“Could this be the beginning, the beginning of the end?”
It is perhaps the most poetic ending in popular music history. In late December, 1969, “Someday We’ll Be Together” ascended to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming not only the final chart-topping hit by Diana Ross and The Supremes, but also the final #1 of the decade. On the R&B side, the song hit the top spot on December 13, and remained there for a month, finally relinquishing the throne to the Motown act that would serve as the natural successor to The Supremes in terms of global success, The Jackson 5. Nobody could have penned a better close to the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes, a group which had done so much more than just make chart history with its even dozen #1 singles and trio of chart-topping albums. Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Cindy Birdsong had also broken down racial and gender barriers, achieving the kind of success generally reserved for white male performers and laying out the blueprint for every female singing group to follow.
Motown made the departure of Ross official in November, 1969, but in fact, Diana Ross and The Supremes had been recording as separate entities for quite some time. In her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson notes a recording session with new lead singer Jean Terrell all the way back on June 23, and producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were already cutting tracks for Diana’s solo debut when “Someday We’ll Be Together” was climbing the charts. Thus, building a final studio LP for Diana Ross and The Supremes meant reaching back into the Motown vaults; the eventual tracklist for Cream Of The Crop (released in November) contained songs mainly recorded in 1968, and at least one that dates back to 1966 (“Blowin’ In The Wind”). As with the previous several group releases, various voices back Miss Ross on Cream Of The Crop, including Wilson, Birdsong, Ballard, Motown session singers, and even Syreeta Wright, who’d apparently been considered as Diana’s replacement in The Supremes.
The end result is an album that never stood a chance at being a cohesive work; it seems the only real purpose behind Cream Of The Crop was getting “Somebody We’ll Be Together” onto a full-length album. The LP certainly wasn’t a big hit, charting worse than both of the previous albums released in 1969, Let The Sunshine In and Together (it peaked at #33 on the Billboard 200, although it did better than those other albums on the R&B chart, hitting #3). All of that said, the album isn’t a total loss, and there are some surprising highlights here; aside from “Someday We’ll Be Together,” nothing sounds like a major hit single, but there are tunes that merit rediscovery. Diana Ross especially shines, offering up an energetic take on The Beatles classic “Hey Jude” and exquisitely closing the album with quiet confidence on “The Beginning Of The End.” If nothing else, the album is the final piece of evidence that Miss Ross was ready for a career beyond The Supremes, and that Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong were deserving a group more focused on their own talents.
1. Someday We’ll Be Together: This song had a long life before it ever became a #1 hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes; written by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua, it was recorded by Bristol and Beavers and released in the early 1960s. According to Bristol, he’d re-recorded the track in 1969 with the intention of cutting it on Junior Walker; Bristol had co-written and produced Walker’s recent #1 R&B hit “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love).” Fate intervened, however, when Motown chief Berry Gordy, Jr. had a different idea: “When Mr. Gordy heard the track, he said, ‘How would you like to do this on Diana Ross and The Supremes?’ There was no contest. The track was complete when Mr. Gordy heard it; it was totally loaded with what you hear now, including the backup vocals and strings, except for the lead vocal. Since I didn’t cut it with The Supremes in mind, you’ll notice it has a little more R&B flavor in it than most of The Supremes’ material” (The Supremes box set booklet). Indeed, “Someday We’ll Be Together” is a gentle but potent mix of R&B, gospel, folk, and pop, a perfect blend of sounds for the changing musical landscape as the 1960s gave way to a new decade. Opening with an immediately recognizable string riff (later sampled by Janet Jackson on her huge 1993 hit “If”), the track gives way to an easygoing beat dominated by strumming guitars, swirling strings, and the powerful background