“Together we stand, hand in hand…”
“‘You’re My Driving Wheel’ is the new single by the Supremes from their forthcoming album titled, ‘Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.’ The record on the Motown label sounds like a hit. This is probably the funkiest thing the girls have ever done,” raved Tom Moulton in his “Disco Mix” column in Billboard (November 6, 1976), giving fans plenty of reason to be optimistic about the trio’s latest release. The new album came just six months after the release of High Energy, the most successful Supremes project in years; that album had been produced by Brian Holland and executive produced by his brother, Eddie, and it brought the trio a Top 40 hit and dance smash with “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.” Rather than follow that song with another single from High Energy, the producers quickly assembled this new album and released “You’re My Driving Wheel” as the lead single.
“For the title of what was to be our final album we chose Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, to give ourselves some individual name recognition,” says Mary Wilson in the liner notes to The 70s Anthology, a move that makes sense given that Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene were the eighth and ninth women to become official Supremes. Greene was the newest, replacing Cindy Birdsong in early 1976; her voice had been dubbed onto two of High Energy‘s tracks, but this would be her first full LP with the group. In Susaye Greene, the Hollands were given a different kind of Supreme to work with; her multi-octave range and unique tone provided some interesting opportunities for new sounds and vocal blends. Both Payne and Greene were also accomplished songwriters, although neither got the chance to write for the group; interestingly, a week after “You’re My Driving Wheel” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, the Susaye Greene-penned “Free” (by Deniece Williams) followed it there, charting one position higher.
What nobody knew when Mary, Scherrie & Susaye hit store shelves in October was that it would be the final studio album from The Supremes, ending a storied career at Motown that began in January of 1961. Like the group’s very first album, 1962’s Meet The Supremes, this one didn’t even make the album charts, and its singles only scraped the lowest reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. “I was frustrated and disappointed,” wrote Mary Wilson in The 70s Anthology. “It was time to do something.” That something, of course, was to go solo; Wilson left the group less than a year after the release of this album, and eventually Payne and Greene abandoned the “Supremes” name, too, releasing a joint album on Motown of their own compositions. It would be a quiet end to the group which had undeniably changed the course of popular music history, breaking down barriers for artists of color and women and inspiring generations to come.
The real shame is that Mary, Scherrie & Susaye is one of the most interesting and experimental albums to ever come from the group; it’s perhaps not as sonically seamless as High Energy, but it takes far more risks, giving the trio of singers challenging material and using their voices in clever, unusual ways. Ironically, the three songs which got the most attention (“You’re My Driving Wheel,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good”) are the most formulaic on the album, all three the kind of frenzied disco recordings one would expect of the era. But the deep cuts are the ones that really stand out, proving that this latest (and final) incarnation of The Supremes was capable of delivering exciting performances which could have evolved the group further, had it been given the chance.
1. You’re My Driving Wheel: The album’s first single and most recognizable song, this was released on September 30, 1976; listed together with “Let Yourself Go” and “Love I Never Knew,” the song ended up peaking at #5 on the National Disco chart in Billboard in January of 1977 (incidentally, labelmate Thelma Houston held the top spot at the time with “Don’t Leave Me This Way”/”Anyway You Like It” and Stevie Wonder was at #3 with “Another Star”/”I Wish”/”Sir Duke”/”Isn’t She Lovely”). Written by Brian Holland, Reginald Brown, Stafford Floyd, and Harold Beatty, “You’re My Driving Wheel” is a banging, breathless song that starts out zooming at 100 miles per hour and never lets up; the track is the musical equivalent of a car careening out of control on a winding mountain road. The arrangement is marked by thunderous work on the keyboards and the punctuations of a terrific funk brass section; all of it, of course, set atop a racing beat tailor-made for disco clubs. Scherrie Payne takes the lead and unleashes the full power of her pipes, blasting her way through the track like a stick of dynamite. Miss Payne has a skillful, crisp way of delivering lyrics, enunciating each word while never losing momentum, which makes her a perfect fit for this kind of rapid-paced production; although her tone is thick and gutsy, there’s enough lightness to her voice to keep her from getting swamped by the very busy instrumental track. Of course, she’s well-supported by Mary and Susaye, who absolutely belt behind her, practically screaming out the words, “You’re my driving wheel!” Greene, in particular, adds in a lot of nice little flourishes, using her voice like an instrument and contributing to the tapestry of sounds. It’s not hard to understand why this song did so well in clubs at the time; it spent several months on both the national and regional disco charts. That said, it’s also not that hard to understand why it didn’t do so well at radio; “You’re My Driving Wheel” peaked at a dismal #85 on the Billboard Hot 100, and only managed #50 on the R&B side. The issue, I think, it how cluttered and frantic the whole thing is; there’s absolutely no breathing room here, and it’s exhausting to listen to without any real valleys to balance out the peaks. Something like this works for the dancefloor, of course, but not necessarily elsewhere.
