“It takes more than just a song and a dance…”
The Summer of 1971 was an exceptionally busy season for The Supremes, as not one but two albums (The Return Of The Magnificent Seven and Touch) hit store shelves in June and new single “Nathan Jones” peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100. While the group managed a packed schedule of live engagements and promotional appearances, producers were working up yet another batch of tracks for the trio to record with Motown labelmates The Four Tops; these would make up the third and final joint LP for the groups, entitled Dynamite and eventually released in December. Although the previous two collaborations had been met with middling success (aside from a Top 20 single with “River Deep, Mountain High”), the combination of voices was undeniably potent; both were also working frequently with producer Frank Wilson, which made their pairing a natural one.
Producer Wilson oversaw all three of the Supremes-Four Tops albums, and for this one, shared the reins with artist and producer Bobby Taylor on more than half of the selections. While The Return Of The Magnificent Seven was heavy on original tunes, this album returns to the formula of 1970’s The Magnificent Seven, utilizing mostly covers from both inside and outside the Motown catalog. Notable song choices include “Hello Stranger,” which had been a big hit for Barbara Lewis back in 1963, and “Love The One You’re With,” a hit for Stephen Stills in 1970. Two previous Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duets were also recycled for this album; “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson (although, unlike the previous two Supremes-Four Tops albums, the duo didn’t produce any cuts here) and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” came courtesy producer Johnny Bristol, who also co-wrote the tune.
For whatever reason, Motown released Dynamite without an accompanying single, instead putting out “Floy Joy” by The Supremes the same month and “A Simple Game” by the Four Tops in January of 1972. The success of “Floy Joy” (#16 on the Billboard Hot 100, #5 R&B) had no impact on this album, which tanked on the charts; its peak of #160 on the Billboard 200 was the worst showing for a Supremes album since Meet The Supremes failed to make the charts way back in 1962! There was a clear lack of effort on Motown’s part in terms of the packaging; the lame cover art is created from a photo featured on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, and is merely reproduced on the back cover. But to be fair, even great packaging couldn’t hide just how uneven this album is. The best inclusions here are arguably the very best joint recordings by the Supremes and Four Tops; unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those to make this a successful collection.
1. It’s Impossible: Not long before The Supremes and Four Tops recorded this song, singer Perry Como had scored a major hit with it; Como’s version spent a month atop the Billboard Easy Listening chart in December of 1970. “It’s Impossible” is the English translation (by Sid Wayne) of the song “Somos Novios,” originally written and recorded by Armando Manzanero; it’s since been done by everyone from Elvis Presley to Christina Aguilera. According to Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this version was recorded in both Detroit and Chicago and completed on June 24, 1971; The Supremes were performing in Chicago that month, during a run at The Palmer House, so it’s possible they recorded some vocals in that city (according to Frank Wilson, The Supremes constantly recorded vocals on the road because of their busy touring schedule; the producer has commented that he would cut instrumental tracks and then fly to whatever city the trio happened to be performing in to record their vocals). Producers Wilson and Bobby Taylor give “It’s Impossible” a brassy makeover here; I think the intent is light-funk (as was the treatment given to the song by New Birth, who also recorded it in 1971), but there’s a Vegas-quality in the arrangement that just can’t be ignored. That’s not to say it’s a bad recording; it’s not the most exciting thing ever recorded by The Supremes and Tops, but it’s a solid album opener, with very nice vocal work by both groups. Of course, we have to take a moment to focus on the “scat” singing that dominates the final minute of running time; out of nowhere, one of the guys (I assume it’s Levi Stubbs?) begins scatting the hell out of the song, running up and down the scale with nonsensical syllables. It’s totally unexpected and weird, but also impressive, recalling the scatting in Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” (released the same year) but far surpassing it in complexity. The scat singing here is really more a novelty than anything else, but at least it lends the recording some distinction; there’s much better material to come, but you won’t forget the ending of “It’s Impossible.”
2. The Bigger You Love (The Harder You Fall): This is an interesting addition to Dynamite, given that it’s basically a Levi Stubbs solo recording with The Supremes harmonizing on the refrain. The song was penned by Mel Larson and Jerry Marcellino, who would produce it for Jermaine Jackson’s 1973 LP Come Into My Life; many years later, English singer Paloma Faith would cover the song for her 2014 album A Perfect Contradiction. Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor handle production duties on this version, setting the song to a galloping beat and topping it with an exciting string orchestration; there’s an energy to this track that was missing from much of the material on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven. Levi Stubbs really digs into the material, predictably giving his rough, throaty voice a workout; listen at 2:09, as he wails “The harder you fall,” and you’ll hear the incredible effort going into his performance. Meanwhile, Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong croon the refrain over and over again like The Andrews Sisters, their harmonies tight and extremely polished. It’s an odd choice to arrange the song in this way; without any lead vocal work a Supreme, the female voices seem to come out of nowhere, serving as a kind of Greek chorus as they repeatedly remind listeners of the song’s message. The rest of the Tops come in a few times, but they’re a mere echo behind Mr. Stubbs, who is the clear focal point of the recording. You have to wonder why the song is arranged in this way; perhaps Jean Terrell never had time to record her lead part, or maybe she did and it just didn’t work for some reason. Or, perhaps this is exactly what the producers envisioned for the finished product; maybe Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor liked the idea of balancing Levi’s passionate performance with the icy, otherworldly harmonies of The Supremes. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting song with some very strong elements, although it never feels like a fully formed recording.
