Dynamite (1971)

“It takes more than just a song and a dance…”

The Summer of 1971 was an exceptionally busy season for The Supremes, as not one but two albums (The Return Of The Magnificent Seven and Touch) hit store shelves in June and new single “Nathan Jones” peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100.  While the group managed a packed schedule of live engagements and promotional appearances, producers were working up yet another batch of tracks for the trio to record with Motown labelmates The Four Tops; these would make up the third and final joint LP for the groups, entitled Dynamite and eventually released in December.  Although the previous two collaborations had been met with middling success (aside from a Top 20 single with “River Deep, Mountain High”), the combination of voices was undeniably potent; both were also working frequently with producer Frank Wilson, which made their pairing a natural one.

Producer Wilson oversaw all three of the Supremes-Four Tops albums, and for this one, shared the reins with artist and producer Bobby Taylor on more than half of the selections.  While The Return Of The Magnificent Seven was heavy on original tunes, this album returns to the formula of 1970’s The Magnificent Sevenutilizing mostly covers from both inside and outside the Motown catalog.  Notable song choices include “Hello Stranger,” which had been a big hit for Barbara Lewis back in 1963, and “Love The One You’re With,” a hit for Stephen Stills in 1970.  Two previous Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duets were also recycled for this album; “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson (although, unlike the previous two Supremes-Four Tops albums, the duo didn’t produce any cuts here) and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” came courtesy producer Johnny Bristol, who also co-wrote the tune.

For whatever reason, Motown released Dynamite without an accompanying single, instead putting out “Floy Joy” by The Supremes the same month and “A Simple Game” by the Four Tops in January of 1972.  The success of “Floy Joy” (#16 on the Billboard Hot 100, #5 R&B) had no impact on this album, which tanked on the charts; its peak of #160 on the Billboard 200 was the worst showing for a Supremes album since Meet The Supremes failed to make the charts way back in 1962!  There was a clear lack of effort on Motown’s part in terms of the packaging; the lame cover art is created from a photo featured on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, and is merely reproduced on the back cover.  But to be fair, even great packaging couldn’t hide just how uneven this album is.  The best inclusions here are arguably the very best joint recordings by the Supremes and Four Tops; unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those to make this a successful collection.

***

Chicago Tribune: June 18, 1971

1.  It’s Impossible:  Not long before The Supremes and Four Tops recorded this song, singer Perry Como had scored a major hit with it; Como’s version spent a month atop the Billboard Easy Listening chart in December of 1970.  “It’s Impossible” is the English translation (by Sid Wayne) of the song “Somos Novios,” originally written and recorded by Armando Manzanero; it’s since been done by everyone from Elvis Presley to Christina Aguilera.  According to Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this version was recorded in both Detroit and Chicago and completed on June 24, 1971; The Supremes were performing in Chicago that month, during a run at The Palmer House, so it’s possible they recorded some vocals in that city (according to Frank Wilson, The Supremes constantly recorded vocals on the road because of their busy touring schedule; the producer has commented that he would cut instrumental tracks and then fly to whatever city the trio happened to be performing in to record their vocals).  Producers Wilson and Bobby Taylor give “It’s Impossible” a brassy makeover here; I think the intent is light-funk (as was the treatment given to the song by New Birth, who also recorded it in 1971), but there’s a Vegas-quality in the arrangement that just can’t be ignored.  That’s not to say it’s a bad recording; it’s not the most exciting thing ever recorded by The Supremes and Tops, but it’s a solid album opener, with very nice vocal work by both groups.  Of course, we have to take a moment to focus on the “scat” singing that dominates the final minute of running time; out of nowhere, one of the guys (I assume it’s Levi Stubbs?) begins scatting the hell out of the song, running up and down the scale with nonsensical syllables.  It’s totally unexpected and weird, but also impressive, recalling the scatting in Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” (released the same year) but far surpassing it in complexity.  The scat singing here is really more a novelty than anything else, but at least it lends the recording some distinction; there’s much better material to come, but you won’t forget the ending of “It’s Impossible.”

2.  The Bigger You Love (The Harder You Fall):  This is an interesting addition to Dynamite, given that it’s basically a Levi Stubbs solo recording with The Supremes harmonizing on the refrain.  The song was penned by Mel Larson and Jerry Marcellino, who would produce it for Jermaine Jackson’s 1973 LP Come Into My Life; many years later, English singer Paloma Faith would cover the song for her 2014 album A Perfect Contradiction.  Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor handle production duties on this version, setting the song to a galloping beat and topping it with an exciting string orchestration; there’s an energy to this track that was missing from much of the material on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven.  Levi Stubbs really digs into the material, predictably giving his rough, throaty voice a workout; listen at 2:09, as he wails “The harder you fall,” and you’ll hear the incredible effort going into his performance.  Meanwhile, Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong croon the refrain over and over again like The Andrews Sisters, their harmonies tight and extremely polished.  It’s an odd choice to arrange the song in this way; without any lead vocal work a Supreme, the female voices seem to come out of nowhere, serving as a kind of Greek chorus as they repeatedly remind listeners of the song’s message.  The rest of the Tops come in a few times, but they’re a mere echo behind Mr. Stubbs, who is the clear focal point of the recording.  You have to wonder why the song is arranged in this way; perhaps Jean Terrell never had time to record her lead part, or maybe she did and it just didn’t work for some reason.  Or, perhaps this is exactly what the producers envisioned for the finished product; maybe Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor liked the idea of balancing Levi’s passionate performance with the icy, otherworldly harmonies of The Supremes.  Whatever the case, it’s an interesting song with some very strong elements, although it never feels like a fully formed recording.

Billboard: July 6, 1963

3.  Hello Stranger:  This is a great song written by Barbara Lewis, who took it to the top of the R&B charts in 1963; her version peaked just as Martha and The Vandellas were scoring their first hit (“Come And Get These Memories”), and the Motown group quickly recorded a version which ended up on their 1963 LP Heatwave.  “Hello Stranger” is a gently-swinging soul ballad with a wistful lyric and great hook (“Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby…”); these elements should make it a perfect fit for The Supremes and Four Tops.  And it is, except for the fact that the arrangement here is a bit vanilla; producers Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor set to the song to a middle-of-the-road instrumental track that hasn’t dated particularly well.  The smooth vocals here are among the best on the entire album, with Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs offering up relaxed, confident readings while backed by a full swell of sweet voices.  Jean, in particular, really shines, her voice sliding between notes like honey; the AllMusic Guide to Soul calls this recording “a melter; Jean Terrell syncs her soprano to your heart” (655).  But the groups are under-served by the instrumental, with an intro dominated by a piercing flute and the rest of the song guided by a sitar; had the track been more understated and soulful (think “It’s Got To Be A Miracle” from The Magnificent Seven or “I’m Glad About It” from The Return Of The Magnificent Seven), this version could have been a definitive Motown cut.  As it stands, it’s a very strong recording and one of the most memorable inclusions on this album, which is certainly more than enough.

Billboard: May 15, 1971

4.  Love The One You’re With:  Just as “River Deep, Mountain Higher” and “Stoned Love” were riding high on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1971, so was “Love The One You’re With,” the solo debut single from Stephen Sills of the folk rock group Crosby, Stills & Nash.  His version topped out at #14 on the Hot 100 (it knocked “River Deep, Mountain High” from the same spot), and The Supremes quickly added the tune to their live act; a Billboard review of the trio’s May engagement at the Americana’s Royal Box in New York named it “a standout.”  The trio also performed the song on “The Flip Wilson Show” in 1971, in a rousing rendition that featured leads from each Supreme; no matter how one feels about the song, the television performance has to be ranked as one of the best from the Jean-Mary-Cindy lineup, with great energy and strong vocals from all three ladies.  It’s too bad each Supreme doesn’t get a solo on this recording; instead, producers Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor hand it solely to Jean, giving her the lead for the entire song and relegating everyone else to backgrounds.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Jean tears through the song with soul and energy, her soprano dancing around the melody with a lovely lightness over a funky track.  But my suspicion is that this song was recorded as a Supremes-only track, then placed on this album to pad it out; when the New Ways But Love Stays album was first issued on CD, Motown even added “Love The One You’re With” to the lineup (placing it as track #7), which seems to indicate that it was never really looked at as a Four Tops collaboration.  Around the time sessions for Dynamite were taking place, soul group (and former Motown artists) The Isley Brothers released their own version of this song, which sailed to the success on both the pop (#18) and R&B (#3) charts; it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had Motown jumped on this song and released it as a single by The Supremes first.  It’s certainly strong enough that it could have gained airplay, and would have been a really solid follow-up to the trio’s #1 R&B hit “Stoned Love.”

5.  Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By:  After a decent but uneven start to Dynamite, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson come to the rescue, contributing a song that seems to skyrocket right out of the vinyl grooves.  Actually, much of the credit should go to Bobby Taylor, who produced this version of the Motown classic, cut on Gladys Knight and The Pips back in the mid-1960s (and unreleased for decades) and made a hit by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1969.  The Gaye-Terrell version was released in January of ’69, peaking at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #11 R&B; sadly, Miss Terrell would pass away the next year, making this song the final Top 30 pop hit bearing her name.  This song is classic Ashford & Simpson, with a chugging beat, hard-hitting refrain, and lyrics reminiscent of the duo’s future hit “Solid” (i.e. “‘Cause we’re workin’ on a building/Nobody can tear down”).  It’s no slight on the Gaye-Terrell recording to say that this version is as good as the song ever sounded; it’s the first cut on Dynamite that feels like a evenly-matched collaboration, with superb vocals by Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs and gorgeous harmonies by The Supremes and Tops backing them up.  Stubbs and Terrell (no relation to Tammi, by the way) deliver urgent, soulful readings, capturing an excitement right from the start and carrying the momentum until the final fade; the song is also cut in the “sweet spot” for both singers, allowing each to show off the very best of his/her range.  The instrumental track is a perfect mix of grit and gloss, making it one of the few Supremes-Four Tops collaborations that really sounds like a Motown song; producer Taylor has also turned up the energy from the more laid back Gaye-Terrell original, creating a bolder track signaled by the opening horns and layering in the background vocals in a way that makes them indispensable.  This is easily one of the strongest recordings found on any of the three Supremes-Four Tops collaborations; it’s mind-boggling that Motown didn’t promote Dynamite with a single when it had something as strong as this.

Billboard: January 22, 1972
Although a single wasn’t released, the album did gain some radio play, as reported by Billboard

6.  Melodie:  Michael Jackson fans will recognize this song as part of the lineup from the 1984 Motown release Farewell My Summer Love, an album of cobbled-together vault tracks released to cash in on the success of Thriller.  To give the songs (all recorded in the early 70s) a modern feel, producers remixed them, resulting in a synth-laden track that doesn’t sound at all natural accompanying the voice of a young Michael Jackson.  Before the future King of Pop put his stamp up the Deke Richards-Mel Larson-Jerry Marcellino tune, it had been recorded by another iconic male vocalist; Bobby Darin signed with Motown toward the end of his life, and “Melodie” was released as a rock/soul single on him in April of 1971 (incidentally, it was backed by his version of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” made famous by Diana Ross and The Supremes).  Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor give this version a nice mid-tempo groove and lush instrumental; in some ways, the big sound recalls Ashford & Simpson’s production work on “River Deep, Mountain High” from The Magnificent Seven.  It does feature an odd arrangement, separating the two verses with an instrumental break and an extra refrain; Jean Terrell’s verse doesn’t even begin until nearly two-thirds of the way through, and the result is that the recording seems much longer than it actually is.  Still, the vocal work is excellent; Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell are fiery and soulful on their respective solo parts, and the background arrangement produces a powerful sound.  Had “Melodie” been rearranged just a bit, moving Terrell’s verse up and sliding the instrumental break after, it could have played well at radio; again, it’s surprising that Motown essentially threw a song like this away on an album that received little, if any, promotion.

7.  If:  The momentum generated by the previous three tracks comes to a screeching halt with this remake of the 1971 Bread hit, a classic “slow-dance” ballad which is given a meandering, syrupy treatment here.  “If” is a pretty song, with a memorable melody and lyric, but the Motown groups sound like they’re drowning a bit here, using a lot of riffs to fill the dead space in this overblown arrangement.  Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs do an admirable job of summoning up some passion in their deliveries, with the Four Tops frontman sounding particularly invested in the material.  But the best part of this recording comes during the final forty seconds of running time, as the Supremes repeat “We gonna fly, fly away” as the leads ad-lib over them; it’s nice to hear the trio’s voices, and this section at least gives the recording a little bit of individuality.  Aside from that, this one is strictly filler and could have been replaced with something stronger.

Billboard: December 25, 1971

8.  If I Could Build My Whole World Around You:  Finally, buried near the end of their third and final joint album, is what gets my vote as the single best Supremes-Four Tops collaboration.  The elements are all here: Great song, superb production, irresistible lead vocals, and stunning group harmonies.  The song itself was written by Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, and Vernon Bullock, and initially produced by Bristol and Fuqua as a duet for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  Released in late 1967, it became Marvin and Tammi’s first Top 10 hit on the Billboard 100 and peaked at #2 R&B; although it never quite achieved the “classic” status of the duo’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” it actually outperformed that song on the charts.  Johnny Bristol returns to the song here, cutting it a second time for The Supremes and Four Tops coming up with a snappy arrangement that’s extremely close to the one Marvin and Tammi sang to; this is a swinging production with a peppy bassline, sweet strings, and the kind of thumping percussion that will forever be identified with the Motown Sound.  Levi Stubbs is right in his comfort zone, his iconic voice punching each lyric and making it quite clear to whom he is singing by adding “Jean” to end end of several lines.  For her part, Jean returns his serve with the skill of a tennis pro, her silken voice slipping and sliding across the melody and finding little nuances that a lesser singer would have missed.  A big advantage that this version of “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” has over the original is the addition of several other voices; Gaye and Terrell weren’t supported by background voices, whereas the leads here are boosted by some unbelievably gorgeous harmonies.  Listen at :55, for example, as Jean Terrell sings, “I’d put joy where there’s never been none” and is suddenly joined by Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong; this brief, breathtaking bit of three-part harmony spins a single snippet of melody into a standout moment, perfectly capturing the carefree tone set by the lyrics.  The song’s final verse and closing refrains are accompanied by a climactic key change that lifts the song into the stratosphere; the swirl of voices and instruments is so overwhelmingly festive that by the time it all ends, it feels like it’s been way too brief.  This recording exemplifies why the pairing of The Supremes and The Four Tops worked in the first place; there’s an undeniable chemistry between the singers, and such joy in the way they all work together.  As with “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By,” it’s not a slight on the original to say that this is a perfect recording; The Supremes and Four Tops merely take something that was already terrific and elevate it through their energy and artistry.

9.  Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream:  This is another standout track for The Supremes and Four Tops, following the lead of the previous cut by injecting a proven hit with renewed energy.  “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” was written by Aretha Franklin (with Ted White) and first included on her 1967 LP I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, an album positively loaded with iconic performances; Aretha’s original is a jazzy bossa-nova tune, led off by a trumpet and featuring a syncopated beat laced with Spanish guitar.  Producer Joe Hinton does away with the overt Latin influence, whipping the song in to an urgent funk number marked by morse-code guitars reminiscent of those used on the Supremes classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”  It’s a brilliant move; Franklin’s melody and message are unchanged, but the new arrangement is ideal for the Supremes and Four Tops, who match the mood of the instrumental track with lean, muscular performances.  This is a rare case in which another Top gets to take the lead; it’s nice to hear another one of the talented guys step out front, and Jean Terrell predictably turns in an engaging, energetic performance.  Both groups sound fabulous on backgrounds, their voices weaving a thick tapestry of sound; it’s interesting that a song originated by a single artist works so well as a group piece, but it does.  Interestingly, “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” had already been recorded at Motown; rock group The Ones released a cover in 1968.  It could have been a single for The Supremes and Four Tops, too; the blazing energy here would have sounded phenomenal blasting out of radio speakers, and remains a great reminder of the fire both groups were capable of generating.

