“Our business is singing…and tonight, we’re gonna take care of business.”
Despite adjusting to a new member and losing the creative team behind all of its previous hit records, Diana Ross and The Supremes enjoyed one of its most successful (and busiest) years in 1968. Of the four singles released during that calendar year, two were major hits for the group (the #1 hit “Love Child” and a duet with The Temptations, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”). Additionally, an astonishing six full-length Supremes albums hit shelves in 1968, and four of them peaked within the top 20 of the Billboard 200 and went top 5 R&B. But perhaps most importantly, Diana Ross and The Supremes truly conquered primetime television. Although the group was already famed for its performances on variety programs such as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and had guest-starred in a highly-rated episode of “Tarzan” aired in early 1968 (the ladies played…nuns!), it was the historic one-hour primetime special TCB (with The Temptations) which proved Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong were the queens of TV along with music.
According to Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. in his book To Be Loved, “Shortly before the release of ‘Love Child,’ we had made a deal to do three television specials in partnership with the producers of Laugh-In, George Schlatter and Ed Friendly. I had heard that there was nobody better at comedy or variety shows than George Schlatter, so I was looking forward to working with him” (266). The first of those specials would be a musical extravaganza pairing Motown’s top groups and featuring a non-stop lineup of their hits and covers of popular songs. Performing on a striking, elevated set in front of an appreciative audience, Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations put on a spellbinding show; when TCB aired on December 9, 1968 on NBC, it was a smash success. In her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson recalls the show receiving “rave reviews” and writes, “When we were all singing together it was just like old times…the special was a great boost to all of us, and plans were put in motion for a second programs with the Supremes and the Tempts” (223).
Naturally, Motown paired the special with a soundtrack album, and it soared to #1 on the Billboard 200, becoming the third chart-topping LP for The Supremes and the first for The Temptations (on the Billboard R&B albums chart, TCB actually replaced Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations at #1). The soundtrack contains the entire special save for a dance number performed solo by Diana Ross; thus, it’s a breathless, razzle-dazzle revue that’s heavy on the gloss, far more Hollywood than Motown. Years later, Andrew Hamilton would review the album for AllMusic and describe it in disparaging terms including “unlistenable,” “campy,” and “watered down.” This is unfair; TCB is a very enjoyable album, filled with energy and an undeniable chemistry between the two groups. The hits — especially those of The Supremes — are far removed from their original arrangements, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’d heard their earlier live LPs. The purpose of TCB was never to be an examination of the Motown Sound; it was to entertain television audiences. More than that, it emerges as an important record of the elegant way through which Motown broke down racial barriers.
1. T.C.B.: The opening number and title song is a splashy Vegas-style tune written by Buz Kohan and Bill Angelos, both credited as writers for the television special. It’s a terrific way to kick off the program (and album); the orchestra really swings behind the groups and both Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations sound totally at-home on the material. Ross opens the piece, ordering audiences to “Stop whatever you’re doing/Hold it right there!” before Wilson and Birdsong take over and harmonize “Drop whatever you’re doing/There’s not a minute to spare!” The three ladies sing with the confidence of seasoned club performers, and even though Birdsong had only been with the group about a year when this special was recorded, the ladies’ voices gel in a tight, satisfying way (of course, they’d had plenty of practice touring to rave review overseas earlier that year, recording the LP Live At London’s Talk Of The Town in the process). The Temptations eventually take over with only about 30 seconds left on the clock, delivering their vocals in perfect unison, and carrying the piece though its quick conclusion. An instrumental break and additional lyrics were featured in the special but are edited out here, chopping the runtime down to less than two minutes. Thus, it’s a quick opener, but there’s energy to spare, even without the added benefit of seeing the fancy footwork displayed by both groups during the televised performance. (NOTE: A longer mix of “T.C.B.” featuring the instrumental break and added lyrics was eventually included on the 2000 box set The Supremes.)