2. Sweet Dream Machine: A sultry, low-key number with elements of funk and jazz laced into the danceable track, this is one of the album’s clear highlights; although it never seems to have shown up on any of Billboard‘s regional disco charts, I imagine it got some play, as it’s hard to imagine clubs ignoring this sterling cut. Led off by quivering vibes and slowly intensifying beat, the musicians here offer up some sweet, jazzy flourishes before Scherrie Payne begins singing, her voice hushed to a sexy whisper. Payne is beautifully controlled in her delivery, once again displaying a real gift for interpreting lyrics in a crisp, concise way. Mary Wilson takes over on the second verse, singing with the kind of gutsy soul she’d displayed on “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” from High Energy; Wilson has commented that the addition of Susaye Greene to the group helped her feel more “free” in her singing, and this is the first indication of increased risk-taking from the singer on Mary, Scherrie & Susaye. Although Greene doesn’t have any solo parts on “Sweet Dream Machine,” her presence is more than felt with her superb background work and some nice stand-out vocal moments, like her sustained high note at 3:38. All three Supremes strongly contribute to the success of the song, but in the end, it’s the gorgeous production that sets it apart; this is a classy, elegant recording that transcends the boundaries of disco with its fabulous instrumental track and smart arrangement. Written by the Hollands and Harold Beatty, there’s a great bridge starting at 2:07 which sounds like an updated version of the kind of musical break one would expect from a 1960s Motown hit, and the final minute-and-a-half of the song’s running time is taken up by the hypnotic repetition of “You’re into me/I’m into you/Wooo!/Sweet Dream Machine” (also notice the muted male voice that surfaces during this final section, a great touch). “Sweet Dream Machine” is a terrific addition to the album, and still sounds fresh today.
3. Let Yourself Go: Though this isn’t one of the more familiar Supremes songs, it is one for the history books; when “Let Yourself Go” was issued on January 25, 1977, it became the final single ever released by the group in the United States, capping off a singles discography that stretched back to March 9, 1961 and the release of “I Want A Guy.” Sadly, like that first single, “Let Yourself Go” missed the Billboard Hot 100 completely, although it managed to just squeak onto the R&B chart at #83 and topped out at #5 on the National Disco Action Top 40 chart, listed alongside “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good.” As with this album’s first single (“You’re My Driving Wheel”), this is a densely-produced, frenzied disco cut that speeds out of the gate and never looks back. Scherrie Payne again takes the lead, and she sounds terrific; “Let Yourself Go” features a feel-good lyric and boasts a strong melody (written by the Hollands and Beatty, again), and Payne sells both with ease. The problem is that the melody and lyric get lost a bit in the frantic production; there is absolutely no wiggle room here, and the track is so thick with sound that it’s hard to step back and appreciate the musicality of the song. Compare it, for a moment, with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a huge hit at the same time for labelmate Thelma Houston; Houston’s recording is equally hard-hitting, but there’s space left in the track, and enough musical variation that it allows listeners to appreciate more than just a thumping beat. It’s ironic that a song which urges listeners to “relax” and “hang loose” doesn’t follow its own edict; “Let Yourself Go” is a strong production, but had it been loosened up just a little bit, it could have been even better.
4. Come Into My Life: The Hollands, along with co-writer Richard Davis, seem to anticipate the Motown arrival of Rick James with this starkly modern cut, filled with eerie electronic sounds atop a bongo-driven beat. The producers wisely give the song to Susaye Greene, who leads with a sexy confidence and shows off her range with some wild high notes; the way the Hollands blend those high notes into whistling synthesizer work is pure genius. Greene’s voice is wholly unique within the Supremes realm; there’s a sulky, kittenish quality to her delivery (she sounds like she’s pouting during her first “Darling, Come Into My Life” at 1:46) which sharply contrasts with the maturity inherent in her tone. This makes her a natural fit for this offbeat tune; lyrics that would have sounded generic or phony in another singer’s hands sizzle with energy here. Greene is perfectly backed by Mary Wilson and Scherrie Payne, who seem to be singing from another dimension; the producers wash the backgrounds in heavy echo, so that they seem to be alien voices beamed in from an icy planet. Every element here defies the odds by working together perfectly; what probably should have been a weird mess ends up becoming the most dazzling cut on the entire album, and a song which should have injected The Supremes with renewed energy. It did apparently gain some decent club play; the song showed up on the regional disco chart for Philadelphia in Billboard‘s January 15, 1977 issue, and the trio performed it on the popular television show Soul Train. It’s too bad Motown chose to focus what little attention it gave to Mary, Scherrie & Susaye on the album’s more predictable dance recordings; this song is the one that deserves to be remembered and rediscovered.