10.  Do You Love Me Just A Little, Honey:  Dynamite closes out with a pretty ballad written by Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Vernon Bullock, and Miss Gladys Knight, who recorded it with The Pips in the mid-1960s; it ended up on the b-side of the group’s second Motown single, “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me.”  Johnny Bristol cuts it again for the Supremes and Tops, giving the song a nice, sizzling groove and keeping it fairly simple and understated.  Jean Terrell begins with a delicate delivery, her voice quivering a bit; it’s a rare show of vulnerability that nicely contrasts with her confident work on the rest of the album.  Levi Stubbs continues the song with an emotional, throaty vocal; there’s an audible effort to his work here, as though he’s really pushing to make the words come out of his mouth, and fits beautifully with the tone of the entire piece.  Behind them, the Tops and Supremes softly echo the song’s key phrases, their voices ebbing and flowing like waves washing over the track.  This is a real soul song, similar in feel to Betty Wright’s fabulous “Tonight Is The Night” in the way the groove chugs along quietly, impossible to resist.  Once again, Johnny Bristol serves the group well with a Detroit-stamped track; this is one of the better ballads recorded by the two groups together, and would have been a beautiful b-side had Motown released one of the uptempo standouts as a single.

***

Jet: November 9, 1972

Listening to Dynamite is a bittersweet experience today, knowing now that it truly marked the end of an era for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Motown.  Not only would it be the last time the two vocal groups would team up, but it’s also the final Supremes album overseen by producer Frank Wilson, who’d been responsible for the group’s biggest hits since the departure of Diana Ross.  Dynamite would also be the penultimate album for The Four Tops at Motown; the next year, the group would jump ship to ABC/Dunhill Records, immediately scoring three Top 20 hits including “(Ain’t No Woman Like The One I’ve Got).”  The Four Tops joined several other Motown groups, including Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Spinners, in feeling that other labels could better promote their respective products, especially as Motown began focusing attention on the West Coast and breaking into the film business.

The trio of albums released by The Supremes and Four Tops is uneven, to say the least, but each one contains some strong and exciting work; had more care been taken to focus on quality instead of quantity, fans might have been treated to one really great album instead of three mediocre ones.  This, of course, is the benefit of today’s technology; making a “best of” playlist is as easy a few clicks on the computer.  Below is my idea of a “perfect” Supremes-Four Tops album; I’m sure every fan has his or her own version.  Combining the very best recordings into a single project proves The Supremes and Four Tops really were “Dynamite” — and the resulting music still is.

Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (An Un-“Easy” Mix)

Paul’s Picks:  “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By”

Paul’s Supremes-Four Tops “Dynamite” Album:

  1. River Deep, Mountain High
  2. If I Could Build My Whole World Around You
  3. Stoned Soul Picnic
  4. If You Could See Me Now
  5. I’m Glad About It
  6. I Can’t Believe You Love Me
  7. Without The One You Love
  8. Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By
  9. Do You Love Me Just A Little, Honey
  10. What Do You Have To Do (To Stay On The Ride Side Of Love)
  11. It’s Got To Be A Miracle (This Thing Called Love)
  12. Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream
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Touch (1971)

“I know the mountain’s high, but we can climb if we try…”

An April 3, 1971 article in music industry magazine Billboard carried some exciting news for Supremes fans:  “The Supremes finished two shows March 17 at the Elmwood Casino and headed for the Motown studios to finish up their next album, ‘Touch.’  They worked on the title tune.  A new single, ‘Nathan Jones,’ is expected from the trio in two weeks.”  Indeed, on April 15, “Nathan Jones” hit the radio airwaves around the country; it would soon become the group’s fifth consecutive Top 25 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since the addition of new lead singer Jean Terrell.  At this point in time, The Supremes were still easily the top female group in the world; they’d just been the subject of a Jet cover story in February, were receiving rave reviews for live club dates, and it was reported that Motown was making plans to partner with Hasbro Toys on a “Love” doll, for which The Supremes would record a theme song written by Al Cleveland.

Jet: February 11, 1971

That said, the music industry was swirling with changes, and The Supremes were suddenly facing the kind of competition from which they’d been immune since 1964.  In June, as “Nathan Jones” was entering the Top 20, another female trio called Honey Cone was scoring its first #1 pop and R&B hit with a song called “Want Ads.”  This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s indicative of the rapidly expanding popular music scene, which was becoming far more diverse and less Motown-dominated.  Into this climate, The Supremes released Touch in June of 1971; produced again by Frank Wilson, the album reflected the group’s evolution and attempt to remain fresh in the minds of record buyers.  As with New Ways By Love Stays, Frank Wilson leaned heavily on a mix of rock and soul when choosing songs for the trio; this is especially true of “Nathan Jones,” a charging rocker that confused Billboard enough for the magazine to review it as “a cleverly arranged swinging ballad” (huh?) in its May 1 issue.

Touch received strong reviews from critics; Billboard raved, “The trio really has its act together, and are sounding more exiting than ever,” and Rolling Stone called the album “an unqualified success and the final proof that the Supremes will continue without Diana Ross.”  Indeed, the trio sounds extremely confident, tackling an eclectic group of songs with great skill; lead singer Terrell, in particular, turns in some of the finest work of her Motown career, shaking off any bit of lingering hesitancy and attacking each song with impressive versatility and vocal elasticity.  Touch falls just shy of being a perfect album, but it’s close, and includes highlights so good that they elevate the entire project; “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road)” in particular is one of the great b-sides in the entire Motown discography, a recording filled with so many exciting touches that it requires repeated listens to reveal how brilliant it really is.  Touch certainly deserved more success than it eventually found, and stands up today as a smart, satisfying artistic statement.

***

1.  This Is The Story:  This is about as perfect an album opener as The Supremes could ever hope for, a bold statement that perfectly sets up everything that will follow.  “This Is The Story” was written by Frank Wilson and Pamela Sawyer, both of whom had worked with The Supremes since at least 1968, when they co-wrote the #1 hit “Love Child.”  Here, Wilson and Sawyer have crafted a song with dramatic heft; lyrically, it tells the complex tale of a woman for whom love is elusive, beautifully putting the introspective pain into relatable words: “Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle/With love missing, life’s too big a struggle.”  This is the kind of recording on which Jean Terrell excels; it requires a range that she capably delivers, building from moments of quiet reflection to powerful, plaintive pleas (“Darling, please tell me/What’s wrong with me?”).  All three Supremes deliver soaring backgrounds, their voices dancing effortlessly through the complicated arrangement; it sounds like producer Wilson is layering the voices of Terrell, Wilson, and Birdsong, which results in a haunting chorus echoing the song’s tortured lyrics.  There are moments when the cut is reminiscent of something that might have been recorded by The Carpenters; the melody isn’t as crisp as most of that’s group’s hits, but it makes you wonder if “This Is The Story” could have gained some pop/easy listening airplay had it been promoted to radio.  Eventually, “This Is The Story” was lifted from this album and placed on the b-side of the group’s Top 20 hit “Floy Joy,” released in December, which at least gave it a wider audience; this is a sterling cut that remains rewarding after multiple listens.

Billboard: May 15, 1971

2.  Nathan Jones:  Although Billboard considered this song a “swinging ballad,” it’s actually a pop-rock gem that surges forward with an almost-tangible electricity.  “Nathan Jones” was recorded on December 17, 1970, just as Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong were ascending to the top of the R&B charts with “Stoned Love” — perhaps part of the excitement embedded in the grooves here was a result of that fresh feeling of success.  “Nathan Jones” was penned by Kathy Wakefield and Leonard Caston, both of whom would write big hits for other Motown artists and work extensively with Frank Wilson; all three would contribute to the 1973 self-titled album by former Temptation Eddie Kendricks, which contained the #1 hit “Keep On Truckin’.”  Here, Wakefield and Caston come up with a tale of heartbreak, casting The Supremes in the role of women wronged by the titular Nathan Jones, who’s been “gone too long.”  Terrell, Wilson, and Birdsong sing the bulk of the song in unison (I’ve also read that singer Clydie King joined the trio, to give the recording a “fuller” sound, though I’m not sure that’s been confirmed), occasionally breaking into soulful harmony; the vocals here are gutsy without artifice, a real triumph for the group.  The track here is laced with superb horn and bongo work, and the entire thing is given a unique, “phased” treatment through a synthesizer, producing a sound similar to a jet plane soaring back and forth through the sky.  According to Frank Wilson in the liner notes to the group’s 2000 box set,  “The phasing of ‘Nathan Jones’ was the influence of rock music in my head, and putting my groove to it.  Cal Harris, our chief engineer, had built a synthesizer, the old kind that filled up a whole room.  We worked until he came up with the phased sound.  It was a very unorthodox song.”  Supreme Mary Wilson also remembers that synthesizer:  “…the other producers were not interested in using it.  Frank told me he and Cal would go upstairs and play with it, eventually coming up with the sound.  Frank had all three of us sing the melody while pulling Jean’s vocal out front just enough to give it that edge” (The 70s Anthology).  The end result is a single teeming with excitement; released as Motown 1182, “Nathan Jones” eventually peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #8 on the R&B chart.  In the UK, “Nathan Jones” topped out at #5; years later, British group Bananarama would cover the song, taking it back to the UK singles chart.

Billboard: September 25, 1971
“Nathan Jones” peaks at #5 in the UK, “I’m Still Waiting” by Diana Ross ends a lengthy run at the top spot

3.  Here Comes The Sunrise:  Though Clifton Davis wrote a big hit for The Jackson 5 (“Never Can Say Goodbye,” later a big hit again for Gloria Gaynor), he’s best known as an actor, having appeared in many notable projects on TV, film, and Broadway.  His “Here Comes The Sunrise” is a nice song, a mid-tempo pop number with just the right amount of bounce; the Billboard review of Touch called this song a “chart possibility,” and it’s easy to imagine it getting some radio play alongside “Knock Three Times” (Tony Orlando and Dawn) or “One Bad Apple” (The Osmonds), both big pop hits in 1971.  This recording is marked by another really strong performance by Jean Terrell, who sounds really loose and confident here; compare this vocal to many of the cuts on Right On (1970), and it’s clear how much more at ease she is behind the microphone.  Her silken voice effortlessly bounces all over the scale on this song, and she offers up a glass-shattering high note at 2:26, the kind of which has become commonplace in 2017 but was much more rare in 1971.  The backgrounds are also extremely well-done; Mary and Cindy smoothly underscore Jean at times, and big, uplifting harmonies bubble up at others, possibly the work of Wilson, Birdsong, and Motown session singers The Andantes.  Although “Here Comes The Sunshine” doesn’t immediately scream “hit” the way the album’s previous track does, it is a smooth, accomplished recording that probably could have been issued as a follow-up single and enjoyed at least moderate success.

4.  Love It Came To Me This Time:  This is a fascinating song written by Kathy Wakefield and Leonard Caston; it was recorded in December, right around the same time as that pair’s other contribution to Touch, “Nathan Jones.”  Unlike that rocker, however, this is a quiet meditation on love; with lyrics that reference Sunday morning, steeples, and stained glass windows, it really is a musical prayer, delivered with gentle confidence by The Supremes.  Producer Wilson constructs a fantastic instrumental track here; it’s restrained without feeling underwhelming, and features a pulsing bassline, bluesy organ work, and the occasional echoing of church bells.  Jean Terrell also offers up top-notch work on this track; every once in a while she lets loose with a cry to the heavens, but she spends most of the song letting her silken voice simply float along the musical bed.  The Supremes, meanwhile, deliver haunting responses to Miss Terrell, a kind of ghostly gospel chorus backing her up; I love the way you can really hear Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong soulfully grunt “Yeah!” at 2:23.  “Love It Came To Me This Time” is really unlike anything else on this album, or on any of the Jean Terrell-led albums; the closest comparison I can come up with is the beautiful ballad “The Beginning Of The End,” recording by Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Syreeta Wright (incidentally, Wright was the first choice to replace Diana in The Supremes) and included on the 1969 album Cream Of The Crop.  Like that tune, this one is easy to overlook in favor of flashier or more exciting songs, but it’s a gem.

5.  Johnny Raven:  The energy level shoots back up again thanks to this Billy Page tune, which had already been recorded by Kiki Dee; later, the song would be done by a young Michael Jackson (mid-voice change) and included on his 1973 album Music & Me.  “Johnny Raven” is a toe-tapping funk-rock number, and probably the most upbeat and danceable track on Touch; much of the group’s output since 1970 had been mid-tempo pop-rock numbers and soul ballads, so it’s nice to get something that brings to mind the dance classics of Motown’s golden age.  It’s not hard to see why producers eventually felt the song a good fit for Michael Jackson; there’s certainly a “bubble-gum” element in the arrangement here, although “Johnny Raven” is by no means a kiddie recording; the lyrics speak of a restless man, one “hungry for new thrills,” who will fly like a raven to another “nest” when the time comes.  The track itself is marked by pulsing guitar work during the verses and funky horns on the refrain; Jean Terrell nicely matches the energy of the band, sounding appropriately tortured when singing about the man she knows will soon leave.  A thrush of soulful voices in the background beautifully support Terrell, although it certainly sounds like Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are joined by some additional singers at times; listen to the lyric “I believe you love me” at 2:13, and you’ll hear a distinct voice that doesn’t sound like any of The Supremes (it actually sounds like Florence Ballard to me!).  Because of its memorable melody and a strong performance by both the group and the musicians, “Johnny Raven” emerges as one of the more durable inclusions on Touch; it remains a fun listen today, and certainly a needed change of pace on an album packed with slower songs.

6.  Have I Lost You:  At 2:44, this is the shortest track on Touch, and it certainly feels like the slightest recording included on the album.  “Have I Lost You” is credited to Pamela Sawyer and Leon Ware, who were also responsible for the great “What Do You Have To Do (To Stay On The Right Side Of Love)” on the Supremes-Four Tops joint LP The Return Of The Magnificent Seven that same year.  That song was so stunning and complex in both lyric and arrangement that it’s hard to believe the same writers are behind this one.  This is no knock on “Have I Lost You,” which is a polished, straightforward mid-tempo ballad that resembles some of the late-1960s output from Diana Ross and The Supremes; it’s just different.  Jean Terrell mints a very pretty performance here, her voice riding comfortably over the melody and punctuated by the occasionally swelling of the backgrounds.  It is, however, quite repetitive; the final 45 seconds of the recording consists of the group repeating the song’s title over and over again, plus there’s a 20-second instrumental break, leaving little room for much else.  Coming after some very meaty material over the past few albums, “Have I Lost You” sounds like something that might have been recorded during the earliest sessions for Right On.  That said, it’s a pleasant recording, and perhaps something like this is necessary to give a little “breathing room” next to songs with more complexity.

Billboard: June 19, 1971

7.  Time And Love:  When Touch was released in June of 1971, fans had no idea that the track for “Time And Love” had been floating around Motown for more than a year; nor could they have known its fascinating origin.  Written by singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, this song first appeared on her 1969 album New York Tendaberry; soon after, producer Bones Howe cut “Time And Love” for Diana Ross, for whom he was working up a batch of tracks.  Bones Howe was an early choice to produce the singer’s solo debut album; Ross finished four recordings with him, including another Nyro tune, “Stoney End,” before the sessions were scrapped and Diana went to work with Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson instead.  Though the quartet of Bones Howe-produced recordings wouldn’t be released until decades later (read about them here), producer Frank Wilson obviously became aware of them; he simple lifted “Time And Love” off the shelf, removed Diana’s voice, and dubbed in Jean’s for this recording.  The song itself is an odd choice for Touch; it’s a big, brassy pop number, the kind of thing you’d expect to hear during a Supremes show in Las Vegas.  Coming after so many rock-influenced numbers, “Time And Love” sounds out-of-place; it was likely included due to both the name value of Laura Nyro (one of music’s most popular songwriters at the time) and the fact that Barbra Streisand had just included a version of it on her album Stoney End, released in February of 1971 (Streisand’s version was released as a single and eventually peaked at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100).  Producer Howe’s arrangement is pure big-band, driven by horns and a boisterous chorus of male and female background singers that nobody could ever confuse for Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong.  Jean Terrell does a fine job with the lead vocal, although she gets lost a bit in the excitement of the track; she’s polished here, but perhaps a bit too polished to really cut through the swirling instrumental.  Although fans will endlessly debate over the merits of this vocal verses that of Diana Ross, Diana’s mix of sexy breathiness and youthful zeal does add an element that’s missing here; Miss Ross possesses a brashness in her vocal work that the “finishing school-smooth” Terrell does not, and that brashness works well on something so flashy.  “Time And Love” as sung by Jean Terrell is an interesting listen, but it doesn’t work particularly well in the context of this album.

Billboard: October 9, 1971

8.  Touch:  “I thought something that fit Mary’s voice and range would be a very strong record, so I set out to write ‘Touch’ specifically for Mary,” recalled Frank Wilson in the liner notes to the 2000 box set The Supremes.  Mary Wilson, of course, had made a career of being “the sexy one” in The Supremes, imbuing every one of her performances with a playful sensuality and languid, smoky vocals, so it makes sense that Frank Wilson ended up writing a sexy soul ballad on which Mary could purr lyrics like, “You melt me like hot candle wax.”  Mary and Jean Terrell actually share lead duties here, and Cindy Birdsong even gets a rare highlight toward the end, making this a true group effort.  The dusky track is less crisp than much of the material on Touch; Frank Wilson’s arrangement has an appealing roughness around the edges that brings to mind the hazy light from an oil-burning lamp.  Mary Wilson begins the song, her misty voice displaying a nice fullness as she announces, “Darling, just relax…”  Most of the producers who worked with The Supremes at Motown have commented on the adaptive quality of Mary’s voice; as the only singer to remain with the group from 1961 to 1977, she proved amazingly adept at blending in with whatever voices happened to be singing with her.  According to Harold Beatty, who would work with the group later in the decade, “There was something honest about that voice.  Nothing pretentious, it was just there” (The Supremes box set).  Indeed, Wilson’s work here seems very natural, especially next to Jean Terrell’s rather piercing performance; if Mary seems to lack a bit of style in her singing, Terrell displays an abundance of it, and the result is two readings that seem to be meant for two different songs.  This hurts the recording; “Touch” seems to be a song better suited to one singer, as opposed to something like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (from New Ways But Love Stays), which featured all three Supremes on solo sections in a much more successful way.  Still, at the time, Supremes fans were apparently thrilled to hear all three voices in such a distinct way; according to an October article in Billboard, fans demanded the song be released as a single.  It eventually was, but it struggled on the charts, only managing a dismal peak of #71 on the Billboard Hot 100 and missing the R&B chart altogether.  Although the album review on the AllMusic website points to Mary Wilson’s “unfamiliarity with the record-buying public” as a possible reason for the single’s failure, it seems much more likely that the song simply didn’t register with listeners outside of the group’s immediate fanbase; there are much better single options on Touch (keep reading…), and Motown should have followed up “Nathan Jones” with one of those, and followed it much quicker, too.  In the end, however, Frank Wilson was apparently pleased with the recording, saying, “I’m surprised it didn’t do as well as I hoped.  Mary’s delivery was sultry — it was enchanting” (The Supremes box set).

Billboard: September 25, 1971

9.  Happy (Is A Bumpy Road):  Speaking of better single options…this Frank Wilson-Pamela Sawyer tune was placed on the b-side of the “Nathan Jones” single, released in April of 1971; although plenty of people bought the single and thus heard this song on the flipside, it’s a shame Motown didn’t give “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road)” a chance at success on its own.  Simply put, this is one of the great Supremes b-sides of the decade; it may be among the best, period.  Producer Frank Wilson arranges the song as a fascinating hybrid of rock ballad and Holland-Dozier-Holland-esque pop tune; the first verse (with the great psychedelic lyric “I see your footsteps/Running up and down my brain”) comes off like something written for Grace Slick, but by the time the chorus begins, set to a foot-stomping beat straight out of 1964, you’d swear the tune was meant for Diana Ross. It’s to Wilson’s credit that he shapes the song into an epic, almost-operatic masterpiece; there are similarities here to “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music,” the amazing opening track on 1970’s New Ways But Love Staysin the way he skillfully ties together several genres into a cohesive piece.  Of course, none of this could have worked without vocalists to deliver the goods, and The Supremes more than do the job here; Jean Terrell effortlessly shifts from a laid-back resignation to the plaintive pleas of a woman desperate to make a troubled situation work.  At times, her delivery does resemble that of the group’s previous lead singer; perhaps this was a deliberate move, a kind of nod to urgent, yearning hits of the 1960s Supremes.  But Terrell’s performance is also extremely mature; there is great skill in the way she remains so focused, even as the instrumental track transforms behind her.  Meanwhile, “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road)” makes brilliant use of the background vocals, arranging them almost as instruments themselves; the layered voices ring through the track like bells, particularly at 1:25, as they fortify Terrell’s voice and add absolutely gorgeous, echoed harmony to her lead vocal.  That three-second snippet, by the way, as The Supremes wail together on just a few words, has got to be one of the great vocal moments in the group’s entire career; there’s something about it that is so heavenly — so stratospheric — that it’s hard not to be moved.  Although the Jean Terrell-led Supremes released some great singles, this is really the perfect recording for the trio; it’s a smart, successful modernization of the elements that made them great in the first place.  Interestingly, Frank Wilson would cut the song again just a few months later on The Four Tops; it would be released on the 1972 LP Nature Planned It.  Wilson alters the melody slightly for the male group, and it results in a far less effective recording; it’s loses the sweetness present on this version.  It’s hard to say how this song would have done had it been released as a follow-up to “Nathan Jones,” but it absolutely gets my vote; this is a magical recording that deserves to be rediscovered by fans.

10.  It’s So Hard For Me To Say Goodbye:  Just as “This Is The Story” serves a perfect opening track, nobody could’ve written a better closer than this song; not surprisingly, it was again penned by Frank Wilson and Pam Sawyer.  In retrospect, it serves as something of a poetic moment for The Supremes and Frank Wilson, as this would be the final song on the final album Wilson produced for the trio (aside from the Four Tops collaboration Dynamite).  The song is something of a folk-rock ballad, arranged with a gentle groove marked by prominent bongo playing and jangling guitar work.  Jean Terrell turns in an outstanding performance, her vocal growing in intensity from quiet vulnerability to explosive power, and Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong belt behind her, in what is perhaps the best background vocal work of the entire album.  Listen to the group beginning around 2:24 in, as they start the final verse; all three voices are warm, open, and full-throated, and it makes for a stunning way to end Touch.  This is a fantastic ballad, as good in its way as anything that’s come before it.  Interestingly, and perhaps fittingly, Wilson would also cut this song on former Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks; it ended up on the singer’s 1971 album All By Myself.  In a way, it bridges Wilson’s work with The Supremes to that of Eddie Kendricks, which whom the producer would soon find huge success.

***

“Not long after Touch we stopped seeing Frank Wilson around,” writes Mary Wilson in Supreme Faith.  “He was deservedly proud of the three albums he’d made with the Supremes but understandably disappointed with how poorly they charted.  Jean, Cindy, and I felt the same way” (52).  Although Touch climbed to #8 on the Billboard Soul Albums chart, it stalled at #85 on the pop side, an unfortunate showing for an album this good.  Without The Supremes, Frank Wilson was soon back on the charts as a writer and producer, working with Eddie Kendricks on smash hits like “Keep On Truckin'” and “Boogie Down.”  Meanwhile, The Supremes would team with singer, songwriter, and Motown VP Smokey Robinson, who would helm the group’s next LP, 1972’s Floy Joy.  No other producer, however, would have the kind of success with the 70s Supremes that Frank Wilson enjoyed; he didn’t return them to the heights of success that the trio had enjoyed in the previous decade, but in retrospect it’s unrealistic to believe anyone could.

What Frank Wilson did was to give the public and the Motown brass — and probably even the group itself — confidence in “The Supremes” as an establishment outside of the shadow of Diana Ross.  The group never completely escaped that shadow, but how could it?  The Supremes had enjoyed unprecedented success in the 1960s, and every one of its dozen #1 hits featured the voice of Miss Ross.  But with songs like “Stoned Love” and “Nathan Jones,” Wilson definitively proved that The Supremes could be used a vehicle for something more than Holland-Dozier-Holland hits.  Wilson helped give the group something to say, and found some truly memorable songs with which to spread a message tailored to the new decade.  As he would later sum up the experience, “To do it in such a way that they still had their own sound, and to take Mary Wilson and to give her songs, and enhance their appeal as a threesome, it was fun for me” (The Supremes box set).

And it’s been fun for listeners ever since.

Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (Stands The Test Of “Time”)

Paul’s Picks:  “Happy (Is A Bumpy Road),” “Nathan Jones,” “Here Comes The Sunrise”

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The Return Of The Magnificent Seven (1971)

“I gotta be insane to keep up with your personality change…”

The Supremes began 1971 secure in their place as the world’s top female singing group; a year after the departure of lead singer Diana Ross, the new lineup had scored a series of top 40 hits, and was still enjoying the success of “Stoned Love,” which peaked at #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart the final week of 1970.  Another single, “River Deep, Mountain High,” a collaboration with The Four Tops, was also zooming up the charts, and in a clear effort to strike while the iron was hot, Motown pushed the two groups back into the studio again to cut another batch of collaborations.  Just eleven days into the new year, work began on a song called “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart,” produced by Clay McMurray; it was finished up over a series of recording dates in January and early February.  It would eventually be released as the first (and only) single from The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, the second of three Supremes-Four Tops LPs.

As with the first joint LP (1970’s The Magnificent Seven), this one was supervised by Frank Wilson, although he didn’t personally produce any of the album’s eleven tracks.  Clay McMurray and the team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson return from the previous album, and are joined by Motown stalwarts Henry Cosby, Johnny Bristol, and Bobby Taylor, known for fronting the group Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers (who, coincidentally, were brought to the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. by The Supremes back in the mid-60s).  The major difference in this batch of songs is that there are far more originals here; only one cut on The Magnificent Seven had been an original (“Knock On My Door”), whereas more than half of the eleven inclusions are new songs here.  Three of them are penned by the team of Nick Zesses and Dino Fekaris; Fekaris would go on to write perhaps the greatest disco anthem of all time with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

Unfortunately, many of these original songs are milquetoast, middle-of-the-road pop tunes, featuring rather subdued arrangements and vocals and lacking the fire both groups were more than capable of.  Alone, The Supremes were making huge strides as recording artists, tackling songs with more challenging vocal arrangements and incorporating a wider range of musical styles.  Perhaps their most progressive single yet, the thrilling “Nathan Jones” (included on their beautiful album Touch, released at the same time as this one), was already climbing the charts when The Return Of The Magnificent Seven was released; next to that single, this album feels like a step backward for the trio.  That said, the chemistry between the two groups remains undimmed and undeniable; lead singers Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs are a perfect match, and Terrell seems even more confident here than she had on the previous joint LP.  It’s unfortunate that producers couldn’t find better songs for those voices to sing.

***

Billboard: June 19, 1971

1.  You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart:  “…a swinging winner that will fast surpass their Top 20 ‘River Deep, Mountain High'” raved Billboard in its May 29, 1971 review of this song, which had been released as a single earlier that month.  The review also mentions the song’s “wild” vocal workout, and make no mistake, that comment is aimed directly at Supremes lead singer Jean Terrell.  This is Terrell’s recording from start to finish; rather than try to rein in her riffs and ad-libs, Clay McMurray lets Miss Terrell run wild here, and she dominates the action, effortlessly stealing attention from everyone else, including Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs.  Billboard certainly picked the right adjective when calling this track “swinging” — it’s hard not to sway back and forth when listening to the hand-clapping beat and sing-song melody.  The big chorus of voices delivering the song’s refrain is impressive, and Levi Stubbs offers up a passionate plea for peace and love during his verse, but again, it’s Jean Terrell who is the real focal point here.  Miss Terrell serves up perhaps the most impressive performance thus far in her Motown career, her gospel-infused vocal soaring over the song’s verses and building to a powerful climax with some spine-tingling high notes; perhaps she was bolstered in the studio by the then-success of “Stoned Love,” or maybe she was just really feeling the song.  Unfortunately, her performance surpasses the actual material; “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” isn’t a bad song, but it seems an odd choice for a single, coming off as too bland and vanilla for two groups capable of complex, challenging work.  Up against the shimmering, rock-infused “Nathan Jones,” this song sounds more like a radio jingle or a sitcom theme song than a hit single; it’s no surprise radio ignored this track in favor of the Supremes-only single.  Although Billboard predicted a big showing for “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart,” it had a lackluster run on the charts; the track eventually peaked at #55 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #41 on the R&B side.

2.  I Wonder Where We’re Going:  Another cut produced by Clay McMurray, this one was written by Tom Baird, a name familiar to Diana Ross fans for working on the singer’s 1973 Touch Me In The Morning LP and the long unreleased To The Baby album.  Similar to “My Baby (My Baby, My Own),” from Touch Me In The Morning, this is a quiet, repetitive song, operating at a low simmer for the full three minutes of running time.  This one, however, lacks the haunting quality that marked the Ross recording, and thus ends up feeling a bit like a train without a destination.  The track is produced with a nice soft rock-soul vibe; the bassline pulses like a heartbeat, mirrored by a fuzzy electric guitar (that bassline, by the way, sounds a lot like the one featured in the song “If I Were Your Woman,” which McMurray had recorded with Gladys Knight & The Pips).  But the song itself contains very little variation in melody; both the verses and the refrain are fairly limited, leaving the singers without much to do.  Levi Stubbs gets in the most action, his sandpaper voice adding at least a little bit of passion to the proceedings.  Listen to him growl “Sometimes I WONDER!” at 2:21; few singers have ever made tortured vocals sound so appealing.  According to Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this song was also recorded by Baird himself, for a 1972 LP issued on the Rare Earth label.  I’d be curious to hear that version; this one is a solid mood piece, but it sounds like it’s missing a climactic key change or something to help complete the overall experience.

3.  Call Me:  Motown veteran Henry Cosby produced this cover of a song first recorded by Petula Clark in 1965 and turned into a stateside hit by Chris Montez early the next year; speaking of Clark, “Call Me” was penned by Tony Hatch, who also wrote her classic hit “Downtown.”  Both of those earlier versions had a little swing in their arrangements; Montez’s in particular boasts a vibe-and-handclap laden track that sounds at least partially inspired by the Supremes hits written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland.  In light of that, it’s strange that Cosby robs the song of any bounce, instead watering it down to light easy-listening with a dated arrangement that’s pure 70s whipped cream.  The saving grace here is the song itself; the delicate melody is a pretty and memorable one, and the singers play it straight, keeping their deliveries simple and to the point.  Jean Terrell sounds a bit more comfortable with the material; there’s an emotional investment that was missing in some of her work on earlier albums, and she really shines on the bridge beginning at 1:20 (“Now, don’t forget me/ ‘Cause if you let me…”).  The backgrounds are also impossibly pretty; I love the way The Supremes croon “Call Me” in unison during the refrain, then break into a gorgeous harmony when they repeat the words a few seconds later.  Meanwhile, the Tops expertly pepper the song’s outro with staccato “doo-wop” sounds that harken back to the group’s early days.  There’s a lot to like about “Call Me,” and it’s virtually impossible to not sing along with The Supremes and Four Tops when listening, but there’s no getting around the lounge-act quality of the arrangement.

Billboard: June 12, 1971

4.  One More Bridge To Cross:  Finally, a song with a little grit and fire arrives to mix things up, and it should come as no surprise that the names Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson are behind it.  The duo had turned in some of the best songs on The Magnificent Seven, including hit single “River Deep, Mountain High” and the sublime “Stoned Soul Picnic,” along with a solid cover of the classic “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.”  Ashford & Simpson were having an incredibly busy year, working on the superb Diana Ross album Surrender (which would be released in July) and Simpson’s own solo LP Exposed, which hit shelves in May; it speaks to the depth of their talent (and work ethic) that they could come up with so many songs for so many projects.  “One More Bridge To Cross” is a sizzling soul cut with a prescient lyric; the words here echo the everlasting struggle of the underdog, something its African-American writers certainly understood, as did the performers, and many of the record-buying fans.  In this regard, it’s a more realistic and mature song than the sunnily optimistic “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart,” and probably would have been better received had it replaced that single at radio.  “One More Bridge To Cross” isn’t in the same category as Ashford & Simpson classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or even much of the stellar material on Surrender, but it does give The Supremes and Four Tops something to say, and a chugging, horn-laced track into which they can dig their voices.

