“I know the mountain’s high, but we can climb if we try…”
An April 3, 1971 article in music industry magazine Billboard carried some exciting news for Supremes fans: “The Supremes finished two shows March 17 at the Elmwood Casino and headed for the Motown studios to finish up their next album, ‘Touch.’ They worked on the title tune. A new single, ‘Nathan Jones,’ is expected from the trio in two weeks.” Indeed, on April 15, “Nathan Jones” hit the radio airwaves around the country; it would soon become the group’s fifth consecutive Top 25 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since the addition of new lead singer Jean Terrell. At this point in time, The Supremes were still easily the top female group in the world; they’d just been the subject of a Jet cover story in February, were receiving rave reviews for live club dates, and it was reported that Motown was making plans to partner with Hasbro Toys on a “Love” doll, for which The Supremes would record a theme song written by Al Cleveland.
That said, the music industry was swirling with changes, and The Supremes were suddenly facing the kind of competition from which they’d been immune since 1964. In June, as “Nathan Jones” was entering the Top 20, another female trio called Honey Cone was scoring its first #1 pop and R&B hit with a song called “Want Ads.” This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s indicative of the rapidly expanding popular music scene, which was becoming far more diverse and less Motown-dominated. Into this climate, The Supremes released Touch in June of 1971; produced again by Frank Wilson, the album reflected the group’s evolution and attempt to remain fresh in the minds of record buyers. As with New Ways By Love Stays, Frank Wilson leaned heavily on a mix of rock and soul when choosing songs for the trio; this is especially true of “Nathan Jones,” a charging rocker that confused Billboard enough for the magazine to review it as “a cleverly arranged swinging ballad” (huh?) in its May 1 issue.
Touch received strong reviews from critics; Billboard raved, “The trio really has its act together, and are sounding more exiting than ever,” and Rolling Stone called the album “an unqualified success and the final proof that the Supremes will continue without Diana Ross.” Indeed, the trio sounds extremely confident, tackling an eclectic group of songs with great skill; lead singer Terrell, in particular, turns in some of the finest work of her Motown career, shaking off any bit of lingering hesitancy and attacking each song with impressive versatility and vocal elasticity. Touch falls just shy of being a perfect album, but it’s close, and includes highlights so good that they elevate the entire project; “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road)” in particular is one of the great b-sides in the entire Motown discography, a recording filled with so many exciting touches that it requires repeated listens to reveal how brilliant it really is. Touch certainly deserved more success than it eventually found, and stands up today as a smart, satisfying artistic statement.
1. This Is The Story: This is about as perfect an album opener as The Supremes could ever hope for, a bold statement that perfectly sets up everything that will follow. “This Is The Story” was written by Frank Wilson and Pamela Sawyer, both of whom had worked with The Supremes since at least 1968, when they co-wrote the #1 hit “Love Child.” Here, Wilson and Sawyer have crafted a song with dramatic heft; lyrically, it tells the complex tale of a woman for whom love is elusive, beautifully putting the introspective pain into relatable words: “Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle/With love missing, life’s too big a struggle.” This is the kind of recording on which Jean Terrell excels; it requires a range that she capably delivers, building from moments of quiet reflection to powerful, plaintive pleas (“Darling, please tell me/What’s wrong with me?”). All three Supremes deliver soaring backgrounds, their voices dancing effortlessly through the complicated arrangement; it sounds like producer Wilson is layering the voices of Terrell, Wilson, and Birdsong, which results in a haunting chorus echoing the song’s tortured lyrics. There are moments when the cut is reminiscent of something that might have been recorded by The Carpenters; the melody isn’t as crisp as most of that’s group’s hits, but it makes you wonder if “This Is The Story” could have gained some pop/easy listening airplay had it been promoted to radio. Eventually, “This Is The Story” was lifted from this album and placed on the b-side of the group’s Top 20 hit “Floy Joy,” released in December, which at least gave it a wider audience; this is a sterling cut that remains rewarding after multiple listens.