3. Hello Stranger: This is a great song written by Barbara Lewis, who took it to the top of the R&B charts in 1963; her version peaked just as Martha and The Vandellas were scoring their first hit (“Come And Get These Memories”), and the Motown group quickly recorded a version which ended up on their 1963 LP Heatwave. “Hello Stranger” is a gently-swinging soul ballad with a wistful lyric and great hook (“Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby…”); these elements should make it a perfect fit for The Supremes and Four Tops. And it is, except for the fact that the arrangement here is a bit vanilla; producers Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor set to the song to a middle-of-the-road instrumental track that hasn’t dated particularly well. The smooth vocals here are among the best on the entire album, with Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs offering up relaxed, confident readings while backed by a full swell of sweet voices. Jean, in particular, really shines, her voice sliding between notes like honey; the AllMusic Guide to Soul calls this recording “a melter; Jean Terrell syncs her soprano to your heart” (655). But the groups are under-served by the instrumental, with an intro dominated by a piercing flute and the rest of the song guided by a sitar; had the track been more understated and soulful (think “It’s Got To Be A Miracle” from The Magnificent Seven or “I’m Glad About It” from The Return Of The Magnificent Seven), this version could have been a definitive Motown cut. As it stands, it’s a very strong recording and one of the most memorable inclusions on this album, which is certainly more than enough.
4. Love The One You’re With: Just as “River Deep, Mountain Higher” and “Stoned Love” were riding high on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1971, so was “Love The One You’re With,” the solo debut single from Stephen Sills of the folk rock group Crosby, Stills & Nash. His version topped out at #14 on the Hot 100 (it knocked “River Deep, Mountain High” from the same spot), and The Supremes quickly added the tune to their live act; a Billboard review of the trio’s May engagement at the Americana’s Royal Box in New York named it “a standout.” The trio also performed the song on “The Flip Wilson Show” in 1971, in a rousing rendition that featured leads from each Supreme; no matter how one feels about the song, the television performance has to be ranked as one of the best from the Jean-Mary-Cindy lineup, with great energy and strong vocals from all three ladies. It’s too bad each Supreme doesn’t get a solo on this recording; instead, producers Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor hand it solely to Jean, giving her the lead for the entire song and relegating everyone else to backgrounds. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Jean tears through the song with soul and energy, her soprano dancing around the melody with a lovely lightness over a funky track. But my suspicion is that this song was recorded as a Supremes-only track, then placed on this album to pad it out; when the New Ways But Love Stays album was first issued on CD, Motown even added “Love The One You’re With” to the lineup (placing it as track #7), which seems to indicate that it was never really looked at as a Four Tops collaboration. Around the time sessions for Dynamite were taking place, soul group (and former Motown artists) The Isley Brothers released their own version of this song, which sailed to the success on both the pop (#18) and R&B (#3) charts; it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had Motown jumped on this song and released it as a single by The Supremes first. It’s certainly strong enough that it could have gained airplay, and would have been a really solid follow-up to the trio’s #1 R&B hit “Stoned Love.”
5. Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By: After a decent but uneven start to Dynamite, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson come to the rescue, contributing a song that seems to skyrocket right out of the vinyl grooves. Actually, much of the credit should go to Bobby Taylor, who produced this version of the Motown classic, cut on Gladys Knight and The Pips back in the mid-1960s (and unreleased for decades) and made a hit by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1969. The Gaye-Terrell version was released in January of ’69, peaking at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #11 R&B; sadly, Miss Terrell would pass away the next year, making this song the final Top 30 pop hit bearing her name. This song is classic Ashford & Simpson, with a chugging beat, hard-hitting refrain, and lyrics reminiscent of the duo’s future hit “Solid” (i.e. “‘Cause we’re workin’ on a building/Nobody can tear down”). It’s no slight on the Gaye-Terrell recording to say that this version is as good as the song ever sounded; it’s the first cut on Dynamite that feels like a evenly-matched collaboration, with superb vocals by Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs and gorgeous harmonies by The Supremes and Tops backing them up. Stubbs and Terrell (no relation to Tammi, by the way) deliver urgent, soulful readings, capturing an excitement right from the start and carrying the momentum until the final fade; the song is also cut in the “sweet spot” for both singers, allowing each to show off the very best of his/her range. The instrumental track is a perfect mix of grit and gloss, making it one of the few Supremes-Four Tops collaborations that really sounds like a Motown song; producer Taylor has also turned up the energy from the more laid back Gaye-Terrell original, creating a bolder track signaled by the opening horns and layering in the background vocals in a way that makes them indispensable. This is easily one of the strongest recordings found on any of the three Supremes-Four Tops collaborations; it’s mind-boggling that Motown didn’t promote Dynamite with a single when it had something as strong as this.
6. Melodie: Michael Jackson fans will recognize this song as part of the lineup from the 1984 Motown release Farewell My Summer Love, an album of cobbled-together vault tracks released to cash in on the success of Thriller. To give the songs (all recorded in the early 70s) a modern feel, producers remixed them, resulting in a synth-laden track that doesn’t sound at all natural accompanying the voice of a young Michael Jackson. Before the future King of Pop put his stamp up the Deke Richards-Mel Larson-Jerry Marcellino tune, it had been recorded by another iconic male vocalist; Bobby Darin signed with Motown toward the end of his life, and “Melodie” was released as a rock/soul single on him in April of 1971 (incidentally, it was backed by his version of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” made famous by Diana Ross and The Supremes). Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor give this version a nice mid-tempo groove and lush instrumental; in some ways, the big sound recalls Ashford & Simpson’s production work on “River Deep, Mountain High” from The Magnificent Seven. It does feature an odd arrangement, separating the two verses with an instrumental break and an extra refrain; Jean Terrell’s verse doesn’t even begin until nearly two-thirds of the way through, and the result is that the recording seems much longer than it actually is. Still, the vocal work is excellent; Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell are fiery and soulful on their respective solo parts, and the background arrangement produces a powerful sound. Had “Melodie” been rearranged just a bit, moving Terrell’s verse up and sliding the instrumental break after, it could have played well at radio; again, it’s surprising that Motown essentially threw a song like this away on an album that received little, if any, promotion.
7. If: The momentum generated by the previous three tracks comes to a screeching halt with this remake of the 1971 Bread hit, a classic “slow-dance” ballad which is given a meandering, syrupy treatment here. “If” is a pretty song, with a memorable melody and lyric, but the Motown groups sound like they’re drowning a bit here, using a lot of riffs to fill the dead space in this overblown arrangement. Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs do an admirable job of summoning up some passion in their deliveries, with the Four Tops frontman sounding particularly invested in the material. But the best part of this recording comes during the final forty seconds of running time, as the Supremes repeat “We gonna fly, fly away” as the leads ad-lib over them; it’s nice to hear the trio’s voices, and this section at least gives the recording a little bit of individuality. Aside from that, this one is strictly filler and could have been replaced with something stronger.
8. If I Could Build My Whole World Around You: Finally, buried near the end of their third and final joint album, is what gets my vote as the single best Supremes-Four Tops collaboration. The elements are all here: Great song, superb production, irresistible lead vocals, and stunning group harmonies. The song itself was written by Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, and Vernon Bullock, and initially produced by Bristol and Fuqua as a duet for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Released in late 1967, it became Marvin and Tammi’s first Top 10 hit on the Billboard 100 and peaked at #2 R&B; although it never quite achieved the “classic” status of the duo’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” it actually outperformed that song on the charts. Johnny Bristol returns to the song here, cutting it a second time for The Supremes and Four Tops coming up with a snappy arrangement that’s extremely close to the one Marvin and Tammi sang to; this is a swinging production with a peppy bassline, sweet strings, and the kind of thumping percussion that will forever be identified with the Motown Sound. Levi Stubbs is right in his comfort zone, his iconic voice punching each lyric and making it quite clear to whom he is singing by adding “Jean” to end end of several lines. For her part, Jean returns his serve with the skill of a tennis pro, her silken voice slipping and sliding across the melody and finding little nuances that a lesser singer would have missed. A big advantage that this version of “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” has over the original is the addition of several other voices; Gaye and Terrell weren’t supported by background voices, whereas the leads here are boosted by some unbelievably gorgeous harmonies. Listen at :55, for example, as Jean Terrell sings, “I’d put joy where there’s never been none” and is suddenly joined by Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong; this brief, breathtaking bit of three-part harmony spins a single snippet of melody into a standout moment, perfectly capturing the carefree tone set by the lyrics. The song’s final verse and closing refrains are accompanied by a climactic key change that lifts the song into the stratosphere; the swirl of voices and instruments is so overwhelmingly festive that by the time it all ends, it feels like it’s been way too brief. This recording exemplifies why the pairing of The Supremes and The Four Tops worked in the first place; there’s an undeniable chemistry between the singers, and such joy in the way they all work together. As with “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By,” it’s not a slight on the original to say that this is a perfect recording; The Supremes and Four Tops merely take something that was already terrific and elevate it through their energy and artistry.
9. Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream: This is another standout track for The Supremes and Four Tops, following the lead of the previous cut by injecting a proven hit with renewed energy. “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” was written by Aretha Franklin (with Ted White) and first included on her 1967 LP I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, an album positively loaded with iconic performances; Aretha’s original is a jazzy bossa-nova tune, led off by a trumpet and featuring a syncopated beat laced with Spanish guitar. Producer Joe Hinton does away with the overt Latin influence, whipping the song in to an urgent funk number marked by morse-code guitars reminiscent of those used on the Supremes classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” It’s a brilliant move; Franklin’s melody and message are unchanged, but the new arrangement is ideal for the Supremes and Four Tops, who match the mood of the instrumental track with lean, muscular performances. This is a rare case in which another Top gets to take the lead; it’s nice to hear another one of the talented guys step out front, and Jean Terrell predictably turns in an engaging, energetic performance. Both groups sound fabulous on backgrounds, their voices weaving a thick tapestry of sound; it’s interesting that a song originated by a single artist works so well as a group piece, but it does. Interestingly, “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” had already been recorded at Motown; rock group The Ones released a cover in 1968. It could have been a single for The Supremes and Four Tops, too; the blazing energy here would have sounded phenomenal blasting out of radio speakers, and remains a great reminder of the fire both groups were capable of generating.
10. Do You Love Me Just A Little, Honey: Dynamite closes out with a pretty ballad written by Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Vernon Bullock, and Miss Gladys Knight, who recorded it with The Pips in the mid-1960s; it ended up on the b-side of the group’s second Motown single, “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me.” Johnny Bristol cuts it again for the Supremes and Tops, giving the song a nice, sizzling groove and keeping it fairly simple and understated. Jean Terrell begins with a delicate delivery, her voice quivering a bit; it’s a rare show of vulnerability that nicely contrasts with her confident work on the rest of the album. Levi Stubbs continues the song with an emotional, throaty vocal; there’s an audible effort to his work here, as though he’s really pushing to make the words come out of his mouth, and fits beautifully with the tone of the entire piece. Behind them, the Tops and Supremes softly echo the song’s key phrases, their voices ebbing and flowing like waves washing over the track. This is a real soul song, similar in feel to Betty Wright’s fabulous “Tonight Is The Night” in the way the groove chugs along quietly, impossible to resist. Once again, Johnny Bristol serves the group well with a Detroit-stamped track; this is one of the better ballads recorded by the two groups together, and would have been a beautiful b-side had Motown released one of the uptempo standouts as a single.
Listening to Dynamite is a bittersweet experience today, knowing now that it truly marked the end of an era for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Motown. Not only would it be the last time the two vocal groups would team up, but it’s also the final Supremes album overseen by producer Frank Wilson, who’d been responsible for the group’s biggest hits since the departure of Diana Ross. Dynamite would also be the penultimate album for The Four Tops at Motown; the next year, the group would jump ship to ABC/Dunhill Records, immediately scoring three Top 20 hits including “(Ain’t No Woman Like The One I’ve Got).” The Four Tops joined several other Motown groups, including Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Spinners, in feeling that other labels could better promote their respective products, especially as Motown began focusing attention on the West Coast and breaking into the film business.
The trio of albums released by The Supremes and Four Tops is uneven, to say the least, but each one contains some strong and exciting work; had more care been taken to focus on quality instead of quantity, fans might have been treated to one really great album instead of three mediocre ones. This, of course, is the benefit of today’s technology; making a “best of” playlist is as easy a few clicks on the computer. Below is my idea of a “perfect” Supremes-Four Tops album; I’m sure every fan has his or her own version. Combining the very best recordings into a single project proves The Supremes and Four Tops really were “Dynamite” — and the resulting music still is.
Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (An Un-“Easy” Mix)
Paul’s Picks: “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By”
Paul’s Supremes-Four Tops “Dynamite” Album:
- River Deep, Mountain High
- If I Could Build My Whole World Around You
- Stoned Soul Picnic
- If You Could See Me Now
- I’m Glad About It
- I Can’t Believe You Love Me
- Without The One You Love
- Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By
- Do You Love Me Just A Little, Honey
- What Do You Have To Do (To Stay On The Ride Side Of Love)
- It’s Got To Be A Miracle (This Thing Called Love)
- Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream