“In just a few hours, you showed me new dimensions…”
Although the 1975 album The Supremes was not a significant hit for Motown’s top female trio, the release proved there was still life in the group, particularly when it came to the burgeoning disco movement. Songs like “He’s My Man,” “Color My World Blue,” “Early Morning Love,” and “Where Do I Go From Here” all caught the attention of club-goers; the latter two were particularly notable for being the work of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, two-thirds of the team responsible for writing ten #1 hits for The Supremes during the previous decade. Although Holland-Dozier-Holland had spent years in litigation with Motown, the Holland brothers (sans Dozier) were now working independently for the label; they were put in charge of the next new Supremes release, the bulk of which they wrote with Harold Beatty. Beatty would later recall in the liner notes to the Supremes box set (released in 2002), “I always liked the lushness of a symphony. That’s where the concept for the High Energy album came about.”
Meanwhile, The Supremes underwent another lineup change just as it wrapped up recording High Energy. Cindy Birdsong, who’d returned to the group after a brief break in 1972-1973, left again; in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, Mary Wilson details turmoil between Birdsong and the group’s then-manager Pedro Ferrer (who also happened to be Wilson’s husband). To replace Birdsong, Ferrer and Wilson brought in singer-songwriter Susaye Greene, notable for singing backup for both Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder and co-writing the huge hit “Free” by Deniece Williams. Greene boasted a multi-octave range quite different from any Supreme voice before her; according to Harold Beatty, “Susaye was more like a Minnie Riperton — she could do the same things” (The Supremes booklet). Although High Energy had already been recorded by the time Greene joined the group, her voice was added to the opening pair of tracks.
High Energy was released in April of 1976, just a few weeks after its first single, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.” The album and single quickly became the most successful releases by The Supremes in years; the LP peaked at #42 on the Billboard 200, the group’s second best showing since Diana Ross had left the group (only 1970’s Right On charter higher), and the single climbed to the Top 40, becoming the 33rd (and final) Top 40 pop hit for the group. For Supremes fans, seeing the group back on the charts must have been thrilling, especially when joined by the names Brian and Eddie Holland. That said, the album is really more a showcase for the lush production than for the featured singers; you’ll hear some absolutely stunning instrumental work on every cut, but some of the vocal work gets lost in the busy, sometimes bombastic arrangements.
1. High Energy: Harold Beatty’s comment that the “lushness of a symphony” inspired High Energy certainly makes sense given this opening track, which isn’t so much a song as it is a “mood-setter” in its execution. It’s ironic that this song is one of the lowest-energy tracks on the entire album; those expecting a dancefloor banger are instead greeted by a slow-groove, Middle Eastern-flavored number that sounds about one-step removed from the “Charlie’s Angels” theme song. The production here is high-gloss all the way; sweeping strings and funk-lite keyboard work are layered in over a sizzling, clicking beat, the instrumental opening lasting a full two minutes before there’s a single note sung by The Supremes. This is the kind of thing the Hollands never could have gotten away with during Motown’s heyday in the 1960s; the hook-conscious Berry Gordy, Jr. would have had a fit over such an extended intro. But times had changed; it speaks volumes that we don’t hear any vocals for so long, making clear that the intended stars here are the production and the beat. When The Supremes do finally come in, it’s Mary Wilson we hear first, offering a spoken passage in which she proclaims, “I will never share my man!” It’s a silly little section, but at least Wilson seems to be having fun with it, exaggerating her already famously sexy voice for maximum effect. She’s followed by Susaye Greene, in her formal introduction as a Supreme; again, although “High Energy” had already been recorded with Mary, Cindy, and Scherrie, Greene’s lead vocal was dubbed in before the release of the album. It’s immediately clear that Susaye Greene will bring a new, exciting sound to the group; her high, lilting voice bears a much closer resemblance to that of Deniece Williams than Birdsong, Lynda Laurence, or any other Supreme. Greene’s voice flutters up and down the scale here, notably hitting some glass-shattering high notes; although Greene had already been performing for most of her life, it’s still hard to believe this is her debut given the technical proficiency she displays. According to Mary Wilson’s 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, Greene garnered a five-minute standing ovation during a stop on the group’s European tour promoting this album; Wilson would also write that Greene was a “catalyst” in making the other Supremes more free in their own vocal performances. She certainly sounds amazing here, and her performance is ultimately better than the material; “High Energy” is a beautifully-produced piece of music, but its glossy sheen hides a lack of substance and throwaway lyric. Still, disco fans loved it; according to the liner notes in The 70s Anthology, the song hit #1 on Billboard‘s Dance Chart/Club Play, listed alongside “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.
