Although Diana Ross and The Supremes had lost the writing-producing team behind all of its biggest hits (Holland-Dozier-Holland, who’d left Motown in a dispute over money), the group had weathered the storm and enjoyed a successful year in 1968. Musically, the highlight of the year was the #1 smash “Love Child,” a song written expressly with the purpose of taking the group back to the top of the charts. When it did exactly that, it was only natural for Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. to look to the group of writers behind that hit to deliver a follow-up single. Dubbed “The Clan,” writers Pam Sawyer, Henry Cosby, Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor, and Gordy himself worked up “I’m Livin’ In Shame” and recorded it on Diana Ross (backed by The Andantes, Motown’s session singers) in November/December of 1968. When it was released in January of 1969, the song became a solid hit, peaking at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #8 on the R&B chart.
Diana Ross and The Supremes wouldn’t be so lucky with the next few releases, but in reality, Motown was focused on more pressing issues for The Supremes rather than promoting these singles. Ross was being heavily groomed for solo stardom at this point, and began appearing on television without Cindy Birdsong or Mary Wilson. A notable example of this was the television special Like Hep, co-starring Dinah Shore and Lucille Ball, in April of 1969. That special contained an energetic sequence in which Ross (dressed in an eye-popping futuristic costume) danced along to a recording of herself singing a medley including “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.” A month later, Motown released Let The Sunshine In, with liner notes by Ms. Shore. Although the album is credited to Diana Ross and The Supremes, it was probably pretty obvious to most fans that it was mainly a solo project for the singer; the liner notes by Ms. Shore praise Ross alone: “I was witness a to that uncommon tireless application of talent she puts into everything she does.”
So clearly, by 1969, Ross was “one foot in, one foot out” of The Supremes, and that explains why Let The Sunshine In ends up feeling like two-albums-in-one. The first of these albums is a Diana Ross album filled with trendy, contemporary songs and featuring soulful and vibrant performances by the vocalist. The other one is cobbled together with Supremes tracks recorded years earlier and finally lifted from the Motown vaults. The end result is another patchwork LP, similar to 1968’s Reflections in some ways (although Ross offers up far stronger vocal performances here). Amazingly, given its disjointed nature, Let The Sunshine In isn’t a total dud; it’s nowhere near as seamless as 1968’s wonderful Love Child, but it does partially continue that album’s focus on more complex and mature material. Although this album’s singles are underwhelming, Ross acquits herself very well to the covers of contemporary songs, and there are a few hidden gems here worth a second listen.
1. The Composer: When this song was released as a single in March of 1969, it became the first Supremes single written and produced by Smokey Robinson since “A Breathtaking Guy” way back in 1963. This is significant, because Robinson had been a driving force in the group’s pre-stardom days at Motown; he’d helped facilitate their initial audition at the label, and penned the first songs the ladies recorded at Hitsville, “After All” and “(You Can) Depend On Me.” After the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown, Robinson increased his involvement with Diana Ross and The Supremes; he produced a pair of tracks on the group’s 1968 Reflections LP and another on Love Child later that year. Two of those songs — “Then” and “He’s My Sunny Boy” — are among the best of the group’s late-1960s output; both could have (and should have) been at least considered for single release. Unfortunately, when Robinson finally got a single on The Supremes again…it was this song. “The Composer” was initially cut by Robinson’s own group, The Miracles, as a mid-tempo love song with strong harmonies and grand string flourishes; according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, that recording was finished in March of 1967. The version Robinson produced for Diana Ross is radically redesigned; it’s now an angular, uptempo tune with wah-wah guitars and halting breaks in the melody. Perhaps in an attempt to channel the edgy urgency of the best H-D-H recordings, Smokey Robinson indulges in a rare case of over-production; the track immediately feels too complicated and heavy, and it’s filled to the brim with dated touches. Had the track been stripped down, it might have improved the end result — however, the production isn’t the only issue here. Diana’s lead vocal is unusually uninspired; there’s a distinct lack of energy in her performance, to the point that the singer seems to be consciously avoiding an “attack” on the lyrics. The problem is that Robinson’s lyrics call for a vibrant reading; they’re a playful celebration of love, and Ross just doesn’t ever sound convincing (especially when compared to the aforementioned “Then” and “He’s My Sunny Boy”). “The Composer” was a commercial disappointment when it was released, peaking at #27 on the Billboard Hot 100 and missing the R&B Top 20. In this case, the chart positions seem justified; this one just doesn’t stand up.