5.  If You Could See Me Now:  There’s no way to discuss this track without acknowledging its more-than-passing resemblance to the Burt Bacharach-Hal David hit “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” which The Carpenters had taken to #1 in 1970; the bouncy, piano-driven arrangements are startling alike, so much so that it takes a few listens to get beyond the similarities.  But those repeated listens are worth it; this is a shimmering track, full of surprises, and is exactly the kind of eccentric, off-kilter entry the album needs.  “If You Could See Me Now” was produced by Henry Cosby, who co-wrote the song with Joe Hinton and Janie Bradford (the same woman who coined the name “Supremes” way back in 1961); the song itself is basically a single motif repeated over a series of key changes.  Those key changes must have been maddening to the vocalists in the studio; Jean Terrell does an amazing job keeping up, her lilting voice floating over the melody in the featherweight style of Dionne Warwick.  Levi Stubbs actually seems to struggle to find the right notes in a few spots, but there’s something really appealing about his performance; he sounds fabulous starting around 1:51, when he finally gets to really belt comfortably within his range.  Producer Cosby peppers the instrumental track with nice flourishes; it opens with an interesting guitar effect, and there are some lovely moments involving strings and vibes.  Best of all, the instrumental break at 1:28 features a harmonica tracing the song’s melody, and it sure sounds like the one and only Stevie Wonder behind the solo; Henry Cosby, by the way, co-wrote and produced many of Wonder’s biggest hits, and the two were close enough that Wonder eventually sang at Cosby’s funeral.  The harmonica solo is a genius touch; it’s totally unexpected and somehow grounds the song, giving it an identity away from its obvious inspirations (plus, it just sounds really good).  In the end, and against all odds, “If You Could See Me Now” emerges as one of the most satisfying inclusions on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven; it’s full of great little moments that make those repeated listens a necessity…and a pleasure.

6.  I’ll Try Not To Cry:  As with the album’s very first track, this song was written by Nick Zesses and Dino Fekaris and produced by Clay McMurray; also like that earlier track, it’s a rather syrupy pop song consisting of a sing-song melody and a track led by prominent hand-claps.  The writers certainly came up with a catchy tune, but there’s no complexity in the presentation here; the arrangement sounds more fitting for a bunch of kids sitting around a bonfire at summer camp than for two of the world’s leading soul groups.  The vocal performances are pretty uninspired, too; Jean sounds oddly pinched in her delivery and Levi veers dangerously close to “lounge lizard” territory when he croons “Ain’t no stopping me now,” and the wash of voices behind them could really belong to just about anyone.  Amazingly, “I’ll Try Not To Cry” was released as a single in the Netherlands, and stranger still, it was backed with “One More Bridge To Cross,” which is a far superior recording in every respect.

Jet: July 15, 1971

7.  I’m Glad About It:  This masterful ballad comes courtesy Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson; it ended up being placed on the b-side of the “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” single.  Once again, you have to wonder what was going on at Motown; this is easily the better of the two songs, and had it been promoted as the key track, probably could have gained substantial airplay at R&B radio.  “I’m Glad About It” is an achingly pretty song that slowly builds in intensity, growing from just a whisper of a beginning to a fiery climax; Paul Riser is the credited arranger, and he once again whips up a sophisticated and layered piece of music led by Simpson’s accomplished piano playing.  The producers coax some stunning vocal work from the singers; Levi Stubbs is one of the great soul stylists of all time, of course, and he really gets to show off his range here, offering up a vulnerable and emotional performance.  He’s matched note-for-note by Jean Terrell, whose voice cuts through the track like a hot knife, and behind them both the Supremes and Four Tops belt out the song’s chorus like a gospel choir on Sunday morning.  It’s hard to believe Ashford & Simpson never famously cut this song again on any other artists; as far as I can tell, this is the only version ever released.  There’s a gentleness and intimacy about this recording that recalls Ashford & Simpson’s “All The Befores,” the closing track on the 1971 Diana Ross release Surrender; both are deep cuts that deserve to be re-discovered by Motown fans.  If anything on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven truly approaches greatness, this is it; “I’m Glad About It” ranks among the best 70s material recorded by both groups.

8.  Let’s Make Love Now:  This is the third and final Dino Fekaris-Nick Zesses composition featured on The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, this one produced by Henry Cosby; it’s another light-as-air easy listening tune, similar to something you’d find on a Carpenters album from the early ’70s.  As far as the MOR songs go on thus album, “Let’s Make Love Now” definitely isn’t the worst; there are at least some subtle shadings to the recording that give it more complexity than “I’ll Try Not To Cry” or “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart.”  Jean Terrell opens the song, cooing “Kissing you is a warm sensation…” in a low, sexy murmur; late in the song, she offers up a riff during the bridge (at 1:58, on the line “You set me dreams in motion”) that sounds so strikingly modern you’d swear it was Amel Larrieux or another contemporary neo-soul singer.  Her contributions and the lush orchestration are the highlights of this track; it never really rises above the level of filler, but it’s a pleasant, inoffensive addition to the album.

Billboard: January 1, 1966

9.  I Can’t Believe You Love Me:  Finally there’s a track on this album that really sounds like a Motown recording, and for good reason; this one had already been cut a few times within the company.  The song dates way back to 1965, when Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua wrote it and produced it on singer Tammi Terrell (no relation to Jean, by the way).  It was released as a single in November of ’65, and it eventually peaked #72 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #27 on the R&B chart.  Tammi Terrell, of course, hit it big when paired with Marvin Gaye; the duo scored several hits together before Terrell passed away in 1970.  “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” was refashioned into a Gaye-Terrell duet for their third album, 1969’s Easy, much of which was apparently recorded without the ailing Tammi; Bristol and Fuqua used the female singer’s vocals from the 1965 recording and added Marvin’s voice to create the song.  Johnny Bristol also produced this Supremes-Four Tops version, and he gives it a harder edge, making the song into a tough series of accusations volleyed back and forth between the lead singers.  Levi Stubbs steps up to the plate here, attacking his solo sections with the kind of gutsy vocals he’s famous for; thus far, this has really been Jean Terrell’s album, and Stubbs sounds like he’s ready to take back a sliver of the spotlight.   The Tops and Supremes also shine here; the groups have been afforded less of an opportunity to stand out on this album than on their previous joint effort, and producer Bristol finally makes their vocals an essential part of the track, layering them into what could be described as an imposing barrier of sound.  The end result is a recording that has real bite to it, something that comes as a relief after so much easy listening; had it been released as the album’s first single, it likely could have made a much bigger impact than “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart.”

10.  Where Would I Be Without You, Baby:  Clay McMurray produced and co-wrote (with Marty Coleman) this track, which was apparently first cut on Bobby Taylor in 1969, though it went unreleased.  It’s a really nice soul ballad, not far removed from McMurray’s production of “It’s Got To Be A Miracle (This Thing Called Love)” from The Magnificent Seven.  This cut is highlighted by superb work from Levi Stubbs, who really tears into the material, offering up a dramatic, fully-engaged performance.  The recording leans heavily on him; Jean Terrell shows up on the second verse, then disappears from the song altogether, leaving Levi to handle about two minutes worth of powerful ad-libbing alone.  That said, Jean is fabulously soulful on her verse; it may be a “cameo” appearance, but she makes her presence known, her voice soaring over the buttery smooth track.  At four-and-a-half minutes, “Where Would I Be Without You, Baby” feels too long; McMurray probably could have chopped it down and streamlined it just a bit, especially since the song lacks a memorable lyric (the refrain is really wordy and, frankly, a bit tough to understand).  But this is a lovely listen, and certainly a stronger addition to the album than some of the sugary ballads preceding it.

11.  What Do You Have To Do (To Stay On The Right Side Of Love):  This is a really cool track, a weirdly cinematic piece that’s really unlike anything else on the album.  Credited to Pam Sawyer and Leon Ware, this cut was produced by Bobby Taylor, whose group had been discovered by The Supremes years earlier.  Taylor crafts a slinky instrumental, kicked off by moody piano chords over a pulsing bassline and then driven by sexy, playful percussion; the lyrics are straight out of a medical textbook, from “reverse psychology” to “personality change,” which adds to the kooky feel of the production.  Both Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell dive in headfirst, striking the perfect tone of masochism in their performances; they certainly sound tortured, but you also get the feeling they love every minute of it.  Best of all, Mary Wilson pops in at 1:10, purring a verse that begins with the words “I gotta be insane.”  There’s a reason Diana Ross always called Mary Wilson “the sexy one” onstage; Wilson’s low, husky delivery could best be described as a “bedroom voice,” and she comes off as a dynamic and deadly femme fatale here.  Unlike The Magnificent Seven, which gave all of the Supremes and Four Tops moments to shine, this album has been wholly focused on the lead singers; it’s nice to finally hear from another one of the talented group members here, if only for a very brief verse.  This is a really fun song; there’s character in this recording, something the album needed more of.

***

Motown released The Return Of The Magnificent Seven simultaneously with Touch, another full-length Supremes album; the two bear successive Motown catalog numbers (Return… as Motown 736, Touch as Motown 737), and were reviewed in the same June issue of Billboard magazine.  By this time, radio was hot on the new Supremes single, “Nathan Jones,” which meant Motown was promoting that release, leaving little room for the Supremes-Four Tops collaboration.  Not only did “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” stall outside the Top 40, but its parent album barely made a dent on the Billboard 200.  Mary Wilson would write in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, “In August [1971] we teamed with the Four Tops for a run at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington, D.C.  One goal was to promote our second joint album, The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, but, as it turned out, the album got no higher than Number 154 — an embarrassment for all of us” (56).

Billboard: June 19, 1971

Today, long after the chart statistics really matter, the album is far from embarrassing, but it does stand as a relic of its time more than a significant musical work.  The reliance on saccharine ballads dates the project, and the hyper-focus on lead singers Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs is disappointing.  The songs that do stand out, though, are worthy of re-discovery, especially since many of them are original compositions and don’t seem to have been resurrected by other artists.  Although The Return Of The Magnificent Seven wasn’t a big hit, it did lead to a third and final joint LP from The Supremes and Four Tops; Dynamite would be released six months later, bringing an end to a truly unique and often magical partnership.

Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (Not Quite Enough To Be “Glad” About)

Paul’s Picks:  “I’m Glad About It,” “If You Could See Me Now,” “I Can’t Believe You Love Me”

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It’s My House: Diana Ross in West Palm Beach (6/24/17)

“I’m gonna sweat my eyelashes off!”

“It’s My House,” purred Diana Ross to a roaring crowd in West Palm Beach Saturday night (June 24), and truer words have never been sung.  During a dazzling tour stop at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, ably supported by her singer-songwriter daughter Rhonda Ross, the legendary entertainer commanded the audience from her very first number (“I’m Coming Out,” of course), taking fans on an energetic ride through several decades of hits.

The evening began with a dynamic set by Rhonda Ross, an accomplished performer in her own right whose career includes an Emmy-nominated performance on the daytime soap “Another World.”  Ross boasts a confident stage presence and crisp, melodic voice that’s both reminiscent of neo-soul singers including Erykah Badu and Amel Larrieux and evocative of jazz legends like Dinah Washington.  Rhonda Ross promised the crowd a bit of her “flavor” and more than delivered, running through a set of mainly original songs including the hopeful “Summer Day” and deliciously funky “Nobody’s Business.”  Highlights were her sizzling rendition of “You’re All I Need To Get By,” a nice nod to her own Motown roots (Diana Ross included the song on her 1970 solo debut), and the bouncy “All I Want,” on which her fantastic band and background singers really jammed.  Rhonda Ross has a new album out, titled In Case You Didn’t Know (you can buy it here), and it’s safe to say the packed house at the Kravis Center now knows that Ross is the real deal, an energetic performer with a strong voice and something to say.

And then, in a slickly choreographed transition, the headliner took the stage, her band building excitement until that iconic voice announced, “I’m Coming Out!”  Diana Ross took the stage in a sparkling seafoam ensemble befitting a mermaid, her voice impossibly fresh as she delivered her anthemic 1980 hit and then segued into “More Today Then Yesterday” from her last studio album, 2007’s I Love You.  Miss Ross then reached back into her canon to her days with The Supremes, running through early hits including “Baby Love,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” and “Come See About Me,” all of which she performed as complete numbers (rather than combining them into a medley).  “Come See About Me” was an especially welcome offering, since it’s not one she always includes in her shows; she worked beautifully with her wonderful background singers on the song, recreating the call-and-response structure of the original 1964 recording.  It’s astonishing that more than 50 years after taking these songs to the top of the charts, Diana Ross still sings them with the same youth and vivacity; the clarity and urgency of her tone remains unchanged, and brings the classic songs to life in a way nobody else can.

After a brief costume change, the singer returned to the stage in a stunning red ensemble with feathered hood, breezing through several of her solo hits from the 1970s including “The Boss,” “Love Hangover,” and “Ease On Down The Road.”  She paused to dab her face with Kleenex (with the very funny aside to the audience that she was going to “sweat my eyelashes off!”) and turned the stately theatre into a club with her #1 hit “Upside Down,” insisting on the house lights being brought up so she could watch the crowd dance.  And dance they did; the Kravis Center is a large auditorium with a balcony that stretches several stories high, but even fans in the very last row were grooving in the aisles, waving around glow sticks and following the singer’s command to have a party.  A highlight of this set was the 1979 R&B classic “It’s My House,” a song the singer hasn’t always included in her show; she sexily grooved to the music and brought the song to life with a fun, breathy delivery that sounded nearly identical to that featured on the original studio recording.

The concert’s third “set” began with “The Look Of Love” and continued with a tribute to her 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues, consisting of a beautiful reading of the jazz classic “Don’t Explain.”  This song is always a standout of Diana Ross concerts, a chance for fans to really bask in the velvety quality of the singer’s voice.  Once again, Ross proved that she is a master of jazz and blues singing, her silken voice sliding up and down the scale with precision and slightly lagging behind the beat in a languid tribute to Billie Holiday, the legendary singer she portrayed in her Oscar-nominated debut film.  Miss Ross also took the time to generously introduce each member of her band and her background singers, the talented musicians clearly enjoying their time onstage with the Motown diva.

Finally, Diana Ross returned to the stage in a glittering white gown to begin the final segment of the night, beginning with her 1975 #1 hit “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” which, as fans know, means “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” isn’t far behind.  “Ain’t No Mountain…” has been the singer’s anthem since 1970; it is one of the great pop recordings of all time, and remains a breathtaking epic.  Ross whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a transcendent reading as fresh and exciting as her earliest televised performances of the song.  When Diana Ross says, “If you need me, call me…” she sounds like she really means it; this kind of authenticity is the key to the singer’s success and longevity, and her fans more than responded, rushing to the stage and crowding the aisles in a way that likely doesn’t always happen inside the ornate theatre.  After a brief exit, Miss Ross reappeared for an encore, singing her dance hit “I Will Survive” from 1995’s Take Me Higher; Rhonda even joined her for a few lines, giving her mother a chance to hug her tightly and proudly tell the audience, “That’s my baby!”

It would be impossible for Diana Ross to sing every one of her hit songs in a single show; her 18 #1 hits would fill a setlist on their own, and that would leave out classics that missed the top spot, like “I’m Coming Out” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.”  The twenty songs that made up this show were deftly arranged to hit all the highlights, reminding casual fans of the various phases of the singer’s career, from 1960s Motown Diva to 1970s Dance Queen to Oscar-nominated movie actress and beyond.  As a die-hard fan and lifelong student of her work, it would be nice to near some Ross rarities in concert; the RCA years certainly seem overlooked, and there are certain selections from classic albums like Baby It’s Me that would likely sound better than ever (just imagine “Confide In Me” sung with the maturity and wisdom she now possesses).

But Diana Ross isn’t building her stage show for fans who know every outtake still resting in the Motown vaults; she’s there to take us on a brisk journey through the best moments of our lives, using songs that remain touchstones for generations of listeners.  And although she could easily coast on the strength of those recognizable songs alone, she doesn’t; Miss Ross clearly puts real effort into her shows, from the colorful costumes to acknowledging her band to her constant demands for the house lights to turn up, so she can see her fans.  She wants us to have a good time; as she sings onstage, “Everything you see is with love and care.”  Her house was built for love, indeed.

