At Their Best (1978)

“If you give love a chance, I’ll do the best I can…”

Although the 70s Supremes were never afforded a lavish, Farewell-style final recording marking the end of the group’s tenure on Motown Records, the trio did get a “greatest hits” collection, released in the United States in June of 1978.  At Their Best features a brief collection of ten tracks, covering the group’s output from 1970’s Right On through 1976’s Mary, Scherrie & Susayeit would be issued abroad with an expanded lineup of fourteen songs.  The set was most notable for including a never-bef0re-released track, “The Sha-La Bandit,” with Scherrie Payne on lead vocals; also making the cut were “Love Train,” led by Jean Terrell and previously only available on an English Motown compilation, and the non-LP single “Bad Weather,” written and produced by Stevie Wonder back in 1973.

The tracklist from AT THEIR BEST, as released in the United States

Interestingly, The Supremes weren’t “officially” disbanded when At Their Best hit shelves — at least, not openly.  Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene planned to continue on as Supremes after the departure of Mary Wilson in June of 1977; Wilson urged fans to continue supporting the group during her farewell performance as a Supreme.  However, just a few months later, Wilson embarked in a legal fight with Motown over the use of the name “Supremes,” effectively putting her solo plans and likely any plans for Scherrie and Susaye on hold.  Finally, in mid-1979, Wilson moved forward with her solo project and told Billboard, “There’ll probably never be another Supremes, unless Motown and I agree that there should be one” (September 22, 1979).  Around the same time, Scherrie and Susaye released a joint album on Motown called Partners, ending any speculation that the two would carry on as Supremes.

At Their Best, then, basically became the group’s “Greatest Hits Volume 4,” following the 1967 double-LP Greatest Hits and the 1969 single disc Greatest Hits Volume 3.  Unfortunately, limiting the setlist to ten tracks means some notable singles were left off, not to mention several much-loved album cuts; “River Deep, Mountain High” doesn’t show up, for example, even though it was a Top 20 hit in 1970, and the United States pressing doesn’t include the Top 40 single “Automatically Sunshine.”  Still, the addition of the three then-rare tracks certainly made the set worthwhile to fans, and the it remains a decent (if visually unappealing — there’s not a single photo of any of the group members on the packaging!) sampler of an unappreciated decade for the world’s top female recording group.

***

(NOTE: Below are discussions of the three tracks previously unavailable on a Supremes LP; the other inclusions can be found on previous album releases covered on this site.)

Billboard: July 8, 1978

The Sha-La Bandit:  In the years since the release of At Their Best, fans have been treated to various versions of “The Sha-La Bandit,” a superb outtake from the sessions for 1975’s The Supremes; this version is led by Scherrie Payne, but there is a mix that includes a shared lead vocal from Scherrie, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong.  In any rendition, this is a standout song, and it’s strange that it didn’t make the group’s 1975 LP; the cut was produced by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford, who turned in every one of that album’s highlights, and should have handled the entire album.  “The Sha-La Bandit” was penned by Jerry Lang Ferguson and Wade Davis, Sr., and it’s been recorded by several artists, including Aretha Franklin and The Thymes (Franklin’s version was issued on her 1975 album You, released just a few months after the Supremes LP came out).  The song is a playful mid-tempo number with elements of pop, soul, doo-wop, and even a nod to country & western music in its lyric of a “bandit from Westchester County.”  On this particular mix, Payne offers up a dynamite vocal, smooth and sexy from beginning to end; she keeps the focus squarely on the descriptive lyrics, while also taking a few opportunities to flex her considerable vocal muscle.  Behind her, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong lay down a batch of backgrounds that come out like homemade whipped cream; there is something inherently polished and sophisticated about the combination of Payne-Wilson-Birdsong, and it’s on full display here.  As good as the song is, the At Their Best mix is perhaps the weakest of those released; the instrumental is toned down, and the final key change isn’t handled very well.  Still, it’s a terrific recording, and a welcome addition to this compilation.

