Although Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations shared many of the same milestones in their long and storied careers, the groups couldn’t have been in two more different places by 1969. The Temptations were enjoying a creative renaissance which would continue into the next decade, crafting psychedelic soul masterpieces with producer Norman Whitfield; 1968’s “Cloud Nine” won them (and Motown) their first Grammy award, and the group would take home another a few years later for “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” Meanwhile, Diana Ross and The Supremes were at the end of their platinum-paved road; Motown was busy plotting the launch of Diana’s solo career, and Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong spent the latter half of the year recording with the woman who would lead The Supremes into the 1970s, Jean Terrell.
Still, Motown could never be accused of letting a good thing get away, and so the label released Together, a third collaboration between Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, in September, 1969. The groups’ first joint effort, Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations, had been a major hit in 1968, and was followed by the soundtrack album to the hit television special TCB. That soundtrack topped the Billboard 200 in February of 1969, and the groups were immediately sent back to the studio for a follow-up; according to the first appendix in Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, six songs for Together were recorded on February 24, 1969. As with Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations, the bulk of this album was handled by Motown producer Frank Wilson, and featured covers of popular Motown songs as well as hits from outside the Hitsville fold.
The highlights on Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations had been the pair of magical singles, both so good they helped give an otherwise solid but unspectacular album an identity. Unfortunately, Together lacks anything even close to the timelessness of those two earlier recordings. More than that, the album is extremely lopsided in terms of material; it’s as if halfway through the recording of a lean, soulful project, everyone got cold feet and decided to throw in some sappy pop songs. Thus, Together — while interesting and, in some cases, a more challenging work — ends up feeling incomplete and not totally necessary; certainly The Temptations didn’t need it (it was released on the same day as their own Puzzle People LP, which was a massive hit) and Diana Ross and The Supremes didn’t really need it, as the group was preparing to split into two separate entities. In the end, Motown didn’t really need it either, as it failed to match the success of the previous two Supremes/Temptations groupings.
1. Stubborn Kind Of Fellow: The opening track was scheduled for single release, to be backed with earlier recording “Try It Baby,” but after being assigned as Motown 1150, it was cancelled and the label went with “The Weight” instead. Listening to “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” today, it’s pretty clear that Motown made the right choice; this Marvin Gaye cover is interesting, but it’s a mess. The song had been Gaye’s first hit when released back in 1962; it’s deservedly a classic, full of grit and featuring the notable voices of Martha Reeves and The Vandellas in the background. In the hands of producer Frank Wilson, the tune loses much of its melody due to a strange, scaled-back track. Although Motown’s studio musicians were never anything less than astonishing, there’s just no momentum in this recording; the production feels like a locomotive that can’t quite pick up speed, and the endless, halting “stops” in the beat don’t help. The jazz flute solo on the original recording was charming, but it sounds out-of-place on this version, especially when placed to next to electric guitar licks. The vocalists all sound good; Diana Ross trades off lines with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, and the ensemble behind them is a boisterous one (Mary Wilson is very audible, as is the deep tone of bass singer Melvin Franklin). Ross does a lot of screeching, which works up to a point but then begins to feel a bit too forced; still, she makes for a soulful counterpart to the male vocalists. There are certainly moments here when things begin to gel; it’s not a total dud. But it never sounds like a record that could have been a successful single for the group; it pales in comparison to what they’d already accomplished together.
