“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 & Susaye; it 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.