5. We Should Be Closer Together: How do you top the weird, wild groove of “Come Into My Life”? You don’t. You follow it with a smooth, creamy ballad featuring an arrangement so gorgeous it’s almost heartbreaking to listen to, and you let Mary Wilson finally deliver the ballad performance fans always knew she was capable of giving. “We Should Be Closer Together” is credited to a slate of names that will be familiar to fans of both The Supremes and/or Motown; the song was written by Brian Holland, Janie Bradford, Freddie Gorman, and Barbara Gaines. Bradford, of course, is the woman who apparently came up with the name “Supremes,” having given founding member Florence Ballard a list of several possible names from which to choose back in 1961; Gorman, meanwhile, was a member of vocal group The Originals and co-wrote “I Want A Guy,” which became the first-ever Supremes single, released in 1961. With that kind of artistic muscle, you’d hope that “We Should Be Closer Together” would be a song fit for Motown’s top female vocal group, and it is; it’s surely one of the label’s best ballads of the decade. Arranged by the great James Carmichael, the song consists of a gauzy, easy-going instrumental that seems to be shrouded in fog; various sounds swell and fade into the track, creating a rich tapestry of sound upon which Mary Wilson places an accomplished lead vocal. Although Wilson must be ranked as one of the best harmony singers in the business, her record as a lead vocalist had been a little spotty up until this point; she excelled at the right material, but her misty voice was also vulnerable to sounding “competent yet colorless,” as John Lowe wrote in his AllMusic review of this album. That’s not the case here; Wilson mints a nicely restrained performance, and she’s helped out by Susaye Greene, who adds her emotional soprano to several key moments in the song. The real star here, though, is the beautiful production; it virtually lays the blueprint for the airy ballads later made famous by Janet Jackson and her frequent collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, particularly in the achingly lovely final minute-and-a-half. “We Should Be Closer Together” is easily among the very ballads recorded by the 70s Supremes, and is a high water mark for Mary Wilson during her years as a Supreme; had the song come just a few years later, it probably could have gained plenty of spins at Quiet Storm radio.
6. I Don’t Want To Be Tied Down: This is the third knockout cut in a row; in terms of pure, hard-driving disco tracks on Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, this is the best. It did gain some club play; it made the regional disco charts for Miami, New York, and Atlanta in Billboard, generally listed along with “Let Yourself Go” and “You’re My Driving Wheel,” and it was named a standout track in the magazine’s so-so review of the album in November of 1976. It’s a shame Motown didn’t jump on this cut as the first single and really push it to radio; the crisp, funky production probably would have appealed to a broad audience of disco fans, soul lovers, and pop music buyers. There are similarities here to first single “You’re My Driving Wheel,” but this is a more evenly-paced track; it’s got a hard-edge and angular rhythm, but never loses itself in a breathless beat. Scherrie Payne gives a S-T-A-R performance, deserving of every single capital letter; she swaggers through the song with what is perhaps her toughest vocal as a Supreme, tearing into each verse and chorus as if she wrote the words herself. Listen to the singer at 1:21, as she sings, “A domesticated life, hey/I ain’t ready for it, yet” and then follows the words with a gut-wrenching, “No!” — it’s one of the most thrilling moments on the entire album, and she does it again just as effectively a minute later. Payne’s groupmates ably back her up, but this is really Scherrie’s recording from start to finish; it’s impossible to listen to this cut now and not wonder why the singer didn’t enjoy a bevy of solo hits following her time with The Supremes. Beyond that, there’s a refreshing message of assertiveness in the song, which comes as a nice balance to the many years of “Please don’t leave me” and “Come see about me” begging by The Supremes; these ladies aren’t yearning or burning for anything except independence.