vocals of Maxine and Julia Waters. Certainly hearing Diana Ross croon “Someday We’ll Be Together” with the knowledge that she was about to leave her longtime groupmates lent the song a bittersweet tone, but the vague lyrics carried a universal appeal; according to Bristol, “There were a lot of circumstances around — like the war going on — that helped carry it to its success. Its message was taken in so many different ways; you could be talking about your mom and dad who’ve passed on, or a loved one who’s in the war” (The Supremes booklet). But the key ingredient for success here is the hypnotic performance of Miss Ross; never before had she seemed so completely relaxed on record, and it’s a startling change for the singer so often identified with an edgy, urgent sound. In order to help create that mood, producer Bristol stepped into the booth and sang with her; his soulful words of encouragement remain on the record, and they’re a haunting touch, as if the disembodied voice of the missing loved one is responding to Diana’s hushed cries (NOTE: Bristol also sang along with Junior Walker on “What Does It Take,” his harmonies creating a similar effect). According to Motown legend, the end result was good that “Someday We’ll Be Together” was considered for Diana’s solo debut; instead, the group’s manager Shelly Berger apparently heard the song and convinced Gordy to release it as the final single from Diana Ross and The Supremes. The decision was brilliant; the song did exactly what everyone hoped it would do, which was to top the charts and provide the group with a high note upon which to end. But more than that, “Someday We’ll Be Together” really captured the feeling of an era, and remains one of the most touching recordings in the Motown canon.
2. Can’t You See It’s Me: According to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this song was completed in June, 1968; it’s surprising it hadn’t found its way onto an earlier album, as it’s a polished piece of light funk that’s better than many of the older recordings eventually placed on 1969’s Let The Sunshine In (and even superior to one or two on 1968’s Love Child). The song, written by Motown stalwarts Jack Goga, Ivy Jo Hunter, and Pamela Sawyer, isn’t a particularly memorable one — there’s a distinct lack of a strong hook — but it’s bouncy enough to create some momentum and the production is quite good. Diana Ross offers up an exciting vocal performance; she’s fiery and engaging on the verses and the “Can’t You See…” refrain, and her ad-libs beginning at 2:10 are amazing. Listen to the way she’s really pushing her voice as she wails, “You must be blind if you can’t see how much I love you, babe!” She displays real power and range here, aspects of her voice that Ross is rarely given credit for. It should be obvious to anyone who’s explored the deep cuts of the late-1960s Supremes that Ross is a superb soul singer, and this song is just further proof of how much her technical skill had developed.
3. You Gave Me Love: Cream Of The Crop continues with another surprisingly strong song, this one also written by Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua (of “Someday We’ll Be Together”), along with Marv Johnson. “You Gave Me Love” must be one of the most upbeat, joyful songs ever released by The Supremes; perhaps not since she trilled “I Hear A Symphony” back in 1965 had Diana Ross sounded so optimistic about love. “With just your touch/I feel such joy and ecstasy,” she sings, delivering the words in a warm, spirited performance; her work here is extremely skillful, especially in the way she perfectly enunciates during some of the more rapid-fire passages. The production here is full of whimsical touches, from the brief symphonic overture to the plucking of harp strings; Ross even belts out “I’m satisfied” during then song’s final fade, a sly little throwback to the earlier Supremes hit “Back In My Arms Again.” I’d love to believe the angelic background vocals are those of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, but I have a feeling it’s The Andantes providing the hooting harmonies behind Miss Ross; in any case, the vocal arrangement here is solid and reminiscent of something Smokey Robinson would have produced on the group. “You Gave Me Love” is probably a little too retro in feel to have stood a chance at being a big hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes, but it’s delightful and much better than the usual album filler; it’s nice to hear something so positive from the group, and its inclusion here serves as a reminder of the kind of compact love songs that made the ladies superstars in the first place.