2. I’ll Be Doggone: This song’s another Marvin Gaye cover; the original version was the singer’s first R&B chart-topper, way back in 1965. It’s a far better fit for Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations; the arrangement here is slowed just a bit, resulting in an even more soulful record than the original. This time, the production is perfect; there’s no denying the “classic Motown” sound inherent in then track, but there are modern, psychedelic soul touches that tie the recording directly to the Norman Whitfield-helmed work The Temptations were producing at the time. The vocal arrangement here is also perfection; The Supremes and The Temptations echo back and forth like rolling waves, allowing each group ample time to shine (I love the ringing roundness of Wilson and Birdsong singing “I’ll be long gone” at 1:55). Paul Williams and Diana Ross take the lead here; his emotional baritone and her crystal-clear tone had worked together beautifully on previous recordings including “The Impossible Dream.” “I’ll Be Doggone” is no exception; the song is cut rather high for Miss Ross, but she uses the challenge to her advantage, delivering her sections with a textured breathiness that’s incredibly appealing. This track emerges as one of the most solid moments of Together, and if Motown was intent on releasing a single from this project, this one probably could have merited consideration. It’s not necessarily a classic, but it’s one of the more compelling inclusions here; there’s an epic quality that befits the supergroup recording it.
3. The Weight: This is the song that did get a chance at radio; “The Weight” was released as this album’s only single in the US, and it peaked at a dismal #46 (the worst showing for both groups in quite some time). Interestingly, that was apparently a higher chart position than the previous two releases of the song, the original recording by The Band in 1968 and a cover by singer Jackie DeShannon the same year. In the years since its release, the original recording by The Band has become a classic and is considered one of the most iconic and influential songs of the decade; because of this, the Motown version has faded far into the background, and doesn’t even show up on most Supremes or Temptations compilations. This is unfortunate, because it is a strong recording; the production (by Frank Wilson and Tom Baird, according to Don’t Forget The Motor City) is superb, with the musicians providing a funky yet restrained track. The background vocals are also superb, as The Supremes and Temptations offer up ghostly echoes behind the lead singers before delivering the chorus in almost gospel-like fashion. Diana Ross, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams trade-off lines again on this song, and all three are in fine voice; this is one of Diana’s most soulful vocals on the LP. Listen to the way she turns “ha-ha” into a spectacular four-beat riff at :31; it’s totally unique to her, and I can’t think of another singer who’d be able to replicate it. Similarly, Kendricks shines on the second verse; his falsetto works here beautifully. This recording certainly doesn’t equal the cinematic scope of The Band’s original; there’s something about that recording that transcends time and/or genre. But Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations turn in a terrific rendition here, one that easily equals the many other covers.
4. Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing: This is the third Marvin Gaye cover out of four songs; thus far, the album’s feeling more like a Gaye tribute LP than anything else. It makes sense that “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” would show up, though, since it was one of Motown’s most popular duets, having hit #1 on the R&B chart in June, 1968 when originally released by Gaye and Tammi Terrell. That original recording is a bona-fide classic, boasting passionate, simmering performances by the vocalists and a memorable production by its writers, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The version features a similar arrangement, but is softer in tone; the track isn’t quite so punctuated by percussion, and the performances are much more laid-back. This makes for a good recording, but one that’s a little too sleepy to stir up the same kind of emotion as the original; think of this as the “easy listening” version of the song. Diana Ross turns in a silky reading, but there’s no fire in her delivery; it would have been nice to hear a little more “bite” in her performance here, something to really bring the lyrics to life. That said, she’s very well-matched with the gruff and soulful voice of Dennis Edwards; although he’s not quite as expressive as Marvin Gaye was on the song, he has some fun with the song and ad-libs some asides to “Diane” which are sweet touches. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to capture the magic of the original “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” — but this is pretty good album filler. (NOTE: The following year, the Jean Terrell-led Supremes would record this song again, this time as a collaboration with The Four Tops for their joint LP The Magnificent 7.)
5. Uptight (Everything’s Alright): After two fairly straight-forward covers in a row, Together takes another big detour with a modern funk/rock twist on the 1966 Stevie Wonder hit “Uptight (Everthing’s Alright).” The original recording is classic Motown, featuring soul-thumping drums and blaring horns and Wonder’s urgent declaration that “everything is alright.” This version retains muted traces of all of those things, but surrounds them in a wild, schizophrenic arrangement complete with a weird electric guitar opening and a Middle Eastern-inspired string section. Once the song gets chugging along, it becomes a sly and slinky version of Wonder’s original recording, stripped down and surprisingly haunting in tone. Diana Ross and Dennis Edwards again take the leads; both sound good and sufficiently engaged, although (through no fault of theirs) the song’s catchy melody gets lost in this arrangement. As a result, I’m not sure this version totally stands on its own; had this been the only “Uptight” ever produced, it probably wouldn’t have been particularly memorable. Instead, it’s a fascinating counterpart to the more famous version, a peek into how Motown was willing to experiment with and rework its most classic recordings for other artists.