2. I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking: Released as the album’s first single on March 16, 1976 (backed with “Early Morning Love” from The Supremes), this song leapt up the Billboard Hot 100 to #40, then stalled there; it climbed to #25 on the R&B side and topped the Club Play chart, but it remains a mystery why it didn’t do any better on the pop charts. Supremes fans could at least take solace that it added to the group’s run of Top 40 hits, becoming the first since 1972’s “Automatically Sunshine” to peak so high. Led by thumping congas courtesy Eddie “Bongo” Brown and a stratospheric vocal by Scherrie Payne, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” is a terrific dance cut, easily one of the best recorded by The Supremes and probably one of the best ever released by Motown. Much of the credit for the song’s success must go to the bright, snappy production and the crisp, singable melody; unlike some other disco cuts recorded by The Supremes (and many other artists, to be fair), this song doesn’t rely on a beat to cover a lack of musicality. The lyrics here can be seen as a forerunner to the 1978 monster hit “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor; both songs share an assertive message of independence and moving on from a failed relationship, although in this case the narrator is the one doing the leaving (incidentally, Dino Fekaris, one of the writers of “I Will Survive,” had previously worked at Motown and provided The Supremes and Four Tops with several songs the their 1971 joint LP The Return of the Magnificent Seven). Scherrie Payne is absolutely the right singer to deliver the message here; her vocal is confident, powerful, and masterfully efficient. Better yet, the Hollands again dubbed Susaye Greene into the mix here, her fluttering soprano adding colorful vocal flourishes; her sustained high notes during the climax at 2:30 are spine-tingling. Again, although the song should have climbed even higher than #40 on the pop chart, it was a huge hit in the clubs; in its year-end issue, Billboard listed this song at #24 on a chart of disco tunes with the biggest audience response in 1976. “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” remains irresistible to this day.
3. Only You (Can Love Me Like You Love Me): Blaring horns announce the entrance of the next song, a sexy cut that’s sparked by a superb lead vocal from Scherrie Payne. Aside from boasting powerful pipes and an impressive range, Payne is also clearly capable of producing some really interesting tones, as demonstrated by her opening lines here; her breathy delivery is unlike anything we’ve heard from her before on a Supremes recording. The beat charges forward with an urban edge, as if the electricity of New York is pulsing through the track; in a way, it foreshadows the 1979 Crusaders hit “Street Life” in the way it seems to musically interpret the swagger of a city (by the way, musician Joe Sample, who plays keyboards on High Energy, was a founding member of The Crusaders and co-wrote “Street Life”). Payne’s elastic vocal gets better and better as the number unfolds and she pleads, “Come on, love me now!” — there are times when the singer sounds a bit like Stephanie Mills in the way her voice bursts forth and skyrockets over the track. Meanwhile, the singer is supported by perfectly delivered background vocals, with every Supreme offering up an engaging, energetic performance. This cut also features really nice guitar solo at 2:00; it doesn’t last long, but it’s a great addition to the song, adding a little complexity to the repetitive disco arrangement. I’m not sure who the featured guitarist is, but Ray Parker, Jr. (of future “Ghostbusters” fame) is one of the credited players on the LP; given his superb work on so many albums of the era, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that’s him on the solo. While “Only You (Can Love Me Like You Love Me)” may not be a particularly original disco tune, it’s a really good one; it’s certainly only of the best inclusions on High Energy, and would have made a solid follow-up single to “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” had one been issued.