2. Stop! In The Name Of Love: “T.C.B.” segues into a breathless rendition of this 1965 #1 hit, utilizing a seamless lyrical transition from “Stop whatever you’re doing” to “Stop! In The Name Of Love” that would be kept in the group’s show and featured during their farewell engagement at the Frontier Hotel in early 1970. The arrangement here is predictably “showbiz” — but there’s some phenomenal percussion work (check out those bongos!) backing it up which at least hints at the song’s Hitsville origins. Diana’s brassy delivery cuts straight through the instrumental here, commanding attention and injecting the song with a gleeful urgency; meanwhile, Cindy Birdsong’s lilting, bell-like voice is especially audible in the background parts. This truncated version runs only about a minute in length, but it’s nice to hear the song outside of a longer hits medley (as it was presented on Talk Of The Town and would be again on Farewell) and it remains an exciting part of the group’s repertoire.
3. Introduction Of Diana Ross & The Supremes: This is just a quick bit of group banter, as Diana Ross introduces herself and her group mates, and assures the audience that along with singing, “We also talk!” — affording Mary and Cindy the chance to deliver their comically succinct “Hi!” and “Hello!”
4. You Keep Me Hangin’ On: Diana and The Supremes then forge ahead into this dazzling version of their 1966 #1 hit, again featuring a maniac on the bongos (seriously, whoever is responsible for playing should have gotten an album credit — he’s amazing) and a decent replication of the guitar work featured on the original recording. This live performance is accomplished in every sense of the word; along with hard-driving orchestra behind them, The Supremes really wail here, unleashing powerful vocal performances that match the energetic instrumental. Diana Ross barely gets a chance to breathe, but never sounds anything less than totally engaged, and Mary and Cindy belt the prominent background line, especially at 1:22 during their “Set me free, what don’t ya babe?” bridge section. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, since I consider “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to be the best of the group’s dozen #1 hits, but hearing them set the song on fire here is a highlight of the album.
5. Introduction Of The Temptations/Get Ready: The ladies sing an introduction of their male counterparts set to the melody of the male group’s #1 hit “My Girl” — and then The Temptations launch into a rapid-fire rendition of their 1966 Smokey Robinson-penned hit “Get Ready.” Although this song wasn’t a huge hit for the group upon its release (it peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100) it’s become a classic and is a great inclusion here, as it easily matches the high-energy bar set by the previous performances. Eddie Kendricks sings lead, and his soulful falsetto rings through loud and clear; Melvin Franklin also shares the spotlight by playfully mirroring several lines with his impossible deep bass voice. Although “Get Ready” stands totally on its own here, it’s more than worth it to find a copy of the special to watch this particular performance; the group’s choreography is astounding.
6. Introduction Of Diana Ross/The Way You Do The Things You Do: Diana Ross joins The Temptations here (without The Supremes) for a swinging performance of the first big hit released by The Temptations (“The Way You Do The Things You Do” was a Top 20 record in 1964, just months before The Supremes broke through with “Where Did Our Love Go”). The “introduction” of Diana Ross is again set to the melody of “My Girl” and contains a corny joke about the group forgetting her name (this special did air in place of Laugh-In, after all). Miss Ross and Mr. Kendricks lead the song; the crisp “bite” of her delivery and his honeyed falsetto bounce off of each other perfectly, confirming what a strong match their voices were (the two, of course, shared lead on the smash single “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” — which was recorded after this special, and thus doesn’t feature on this soundtrack). Ross also sounds quite soulful on some of her runs; listen to the singer at 2:25, as she skillfully stretches out the world “tell” over several notes.
7. Medley (A Taste Of Honey/Eleanor Rigby/Do You Know The Way To San Jose/Mrs. Robinson): This is a lengthy medley of then-popular songs, opening with The Temptations tackling the pop standard “A Taste Of Honey,” which was a big instrumental hit for Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass in 1965. Although the song may be a bit too vanilla for some listeners who prefer their Temptations heavy on the soul, Eddie Kendricks is a stellar interpreter for the piece; after all, his smooth voice is basically the musical equivalent of honey. His groupmates also offer just the right light touch on the backgrounds, something at which they excelled; their voices seem to just bob along the surface of the song. “Honey” segues into a dramatic version of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which is presented as a solo spot for Diana Ross and given a great Bossa Nova touch in its arrangement; it’s far smoother than the original recording, which was dominated by slicing strings. This is a vocal standout for Miss Ross, who sings a nearly a cappella opening (she’s accompanied by some very soft strings) and then croons over the Latin-inspired beat with her controlled, velvety tone. Next, Ross is joined by The Temptations for an upbeat version of the Dionne Warwick hit “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” penned by the great team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Miss Ross takes the lead, and delivers the lyric-packed song with just the right light touch; she sounds wonderful backed by the intricately-arranged male voices. Finally, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong return for a bouncy rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Mrs. Robinson,” and the song gives the three ladies an unexpected opportunity to harmonize; Mary gets a brief and deserved solo on the line “We’d like to help you learn to help yourself” and Cindy’s soprano loudly mirrors Ross throughout. Although each of the four songs here are given rushed treatments and certainly don’t sound much like their original recordings, The Temptations and Diana Ross and The Supremes handle all of them quite well, and with an abundance of class and style.
