“Why is it we can’t be the way we used to be?”
Once upon a time, this was one of the rarest of all Supremes collectibles, an obscure live album released for a short time overseas and never issued in the United States. In Japan! was recorded on June 3, 1973, during a performance at Shinjuku Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo, Japan; at the time, the group was promoting its latest single, the Stevie Wonder-produced “Bad Weather.” The trio then-consisted of original Supreme Mary Wilson, lead singer Jean Terrell, and newest member Lynda Laurence, who’d been with the group for roughly a year at that time; all three had sung on the group’s previous studio album, 1972’s The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb. After releasing “Bad Weather” in March of 1973, the group remained busy touring the world and performing on various television shows; they’d even ventured into the business world, promoting a line of Supremes wigs.
But this was also a troubled period for The Supremes; as they were performing this show in Japan, rumors were swirling at home that the group was planning to leave Motown, the record company with which it had been signed for more than a decade. The trio’s releases had been performing progressively worse on the charts, and group members were open about their disappointment in the record company’s promotional efforts (or lack thereof) on their behalf. According to Mary Wilson in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, dissatisfaction with their situation had led to mounting tensions within the group; a Billboard review from February of 1973 commented that The Supremes “exhibit more individual differences than the tight togetherness of their past,” perhaps a result of those backstage tensions.
Part of the problem was undoubtedly the schizophrenia of the group’s musical identity, something on full display in the eleven tracks of In Japan!, which reveal a trio caught somewhere between its “supper club” past and soulful present. Back in the 1960s, Motown had worked hard to break The Supremes into the upscale (and primarily white) club circuit; thanks to a triumphant opening at New York’s Copacabana in 1965, the group smashed through the glass ceiling and never looked back. But the 1973 Supremes was a completely different entity than the 1965 Supremes; selections like “T.C.B.” and “Somewhere” had been in the group’s show for years and sound really dated here, especially given the trio’s move toward pop-rock music in the new decade. Beyond that, these “showbiz” songs are made up of crisp melodies and sharp lyrics which require great attention to detail to pull off, and Jean Terrell mumbles and riffs her way through them, resulting in tuns that are unrecognizable. “T.C.B” is a long way from “Nathan Jones” — and it’s an uneven show that attempts to bridge the two here.
1. Introduction: The album opens with an energetic overture consisting of several Supreme melodies woven together by a funky beat. The band is led by conductor Teddy Harris, an incredibly talented, well-respected musician who had a long career in the industry and spent several years with The Supremes. Because this is the only live album recorded on The Supremes in the 1970s, it gives listeners a unique chance to hear some of the great musicians who played with the group during the decade; late in the album, the group introduces the band, giving the players well-deserved recognition. Just as Gil Askey provided the dynamic backing and arrangements for the Diana Ross-led Supremes, Harris leads a show of exuberance and pizzazz, clipping this show along at a heart-pounding pace and keeping the energy up even when the lead vocalist seems to be coasting.
2: T.C.B./Stop! In The Name Of Love: Here we go again with this two-song mashup, used by The Supremes since the 1968 television special TCB with The Temptations. “T.C.B.” (which stands for Takin’ Care of Business, in case you forgot) is a splashy Vegas-style tune written by Buz Kohan and Bill Angelos, who were both credited as writers for that earlier television special. The song had been a perfect vehicle for Diana Ross to dazzle audience members and prime them for an evening of entertainment; the group ended up keeping the song as an opening number for its stage show, and you can hear it again on the Farewell album, recorded live at the Frontier Hotel in January of 1970. Unfortunately, despite buoyant backing from Mary Wilson and Lynda Laurence, Jean Terrell doesn’t capture the excitement needed to sell the song at all; she alters the phrasing and melody so much that she just sounds lost during most of it. The same is true once the lyric “Stop, whatever you’re doin'” becomes “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” which the crowd greets with a warm applause; Jean clearly works hard to make the iconic Holland-Dozier-Holland hit her own, but she strays so far from the original melody that she ends up sounding like she’s forgotten the song! This isn’t to say Terrell’s voice sounds bad; it doesn’t, of course. Her silken pipes are in tremendous shape during this show, but her riffing often comes at the expense of melody, effectively erasing the qualities that make a number like “Stop! In The Name Of Love” a classic in the first place.
