“I gotta be insane to keep up with your personality change…”
The Supremes began 1971 secure in their place as the world’s top female singing group; a year after the departure of lead singer Diana Ross, the new lineup had scored a series of top 40 hits, and was still enjoying the success of “Stoned Love,” which peaked at #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart the final week of 1970. Another single, “River Deep, Mountain High,” a collaboration with The Four Tops, was also zooming up the charts, and in a clear effort to strike while the iron was hot, Motown pushed the two groups back into the studio again to cut another batch of collaborations. Just eleven days into the new year, work began on a song called “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart,” produced by Clay McMurray; it was finished up over a series of recording dates in January and early February. It would eventually be released as the first (and only) single from The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, the second of three Supremes-Four Tops LPs.
As with the first joint LP (1970’s The Magnificent Seven), this one was supervised by Frank Wilson, although he didn’t personally produce any of the album’s eleven tracks. Clay McMurray and the team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson return from the previous album, and are joined by Motown stalwarts Henry Cosby, Johnny Bristol, and Bobby Taylor, known for fronting the group Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers (who, coincidentally, were brought to the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. by The Supremes back in the mid-60s). The major difference in this batch of songs is that there are far more originals here; only one cut on The Magnificent Seven had been an original (“Knock On My Door”), whereas more than half of the eleven inclusions are new songs here. Three of them are penned by the team of Nick Zesses and Dino Fekaris; Fekaris would go on to write perhaps the greatest disco anthem of all time with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
Unfortunately, many of these original songs are milquetoast, middle-of-the-road pop tunes, featuring rather subdued arrangements and vocals and lacking the fire both groups were more than capable of. Alone, The Supremes were making huge strides as recording artists, tackling songs with more challenging vocal arrangements and incorporating a wider range of musical styles. Perhaps their most progressive single yet, the thrilling “Nathan Jones” (included on their beautiful album Touch, released at the same time as this one), was already climbing the charts when The Return Of The Magnificent Seven was released; next to that single, this album feels like a step backward for the trio. That said, the chemistry between the two groups remains undimmed and undeniable; lead singers Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs are a perfect match, and Terrell seems even more confident here than she had on the previous joint LP. It’s unfortunate that producers couldn’t find better songs for those voices to sing.
1. You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart: “…a swinging winner that will fast surpass their Top 20 ‘River Deep, Mountain High'” raved Billboard in its May 29, 1971 review of this song, which had been released as a single earlier that month. The review also mentions the song’s “wild” vocal workout, and make no mistake, that comment is aimed directly at Supremes lead singer Jean Terrell. This is Terrell’s recording from start to finish; rather than try to rein in her riffs and ad-libs, Clay McMurray lets Miss Terrell run wild here, and she dominates the action, effortlessly stealing attention from everyone else, including Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs. Billboard certainly picked the right adjective when calling this track “swinging” — it’s hard not to sway back and forth when listening to the hand-clapping beat and sing-song melody. The big chorus of voices delivering the song’s refrain is impressive, and Levi Stubbs offers up a passionate plea for peace and love during his verse, but again, it’s Jean Terrell who is the real focal point here. Miss Terrell serves up perhaps the most impressive performance thus far in her Motown career, her gospel-infused vocal soaring over the song’s verses and building to a powerful climax with some spine-tingling high notes; perhaps she was bolstered in the studio by the then-success of “Stoned Love,” or maybe she was just really feeling the song. Unfortunately, her performance surpasses the actual material; “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” isn’t a bad song, but it seems an odd choice for a single, coming off as too bland and vanilla for two groups capable of complex, challenging work. Up against the shimmering, rock-infused “Nathan Jones,” this song sounds more like a radio jingle or a sitcom theme song than a hit single; it’s no surprise radio ignored this track in favor of the Supremes-only single. Although Billboard predicted a big showing for “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart,” it had a lackluster run on the charts; the track eventually peaked at #55 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #41 on the R&B side.