2. Everyday People: There’s a good chance that at the very moment Diana Ross was recording her vocal for “Everyday People,” the original recording by Sly and the Family Stone was sitting at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Stone’s version topped the charts for several weeks in February/March of 1969, instantly becoming one of the most iconic songs of the decade; in the years since, it’s turned up in several films and television commercials. Although the song’s been covered countless times, it would be impossible for any remake to equal the power of the original; thankfully, Motown producer Henry Cosby seems to know this, and doesn’t try to do anything but echo it in a professional manner. Cosby’s arrangement is basically identical to that of Stone’s recording; the musicians turn in a solid track with strong percussion work and a joyful brass section. But the real key to success in this case is Diana Ross, who delivers a soulful and engaging vocal performance. Her work on this track is a full 180 degrees from her singing on “The Composer” — she sounds alive here, offering up a refreshingly unaffected take on Stone’s smart and memorable lyrics. Listen to her work on the second verse, beginning at 1:07 (with the lines “I am no better/And neither are you!”); the further she gets into the verse, the more gutty her performance becomes, foreshadowing the powerful singing she’d unveil on her 1970 solo debut album, Diana Ross. While some critics over the years have labeled Ross as simply a “pop” singer, unable to match the soulful performances of some of her peers, recordings like “Everyday People” prove that notion false. (NOTE: The following year, the Jean Terrell-led Supremes would record this song again as a collaboration with The Four Tops on their joint album The Magnificent 7.)
3. No Matter What Sign You Are: There’s some intriguing information about this song printed in the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, and it indicates that this song experienced many changes before finally being released as a single on May 9, 1969. The song apparently went though two working titles (“Don’t Destroy Me” and “The Paper Said Rain”) and recording was stretched over several dates from February through April of that year. My guess is that the smash success of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” by The 5th Dimension (which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on April and remained there for a whopping six weeks) and Diana’s well-received performance of the medley on the Like Hep television special spurred Berry Gordy, Jr. and Henry Cosby to hurriedly rework an already-in-progress song into something similarly-themed for single release. Whereas “Aquarius” only references one astrological sign, “No Matter What Sign You Are” throws in the entire zodiac, running through the star signs in a boisterous opening sung by session vocalists The Andantes and punctuated by the shrieks of an amped-up Diana Ross. The lyrics here are hopelessly silly and dated — of course they are — with lines including “Your water sign just lit my fire” and “I don’t care about your rising sign.” The production isn’t exactly timeless, either; in his AllMusic review of the album, Bruce Eder notes “a sitar in the arrangement that was dated by 1969.” These are hurdles to get over when listening to the track, but once they’re cleared, they reveal a song that merits more attention than it generally receives. Listen to the melody of the memorable refrain and you’ll hear the kernel of a really good song; it’s a pleasant hook, surrounded by playful verses, unfortunately dressed up in the trappings of campy New Age mysticism. The highlight of the recording is Diana’s spirited performance, which is sultry and soulful and full of fun, surprising moments. The singer had never sounded sexier on record than she does at :48, as her voice drops to delivery “I love you boy/I really love you boy…” — likewise, when she repeats the lyrics at 1:36, she’s as energetic as she’d ever been on a Supremes single. Her ad-libs during the final 30 seconds of runtime are stunning proof of how “loose” and relaxed Ross could be with her voice. When “No Matter What Sign You Are” was released as a follow-up to “The Composer” in May of ’69, it stalled out at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s been basically ignored ever since. Is the song a classic? Not really. Does it come close to the quality of the biggest Supremes hits? Not at all. But it’s also not the disaster many people write it off as; there’s some territory worth mining here.
