“Together we can make such sweet music…”
Anyone who thought The Supremes might take some time to regroup after the departure of lead singer Diana Ross in early 1970 was sorely mistaken. A month after the group’s final performance with Ross, the first Supremes single with new lead Jean Terrell hit store shelves. Two months after that, a full-length album with Terrell, titled Right On, was released. A hectic performance schedule also continued, including a return to the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York, at which the group’s original lineup had made its historic debut in 1965. Rave reviews poured in for the grouping of Terrell-Mary Wilson-Cindy Birdsong; in the Billboard column Soul Sauce, Ed Ochs wrote, “Praise is pouring in for Jean Terrell of the Supremes. It’s her group now and they’re better than ever. Some people say she’s even better at the helm than you know who…” (August 29, 1970).
At the same time The Supremes were enjoying a resurgence in popularity, so were longtime labelmates The Four Tops. Like the Supremes, the Tops had struggled after the departure of songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown in the late 1960s; a run of top 20 pop hits ended in 1968. Then, in March of 1970, the group released the now-classic Still Waters Run Deep, and it became one of their highest-charting albums ever. The producer behind Still Waters Run Deep was Frank Wilson, the same man who’d just crafted the first two hit singles for the “new” Supremes; as he’d done for the female trio, Wilson portrayed the Tops as a more serious vocal group, giving them songs inspired by the current social climate. Motown, of course, was never a company to miss a commercial opportunity, and with both groups enjoying simultaneous success under the same producer, it must have seemed a no-brainer to team them up for an album of collaborations.
The result was The Magnificent Seven, released in September of 1970. The album features the work of several producers, including Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who had just scored a major success with Diana Ross on her solo debut. Ashford & Simpson dusted off their classic “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” here, along with completely rearranging “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” that song which launched Diana’s solo career. Clay McMurray, who’d handled a few of the tracks on Right On (including standout “Then We Can Try Again”), produced a quartet of songs here, and producer Duke Browner also turned in four tracks. Considering it was the work of several producers, The Magnificent Seven ended up being a fairly cohesive album, and Jean Terrell and Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs are a match made in heaven. That said, the abundance of covers is a drawback, and the material is uneven; there are some really great recordings here, but there are also a few that could have been left in the Motown vaults.
1. Knock On My Door: Not the “Three’s Company” theme song, although that would have been amazing; this is the album’s sole original tune, written by Patti Jerome (who recorded for Motown as P.J.) and Joe Hinton and produced by Duke Browner. It’s a nice opener, a slice of mid-tempo folksy soul that bears similarities to the earlier Supremes/Temptations collaboration “The Weight,” issued as a single in 1969. The thick, throaty vocals of Levi Stubbs take this one off the top, immediately lending the song the kind of urgency and passion that only he could summon; Stubbs is truly one of the great male soul vocalists of all time, and he always delivers. When Jean Terrell’s smooth, silken voice takes over on the second verse, it becomes clear that this is a dynamic pairing; Jean is the silk to to Levi’s sandpaper, and the two voices spiral around one another like a pair of skilled dancers. My favorite moment of the song comes at 1:53, when the two sing in perfect harmony; I wish there’d been more of that in the arrangement. Meanwhile, the Tops and Supremes sound lovely in the background but their vocals are fairly restrained, leaving the focus squarely on the lead singers. “Knock On My Door” isn’t a particularly memorable recording, but it’s a solid way to open the album, and certainly sends the message that these “new” Supremes are a perfect match for the seasoned Four Tops.