8. Respect: Although it’s separated into its own track here, “Respect” is essentially a continuation of the previous medley; the song had topped the charts roughly a year earlier when it was covered by Aretha Franklin, and thus continues the medley’s theme of then-popular songs from outside the Motown fold. While Franklin’s “Respect” is such an iconic performance that it’s impossible for any other version to live up to its standard, The Temptations and The Supremes do quite well with it, thanks to the fact that the song lends itself well to a duet arrangement; sung by the male and female groups, it because a “battle of the sexes” fight for R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The sandpaper voice of Paul Williams and Diana’s sharp delivery fit together well; it’s especially fun to hear the vocal interplay at around a minute in, when Diana sings “Ooh, your kisses, sweeter than honey” and Williams responds, “You’re right!” Both groups are really grooving by climax, which continues for quite some time; Ross and Williams are fairly understated in their ad-libbing (although Ross reaches for some nice, powerful high notes), which allows the choir of voices behind them to really shine. Although it’s no threat to Aretha, this performance is definitely a highlight of TCB and evidence of why putting these two groups together was such a brilliant idea.
9. Somewhere: In the actual television special, “Respect” was followed by Diana’s wild, mod “Afro-Vogue” number, which featured her frantically dancing in various costumes made from bold, African-style prints intercut with colorful photographs of her posing in those costumes (Ross fans will no doubt notice a similarity to the opening of her 1983 Central Park special, during which the opening featured striking photographs of the singer posing as an African warrior). That dance number then transitioned into “Somewhere,” which is basically sung solo by the singer (there is scant accompaniment from The Supremes, who earlier in their career were featured more heavily during the song). This ballad from West Side Story had been part of the group’s repertoire for a long time, and was first heard on the 1965 live At The Copa LP. The song was always a showstopper for Ross; Berry Gordy, Jr. would later recall, “I look at something like a ‘Somewhere,’ where Diana would cry every night…When Diana did that last part and built it up so great, she had to wring herself out. That’s how much she put into it. Every time she did ‘Somewhere,’ she left everything out there on the stage” (The Supremes box set booklet). There’s no denying the power of the singer’s voice during the final few notes of the song; she’s really belting, and her vocals sound incredibly strong. Still, the highlight here is her spoken monologue, which serves as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; it’s important to remember the Civil Rights pioneer had been killed only a few months before this special was taped, which makes the words even more poignant. To have a glamorous, powerful African-American woman deliver such a call for racial harmony — on primetime national television — is pretty amazing to consider, even nearly fifty years later. Diana Ross and The Supremes are rarely given credit for being pioneers during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and they were (as were The Temptations, and everybody at Motown, really). Through music, these young artists helped bridge a racial divide and paved a path still being walked by artists today. Although “Somewhere” is given a rather treacly and overwrought arrangement, and I’d imagine Diana’s performance is a bit too affected for some listeners to appreciate today, the message behind this song makes it an enormously important moment.
10. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg: After the emotional bang of “Somewhere,” The Temptations return to the stage to ramp up the energy level with a spirited rendition of their 1966 #1 R&B hit “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” The song had been recorded with a lead vocal by David Ruffin, who had since exited the group; here, new Temptation Dennis Edwards attacks the song with a rough, fiery vocal. Edwards doesn’t try to match Ruffin note-for-note, which is a wise decision; his own gutty performance is a winning one, with predictably solid support from the rest of The Temptations. The orchestra behind them is also in top form; although these players are definitely not The Funk Brothers, they provide a dynamic musical accompaniment that serves the song well.
11. Introduction Of The Temptations: The guys take a brief moment to “introduce themselves” — the joke being that they’re introducing themselves to each other, not the audience.