2. Nathan Jones: Although Billboard considered this song a “swinging ballad,” it’s actually a pop-rock gem that surges forward with an almost-tangible electricity. “Nathan Jones” was recorded on December 17, 1970, just as Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong were ascending to the top of the R&B charts with “Stoned Love” — perhaps part of the excitement embedded in the grooves here was a result of that fresh feeling of success. “Nathan Jones” was penned by Kathy Wakefield and Leonard Caston, both of whom would write big hits for other Motown artists and work extensively with Frank Wilson; all three would contribute to the 1973 self-titled album by former Temptation Eddie Kendricks, which contained the #1 hit “Keep On Truckin’.” Here, Wakefield and Caston come up with a tale of heartbreak, casting The Supremes in the role of women wronged by the titular Nathan Jones, who’s been “gone too long.” Terrell, Wilson, and Birdsong sing the bulk of the song in unison (I’ve also read that singer Clydie King joined the trio, to give the recording a “fuller” sound, though I’m not sure that’s been confirmed), occasionally breaking into soulful harmony; the vocals here are gutsy without artifice, a real triumph for the group. The track here is laced with superb horn and bongo work, and the entire thing is given a unique, “phased” treatment through a synthesizer, producing a sound similar to a jet plane soaring back and forth through the sky. According to Frank Wilson in the liner notes to the group’s 2000 box set, “The phasing of ‘Nathan Jones’ was the influence of rock music in my head, and putting my groove to it. Cal Harris, our chief engineer, had built a synthesizer, the old kind that filled up a whole room. We worked until he came up with the phased sound. It was a very unorthodox song.” Supreme Mary Wilson also remembers that synthesizer: “…the other producers were not interested in using it. Frank told me he and Cal would go upstairs and play with it, eventually coming up with the sound. Frank had all three of us sing the melody while pulling Jean’s vocal out front just enough to give it that edge” (The 70s Anthology). The end result is a single teeming with excitement; released as Motown 1182, “Nathan Jones” eventually peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #8 on the R&B chart. In the UK, “Nathan Jones” topped out at #5; years later, British group Bananarama would cover the song, taking it back to the UK singles chart.
3. Here Comes The Sunrise: Though Clifton Davis wrote a big hit for The Jackson 5 (“Never Can Say Goodbye,” later a big hit again for Gloria Gaynor), he’s best known as an actor, having appeared in many notable projects on TV, film, and Broadway. His “Here Comes The Sunrise” is a nice song, a mid-tempo pop number with just the right amount of bounce; the Billboard review of Touch called this song a “chart possibility,” and it’s easy to imagine it getting some radio play alongside “Knock Three Times” (Tony Orlando and Dawn) or “One Bad Apple” (The Osmonds), both big pop hits in 1971. This recording is marked by another really strong performance by Jean Terrell, who sounds really loose and confident here; compare this vocal to many of the cuts on Right On (1970), and it’s clear how much more at ease she is behind the microphone. Her silken voice effortlessly bounces all over the scale on this song, and she offers up a glass-shattering high note at 2:26, the kind of which has become commonplace in 2017 but was much more rare in 1971. The backgrounds are also extremely well-done; Mary and Cindy smoothly underscore Jean at times, and big, uplifting harmonies bubble up at others, possibly the work of Wilson, Birdsong, and Motown session singers The Andantes. Although “Here Comes The Sunshine” doesn’t immediately scream “hit” the way the album’s previous track does, it is a smooth, accomplished recording that probably could have been issued as a follow-up single and enjoyed at least moderate success.
4. Love It Came To Me This Time: This is a fascinating song written by Kathy Wakefield and Leonard Caston; it was recorded in December, right around the same time as that pair’s other contribution to Touch, “Nathan Jones.” Unlike that rocker, however, this is a quiet meditation on love; with lyrics that reference Sunday morning, steeples, and stained glass windows, it really is a musical prayer, delivered with gentle confidence by The Supremes. Producer Wilson constructs a fantastic instrumental track here; it’s restrained without feeling underwhelming, and features a pulsing bassline, bluesy organ work, and the occasional echoing of church bells. Jean Terrell also offers up top-notch work on this track; every once in a while she lets loose with a cry to the heavens, but she spends most of the song letting her silken voice simply float along the musical bed. The Supremes, meanwhile, deliver haunting responses to Miss Terrell, a kind of ghostly gospel chorus backing her up; I love the way you can really hear Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong soulfully grunt “Yeah!” at 2:23. “Love It Came To Me This Time” is really unlike anything else on this album, or on any of the Jean Terrell-led albums; the closest comparison I can come up with is the beautiful ballad “The Beginning Of The End,” recording by Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Syreeta Wright (incidentally, Wright was the first choice to replace Diana in The Supremes) and included on the 1969 album Cream Of The Crop. Like that tune, this one is easy to overlook in favor of flashier or more exciting songs, but it’s a gem.
