“Things won’t get any better unless we keep on trying…”
By mid-1975, fans must have been wondering if The Supremes were ever going to release new music again. The group hadn’t had a single on the charts since “Bad Weather” came out in March of 1973, and there hadn’t been a full-length studio album since The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb hit shelves in November of ’72. Considering The Supremes had released a whopping twelve singles between 1970 and early 1973 (averaging one every three months), a wait like this was unheard of. But in May of 1975 — seemingly out of nowhere — The Supremes were suddenly back, represented by a new album of ten tracks heavily geared toward the growing disco movement around the country. Titled The Supremes, the album came courtesy six different producers, most of them new to working with the group — with one very notable exception.
The Supremes themselves were also a new entity, with one new member and another rejoining the group after an extended absence. When Lynda Laurence left the group in late 1973 to have a baby, former Supreme Cindy Birdsong returned. More crucially, lead singer Jean Terrell also left the group in the fall of 1973, and to fill her place, Supreme Mary Wilson turned to a trusted name from her past. “On a whim I called Lamont Dozier,” Wilson recalls in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, and he instantly suggested a singer named Scherrie Payne. “Lamont went on to say that she was Freda Payne’s [of the 1970 hit “Band Of Gold”] younger sister and that, by the way, he and Scherrie were dating. That was enough recommendation for me” (116). Mary, Scherrie, and Cindy made their debut on Halloween, 1973 at the Phoenix State Fair, and once contracts were finally worked out, began recording in December of 1974.
First single “He’s My Man” was released on June 12, 1975, and The Supremes made several appearances on national television to promote the song and its parent album, including performances on “Dinah!” (hosted by Dinah Shore), “Soul Train,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Many of the album’s songs did get significant club play; several showed up in Billboard‘s “Disco Action” report, which tracked sales and audience response in New York. And even though The Supremes didn’t sell particularly well, the renewed attention certainly made a statement that this was a new Supremes; gone were the folksy rock-pop tunes from earlier in the decade, and anyone looking for an acoustic guitar or a “peace and love” message would need to search elsewhere. These Supremes were dance divas, plain and simple; the bevy of producers behind The Supremes turned in a batch of beat-heavy, funky tracks tailor-made for the nationwide disco explosion.
1. He’s My Man: The album’s opening track and first single explodes from speakers with a blaring, morse-code opening and the roaring vocals of new Supreme Scherrie Payne; it certainly sounds designed to send a message that The Supremes are back. “He’s My Man” was written by Greg Wright and Karin Patterson, and produced by Wright; Wright and Patterson were also responsible for two of the best Diana Ross album cuts of the late 1970s, the smooth “Never Say I Don’t Love You” and the gloriously funky “You Were The One,” both from Diana’s 1978 LP Ross. Wright’s production here is loud and glossy; any trace of Motown grit has been buffed away, leaving a danceable sheen led by crisp percussion and wah-wah guitars. It’s all way too slick and obvious, but the energy level is high and the enthusiasm sounds authentic, which helps keep the production afloat. The song itself is a sexy celebration of love; the lyrics are silly, but they get the job done, and as with previous singles “Touch” and “Floy Joy,” two Supremes share the bulk of them. Mary Wilson splits the lead with Miss Payne here, and unlike those earlier singles (shared with former lead singer Jean Terrell) the combination of voices works extremely well; Wilson shows much confidence in her work on “He’s My Man,” putting some muscle behind her performance rather than coasting on her unique, misty tone. There’s a good chance she’s stepping up her game due to the fireworks provided by Payne, who possesses a brassy, soulful instrument that surges up and down the scale with ease. As Wilson would later write in Supreme Faith, “Scherrie was more than a terrific singer; she had that indescribable something that makes audiences sit up and listen…Scherrie had a fire, a spark, that the Supremes had been missing” (127). Wilson and Payne bounce off of each other nicely; while their vocal textures are very different, they’re singing in a similar range, which helps bridge their performances. There’s also a nice blend when Wilson and Payne sing in unison with Cindy Birdsong; their work on the bridge (“Some people say he’s no good/But they’d have him if they could”) is smooth and supple, and seems to predate a sexy funk sound that would become more popular toward the end of the decade. When “He’s My Man” was released on June 12, 1975, The Supremes had been available for a few weeks and discotheques were already playing their favorite LP cuts; the June 14 issue of Billboard shows strong interest in the song “Early Morning Love.” Unfortunately, this probably hurt the chances for this single’s chart success, since attention wasn’t focused solely on “He’s My Man” from the beginning. The song ended up missing the pop chart altogether (the first Supremes song not to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 since the early 1960s) and peaked at just #69 on the R&B side. Had Motown released this single before the album, and promoted it in clubs and to radio, it likely would’ve have done better. It’s not the best song on the album, and it certainly sounds dated today (I could really do without Payne’s ‘Tarzan yells’ at the end), but “He’s My Man” is a solid effort from a group working hard to establish itself in a new era of music.
