“I thought it was gonna take a miracle to make things right…”
“Thank God for Miracles,” Mary Wilson wrote in the liner notes to The 70s Anthology, and she meant that literally. After two successive singles failed to make the pop Top 40 (“You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” with The Four Tops and “Touch”), The Supremes entered the studio with singer, songwriter, producer, and Motown Vice President Smokey Robinson, recording a bopping little throwback over four days in October of 1971. Released two months later, “Floy Joy” returned the group to the Top 20, peaking at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B chart. Additional material was worked up early in 1972, and a full-length Floy Joy album hit store shelves in May. The album, while not a blockbuster success, was the trio’s highest charting on the Billboard 200 since 1970’s Right On.
The sessions for Floy Joy came at a time of change for both Robinson and The Supremes. Smokey was just ending his run as frontman of The Miracles; the July 1972 release Flying High Together would be his last studio album with the group, his final performances with The Miracles coming the same month. Meanwhile, Cindy Birdsong was pregnant and decided to leave the group of which she’d been a member since 1967; although she recorded Floy Joy with the group, she’d be gone by the time it was released, replaced by Stevie Wonder background singer Lynda Laurence (her addition to the group had been reported in early April by Jet, using her given last name). Lynda’s picture appears on the cover of Floy Joy, although her voice isn’t on the album.
But an even more monumental change was happening, one which would have far-reaching impacts on every artist of the Motown family. Just as “Floy Joy” was hitting the airwaves in December of 1971, principal photography was beginning on Lady Sings The Blues, starring former Supreme Diana Ross and produced by Motown. It would be the company’s first foray into filmmaking, cementing a new focus on the West Coast. Soon, the entire company would be based out of Los Angeles; according to Mary Wilson, “Floy Joy was our last album recorded in Detroit, and one of the last Motown albums cut there, period” (The 70s Anthology). Although The Supremes (and many other artists) had already been recording vocals at Motown’s West Coast studios, it was truly the end of an era; the work of the Detroit musicians and background singers (the glorious Andantes, to whom Robinson gives credit on the back cover of the album) are to be savored on Floy Joy.
Having Smokey Robinson produce The Supremes was certainly a full-circle moment, considering Robinson had helped orchestrate the group’s first audition at Motown and then gave them some of their first songs to record; late in the 1960s, he provided the trio with some of their best album tracks ever, including “Then” from Reflections and “He’s My Sunny Boy” from Love Child. But no matter how hard he tried, Robinson never did give the Diana Ross-led group a hit, so it’s kind of poetic that he would be responsible for the group’s final Top 20 pop record. He also turns in an exceptionally good album here; it’s not as exciting as Touch, lacking the peaks and valleys of that record, but it’s an appealing, cohesive collection that plays to the group’s strengths and positions them right in their comfort zone.
1. Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love: Named a Billboard Pop Pick on July 22, 1972, this would be the third and final single released from Floy Joy. Robinson and The Supremes recorded the track in February of that year, but the song itself dates way back to the previous decade, when the writer-producer cut it on Motown singer Kim Weston (it went unreleased for a long time). Weston’s version is surprisingly similar to that of The Supremes; Terrell sings in a slightly higher key, but the arrangement is otherwise the same. Of course, the instruments and recording techniques are a bit more sophisticated, but the background arrangement is identical and both songs achieve the same buoyant feeling. Set to a galloping beat and featuring a bouncy melody, this is a joyful, feel-good song, and producer Robinson fills it with whimsical touches, including the prominent background voices wailing “oh-oh-oh-yeah!” and the occasional appearance of a cartoonish, deeper voice echoing Jean Terrell. Speaking of the lead Supreme, she serves up a soulful performance full of riffs and some fun, breathy ad-libs (I love her “I got to have it” at 1:55), and she’s ably supported by Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who seem to be joined be a few other voices at times. In many ways, this production recalls “He’s My Sunny Boy,” cut by Robinson on Diana Ross and The Supremes for 1968’s Love Child; both songs share the same kind of lightness and optimism, not to mention a similar beat. While “Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love” isn’t quite as successful as that earlier Supremes recording, it is a satisfying recording and was a very good choice for single release. Unfortunately, there obviously just wasn’t pubic demand for a third single off the album, and it struggled to #59 on the Billboard Hot 100 (although it did hit a respectable #22 on the R&B chart). Still, this is a great way to lead off the album, and is easily one of the best cuts here. (NOTE: Interestingly, this was the first and only time three singles were released from the same album by the 70s Supremes.)