4. Hey Jude: I was hoping we could get through the final few Diana Ross and The Supremes albums without another Beatles cover; however, along comes “Hey Jude” just in the nick of time. The original recording, of course, was a blockbuster hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for an astounding nine weeks in 1968; coincidentally, it was none other than “Love Child” by Diana Ross and The Supremes that finally knocked the song out of the top spot. The Supremes had covered their male British counterparts several times in the past, beginning with their tribute album A Bit Of Liverpool in 1964; by all accounts, both groups were fans of each other’s work and always remained on friendly terms. That said, The Supremes had never fared particularly well when tacking material written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; the Liverpool LP was disastrous, and Diana’s reading of “Yesterday” on 1965’s I Hear A Symphony uninspired. The good news is that “Hey Jude” is easily the best Beatles cover ever released by Diana Ross and The Supremes; by quickening the pace and focusing attention on the beat, there’s at least an energy here that buoys the production. Diana’s vocal performance is warm and appealing here; there’s a real vivacity to her singing, especially as the song progresses and she offers up some powerful ad-libs. Her work on this track is similar to what she’d do with another Beatles tune, “Come Together,” on her 1970 solo LP Everything Is Everything. In both cases, Ross adds a lot of soul to the recording, putting her own stamp on the material rather than delivering an affected, lifeless performance (i.e. “Yesterday”). According to Don’t Forget The Motor City, production here comes courtesy The Clan (the collection of writers responsible for earlier hit singles “Love Child” and “I’m Livin’ In Shame”); much of the credit must also go to them for sidestepping the trap of making this sound like a cheap imitation of the ubiquitous original.
5. The Young Folks: This is an interesting little addition to the Supremes discography, a song which shows up on various compilations due to the fact that it somehow managed to claw its way onto the pop chart in mid-1969. “The Young Folks” was recorded in December ’68/January ’69 and initially placed on the b-side of the May release “No Matter What Sign You Are.” That song was only a minor hit for the group (peaking at #31 pop and #17 R&B), but Motown eventually serviced some promo singles of the b-side to radio (I’ve seen a few copies on red vinyl over the years), and “The Young Folks” managed to squeak its way to #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t much promotion for the song — the group never performed it on television and I don’t think it was ever part of the live act — so it was really nothing more than a “placeholder” on the charts until “Someday We’ll Be Together” came along in October. It’s interesting to ponder what the fate of the song would have been had it really been pushed by Motown; it’s not terribly removed from “Someday We’ll Be Together” in terms of tone, and the lyrics were certainly relevant to young record buyers. Written by George Gordy and Allen Story, the song is a gentle, folksy anthem about the changing political attitudes of youth during a time of great unrest in America; lyrics like “They’re marching with signs/They’re standing in lines” evoke images of Civil Rights and anti-war protestors. The track is quietly produced, with just a shuffling beat and Diana’s echo-heavy vocals carrying the action. Ross gives a wise, knowing reading of the lyrics; although she’s rather subdued here, there’s an unmistakable spark in her vocals, and she gets a chance to display some range when she pushes her delivery of “You may not like it/But I’ve got to tell you…” at 2:17 (and again a few times thereafter). Ross is backed by some pretty, soulful harmonies; I doubt it’s Mary Wilson and/or Cindy Birdsong we’re hearing here, but the backgrounds are very well-done. Certainly “The Young Folks” doesn’t have the immediacy of “Someday We’ll Be Together” — nor does it even sound as radio-ready as “No Matter What Sign You Are” — but it’s a song that gets better with every listen. The message here never sounds forced, nor does it sound inauthentic or campy; with a few televised performances and a decent promotional push, perhaps “The Young Folks” could have attained greater importance in the Supremes canon. (NOTE: The song would gain a much broader audience a year later, when it was covered by The Jackson 5 and placed on the b-side of the #1 single “ABC.”)
6. Shadows Of Society: Every wonder what “Love Child,” “Forever Came Today,” “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone,” and “Born Of Mary” (from 1965’s Merry Christmas) would sound like had they been crammed into one song? “Shadows Of Society” provides the answer…and it’s not pretty. The socially-relevant lyrics of “Love Child” are recycled into generic, vague pleas for understanding here; “Young mothers’ faces filled with shame/It’s not enough to give her baby life, they say” makes a point, but lacks the searing specificity of the story told in the earlier #1 hit. The instrumental track here is just as unfocused; it opens with a mysterious, Middle Eastern-flavored intro before a “Reflections”-style beat takes over, complete with bouncy bassline and rhythmic tambourine. Diana Ross offers up an energetic lead vocal, sounding appropriately engaged and anguished, but the spoken passages are unbelievably laughable; seriously, what does “As I rush through the shadows, seeking me/May the torch of love light my way” mean, anyway? The end result here is a track that’s the complete opposite of “The Young Folks” — this one sounds totally forced, and the message is never convincing.
7. Loving You Is Better Than Ever: Thank God, after the dreadful “Shadows Of Society,” Smokey Robinson comes along to save the day. “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” was written and produced by Robinson, who’d been cutting some awesome tracks on Diana and The Supremes since the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown a few years earlier. His “Then,” “He’s My Sunny Boy,” and “Will This Be The Day” were all highlights of their respective albums, and “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” is similarly a dazzling display of artistry from everyone involved. Much of Robinson’s songwriting and production incorporates elements of light jazz, and that’s the case here, with a swinging melody and big band instrumental track; this song sounds tailor-made for one of the group’s Vegas engagements. That instrumental seems to foreshadow the coming wave of Disco, too; there’s something about the swirling strings and blaring horns don’t sound far removed from the dance club hits that would dominate R&B and soul music in the following decade. Diana Ross gives a smooth, easy performance here; there’s a real warmth to her voice, and if you ask me, her vocals here are very similar to what she would deliver nearly a decade later on her superb solo disc Baby It’s Me. The real joy in this recording is how effortless it all sounds; unlike some other late-era Diana Ross and The Supremes tracks that seem too calculated and/or overworked, this one is merely an appealing chunk of pop/soul that exists on its own terms. “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” is continued proof that Smokey Robinson was a great match for Diana Ross and The Supremes; had Ross not left the group so quickly after H-D-H departed Motown, perhaps Smokey could have led the group to a new creative peak. (NOTE: Robinson did work with The Supremes again; he produced 1972’s lovely Floy Joy LP, featuring Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong.)
8. When It’s To The Top (Still I Won’t Stop Giving You Love): It’s won’t come as a big surprise that this song was produced by James Dean and William Weatherspoon (and co-written along with Ronald Weatherspoon); both men had written the huge Motown hit “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted,” and were responsible for several other recordings (including producing the notable Marvelettes single “When You’re Young And In Love”). It’s not surprising because “When It’s To The Top (Still I Won’t Stop Giving You Love”) has a real Hitsville sound; there’s a driving, percussive beat and classic background vocal arrangement, not to mention a melody that strongly echoes those of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Miss Ross is right in her comfort zone here, offering up an urgent vocal and easily riding the melody with her crisp delivery. Unfortunately, the song is a bit too rambling to have the immediacy of the very best Supremes recordings; the lyrics are pretty clunky (as indicated by the 12-word title) and there’s not a particularly memorable hook. Still, this is decent album filler, and it’s a nice throwback to the kind of stirring hits being cranked out during the group’s heyday.
9. Till Johnny Comes: Smokey Robinson returns to the writing-producing chair for this song, which had been cut earlier on Motown singer Brenda Holloway; her version wasn’t released until years later, but it’s availability now makes for an interesting comparison with the recording included on Cream Of The Crop. Holloway’s version is spare and haunting, with an angular instrumental and torchy performance by Holloway and the background vocalists. Robinson’s production for Diana Ross and The Supremes is far more polished and pop, with a lush instrumental and a sweet, yearning vocal from Ross. Between the two, I’d say Holloway’s earlier recording is the more effective; there’s something raw and unpretentious about the cut that gives it a timeless feel when listened to today. The Supremes version is competent and an easy listen, but it’s not as exciting as Robinson’s earlier “Loving You Is Better Than Ever” and it doesn’t age as well as the best songs the writer-producer created for the group. You’d never mistake this for anything other than filler, but it’s an inoffensive listen.