2. Early Morning Love: As previously noted, this song generated early attention, showing up in Billboard’s “Disco Action” charts the week of June 14, 1975, when it sat at #6 for retails sales at Melody Song Shops in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. It’s not a surprise that listeners picked up on this song; it boasts a nice, chunky groove and sexy lyrics that are frank but tasteful. But there is a surprise associated with this track, and it involves the names listed alongside it on the album credits. “Early Morning Love” was written by Harold Beatty, Eddie Holland, and Brian Holland, and produced by the latter…and yes, those are the same Holland brothers of the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland team, which wrote ten of the twelve #1 hits recorded by The Supremes in the 1960s. H-D-H gave the Diana Ross-led Supremes their first hit in 1963 with “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” and followed that song with the iconic “Where Did Our Love Go,” which shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964 and turned them all into major stars. The Supremes worked almost exclusively with H-D-H until 1968, when the writers left Motown in a dispute over money; the departure was a devastating blow to both The Supremes and Motown. Now, years later (and with litigation complete), the Holland brothers were working with writer Harold Beatty and resumed relations with The Supremes, providing old friend Mary Wilson with her gutsiest song yet; few producers had ever seen Wilson as anything but a ballad stylist, but the guys allow her to showcase some grit and depth in an uptempo setting. Mary certainly sounds like a different singer here when compared to earlier leads (i.e. “I Keep It Hid” from The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb); she attacks her vocal, revealing a roughness that we really haven’t heard before. It’s an energetic delivery, but it’s not one of Wilson’s best; the fact is, the song’s pace and melody are really better suited to Scherrie Payne, and it’s hard not to wonder how the recording would have sounded with her on lead instead. In the end “Early Morning Love” is a strong production and it’s easy to hear why club-goers would take to it so quickly; it’s not a classic disco cut, but it’s an enjoyable one. (NOTE: “Early Morning Love” would eventually be placed on the b-side of the “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” single, released in March of the following year; that song would go on to become the group’s final Top 40 hit.)
3. Where Is It I Belong: …and speaking of ballads, this is a much more typical song for Mary Wilson, a melancholy love ballad given the gauzy treatment of a perfume ad. “Where Is It I Belong” was co-written by Elaine Brown and produced by Mark Davis; Diana Ross fans will know Davis thanks to his production of the song “I’m Falling In Love With You” from 1973’s Diana & Marvin, one of the best tracks on that uneven album. There are actually some similarities between “Where Is It I Belong” and that earlier recording, in terms of the dreamy way in which both are produced; that said, “I’m Falling In Love With You” is the far superior track, with its sizzling groove evocative of classic Motown. “Where Is It I Belong” is really sappy, lacking much fire or soul and sounding far too much like generic Muzak to really register; it doesn’t help that lyrics like “He was Capricorn/And a love was born” instantly date the song. Wilson sounds okay, but her delivery isn’t particularly distinctive and she’s swamped by the schmaltzy surroundings; Cindy Birdsong and Scherrie Payne are given very little to do behind her. The repetition of a plaintive question (“Where is it I belong?”) recalls another recording from a female trio, the monster hit “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees; that song had peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1974. But play the two songs back-to-back and you’ll hear what’s missing on the Supremes cut; there’s a freshness and energy that just aren’t present here.