7. You Are The Heart Of Me: This is probably one of the best known latter-day Supremes cuts, thanks to the fact that it closed out the group’s fabulous 2000 four-disc box set and was performed by the trio a few times on television in promotion of this album (with what Don Cornelius of Soul Train called “some of the most unusual choreography that you’ll ever see.”). Interestingly, the song wasn’t written for The Supremes; it had already been recorded by Dionne Warwick back in 1973 for the singer’s Holland-Dozier-Holland-produced LP Just Being Myself, which also featured her version of “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” (covered by The Supremes on High Energy). As with the previous “We Should Be Closer Together,” this is a lushly-crafted ballad tailored to Mary Wilson’s straightforward alto; it’s a tighter song than the album’s other soul ballad, which is probably why the group chose to perform this one on television, but it doesn’t quite capture the same dreamy feeling. The subtle differences begin right at the beginning, with a stark opening that lends the recording an unexpected coolness; although sweet strings take over, the orchestration never reaches the level of rapture one would expect for a song which declares, “You’re everything to me” over and over again. Despite some orgasmic moans in the middle of the song, Mary Wilson never quite seems to hit that level of rapture, either; she delivers a fine, professional performance, but it comes off as too calculated to be completely engaging. The flatness of this central performance also leads the song to feel repetitive; and the singer loosened up just a little bit (think about her tremendous live performance of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on In Japan!), it would have really helped sell the unabashed romanticism of the song’s message. This isn’t to say “You Are The Heart Of Me” is a bad recording; I imagine it remains a favorite for many longtime Supremes fans. In the end, though, its unusual orchestration and restrained vocals probably would have worked better on the trio’s previous LP, High Energy.
8. Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good: “[This] is the strongest cut, with the group at its vocal best. There is a drive to this cut that is not only overwhelming, but also reveals a whole new dimension to the Supremes,” raved Tom Moulton in his Billboard “Disco Mix” column (November 20, 1976), and he’s certainly justified in calling this song’s drive “overwhelming.” Mary, Scherrie & Susaye closes out exactly as it opened, with a recording that gallops forward with a fiery intensity; it forms a kind of trilogy with “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Let Yourself Go” as densely packed tracks aimed squarely at the dancefloor. It’s no surprise that this song hit #5 on the National Disco Action Top 40 chart (with the pair of aforementioned songs); it’s an easy one with which to work up a sweat. That said, it falls into the same trap as the other two songs, packing so much into its running time that it’s hard to focus on anything aside from the pounding beat. Thank God for Scherrie Payne, who once again plows through the lead vocal with awe-inspiring power and precision; she’s joined by Mary Wilson and Susaye Green for some great harmonies, too, something this album could have used more of. But Payne really has to work not to be swallowed up by the dense musical track; it’s a thick, noisy recording, and the melody (with a refrain reminiscent of that featured on the far-superior “You’re What’s Missing In My Life,” from High Energy) just isn’t memorable enough to compete. Certainly this song did what it was meant to do, which was to get people dancing in the clubs; unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up particularly well next to some of the more experimental material on the album.
The Supremes didn’t last long following the release of Mary, Scherrie & Susaye; when the album failed to chart following its October, 1976 release, Mary Wilson and her husband, Supremes managed Pedro Ferrer, made the decision that Wilson would go solo. During a group appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1977, Wilson commented that Marvin Gaye would produce an album for her, and that she was “doing a solo album for now and we’ll see what God and everyone has in store for us.” The group’s final performance together came on June 12, 1977 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, during which Wilson told the crowd, “I do hope that you will give all your support, all the wonderful love you’ve given The Supremes all these years, to both Scherrie and Susaye in their endeavor, because they will be going on as The Supremes.”
Payne and Greene, of course, did not end up continuing on with the group; after a period of uncertainty, the duo released an album called Partners on Motown in 1979, the same year Wilson released her own solo album on the label (produced by Hal Davis, not Marvin Gaye). It was a fairly quiet, unceremonious end to one of the most influential groups in music history, a far cry from the protracted extravaganza afforded the trio when Diana Ross left for a solo career in 1970. Still, the music lives on; Mary, Scherrie & Susaye would finally get a CD and digital release in 2011, with the issue of Let Yourself Go: The 70s Albums, Vol. 2: 1974-1977 — The Final Sessions. In reviewing the package for the BBC online, Daryl Easlea called this album a “minor masterpiece,” affording it a measure of respect it had often been denied. Does this album equal the brilliance of More Hits By The Supremes or The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart or Love Child? Of course not. But very few albums do. It is, however, an accomplished, unique addition to a catalog that deserves far more attention than it’s ever been given.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Sweet” Studio Farewell)
Paul’s Picks: “Come Into My Life,” “We Should Be Closer Together,” “I Don’t Want To Be Tied Down: