“I’ll gather melodies from birdies that fly…and compose you a tune…”
In the annals of music history, The Supremes will forever be linked to Holland-Dozier-Holland, the writing-producing team responsible for ten of the singing trio’s twelve #1 pop hits. And this is as it should be; Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard proved the perfect match for the crisp melodies and urgent beats penned by Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, with Ross in particular excelling in the delivery of sweetness, soul, fire, and icy detachment required by the songs. But take away these classic recordings — from “Baby Love” to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to “Reflections” — and The Supremes are left with an unusual and often uneven catalog of songs produced by some of the most prolific artists on the Motown roster. Of those, arguably the most successful in crafting quality recordings for The Supremes is the legendary Smokey Robinson.
Robinson’s history with The Supremes goes back to nearly the beginning; it was he who helped orchestrate the group’s initial audition with Motown Records, thanks to the persistence of his neighborhood friend Diana Ross. Once the group signed with the label in 1961, Robinson provided the young ladies with songs like “Who’s Lovin’ You” (included on Meet The Supremes), “After All,” and “Those D.J. Shows” (both unreleased), and eventually wrote and produced the exquisite “Your Heart Belongs To Me” for them in 1962, which became the group’s first song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. But when The Supremes teamed with Holland-Dozier-Holland the following year for “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” the resulting magic was undeniable. Over the next several years, from late 1963 to early 1968, The Supremes would solely release singles written and produced by H-D-H, effectively blocking any other producer from attempting to gain a hit with the girl group.
When Holland-Dozier-Holland eventually left Motown in a dispute over money, Robinson began working with the group again, offering up the sterling “Then” on the group’s 1968 album Reflections. The next several songs he cut with Diana Ross and The Supremes — with one very notable exception (“The Composer”) — would be among the best of the group’s latter-day output, restoring melodic order to an otherwise fractured discography. Robinson continued his association with The Supremes even after Ross left the group, producing the 1972 album Floy Joy and giving The Supremes a final top 20 hit with the title track. Smokey will forever be identified with The Temptations, Mary Wells, and (of course) The Miracles, but his work with Motown’s top female trio deserves more respect than it often gets. Here, then, are what I consider to be the finest Smokey-Supremes collaborations (with abbreviated discussions from previous DIANA ROSS PROJECT posts) — consider it the lineup for a “lost” album that might have been.
1. Your Heart Belongs To Me: This song garnered a four-star review in the June 2, 1962 issue of Billboard, with the magazine predicting, “Smart arrangements might make this one to watch.” Unfortunately, few disc jockeys followed the advice, and the song peaked at #95 on the Hot 100, although it was the group’s first to make the chart. Still, this is the first really strong single released by The Supremes, and easily the best song featured on the group’s debut album, Meet The Supremes. More than any other song on that album, “Your Heart Belongs To Me” hints at the sophistication these young ladies were capable of; there’s a sexy maturity to the vocals here, especially those of Diana Ross, that would become much more pronounced in the next few years. This is a softly-swinging ballad, driven by surf-style guitars and snapping percussion; with lyrics that mention “faraway sand” and the sea, listeners can practically hear the rolling of waves in the background.
2. A Breathtaking Guy: It’s still surprising that this song wasn’t the group’s first big hit. Once again, it gained a four-star review in Billboard (July 6, 1963), but only managed to climb to #75 on the pop chart. Eventually placed on 1964’s Where Did Our Love Go, the song stands up alongside the hit Holland-Dozier-Holland productions also included on the album. Robinson’s lyrical genius is evident, with a whimsical chorus composed of the refrain, “Are you just a breathtaking…first sight soul-shaking…one night lovemaking…next day heartbreaking guy?” Wordy? Yes…but Robinson wisely breaks up this chorus, allowing each Supreme to take a line. No matter how talented Motown’s other female groups — and there was great talent there — no other group featured three such distinct, polished voices, all of which are on glorious display here.
3. You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me: Smokey Robinson didn’t produce this recording, but he did write it; it was a top 10 hit for The Miracles in 1962 and covered by The Beatles a year later, which explains its inclusion on A Bit Of Liverpool. The album is largely a disaster, but this cover is the unqualified highlight, with a stunningly soulful lead by Diana Ross, sexy underscoring by Mary Wilson, and full-throated background work from Florence Ballard.
4. Take Me Where You Go: Recorded in 1965, this track first surfaced on the 1979 release From The Vaults, a collection of unreleased tracks from various Motown groups. Since then, “Take Me Where You Go” has been released with several different mixes on compilations including the 4-disc box set The Supremes (2000), 2008’s Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities, and More Hits By The Supremes: Expanded Edition (2011). In any of its versions, this is a near-perfect Supremes recording, mirroring the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound in many ways, but filtering it through Robinson’s melody-heavy, lyrically-inspired lens. Unfortunately, “Take Me Where You Go” came along precisely as the group was hitting hard with its first batch of five consecutive #1 hits, all written by H-D-H, which means anything written or produced by anyone else was forced to take a backseat. Had “Take Me Where You Go” been released, it easily would have been a hit for the group, and it would have seamlessly fit in with the lineups of either the More Hits or I Hear A Symphony albums.
5. Then: Three singles were released from 1968’s Reflections album, and it remains a mystery why this song wasn’t one of them; if ever there was a lost hit for The Supremes, this is it. Mr. Robinson delivers one of his patented sugary confections, boasting typically clever lyrics and an exciting, driving instrumental. Diana, Mary, and new Supreme Cindy Birdsong are in glorious form here; Ross sparkles with a relaxed, assured lead vocal, and her groupmates offer up tight harmonies, their voices ringing like bells in the background. More than just the strength of the writing and the performances, Robinson captures a real magic here; again, it’s hard to believe Motown didn’t jump on this song and rush it to radio. Interestingly, Diana Ross and The Supremes would record “Then” again; it’s included on 1968’s Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations as a collaboration with Motown’s top male vocal group. It’s a good version, but this one is the standout.
