 2:33). It’s not clear who the voices are behind Miss Ross; it sounds like perhaps Mary and Cindy are there, and joined by other session singers. In any case, the backgrounds are classy and understated, allowing the narrator to remain front and center while sweetening up the delivery with pretty harmonies. This is, without a doubt, one of the best Supremes album-only tracks of all time, and a rare occasion when a Motown cover ends up standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the original.
5. Honey Bee (Keep On Stinging Me): After four very strong soul songs, Love Child returns The Supremes to more familiar territory with this peppy Motown track, written by Deke Richards, Debbie Dean, and Janie Bradford. Richards and Dean had already contributed the solid “I’m Gonna Make It (I Will Wait For You)” to the group’s Reflections LP earlier in the year, but this is a more memorable song, and one seemingly modeled on the compact, driving pop tunes penned for The Supremes by Holland-Dozier-Holland. The track here is a real throwback, led by an urgent percussion and featuring a sax solo that sounds like it was ripped straight out of 1965’s More Hits By The Supremes. Likewise, the lyrics sound delightfully retro, with Diana repeating “Honey Bee” here about as many times as she cooed the words “Baby Love” on that earlier hit. There’s also a little background bridge featuring the lyrics, “Floor-shaking, soul-taking, ooh, good love-making” the brings to mind a certain early Smokey Robinson-penned Supremes single (can you guess which one?). Diana Ross and the choir of background singers (almost certainly not Mary and/or Cindy) do a fine job keeping up with the song’s fervent pace; certainly Ross had had plenty of practice on songs like this one. Make no mistake, “Honey Bee (Keep On Stinging Me)” is not a classic on par with “Baby Love” or “Come See About Me” or any other early HDH hit; it’s repetitive and, frankly, a bit too clunky in its execution. Still, it’s a fun inclusion here, as it harkens back to “The Sound of Young America” and the classics that truly made The Supremes legends.
6. Some Things You Never Get Used To: This must rank as the most under-appreciated single ever released by Diana Ross and The Supremes; when it was released in May of 1968, it was basically ignored by the group’s legions of fans, peaking at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and not even making the R&B Top 40. For many Motown groups, having a song peak at #30 pop would have been a fine accomplishment, but not for The Supremes; in fact, it was the double-whammy of “Forever Came Today” (which peaked at #28) and this song that compelled Berry Gordy, Jr. to lock up his writers in a hotel and come up with “Love Child.” “Some Things You Never Get Used To” was the first Supremes single not written by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland since “A Breathtaking Guy” in 1963; the song was penned by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and given to the group following the departure of HDH from Motown. In light of the fact that Ashford & Simpson would later help make Diana Ross a solo superstar (their production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became her first solo #1 hit), it’s fascinating that this song didn’t catch on; it’s an energetic, challenging composition that features one of Diana’s most powerful Supremes-era performances. This is a fiery, frantic song, featuring a track punctuated by clicking castanets, a pouncing percussion line, and absolutely roaring background vocals (credited in many sources to The Andantes, though I’d assume Ashford & Simpson themselves also sing on the track, as they typically did). This is not a song on which Diana Ross can coast; as with the A&S tunes she’d record in the 1970s, there’s a certain level of vocal gymnastics called for here, and a real lung power needed to push through the lyric-packed verses and chorus. Miss Ross doesn’t just meet those requirements, she exceeds them; she is in full-bodied voice throughout her entire performance, singing with the kind of abandon she’d demonstrated on Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform Funny Girl (released earlier that year). Listen to her work on the song’s bridge at 1:28; there’s an astounding amount of technical skill required to flip-flop between the high-powered belting and playful breathiness she displays. The is great singing, period; her performance certainly isn’t the reason the song didn’t chart higher than it did. If there’s any issue with the recording, it’s probably that it was a little too complex for pop radio at the time; unlike most Supremes songs, it can be tough to discern some of the lyrics (for years, I thought Diana was singing “Sometimes I think my heart is contorted” instead of “Sometimes I think my heartaches come to an end”) and the melody isn’t an easy one to whistle along to. Still, it’s a really great song, and a great sign of things to come between Diana Ross and Ashford & Simpson. The songwriting duo certainly knew how to push the singer in the studio, as evidenced by some her finest work of the following decade.
