“If you’re young at heart, rise up and take your stand…”
Halloween 1970 brought a treat for Supremes fans, when music industry magazine Billboard announced a major new recording: “Follow up to ‘Everybody’s Got the Right to Love’ is a powerhouse rock ballad loaded with more sales and chart potency than that recent smash. Top of the Soul and pop chart item.” The song was “Stoned Love,” which had officially been released earlier that month; it began climbing the charts following that Billboard review, and by the end of the year it brought The Supremes back to a place with which they were very familiar: Number One. The song’s parent album, New Ways But Love Stays, was also released in October, becoming the third album from The Supremes since the departure of lead singer Diana Ross in January.
Because Frank Wilson had delivered two immediate hits for the group with new lead singer Jean Terrell (“Up The Ladder To The Roof” and “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love,” both from Right On), he was given the chance to helm an entire album; he’s responsible for every song except one on New Ways. Wilson’s vision for the group was one that involved a wider variety of musical styles, particularly the addition of rock elements to the group’s music. He would later recall, “I felt the fusion of rock with R&B could not do anything but enhance the direction of R&B/pop music. I took advantage of what I thought were excellent musical influences, from Iron Butterfly to Neil Diamond” (The Supremes box set booklet). Those rock influences are extremely apparent in his work on New Ways But Love Stays, which features covers of songs by The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Steam.
“I put all my hopes on…New Ways But Love Stays. The performances were uniformly strong,” wrote Mary Wilson in her 1990 book Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together. She’s right; there’s fine vocal work through the album, and Frank Wilson’s inventive arrangements are still interesting to listen to decades later. Unfortunately, the material isn’t uniformly strong; this is one-half of a great album, and one-half of a decent one. The one-two-three punch of the opening trio of tracks is just way too strong for the rest of the album to ever live up to; there are a few other good songs, but the bulk of them just aren’t terribly memorable. The breakneck pace of Motown releases often worked against The Supremes (and other groups) in this way; instead of being treated to one great album every year or two, fans were annually given three or sometimes four decent ones. Still, the best cuts on New Ways But Love Stays are easily worth the price of the record; they remain high water marks for The Supremes.
1. Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music: Supremes fans would have already been familiar with this song when New Ways But Love Stays was released in October of 1970. This song had been recorded by the group as a collaboration with The Four Tops, and it closed out their joint LP The Magnificent Seven, released only the previous month. That said, the two cuts are radically different; the Four Tops version was produced by Duke Browner, who gave it the standard Motown treatment, crafting an instrumental track reminiscent of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duets of the 1960s. Here, Frank Wilson is at the reins, and he turns “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” into a mini-symphony, an epic three-and-a-half minute suite of swirling sound effects and ethereal vocals. Wilson layers in electric guitars, handclaps, and strings in a way that creates an incredible hybrid of the rock, soul, and classical genres; the background vocals especially are arranged in a way that really emphasizes the ties to classical music, with The Supremes sounding as if they’re singing along to a Beethoven composition. Lead singer Jean Terrell is really quite amazing here; she somehow manages to deliver a totally focused performance, even as the instrumental track repeatedly changes shape behind her. She sounds even more confident than she had on much of the group’s previous album, and gets to really show off her vocal range, ad-libbing some gorgeous high notes during the song’s introduction. The end is particularly noteworthy, as it devolves into a series of psychedelic sounds before immediately leading into the album’s second track. This kind of imaginative bridging between songs is something that never really could have happened on a Supremes album before; throughout the 1960s, albums were put together song-by-song, with producers surrounding hits with filler to pad out the running time. But things were changing by 1970, and musicians were now using albums to make artistic statements; an LP was no longer a collection of disparate tracks, but could tell a complete story from beginning to end. In this way, New Ways But Love Stays was really on the cutting edge at Motown; credit must go to Frank Wilson for taking The Supremes in such a fresh, new direction.
2. Stoned Love: And that second track, born out of the space-age sounds closing out the previous song, is one of the best recordings by any Motown artist, ever. Considering “Stoned Love” would become a majestic pop symphony in the hands of Frank Wilson, it’s hard to believe the song came from extremely humble beginnings; written by a teenager named Kenny Thomas, Wilson remembers hearing it for the first time played on a guitar with only two strings. In the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, Wilson recalled, “The thing that got me was that it was very simple: ‘Stoned Love/I tell you I ain’t got no other.’ I said: ‘This is going to be great, this is going to be wonderful!’ I could just hear the whole thing, with the orchestra.” Wilson then brought in Supreme Mary Wilson to listen to the song; she would later say she nearly screamed with joy over it (by the way, the songwriting credits for the track list Frank Wilson and someone called Ynnek Samoht; that’s Kenny Thomas spelled backwards, in an homage to both Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.) “Stoned Love” was recorded over several dates in March, April, May, and June of 1970, which means work was already happening on the song when the group’s first album with Terrell was released in April. Thank goodness Frank Wilson took his time and didn’t rush this one; the care and attention to detail here are obvious. “Stoned Love” begins as something of a rock opera, with a sweeping introduction led by thunderous piano chords over blaring horns and strings; Jean Terrell is cast in the role of otherworldly messenger, beckoning listeners to “just believe” in the kind of love that “will surely light up darkened worlds.” Suddenly that familiar Motown percussion takes over, and song charges forward with a relentless beat reminiscent of a chugging locomotive. Frank Wilson keeps the focus on that “very simple” message which had hooked him from the beginning; he’s clearly directed Jean Terrell to provide an unadorned vocal here, limiting any riffs or ad-libs and allowing her natural, honeyed tone to do all the work. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong provide spirited backing; it’s impossible to imagine the song without their contributions, particularly the gorgeous harmonies during the chorus (“I tell ya, I ain’t got no other!”). And finally, it would be criminal to write about “Stoned Love” and not give credit to the fine musicians who create a track that’s both completely modern and also a fiery tribute to the iconic Motown Sound. According to Kenny Thomas, quoted in The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, that instrumental track was cut “at Motown on West Grand Boulevard, in a basement almost as big as a football field. David [Van DePitte, the arranger] hits the baton on the podium, and the musicians play — maybe a 50-piece orchestra, strings and everything. I cried” (78). According to Frank Wilson, it was a fight to even get the song released: “I remember that [Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.] hated that record. He called it garbage” (R&B Hits 78). However, after a promise from Motown exec Barney Ales that radio would jump on the song, “Stoned Love” was released as a single on October 15, 1970, and began a slow climb up the charts which eventually led it to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart by the end of the year. Unfortunately, Motown made the odd decision to release “River Deep, Mountain High” by the Supremes and Four Tops less than a month later, and it peaked at around the same time, likely creating some competition at radio. Had programmers not had to choose between the two Supremes songs, each probably could have climbed a little higher on the pop charts. Still, “Stoned Love” remains a towering achievement, and deserves to be listed alongside the very best Motown singles of the decade.
3. It’s Time To Break Down: This is a fabulous ballad written by Frank Wilson and Ellean Hendley and produced again by Wilson. According to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this one was recorded in Washington, D.C., the reason likely being that The Supremes happened to be performing there at the time; according to Wilson, “The girls were working live so much I’d cut the tracks, get on an airplane, and go to where they were” (box set booklet). This song is set to a unique syncopated beat, which immediately sets is apart from the ballads featured on previous album Right On and gives the recording a bit of an experimental edge; prominent handclaps during the chorus tie the song back to “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” while some gorgeous strings recall the orchestral feel of “Stoned Love,” making all three songs work together as a kind of soul trilogy. This is a lengthy recording, clocking in at more than five minutes, and the second half of the track is loose and unstructured, with a lot of room for the singers to ad-lib and some time for an electric guitar solo. The vocalists all offer up nice work here; Jean Terrell is appropriately laid-back, and the backgrounds are arranged as a dreamy, disembodied chorus echoing the confusion of the song’s narrator. This song, together with the previous two, represents a great step forward for The Supremes; Mary Wilson would later say it “brought a new dimension to our music” (The 70s Anthology). Indeed, that would prove even more true years later, when the track was prominently sampled by hip-hop duo Gang Starr for the 1998 song “JFK 2 LAX.”