2. I Wonder Where We’re Going: Another cut produced by Clay McMurray, this one was written by Tom Baird, a name familiar to Diana Ross fans for working on the singer’s 1973 Touch Me In The Morning LP and the long unreleased To The Baby album. Similar to “My Baby (My Baby, My Own),” from Touch Me In The Morning, this is a quiet, repetitive song, operating at a low simmer for the full three minutes of running time. This one, however, lacks the haunting quality that marked the Ross recording, and thus ends up feeling a bit like a train without a destination. The track is produced with a nice soft rock-soul vibe; the bassline pulses like a heartbeat, mirrored by a fuzzy electric guitar (that bassline, by the way, sounds a lot like the one featured in the song “If I Were Your Woman,” which McMurray had recorded with Gladys Knight & The Pips). But the song itself contains very little variation in melody; both the verses and the refrain are fairly limited, leaving the singers without much to do. Levi Stubbs gets in the most action, his sandpaper voice adding at least a little bit of passion to the proceedings. Listen to him growl “Sometimes I WONDER!” at 2:21; few singers have ever made tortured vocals sound so appealing. According to Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this song was also recorded by Baird himself, for a 1972 LP issued on the Rare Earth label. I’d be curious to hear that version; this one is a solid mood piece, but it sounds like it’s missing a climactic key change or something to help complete the overall experience.
3. Call Me: Motown veteran Henry Cosby produced this cover of a song first recorded by Petula Clark in 1965 and turned into a stateside hit by Chris Montez early the next year; speaking of Clark, “Call Me” was penned by Tony Hatch, who also wrote her classic hit “Downtown.” Both of those earlier versions had a little swing in their arrangements; Montez’s in particular boasts a vibe-and-handclap laden track that sounds at least partially inspired by the Supremes hits written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland. In light of that, it’s strange that Cosby robs the song of any bounce, instead watering it down to light easy-listening with a dated arrangement that’s pure 70s whipped cream. The saving grace here is the song itself; the delicate melody is a pretty and memorable one, and the singers play it straight, keeping their deliveries simple and to the point. Jean Terrell sounds a bit more comfortable with the material; there’s an emotional investment that was missing in some of her work on earlier albums, and she really shines on the bridge beginning at 1:20 (“Now, don’t forget me/ ‘Cause if you let me…”). The backgrounds are also impossibly pretty; I love the way The Supremes croon “Call Me” in unison during the refrain, then break into a gorgeous harmony when they repeat the words a few seconds later. Meanwhile, the Tops expertly pepper the song’s outro with staccato “doo-wop” sounds that harken back to the group’s early days. There’s a lot to like about “Call Me,” and it’s virtually impossible to not sing along with The Supremes and Four Tops when listening, but there’s no getting around the lounge-act quality of the arrangement.
4. One More Bridge To Cross: Finally, a song with a little grit and fire arrives to mix things up, and it should come as no surprise that the names Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson are behind it. The duo had turned in some of the best songs on The Magnificent Seven, including hit single “River Deep, Mountain High” and the sublime “Stoned Soul Picnic,” along with a solid cover of the classic “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.” Ashford & Simpson were having an incredibly busy year, working on the superb Diana Ross album Surrender (which would be released in July) and Simpson’s own solo LP Exposed, which hit shelves in May; it speaks to the depth of their talent (and work ethic) that they could come up with so many songs for so many projects. “One More Bridge To Cross” is a sizzling soul cut with a prescient lyric; the words here echo the everlasting struggle of the underdog, something its African-American writers certainly understood, as did the performers, and many of the record-buying fans. In this regard, it’s a more realistic and mature song than the sunnily optimistic “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart,” and probably would have been better received had it replaced that single at radio. “One More Bridge To Cross” isn’t in the same category as Ashford & Simpson classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or even much of the stellar material on Surrender, but it does give The Supremes and Four Tops something to say, and a chugging, horn-laced track into which they can dig their voices.
5. If You Could See Me Now: There’s no way to discuss this track without acknowledging its more-than-passing resemblance to the Burt Bacharach-Hal David hit “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” which The Carpenters had taken to #1 in 1970; the bouncy, piano-driven arrangements are startling alike, so much so that it takes a few listens to get beyond the similarities. But those repeated listens are worth it; this is a shimmering track, full of surprises, and is exactly the kind of eccentric, off-kilter entry the album needs. “If You Could See Me Now” was produced by Henry Cosby, who co-wrote the song with Joe Hinton and Janie Bradford (the same woman who coined the name “Supremes” way back in 1961); the song itself is basically a single motif repeated over a series of key changes. Those key changes must have been maddening to the vocalists in the studio; Jean Terrell does an amazing job keeping up, her lilting voice floating over the melody in the featherweight style of Dionne Warwick. Levi Stubbs actually seems to struggle to find the right notes in a few spots, but there’s something really appealing about his performance; he sounds fabulous starting around 1:51, when he finally gets to really belt comfortably within his range. Producer Cosby peppers the instrumental track with nice flourishes; it opens with an interesting guitar effect, and there are some lovely moments involving strings and vibes. Best of all, the instrumental break at 1:28 features a harmonica tracing the song’s melody, and it sure sounds like the one and only Stevie Wonder behind the solo; Henry Cosby, by the way, co-wrote and produced many of Wonder’s biggest hits, and the two were close enough that Wonder eventually sang at Cosby’s funeral. The harmonica solo is a genius touch; it’s totally unexpected and somehow grounds the song, giving it an identity away from its obvious inspirations (plus, it just sounds really good). In the end, and against all odds, “If You Could See Me Now” emerges as one of the most satisfying inclusions on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven; it’s full of great little moments that make those repeated listens a necessity…and a pleasure.