Setlist:

  1. I’m Coming Out
  2. More Today Than Yesterday
  3. Baby Love
  4. Stop! In The Name Of Love
  5. Come See About Me
  6. You Can’t Hurry Love
  7. Love Child
  8. The Boss
  9. Touch Me In The Morning
  10. It’s My House
  11. Upside Down
  12. Love Hangover
  13. Take Me Higher
  14. Ease On Down The Road
  15. The Look Of Love
  16. Don’t Explain
  17. Why Do Fools Fall In Love
  18. Theme From Mahogany
  19. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
  20. I Will Survive
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The Best Years: Reflections Of A Diana Ross Concert-Goer

August 30th, 1995.  It was a hot night in Indianapolis, a crowd of about 10,000 people packed into Deer Creek Music Center, an outdoor music venue.  I was 15-years-old, and missing high school cross country practice to be there; my coach was not a forgiving man (he made me run extra laps the following day), but there’s no way I’d have been anywhere else.  My parents were with me; I’d made them stand in line at the local Ticketmaster outlet to get the tickets.  Those were the days before regular use of the Internet, and I’ll never forget hearing the news at school from a friend:  “Paul, I heard on the radio this morning that Diana Ross is coming to town!”

I don’t think I actually believed I would see her until I was there, inside the amphitheatre, the opening music pumping.  Her voice manifested before she did; that iconic, breathless voice filled the air with the words “Take me to that place…higher…”  I didn’t recognize the song — nobody would have, since “Take Me Higher” wouldn’t make the charts until the following month — but the crowd roared when she suddenly appeared, standing atop a short staircase, just as she would in the song’s upcoming music video.  She wore a short black dress, her hair a mass of wild curls.  She rushed down the staircase, her background singers wailing the words “Take Me Higher,” and that 15-year-old boy burst into tears.

That, of course, was the first time I saw Diana Ross in concert; I still have the ticket stub, the tour program, and the concert review from the local newspaper.  Miss Ross performed for two hours that night, running through dozens of her hits and several new songs from the Take Me Higher album; I vividly remember falling in love with “Voice Of The Heart,” “Only Love Will Conquer All,” “I Never Loved A Man Before,” and “Don’t Stop.”  I lost count of the costume changes, but recall her famous “casual” red pantsuit, which she wore for the show’s final number.  Aside from sounding fantastic, Miss Ross was especially funny during the show, stopping mid-“Good Morning Heartache” to put on bug spray.  And there were so many hits I’ve never heard her perform again: “Missing You” and “Muscles” and I think even “Chain Reaction.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that first concert lately; in just a few days, I’ll be seeing Miss Ross again (for the 7th time), during her stop in West Palm Beach on Saturday.  I was lucky enough to see the Return To Love tour before it ended; I saw her twice during promotion for I Love You, and twice more here in Atlanta, during recent summer tours (read about those shows here and here.)  I almost didn’t buy tickets to the West Palm Beach show; after all, I don’t live in Florida, and I don’t expect the setlist will be any different from the past two times I’ve seen the singer in concert.  She’s not promoting new music and hasn’t radically changed her show, so why go back?

The 15-year-old boy seeing Diana Ross for the first time back in 1995 could probably answer that question better than I can.  I think he was so happy that night — so grateful to be there, to hear the songs, to experience the magic of a seasoned entertainer in her element — that he’d want to see as many Diana Ross concerts as possible.  Life wasn’t always easy; there was a lot going on inside him that even he couldn’t understand at the time.  But that night at Deer Creek Music Center was pure bliss.  That’s the kind of effect Miss Ross has had on my life, and the lives of all her fans, for decades.  Her soothing voice has been our solace, our escape, our motivation.  The least I can do for her is show up and have a great time this weekend.

So I’ll be there Saturday night — and better yet, I’m taking a friend who has never seen Diana Ross in concert before.  Through her eyes, I’ll get to experience the thrill of the show for the first time again.

And this time, I get to do it without worrying about having to run extra laps in the morning.

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The Best Thing: Gladys Knight In Atlanta (6/18/17)

There’s just something about that voice.  It’s nearly impossible to describe: Is it smoky? Is it smooth?  Is it rough like sandpaper or is it thick with emotion?  Gladys Knight is a once-in-a-lifetime vocalist, a woman who was clearly born to sing and gifted with a wholly unique instrument.  And more than 50 years into her legendary career, that instrument is as impressive and effective as ever, as the singer proved during an 80-minute set at the Atlanta Botanical Garden Sunday night.

The setting, it should be noted, couldn’t have been more appropriate for an evening with the Empress of Soul.  Atlanta is her town, after all; she was born in Atlanta, recorded her first hit song here (1961’s “Every Beat Of My Heart”), and immortalized her home state forever with the 1973 #1 hit “Midnight Train To Georgia.”  The summer concert series at Atlanta Botanical Garden places musical artists in an outdoor setting that is at once intimate and expansive; under the open sky and with skyscrapers providing a backdrop, audiences crowd up to the stage on a lush, green lawn, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow fans.  Once the sun set and a cool breeze began to sweep across the lawn, it was as magical an evening as one could hope for.

Gladys took the stage promptly at 8 p.m., in a form-fitting red ensemble and looking impossibly young and full of energy, and opened the show with her 1987 hit “Love Overboard.”  After warning the crowd that she was going to take them “way back” — she moved into that first hit song, “Every Beat Of My Heart,” which she explained had been released without her knowledge and which she first heard walking down the street outside an Atlanta music store and suddenly recognizing her own voice.  After a lengthy “rap session” with the crowd, during which she encouraged fans to speak back to the stage and expressed her sincere gratitude for their support over the years, Ms. Knight delivered one of the highlights of the night, her 1974 hit “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.”  No longer performing with The Pips, three young singers did a superb job backing Gladys and capturing the song’s famous harmonies, and Knight’s voice sounded nearly identical to the performance captured forever on record.

Along with offering up powerful and pitch-perfect renditions of Motown hits including “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye),” and “If I Were Your Woman,” Gladys Knight presented a few surprises, including a brief take on Sam Smith’s recent hit “Stay With Me” and a “Hello” medley during which she combined both the Lionel Richie and Adele hits of the same title.  Her voice is in astoundingly good shape, seemingly untouched by the passage of time, and she remains a sharp, very funny lady, as evidenced by her playful banter between each song.  She did a lot of “mothering” of her band during the show, dispensing little bits of wisdom and teasing them about their youth; it’s clear that she has a close bond with her musicians and background singers.  Those young singers did a tremendous job with a Prince tribute medley, energizing the crowd with several of the late singer’s hits before Gladys returned to the mic for a powerful take on “Purple Rain,” and the evening ended with the singer’s biggest hit, the #1 pop and R&B classic “Midnight Train To Georgia.”  The entire crowd rose to its feet for this final number, taking on the role of the Pips and singing along in what became an extended celebration of both Atlanta and the famous woman born there.

Throughout the show, Gladys Knight repeatedly thanked the audience for allowing her so many years of being able to record great music.  But after a superb evening of hearing that voice — that impossible-to-describe, but unforgettable voice — it’s obvious that as long as seasoned pros like Gladys Knight continue sharing their gifts, audiences are the ones who should be offering thanks.

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New Ways But Love Stays (1970)

“If you’re young at heart, rise up and take your stand…”

Halloween 1970 brought a treat for Supremes fans, when music industry magazine Billboard announced a major new recording: “Follow up to ‘Everybody’s Got the Right to Love’ is a powerhouse rock ballad loaded with more sales and chart potency than that recent smash.  Top of the Soul and pop chart item.”  The song was “Stoned Love,” which had officially been released earlier that month; it began climbing the charts following that Billboard review, and by the end of the year it brought The Supremes back to a place with which they were very familiar: Number One.  The song’s parent album, New Ways But Love Stays, was also released in October, becoming the third album from The Supremes since the departure of lead singer Diana Ross in January.

Jet: August 18, 1977

Because Frank Wilson had delivered two immediate hits for the group with new lead singer Jean Terrell (“Up The Ladder To The Roof” and “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love,” both from Right On), he was given the chance to helm an entire album; he’s responsible for every song except one on New Ways.  Wilson’s vision for the group was one that involved a wider variety of musical styles, particularly the addition of rock elements to the group’s music.  He would later recall, “I felt the fusion of rock with R&B could not do anything but enhance the direction of R&B/pop music.  I took advantage of what I thought were excellent musical influences, from Iron Butterfly to Neil Diamond” (The Supremes box set booklet).  Those rock influences are extremely apparent in his work on New Ways But Love Stays, which features covers of songs by The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Steam.

“I put all my hopes on…New Ways But Love Stays.  The performances were uniformly strong,” wrote Mary Wilson in her 1990 book Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together.    She’s right; there’s fine vocal work through the album, and Frank Wilson’s inventive arrangements are still interesting to listen to decades later.  Unfortunately, the material isn’t uniformly strong; this is one-half of a great album, and one-half of a decent one.  The one-two-three punch of the opening trio of tracks is just way too strong for the rest of the album to ever live up to; there are a few other good songs, but the bulk of them just aren’t terribly memorable.  The breakneck pace of Motown releases often worked against The Supremes (and other groups) in this way; instead of being treated to one great album every year or two, fans were annually given three or sometimes four decent ones.  Still, the best cuts on New Ways But Love Stays are easily worth the price of the record; they remain high water marks for The Supremes.

 ***

1.  Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music:  Supremes fans would have already been familiar with this song when New Ways But Love Stays was released in October of 1970.  This song had been recorded by the group as a collaboration with The Four Tops, and it closed out their joint LP The Magnificent Seven, released only the previous month.  That said, the two cuts are radically different; the Four Tops version was produced by Duke Browner, who gave it the standard Motown treatment, crafting an instrumental track reminiscent of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duets of the 1960s.  Here, Frank Wilson is at the reins, and he turns “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” into a mini-symphony, an epic three-and-a-half minute suite of swirling sound effects and ethereal vocals.  Wilson layers in electric guitars, handclaps, and strings in a way that creates an incredible hybrid of the rock, soul, and classical genres; the background vocals especially are arranged in a way that really emphasizes the ties to classical music, with The Supremes sounding as if they’re singing along to a Beethoven composition.  Lead singer Jean Terrell is really quite amazing here; she somehow manages to deliver a totally focused performance, even as the instrumental track repeatedly changes shape behind her.  She sounds even more confident than she had on much of the group’s previous album, and gets to really show off her vocal range, ad-libbing some gorgeous high notes during the song’s introduction.  The end is particularly noteworthy, as it devolves into a series of psychedelic sounds before immediately leading into the album’s second track.  This kind of imaginative bridging between songs is something that never really could have happened on a Supremes album before; throughout the 1960s, albums were put together song-by-song, with producers surrounding hits with filler to pad out the running time.  But things were changing by 1970, and musicians were now using albums to make artistic statements; an LP was no longer a collection of disparate tracks, but could tell a complete story from beginning to end.  In this way, New Ways But Love Stays was really on the cutting edge at Motown; credit must go to Frank Wilson for taking The Supremes in such a fresh, new direction.

Billboard: December 12, 1970

2.  Stoned Love:  And that second track, born out of the space-age sounds closing out the previous song, is one of the best recordings by any Motown artist, ever.    Considering “Stoned Love” would become a majestic pop symphony in the hands of Frank Wilson, it’s hard to believe the song came from extremely humble beginnings; written by a teenager named Kenny Thomas, Wilson remembers hearing it for the first time played on a guitar with only two strings.  In the booklet to the 2000 box set The Supremes, Wilson recalled, “The thing that got me was that it was very simple: ‘Stoned Love/I tell you I ain’t got no other.’  I said: ‘This is going to be great, this is going to be wonderful!’ I could just hear the whole thing, with the orchestra.”  Wilson then brought in Supreme Mary Wilson to listen to the song; she would later say she nearly screamed with joy over it (by the way, the songwriting credits for the track list Frank Wilson and someone called Ynnek Samoht; that’s Kenny Thomas spelled backwards, in an homage to both Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.)  “Stoned Love” was recorded over several dates in March, April, May, and June of 1970, which means work was already happening on the song when the group’s first album with Terrell was released in April.  Thank goodness Frank Wilson took his time and didn’t rush this one; the care and attention to detail here are obvious.  “Stoned Love” begins as something of a rock opera, with a sweeping introduction led by thunderous piano chords over blaring horns and strings; Jean Terrell is cast in the role of otherworldly messenger, beckoning listeners to “just believe” in the kind of love that “will surely light up darkened worlds.”  Suddenly that familiar Motown percussion takes over, and song charges forward with a relentless beat reminiscent of a chugging locomotive.  Frank Wilson keeps the focus on that “very simple” message which had hooked him from the beginning; he’s clearly directed Jean Terrell to provide an unadorned vocal here, limiting any riffs or ad-libs and allowing her natural, honeyed tone to do all the work.  Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong provide spirited backing; it’s impossible to imagine the song without their contributions, particularly the gorgeous harmonies during the chorus (“I tell ya, I ain’t got no other!”).  And finally, it would be criminal to write about “Stoned Love” and not give credit to the fine musicians who create a track that’s both completely modern and also a fiery tribute to the iconic Motown Sound.  According to Kenny Thomas, quoted in The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, that instrumental track was cut “at Motown on West Grand Boulevard, in a basement almost as big as a football field.  David [Van DePitte, the arranger] hits the baton on the podium, and the musicians play — maybe a 50-piece orchestra, strings and everything.  I cried” (78).  According to Frank Wilson, it was a fight to even get the song released:  “I remember that [Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.] hated that record.  He called it garbage” (R&B Hits 78).  However, after a promise from Motown exec Barney Ales that radio would jump on the song, “Stoned Love” was released as a single on October 15, 1970, and began a slow climb up the charts which eventually led it to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart by the end of the year.  Unfortunately, Motown made the odd decision to release “River Deep, Mountain High” by the Supremes and Four Tops less than a month later, and it peaked at around the same time, likely creating some competition at radio.  Had programmers not had to choose between the two Supremes songs, each probably could have climbed a little higher on the pop charts.  Still, “Stoned Love” remains a towering achievement, and deserves to be listed alongside the very best Motown singles of the decade.

Billboard: January 16, 1971
“Stoned Love” (#8) and “River Deep, Mountain High” (#14) chart in the top 20 simultaneously

3.  It’s Time To Break Down:  This is a fabulous ballad written by Frank Wilson and Ellean Hendley and produced again by Wilson.  According to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this one was recorded in Washington, D.C., the reason likely being that The Supremes happened to be performing there at the time; according to Wilson, “The girls were working live so much I’d cut the tracks, get on an airplane, and go to where they were” (box set booklet).  This song is set to a unique syncopated beat, which immediately sets is apart from the ballads featured on previous album Right On and gives the recording a bit of an experimental edge; prominent handclaps during the chorus tie the song back to “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” while some gorgeous strings recall the orchestral feel of “Stoned Love,” making all three songs work together as a kind of soul trilogy.  This is a lengthy recording, clocking in at more than five minutes, and the second half of the track is loose and unstructured, with a lot of room for the singers to ad-lib and some time for an electric guitar solo.  The vocalists all offer up nice work here; Jean Terrell is appropriately laid-back, and the backgrounds are arranged as a dreamy, disembodied chorus echoing the confusion of the song’s narrator.  This song, together with the previous two, represents a great step forward for The Supremes; Mary Wilson would later say it “brought a new dimension to our music” (The 70s Anthology).  Indeed, that would prove even more true years later, when the track was prominently sampled by hip-hop duo Gang Starr for the 1998 song “JFK 2 LAX.”