4. It’s All Been Said Before: This upbeat song was slated to be the first single from The Supremes; Motown assigned it a catalogue number (Motown 1350) before cancelling the release and choosing to go with “He’s My Man” instead. The two songs couldn’t be more different; this is a peppy pop tune, written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter (who penned hits including “Keeper Of The Castle” for The Four Tops) and produced by Michael Lloyd, who’d enjoyed success with The Osmonds. “It’s All Been Said Before” actually had been said before; it was recorded by soul singer Bobby Hutton and released on his 1973 ABC album Piece Of The Action; I’ve read the song was written for The Four Tops, which makes sense since Lambert and Potter had written for the Tops and the group was also signed to ABC. Fascinating, then, that a song for the post-Motown Four Tops ends up with The Supremes…at Motown. The angular arrangement and urgency in the track recall classic Motown a bit; the opening “duh-duh-duh” beats could have come from a Holland-Dozier-Holland hit of the previous decade. The song serves as a showcase for Scherrie Payne, who gets her first full lead of the entire album; her boisterous performance is confident and impressive. Although Payne boasts a thick, muscular voice that bears some similarities to that of Aretha Franklin, she sings with a crispness reminiscent of her Supreme predecessor, Diana Ross; both women can skip lightly over a melody, nailing each note and never getting bogged down with too many ad-libs or riffs. This might be what Mary Wilson had meant when she wrote that Payne’s voice possessed “that indescribable something that makes audiences sit up and listen” — Payne’s enunciation and precision are immensely listenable. That said, “It’s All Been Said Before” isn’t the “lost hit” some fans might hope for; it hasn’t aged well and sounds campy in execution, thanks to the cutesy production that really is more suited to The Osmonds than The Supremes (and indeed, Donny and Marie ended up covering this tune). This is a memorable tune, but it’s not a standout on The Supremes.
5. This Is Why I Believe In You: The album’s mainly lackluster first side comes to an end with this disjointed disco cut, produced by the one and only Hal Davis; Davis had worked with The Supremes since way back on the A Bit Of Liverpool album from 1964. The writer-producer had just enjoyed a major success with “Dancing Machine” for The Jackson 5, and would soon blow the doors of the disco genre wide open with two more classic Motown releases; first came “Love Hangover,” recorded with Diana Ross in 1976, which was quickly followed by “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a huge hit for Thelma Houston. With Davis behind the board and songwriter Pam Sawyer behind the tune, fans must have had high hopes for “This Is Why I Believe In You.” But…it’s a mess. The song is produced with all the subtlety of a used car commercial, utilizing a hodgepodge of disco clichés including frantic tempo changes and overenthusiastic vocals; it’s clearly a calculated effort to jump on the disco bandwagon, and it’s not a smooth ride. Mary Wilson leads the first half of the song, giving a performance that’s sorely lacking in character; although the melody isn’t that exciting to start with, the singer doesn’t give it any punch. As with “Early Morning Love,” Wilson doesn’t sound quite up the task of fronting something so upbeat, and her voice doesn’t have the tonal quality to cut through the chunky track in the way that Scherrie Payne’s does. Speaking of, the second half of the song transforms into a pseudo-gospel breakdown during which Miss Payne unleashes a series of yelps and the backing track becomes a barrage of handclaps; this kind of drastic mid-song change is something Davis would handle much, much better the following year with “Love Hangover.” Overall, the biggest issue with “This Is Why I Believe In You” is just how plastic and forced it feels; the best disco songs moved people because there was a real feeling and musicality behind the beat, and that’s not the case here.
6. You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love: It’s a rare Motown album that features a second side better than the first; the label (and probably most labels) typically front-loaded its LPs, placing the hits early and letting filler pad out the rest. But The Supremes is a different story; there’s a major improvement in quality starting with “You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love,” thanks to a batch of songs turned in by Muscle Shoals producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford and an increased focus on Scherrie Payne as lead singer. Though this is one of the lesser-known tunes featured on The Supremes, it is easily the best; this is a shimmering slice of light soul that injects the album with a needed shot of sophistication. The song was written by Ivey and George Soulé, and opens with bouncy piano chords that instantly recall classic Supremes songs like “Baby Love” — the entire production is, in fact, a glorious play on the Motown Sound, without ever sounding like a weak imitation. The recording is spearheaded by a classy instrumental track with twinkling keyboard work and soulful horns during the refrain; Payne’s lead vocal is sparkling, delivered by the singer with ease and honesty. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong offer up classic Supremes backgrounds, “oohing” and “ahhing” with grace and minting a fun “Give it up, give it up” hook. The song just sounds good, it’s actually quite similar to the fantastic “All Night Lover” from the Diana Ross LP Baby It’s Me, and predates that song by two years; both knowingly nod toward the storied Supremes past, but never sound anything but contemporary. It’s unfortunate that Motown was so quick to jump on the “disco train” and really couldn’t see past it when releasing Supremes singles; had someone been able to think outside the dance club, this might have gotten a chance at radio. If this song had been pushed to R&B and Easy Listening stations, it would have been a beautiful way to re-introduce The Supremes after such a long absence; given the right kind of support, it also probably could have crossed over to some pop success.