2. For Your Love: This is a slow, meandering version of the 1950s Ed Townsend hit, produced again by Duke Browner; Townsend’s original is a doo-wop classic, and remains a dreamy, lush example of the genre. Unfortunately, this version just sounds creaky and outdated; it’s not similar enough to the original to serve as a throwback, nor is it modernized enough to be fresh. The singers frankly sound a little lost in the arrangement; Levi Stubbs always gives a hundred percent, but the pace here is just so slow that he seems strained. Similarly, Jean Terrell’s vocal is so unfocused that she kind of sounds like she’s making it all up as she goes along. The two singers also keep referring to each other by name, to the point that it ceases to be authentic and sounds like they’re just trying to fill time until the song ends. The best thing about “For Your Love” is the background work; the voices of the Supremes and Four Tops absolutely soar.
3. Without The One You Love: Finally, a stunner. “Without The One You Love” takes off like a rocket, with a heart-pounding instrumental track that won’t quit and some of the best vocal work on the album. Interestingly, this is a cover of a Holland-Dozier-Holland song first recorded by…The Four Tops. The group’s original version was released as a single in November of 1964, only the second from the guys on Motown; it was a moderate success, stopping just short of the pop top 40. That version is classic H-D-H, set to a swinging beat similar to the one they’d use again for “I Hear A Symphony” the following year. Here, producer Clay McMurray gives the song an exciting makeover, setting it to a driving beat and layering the track with an electric guitar and wild bongos. Perhaps because they were familiar with the song, the Tops sound right at home here; their opening “Baby baby, I need your/Good, good lovin'” is a great hook, and when The Supremes finally join in a few seconds later, their high harmonies ring out like church bells. Jean Terrell starts the first verse, and this is the best she’s sounded on record thus far; there’s a real confidence to her performance here, and she’s singing in her mid-range, which gives her a sexy maturity and reveals a nice depth to her voice. Levi Stubbs attacks the second verse, his voice choked with emotion; you can practically feel the sweat pouring down his forehead. Everything about this recording works; it grabs hold of the listener and refuses to let go until the final fade. It’s likely that this one wasn’t considered for a single release in the United States due to the fact that it had already been done by The Four Tops; it’s too bad, because this should have been a monster hit (it was released in the UK and, interestingly, it did chart in Bangkok; it’s #21 on the July 29, 1972 list in Billboard). It still sounds exciting today, and is easily the best cut on this album.
4. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand): Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson worked up this version of their classic song right around the same time the original by Diana Ross was first released; her single hit shelves in April of 1970, and this one was finished up in May. To those only familiar with the Ross version (which peaked at #20 on the Billboard Hot 100), this one will sound quite jarring; Ashford & Simpson do to it what they did with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” when updating it for Miss Ross, rearranging the entire thing and giving it a new feel entirely. Diana’s “Reach Out And Touch” was glossy gospel-light, famously set to a waltz time signature and building to a powerful climax, giving the singer one of her first real opportunities to cut loose on a song and ad-lib over the chorus of background singers. This time around, Ashford & Simpson put the climax up front, opening the track with The Supremes and Four Tops powerfully delivering the “bah-bah-bah” section with only a snare drum behind them. The producers then layer in a swirling instrumental with fabulous strings; the strings are one of the real stars of this recording, and I’d wager the arrangement is the work of the great Paul Riser. Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell each get a verse (although Jean’s is weirdly interrupted by another chorus of “bah-bahs”), and additional group members get some solo lines, too; Mary soulfully chimes in at 2:16, with the lines “We can change things/If we start giving” and then Jean raises the roof with “Why don’t you!” The song takes a sudden shift soon after, with a new tempo taking over at 2:49; no longer a waltz, the groups repeat “Reach out, touch somebody” while various singers trade off ad-libs, the piece essentially becoming a jam session. This section doesn’t really add much to the song, but it’s nice to finally hear Cindy get a few moments to herself. At a total running time of 4:49, the final product is nearly two minutes longer than the Diana Ross version; credit must be given to Ashford & Simpson for refusing to just use the same arrangement and working to create something completely new. Unfortunately, this version of “Reach Out And Touch” is just too disjointed to truly be successful; the various sections here don’t transition particularly well, and they’re not ordered in a way that makes much sense. (NOTE: Fans in the UK will remember that this song was eventually issued as a single there.)