3. Medley (For Once In My Life/I’ll Take You There/Cabaret): This medley is a standout of the entire album, if only for the fact that it showcases some gorgeous three-part harmony from The Supremes. It begins with the classic tune written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden and turned into a huge pop hit by Stevie Wonder in 1968; The Supremes breathlessly race through “For Once In My Life,” somehow managing to stay in tight harmony through the entire thing. The ladies sound great together, and each gets in some solo time; Lynda sings “Could make my dreams come true” at :30, revealing a gloriously brassy instrument that never got enough play in the studio. From this standard, the medley transforms into the title song of the famed Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, which opened on Broadway in 1966 and was turned into a hit film starring Liza Minnelli in 1972 (Liza, of course, won an Oscar for Cabaret, beating out none other than Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues. I’m sure the inclusion of this song raised a few eyebrows!). Again, the song is delivered at about triple the pace it’s usually performed at, and The Supremes skillfully ride the melody without a missing a beat. Their three-part harmony beginning at 2:05 is unbelievable; these are some of the best vocals on a Supremes album ever, with Mary’s misty alto, Jean’s round soprano, and Lynda’s blaring, bugle-like voice blending to create a magnificent sound. “Cabaret” immediately halts, becoming “I’ll Take You There,” a #1 hit from the previous year by The Staples Singers, which was written by Al Bell (who, coincidentally, would go on to head Motown Records in the 1980s); Jean Terrell seems to come alive a bit here, offering up a soulful lead before Mary and Lynda move into a few lines from the 1969 Sly Stone classic “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Finally, the ladies swing it on home with a few more lines from “Cabaret,” their voices soaring to the sky as they stretch out the ending and really belt out the words, displaying the kind of pipes you’d expect from seasoned Broadway performers. Overall, this medley is a little strange in song choice; there doesn’t seem to be much of a connecting thematic thread. However, the band and the vocalists really sell it; there’s style and energy to spare here.
4. Stoned Love: After some cute banter at the end of the previous track, The Supremes launch into their biggest hit of the decade, the #1 R&B hit “Stoned Love” from the New Ways But Love Stays LP. Jean Terrell opens by soulfully belting out the title of another earlier Supremes single, “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love,” before delivering the dramatic introduction to “Stoned Love.” The singer really takes her time here; it’s more than a full minute before the song falls into its groove, and Terrell runs up and down the scale in an effortless melisma that would make even Mariah Carey jealous. Once the beat sets in, it becomes apparent just how watered down this arrangement is going to be; the pace is quickened, of course, and the Motown Sound is gone, replaced by frantic guitars and Vegas-style horns. This is what happened to all of the group’s hits after the breakthrough Copacabana gig in 1965; live orchestrations went heavy on pizzazz and light on soul, transforming the songs into something more palatable for upscale audiences. This worked better on some tunes than others, and “Stoned Love” really isn’t one of the successful ones; it loses the sense of majesty present on the original recorded version, sorely missing the expansive orchestra backing The Supremes. Speaking of, Jean Terrell throws away a lot of lyrics while racing through the song, and Mary and Lynda hoot like helium-inhaling owls behind her thanks to the rapid-fire pace. Overall, this is a perfect example of the strange line being straddled by The Supremes at this time; with club work still a main focus for the group, these razzle-dazzle arrangements weren’t going anywhere, but the group’s 1970s material isn’t necessarily melodic enough to survive the transition. The 70s songs were more about the message of the lyrics and the sound created in the studio, rather than the kind of crisp, singable melodies written by Holland-Dozier-Holland in the 1960s; the message is really lost in this particular recording, leaving “Stoned Love” as a mainly forgettable selection in the show.
5. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars: Jean Terrell next introduces Mary Wilson, who jokingly dedicates this medley to “some of my favorite things in life…men.” It’s is frankly a little strange that Mary Wilson was still singing the same old song as her solo number; she’d been doing the Frankie Valli hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for years, and it had already shown up on three albums by this time (Together, Farewell, and Motown At The Hollywood Palace). The good news is that this is her absolutely best reading of the song; in fact, it’s probably her best solo performance on record up to this point. After racing through the previous selections, the band finally settles down here, letting Wilson take her time and dive into the song; it’s a real showcase for her voice, which sounds far stronger and confident than anything we’ve heard on the past several Supremes albums. She soon segues into the jazz standard “Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars,” written by Bossa nova master A.C. Jobim; this is a newer addition to Wilson’s solo spot, and it’s a terrific one. Wilson’s warm, misty tone is a perfect fit for jazz music, and her voice beautifully floats along sexy Brazilian melody, with able support from Lynda and Jean behind her; they spend a good portion of this song harmonizing, and it’s gorgeous. Finally, Mary moves back into “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and she absolutely wails, belting the lyrics and allowing her voice to run all over the scale; this part of the performance definitively proves her abilities as a singer, displaying a larger range than many give the singer credit for and a soulfulness that much of her recorded work doesn’t take advantage of. Wilson stretches out the song’s finale, tearing into it with both guttural lows and stunning high notes; she’s deservedly rewarded with a long round of applause. This is a clear highlight of the entire evening; Wilson’s live performance experience and growing confidence as a vocalist are more than evident.
6. New Hit Medley (Automatically Sunshine/Floy Joy/Nathan Jones/Up The Ladder To The Roof): As good as Mary Wilson’s previous solo feature is, it’s criminal that she gets more than five minutes for those two covers while four of the group’s own best recordings are condensed into a medley of shorter total running time. Then again, that’s how it always was for The Supremes; “hit medley” had been a dreaded phrase for years, right? There’s a cute little set-up for the medley, with Jean telling a story of The Supremes as “three little girls” in a “kingdom by the sea” and being interrupted by Mary and Lynda to contradict her (listen to Mary’s “Wait a minute, honey” — it’s pure Florence Ballard). The medley begins with a few lines from the group’s 1970 hit “Up The Ladder To The Roof” before abruptly switching to “Automatically Sunshine,” the Smokey Robinson-penned single from Floy Joy, and a release which had peaked in the pop Top 40 the previous year. The single had fared even better in some overseas countries, and it gets a warm applause here; although the arrangement is predictably jazzed up, there’s a nice swing to the bassline and the trio offers up a bouncy vocal performance. Next up is the group’s Top 20 hit “Floy Joy,” also penned by Robinson and lifted from the album of the same name; as with the preceding tune, this one works reasonably well with a quickened pace and big-band backing, although the entire point of the original recording was to serve as a “throwback” to the group’s hits of the previous decade, so taking away the deliberately self-referential arrangement leaves very little aside from a sing-song melody and simplistic lyric. “Nathan Jones” follows; this, of course, was a solid hit for the trio in 1971, a rock-pop dazzler from the superb album Touch. There is nothing dazzling about the arrangement here, however; it sounds like a cheap imitation of the original recording, robbing the song of any power or soul. The quickened pace isn’t really the problem; speeding it up actually reveals some gospel roots that aren’t so obvious on the studio version. But the performances are a mess; the band and singers don’t seem to be together, creating some odd shifts in timing. Mercifully, “Nathan Jones” ends pretty quickly and the medley flips back to “Up The Ladder To The Roof,” which provides a boisterous finish for The Supremes. This medley — particularly the non-Smokey Robinson songs — once again shows how much the group’s 70s hits depended on the sound and mood created in the studio; such a radical makeover leaves the tunes feeling really weak.