Billboard: April 13, 1973

Bad Weather:  “Michael Leslie and the students at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., want to know what’s happening here in the U.S.  Is someone sleeping on the job?  Their plea is: ‘Please don’t lose this hit.'”  So wrote Julian Coleman in his “Soul Sauce” column in the May 12, 1973 issue of Billboard, referring to “Bad Weather” by The Supremes.  Released as a single on March 22, 1973, expectations were high for the song; it was written and produced by Stevie Wonder, who was then riding high with his groundbreaking album Talking Book.  It’s no coincidence that Wonder ended up in the studio with The Supremes; then-member Lynda Laurence had sung backup for Wonder, and her brother, Ira Tucker, Jr., co-wrote the song.  Reviews were immediately positive; New Musical Express proclaimed, “In a week filled with revolting dross of all possible description, the arrival of something like this gives me new faith in humanity, and new optimism for the future.”  The single managed to make the UK Top 40, but it bombed in the states, peaking at #87 on the Billboard Hot 100, the group’s worst showing on that chart since “My Heart Can’t Take It No More” stalled at #129 in 1963.  One issue is that “Bad Weather” likely came a little ahead of its time; it’s a pre-disco dancefloor workout, arranged as a bold, blaring statement for lead singer Jean Terrell.  Wonder’s track is a rollercoaster of horns, funky guitars, and ear-piercing whistles; Terrell rides the ups and downs of the instrumental bed with skillful perfection, her vocal a plaintive masterpiece.  The recording is also an opportunity for fans to hear Lynda Laurence, whose voice had been swamped by additional singers on The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb; Laurence possesses a soulful, brassy voice which is used for some nice flourishes here.  Although the song divides some fans today, it’s hard to believe it didn’t do better in the United States; it’s easily the best single released by the group since “Nathan Jones,” and it deserved far more success than it ultimately found.

Billboard: April 7, 1973

Love Train:  This classic song was originally a huge hit for The O’Jays in early 1973; written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, it topped both the pop and R&B charts and foreshadowed the coming wave of disco much in the same way that “Bad Weather” did.  This version features Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Lynda Laurence; Wilson remembers it being cut around the same time as “Bad Weather,” which means it was likely recorded at the same time the song was peaking for The O’Jays.  Interestingly, this version was produced by Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston; Wilson had been the architect of the 70s Supremes sound, helping songs for the group’s 1970 LP Right On and then entirely producing follow-ups New Ways But Love Stays and Touch before moving on to work with Motown singer Eddie Kendricks.  Wilson and Caston keep their arrangement basically the same as that of The O’Jays recording; both are set to a driving, appropriately locomotive beats, and feature ringing three-part harmony on the refrains.  In this case, Jean Terrell leads the song with a soulful, light-as-air performance that feels completely effortless, and her harmony with Mary and Lynda is a joy to listen to.  The issue is that this version is too slick and polished, something that translates to a lack of excitement; it would have been nice to hear all three ladies dig into the material a little further, adding some funky flourishes to give their version its own identity.  As it is, this “Love Train” is a thoroughly competent recording, but it’s nothing that wasn’t already done better.

***

At Their Best ended up not even charting on the Billboard 200, something unsurprising given the tumult surrounding the name “Supremes” within Motown at the time.  Later, these ten tracks would be added to the 2-CD compilation Gold, a Supremes retrospective made up of every one of the group’s previously-released Greatest Hits packages.  Although At Their Best includes all the biggest hits, it does do the group a disservice by condensing nearly a decade’s worth of material into a ten-track set; alas, the 70s Supremes really wouldn’t get their due until the 2002 release of The 70s Anthology, a double-disc set which featured hits, new mixes, and previously unreleased tracks.  Only with such an expansive set could the 70s Supremes truly be shown at their best.

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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15 Responses to At Their Best (1978)

  1. david h says:

    I was just curious if you were going to review this album and after a long day at work, I get to relax and read . thank you.
    I always thought Sha La Bandit was a stand out track and still surprised that it didn’t find it was on the Supremes 75, but then again, this is when MW wanted the group to center around her as evident by the amount of leads on that album. to many imo.
    but this was a nice surprise back in 78.
    I liked Love Train but I think the backing vocals are pushed to far in the background. there are times I feel Jean is singing back up for herself. the backing vocals needed more punch.
    Bad Weather….took me a while to like it. it grew on me. personally I think its overproduced…to many horns …think a different mix would have been better. it doesn’t make me want to get up and dance. now Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking…great feel to it. makes you want to shake ur groove thing.
    I do like the lyrics and vocals….it just seems to chug along…and along. I do like the version on the Box set that has the fade out fade in. would love to have this song get a remix.
    I do agree that some gems are left off. disappointing but we got the other three instead. I suppose they thought this would be a selling point.
    thanks again for making my night,

    • pnyc1969 says:

      It’s true that starting with the Touch album Mary was in the spotlight often. It doesn’t correspond with her claims that she was ignored and disrespected at Motown or that Berry Gordy all but sabotaged her. Maybe in that kind of career the standard is different and she was neglected relative to other top acts. Or maybe she really didn’t know what she wanted. I’ve read her books–I may read them again–and I’ve found Mary to be a really complex and interesting person. I love Bad Weather. Getting Stevie Wonder to write it may be Linda’s greatest contribution to the group. I can’t believe it didn’t do better. It’s so close to disco yet about a year before this type of music hit.