7. Color My World Blue: When it comes to true disco cuts on The Supremes, this is the best; it’s another cut produced by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford, this time written by Frank Johnson. Although the song was never released as a single, it did garner interest among must fans; it showed up several times on the Billboard “Disco Action” chart for retails sales at Melody Song Shops in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. Since Motown clearly wanted to push a dance-oriented cut for The Supremes, it’s too bad the company didn’t go with this one; it’s superior to first single “He’s My Man” in every way, featuring a challenging melody and lyric, better vocals, and a more soulful and sophisticated production. Producers Ivey and Woodford give the song a chugging beat, reminiscent of a locomotive picking up speed; a repetitive guitar riff provides a nice undercurrent of electricity (think of it as a more subdued version of the iconic riff Stevie Nicks would could up with a few years later for her hit “Edge Of Seventeen”). Scherrie Payne leads the song, and it’s one of her best vocals on the album; she’s really engaging, taking the lyric literally by “coloring” her delivery with some really nice textures in her voice. Listen to the way she opens the song, letting the lyrics “I still thank the Lord above for ya, baby” drag a bit with resignation; the lack of joy sounds strange at first, until you realize she’s singing from the point of view of a woman who’s wronged her man and realizes what a mistake it was. This demonstrates a real gift for interpretation; it’s another quality she shares with former Supremes lead singer Diana Ross. Although Scherrie gets most of the attention from producers Ivey and Woodford, there are some terrific moments of group singing; listen to the beautiful blend of voices at 1:21, as all three Supremes begin the second verse together. There’s something about the way the Payne-Wilson-Birdsong combination sounds that just works; it’s a smoother sound than previous Supreme groupings. But the real reason this recording works so well is because it’s really a good song; as noted earlier, disco worked best when there was real feeling behind a song, and when a strong melody was woven into the beat. “Color My World Blue” would still work with a completely different arrangement; it’s a smart song that really stands out here. (NOTE: It was recorded again, although with a fairly similar arrangement; soul singer Anne Sexton included it on her 1977 album The Beginning, and Billboard named this cut as a highlight on that album.)
8. Give Out, But Don’t Give Up: This is the third Ivey and Woodford song in a row, and it’s the third straight home run; at this point, it’s clear that the writing-producing duo was the perfect choice to be working with The Supremes, and should have just handled the entire album. Someone at Motown obviously liked it, too; “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up” was first slated to be the b-side to the “It’s All Been Said Before” single, and when that release was scratched, the song was put on the b-side to “He’s My Man.” Then, in a totally weird move, this song was used again as the b-side to “Where Do I Go From Here,” released in September. It’s not the first time one Supremes song had been used on multiple single releases (“Time Changes Things” back up both “Let Me Go The Right Way” in 1962 and “Forever Came Today” in 1968!), but there’s no telling why the label decided to recycle “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up” so quickly. That said, the song is better than any of the a-sides it supported; it’s easily one of the best cuts on the album. Although most listeners today would probably lump the tune in with the other disco cuts on the album, it’s actually a laid-back, midtempo number with a powerful message and sterling production; as with their previous two offerings, Ivey and Woodford clearly paid close attention to the details, crafting a lush and interesting musical track spearheaded, in this case, by a joyful brass section that sounds like it comes straight from a New Orleans street corner. Interestingly, the guitar work here lends the production just a touch of country-western; this cross-section of Louisiana soul and country twang is no surprise given the Muscle Shoals connection here. Anyone fearing that Scherrie Payne didn’t have enough seasoning or experience to lead a supergroup like The Supremes need only to listen to this track to hear just how dynamic she really is; Payne sings with a wisdom and maturity that far exceeded her actual age at the time of recording, and the low-key groove really gives her a chance to unfurl her impressive, powerful instrument. This isn’t just one of the best songs on this album, it’s one of the best of the the group’s 70s output; those turned off by the repetitive beats of the trio’s late-stage work should give this cut a spin. (NOTE: The trio of Ivey, Woodford, and Barbara Wyrick also wrote the song “Bend A Little,” recorded by The Supremes but left off of this album. It should have been included; it’s just as good as this song.)