7. Hit Medley (Reflections/Where Did Our Love Go/Baby Love/My World Is Empty Without You): After running through a few of their hits from earlier in the decade, The Supremes go even further back in time, presenting a mash-up of four big hits from the 1960s. This is an interesting listen, given that all four songs are inextricably linked to the voice of Diana Ross; “Baby Love” and “My World Is Empty With You” are songs that have rarely left Diana’s stage show since she went solo, appearing on most of her live albums and concert specials. “Reflections” was a #2 hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes back in 1967 (and the title track of the 1968 Reflections album), and it turns out to be a really nice fit for Jean Terrell’s voice; she sounds better at the beginning of the song, when she’s singing it straight, but by the end she’s riffing all over the place, massacring the melody. Mary Wilson takes over on the bouncy “Where Did Our Love Go,” which was the group’s very first #1 hit back in 1964; nine years later, Mary was the only Supreme still part of the group, so it’s nice to hear her step out and deliver the hit here. The arrangement is actually a little bluesy, as is Wilson’s vocal, a nice reminder that there were many layers to the work of writers Holland-Dozier-Holland; the hits they penned for The Supremes in the 1960s had sometimes been written off as “pop ditties,” but in reality they are clever compositions that tie together pop, soul, jazz, and blues. Next up is another song from the Where Did Our Love Go LP, and another #1 hit; “Baby Love” only gets about 20 seconds here, before the tempo slows down and Jean Terrell leads a torchy version of “My World Is Empty Without You” from 1966’s I Hear A Symphony. The original recording’s dark, driving beat is gone, replaced by sparse, piano-driven accompaniment; the piece is a vocal showcase for Miss Terrell, who gives an interesting and textured performance. Her melisma-heavy reading is way ahead of its time; the vocal itself sounds like it could be a hit today. It’s a nice way to end the medley, because at least the group sounds interested in investing it with some new energy, rather than running through it out of obligation. To be honest, I’d have rather heard a longer version of this final number than a medley including all four.
8. Bad Weather: This was the group’s current release as the time this album was recorded, a single written by Stevie Wonder and Ira Tucker, Jr. and produced by Wonder. The driving force behind getting this recording made was newest Supreme Lynda Laurence, who happened to be Mr. Tucker’s sister and had sung background for Wonder before joining The Supremes; according to Mary Wilson in Supreme Faith, “[The Supremes] were discussing our trouble getting a decent record out, when Lynda suggested, ‘Why don’t I talk to Stevie about it? We’re still great buddies. He’ll write us something.’ When Lynda proposed the idea to Stevie Wonder, he accepted immediately” (79-80). The group recorded the song in late January of 1973 (according to Wilson, during a performing engagement near Detroit) and the single was released on March 22; reviews were strong for uptempo funk number, but it ended up flopping, barely making the pop and R&B charts (sadly, further work with Wonder was scrapped, including the never-released “Soft Days”). The studio version is a pre-Disco dancefloor workout, several years ahead of its time; Wonder arranges it as a big, brassy statement, giving Jean Terrell a rollercoaster of a track upon which to unfurl a plaintive, urgent vocal. It’s the best single released by the group since “Nathan Jones,” and deserved much more success than it ultimately found. It’s nice to hear the song in full here, rather than having it crammed into a larger medley; although the arrangement cries out for the Wonder-led fullness of the studio version, the band does an admirable job of recreating the urgency and playing with energy. Terrell’s vocal is a bit more laid back in the beginning than one might expect; she certainly doesn’t attack it the way she did in the studio. But she picks up steam as the song continues, offering up some really powerful moments and showing off her impressive range. Lynda Laurence also emerges a real standout on this number; her brassy cries behind Jean are so dead-on that they sound like they were recorded in a studio. It’s too bad we don’t hear more from Lynda overall on this album; at time, she was given the standard “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” as a solo during the show, but for whatever reason, it’s not included on this album. After The Supremes wrap up “Bad Weather” to extended applause, they take a moment to introduce “a very good friend of ours in the audience tonight,” who happens to be singer Dionne Warwick, and then tell the audience that they’re about to go back to the 1950s…
9. Cherry Cherry Pie: Going back to the 1950s first means a brief but delicious version of this Marvin & Johnny doo-wop hit from 1954. Led by Mary Wilson, the trio breaks into a luscious three-part harmony, sensually delivering the double-entendre lyric for just under one minute of running time. It’s too bad this is so short; Jean-Mary-Lynda are clearly at their best when harmonizing, and they sound terrific. However, this trip to yesteryear isn’t done yet…