4. Bridge Over Troubled Water: It’s no surprise this song shows up on New Ways But Love Stays, considering it was hugely popular at the time and would end up being covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley; written by Paul Simon and released by Simon & Garfunkel in early 1970, the song spent an astounding six weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Motown artists jumped on the song, and in 1970 alone it was performed by The Jackson Five, The Miracles, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. In preparing the song for The Supremes, producer Frank Wilson fills the track with obvious sound effects, from foghorns to claps of thunder, and continues the use of guitar reverb from the album’s previous selection. These elements are perhaps a bit overdramatic, but fortunately the song is grounded by the vocals, which include solo lines from all three Supremes. Mary, Cindy, and Jean offer up quiet, gentle readings, but even better than hearing their individual voices is hearing the gorgeous harmonies during the song’s memorable refrain. The trio first breaks into three-part harmony at 1:44, on the words “I will lay thee down,” and it’s such a pure, crystal-clear sound that it suddenly becomes hard to imagine any rendition of the song without it. The ability to sing in this kind of pitch-perfect harmony is what set the original Supremes — Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Florence Ballard — apart from other female groups at Motown; in Marc Taylor’s 2004 book The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group, Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes is quoted as saying, “We had to work at our harmony. The Supremes could walk in and hit a song right away…What we did on each record was great, but on something like the Andrews Sisters’ material and songs like ‘Canadian Sunset’ that the Supremes could sing, we couldn’t do that” (127). Because Motown became so reliant on using additional background singers in the studio, that three-part harmony eventually became restricted mainly to live performances; it’s nice to finally hear it on record again. In a way, it serves as a bit of a nod to the group’s own history, along with the classic girl group legacy from which The Supremes were born.
5. I Wish I Were Your Mirror: Just as Holland-Dozier-Holland was producing hits on both The Supremes and The Four Tops in the mid-1960s, so was Frank Wilson revitalizing both groups at the dawn of the new decade. Wilson also cut the song “I Wish I Were Your Mirror,” which he wrote with Pam Sawyer, for the Tops in early 1970; the song was included on the group’s hit album Still Waters Run Deep and later placed on the b-side of the top 40 single “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life).” As performed by The Four Tops, “I Wish I Were Your Mirror” is a fairly straightforward Motown tune, with a lean beat and lyrics reminiscent of something H-D-H would have worked up in the mid-60s. Here, it gets the same kind of makeover that “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” was treated to, which means the vocals and orchestration become more complex and the basic structure of the song less defined. It’s a partly successful move; the expansion of the background vocals is strong, with The Supremes (and probably The Andantes) wailing “Look at me!” and “I wish that I were your mirror!” However, the song becomes less memorable this time around due to the somewhat confusing arrangement that blurs the lines between the verses and refrains. Had Frank Wilson chosen to give this one a more “classic” feel, it probably would have been stronger. That said, the experimental feel works in the context of this album, and it’s certainly not the weakest track here.
6. Come Together: This is a misguided cover of the classic John Lennon track, released by The Beatles in 1970 and covered countless times thereafter. Diana Ross also recorded a version of this song in 1970; produced by Deke Richards, it was placed on her second solo LP, Everything Is Everything, and actually gained some airplay on soul radio stations at the time. Diana’s version features a crisp, soulful reading of Lennon’s bizarre lyrics; it’s a clean, engaging recording that still sounds fresh. The same cannot be said for this one; Jean Terrell mumbles through most of the song, a performance made even less successful by the heavy echo placed on her voice. It’s nearly impossible to decipher what she’s singing, and the voices of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are totally buried. The instrumental track itself is good; the blunt beat of the original Beatles record is retained, and there’s some funky organ work toward the end of the song that sounds great. But considering The Supremes are a vocal trio, it’s hard to really justify a recording that seems to place the vocals as such a low priority.
7. Is There A Place (In His Heart For Me): This is a nice soul ballad co-written and produced by Clay McMurray, who’d already turned in some very strong selections on both Right On and The Magnificent Seven; happily, the winning streak continues with this recording. McMurray’s track couldn’t be more buttery smooth if it tried, and Jean Terrell matches the band with a lead vocal that flows like honey. The background harmonies are also rich and full; this is top-notch, sophisticated soul singing, the kind of which would become more and more prominent as the decade wore on, especially with the emergence of Philadelphia Soul. According to the Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this recording was finished up in January of 1970, the timing of which suggests it might have initially been considered for inclusion on Right On. It certainly sounds like it belongs on that earlier album, but because so much of New Ways But Love Stays is rather unorthodox, it’s actually nice to have something more familiar here, especially coming on the heels of the murky, mushy “Come Together.” At more than four minutes in running time, “Is There A Place” does feel a tad rambling, and probably could have been cut by thirty seconds. That said, it’s hard to complain about a recording that sounds this good; it’s the kind of song you listen to with your eyes closed, letting your mind wander as The Supremes sweetly serenade you. (NOTE: A year later, McMurray would helm an almost identical version of this song for Gladys Knight and The Pips, which would be included on the If I Were Your Woman LP and placed on the b-side of the group’s hit “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong.)
8. Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye: Your enjoyment of this cut will probably depend on your tolerance level for the original version by Steam; released in 1969, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks (and was soon followed at the top by “Someday We’ll Be Together,” the last Supremes single featuring Diana Ross). The peppy pop/rock tune probably wasn’t always looked at as a novelty (I’m not sure, since I wasn’t around at the time), but it certainly became one in the ensuing years, as the song became a fixture at sporting events and in television commercials. This is actually a fairly successful cover of the song; it retains the “sunny” feel of the original while imbuing it with a more complex vocal arrangement. Much of the song is delivered by The Supremes in unison, in a kind of trial run for the forthcoming hit “Nathan Jones” (released in April of 1971), but there are some lovely harmonies which really give this version its own identity. I’m not personally a fan of the song itself, which is why this one rates lower for me; however, on its own merits, there’s not much fault to be found with this recording.
9. Shine On Me: This song gained a wide audience when it was placed on the b-side of the “Stoned Love” single; it had previously been cut by Frank Wilson on Motown singer Blinky for an album that was never released. This is another song that’s light on structure and melody but heavy on mood and atmosphere; the track is sizzling, sun-kissed soul, with just enough grit to make things interesting for listeners. As with the album’s previous cut, the main draw here has to be the background harmonies; Wilson clearly had an ear for backgrounds that many of the producers who worked with The Supremes did not. The lead vocals by Jean Terrell are also good; her lower register is really sultry at 0:29, as she sings the song’s title, and she hits a glorious high note at 2:28, as she climbs the scale singing “Shine on ME!” The main criticism here is the patchwork feel of the musical arrangement; there’s really not a strong melody, and if there is, it’s lost in the way the song keep shifting between sections. Perhaps that’s the point, though; The Supremes were clearly experimenting with musical styles and working to move beyond the sharp arrangements and crisp, catchy melodies of their Holland-Dozier-Holland past.
10. Thank Him For Today: New Ways But Love Stays closes with a song written by Vincent DiMirco, who’d written the earlier Supremes hit “Up The Ladder To The Roof.” According to Frank Wilson in the liner notes to the 2000 box set The Supremes, DiMirco was “a Puerto Rican kid” from New York; he actually recorded for the Motown imprint Rare Earth, and his 1972 single “I Can Make It Alone” b/w “Come Clean” is available on The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 12A 1972. Frank Wilson arranges “Thank Him For Today” as a peppy pop/soul tune, led by some nice Funk Brothers percussion; listen only to the beat, and there are some similarities to classic Motown hits like “Too Many Fish In The Sea” by The Marvelettes. If Motown had decided to pull a second single from New Ways…, this might have been a good choice; it’s certainly not as memorable as “Stoned Love,” but there is a nice energy and it feels like a Supremes song in a way that much of the material on the album does not. Jean Terrell offers up a fine lead vocal; she keeps her delivery fairly straight, which helps give a more “classic Motown” feel; the background vocals are fairly subdued, and there are moments that sound more “Andantes” than “Supremes” to me, but I’m not sure who’s back there. In a neat touch, Wilson ends the song with a reprise of the dramatic piano chords that open “Stoned Love,” tying the end of the album back to the beginning. It’s another example of his vision for creating a complete album for The Supremes, rather than a collection of a few hit singles surrounded by filler.
In her book Supreme Faith, Mary Wilson wrote of New Ways But Love Stays, “I still maintain this album should have been the record to put the Supremes back on top” (42). Although it produced a solid hit with “Stoned Love,” the album charted relatively poorly, peaking at #68 on the Billboard 200 (and, surprisingly, didn’t even make the top 10 on the R&B side). Part of this is likely due to the competition with The Magnificent Seven, released almost at the same time, and the fact that it followed Right On so closely; that the album only produced one single is also a probable cause for the low chart showing. However, it’s hard to imagine what Motown would have chosen to follow “Stoned Love.” Nothing else really sounds like a big hit here; “Thank Him For Today” probably wouldn’t have been a smash, and while “It’s Time To Break Down” is a great song, it sounds so ahead of its time that it’s hard to believe it would have made a huge impact at radio. Instead, The Supremes and Frank Wilson immediately began work on what would be their next, and final, collaboration: Touch. The first act of the “new” Supremes, orchestrated by the talented producer, was rapidly coming to a close.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (An Even Mix of “Sweet” and “Troubled”)
Paul’s Picks: “Stoned Love,” “It’s Time To Break Down,” “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music”