5. Stoned Soul Picnic: As much Ashford & Simpson clearly enjoyed reworking existing tunes and dreaming up new, interesting arrangements, they don’t do that at all with this tune, which was written by Laura Nyro and made a huge hit by The Fifth Dimension in 1968. This is a nearly note-for-note remake of the hit recording, which turns out to be a good call; “Stoned Soul Picnic” is a mood song, one that takes the listener on a journey, and Ashford & Simpson create a lovely instrumental track upon which the groups can simply do what they do best. Thus far on The Magnificent Seven, the emphasis has mainly been on Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs, although everyone has turned in great work; here, for the first time, the groups themselves take center stage, singing as a single entity at times, and breaking into stunning harmonies at others. Various group members get little bits in which his or her voice is pulled forward ever so slightly, but each of the voices works together in a way that only makes the collective choir seem stronger. It’s not groundbreaking, since it was already done by The Fifth Dimension, but for my money, this version is every bit as breathtakingly beautiful; this is the kind of song you close you eyes to, letting the soft music dance around your mind.
6. Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes): A swinging classic that dates back to 1960, this emerges as a real showcase for the members of both The Supremes and The Four Tops, giving each of the seven singers a well-deserved solo. Producer Clay McMurray dresses up the tune with a jazzy, big band arrangement; it sounds tailor-made for a glitzy Supremes Las Vegas engagement. Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell play off of each other beautifully during the first two verses; there’s undeniable chemistry here, especially at :51, as Stubbs practically growls the lines “It takes a lot of woman/To knock me off my feet” and Terrell responds with a spirited “No doubt about it!” Obie Benson and Mary Wilson take the next verse; he’s smooth as butter on his lines, and Mary practically steals the entire song with her sexy purr. Cindy Birdsong finally gets more than a few words to herself, taking the first half of the final verse, and her soft, round soprano is a great fit for this song; the way she stretches the word “more” into two notes, dropping from the first to the second, is the kind of thing you’d expect from a jazz singer like Ella Fitzgerald. Lawrence Payton and Duke Fakir round out this sensational group of vocalists, all of whom sound like they’re having an absolute blast in the studio. Although the endless “asides” to one another (i.e. “Right on, Mama, right on!” and “Mary, you’re just too much!”) are a little kitschy, they’re impossible not to like, because they sound so genuine; this is such an unforced, pleasant recording that it still sounds fresh today, as though you’d sitting in the studio with the groups as they record it.
7. River Deep, Mountain High: In the liner notes to the 2002 release The 70s Anthology, Mary Wilson recalled recording this song: “We had so much fun in the studio that I’m sure it can be felt on the track. Duke Fakir recently reminded me it was an all-night session with fried chicken and loads of laughs.” Indeed, there is a palpable joy and excitement in this recording, which became the album’s only single in the United States. Released on November 5, 1970 (two months after the LP hit shelves), Billboard predicted it would be “an out and out smash,” and it eventually peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #7 on the R&B chart in early 1971. It probably could have climbed even higher on the charts, except that The Supremes were competing with themselves; their hit single “Stoned Love” (featured on the group’s next album, New Ways But Love Stays) was peaking in the top 10 at the exact same time. “River Deep, Mountain High” was originally recorded by Tina Turner in 1966; co-written and produced by Phil Spector, the single famously flopped in the United States, sending Spector into seclusion. The song had already been covered a few times before Ashford & Simpson produced it for this album; rather than do something dramatically different, Ashford & Simpson use the Spector-produced original as a starting point, then amp every element up, creating an explosive instrumental track led by Paul Riser’s screeching strings and a galloping beat. There really does seems to be a current of electricity charging through this entire recording, starting with the musicians and running right through to the vocalists. Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell turn in perhaps their strongest vocal performances of the entire album; both are intense and fiercely committed to the material, injecting every word with emotion without coming off as melodramatic. Likewise, the Supremes and Four Tops sound glorious in the background, their soaring voices filling out the already-packed backing track. From start to finish, this is a stunning production; Turner’s original version will always be considered the classic, but this one is every bit as accomplished. It speaks to the quality of this recording that even though it was released a full two months after the album and was climbing the charts simultaneously with another Supremes single, it still topped out as high on the pop and R&B listings as it did. (NOTE: Check out the Jet Soul Brothers Top 20 chart from February 18, 1971, which for some reason lists “Rag Doll” as the title of this song!)
8. Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing: The final Ashford & Simpson production on this album is a cover of one of the duo’s most famous compositions; “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” was, of course, first done by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (no relation to Jean), who took it to #1 on the R&B charts in 1968. A year later, the Ross-led Supremes covered the song with The Temptations on their joint LP Together, in a version produced by none other than Frank Wilson! Here, Ashford & Simpson take a similar approach to their work on the album’s previous track; they don’t change the structure of the song much, but they do make it a bigger, bolder, and more dramatic production than the original version. This rendition opens with a brief new introduction (the producers did the same thing on their remake of “You’re All I Need To Get By” for Diana Ross, adding a slow-burning intro) before a clomping beat takes over and the tune’s familiar melody takes over. The track here is heavy on sweet, swirling strings, which are beautifully performed; the big harmonies of the Four Tops and Supremes are also a gorgeous addition to the song. The previous Supremes version of this song, led by Diana Ross and David Ruffin, was good but lacked fire; the leads here have no trouble summoning up the appropriate intensity, giving this recording a soul and maturity that even the brilliant original doesn’t quite have. It’s hard to hear this song in any version and not crave the simmering passion generated between Marvin and Tammi; their hit version is magical. But of the many, many recordings of this great song, this has got to rank among the best; there’s magic here, too.
9. Everyday People: This is another one that had already been recorded by The Supremes; the Sly and the Family Stone original topped the charts for several weeks in February/March of 1969, and Diana Ross recorded it around the same time for the Supremes LP Let The Sunshine In. “Everyday People” is one of the most iconic songs of the late 1960s, still showing up in films and television commercials today. Producer Clay McMurray doesn’t tamper with the song; the backing track here is nearly identical to that of the original. Certainly if anyone was up for the challenge of this boisterous, soulful song, it was The Supremes and Four Tops; unfortunately, the track is cut in key that doesn’t work well for Jean Terrell nor Levi Stubbs, and both singers deliver really strained vocal performances. Just listen to the first verse, during which Jean Terrell is reaching so high that she sounds out of breath; it’s the weakest she’s sounded on the album. Levi Stubbs is likewise forced to jump all over the scale to make his verse work, and he sounds like he’s about to burst a blood vessel at 1:15, as he goes for a high note. I wonder if perhaps the track wasn’t even recorded with these two groups in mind; that would explain why it sounds so wrong for the leads.
10. It’s Got To Be A Miracle (This Thing Called Love): This is a fascinating choice for The Magnificent Seven, a Motown gem first recorded by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston in 1966 and featured on the b-side of their hit single “It Takes Two.” Written by William Stevenson, Vernon Bullock, and Sylvia Moy, this version was produced again by Clay McMurray, who’d already delivered one sterling Motown cover (“Without The One You Love”) and does the same thing here. This song is a smooth soul ballad, and ends up being a perfect match for the groups; Lawrence Payton takes over the male lead on this one, and offers up a superb reading. Mr. Payton’s voice is strong and soulful; he sings with such an assuredness you’d assume he always carried the lead. At times, his voice actually sounds a little like Marvin Gaye’s; listen at 1:30, as he repeats the words “we know,” and it’s impossible to miss the rough-edged similarity. Payton’s voice plays nicely against that of Jean Terrell, who gives an ultra-relaxed performance here; this is one of those classic Terrell vocals that sounds so effortless you wonder if she was just born singing. The two leads are supported by a supple instrumental track with some standout guitar work, and surrounded by the heavenly voices of their groupmates. It’s hard to believe this song wasn’t released at least as a b-side at some point in the United States (although it was on the flip of the “River Deep, Mountain High” single in the UK); my vote for a single from this album would have been “Without The One You Love” backed with this cut. I think both could have generated major airplay; certainly this lovely ballad could have done well on the R&B side.