9. Where Do I Go From Here: This song was released as the second and final official single from The Supremes; although several cuts got club play and generated sales by fans, this song was slapped on a 45 and released as Motown 1374 on September 5, 1975. Sadly, it tanked; while the song showed up on the “Disco Action” sales charts, it missed the Billboard Hot 100 altogether and only reached a paltry #93 on the R&B chart. As with “He’s My Man,” part of the problem was likely the fact that so many different album tracks were getting club play, splitting attention and thus forcing The Supremes to compete with themselves; Diana Ross albums like Baby It’s Me and The Boss suffered this same fate, missing out on producing some deserved hits due to unfocused radio and club play. “Where Do I Go From Here” was written by Brian and Eddie Holland, the second and final cut on The Supremes to come from Holland/Dozier/Holland Productions, Inc.; when the song was released, it would become the first Supremes single bearing the Holland name since “Forever Came Today” in 1968. This is a harder-edged song than the previous “Early Morning Love,” featuring a darker melody and melancholy lyric; the instrumental is marked by slicing strings and some funky guitar work which really drive the song forward. Scherrie Payne leads the recording and she sounds great; as with the past few cuts, she sings with soul and feeling, clearly connecting with the lyrics and interpreting them with honesty. The backgrounds are a lot of fun, as they recall some of the trio’s early work with the writers; listen to the way the group sings “All about loving!” at :36, and it’s easy to imagine Mary and Florence Ballard giving the same performance behind Diana Ross. If there’s a weak link here, it’s probably the melody, which isn’t as strong as anything else on the second side of The Supremes; while this is a good dance song, it doesn’t sound as alive as “Color My World Blue” or “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up.”
10. You Turn Me Around: This is a fantastic ballad, and again comes courtesy producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford; the song itself was written by the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, responsible for many, many classic songs including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” As with that song, “You Turn Me Around” was first cut on The Righteous Brothers; it was featured on the 1974 LP Give It To The People, wherein it was arranged as a sparse piano ballad. In the hands of Ivey and Woodford, the song is transformed into a slow-burn number reminiscent of the Philly Soul Sound; the instrumental is warm and intimate, and it’s matched by one of Mary Wilson’s best lead vocals ever. Wilson is beautifully controlled here; listen to her opening lines (“When I feel the walls start closing in on me…”), and the way she delivers the words with understated elegance. As the song continues, Miss Wilson never falters in her confidence, nailing each passage as if the tune had been written specifically for her. As good as the lead vocal us, the real ace in the hole is the sparkling background arrangement; the addition of the “‘Round and ’round/’Round and ’round” at :43 is genius, adding a soulful sophistication and bringing to mind the kind of striking group arrangements you’d expect from The Delfonics. It’s unfortunate that this song was never given a chance at R&B radio; perhaps it would have been a little too understated to gain much traction, but it’s superb recording and representative of what The Supremes had been about since the beginning. As much as the trio had evolved over the decade, the group’s calling card remained glitz, glamour, and sophistication; this creamy ballad is exactly what The Supremes did best.
Listening to The Supremes today, it’s pretty clear that Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford were the right producers to be working with the trio; the four tracks they completed for the album are the best, and are among the best tracks released by The Supremes during the post-Jean Terrell era. Ivey and Woodford didn’t run away from the disco sound, but they also didn’t solely rely it; they clearly saw the group as capable of handling more than one type of song, adding variety and soul to an otherwise beat-driven and repetitive album. Ivey and Woodford produced additional songs that were left off the album; “The Sha-La Bandit” is a fabulous doo-wop inspired song eventually released on the 1978 compilation At Their Best, and the hard-driving “Bend A Little” showed up as an instrumental track on the album Motown Magic Disco Machine Volume II. It’s mind-boggling that these were cut from the album; both are far superior to some of the weaker cuts included on The Supremes.
Although the group worked hard to promote the album, The Supremes met with middling success overall; it peaked at #152 on the Billboard 200 and #25 on the R&B side. That said, the growing popularity of dance clubs was giving the group boost; people were hearing the music of The Supremes in a new way, and even if radio wasn’t giving the trio much attention, club-goers were. The fact that so many of the album’s songs showed up on the “Disco Action” charts in Billboard demonstrates that even without major sales, people were still being exposed to the music of The Supremes. This would continue in much more significant way with the trio’s next album, released less than a year later; The Supremes were about to score their biggest dance hit of the decade.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (Supremes Take An Uneven “Turn”)
Paul’s Picks: “You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love,” “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up,” “You Turn Me Around”