10. Tossin’ And Turnin’: Next, The Supremes encourage the audience to do The Twist (Jean: “You must shake it but never break it…”) as they break into a showstopping version of the Bobby Lewis classic “Tossin’ And Turnin'” (which, by the way, was actually released in the early 1960s, not the 1950s), a song which The Supremes had recorded with Jimmy Webb and which was included on the group’s previous LP, The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb. This was one of the standouts on that album, a rollicking recreation of the original hit version sparked by a soulful vocal attack by Jean Terrell and full-throated background vocals; here, the song is stretched into an extended, exciting grand finale clearly designed to leave audiences wanting more. All three Supremes absolutely come alive, with Jean Terrell sounding more engaged than she has during the entire preceding show and Mary Wilson and Lynda Laurence backing her up with a sound so big you’d swear there were extra vocalists joining them. The trio is more than matched by the band, which creates a sound that absolutely leaps out of the speakers; after about five minutes of singing, the group pays the musicians well-deserved respect by introducing members of “The Supremes rhythm section,” including Marvin Marshall (lead guitar), Nate Neblett (drums), and, of course, Teddy Harris (pianist/conductor). The Supremes also introduce each other to the audience before the band finally ends with a big, blaring climax. And this is where the show should end, too; this nearly eight-minute track is just about worth the price of the album, finally showcasing the group and the band as a tight, dynamic performing entity. But…
11. Somewhere: …a Supremes show wouldn’t be a Supremes show without an encore consisting of some pop standard; it was “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” on At The Copa and Live At London’s Talk Of The Town, and “The Impossible Dream” on Farewell. Here, the ladies deliver another old standby which had been part of the group’s stage show since that 1965 Copacabana debut, the ballad “Somewhere” from Broadway’s West Side Story. The song itself served various purposes for The Supremes; in the beginning, it was an opportunity for Diana Ross to really belt out a showtune, and later it became a call for Civil Rights and social justice, delivered with drama by Miss Ross, complete with a passionate monologue quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m not completely sure what purpose it serves here; there’s some nice harmony by the singers, and a showy vocal from Miss Terrell, but the entire thing seems redundant and dated. The monologue has also been changed, and without the reference to Dr. King, it loses its power. Again, the ladies sound good, but coming after the passionate, frenzied “Tossin’ And Turnin’,” this encore feels unnecessary.
Although it’s nice having a high-quality recording of a live performance by the 70s Supremes, In Japan! emerges as the least successful of all live albums by the group; to put it simply, there’s an electricity missing from this album that’s present in the three live recordings which preceded it. The album works best when Jean, Mary, and Lynda are singing together, using their voices to create uplifting harmonies; whatever might have been happening behind-the-scenes, the vocalists do seem to feed off of each other when singing in this way. But there’s no denying a lack of something in Jean Terrell’s work here; she’s an immensely talented vocalist, as proven by her overall work with The Supremes, but she just doesn’t seem to be really working here to sell the songs. And the material is a problem, too; the continued reliance on pop standard and showtunes just doesn’t make sense of a group which had evolved so much during the new decade.
It’s really not a surprise to learn that, according to Mary Wilson, Terrell asked to be released from her Motown contract within weeks of this performance in Japan; by fall, she was gone from the group, as was a pregnant Lynda Laurence. Although press reports insisted Laurence would return to the group after giving birth, this never happened; Cindy Birdsong re-joined The Supremes, and dynamic singer Scherrie Payne was hired to fill the group’s third spot sharing lead vocals with Mary Wilson. By January of 1974, this grouping was performing on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” effectively beginning a new era in the story of The Supremes. It’s unfortunate that Jean Terrell couldn’t go out on top, in the way that Diana Ross did; it’s also too bad that Miss Laurence didn’t get more of a chance to shine during her brief tenure with The Supremes. Still, In Japan! proves an infusion of new energy was needed, and The Supremes would certainly have a new sound by the time their next album was released, in May of 1975.
Final Analysis: 2/5 (An Interesting, But Ultimately “Empty” Album)
Paul’s Picks: “Tossin’ And Turnin’,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”/”Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars,” Medley (“For Once In My Life”/”I’ll Take You There”/”Cabaret”)