11. A Taste Of Honey: Duke Browner produced this cover of the Herb Alpert classic; within the Motown fold, The Temptations notably covered the song on their In A Mellow Mood LP, and the Tops had also cut a version back in 1966, although it went unreleased for decades. Those earlier Motown versions kept much more in line with the “swinging ’60s” feel most commonly associated with the popular song; here, Browner turns it into a funk workout, setting the song to a driving beat underscored by a jamming bassline. It’s a really good track; it’s hard not to bounce along to, and the Hitsville musicians lend it a real fire and intensity. That said, “A Taste Of Honey” has such a pretty, wistful melody that it’s a shame to see it get lost in this arrangement; Jean and Levi riff all over the place, as one would expect in such a funky setting, but it robs the song of its charm. Unlike the best cuts on this album, and particularly following the laid-back ecstasy of the previous track, the lead vocalists seem to be trying too hard here; this is a song for which a little restraint likely would have made a big difference.
12. Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music: The Magnificent Seven closes out with a song that would soon become very familiar to Supremes fans; along with being featured as the b-side to the “River Deep, Mountain High” single in the US, this same song would open the trio’s next LP (New Ways But Love Stays), released in October. The two versions are totally different; this one was produced by Duke Browner again, while the Four Tops-less recording came at the hands of Frank Wilson. Amazingly, they were completed within just days of one another; Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City lists the finishing date for this version as May 18, 1970 and the finishing date for the New Ways version just two days earlier, on May 16 (and to add to the mix, Clay McMurray, who produced four tracks on this album, also helmed this song for The Spinners a month earlier, in April 1970!). Taken on its own, this recording is a fine piece of work; it’s a fairly straightforward song, with a track reminiscent of some of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duets of the 1960s. The vocalists do a nice job with the tune, with Jean Terrell particularly relaxed and assured on her solo verse. The problem is that because they were basically recorded and released at the same time, it’s hard not to compare the two versions from The Supremes; in that race, the Supremes-only reading comes out on top, because it’s a far more modern and exciting production. It’s a dynamic opener on the New Ways But Love Stays album; here, it’s a good closer.
Although it featured a top 20 hit in “River Deep, Mountain High,” The Magnificent Seven was a poor seller in the states, only managing a peak of #113 on the Billboard 200; a Supremes album hadn’t charted so low since Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform “Funny Girl” in 1968. There are likely two major reasons for this; first, Motown waited two months to release a single from the album, and second, The Supremes and Four Tops were competing against themselves. Check out the Album Reviews page from Billboard on October 24, 1970; there’s one album by The Supremes, one by The Four Tops, and this one by the groups together. Oversaturating the market certainly didn’t help any of these albums; none of them cracked the pop top 50.
Still, the chemistry was undeniable enough that Motown would pair The Supremes and Four Tops again…and again. And that chemistry is what makes this album listenable today. The Magnificent Seven is an uneven album in terms of quality; nothing is a total disaster, but there are some songs here that could have been replaced with better cuts left sitting the vaults for years. At the same time, there are some great tracks, but there’s not necessarily one that truly sounds like a classic (although, for my money, “Without The One You Love” comes close). Through it all, it’s the extraordinary talent of these groups that shines most, and the obvious fact that they were having one hell of a “magnificent” time making the album.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (Good, With A “Taste” Of Great)
Paul’s Picks: “Without The One You Love,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Stoned Soul Picnic”