4. Hey, Western Union Man: This is a cover of a recording by Jerry Butler which topped the R&B charts in November of 1968. The song was written by Butler and two of the architects behind the Philly Soul sound, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who eventually founded Philadelphia International Records. The song is a really repetitive one — really repetitive — with Diana singing the words “send a telegram” roughly 30 times during the three-minute running time. That can make listening to the song a bit tedious; still, this is a solid cover, featuring another noteworthy performance from Diana Ross. The singer’s work here is raw and earthy; she eschews her classic smooth sophistication, opting instead for a surprisingly unpolished vocal. This turns out to be a good thing; I’m not sure the Ross sound had ever been so rough on record, and the texture helps bring a lot of character to the recording. Listen to her sing at 1:02, as she absolutely shreds the word “union,” and again at 1:39 to her raspy delivery of “Man, send a telegram!” This is a new side to Diana Ross, and it adds a lot of soul and authenticity to her reading. As with the earlier “Everyday People,” producer Henry Cosby keeps the arrangement closely matched to that of the original; really, it would be tough to tell the two the instrumental tracks apart. Thus, this version of “Hey, Western Union Man” isn’t exactly an exciting one, but it is a striking addition to the Diana Ross and The Supremes discography due to the vocal performance.
5. What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted: This recording sat on the shelf for quite some time before finally getting a release; website Don’t Forget The Motor City lists a date of July 8, 1966 for the completion of this recording, and according to J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, the song had previously been scheduled for an unreleased album built around the single “Some Things You Never Get Used To.” It’s yet another cover, of course; Jimmy Ruffin made the song a hit in 1966, and it would be a big hit again in the early 1990s, when covered by Paul Young. What immediately makes this version by The Supremes unique is the spoken introduction, which was cut from Ruffin’s original release (though it has since surfaced on some Motown collections). It quickly becomes apparent that this is an earlier recording; although I’ve read that Diana Ross re-recorded her lead vocal before this was finally released, it sure doesn’t sound like it, and her crisp, girlish vocal comes as a sharp contrast to soulful abandon of the previous three tracks. Not that the crisp, girlish sound is an inferior one; what would “Baby Love” or “Come See About Me” be with anything else? But “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” is a big, emotional song, and the lyrics cry out for something grander than we get here. I’m not sure who all’s backing Ross; I think her own voice appears on the background line, and Mary Wilson’s voice is there, too; it’s possible that ex-Supreme Florence Ballard is also singing on the record, since it was recorded in 1966. There are some very pretty harmonies featured on this recording, although the backgrounds suffer the same issue as the lead vocal; had they been more dramatic, they’d make a much bigger impact. This isn’t a terrible recording, but it does sound decidedly “retro” placed among the more modern songs here; it probably would have fit better on an earlier Supremes album, and even then it would have been filler and nothing more.
6. I’m Livin’ In Shame: Diana Ross and The Supremes kicked off 1969 with “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” which was released as a single on January 6; the song had been recorded in November-December, exactly the time the group’s previous single, “Love Child,” was perched atop the Billboard Hot 100. “I’m Livin’ In Shame” didn’t get to #1, but it did make it to the Top 10 on the pop and R&B listings, respectable showings and far more successful than the other two singles contained on Let The Sunshine In. “I’m Livin’ In Shame” is really no more than “Love Child, Part II” — similar in sound and tone and featuring “story-song” lyrics reflecting issues of the modern family. In her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson (who does not appear on this recording) calls the song “melodramatic” and she’s 100% right; the lyrics compose a mini-melodrama of a young women desperately sorry for mistreating her mother. Wilson also says the song “lacked a message” and she’s probably right, although I’d imagine there were at least a few listeners at the time who identified with the broader theme of changing times and struggling to find one’s own identity, sometimes at the cost of others. In any case, there’s no denying that The Clan (Berry Gordy’s hand-chosen group of writers) were trying to make lightning strike twice, and though they don’t quite succeed, they did come up with something fairly catchy and appealing. The Funk Brothers — Motown’s in-house crew of musicians — provide a bouncy track comprised of jangling guitars and a complex, scooping bassline; bold flourishes of strings add to the drama, as does the thick web of background vocals provided by The Andantes. As with “Love Child,” it’s disappointing that Mary Wilson and/or Cindy Birdsong aren’t featured here, but the Motown session singers hit all the right notes, providing exactly the kind of musical cries of anguish the song calls for. Diana Ross, as one would expect, aces her assignment; although Miss Ross would later comment in her own book (Secrets Of A Sparrow) that the song was “about somebody else’s life,” she’s a gifted enough interpreter to make the story believable. The melody is a challenging one, requiring the singer to cleanly jump up and down the scale; Ross effortless does this, while never losing any lyrics or sounding too strained. Listen to her work at roughly one-minute in, as she sings the lines, “I must have been insane/I lied and said Mama died on a weekend trip to Spain” — let’s be honest, the lyrics are pretty silly, but Ross sells them beautifully with her grief-stricken delivery. The sum of all these parts is a song that never comes close to approaching the greatness of The Supremes’ best, but it’s a decent late-era single that deserved its success.
7. Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures): When Let The Sunshine In was released on May of 1969, the #1 album on the Billboard 200 was the Original Cast Soundtrack to the Broadway hit Hair. That album wasn’t just a hit, it was a monster hit, topping the chart for months. Pop group The Fifth Dimension, meanwhile, recorded two of the show’s most popular songs as a medley (“Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”) and took it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for six weeks. Thus, it’s safe to say the nation was in the middle of Hair-fever, and it’s no surprise that Diana Ross would perform the songs on the Dinah Shore special Like Hep in April of that year (also incorporating the song “Don’tcha Hear Me Callin’ To Ya,” which was the b-side to Fifth Dimension single). The recording here is the same one Diana lip-synced to on the television special (but with that third song edited out), and it’s a faithful rendition of the more popular version by topping the charts at the time. The production is nicely done; it’s lush and ethereal, as one would expect considering the mystic subject matter. Diana Ross mints a fine vocal, too; her voice is strong and expressive throughout, and her ad-libs over “Let The Sunshine In” are vibrant and soulful. The real bummer about this track is that the whole thing feels like a wasted opportunity. What makes the version by The Fifth Dimension so special are the otherworldly harmonies from the group; the absolutely exquisite vocal arrangement soars out of the grooves and into the heavens. Miss Ross can only do so much by herself, and when she’s backed by other voices here, they are flat and generic. Imagine how much better this recording would have been had Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong created rich harmonies throughout; the potential was there for this to be a fantastic group showcase. Imagine the juxtaposition of Diana’s sharpness, Mary’s misty tone, and Cindy’s smooth, round soprano belting out “Aquarius” — had all three been allowed to share the spotlight here, it could have given this rendition the freshness to completely stand on its own.
8. Let The Music Play: I’m sure there are many who will passionately disagree, but for me, “Let The Music Play” is the dreadful low point of Let The Sunshine In. The track for this version of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune dates back to 1965, and the group added its vocals in June of 1966. This means Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard appear on this recording; of course, by the time Let The Sunshine In hit shelves, Ballard had been out of the group for nearly two years. There’s always a joy hearing the original three Supremes sing together; the good news is, there are plenty of great recordings on which all three appear. However, this is not one of them; the song is slow and laborious, and the arrangement is dated and so syrupy you’re liable to get a toothache listening to it. Miss Ross is quite saccharine in her delivery, too; she’d matured into a much better vocalist by 1969, and (as with “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted”) hearing her singing here feels like a step backward. More than anything, this production is lacking any kind of spark, which is surprising considering it was helmed by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, crafters of the group’s most exciting records. There must have been a reason this remained in the vaults for so many years, and it really could have stayed there.
9. With A Child’s Heart: According to Don’t Forget The Motor City, this song is yet another holdover from 1966 (!); that makes three songs lifted from the vaults and placed on this album. Of the trio, this one emerges the best; it’s a sweet slice of pop/soul that was first made famous by Stevie Wonder, who included it on his 1966 LP Up-Tight (it would later get a notable cover by Michael Jackson). The reason this particular song works better as part of Let The Sunshine In than the other “vault” tracks is that Diana’s vocal sound makes sense here; she delivers another girlish, youthful performance, and it’s totally appropriate given the lyrics and theme. This is a piece that demands a childlike delivery, which is probably why it worked so well when sung by Wonder (who was 16 years old when he released it) and Jackson (who was 14). The instrumental track is also classic Motown; the dusky percussion and ringing piano chords, not to mention that fabulous tenor sax, are Funk Brothers hallmarks and are impossible to dislike. There’s something about this gentle recording that recalls the 1965 Merry Christmas LP; it definitely would have fit better on an earlier album, but it’s good enough that it deserves a place here.