      • Paul says:

        I have to say — throughout researching the 70s Supremes for this project, it has become more and more clear to be that the group wasn’t nearly as ignored by Motown as many fans claim today. This isn’t to say The Supremes got the promotion they did in the 1960s — of course they didn’t. But Motown clearly had an interest in keeping the group going — if the label didn’t, it could have easily dropped and/or replaced them. The label continued to take out full-page ads in music trade magazines for the group’s albums and singles, and paired them with talented writers and producers. I think the biggest issue was that Motown was stretched to the limit in the early 70s in terms of resources, which is something that affected EVERY artist. LADY SINGS THE BLUES was a bigger hit than anyone at Motown could have imagined — and it forced the company’s attention on movies, resulting in a lack of action for the label’s music acts. The Supremes (and Motown in general) also faced far more competition in the 1970s from other groups and labels. The Honey Cone, The Three Degrees, Love Unlimited, The Pointer Sisters, Labelle, etc. all surfaced throughout the decade and gave The Supremes a kind of competition the group had never experienced. Certainly the constant changes within the group and with managers didn’t help, either. In all, a combination of factors led to the group’s changing chart fortunes — and it’s unfortunate that it there wasn’t a period of consistency starting with MARY, SCHERRIE & SUSAYE, because I think the group clicked on that album as something new and exciting.

    • Paul says:

      David — I absolutely agree with you that certain songs were left off of THE SUPREMES (1975) and other latter-day albums to make room for Mary Wilson-led recordings. By her own admission, she was really pushing to have her voice out front during this time, something that is understandable from her point of view but did result in sometimes-inferior material being placed on albums. I love Mary Wilson’s voice, and I truly have so much respect for her as an artist and entertainer, but her voice is a specific instrument and doesn’t translate to as wide a variety of material as the voices of other group members, particularly Diana and Scherrie.

  2. Mike S says:

    FYI,
    The 70’s Anthology (2002) precedes Gold (2005) . Your use of the word ‘later’ (1st word, 2nd sentence, last paragraph) might lead one to think that the 70’s Anthology was issued to make up for the lack of tracks via the inclusion of At Their Best (10 tracks) on Gold.

    • Paul says:

      Mike — I’m aware of the released dates — the “later” simply refers to the fact that decades later, Motown basically “re-issued” AT THEIR BEST on the GOLD compilation.

  3. benjaminblue says:

    Before I address some of the earlier albums by The ’70s Supremes, I’ll comment briefly here. The album itself was quite off-putting, in part because it appeared to be slapped together with little thought. Not only was the packaging second-rate, but “Automatically Sunshine,” one of my favorites, was excluded, along with several other worthy cuts. It seemed that Motown was cheating, offering less than we, or for that matter, the Supremes, deserved at that point.

    However, the album did include “Bad Weather,” which I had heard once or twice on TV but never on the radio and had not had a fair chance to evaluate, let alone embrace; still, I considered it as essential as much of the other output from the Jean Terrell period.

    “Love Train” was perfunctory but interesting, as its sound and message were compatible with “Stoned Love” and several other cuts from that era.

    As for “The Sha La Bandit,” you were far too generous. It was nonsensical from the get-go. The tale lacked credibility, a key ingredient of any song. Who believed for an instant that the lead singer actually had this experience (or had spent all that much time in Westchester County)? It was even less convincing than the idea that Jean and Mary both had a relationship with a guy named Floyd in another ridiculous, too-cute-by-half, narrative. Yes, I had been willing to accept the notion that Wanda had a tenuous affair with a guy named Bill, that Martha missed a guy named Jimmy Mack and even that Diana Ross was acting out a role when she proclaimed that she was a love child or that her boyfriend Billie Joe jumped from a bridge — presumably, she knew people who had lived through similar moments — but for the most part, songs that get too specific — including the Diana Ross & The Supremes’ songs “I’m Living In Shame” and the outtake “Treat Me Nice John Henry” or Gladys Knight’s ditty about her daddy, who could swear and react irrationally or, from another ’70s Supremes outtake, that Jean considered suicide, were all too obviously fictional diatribes that tried too hard to sell stories that we all knew were, basically, lies.