7. He’s My Sunny Boy: Plenty of people would get a listen to this song when it was placed on the b-side of “Someday We’ll Be Together” — released as the final Diana Ross and The Supremes single in October of 1969. It’s a shame, however, that “He’s My Sunny Boy” never got a shot at success on its own; of all the terrific non-singles included on Love Child, this one sounds like it could have generated some real heat at radio. The song was written and produced by Smokey Robinson, and is even stronger than his previous contribution to the group, “Then” from the Reflections LP (a song which should have been released as a single from that album). This is a joyous, brassy celebration of love, featuring celebratory horns and a great bongo intro; even though the “sunny” tone of the song might have sounded a little too old-fashioned, the expert guitar picking here helps give the song a folksy feel that’s totally of the late-60s. Robinson’s lyrics are as sharp as ever, with Diana, Mary, and Cindy cooing “Looks good in everything from silk to corduroy (Or mohair!)/For him I’d walk from Idaho to Illinois (Or anywhere!)” — and a real joy here is the clarity of all three Supremes’ voices. Just the three ladies are singing here, and there’s a purity in their sound that makes you wish Motown hadn’t been so reliant on session singers. Diana Ross is superb in her lead vocal; she effortlessly keeps up the quick pace of the lyrics, and even though she’s singing toward the top of her range, she lets the track pull her along and never sounds like she’s really straining. Likewise, Wilson and Birdsong are in perfect harmony behind her; Mary’s sexy, smoky tone and Birdsong’s ringing soprano just seem to bob along the surface of the track, buoying the entire recording and sweetening an already sugary confection. “He’s My Sunny Boy” is a stellar b-side, and Motown should have jumped on this as a single release; it’s infinitely better than the single Robinson would write and produce for the group early the next year (the abysmal “The Composer”).
8. You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me: Thus far, Love Child has been a nearly perfect album, featuring a succession of strong, soulful songs and superb vocal performances. “You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me” is the first song that breaks that streak a bit; although it’s not a bad recording, it’s a rather vanilla MOR tune that sounds jarring on the heels of more complex works. Written by Anna Gordy Gaye (wife of Marvin), George Gordy, and Allen Story, this is a swinging ’60s tunes that could have come straight from a Doris Day movie; the muted horns and major-key melody sound tailor-made for a Vegas performance. At this point in her career, Diana Ross was no stranger to this type of music (see: Live At London’s Talk Of The Town), and she offers up a relaxed, confident performance. Perhaps she’s a little too relaxed at times; it would be nice to hear a little more “bite” in the vocal, but she’s engaged enough to carry the day. The only real weak moment comes when she speak several lyrics beginning at 1:10; nobody’s better at delivering dramatic spoken dialogue than Diana Ross, but her breathless, uninspired reading here sounds like she’s just too tired to sing. It sure sounds to me like Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are singing the backgrounds; they deliver up a delightful “doo-doo-doo” background line and some gorgeous harmonies behind Diana. Although this track would have never stood a chance as a single, it would’ve been interesting to hear the group perform it live; I suspect there would be an added energy in a supper club setting that would have elevated the material. As it is, this song isn’t the most exciting addition to the album, but it’s decent filler. (NOTE: “You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me” was placed as the b-side to the “Some Things You Never Get Used To” single.)
9. (Don’t Break These) Chains Of Love: In terms of lyrics, this is probably the most strangely suggestive Supremes recording since the group’s failed 1961 single “Buttered Popcorn.” The refrain here has Diana Ross pleading “Tighter!/Pull ’em tighter!/’Til I feel love’s sweet pain!” in reference to the title’s metaphorical chains; perhaps the songwriters were truly aiming for something innocuous, but hearing those lyrics over and over again really makes you wonder what was going on behind-the-scenes in the writing room. This bouncy, upbeat tune was penned by Harvey Fuqua, John Bristol, and George Beauchamp; the former two would eventually write and produce the final #1 single for Diana Ross and The Supremes, “Someday We’ll Be Together” (Bristol is the male voice heard on that recording). “(Don’t Break These) Chains Of Love” features an energetic production that seems to foreshadow the work on Diana’s 1970 solo LP Everything Is Everything; listen to this song back-to-back with that album’s title track and you’ll hear the similarities in structure and instrumental arrangement. This isn’t a particularly memorable song, except for the fact that the lyrics seem like double entendres; Diana Ross opens the piece proclaiming “I’ve been so happy darlin’/Ever since the day you bound me” and ends by wailing “Lock it up! Lock it up! Lock it up!” though the final fade. She’s definitely “all-in” on this performance, really pushing her voice during the refrain and having a lot of fun during the verses; her playful delivery of the lyrics “I felt so sure I could resist you/My mistake was the first I kissed you” sounds like a mature extension of her work on 1964’s “Baby Love.” This one isn’t an album standout, but it’s certainly worth a listen.