6. I’ll Try Something New: Although “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is the signature song of the supergroup known as Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, this is their collective masterpiece. Smokey Robinson didn’t produce this one, but he wrote it and first recorded it with The Miracles. Producer Frank Wilson (website Don’t Forget The Motor City also credits Deke Richards as co-producer) gives this version a quiet, dreamy interpretation; his musicians create an instrumental so light and airy it feels like it’s floating up into heaven. The male and female voices are perfectly matched; Eddie Kendricks delivers an effortless falsetto and Diana’s vocal oozes over the track like honey. The entire production builds to a powerful climax, with both groups repeatedly belting the song’s title and the lead singers ad-libbing until the fade. There is something eminently listenable about this recording; it’s so tightly pitched and performed that multiple listens reveal little riffs and harmonies just beneath the surface that are easy to miss the first time. When it was released in February of 1969, the song was only a moderate success; it reached the Top 10 of the R&B chart, but stopped short of the Top 20 on the pop side, peaking at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. It deserved to do much, much better.
7. He’s My Sunny Boy: 1968’s Love Child was a return to form for Diana Ross and The Supremes, and “He’s My Sunny Boy” is a major contributor to its overall success. This is a joyous, brassy celebration of love, featuring celebratory horns and a great bongo intro; even though the “sunny” tone of the song might have sounded a little old-fashioned at the time, the expert guitar picking helps give the song a folksy feel that’s totally of the late-60s. Robinson’s lyrics are as sharp as ever, with Diana, Mary, and Cindy cooing “Looks good in everything from silk to corduroy (Or mohair!)/For him I’d walk from Idaho to Illinois (Or anywhere!)” — and a real joy here is the clarity of all three Supremes’ voices. Just the three ladies are singing here, and there’s a purity in their sound that makes you wish Motown hadn’t been so reliant on session singers. Plenty of people would get a listen to this song when it was placed on the b-side of “Someday We’ll Be Together” — released as the final Diana Ross and The Supremes single in October of 1969. It’s a shame, however, that “He’s My Sunny Boy” never got a shot at success on its own.
8. Will This Be The Day: This is an absolutely sterling track which 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. 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. 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.
9. Loving You Is Better Than Ever: The final studio album from Diana Ross and The Supremes, titled Cream Of The Crop, is a mixed bag of recordings that had been held back from other releases; the main purpose of the album was getting the group’s final #1 hit, “Someday We’ll Be Together,” onto an LP and surrounding it with decent filler. But once again, Smokey Robinson provides a highlight with “Loving You Is Better Than Ever,” a wonderful tune with a swinging melody and big band instrumental track. Interestingly, 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. 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.
10. Floy Joy: Although THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT has focused exclusively on recordings featuring Diana Ross, it’s impossible to mention Smokey Robinson’s contributions to the Supremes discography without including the 1972 LP Floy Joy, which he wrote and produced for the Jean Terrell-led incarnation of the group. The album’s title track became the final top 20 hit for the group, peaking at #16 pop and #5 R&B. Featuring a shared lead by Terrell and Mary Wilson, the song is something of a snappier update of the Marvelettes hit “Don’t Mess With Bill” (also written and produced by Robinson), with sexy vocals and a vibe-heavy instrumental track. Wilson really shines here, with a sultry delivery that oozes over the track like honey; after a decade of stardom, it was certainly time for Wilson to get a shot like this on one of the group’s singles, and she seizes the opportunity.
*BONUS* Kewpie Doll: Both Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson were extremely busy in the 1970s and 80s, and unfortunately this kept them from working together much. They both appeared on the 1979 novelty single “Pops We Love You” and on the smash charity recording “We Are The World” in 1985, but that’s about it. Thankfully, with the release of Diana’s lost “baby album” To The Baby in 2009 (as part of the Touch Me In The Morning Expanded Edition), the world finally got to hear the voices of Ross and Robinson together again with this unreleased track from 1971. Smokey wrote and produced the track, and offers up background vocals so prominent the recording almost qualifies as a duet. Both are in fine voice; Diana Ross is as smooth and soulful as she’d ever been on record here, delivering the same kind of youthful passion heard on her earliest solo albums without any of the rawness that crept through. Robinson’s layered backgrounds are just breathtaking; they work with Diana’s vocal rather than detract from it, adding an aching and tenderness to the recording that it really needed to have. The end result is such a classic, timeless song that it really doesn’t sound that dated; it could easily be a “neo-soul” tune by a contemporary artist.
I’ve long hoped for a Ross-Robinson duets album; both artists still clearly have a great affection for one another, and more importantly, both have retained the unique vocal tones that made them stars in the first place. I have a suspicion that a strong album of duets between the Motown legends would be heralded by critics and fans alike; it’s the kind of project that the Recording Academy loves to throw Grammys at. (Not too long ago, I was on a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta and Mr. Robinson was seated in first class. I spent the entire four-hour flight dreaming about somehow cornering him and pitching this idea; sadly, I was stuck back in coach!)
For now, the above-assembled playlist will have to suffice; I think it proves not only what a genius writer-producer Smokey Robinson was and is, but just how well-suited his gifts were to those of Diana and The Supremes. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, there are even more collaborations resting in the Motown vaults, waiting to be discovered and released. When and if they are, we’ll be waiting; after all, to paraphrase a great man, they’ve really got a hold on us.