6. Sing A Simple Song: After covering Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” on their 1969 LP Let The Sunshine In, Diana Ross and The Supremes bring along The Temptations for that song’s original b-side, “Sing A Simple Song.” The original version is fabulously funky, with a swaggering James Brown-worthy beat and odd, shouted declarations of the song’s title. There’s no shortage of funk on this version either; although the track isn’t quite so wild, the session players here really turn it out, producing a chunky instrumental with a tight brass section and deep bass strut. The vocalists have an absolute field day with the song, especially Diana Ross, who screams and shouts and offers up one of her most gloriously unhinged performances of the decade. Ross gives such a gutsy reading that she practically lays out the blueprint for the young Michael Jackson; listen to her yell out “Sing A Simple Song!” at 1:02 and just try to deny that Jackson wasn’t imitating her sound. The harmonies of The Temptations are unbeatable here, serving as an indelible thread in the fabric of the track; the guys all get “step-outs” here and there, with Melvin Franklin taking top honors with his “do…re…mi…” recitation at 1:16. Although the arrangement here is so close to the original that it doesn’t really add much to the song, it’s great fun to hear Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations take something on that’s this bold and tough (it’s certainly a far cry from the tender “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”). For that reason alone, it’s one of the best tracks on Together; the album could have used some more pleasant surprises like this one.
7. My Guy, My Girl: And from something so exciting…Together moves into its most dull and ill-conceived cover. This is a lame mash-up of the Smokey Robinson classics “My Guy” (a huge hit on Mary Wells) and The Temptations’ own “My Girl.” Although the songs boast similar themes and titles, they’re really not that much alike, which makes combining them into one recording a mistake. Flipping back and forth between the tunes is jarring, and the drippy track robs both songs of their magic. Meanwhile, both groups offer up rather unexciting vocal performances; The Temptations were probably thinking “Why bother?” and Diana Ross and The Supremes are smooth but way too crisp and polished to lend the song any real sensuality. Perhaps this could have worked as a little segment during one of the groups’ television specials, but as an album cut, it’s a disaster.
8. For Better Or Worse: Written by Joe Hinton and Pam Sawyer, this bouncy pop tune is a reasonably good facsimile of the lilting pop songs Burt Bacharach and Hal David were writing for Dionne Warwick in the 1960s; that said, it certainly lacks the complexity of the best Bacharach-David compositions. “For Better Or Worse” never really seems to go anywhere; it lacks a memorable chorus, leaving only a repetitive melody to sell the story of a couple on its wedding day. Because Diana Ross was so accomplished at delivering light, easygoing melodies, “For Better Or Worse” ends up being a showcase for her; she offers up a relaxed, effortless performance here. Her male counterparts don’t fare nearly as well; the key here doesn’t seem to work for the voices of any of The Temptations, and the verses led by the men are pretty weak. In the end, it’s an innocuous listen — pleasant mainly for Diana’s polished vocal performance — but it feels like a big step backward for both groups. (NOTE: “For Better Or Worse” was placed on the b-side of “The Weight,” which was released on August 21, 1969.)
9. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You: Die-hard fans of The Supremes know this as Mary Wilson’s signature song while still with the group; it was incorporated into the act and served as Wilson’s solo spot, and she delivered a sultry and stunning performance of it on an episode of “The Hollywood Palace” hosted by Diana Ross and The Supremes in October 1969. Wilson certainly deserved a moment alone in the spotlight, considering she was a founding member of the group and undeniably talented; it’s also likely that at this point, Motown was using Wilson’s solo to prepare audiences for the idea of a Supremes without Diana Ross. Not long after the release of this album and that television performance, an official press release announced that Ross was leaving The Supremes; according to Mary in her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, “Speculation was that I would be taking over her spot as lead singer; Diane [Diana Ross] had said so in interviews” (232). Certainly the fact that Mary was being presented on national television singing this song lends credence to the idea that Motown at least considered putting her up front; even though singer Jean Terrell was eventually named lead singer of the group, Mary’s performances on “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” prove she would have been a capable front-woman (and, indeed, she would increase her visibility in The Supremes throughout the 1970s). Here, Wilson shares the lead with Eddie Kendricks; interestingly, her solid alto and his sweet falsetto sound remarkably alike at times. Kendricks offers up a fine reading here, but it’s Wilson who predictably knocks it out of the park; she’s sexy and dramatic, and her voice is really strong. Mary also offers up some great little ad-libs; she hums prettily behind Eddie, and her soulful “Am I, baby?” at 1:08 is one of this album’s single best moments. Diana Ross, Cindy Birdsong, and the rest of The Temptations are absent from this recording; this is strictly a duet between Wilson and Kendricks. The lack of group vocals doesn’t really hurt, although the track lacks some depth because of it and feels a little unfinished. Still, it’s nice really hearing the vocal interplay between the two singers, and again, it’s fitting that the focus is on a Supreme often underutilized during the latter-part of the decade.
10. Why (Must We Fall In Love): If there’s been one single problem plaguing Together more than any other thus far, it’s the fact that most of the material just doesn’t feel fully-formed. There have been a lot of interesting ideas, and some very good vocal performances, but none of the previous nine tracks have screamed “HIT!” — or really sounded like anything more than filler. Finally, along comes “Why (Must We Fall In Love),” which isn’t a particularly great song, but at least sounds like it was produced with care and attention to detail. There’s an interesting complexity to this song, which was written by Deke Richards and the prolific songwriter and background singer Sherlie Matthews (and, according to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, produced by Richards). The unique chord changes and almost-discordant strings bring to mind the forthcoming work of The Carpenters; in a way, “Why (Must We Fall In Love)” sounds ahead of its time and is better-matched to the material on Diana’s 1970 LP Everything Is Everything and 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning. The instrumental here is more sophisticated than most of the other songs on Together, as is the vocal arrangement; the harmony singing by Diana Ross and Eddie Kendricks on the chorus is fantastic, and the backgrounds are full-bodied and exciting. Both lead singers also provide excellent work during the final fade, with such powerful ad-libs that it feels unfortunately the song only runs for three minutes. Interestingly, Motown chose not to release this song as a single in the United States, but did release it in the UK; it peaked at #31 there. I’m not sure this song would have been a huge hit for the groups at home, but it’s too bad it wasn’t given a chance; there’s at least a degree of quality and originality here that’s been missing for a good chunk of the album.
Without a memorable single like “I’ll Try Something New” or “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” — or an album track as epic as “The Impossible Dream” — Together really never stood a chance at becoming an important addition to the discographies of either Diana Ross and The Supremes of The Temptations. The emphasis on harder-edged funk and soul is fantastic, but it’s never fully explored in a satisfying way; instead, the first half of the album merely teases a work that could have been so much more exciting. That said, everyone involved would turn to far more innovative projects in the wake of this release; the following year would bring the barrier-breaking Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations, Diana’s powerful self-titled solo debut, and the glorious reinvention of The Supremes with Right On. So when listening to the very best moments of Together, just think of them as a warm-up for what’s to come; there’s a creativity bubbling beneath the surface that will soon burst forth and help redefine R&B music for generations to come.
Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (Could’ve Been Much “Better”)
Choice Cuts: “I’ll Be Doggone,” “Why (Must We Fall In Love),” “Sing A Simple Song”