10. Discover Me (And You’ll Discover Love): After a little trip through the past, Let The Sunshine In returns to 1969 with this exciting, soulful recording produced by Johnny Bristol (the man who’d help provide Diana Ross and The Supremes with one final #1 hit later that year, “Someday We’ll Be Together”). Interestingly, the instrumental track here isn’t terribly far removed from that of “I’m Livin’ In Shame” — this recording is also led by jangling guitars and features an instrumental bridge constructed of swirling strings. That said, the tone is completely different; the theme of “Discover Me (And You’ll Discover Love)” is much closer to the earlier #1 hit “You Can’t Hurry Love,” with Ross convincingly crooning, “I’ve got so much to give someone/So many dreams to share/And a promise of a faithful love/If someone would only care.” Diana’s performance is quite skillful; the verses here are packed with lyrics, and the singer’s voice lightly dances over the melody, never getting tripped up or allowing the words to sound too clunky (had a vocalist more prone to oversinging or melisma attempted the song, it could have been disastrous). The natural urgency in her voice also works to sell the impatient lyrics, and she lets loose with some strong ad-libs toward the end. This is far more compelling song than “The Composer” or even “No Matter What Sign You Are” — it’s rough around the edges, but it’s also compact and straight to the point. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Motown tried this song out as a single; it probably wouldn’t have added to the group’s string of #1 hits, but it certainly could have done well at R&B radio.
11. Will This Be The Day: This is an absolutely sterling track, a wonderful gem that originally surfaced as the b-side to the group’s “Love Child” single in September, 1968. It’s no surprise that this is a Smokey Robinson tune, co-written with Warren Moore and Beatrice Verdi and produced by the Robinson and Moore; this lush slice of pop/soul bears many “Smokey hallmarks,” including impossibly sweet lyrics and a symphonic production backed by a gentle beat. Best of all, this is the only track on Let The Sunshine In on which Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong seem to be actually singing together, and all three ladies sound terrific (if it’s not Mary and Cindy, then the background singers are doing a masterful job mimicking The Supremes). Miss Ross offers up an accomplished vocal full of warmth and yearning; the textured maturity of her voice at this point in her career serves the song well, lending some depth to the recording. Listen to her sing the song’s title at :38; she’s channeling the girl who once cooed “Baby Love,” but filtering it through the wisdom of a sophisticated young woman who’s not so naive anymore. Behind her, the background vocals are smooth as silk; the soft, sophisticated harmonies are exactly what one would and should expect from a superlative Supremes track . The overall production is light and airy; this is a song that simply floats along, revealing itself to be better and better with each listen. Let The Sunshine In is the third hit-oriented LP in a row that contains a highlight written and produced by Smokey Robinson (“Then” on Reflections and “He’s My Sunny Boy” on Love Child); it’s criminal that the one Smokey-helmed single Motown chose to release was the ridiculous “The Composer.” At least this song gained a wide audience thanks to the fact that it backed a massive #1 hit; “Will This Be The Day” deserves to be heard and appreciated.
12. I’m So Glad I Got Somebody (Like You Around): The album closes with another b-side; this one backed “I’m Livin’ In Shame.” The song features a quartet of familiar Motown names in the writing credits (Lawrence Brown, Allen Story, George Gordy, and Anna Gordy Gaye), thus it’s no surprise that the song has a real Hitsville stamp on it; the arrangement of the background vocals and certain sections of the instrumental make this sound like an updated take on a classic Four Tops track. That said, The Funk Brothers are really funking this one up; there’s a nice hard edge to the playing here, with horn work that’s predictive of later hits and strong bass and percussion lines. Diana Ross contributes a tough vocal performance, an early example of the earthy singing she’d deliver on the 1970 solo LP Everything Is Everything. She really goes for the notes here, displaying a great confidence in her own vocal abilities. As with the previous track, it’s fortunate that this was at least placed on the flip side of a successful single; it’s one of the better Ross recordings of the period.
It would only be a few months following the release of Let The Sunshine In that Motown would confirm the obvious; according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, a press release from November, 1969 proclaimed, “Diana Ross a Single in 1970 — Jean Terrell Becomes Third Supreme in January — All Stay With Motown” (209). Astute fans probably surmised that Ross was basically a “single” already; again, it’s hard to really consider Let The Sunshine In a Supremes LP. Still, it shouldn’t be written off as quickly as I imagine it often is; it’s uneven and dated, but no more than many other Motown albums being released at the time. It’s also defiant proof that no matter how many critics derided the group for “selling out” to white audiences, their music was as soulful and funky as ever. Diana Ross and The Supremes were still evolving…and that evolution would take a major leap forward by the end of the year.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (An Uneven “Sign” Of Changes To Come)
Choice Cuts: “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” “Will This Be The Day,” “I’m So Glad I Got Somebody (Like You Around)”