10. You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin’: This is the third and final Ashford & Simpson contribution to Love Child, and a song that would have been somewhat familiar to Motown fans; it was earlier cut on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and was released as the b-side to the duo’s 1968 single “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey.” The tune was also recorded by several other Motown artists, including The Marvelettes and The Miracles, but this version led by Diana Ross is arguably the strongest. As with their previous productions on this LP, Ashford & Simpson surround Ross with a soulful orchestration and boisterous background vocals, and provide her with an exciting melody in which to sink her teeth. There’s an inherent bluesiness to much of the Ashford & Simpson catalog, and that’s evident right off the bat here, in the piano chords that lead off the song (perhaps played by Simpson herself). This track contains one of Diana’s most refreshing vocals in quite some time; rather than coast on her established sound here, the singer utilizes an appealingly coy, almost-childlike tone for much of her delivery, and it works beautifully on the playful “I told you so” lyrics. Although “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin'” lacks the immediacy of something like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” it’s a composition that gets better with repeated listens; this is a more challenging record than much of what Diana Ross and The Supremes had been given, and it’s telling to hear the way Miss Ross effortlessly keeps up with the unusual chord changes. In the end, this is one of the standout tracks of the Love Child LP, and it’s a song that would have fit well on either of the two early ’70s Diana Ross albums produced by Ashford & Simpson. (NOTE: A version of this song recorded by the post-Ross Supremes and The Four Tops was eventually released on the 2009 collection Magnificent: The Complete Studio Duets.)
11. I’ll Set You Free: It’s interesting that “I’ll Set You Free” ends up as probably the weakest track on the Love Child album, considering it was co-written by none other than Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and is one of the few tracks here that actually features all three Supremes. Part of the issue is the song itself; it’s a funky little ditty with a compact instrumental, but it lacks any kind of real hook and feels very repetitive. The other issue here is the uninspired performance by Diana Ross; strangely, as the instrumental track soars higher and higher in a series of upward key changes, Ross seems to hold back more and more, her voice seemingly choked from displaying any real power. It’s nice to hear so much of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong; the ladies are given a background line that allows them to basically sing non-stop behind Ross, and they fare much better than she does thanks to their full-bodied harmonies. This track is certainly worth a listen for Wilson and Birdsong, but it suffers in comparison to the surrounding material. (NOTE: The 2008 Motown Select collection Lost & Found: Supreme Rarities contains an alternate vocal take of this song, and the booklet notes, “Motown gave this track a lot of attention in the latter part of 1968, indicating it may have earmarked as a possible single for the Supremes” ).
12. Can’t Shake It Loose: Aside from the title track and possibly “Honey Bee” — this is the most “quintessential Motown” song on the album, featuring an instrumental that sounds like a close cousin to “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and a melody not far removed from the early hits of Mavin Gaye. It’s surprising, then, that the song began its life at another label; it was penned by a group of writers including future Funk legend George Clinton and recorded by singer Pat Lewis on Detroit’s Golden World Records label in 1966. Golden World was purchased by Motown that same year, and thus the song ended up being recorded by Diana Ross and The Supremes. It’s a terrific tune, and the arrangement here follows that of the Lewis recording closely; listen for another gloriously intricate bassline, which is eventually mirrored by a guitar during the verses, and an energetic brass section that truly buoys the entire recording. Ross is effortless here, and there’s not a wasted breath in her incredibly efficient performance; the singer’s pure tone and crisp delivery harken back to her earliest H-D-H hits. She also injects the song with moments of soulful power, something that was lacking on the album’s previous track; I love her almost boyish “Yeah!” at 1:21. I’m not sure who exactly is providing the background vocals here, but the gorgeous harmonies skillfully sweeten the track (interestingly, a quick web search for Pat Lewis turns up information that she eventually started singing some backgrounds at Motown — wouldn’t it be fascinating if she were one of the voices here?). “Can’t Shake It Loose” is a satisfying end to Love Child, and a recording worthy of some love by fans.
It’s worth noting again that Love Child is the first hit-oriented album by Diana Ross and The Supremes to not feature a single song written or produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, and thus, it could have easily failed. There are still short-sighted critics who consider The Supremes no more than mouthpieces for the writing-producing team, and this album definitively proves Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong were much more than that. Does Love Child match the magic of 1965’s masterful More Hits By The Supremes? Not really. There’s no denying that the songs provided by H-D-H were uniquely suited to The Supremes and that their production resulted in an inimitable sound that remain fresh and vital today. But there’s a real focus on quality and originality here, and it’s the most present Diana Ross had sounded in awhile (save for her transcendent work on the Funny Girl album); tackling more challenging music allowed her to display new and exciting aspects of her vocal abilities. Love Child emerges as one of the most cohesive albums in the Supremes discography, and easily the best hit-centered album released under the moniker “Diana Ross and The Supremes.”
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (A “Wonderful,” Mature Effort)
Choice Cuts: “Love Child,” “He’s My Sunny Boy,” “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin'”