10. Blowin’ In The Wind: It’s ironic that the men responsible for the highest of high points in the career of The Supremes are also to blame for the absolute nadir of Cream Of The Crop. “Blowin’ In The Wind” is, of course, the most famous song title here, a Bob Dylan classic that’s now considered one of the greatest songs ever written. Fellow Motown artist Stevie Wonder covered the song and took it to #1 on the R&B chart in 1966, the same year The Supremes recorded it under the direction of producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. That version finally surfaces here, and the question isn’t why it was held back for so long…it’s why the song was ever lifted out of the Motown vaults. This is a limp, totally vanilla production, featuring the sleepiest vocals from Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard since they yawned their way through the dreadful “What The World Needs Now Is Love” on 1968’s Reflections. Diana’s high, affected vocal verges on painful at times; her voice even seems to unintentionally crack at 2:00 in, an unappealing moment that could have easily been cut. What made Wonder’s version successful was the soulful arrangement; his bluesy take on the song remains distinctive and injects the song with a lot of life. This version doesn’t even sound finished; that Holland and Dozier produced it during a year in which they created some of the greatest pop/soul songs of all time is astonishing.
11. The Beginning Of The End: And finally, we come to the very last song on the final studio album by Diana Ross and The Supremes, and a more fitting song couldn’t have been chosen. “The Beginning Of The End” is a quiet, bluesy song written by Margaret Johnson and originally released as a b-side by Motown artist Chris Clark; the version here was also a b-side, having been placed on the flipside to “The Composer” earlier in the year. And talk about a rush job; the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes notes that this song was recorded March 20-22, 1969 — “The Composer” single was released just five days later, on March 27! That said, “The Beginning Of The End” never feels like a quickie production; it’s a beautiful, understated recording that is one of the highlights of Cream Of The Crop. Frank Wilson and Billie Jean Brown offer up a haunting production with an instrumental that seems to be swirling through the halls of a church sanctuary; the arrangement of the background vocals is particularly notable, as Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong croon “The beginning…the beginning…” like echoing bells. Interestingly, there’s another notable voice gracing the track; Motown singer Syreeta Wright is prominently featured at the end of the bridge, singing “Mind, mind, mind” at 1:40. Wright had already been recording for the label and provided at least one demo vocal for Diana Ross (on “Love Child”); Mary Wilson famously tells a story in her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme of Berry Gordy, Jr. wanting to bring Wright into The Supremes even after Jean Terrell had been announced as the third Supreme. It’s interesting to hear Wright on a Supremes cut here, and certainly makes one wonder what would have happened had she stepped into Diana’s shoes the following year. Speaking of Diana, her performance here is gorgeously controlled; she does what she does best, which is to honestly interpret the lyric without oversinging or detracting from the song’s message. This song is a perfect bookend with “Someday We’ll Be Together,” a less-hopeful but no less effective reflection on the end of an era.
“Someday We’ll Be Together” is such a perfect final single for Diana Ross and The Supremes that one might expect the group’s final studio album would be just as carefully composed; however, that’s a totally unrealistic expectation given the circumstances surrounding the group at the time. By the time Cream Of The Crop hit shelves in November, 1969, its release was merely a formality and Diana Ross and The Supremes was a group solely for the sake of live appearances. The final performance would come on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, and all parties would immediately move forward; the debut single by The Supremes featuring Jean Terrell (“Up The Ladder To The Roof”) was released in February, and Diana’s first solo single (“Reach Out And Touch [Somebody’s Hand]”) followed in April. It would have been nice had Cream Of The Crop lived up to its name and given the group one final blockbuster album; still, it’s hard to complain too much when the “crop” sown by The Supremes and reaped by fans had already been so damn good.
Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (A Predictably Uneven “End”)
Choice Cuts: “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “You Gave Me Love,” “Loving You Is Better Than Ever”