2. Floy Joy: A sugary confection that’s pure Smokey, this is a classic “throwback” that manages to sound both retro and contemporary at the same time. Although many compare “Floy Joy” to the classic Supremes hits penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland, it’s equally reminiscent of the Robinson-helmed hits by The Marvelettes from the previous decade. In many ways, “Floy Joy” can be viewed as a companion piece to the 1965 hit “Don’t Mess With Bill” in terms of its vibe-heavy, slinky production; in the earlier recording, the lyrics speak to other women seeking the love of the titular man, while this time around, they speak right to the man himself. Opening with a phased update of the classic Motown footstomp, the track is light as air and bouncy as a rubber ball, featuring a twinkling piano line and swinging bass; Robinson also liberally uses a saxophone on the track, which certainly harkens back to songs like “Back In My Arms Again.” The producer also gives Mary Wilson a chance to shine, allowing her a co-lead with Jean Terrell; Wilson would remember in her 1990 book Supreme Faith, “During the sessions, he was so supportive and patient, guiding me through my lead lines…It was an experience and a kindness I will never forget” (60). Although Wilson and Terrell had shared a lead on previous single “Touch,” the pairing is far more successful here; their vocal styles were so different on that earlier song that they seemed to be working against each other, which made no sense given the sensual lyrics. On “Floy Joy,” the lyrics speak of a man attracting the attention of “a million girls,” so it’s natural to have more than one woman singing to him; although Mary and Jean still sing with vastly different vocal styles, they share a playfulness that helps tie the performances together. Mary, of course, oozes with sensuality during her solo lines; her misty alto is like a curl of smoke, similar in sound to Marvelette Wanda Rogers on the aforementioned “Don’t Mess With Me.” If Mary is a revamped Wanda, then Jean gives a modern take on classic Diana Ross, delivering a high, crisp vocal that cuts sharply right through the track. Both women are backed by some really nice harmonies (for example, the “I know!” at 0:36) which are likely the work of The Andantes; if this is the case, it’s just another way in which “Floy Joy” recalls the classic 1960s Motown Sound. Oddly, there are some sloppy edits on the finished version of “Floy Joy” where it’s obvious that producer Robinson cut some sections; listen closely at :44, and you’ll hear that Jean Terrell doesn’t even finish singing the word “joy” before there’s a cut to another section. And indeed, the 4-disc box set The Supremes released in 2000 contained a fully unedited version which confirmed that a few little sections were sliced out of the originally release. There’s no telling why the unedited version wasn’t just released in the first place; it’s not that much longer, and it’s much smoother without the weird cuts. In any case, “Floy Joy” remains a sparkling track that deserved its success; released on the first day of December in 1971, it quickly climbed to the pop and R&B Top 20.
3. A Heart Like Mine: As with Floy Joy‘s first track, this is another much older song resurrected by Smokey Robinson for The Supremes; written by Smokey and Ronald White, it initially appeared on 1961’s Hi! We’re The Miracles, the very first album released by The Miracles, not to mention the very first album ever released by Motown. Robinson turns the song into slow, dreamy ballad here, lacing it with South Pacific-inspired guitars that recall his arrangement for the early Supremes single “You Heart Belongs To Me.” Appropriately, as Mary Wilson was the only group member to sing on that earlier recording, she’s given the lead here; this is the actually the first 70s cut that is completely led by Miss Wilson from start to finish. The song fits her like a glove; there’s a tinge of jazz in the song’s melody, and Wilson’s smoky, languid tone was always a natural match for jazz and blues material. One of Smokey Robinson’s great gifts as a producer is coming up with gorgeous, intricate harmonies; the group vocal work on this cut is absolutely breathtaking, with each voice working together create light, airy flourishes so good you’ll swear they can’t be real. The same must be said for the instrumentation on the track; every single player manages to capture the same faraway feel, weaving together a magical tapestry upon which Miss Wilson doesn’t have to do much except delicately place her distinctive voice. That’s not to say Mary doesn’t skillfully deliver the lead vocal; she does, singing with greater confidence and control than she had on “Touch.” But this is a song on which every single element works, and each is essential to creating the resulting atmosphere.
4. Over And Over: This song would eventually find itself as a b-side of “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man,” the first single released from the next Supremes album, The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb. “Over And Over” is an unusual mid tempo number, arranged with some interesting touches including a funky organ and an echoed guitar that gives the entire song a psychedelic feel. Jean Terrell’s performance is as unorthodox (for her, at least) as the instrumental track; she delivers most of the song in a high, raspy tone that sounds surprisingly like that of Marvelettes singer Wanda Young at times. Listen, for example, to her coo the words “Suggest it, now” at :38; she could be doing an impression of Young’s work on “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.” It’s nice to hear such a variation in Terrell’s vocal work here; as gifted a singer as she is, Terrell sometimes fell into a trap of approaching songs in the same way, leading certainly tracks to blend together (this was particularly the case on 1970’s Right On). Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong add their particular brand of sophistication to the background, generally echoing Miss Terrell in unison and then breaking out into little solo bits, repeating the word “…again.” Although “Over And Over” doesn’t stand immediately stand out in the way that the album’s previous three tracks do, there’s something hypnotic about this recording; there’s a good chance that long after listening to Floy Joy, it’s the “Closer and closer/Over and over/Again…” refrain that will be stuck in your head.