6. I’ll Try Not To Cry: As with the album’s very first track, this song was written by Nick Zesses and Dino Fekaris and produced by Clay McMurray; also like that earlier track, it’s a rather syrupy pop song consisting of a sing-song melody and a track led by prominent hand-claps. The writers certainly came up with a catchy tune, but there’s no complexity in the presentation here; the arrangement sounds more fitting for a bunch of kids sitting around a bonfire at summer camp than for two of the world’s leading soul groups. The vocal performances are pretty uninspired, too; Jean sounds oddly pinched in her delivery and Levi veers dangerously close to “lounge lizard” territory when he croons “Ain’t no stopping me now,” and the wash of voices behind them could really belong to just about anyone. Amazingly, “I’ll Try Not To Cry” was released as a single in the Netherlands, and stranger still, it was backed with “One More Bridge To Cross,” which is a far superior recording in every respect.
7. I’m Glad About It: This masterful ballad comes courtesy Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson; it ended up being placed on the b-side of the “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” single. Once again, you have to wonder what was going on at Motown; this is easily the better of the two songs, and had it been promoted as the key track, probably could have gained substantial airplay at R&B radio. “I’m Glad About It” is an achingly pretty song that slowly builds in intensity, growing from just a whisper of a beginning to a fiery climax; Paul Riser is the credited arranger, and he once again whips up a sophisticated and layered piece of music led by Simpson’s accomplished piano playing. The producers coax some stunning vocal work from the singers; Levi Stubbs is one of the great soul stylists of all time, of course, and he really gets to show off his range here, offering up a vulnerable and emotional performance. He’s matched note-for-note by Jean Terrell, whose voice cuts through the track like a hot knife, and behind them both the Supremes and Four Tops belt out the song’s chorus like a gospel choir on Sunday morning. It’s hard to believe Ashford & Simpson never famously cut this song again on any other artists; as far as I can tell, this is the only version ever released. There’s a gentleness and intimacy about this recording that recalls Ashford & Simpson’s “All The Befores,” the closing track on the 1971 Diana Ross release Surrender; both are deep cuts that deserve to be re-discovered by Motown fans. If anything on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven truly approaches greatness, this is it; “I’m Glad About It” ranks among the best 70s material recorded by both groups.
8. Let’s Make Love Now: This is the third and final Dino Fekaris-Nick Zesses composition featured on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, this one produced by Henry Cosby; it’s another light-as-air easy listening tune, similar to something you’d find on a Carpenters album from the early ’70s. As far as the MOR songs go on thus album, “Let’s Make Love Now” definitely isn’t the worst; there are at least some subtle shadings to the recording that give it more complexity than “I’ll Try Not To Cry” or “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart.” Jean Terrell opens the song, cooing “Kissing you is a warm sensation…” in a low, sexy murmur; late in the song, she offers up a riff during the bridge (at 1:58, on the line “You set me dreams in motion”) that sounds so strikingly modern you’d swear it was Amel Larrieux or another contemporary neo-soul singer. Her contributions and the lush orchestration are the highlights of this track; it never really rises above the level of filler, but it’s a pleasant, inoffensive addition to the album.
9. I Can’t Believe You Love Me: Finally there’s a track on this album that really sounds like a Motown recording, and for good reason; this one had already been cut a few times within the company. The song dates way back to 1965, when Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua wrote it and produced it on singer Tammi Terrell (no relation to Jean, by the way). It was released as a single in November of ’65, and it eventually peaked #72 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #27 on the R&B chart. Tammi Terrell, of course, hit it big when paired with Marvin Gaye; the duo scored several hits together before Terrell passed away in 1970. “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” was refashioned into a Gaye-Terrell duet for their third album, 1969’s Easy, much of which was apparently recorded without the ailing Tammi; Bristol and Fuqua used the female singer’s vocals from the 1965 recording and added Marvin’s voice to create the song. Johnny Bristol also produced this Supremes-Four Tops version, and he gives it a harder edge, making the song into a tough series of accusations volleyed back and forth between the lead singers. Levi Stubbs steps up to the plate here, attacking his solo sections with the kind of gutsy vocals he’s famous for; thus far, this has really been Jean Terrell’s album, and Stubbs sounds like he’s ready to take back a sliver of the spotlight. The Tops and Supremes also shine here; the groups have been afforded less of an opportunity to stand out on this album than on their previous joint effort, and producer Bristol finally makes their vocals an essential part of the track, layering them into what could be described as an imposing barrier of sound. The end result is a recording that has real bite to it, something that comes as a relief after so much easy listening; had it been released as the album’s first single, it likely could have made a much bigger impact than “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart.”
10. Where Would I Be Without You, Baby: Clay McMurray produced and co-wrote (with Marty Coleman) this track, which was apparently first cut on Bobby Taylor in 1969, though it went unreleased. It’s a really nice soul ballad, not far removed from McMurray’s production of “It’s Got To Be A Miracle (This Thing Called Love)” from The Magnificent Seven. This cut is highlighted by superb work from Levi Stubbs, who really tears into the material, offering up a dramatic, fully-engaged performance. The recording leans heavily on him; Jean Terrell shows up on the second verse, then disappears from the song altogether, leaving Levi to handle about two minutes worth of powerful ad-libbing alone. That said, Jean is fabulously soulful on her verse; it may be a “cameo” appearance, but she makes her presence known, her voice soaring over the buttery smooth track. At four-and-a-half minutes, “Where Would I Be Without You, Baby” feels too long; McMurray probably could have chopped it down and streamlined it just a bit, especially since the song lacks a memorable lyric (the refrain is really wordy and, frankly, a bit tough to understand). But this is a lovely listen, and certainly a stronger addition to the album than some of the sugary ballads preceding it.
11. What Do You Have To Do (To Stay On The Right Side Of Love): This is a really cool track, a weirdly cinematic piece that’s really unlike anything else on the album. Credited to Pam Sawyer and Leon Ware, this cut was produced by Bobby Taylor, whose group had been discovered by The Supremes years earlier. Taylor crafts a slinky instrumental, kicked off by moody piano chords over a pulsing bassline and then driven by sexy, playful percussion; the lyrics are straight out of a medical textbook, from “reverse psychology” to “personality change,” which adds to the kooky feel of the production. Both Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell dive in headfirst, striking the perfect tone of masochism in their performances; they certainly sound tortured, but you also get the feeling they love every minute of it. Best of all, Mary Wilson pops in at 1:10, purring a verse that begins with the words “I gotta be insane.” There’s a reason Diana Ross always called Mary Wilson “the sexy one” onstage; Wilson’s low, husky delivery could best be described as a “bedroom voice,” and she comes off as a dynamic and deadly femme fatale here. Unlike The Magnificent Seven, which gave all of the Supremes and Four Tops moments to shine, this album has been wholly focused on the lead singers; it’s nice to finally hear from another one of the talented group members here, if only for a very brief verse. This is a really fun song; there’s character in this recording, something the album needed more of.
Motown released The Return Of The Magnificent Seven simultaneously with Touch, another full-length Supremes album; the two bear successive Motown catalog numbers (Return… as Motown 736, Touch as Motown 737), and were reviewed in the same June issue of Billboard magazine. By this time, radio was hot on the new Supremes single, “Nathan Jones,” which meant Motown was promoting that release, leaving little room for the Supremes-Four Tops collaboration. Not only did “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” stall outside the Top 40, but its parent album barely made a dent on the Billboard 200. Mary Wilson would write in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, “In August  we teamed with the Four Tops for a run at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington, D.C. One goal was to promote our second joint album, The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, but, as it turned out, the album got no higher than Number 154 — an embarrassment for all of us” (56).
Today, long after the chart statistics really matter, the album is far from embarrassing, but it does stand as a relic of its time more than a significant musical work. The reliance on saccharine ballads dates the project, and the hyper-focus on lead singers Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs is disappointing. The songs that do stand out, though, are worthy of re-discovery, especially since many of them are original compositions and don’t seem to have been resurrected by other artists. Although The Return Of The Magnificent Seven wasn’t a big hit, it did lead to a third and final joint LP from The Supremes and Four Tops; Dynamite would be released six months later, bringing an end to a truly unique and often magical partnership.
Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (Not Quite Enough To Be “Glad” About)
Paul’s Picks: “I’m Glad About It,” “If You Could See Me Now,” “I Can’t Believe You Love Me”