Billboard: July 29, 1972
The Supremes kept “Bridge” in their act, and it was mentioned in this Billboard review

4.  Bridge Over Troubled Water:  It’s no surprise this song shows up on New Ways But Love Stays, considering it was hugely popular at the time and would end up being covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley; written by Paul Simon and released by Simon & Garfunkel in early 1970, the song spent an astounding six weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Motown artists jumped on the song, and in 1970 alone it was performed by The Jackson Five, The Miracles, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder.  In preparing the song for The Supremes, producer Frank Wilson fills the track with obvious sound effects, from foghorns to claps of thunder, and continues the use of guitar reverb from the album’s previous selection.  These elements are perhaps a bit overdramatic, but fortunately the song is grounded by the vocals, which include solo lines from all three Supremes.  Mary, Cindy, and Jean offer up quiet, gentle readings, but even better than hearing their individual voices is hearing the gorgeous harmonies during the song’s memorable refrain.  The trio first breaks into three-part harmony at 1:44, on the words “I will lay thee down,” and it’s such a pure, crystal-clear sound that it suddenly becomes hard to imagine any rendition of the song without it.  The ability to sing in this kind of pitch-perfect harmony is what set the original Supremes — Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Florence Ballard — apart from other female groups at Motown; in Marc Taylor’s 2004 book The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group, Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes is quoted as saying, “We had to work at our harmony.  The Supremes could walk in and hit a song right away…What we did on each record was great, but on something like the Andrews Sisters’ material and songs like ‘Canadian Sunset’ that the Supremes could sing, we couldn’t do that” (127).  Because Motown became so reliant on using additional background singers in the studio, that three-part harmony eventually became restricted mainly to live performances; it’s nice to finally hear it on record again.  In a way, it serves as a bit of a nod to the group’s own history, along with the classic girl group legacy from which The Supremes were born.

5.  I Wish I Were Your Mirror:  Just as Holland-Dozier-Holland was producing hits on both The Supremes and The Four Tops in the mid-1960s, so was Frank Wilson revitalizing both groups at the dawn of the new decade.  Wilson also cut the song “I Wish I Were Your Mirror,” which he wrote with Pam Sawyer, for the Tops in early 1970; the song was included on the group’s hit album Still Waters Run Deep and later placed on the b-side of the top 40 single “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life).”  As performed by The Four Tops, “I Wish I Were Your Mirror” is a fairly straightforward Motown tune, with a lean beat and lyrics reminiscent of something H-D-H would have worked up in the mid-60s.  Here, it gets the same kind of makeover that “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” was treated to, which means the vocals and orchestration become more complex and the basic structure of the song less defined.  It’s a partly successful move; the expansion of the background vocals is strong, with The Supremes (and probably The Andantes) wailing “Look at me!” and “I wish that I were your mirror!”  However, the song becomes less memorable this time around due to the somewhat confusing arrangement that blurs the lines between the verses and refrains.  Had Frank Wilson chosen to give this one a more “classic” feel, it probably would have been stronger.  That said, the experimental feel works in the context of this album, and it’s certainly not the weakest track here.

Billboard: October 24, 1970

6.  Come Together:  This is a misguided cover of the classic John Lennon track, released by The Beatles in 1969 and covered countless times thereafter.  Diana Ross also recorded a version of this song in 1970; produced by Deke Richards, it was placed on her second solo LP, Everything Is Everything, and actually gained some airplay on soul radio stations at the time.  Diana’s version features a crisp, soulful reading of Lennon’s bizarre lyrics; it’s a clean, engaging recording that still sounds fresh.  The same cannot be said for this one; Jean Terrell mumbles through most of the song, a performance made even less successful by the heavy echo placed on her voice.  It’s nearly impossible to decipher what she’s singing, and the voices of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are totally buried.  The instrumental track itself is good; the blunt beat of the original Beatles record is retained, and there’s some funky organ work toward the end of the song that sounds great.  But considering The Supremes are a vocal trio, it’s hard to really justify a recording that seems to place the vocals as such a low priority.

7.  Is There A Place (In His Heart For Me):  This is a nice soul ballad co-written and produced by Clay McMurray, who’d already turned in some very strong selections on both Right On and The Magnificent Seven; happily, the winning streak continues with this recording.  McMurray’s track couldn’t be more buttery smooth if it tried, and Jean Terrell matches the band with a lead vocal that flows like honey.  The background harmonies are also rich and full; this is top-notch, sophisticated soul singing, the kind of which would become more and more prominent as the decade wore on, especially with the emergence of Philadelphia Soul.  According to the Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this recording was finished up in January of 1970, the timing of which suggests it might have initially been considered for inclusion on Right On.  It certainly sounds like it belongs on that earlier album, but because so much of New Ways But Love Stays is rather unorthodox, it’s actually nice to have something more familiar here, especially coming on the heels of the murky, mushy “Come Together.”  At more than four minutes in running time, “Is There A Place” does feel a tad rambling, and probably could have been cut by thirty seconds.  That said, it’s hard to complain about a recording that sounds this good; it’s the kind of song you listen to with your eyes closed, letting your mind wander as The Supremes sweetly serenade you.  (NOTE: A year later, McMurray would helm an almost identical version of this song for Gladys Knight and The Pips, which would be included on the If I Were Your Woman LP and placed on the b-side of the group’s hit “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong.)

8.  Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye:  Your enjoyment of this cut will probably depend on your tolerance level for the original version by Steam; released in 1969, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks (and was soon followed at the top by “Someday We’ll Be Together,” the last Supremes single featuring Diana Ross).  The peppy pop/rock tune probably wasn’t always looked at as a novelty (I’m not sure, since I wasn’t around at the time), but it certainly became one in the ensuing years, as the song became a fixture at sporting events and in television commercials.  This is actually a fairly successful cover of the song; it retains the “sunny” feel of the original while imbuing it with a more complex vocal arrangement.  Much of the song is delivered by The Supremes in unison, in a kind of trial run for the forthcoming hit “Nathan Jones” (released in April of 1971), but there are some lovely harmonies which really give this version its own identity.  I’m not personally a fan of the song itself, which is why this one rates lower for me; however, on its own merits, there’s not much fault to be found with this recording.

9.  Shine On Me:  This song gained a wide audience when it was placed on the b-side of the “Stoned Love” single; it had previously been cut by Frank Wilson on Motown singer Blinky for an album that was never released.  This is another song that’s light on structure and melody but heavy on mood and atmosphere; the track is sizzling, sun-kissed soul, with  just enough grit to make things interesting for listeners.  As with the album’s previous cut, the main draw here has to be the background harmonies; Wilson clearly had an ear for backgrounds that many of the producers who worked with The Supremes did not.  The lead vocals by Jean Terrell are also good; her lower register is really sultry at 0:29, as she sings the song’s title, and she hits a glorious high note at 2:28, as she climbs the scale singing “Shine on ME!”  The main criticism here is the patchwork feel of the musical arrangement; there’s really not a strong melody, and if there is, it’s lost in the way the song keep shifting between sections.  Perhaps that’s the point, though; The Supremes were clearly experimenting with musical styles and working to move beyond the sharp arrangements and crisp, catchy melodies of their Holland-Dozier-Holland past.

10.  Thank Him For Today:  New Ways But Love Stays closes with a song written by Vincent DiMirco, who’d written the earlier Supremes hit “Up The Ladder To The Roof.”  According to Frank Wilson in the liner notes to the 2000 box set The Supremes, DiMirco was “a Puerto Rican kid” from New York; he actually recorded for the Motown imprint Rare Earth, and his 1972 single “I Can Make It Alone” b/w “Come Clean” is available on The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 12A 1972.  Frank Wilson arranges “Thank Him For Today” as a peppy pop/soul tune, led by some nice Funk Brothers percussion; listen only to the beat, and there are some similarities to classic Motown hits like “Too Many Fish In The Sea” by The Marvelettes.  If Motown had decided to pull a second single from New Ways…, this might have been a good choice; it’s certainly not as memorable as “Stoned Love,” but there is a nice energy and it feels like a Supremes song in a way that much of the material on the album does not.  Jean Terrell offers up a fine lead vocal; she keeps her delivery fairly straight, which helps give a more “classic Motown” feel; the background vocals are fairly subdued, and there are moments that sound more “Andantes” than “Supremes” to me, but I’m not sure who’s back there.  In a neat touch, Wilson ends the song with a reprise of the dramatic piano chords that open “Stoned Love,” tying the end of the album back to the beginning.  It’s another example of his vision for creating a complete album for The Supremes, rather than a collection of a few hit singles surrounded by filler.

***

The Billboard 200: January 23, 1971

In her book Supreme Faith, Mary Wilson wrote of New Ways But Love Stays, “I still maintain this album should have been the record to put the Supremes back on top” (42).  Although it produced a solid hit with “Stoned Love,” the album charted relatively poorly, peaking at #68 on the Billboard 200 (and, surprisingly, didn’t even make the top 10 on the R&B side).  Part of this is likely due to the competition with The Magnificent Seven, released almost at the same time, and the fact that it followed Right On so closely; that the album only produced one single is also a probable cause for the low chart showing.  However, it’s hard to imagine what Motown would have chosen to follow “Stoned Love.”  Nothing else really sounds like a big hit here; “Thank Him For Today” probably wouldn’t have been a smash, and while “It’s Time To Break Down” is a great song, it sounds so ahead of its time that it’s hard to believe it would have made a huge impact at radio.  Instead, The Supremes and Frank Wilson immediately began work on what would be their next, and final, collaboration: Touch.  The first act of the “new” Supremes, orchestrated by the talented producer, was rapidly coming to a close.   

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (An Even Mix of “Sweet” and “Troubled”)

Paul’s Picks:  “Stoned Love,” “It’s Time To Break Down,” “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music”

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The Magnificent Seven (1970)

“Together we can make such sweet music…”

Anyone who thought The Supremes might take some time to regroup after the departure of lead singer Diana Ross in early 1970 was sorely mistaken.  A month after the group’s final performance with Ross, the first Supremes single with new lead Jean Terrell hit store shelves.  Two months after that, a full-length album with Terrell, titled Right On, was released.  A hectic performance schedule also continued, including a return to the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York, at which the group’s original lineup had made its historic debut in 1965.  Rave reviews poured in for the grouping of Terrell-Mary Wilson-Cindy Birdsong; in the Billboard column Soul Sauce, Ed Ochs wrote, “Praise is pouring in for Jean Terrell of the Supremes.  It’s her group now and they’re better than ever.  Some people say she’s even better at the helm than you know who…” (August 29, 1970).

At the same time The Supremes were enjoying a resurgence in popularity, so were longtime labelmates The Four Tops.  Like the Supremes, the Tops had struggled after the departure of songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown in the late 1960s; a run of top 20 pop hits ended in 1968.  Then, in March of 1970, the group released the now-classic Still Waters Run Deep, and it became one of their highest-charting albums ever.  The producer behind Still Waters Run Deep was Frank Wilson, the same man who’d just crafted the first two hit singles for the “new” Supremes; as he’d done for the female trio, Wilson portrayed the Tops as a more serious vocal group, giving them songs inspired by the current social climate.  Motown, of course, was never a company to miss a commercial opportunity, and with both groups enjoying simultaneous success under the same producer, it must have seemed a no-brainer to team them up for an album of collaborations.

The result was The Magnificent Seven, released in September of 1970.  The album features the work of several producers, including Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who had just scored a major success with Diana Ross on her solo debut.  Ashford & Simpson dusted off their classic “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” here, along with completely rearranging “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” that song which launched Diana’s solo career.  Clay McMurray, who’d handled a few of the tracks on Right On (including standout “Then We Can Try Again”), produced a quartet of songs here, and producer Duke Browner also turned in four tracks.  Considering it was the work of several producers, The Magnificent Seven ended up being a fairly cohesive album, and Jean Terrell and Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs are a match made in heaven.  That said, the abundance of covers is a drawback, and the material is uneven; there are some really great recordings here, but there are also a few that could have been left in the Motown vaults.

***

1.  Knock On My Door:  Not the “Three’s Company” theme song, although that would have been amazing; this is the album’s sole original tune, written by Patti Jerome (who recorded for Motown as P.J.) and Joe Hinton and produced by Duke Browner.  It’s a nice opener, a slice of mid-tempo folksy soul that bears similarities to the earlier Supremes/Temptations collaboration “The Weight,” issued as a single in 1969.  The thick, throaty vocals of Levi Stubbs take this one off the top, immediately lending the song the kind of urgency and passion that only he could summon; Stubbs is truly one of the great male soul vocalists of all time, and he always delivers.  When Jean Terrell’s smooth, silken voice takes over on the second verse, it becomes clear that this is a dynamic pairing; Jean is the silk to to Levi’s sandpaper, and the two voices spiral around one another like a pair of skilled dancers.  My favorite moment of the song comes at 1:53, when the two sing in perfect harmony; I wish there’d been more of that in the arrangement.  Meanwhile, the Tops and Supremes sound lovely in the background but their vocals are fairly restrained, leaving the focus squarely on the lead singers.  “Knock On My Door” isn’t a particularly memorable recording, but it’s a solid way to open the album, and certainly sends the message that these “new” Supremes are a perfect match for the seasoned Four Tops.

2.  For Your Love:  This is a slow, meandering version of the 1950s Ed Townsend hit, produced again by Duke Browner; Townsend’s original is a doo-wop classic, and remains a dreamy, lush example of the genre.  Unfortunately, this version just sounds creaky and outdated; it’s not similar enough to the original to serve as a throwback, nor is it modernized enough to be fresh.  The singers frankly sound a little lost in the arrangement; Levi Stubbs always gives a hundred percent, but the pace here is just so slow that he seems strained.  Similarly, Jean Terrell’s vocal is so unfocused that she kind of sounds like she’s making it all up as she goes along.  The two singers also keep referring to each other by name, to the point that it ceases to be authentic and sounds like they’re just trying to fill time until the song ends.  The best thing about “For Your Love” is the background work; the voices of the Supremes and Four Tops absolutely soar.

Billboard: July 29, 1972

3.  Without The One You Love:  Finally, a stunner.  “Without The One You Love” takes off like a rocket, with a heart-pounding instrumental track that won’t quit and some of the best vocal work on the album.  Interestingly, this is a cover of a Holland-Dozier-Holland song first recorded by…The Four Tops.  The group’s original version was released as a single in November of 1964, only the second from the guys on Motown; it was a moderate success, stopping just short of the pop top 40.  That version is classic H-D-H, set to a swinging beat similar to the one they’d use again for “I Hear A Symphony” the following year.  Here, producer Clay McMurray gives the song an exciting makeover, setting it to a driving beat and layering the track with an electric guitar and wild bongos.  Perhaps because they were familiar with the song, the Tops sound right at home here; their opening “Baby baby, I need your/Good, good lovin'” is a great hook, and when The Supremes finally join in a few seconds later, their high harmonies ring out like church bells.  Jean Terrell starts the first verse, and this is the best she’s sounded on record thus far; there’s a real confidence to her performance here, and she’s singing in her mid-range, which gives her a sexy maturity and reveals a nice depth to her voice.  Levi Stubbs attacks the second verse, his voice choked with emotion; you can practically feel the sweat pouring down his forehead.  Everything about this recording works; it grabs hold of the listener and refuses to let go until the final fade.  It’s likely that this one wasn’t considered for a single release in the United States due to the fact that it had already been done by The Four Tops; it’s too bad, because this should have been a monster hit (it was released in the UK and, interestingly, it did chart in Bangkok; it’s #21 on the July 29, 1972 list in Billboard).  It still sounds exciting today, and is easily the best cut on this album.

4.  Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand):  Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson worked up this version of their classic song right around the same time the original by Diana Ross was first released; her single hit shelves in April of 1970, and this one was finished up in May.  To those only familiar with the Ross version (which peaked at #20 on the Billboard Hot 100), this one will sound quite jarring; Ashford & Simpson do to it what they did with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” when updating it for Miss Ross, rearranging the entire thing and giving it a new feel entirely.  Diana’s “Reach Out And Touch” was glossy gospel-light, famously set to a waltz time signature and building to a powerful climax, giving the singer one of her first real opportunities to cut loose on a song and ad-lib over the chorus of background singers.  This time around, Ashford & Simpson put the climax up front, opening the track with The Supremes and Four Tops powerfully delivering the “bah-bah-bah” section with only a snare drum behind them.  The producers then layer in a swirling instrumental with fabulous strings; the strings are one of the real stars of this recording, and I’d wager the arrangement is the work of the great Paul Riser.  Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell each get a verse (although Jean’s is weirdly interrupted by another chorus of “bah-bahs”), and additional group members get some solo lines, too; Mary soulfully chimes in at 2:16, with the lines “We can change things/If we start giving” and then Jean raises the roof with “Why don’t you!”  The song takes a sudden shift soon after, with a new tempo taking over at 2:49; no longer a waltz, the groups repeat “Reach out, touch somebody” while various singers trade off ad-libs, the piece essentially becoming a jam session.  This section doesn’t really add much to the song, but it’s nice to finally hear Cindy get a few moments to herself.  At a total running time of 4:49, the final product is nearly two minutes longer than the Diana Ross version; credit must be given to Ashford & Simpson for refusing to just use the same arrangement and working to create something completely new.  Unfortunately, this version of “Reach Out And Touch” is just too disjointed to truly be successful; the various sections here don’t transition particularly well, and they’re not ordered in a way that makes much sense.  (NOTE: Fans in the UK will remember that this song was eventually issued as a single there.)

Billboard: November 14, 1970

5.  Stoned Soul Picnic:  As much Ashford & Simpson clearly enjoyed reworking existing tunes and dreaming up new, interesting arrangements, they don’t do that at all with this tune, which was written by Laura Nyro and made a huge hit by The Fifth Dimension in 1968.  This is a nearly note-for-note remake of the hit recording, which turns out to be a good call; “Stoned Soul Picnic” is a mood song, one that takes the listener on a journey, and Ashford & Simpson create a lovely instrumental track upon which the groups can simply do what they do best.  Thus far on The Magnificent Seven, the emphasis has mainly been on Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs, although everyone has turned in great work; here, for the first time, the groups themselves take center stage, singing as a single entity at times, and breaking into stunning harmonies at others.  Various group members get little bits in which his or her voice is pulled forward ever so slightly, but each of the voices works together in a way that only makes the collective choir seem stronger.  It’s not groundbreaking, since it was already done by The Fifth Dimension, but for my money, this version is every bit as breathtakingly beautiful; this is the kind of song you close you eyes to, letting the soft music dance around your mind.

6.  Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes):  A swinging classic that dates back to 1960, this emerges as a real showcase for the members of both The Supremes and The Four Tops, giving each of the seven singers a well-deserved solo.  Producer Clay McMurray dresses up the tune with a jazzy, big band arrangement; it sounds tailor-made for a glitzy Supremes Las Vegas engagement.  Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell play off of each other beautifully during the first two verses; there’s undeniable chemistry here, especially at :51, as Stubbs practically growls the lines “It takes a lot of woman/To knock me off my feet” and Terrell responds with a spirited “No doubt about it!”  Obie Benson and Mary Wilson take the next verse; he’s smooth as butter on his lines, and Mary practically steals the entire song with her sexy purr.  Cindy Birdsong finally gets more than a few words to herself, taking the first half of the final verse, and her soft, round soprano is a great fit for this song; the way she stretches the word “more” into two notes, dropping from the first to the second, is the kind of thing you’d expect from a jazz singer like Ella Fitzgerald.  Lawrence Payton and Duke Fakir round out this sensational group of vocalists, all of whom sound like they’re having an absolute blast in the studio.  Although the endless “asides” to one another (i.e. “Right on, Mama, right on!” and “Mary, you’re just too much!”) are a little kitschy, they’re impossible not to like, because they sound so genuine; this is such an unforced, pleasant recording that it still sounds fresh today, as though you’d sitting in the studio with the groups as they record it.

Billboard: November 21, 1970

7.  River Deep, Mountain High:  In the liner notes to the 2002 release The 70s Anthology, Mary Wilson recalled recording this song:  “We had so much fun in the studio that I’m sure it can be felt on the track.  Duke Fakir recently reminded me it was an all-night session with fried chicken and loads of laughs.”  Indeed, there is a palpable joy and excitement in this recording, which became the album’s only single in the United States.  Released on November 5, 1970 (two months after the LP hit shelves), Billboard predicted it would be “an out and out smash,” and it eventually peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #7 on the R&B chart in early 1971.  It probably could have climbed even higher on the charts, except that The Supremes were competing with themselves; their hit single “Stoned Love” (featured on the group’s next album, New Ways But Love Stays) was peaking in the top 10 at the exact same time.  “River Deep, Mountain High” was originally recorded by Tina Turner in 1966; co-written and produced by Phil Spector, the single famously flopped in the United States, sending Spector into seclusion.  The song had already been covered a few times before Ashford & Simpson produced it for this album; rather than do something dramatically different, Ashford & Simpson use the Spector-produced original as a starting point, then amp every element up, creating an explosive instrumental track led by Paul Riser’s screeching strings and a galloping beat.  There really does seems to be a current of electricity charging through this entire recording, starting with the musicians and running right through to the vocalists.  Levi Stubbs and Jean Terrell turn in perhaps their strongest vocal performances of the entire album; both are intense and fiercely committed to the material, injecting every word with emotion without coming off as melodramatic.  Likewise, the Supremes and Four Tops sound glorious in the background, their soaring voices filling out the already-packed backing track.  From start to finish, this is a stunning production; Turner’s original version will always be considered the classic, but this one is every bit as accomplished.  It speaks to the quality of this recording that even though it was released a full two months after the album and was climbing the charts simultaneously with another Supremes single, it still topped out as high on the pop and R&B listings as it did.  (NOTE: Check out the Jet Soul Brothers Top 20 chart from February 18, 1971, which for some reason lists “Rag Doll” as the title of this song!)

Jet: February 18, 1971

8.  Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing:  The final Ashford & Simpson production on this album is a cover of one of the duo’s most famous compositions; “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” was, of course, first done by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (no relation to Jean), who took it to #1 on the R&B charts in 1968.  A year later, the Ross-led Supremes covered the song with The Temptations on their joint LP Together, in a version produced by none other than Frank Wilson!  Here, Ashford & Simpson take a similar approach to their work on the album’s previous track; they don’t change the structure of the song much, but they do make it a bigger, bolder, and more dramatic production than the original version.  This rendition opens with a brief new introduction (the producers did the same thing on their remake of “You’re All I Need To Get By” for Diana Ross, adding a slow-burning intro) before a clomping beat takes over and the tune’s familiar melody takes over.  The track here is heavy on sweet, swirling strings, which are beautifully performed; the big harmonies of the Four Tops and Supremes are also a gorgeous addition to the song.  The previous Supremes version of this song, led by Diana Ross and David Ruffin, was good but lacked fire; the leads here have no trouble summoning up the appropriate intensity, giving this recording a soul and maturity that even the brilliant original doesn’t quite have.  It’s hard to hear this song in any version and not crave the simmering passion generated between Marvin and Tammi; their hit version is magical.  But of the many, many recordings of this great song, this has got to rank among the best; there’s magic here, too.

9.  Everyday People:  This is another one that had already been recorded by The Supremes; the Sly and the Family Stone original topped the charts for several weeks in February/March of 1969, and Diana Ross recorded it around the same time for the Supremes LP Let The Sunshine In.  “Everyday People” is one of the most iconic songs of the late 1960s, still showing up in films and television commercials today.  Producer Clay McMurray doesn’t tamper with the song; the backing track here is nearly identical to that of the original.  Certainly if anyone was up for the challenge of this boisterous, soulful song, it was The Supremes and Four Tops; unfortunately, the track is cut in key that doesn’t work well for Jean Terrell nor Levi Stubbs, and both singers deliver really strained vocal performances.  Just listen to the first verse, during which Jean Terrell is reaching so high that she sounds out of breath; it’s the weakest she’s sounded on the album.  Levi Stubbs is likewise forced to jump all over the scale to make his verse work, and he sounds like he’s about to burst a blood vessel at 1:15, as he goes for a high note.  I wonder if perhaps the track wasn’t even recorded with these two groups in mind; that would explain why it sounds so wrong for the leads.

10.  It’s Got To Be A Miracle (This Thing Called Love):  This is a fascinating choice for The Magnificent Seven, a Motown gem first recorded by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston in 1966 and featured on the b-side of their hit single “It Takes Two.”  Written by William Stevenson, Vernon Bullock, and Sylvia Moy, this version was produced again by Clay McMurray, who’d already delivered one sterling Motown cover (“Without The One You Love”) and does the same thing here.  This song is a smooth soul ballad, and ends up being a perfect match for the groups; Lawrence Payton takes over the male lead on this one, and offers up a superb reading.  Mr. Payton’s voice is strong and soulful; he sings with such an assuredness you’d assume he always carried the lead.  At times, his voice actually sounds a little like Marvin Gaye’s; listen at 1:30, as he repeats the words “we know,” and it’s impossible to miss the rough-edged similarity.  Payton’s voice plays nicely against that of Jean Terrell, who gives an ultra-relaxed performance here; this is one of those classic Terrell vocals that sounds so effortless you wonder if she was just born singing.  The two leads are supported by a supple instrumental track with some standout guitar work, and surrounded by the heavenly voices of their groupmates.  It’s hard to believe this song wasn’t released at least as a b-side at some point in the United States (although it was on the flip of the “River Deep, Mountain High” single in the UK); my vote for a single from this album would have been “Without The One You Love” backed with this cut.  I think both could have generated major airplay; certainly this lovely ballad could have done well on the R&B side.

11.  A Taste Of Honey:  Duke Browner produced this cover of the Herb Alpert classic;  within the Motown fold, The Temptations notably covered the song on their In A Mellow Mood LP, and the Tops had also cut a version back in 1966, although it went unreleased for decades.  Those earlier Motown versions kept much more in line with the “swinging ’60s” feel most commonly associated with the popular song; here, Browner turns it into a funk workout, setting the song to a driving beat underscored by a jamming bassline.  It’s a really good track; it’s hard not to bounce along to, and the Hitsville musicians lend it a real fire and intensity.  That said, “A Taste Of Honey” has such a pretty, wistful melody that it’s a shame to see it get lost in this arrangement; Jean and Levi riff all over the place, as one would expect in such a funky setting, but it robs the song of its charm.  Unlike the best cuts on this album, and particularly following the laid-back ecstasy of the previous track, the lead vocalists seem to be trying too hard here; this is a song for which a little restraint likely would have made a big difference.

12.  Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music:  The Magnificent Seven closes out with a song that would soon become very familiar to Supremes fans; along with being featured as the b-side to the “River Deep, Mountain High” single in the US, this same song would open the trio’s next LP (New Ways But Love Stays), released in October.  The two versions are totally different; this one was produced by Duke Browner again, while the Four Tops-less recording came at the hands of Frank Wilson.  Amazingly, they were completed within just days of one another; Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City lists the finishing date for this version as May 18, 1970 and the finishing date for the New Ways version just two days earlier, on May 16 (and to add to the mix, Clay McMurray, who produced four tracks on this album, also helmed this song for The Spinners a month earlier, in April 1970!).  Taken on its own, this recording is a fine piece of work; it’s a fairly straightforward song, with a track reminiscent of some of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duets of the 1960s.  The vocalists do a nice job with the tune, with Jean Terrell particularly relaxed and assured on her solo verse.  The problem is that because they were basically recorded and released at the same time, it’s hard not to compare the two versions from The Supremes; in that race, the Supremes-only reading comes out on top, because it’s a far more modern and exciting production.  It’s a dynamic opener on the New Ways But Love Stays album; here, it’s a good closer.

***

Although it featured a top 20 hit in “River Deep, Mountain High,” The Magnificent Seven was a poor seller in the states, only managing a peak of #113 on the Billboard 200; a Supremes album hadn’t charted so low since Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform “Funny Girl” in 1968.  There are likely two major reasons for this; first, Motown waited two months to release a single from the album, and second, The Supremes and Four Tops were competing against themselves.  Check out the Album Reviews page from Billboard on October 24, 1970; there’s one album by The Supremes, one by The Four Tops, and this one by the groups together.  Oversaturating the market certainly didn’t help any of these albums; none of them cracked the pop top 50.

Billboard: October 24, 1970

Still, the chemistry was undeniable enough that Motown would pair The Supremes and Four Tops again…and again.  And that chemistry is what makes this album listenable today.  The Magnificent Seven is an uneven album in terms of quality; nothing is a total disaster, but there are some songs here that could have been replaced with better cuts left sitting the vaults for years.  At the same time, there are some great tracks, but there’s not necessarily one that truly sounds like a classic (although, for my money, “Without The One You Love” comes close).  Through it all, it’s the extraordinary talent of these groups that shines most, and the obvious fact that they were having one hell of a “magnificent” time making the album.

Final Analysis: 3/5 (Good, With A “Taste” Of Great)

Paul’s Picks:  “Without The One You Love,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Stoned Soul Picnic”

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Right On (1970)

“Come with me…and we shall run across the sky…”

November 6, 1969.  American magazine Jet carries the official announcement, confirming something that’s been long rumored:  DIANA ROSS TO LEAVE SUPREMES; ERNIE TERRELL’S SISTER ADDED.  After nearly a decade on the Motown label, The Supremes are now international superstars with a stunning string of #1 pop hits; Diana Ross has become the focal point of the group, singing lead on every one of those hits and dominating press coverage surrounding the trio.  According to the article, “Miss Ross now feels The Supremes — Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong — and she have reached the highest plateau possible in their particular branches of the entertainment world.”  In other words, she’s ready to climb to new peaks as a solo artist.  While few can be really surprised at the news of Diana’s departure, it’s the second half of that headline that raises many eyebrows, not to mention an important question: Who is Jean Terrell?

Supremes manager Shelly Berger has the answer:  “Berry [Gordy Jr., Motown founder] and I happened to be in Miami Beach, and the boxer Ernie Terrell invited us to come and see a show he was doing in the lounge at the Fontainebleau Hotel.  His sister Jean stepped onstage and she looked sensational and she sounded great.  Berry said, ‘We’ve found our new lead singer'” (Supremes box set booklet).  Terrell signed a solo contract with Motown, but was soon recording with Wilson and Birdsong; recording dates really picked up in the immediate aftermath of the group’s final show with Diana Ross, held on January 14, 1970.  Producer Frank Wilson worked up part of the “new” group’s debut album, including its two singles; Mr. Wilson was part of the team behind the hits “Love Child” and “I’m Livin’ In Shame” for the Ross-led Supremes, and he’d produced their popular collaborations with The Temptations.  Terrell, Wilson, and Birdsong also worked with Johnny Bristol, as he’d produced the recent #1 hit “Someday We’ll Be Together” for Diana Ross and The Supremes; a Bristol production called “Life Beats” was floated as a possibility for the new lineup’s first single, but it was shelved.

Interestingly, while Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson took Diana Ross straight into soul territory with her debut album, Diana Ross, producers went the other way with The Supremes, layering in elements of blues, rock, and folk music right from the very beginning.  These sounds would become more prominent over the next few albums, but they’re present on Right On, with Frank Wilson in particular casting the trio almost as ethereal beings of love, their voices floating around bouncy instrumental tracks and never getting too heavy to bog down the songs.  Although it surely wasn’t planned or intended, the end result is that Diana and The Supremes never really competed against each other in terms of musical style, something that helped each establish a separate identity.  The message of “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love,” for example, mirrors that of Diana’s “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” but the latter song is best described as glossy gospel-pop while the former uses acoustic sounds and a shuffling twang to evoke an earthier sound.

The world finally got to hear Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong as The Supremes on February 15, 1970, when the trio appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to perform the new single “Up The Ladder To The Roof.”  A day later, the song was released to the public, and met with universal acclaim (Billboard called it “a blockbuster”).  By May, The Supremes were back at the prestigious Copacabana nightclub in New York, thrilling fans including writer Cordell S. Thompson, who in his Jet column described Terrell as “a lively little spark plug” (May 7, 1970).  Nobody could have asked for a better relaunch of the group, and Right On emerged as an exciting announcement of a new chapter for The Supremes.