5. Johnny Raven: The energy level shoots back up again thanks to this Billy Page tune, which had already been recorded by Kiki Dee; later, the song would be done by a young Michael Jackson (mid-voice change) and included on his 1973 album Music & Me. “Johnny Raven” is a toe-tapping funk-rock number, and probably the most upbeat and danceable track on Touch; much of the group’s output since 1970 had been mid-tempo pop-rock numbers and soul ballads, so it’s nice to get something that brings to mind the dance classics of Motown’s golden age. It’s not hard to see why producers eventually felt the song a good fit for Michael Jackson; there’s certainly a “bubble-gum” element in the arrangement here, although “Johnny Raven” is by no means a kiddie recording; the lyrics speak of a restless man, one “hungry for new thrills,” who will fly like a raven to another “nest” when the time comes. The track itself is marked by pulsing guitar work during the verses and funky horns on the refrain; Jean Terrell nicely matches the energy of the band, sounding appropriately tortured when singing about the man she knows will soon leave. A thrush of soulful voices in the background beautifully support Terrell, although it certainly sounds like Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are joined by some additional singers at times; listen to the lyric “I believe you love me” at 2:13, and you’ll hear a distinct voice that doesn’t sound like any of The Supremes (it actually sounds like Florence Ballard to me!). Because of its memorable melody and a strong performance by both the group and the musicians, “Johnny Raven” emerges as one of the more durable inclusions on Touch; it remains a fun listen today, and certainly a needed change of pace on an album packed with slower songs.
6. Have I Lost You: At 2:44, this is the shortest track on Touch, and it certainly feels like the slightest recording included on the album. “Have I Lost You” is credited to Pamela Sawyer and Leon Ware, who were also responsible for the great “What Do You Have To Do (To Stay On The Right Side Of Love)” on the Supremes-Four Tops joint LP The Return Of The Magnificent Seven that same year. That song was so stunning and complex in both lyric and arrangement that it’s hard to believe the same writers are behind this one. This is no knock on “Have I Lost You,” which is a polished, straightforward mid-tempo ballad that resembles some of the late-1960s output from Diana Ross and The Supremes; it’s just different. Jean Terrell mints a very pretty performance here, her voice riding comfortably over the melody and punctuated by the occasionally swelling of the backgrounds. It is, however, quite repetitive; the final 45 seconds of the recording consists of the group repeating the song’s title over and over again, plus there’s a 20-second instrumental break, leaving little room for much else. Coming after some very meaty material over the past few albums, “Have I Lost You” sounds like something that might have been recorded during the earliest sessions for Right On. That said, it’s a pleasant recording, and perhaps something like this is necessary to give a little “breathing room” next to songs with more complexity.
7. Time And Love: When Touch was released in June of 1971, fans had no idea that the track for “Time And Love” had been floating around Motown for more than a year; nor could they have known its fascinating origin. Written by singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, this song first appeared on her 1969 album New York Tendaberry; soon after, producer Bones Howe cut “Time And Love” for Diana Ross, for whom he was working up a batch of tracks. Bones Howe was an early choice to produce the singer’s solo debut album; Ross finished four recordings with him, including another Nyro tune, “Stoney End,” before the sessions were scrapped and Diana went to work with Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson instead. Though the quartet of Bones Howe-produced recordings wouldn’t be released until decades later (read about them here), producer Frank Wilson obviously became aware of them; he simple lifted “Time And Love” off the shelf, removed Diana’s voice, and dubbed in Jean’s for this recording. The song itself is an odd choice for Touch; it’s a big, brassy pop number, the kind of thing you’d expect to hear during a Supremes show in Las Vegas. Coming after so many rock-influenced numbers, “Time And Love” sounds out-of-place; it was likely included due to both the name value of Laura Nyro (one of music’s most popular songwriters at the time) and the fact that Barbra Streisand had just included a version of it on her album Stoney End, released in February of 1971 (Streisand’s version was released as a single and eventually peaked at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100). Producer Howe’s arrangement is pure big-band, driven by horns and a boisterous chorus of male and female background singers that nobody could ever confuse for Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Jean Terrell does a fine job with the lead vocal, although she gets lost a bit in the excitement of the track; she’s polished here, but perhaps a bit too polished to really cut through the swirling instrumental. Although fans will endlessly debate over the merits of this vocal verses that of Diana Ross, Diana’s mix of sexy breathiness and youthful zeal does add an element that’s missing here; Miss Ross possesses a brashness in her vocal work that the “finishing school-smooth” Terrell does not, and that brashness works well on something so flashy. “Time And Love” as sung by Jean Terrell is an interesting listen, but it doesn’t work particularly well in the context of this album.
8. Touch: “I thought something that fit Mary’s voice and range would be a very strong record, so I set out to write ‘Touch’ specifically for Mary,” recalled Frank Wilson in the liner notes to the 2000 box set The Supremes. Mary Wilson, of course, had made a career of being “the sexy one” in The Supremes, imbuing every one of her performances with a playful sensuality and languid, smoky vocals, so it makes sense that Frank Wilson ended up writing a sexy soul ballad on which Mary could purr lyrics like, “You melt me like hot candle wax.” Mary and Jean Terrell actually share lead duties here, and Cindy Birdsong even gets a rare highlight toward the end, making this a true group effort. The dusky track is less crisp than much of the material on Touch; Frank Wilson’s arrangement has an appealing roughness around the edges that brings to mind the hazy light from an oil-burning lamp. Mary Wilson begins the song, her misty voice displaying a nice fullness as she announces, “Darling, just relax…” Most of the producers who worked with The Supremes at Motown have commented on the adaptive quality of Mary’s voice; as the only singer to remain with the group from 1961 to 1977, she proved amazingly adept at blending in with whatever voices happened to be singing with her. According to Harold Beatty, who would work with the group later in the decade, “There was something honest about that voice. Nothing pretentious, it was just there” (The Supremes box set). Indeed, Wilson’s work here seems very natural, especially next to Jean Terrell’s rather piercing performance; if Mary seems to lack a bit of style in her singing, Terrell displays an abundance of it, and the result is two readings that seem to be meant for two different songs. This hurts the recording; “Touch” seems to be a song better suited to one singer, as opposed to something like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (from New Ways But Love Stays), which featured all three Supremes on solo sections in a much more successful way. Still, at the time, Supremes fans were apparently thrilled to hear all three voices in such a distinct way; according to an October article in Billboard, fans demanded the song be released as a single. It eventually was, but it struggled on the charts, only managing a dismal peak of #71 on the Billboard Hot 100 and missing the R&B chart altogether. Although the album review on the AllMusic website points to Mary Wilson’s “unfamiliarity with the record-buying public” as a possible reason for the single’s failure, it seems much more likely that the song simply didn’t register with listeners outside of the group’s immediate fanbase; there are much better single options on Touch (keep reading…), and Motown should have followed up “Nathan Jones” with one of those, and followed it much quicker, too. In the end, however, Frank Wilson was apparently pleased with the recording, saying, “I’m surprised it didn’t do as well as I hoped. Mary’s delivery was sultry — it was enchanting” (The Supremes box set).
9. Happy (Is A Bumpy Road): Speaking of better single options…this Frank Wilson-Pamela Sawyer tune was placed on the b-side of the “Nathan Jones” single, released in April of 1971; although plenty of people bought the single and thus heard this song on the flipside, it’s a shame Motown didn’t give “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road)” a chance at success on its own. Simply put, this is one of the great Supremes b-sides of the decade; it may be among the best, period. Producer Frank Wilson arranges the song as a fascinating hybrid of rock ballad and Holland-Dozier-Holland-esque pop tune; the first verse (with the great psychedelic lyric “I see your footsteps/Running up and down my brain”) comes off like something written for Grace Slick, but by the time the chorus begins, set to a foot-stomping beat straight out of 1964, you’d swear the tune was meant for Diana Ross. It’s to Wilson’s credit that he shapes the song into an epic, almost-operatic masterpiece; there are similarities here to “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music,” the amazing opening track on 1970’s New Ways But Love Stays, in the way he skillfully ties together several genres into a cohesive piece. Of course, none of this could have worked without vocalists to deliver the goods, and The Supremes more than do the job here; Jean Terrell effortlessly shifts from a laid-back resignation to the plaintive pleas of a woman desperate to make a troubled situation work. At times, her delivery does resemble that of the group’s previous lead singer; perhaps this was a deliberate move, a kind of nod to urgent, yearning hits of the 1960s Supremes. But Terrell’s performance is also extremely mature; there is great skill in the way she remains so focused, even as the instrumental track transforms behind her. Meanwhile, “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road)” makes brilliant use of the background vocals, arranging them almost as instruments themselves; the layered voices ring through the track like bells, particularly at 1:25, as they fortify Terrell’s voice and add absolutely gorgeous, echoed harmony to her lead vocal. That three-second snippet, by the way, as The Supremes wail together on just a few words, has got to be one of the great vocal moments in the group’s entire career; there’s something about it that is so heavenly — so stratospheric — that it’s hard not to be moved. Although the Jean Terrell-led Supremes released some great singles, this is really the perfect recording for the trio; it’s a smart, successful modernization of the elements that made them great in the first place. Interestingly, Frank Wilson would cut the song again just a few months later on The Four Tops; it would be released on the 1972 LP Nature Planned It. Wilson alters the melody slightly for the male group, and it results in a far less effective recording; it’s loses the sweetness present on this version. It’s hard to say how this song would have done had it been released as a follow-up to “Nathan Jones,” but it absolutely gets my vote; this is a magical recording that deserves to be rediscovered by fans.