5. Precious Little Things: This is a jazzy Bossa nova tune, a kind of Motown-meets-Brazil number seemingly inspired by “The Girl From Ipanema.” Smokey Robinson wrote this one with Pam Moffet and Marvin Tarplin; Supremes aficionados will remember that Tarplin is the guitarist first discovered by The Supremes and later “stolen” away by Smokey Robinson, a funny story still told by Robinson, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson to this day. Assuming it’s Marv Tarplin who’s playing guitar on this track, it’s easy to see why both The Supremes and Smokey wanted him; the delicate touch with which he plays on this track is lovely. His instrumental break at 1:51 is the highlight of the entire song; the quick-fingered guitar work, which leads into a superb piano solo, evokes the feeling of a dim supper club somewhere on the coast of South America. The song itself isn’t the most inspired; while the track is beautifully done, the lyrics are a little clunky in spots (“And your my stopper in life’s tub/When I’m heading down the drain” has to be one of the the corniest lyrics ever uttered by a Supreme), but Jean Terrell delivers them with such a lightness that they go down smoother than they sometimes deserve. There’s also a nice, uncluttered feel to the vocal arrangement; Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong croon softly in the background, their voices clear enough to be heard individually but never taking attention away from the melody. “Precious Little Things” ended up being placed on the b-side of the album’s second single, the moderately successful “Automatically Sunshine,” and you have to wonder if any radio DJs flipped over the 45 and gave this one some late-night spins. Smokey Robinson hadn’t coined the term “Quiet Storm” yet, but this song is certainly an example of the genre that continues to keep so many “night owls” company.
6. Now The Bitter, Now The Sweet: This jangly tune is certainly a product of its time, a kind of philosophical poem set to music that perfectly captures the ethos of the early 1970s. The lyrics muse on the balance of good things and bad things in life, that pleasure cannot come without pain, loss without gain, etc. The spiritual bent of the song, as The Supremes repeat “Say Amen!” during one section, comes as no surprise given the song’s co-writer, Robinson’s friend Cecil Franklin; Franklin was a Reverend…not to mention the older brother of Aretha Franklin. The song is set to a slow, pulsing beat; at more than five minutes in length, it’s a recording that takes its time, never rushing its message and allowing plenty of time for Robinson to layer in unexpected vocal flourishes. The track is led by Marv Tarplin’s twangy guitar work, giving the song a dusty, down-home feel; this is off-set by the ethereal feel of the background vocals, particular the high harmonies of The Andantes, which take over in fantastic little snippets of staccato syllables that seem to mimic exotic birds. Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong deliver most of the song in unison, blending really nicely; Mary and Cindy also get a chance to stand out during the end of each section, and they individually repeat the same phrase. It’s really nice to hear Miss Birdsong singing so clearly; this long into her tenure as a Supreme, she certainly deserved the opportunity to display her vocal gifts. Overall, the entire recording feels like something of a fever dream; there are so many quirky moments and strange vocal effects that it really takes multiple listens to catch them all. Interestingly, “Now The Bitter, Now The Sweet” is one of only two songs on Floy Joy to never be placed on either the a- or b-side of a single, which makes it a bit more of a rarity. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s a fascinating song and an interesting departure for The Supremes.
7. Automatically Sunshine: This song was released on April 11, 1972 as the album’s second single; although not as successful as “Floy Joy,” it did make it into the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at #37) and missed the R&B Top 20 by just one spot. It’s hard to say why it didn’t do better on these charts; it spent many weeks on the Jet Soul Brothers Top 20 chart, and several radio disc jockeys are quoted in Billboard issues of the time as putting the song into rotation. Perhaps the release of the Floy Joy album in May slowed down sales of the single a bit; if fans wanted to buy the song, they could just pick up the entire album by then. But in terms of quality, “Automatically Sunshine” deserved be a much bigger hit; it’s just as good, if not better, than the album’s title track, and certainly a more challenging recording. Mary and Jean share the lead again on this one, with Wilson taking on the role of wise flower child as she murmurs the memorable opening lines, “Ooh, baby, let’s take life’s highway/It’s automatically yours and my way…” Both she and Miss Terrell deliver solid and fairly straightforward vocals, appropriately toning down the playfulness they displayed on “Floy Joy” to fit the more mature feel of this song. Now, let’s be honest about something: The track itself and the melody bear a noticeable resemblance to those of the 1967 hit “Happy Together” by The Turtles. Listen to them back-to-back; there’s a similar beat to both songs, along with the use of electric guitars and and organ to create a psychedelic pop sound, and at times the melodies can be perfectly sung together. However, Robinson’s concept and lyrics are good enough to separate the two songs, and to give this one a unique identity; “No road is too rough to travel/We’ll walk barefoot on life’s gravel” is certainly evocative of the time, and the phrase “Automatically Sunshine” remains a great hook. Although the song was only a moderate success in the United States, it did well elsewhere; it was a Top 3 hit in Bangkok, and peaked at #10 in the UK, where it was eventually used in a television ad for Percil Automatic washing powder!