***

 1. Up The Ladder To The Roof:  “First for the girls with Jean Terrell in the lead is a blockbuster” raved Billboard on February 28, 1970, and soon thereafter the single would race up the charts, eventually peaking at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B side, along with returning The Supremes to the top 10 in the United Kingdom.  Indeed, this is a stunning single, and Frank Wilson would later remember its inception in the liner notes to the 2000 box set The Supremes: “[It came from] a Puerto Rican kid, Vince DiMirco, in New York.  I just loved the melody and chorus, and I came back to Detroit and re-wrote it to fit Jean.  The girls were working live so much I’d cut the tracks, get on an airplane and go to where they were.  We may have recorded the vocals in Vegas or D.C.”  Session notes list the track recording date as January 30, 1970; that was a Friday, and just two weeks later (Friday the 13th, to be exact), the group was preparing to make its debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that weekend.  “Up The Ladder To The Roof” opens with a gentle call to listeners, the ladies seductively crooning “Come with me…” in unison, before the track slowly picks up steam and builds into a funk-lite workout with a galloping beat and potent combination of percussion, strings, and horns.  Jean Terrell possesses a smooth soprano; at its best, her voice sounds completely effortless, as though the sounds are simply falling from her mouth without any strain at all.  That’s the case here; even as she reaches for higher notes or engages in some light riffing, she’s never audibly “working” at the performance.  Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong each get a brief solo during the song’s chorus (that’s Mary, and then Cindy, repeating the words “Where we can be”), allowing the women a nice opportunity to shine and creating a real group sound, as opposed to a solo singer with background vocalists.  This was apparently a deliberate move by Frank Wilson, who described his task as producer: “To guide the soloist do you don’t lose the power of the song itself, then, of course, then ability of Mary and Cindy to participate in the song and really sing” (Supremes booklet).  In the end, “Up The Ladder To The Roof” more than accomplished its difficult job, which was to smoothly bridge the transition from Diana Ross and The Supremes back to Then Supremes, and it emerges as easily the best song on Right On.

“Up The Ladder To The Roof” peaks at #3 on Jet magazine’s music chart on April 30, 1970

2.  Then We Can Try Again:  According to website Don’t Forget The Motor City, this one was produced by Clay McMurray, who also produced the #1 R&B hit “If I Were Your Woman” for Gladys Knight and The Pips that same year.  Written by McMurray with James Dean (who’d co-written “Everything Is Good About You” for The Supremes back in ’65), this is a swinging tune with a nice, earthy feel anchored by some powerful piano work and joyous horns.  The song gives Miss Terrell more of a workout than the previous track; she’s as relaxed as she was on “Up The Ladder To The Roof,” but allowed to be a bit more soulful and put some power behind her vocals.  Listen at 1:19, as she delivers the lyrics “Boy you made me do it/I’m leavin’ against my will” — she nails the notes with confidence while retaining a kind of lightness to her voice that’s really appealing.  Terrell is backed by a lovely choir of voices, but it’s tough to tell exactly who those voices belong to; it could be The Supremes, it could be session singers, or it could be a combination of both.  Certainly the distinct vocals of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong aren’t definable here, as they were on the album’s lead single.  That said, this is a terrific recording, and one of the best songs on Right On; it probably wouldn’t have been a big hit if released as a single, but it’s a memorable recording that’s hard to resist singing along to.

Billboard: August 15, 1970

3.  Everybody’s Got The Right To Love:  This song was the second single lifted from Right On; released on June 25, 1970, it just missed the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at #21) and similarly missed the top 10 of the R&B chart by one spot.  This is another Frank Wilson production, and the tune was penned by the prolific Lou Stallman, who also composed the classic “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle,” made a hit by both The Royalettes and Deneice Williams.  “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love” boasts a “peace, love, and understanding” message evocative of the early 1970s; as noted earlier, its message is similar to that of “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” which was released the same month as Right On.  Wilson’s arrangement gives the song a distinctive twang; performed by a different group, it might be considered more country-pop than soul.  The instrumental here is driven by a finger-snapping beat and jangling guitars, with the lighter-than-air vocals delicately placed atop the band.  The song is another great showcase for the vocals of all three Supremes, featuring nice harmony on the chorus and plenty of “shout-outs” for Mary and Cindy.  Miss Terrell delivers much of the first verse in her lower register, and it’s an appealing change of pace; when she returns to her now-familiar higher voice, she keeps it fairly restrained here, smartly letting the lyrics take center stage and resisting any urge to oversing.  In her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, Mary Wilson remembered first hearing the Frank Wilson-produced songs, including this one: “As the three of us listened to the instrumental tracks over the huge studio monitor speakers, we beamed with happiness.  We’d spent part of the past six months working with several great producers, but no one had created a sound as fresh and well-suited to us as this” (12).  Indeed, Frank Wilson was emerging as a perfect match for Terrell-Wilson-Birdsong, and this song is a standout.

Jet: September 24, 1971 (Notice who’s one spot below The Supremes!)

4.  Wait A Minute Before You Leave Me:  Jean Terrell is backed by a crowd of voices that don’t sound much like The Supremes on this charging tune.  One of the writers credited here is William Garrett, who also co-wrote Motown first #1 pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman” back in 1961; another co-writer is Al Hamilton, who Don’t Forget The Motor City credits with producing this track, under the name Al Kent.  Billboard‘s original spotlight review on this album listed this one as a standout cut; it certainly features one of the most energetic instrumental tracks, with a driving beat and fiery, gospel-esque piano chords.  The background arrangement is great; again, there are a lot of voices here (Wilson and Birdsong may or may not be among them), and the bigger sound nicely adds to the excitement of the production.  What drags the song down a bit is Jean Terrell’s work; although she’s technically in fine voice, she seems to be a bit detached from the song, resting on the beat rather than leading it.  Even when she’s ad-libbing, there’s not much fire to her performance; for someone begging “Wait a minute before you leave!” you’d expect something more explosive (listen to “Bad Weather,” released by the group a few years later, and you’ll hear how capable Terrell is of “fire”).  Although it doesn’t seem like the standout that Billboard pegged it to be, this is strong filler and a worthy addition to the album.

5.  You Move Me:  This is another Garrett-Hamilton tune, and if any song on Right On brings to mind the sound of the 1960s Supremes, this is it.  To my ears, this one actually sounds a little like “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin'” from 1968’s Love Child; there’s an inherent playfulness in both songs, right down to the coy, almost childlike delivery by the respective lead singers.  The lyrics here are what really take it back to classic Motown territory; lines like “You fill my life with so much joy/You’re like a child with a brand new toy” and You take my frown and turn it up upside down” certainly evoke early Hitsville songwriters, especially set against this bouncy beat.  This is one of Jean Terrell’s most exiting vocals on Right On; understandably, considering this is the singer’s first-ever full length album, she tends to approach most of the songs in the same way, not necessarily displaying a wide range of tones and textures in her voice.  But on “You Move Me,” the singer delivers a gentle lead performance and some really stunning high notes, as the arrangement forces her way, way up to the top of her vocal register.  Although producer Frank Wilson would later comment that he tried hard to break the “new” Supremes out from the H-D-H mold, this is a case in which a throwback works; listened to today, “You Move Me” stands out as a classy nod to the group’s historic past.

6.  But I Love You More:  Speaking of Frank Wilson, this is his third production on Right On, a song that would be featured on the b-side to the single release of “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love.”  This track was co-written by Wilson and Sherlie Matthews, one of Motown’s West Coast background singers known as The Blackberries; The Blackberries also recorded the song, and their unreleased version was eventually featured on The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 12A: 1972.  “But I Love You More” is one of only two true love ballads on Right On; backed by a buttery instrumental track, the ladies deliver a sultry and soulful reading, with Wilson and Birdsong getting in some great “oh, yeahs” that really stand out (in a way, the song can be looked at as a forerunner to “Touch,” which Frank Wilson would write and produce for the group the following year).  This song did gain some airplay on its own; in the July 4, 1970 issue of Billboard, it was mentioned by WGR Buffalo’s Larry Anderson as a “Best Leftfield Pick” for radio programmers.  Though it likely wouldn’t have hit big on pop radio, this song could have been a strong R&B performer had it been promoted on its own.

7.  I Got Hurt (Trying To Be The Only Girl In Your Life):  This is another tune produced by Clay McMurray, and similar to the earlier “Then We Can Try Again,” it’s an earthy production with a chugging beat and strong lead vocal.  Also like that earlier song, Terrell is backed by session singers which may or may not include Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong.  Interestingly, in the first appendix to her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson notes a December 31, 1970 recording date for this song, which would have been during the final engagement of Diana Ross and The Supremes at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.  This could explain the presence of all those session singers; it’s possible producer McMurray went ahead and recorded the song with Terrell and other singers while Wilson and Birdsong were busy fulfilling their live performance obligations, and perhaps they added their vocal later.  In any case, although it’s not the most memorable recording on the album, it’s a solid one.

Billboard: July 24, 1965

8.  Baby Baby:  Frank Wilson produced this version of a song he’d already produced on The Miracles back in 1966 (not to be confused with “Ooh Baby Baby”); it was written by The Lewis Sisters, who recorded a few sides for Motown and wrote a bunch of songs for other artists.  This version is bold and dramatic, and the most rock-oriented recording featured on Right On; it’s easy to imagine a male-fronted rock band of the era covering this one.  It’s a huge change from the doo-wop arrangement of the earlier Miracles rendition, and for my money, this one is a major improvement.  Jean Terrell gets to show some nice range here, starting the song in a lower, breathier register before letting loose with more power as the tune progresses.  I especially like the combination of all three voices at 1:43 in, as the trio delivers the lyrics “Keep me baby/Yeah, love me baby!” — you can really hear Mary Wilson wailing.  Although it’s not particularly useful to compare the 70s Supremes and Diana Ross (talk about opening a can of worms amongst die-hard fans), there are some parallels between this and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the #1 hit from Diana’s debut album.  Both are dramatically arranged updates of existing Motown songs, and both stand out on their respective albums as declarations of love from a mature woman’s point of view.  It’s interesting to ponder how this track would have done had it been serviced to radio; considering popular music was becoming more and more experimental by 1970, it’s possible it could have picked up steam and attracted an even wider audience to the music of The Supremes.

Billboard: May 30, 1970

9.  Take A Closer Look At Me:  Right On returns to more familiar territory with this track, produced by Henry Cosby, who’d been responsible for some of the songs on the 1969 Diana-led Supremes LP Let The Sunshine In.  This song actually would have fit pretty well on that earlier album; it’s a peppy pop/soul song with a strong instrumental track that sounds more traditionally “Motown” than many of the other selections here.  That’s probably why Billboard named this one as a “top performance” in its original review of the album; it’s more expected than something like the previous track, “Baby Baby.”  Also like the songs from Let The Sunshine In, the background voices here sound like those of The Andantes; listen at 2:10, when the background singers briefly take over –it’s clearly not The Supremes.  There seems to be a notion among some fans and critics that as soon as Diana Ross left The Supremes, producers stopped using other voices to supplement the group’s recordings.  This simply isn’t true; The Supremes were on the road constantly in those days, and producers sometimes used other background singers simply to save time.

10.  Then I Met You:  This is the album’s second real love ballad, an absolutely gorgeous song that is so good it’s hard to believe it wasn’t covered constantly over the next few years.  This one was written and produced by Jimmy Roach, who’d co-written the David Ruffin hit “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” a year earlier.  Roach worked with most of the big Motown groups after he arrived in Detroit (check out this interesting interview with Mr. Roach here, in which he briefly mentions this song).  It’s a wonder that he didn’t handle more cuts on Right On, considering how strong this one is; the swirling instrumental track just seems to float on air, and Jean Terrell matches it with an effortless, unadorned vocal performance.  The background vocals are achingly pretty; they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best group work of the era, rivaling masterpieces like “Baby, I’m For Real” by The Originals and “Just My Imagination” by The Temptations.  Those songs were huge hits, and this one could have been, too; had it followed “Up The Ladder To The Roof” as a single, perhaps it could have topped the R&B charts.  This is a real gem, and a must-listen for fans of 70s soul.

11.  Bill, When Are You Coming Back:  This song has the distinction of being the second one fans heard from the “new” Supremes, as it was placed on the b-side of the “Up The Ladder To The Roof” single.  It was produced by Johnny Bristol of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” who co-wrote it with Pamela Sawyer, and the track was cut back on November 14, 1969, a full two months before Diana Ross gave her final performance with The Supremes.  It makes sense that Bristol was working with The Supremes so soon; Motown had long held the philosophy that a producer who’d had a hit with a particular group immediately got the chance to do it again; that’s also why Bristol cut “These Things Will Keep Me Loving  You” for Diana Ross, the only song on her debut album not penned and produced by Ashford & Simpson.  “Bill, When Are You Coming Back” is actually similar in style to the Ross song; the tracks sound like they could have been cut at the same session.  This song, however, boasts a timelier message, as Jean Terrell sings about waiting for her soldier to return home (her voice, by the way, sounds oddly slowed-down at times).  It’s an energetic, catchy song, but hasn’t aged quite as well as some of the others here; although it’s a very good recording, it doesn’t quite feel like the step forward for The Supremes as several of the other tracks do.

12.  The Loving Country:  Right On appropriately closes out with a Frank Wilson production; this one was written by Smokey Robinson and Ivy Jo Hunter, and according to Don’t Forget The Motor City, Hunter had already recorded it for his unreleased album Ivy Jo Is In This Bag.  Mary Wilson would describe this song as a “call for universal love” in The 70s Anthology liner notes, and indeed the song fits in perfectly with something like “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love,” which carries a similar message.  It’s not quite as memorable as that song, however, partly due to a more complex melody and an unorthodox arrangement that features a soulful “breakdown” section starting at 2:40.  The Supremes and The Andantes back Jean up beautifully; the high notes of Louvain Demps are all over this one.  Though there is better material on Right On, this is a solid closer and certainly drives home the message that The Supremes were being positioned as beacons of love for the new decade.

***

The original LP release featured this great tear-away poster — how gorgeous is this?

Right On was released in April of 1970 and was a solid success, peaking at #25 on the Billboard 200 and #4 on the R&B Albums chart.  It’s a remarkably cohesive album, considering it’s the work of multiple producers; not since Love Child in 1968 had the group turned out something so listenable from start to finish.  But more than that, it marked an important step forward for the group; not just a step away from Diana Ross, but a step into a new decade.  Popular music was changing, and the glitzy Supremes needed to change with it; thankfully, the producers tasked with working on new material for the group clearly sensed that, delivering a set of songs that were modern at the time and have aged rather well.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of pressure Jean Terrell faced, an unknown stepping into the shoes of the most worshipped woman in popular music.  But Terrell knocks it out of the park; although she approaches many of the songs in the same way here, leading certain tracks to blend in with one another, her gift is undeniable and her confidence would grow with each successive album.  This is an engaging, polished effort with a pair of memorable hits and some gems just crying out to be discovered.  When it comes to setting the stage for the group’s next act, this album is, indeed, Right On.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (Worth a “Closer Look”)

Paul’s Picks:  “Up The Ladder To The Roof,” “Then I Met You,” “Then We Can Try Again”

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COMING IN JUNE: The Summer of the (70s) Supremes

I guess the cat’s out of the bag (since I accidentally hit “Publish” instead of “Save” on my latest post) that THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT is about to dive in to a new series.  Starting June 1st, we’ll be going in-depth on every album released by the 1970s Supremes.  I can’t promise an “intimate look at the new Supremes,” as was announced on this Jet cover from 1971, but I hope to inspire some discussion about this fascinating and often-overlooked period of the group’s career.

I’ve been researching the 70s Supremes for quite some time, intending to write about the group’s output between 1970 (Right On) and 1976 (Mary, Scherrie & Susaye) in some fashion, but have always hesitated making it an “official” part of THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT.  After all, Miss Ross had nothing to do with those albums, and the original intention here was to focus solely on her lengthy recording career.  There’s also, in my opinion, far too much negative discussion surrounding the differences between Diana’s solo career and that of the Supremes post-Ross; many view the two discographies as competing entities, comparing everything from chart statistics to singing styles.  I’ve always been concerned that reviewing and researching latter-day Supremes albums would dredge up more of that kind of debate, something I’m not interested in.

But recent comments from readers (you guys know who you are!) have convinced me that this is the right place for an in-depth look at the 70s Supremes.  It’s a logical continuation of my writing about the 60s Supremes, and I don’t think it’s fair to ignore an entire section of the group’s discography.  As Motown legend Louvain Demps of The Andantes recently told me during our interview, “They can never erase history.”  Diana Ross herself has acknowledged the contributions of the 70s Supremes in keeping the group’s legacy alive, and I think it’s appropriate to analyze how the trio’s music changed and evolved in the wake of its famous lead singer’s departure.

So, look out for my review of Right On (1970) on June 1st, and please join in the discussion.  As always, I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say…in the words of our favorite ladies, “Together we can make such sweet music.”

 

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