10. It’s So Hard For Me To Say Goodbye: Just as “This Is The Story” serves a perfect opening track, nobody could’ve written a better closer than this song; not surprisingly, it was again penned by Frank Wilson and Pam Sawyer. In retrospect, it serves as something of a poetic moment for The Supremes and Frank Wilson, as this would be the final song on the final album Wilson produced for the trio (aside from the Four Tops collaboration Dynamite). The song is something of a folk-rock ballad, arranged with a gentle groove marked by prominent bongo playing and jangling guitar work. Jean Terrell turns in an outstanding performance, her vocal growing in intensity from quiet vulnerability to explosive power, and Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong belt behind her, in what is perhaps the best background vocal work of the entire album. Listen to the group beginning around 2:24 in, as they start the final verse; all three voices are warm, open, and full-throated, and it makes for a stunning way to end Touch. This is a fantastic ballad, as good in its way as anything that’s come before it. Interestingly, and perhaps fittingly, Wilson would also cut this song on former Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks; it ended up on the singer’s 1971 album All By Myself. In a way, it bridges Wilson’s work with The Supremes to that of Eddie Kendricks, which whom the producer would soon find huge success.
“Not long after Touch we stopped seeing Frank Wilson around,” writes Mary Wilson in Supreme Faith. “He was deservedly proud of the three albums he’d made with the Supremes but understandably disappointed with how poorly they charted. Jean, Cindy, and I felt the same way” (52). Although Touch climbed to #8 on the Billboard Soul Albums chart, it stalled at #85 on the pop side, an unfortunate showing for an album this good. Without The Supremes, Frank Wilson was soon back on the charts as a writer and producer, working with Eddie Kendricks on smash hits like “Keep On Truckin'” and “Boogie Down.” Meanwhile, The Supremes would team with singer, songwriter, and Motown VP Smokey Robinson, who would helm the group’s next LP, 1972’s Floy Joy. No other producer, however, would have the kind of success with the 70s Supremes that Frank Wilson enjoyed; he didn’t return them to the heights of success that the trio had enjoyed in the previous decade, but in retrospect it’s unrealistic to believe anyone could.
What Frank Wilson did was to give the public and the Motown brass — and probably even the group itself — confidence in “The Supremes” as an establishment outside of the shadow of Diana Ross. The group never completely escaped that shadow, but how could it? The Supremes had enjoyed unprecedented success in the 1960s, and every one of its dozen #1 hits featured the voice of Miss Ross. But with songs like “Stoned Love” and “Nathan Jones,” Wilson definitively proved that The Supremes could be used a vehicle for something more than Holland-Dozier-Holland hits. Wilson helped give the group something to say, and found some truly memorable songs with which to spread a message tailored to the new decade. As he would later sum up the experience, “To do it in such a way that they still had their own sound, and to take Mary Wilson and to give her songs, and enhance their appeal as a threesome, it was fun for me” (The Supremes box set).
And it’s been fun for listeners ever since.
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (Stands The Test Of “Time”)
Paul’s Picks: “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road),” “Nathan Jones,” “Here Comes The Sunrise”