4. You Keep Me Moving On: Not to be confused with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” a #1 hit for The Supremes back in 1966, this track was written by the Holland brothers along with Richard Davis and Hugh Wyche. Think of this a “trial run” for the later Supremes single “You’re My Driving Wheel” (which would lead off the group’s next album, Mary, Scherrie & Susaye); both are frenzied, unruly disco cuts which depend on the sheer force of the group’s vocal performances to hold them together. “You Keep Me Moving On” makes strange use of brief, racing musical vamps leading into each verse, which seem to be the musical equivalent of an accelerating car (listen at :21 to hear the first one); unfortunately, these little snippets sound quite cartoonish when listened to today. The rest of the production is standard disco, with the typical chunky beat and slicing strings; the melody is also fairly limited, although it’s elevated by the dependable Miss Payne, who attacks the lyrics in one of her gutsiest readings yet. The song’s greatest strength is in its refrain, which prominently features all three Supremes repeating “Moving, moving, moving, moving/Moving on!” It’s not the most poetic thing the Hollands ever wrote, but it is catchy; it’s also nice to hear Mary, Scherrie, and Cindy really belt out the words, each unique vocal tone clearly audible. Aside from the vocal performances, however, this just isn’t a particularly interesting cut to listen to; it probably got people dancing back in the day (which was it’s purpose, after all), but it doesn’t stand up against the preceding two tracks, which both boast a clearer musical identity.
5. Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You: The album’s seconds side shifts focus away from disco and the raging vocals of Scherrie Payne; “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” is the first of three Mary Wilson-fronted ballads in a row, a trio of songs which drains energy from High Energy but at least provides a nice (and literal) change of pace. This song was written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and notable musician Richard Wylie (a Motown recording artist, himself) and had been recorded by Dionne Warwick for her 1973 album Just Being Myself, which was also produced by H-D-H. Warwick’s version of the somber ballad was already arguably overproduced (AllMusic notes the “piping trumpets and cascading strings” of the album), and the Hollands ratchet it up a notch here, surrounding Mary Wilson a swirling storm of phased keyboards, church bells, sweeping violins, and a rather clunky wind instrument section. It’s a lot to take in at first, but once the track quiets down a bit, it becomes clear just how good this song is; it’s a really satisfying soul ballad, with memorable lyrics and a pretty melody, and it finds a good match in Miss Wilson as vocalist. Mary’s vocal is extremely controlled here, relaxed during the verses and passionate on the refrain, and she manages to just stay out front enough to not get swallowed up in the overblown arrangement. Wilson’s leads as a Supreme have been a bit inconsistent up to this point, but this is easily one of the strongest; she displays a lot of soul in this performance, but never seems to be pushing too hard or singing beyond her range. There’s also some lovely texture to her voice; I love the way her voice sounds slightly frayed at 1:31, as she sings the word “find,” giving the lyric another layer of resignation and melancholy. It should be noted that an alternate mix first surfaced on The 70s Anthology, released in 2002, and it’s light years better; the instrumental is toned down considerably, placing even more attention on Wilson’s lead and the crisp, effective background vocals. It’s too bad that wasn’t the mix included on the original album release; as it is, this is one of the best songs on the album, but the alternate mix is one of the standouts of the entire Supremes discography.
6. Till The Boat Sails Away/I Don’t Want To Lose You: Although compact disc and digital download reissues of High Energy split these into two selections, the original album release listed this pair of songs as a single track on the album label, and the two are musically connected by the producers so that one seamlessly flows into the next. “Till The Boat Sails Away” was penned by the Hollands, Harold Beatty, and Barry Payne; it’s a slow, meandering ballad that lacks the focus of the previous cut, not to mention a particularly strong melody or lyric. The producers start the track with the sound of rolling ocean waves; it’s a nice touch, and gives way to another Middle Eastern-inspired flourish which harkens back to the album’s opening track. The problems begin when Mary Wilson starts singing; the arrangement is so incredibly slow and bland that she sounds like she’s drowning in those ocean waves. The song desperately needs a singer with a more buoyant voice, one to lightly bob around the melody instead of dragging it down; unfortunately, Wilson’s dusky alto just can’t get the job done, even when she’s singing with more power toward the song’s climax. Again she’s not helped much by the material; with all due respect to the talented writers and producers, this one sounds more like a syrupy Carpenters b-side than a production meant for The Supremes. Eventually the tracks fades into nothing but the sound of a tolling bell, which immediately bleeds into the lush “I Don’t Want To Lose You,” a song penned by Philadelphia soul legends Thom Bell and Linda Creed and recorded by The Spinners for the 1975 LP Pick Of The Litter; it was featured as the b-side of that group’s fabulous #1 R&B hit “Games People Play.” Produced by Bell for The Spinners, “I Don’t Want To Lose You” was a stripped-down, keyboard-heavy ballad; The Hollands wrap the entire thing up in a warm, fuzzy sweater of symphonic strings. It’s a beautiful production, but again, once Mary Wilson starts singing, things go downhill; in this case, the singer gives a performance so unadorned and low-key that it barely registers. Aside from her spoken whispers throughout the song, there doesn’t seem to be even a glimmer of passion in Wilson’s delivery; for someone who practically defines the word “smolder,” it’s a disappointment. It’s also a shame that with a Philly soul song like this, tailor-made for gorgeous group work, the vocal arrangement skimps on three-part harmony; the backgrounds are mainly quick, staccato echoes that don’t make use of the trio’s talent and only really come alive at the very end. A year later, singer Phyllis Hyman would cover this song on her debut album; it’s a spectacular version and demonstrates just how good the song is. The best thing about this version is the beautiful instrumental track and the way the producers delicately tie it together with the preceding song, but those elements aren’t enough to keep it from being a low point on High Energy.
7. You’re What’s Missing In My Life: Here’s the good news — after Mary Wilson practically sleepwalks through the previous medley of ballads, she wakes up and brings tremendous grit and energy to this great disco cut, arranged as a duet with the fiery Scherrie Payne. Written by the Hollands and Harold Beatty again, the song begins with a series of fluttering musical flourishes that work in the context of the “symphony” concept of the album, but otherwise sound unnecessary. But once the track opens up, it becomes an upbeat, jazzy soul number irresistible both on and off the dancefloor. The musicians are really popping here; from the funky bassline to the sparkling keyboards, there’s a real joy and sophistication in the playing that immediately elevates the track. When Miss Wilson begins singing, she absolutely tears into the material; her “I thought the I was fulfilled” at 1:06 is so powerful it would be easy to confuse her for Scherrie. In fact, as the ladies trade lines back and forth, it’s a bit difficult to tell them apart, which is a huge complement to both. The melody is strong here, and paired with snappy, eloquent lyrics impossible not to sing along with; lines such as, “I had a hunger I never knew/Until we loved and you fed it” could have come straight from one of the classic H-D-H songs of the 1960s. In the end, “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” emerges as the strongest cut on High Energy after the album’s first (and only) single; it’s incredible that Motown wouldn’t think to release this song in the wake of the Top 40 success of “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.” Instead, Motown singer G.C. Cameron (former lead singer of The Spinners, and the man who led that group’s 1970 hit “It’s A Shame”) got it as a single; a cover of the song would become the title track of his 1977 album produced by Brian Holland. Cameron’s version is great; his throaty vocals recall Marvin Gaye a bit, and he really sinks his teeth into the melody. Both versions demonstrate the overall strength of the song; it’s too bad The Supremes didn’t get the chance to take it to the charts, too.
The AllMusic review of High Energy calls it “perhaps the most vigorous (and best) album of [The Supremes’] latter-day career,” and many fans will likely agree with that assessment. It’s a cohesive, opulent set with top-notch production and instrumental work; the way little orchestral riffs tie many of the songs together is really sophisticated. But there are a few clunkers here, and the vocal work is uneven; it’s a solid album, but it doesn’t quite transcend the disco genre, largely because of that unevenness. Interestingly, another song recorded during these sessions, “There’s Room At The Top,” was left in the vaults and wouldn’t find release until 2002’s The 70s Anthology; it’s a great song, and could have replaced one of the weaker cuts here. Still, High Energy delivered a measure of success that The Supremes hadn’t experienced in quite some time, and led to an immediate return date to the studio with the Holland brothers — a move that would result in an even better album.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (The Hollands Deliver Much-Needed “Energy”)
Paul’s Picks: “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking,” “You’re What’s Missing In My Life,” “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You”