    There’s a thin line between gimmicks and lies. The Sha La Bandit was a lie. But there was a real bandit. Motown was taking our money for recycled and sometimes inferior material.

    So I would rate this album at most a 2 on a 10-point scale. The title was dishonest. The album did not present either The ’70s Supremes or Motown at their best.

    • pnyc1969 says:

      I never think of vocalists as being obligated to pass for owners of the stories they sing. I certainly wouldn’t expect an opera or Broadway singer have the experiences in the fanciful stories they sing about. Their job is to provide a good vocal, interpret the lyrics and act the song–“…sing and perform Funny Girl,” for instance. Singer-songwriters are a different story. Since their main role is writing the songs there is an expectation that there is some personal connection, either in their own lives or in something they observed. But these artists are not held to the same standard of vocal skill.

      • Paul says:

        Peter — I think I mainly agree with you. I agree that a singer’s job is to interpret the song to the best of his/her ability. Clearly, sometimes singers are WAY out of their depth when it comes to certain material, and many times artists and material are mismatched. But if a singer can “sell” a performance through ability or enthusiasm it really doesn’t matter if they realistically own the material. “Last Time I Saw Him” comes to mind as an example — do we really ever believe that Diana Ross is a woman who’d jump on a Greyhound Bus? NO WAY. But she offers up such a spirited, committed vocal that it doesn’t really matter.

    • Paul says:

      I understand what you’re saying re: “The Sha-La Bandit” — but I think if the song is strong and the performance is a committed one, a recording can be enjoyed on a purely musical level (aural aesthetics, if you will) without delving too deeply into the realities of the artist/material match. Diana’s “Last Time I Saw Him” is an example of this — I don’t for a second believe that Diana Ross would jump on a Greyhound bus, or even visit a Greyhound station, but she’s so committed to the material and it’s such a spirited recording that it’s enjoyable. “The Sha-La Bandit” is the same — it’s got a strong melody, it’s well-produced, and Scherrie Payne sings the hell out of it. This, to me, makes it a successful recording.

      • pnyc1969 says:

        Exactly, Paul. Betty Buckley’s best known (only known?) song consists of her taking on the role of a world-weary alley cat. That’s obviously about selling a song and Betty is one of the best story tellers of our time. Diana is way up there too. “Last Time” is a great example of it. She’s absolutely adorable on it. She’s also affecting and arresting on “Sleepin’.” Hmmm, could this album be called Diana’s “storytelling album?” Anyway, Paul, I’m getting the impression that Diana and Sherrie are your favorite Supremes. I said earlier in the HE post that I have a but of difficulty wrapping my head around Sherrie and, especially, Susaye, as much as I like them both. They both took the sound in such a different direction. Jean and Lynda kept the kittenish Supremes sound going in the 70s.

        Side note–I hope you’re OK and safe from Irma.

  4. The Avenger says:

    It’s interesting that in UK the 70s Supremes had gotten a greatest hits album at late-end ’73 into ’74 a few months after In Japan had had a limited release. It even used the same cover as In japan, with Greatest hits written instead-which was quite strange! It had 15 tracks and included all the hits, as well as the Four Tops duets and the b-side to UTLTTR Bill, when are you coming back. Also had the Supremes/Four Tops’ b-side Together we can make such sweet music plus Reach out and touch (somebody’s hand) which, along with Diana Ross’ version, had been released in UK as a single. This seemed the perfect time for the album and it really should have been released in US. I think the contract dispute with Mary at this time may have been the reason why, but it would have been a fitting farewell present to Jean Terrell, who had just left the group, having done such a wonderful job as lead singer after Diana Ross.

    In 1977, it was re-released with “featuring Mary Wilson” added, just after the final Drury Lane theatre performance. In the same year, a 2nd greatest hits was released in Holland, which also found its way across Europe and UK (most releases in UK were easily found in Europe and vice-versa) called 20 Super hits, which had 10 songs on side A from the 75-77 period, incl. the singles plus early morning love, you;re what’s missing in my life & come into my life. Side B had 10 songs from 70-73, featuring all the Terrell-led hits, the last being the Four tops duet, River deep-mountain high. Again a fitting, release, with a nice cover, a full length shot of one of the smaller pics from High Energy album. Seeemingly more respect shown to the 70s group internationally than by Motown US !

  5. david h says:

    fyi, there was going to be a hits album in 1973 called gold and featuring bad weather and one for Diana featuring touch me in the morning.both cancelled

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