8. The Wisdom Of Time: This is a terrific track that incorporates elements of soul, pop, jazz, and Classic Motown; it’s surprising that this wasn’t originally recorded by The Miracles back in the 1960s, as it certainly sounds like it could have been. Written by Robinson with Clifford Burston and Pam Moffett, this is another philosophical poem set to music, with the lyrics musing, “As the world turns/We live and learn” and that time is the “healer of wounds, the sealer of fate.” Although they are two very different songs, there are some sonic similarities to one of Robinson’s all-time great recordings, the sublime “The Tracks Of My Tears,” a hit for The Miracles in 1965; listen to the chord changes in both songs, and Marv Tarplin’s prominent guitar work, and you might hear the resemblance. “The Wisdom Of Time” is set to a nice, subtle groove and features superb vocals by The Supremes; Jean, Mary, and Cindy sing much of the track in unison, their voices gently blending until Terrell breaks out for some lovely, soulful solo parts. This is easily one of Terrell’s best vocals on the album; her voice dances lightly over the melody, slipping in and out of the harmonies with a breathtaking skill. Cindy Birdsong steps out to deliver a great spoken section, her sexy, soulful voice absolutely perfect as she whispers words of wisdom into the microphone. The end result is a charming recording that’s as soothing as an iced drink on a hot summer day; like the best work by Smokey Robinson, it just seems to float into the sky like a lost balloon. “The Wisdom Of Time” would be placed on the b-side to “Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love,” released as a single in July; it’s too bad the song didn’t do better, as it might have prompted disc jockeys to flip over the record and give this one a spin. I’m not sure “The Wisdom Of Time” could have been a big hit, but it’s easily one of the best cuts on the album, and one of the sparkling highlights of the group’s 1970s output.
9. Oh Be My Love: Floy Joy closes with a song that had actually been recorded a few times before; The Miracles first cut this tune in 1966, and it backed up the group’s single “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ In My Heart (Since I Met You)” (which, incidentally, was written and produced by Frank Wilson). According to Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, Wilson ended up cutting the tune on both Barbara McNair and Kiki Dee before Robinson revived it for The Supremes. Smokey gives the song a considerably harder edge than it had back in 1966; what was a sugary ballad is now a guitar-driven rocker that sounds inspired by the work The Supremes had already done with Frank Wilson on their previous three albums. It actually works surprisingly well in this funked-up arrangement; the song’s got a great groove and Jean Terrell offers up a punchy performance with just right amount of restraint and toughness to it. The background vocals are a lot of fun, too; it’s hard not to sing along with the voices during their wordless syllables following refrain. “Oh Be My Love” is not the most memorable song on the album, but it’s another solid recording; there’s a nice simplicity to the arrangement that balances out some of the most complex work on the album, and it’s another one that will unexpectedly get stuck in your head. (NOTE: The song would also get something of a second life the following year, when it was placed on the flipside of the group’s Stevie Wonder-produced “Bad Weather” single, released in March of 1973.)
Motown got a lot of mileage out of the Floy Joy album; a full seven of its nine tracks were released as singles, either as a-sides or on the flipside of other songs. Although not a monster hit, the album charted better than anything by the group since 1970’s Right On, climbing to #54 on the Billboard 200. Mary Wilson would later write, “These tracks were the realization of what I’d felt the Supremes should be…And after losing Frank Wilson, having Smokey now was the best thing that could happen to us, and I wanted him to be our producer forever” (Supreme Faith 61).
Unfortunately for The Supremes, Robinson eventually turned attention to his own solo career, releasing his debut album Smokey in June of 1973; it wasn’t a big hit, but his solo career would pick up steam throughout the decade. The Supremes, meanwhile, would go on to work with outside producer Jimmy Webb for their next album, leaving fans to wonder “what if?” when it came to further work with Smokey. Had Robinson produced a second album on The Supremes, he might have positioned them as the Queens of the forthcoming Quiet Storm movement, giving them sweet melodies and subtle arrangements upon which to lay down polished harmonies. We’ll never know. But with the “wisdom of time,” as Smokey might say, it’s obvious that the pairing was capable of creating magic.
Or, perhaps more accurately, miracles.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (An “Automatic” Success)
Paul’s Picks: “Floy Joy,” “The Wisdom Of Time,” “A Heart Like Mine”