12. Hello, Young Lovers: Although The Supremes are the Motown act most associated with performing pop standards and showtunes, they certainly weren’t the only ones who did; here, The Tempts take on a signature song from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway hit The King And I. The song had already been featured on the group’s 1967 LP In A Mellow Mood (on which they also recorded “A Taste Of Honey,” “Somewhere,” “For Once In My Life,” and “The Impossible Dream”) with the same jazzy and boisterous arrangement performed on this special. What the guys do with “Hello, Young Lovers” is analogous to what The Supremes had been doing for years with “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” — transforming the tune into a hand-clapping, head-bopping showstopper. Although many Motown purists might cringe at the idea of The Temptations singing big-band, this performance is one of the great moments of TCB; the harmonies and vocal interplay delivered by The Temptations are spellbinding. The sheer talent of these young men remains awe-inspiring nearly fifty years later; their voices snap together with the precision of a beautiful machine.
13. For Once In My Life: After a huge ovation for “Hello, Young Lovers,” The Temptations launch into another song the group had recorded for In A Mellow Mood, “For Once In My Life.” Co-written by Ron Miller (who would later co-write the #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning” for Diana Ross), the song was recorded by several Motown artists, most notably by Stevie Wonder, who took an uptempo version to #2 on the pop charts in 1968. In his memoir To Be Loved, Berry Gordy, Jr. wrote, “Paul Williams, who I always considered the heart of the group with his emotional baritone voice, soul, rhythm and style, had sung one of the most heart-wrenching versions of ‘For Once In My Life’ that I had ever heard” (254). Indeed, Williams turns in a striking performance here; he begins the song with a controlled, deliberate vocal and allows it slowly build in emotional intensity; his reading of the line “For once I can feel that somebody’s heard my plea” at 2:32 is searing in its intensity, and defies anyone listening not to feel chills. While Stevie Wonder seemed to be truly celebrating love in his recording of the song, Paul Williams and The Temptations sound tortured by it, as though the happy ending won’t be so happy, after all. This is a totally compelling performance, and a wonderful showcase for “the heart of the group.”
14. (I Know) I’m Losing You: Another #1 R&B hit for The Temptations in 1966 (in fact, it directly followed “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” at the top), this was another song led by David Ruffin, who’d left The Temptations shortly before the taping of TCB. As with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Dennis Edwards takes over the lead, and he seemingly tears into the song with everything he’s got. The recording of this performance sounds great, but here’s another instance where viewing it from the actual special really enhances the experience; The Temptations and Dennis Edwards absolutely whip the crowd into a frenzy with their wild choreography and sizzling vocals. The Temptations were consummate performers, and this performance is undeniable proof of their unparalleled skills.
15. Medley (With A Song In My Heart/Without A Song): This is part of a longer medley that The Supremes had been performing in concert for several years; both standards were originally recorded for the group’s 1966 I Hear A Symphony LP, and that extended “Symphony” medley was featured as the opener on 1968’s Live At London’s Talk Of The Town. This mash-up serves two purposes; it’s a wonderful showcase for the power in Diana’s voice, and also spotlights some beautiful harmonies from the three ladies. Diana’s performance is brassy, and at times her tone might cut a little too sharp for listeners, but her vocals are incredibly strong, especially at the end of each of the two songs. As Funny Girl writer Jule Styne would later comment (after working with Ross on the group’s own Funny Girl LP), Miss Ross was “a real belter” — and that’s more than obvious here.
16. Medley (Come See About Me/My World Is Empty Without You/Baby Love): Here’s another one of those breathless hits medleys, which manages to pack three big hits into less than three-minutes of running time. The 1965 #1 “Come See About Me” opens the piece, and it’s a terrific (albeit blink-and-you-miss-it) performance, with all three ladies in fine voice. Since the beginning of the song employs a call-and-response effect, Diana, Mary, and Cindy are all very audible here; they sound so good together that it’s a disappointment when it ends so quickly. “My World Is Empty Without You” is next, bearing little resemblance to the dark, tumultuous studio version from 1965; that recording remains one of the best and most compelling Supremes recordings of all time, but it’s all dressed up in big-band trappings here. The ladies still sound great, though, and it’s to the credit of songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland that it’s a strong tune even without the benefit of the Hitsville backing track. Finally, Diana launches into her trademark “Oooooh” — which never gets old — and The Supremes sing a snippet from one of their biggest hits of all time, 1965’s “Baby Love.” This is a song that’s irresistible in any form; although the arrangement here is splashy and unlike the spare studio recording, it’s such an iconic tune that hearing the melody instantly tugs at the heart. Diana is kittenish in her delivery, and Mary and Cindy contribute full-bodied backgrounds. Though it won’t satisfy those looking for The Motown Sound, it’s always a thrill hear Diana Ross and The Supremes on the songs that made them stars.
17. I Hear A Symphony: At this point in their career, it was rare to hear The Supremes perform any of their earliest hits in full-length versions; the songs were typically placed in rushed medleys, such as the one just featured on this LP. So it’s a surprise and a real pleasure to get a complete rendition of 1965’s #1 smash “I Hear A Symphony.” The orchestra does a fabulous job here, giving The Supremes a subdued symphony of their own to sing along to, and the ladies are polished and confident in their delivery. There’s a natural “smile” to Diana’s voice when she sings this song, giving the lyrics an air of authenticity, and Mary Wilson in particular really wails at the end of the song. “I Hear A Symphony” had apparently been cut from Live At London’s Talk Of The Town, and it’s not included on the forthcoming Farewell live recording, so it’s a treasure for fans to have a live version here.
18. The Impossible Dream: TCB ends with an outstanding version of the popular ballad taken from the 1965 Broadway hit Man Of La Mancha. As noted earlier, The Temptations had already recorded the song for the previous year’s In A Mellow Mood LP, and both groups minted an extended studio version which closed their joint album Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations (released shortly prior to the airing of TCB). “The Impossible Dream” was apparently supposed to be that album’s first single, and was to be released to radio to coincide with this special; instead, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was released and became a major hit for the groups. Still, “The Impossible Dream” is the unqualified highlight of this television special and resultant album; it’s a stunning, emotional climax that features some of the best singing of the entire program. Diana Ross and Paul Williams share lead vocals, and both are in absolute peak form; Ross is beautifully controlled, resisting any temptation (no pun intended) to oversing or inject unnecessary emotion into her performance. She’s matched by Williams, who croons with a stunning, soulful simplicity. It’s nice to hear The Supremes step out into the spotlight at 1:23, on the line, “No matter how far…” — Cindy Birdsong’s smooth soprano is gorgeous. Of course, when the two groups begin singing together as an ensemble, the sound is heavenly; it just doesn’t get any better than hearing these eight talented individuals giving their all to a performance. Diana’s delivery of the final “To dream…” at 2:41 — followed by a powerful exclamation of “Oh!” — may be one of her great vocal moments of all time. For my money, this shorter, live version of “The Impossible Dream” is even better than the recorded version included on the Join LP, and Motown probably could have released this version as a single immediately following the airing of the television special and had a hit with it. In the same way that Diana’s monologue during “Somewhere” is a seminal moment for Motown on television, so is this closing number; these eight people dared to dream impossible dreams, and no matter what would happen in the future, at that very moment they’d almost certainly achieved and surpassed them all.
In the nearly fifty years since TCB starring Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations aired on NBC, the importance of the television special has been lost on most of the general public. Aside from those who watched it on TV back in December of 1968, and those who are currently die-hard fans of both groups, most people wouldn’t have any idea what TCB is, let alone recognize many of the standards included therein. Although the advent of YouTube now makes it possible to view TCB in its entirety, a quick browse of the viewer comments reveals scant discussion of why it was such an important moment not just for Motown, but for music and the Civil Rights movement. In later years, Diana Ross and The Supremes would be accused of “selling out” to white audiences, but what’s happening in this special isn’t “selling out” at all; Diana’s passionate monologue during “Somewhere” is, in fact, a brilliant way of calling for racial harmony in a way that would appeal to all audiences at the time.
It’s a real shame that TCB isn’t officially available in any format (at the time of this writing); the television special has never gotten a proper VHS or DVD release, and the album is not currently available as a digital download or special-edition CD. It deserves not only to be watched and heard, but also discussed.
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (A Soundtrack Deserving Of Much “Respect”)
Choice Cuts: “The Impossible Dream,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Somewhere”