Mary, Scherrie & Susaye (1976)

“Together we stand, hand in hand…”

“‘You’re My Driving Wheel’ is the new single by the Supremes from their forthcoming album titled, ‘Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.’  The record on the Motown label sounds like a hit. This is probably the funkiest thing the girls have ever done,” raved Tom Moulton in his “Disco Mix” column in Billboard (November 6, 1976), giving fans plenty of reason to be optimistic about the trio’s latest release.  The new album came just six months after the release of High Energy, the most successful Supremes project in years; that album had been produced by Brian Holland and executive produced by his brother, Eddie, and it brought the trio a Top 40 hit and dance smash with “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.”  Rather than follow that song with another single from High Energy, the producers quickly assembled this new album and released “You’re My Driving Wheel” as the lead single.

Billboard: December 11, 1976
A good week for Susaye Greene, with “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Free” making the Billboard Hot 100

“For the title of what was to be our final album we chose Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, to give ourselves some individual name recognition,” says Mary Wilson in the liner notes to The 70s Anthology, a move that makes sense given that Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene were the eighth and ninth women to become official Supremes.  Greene was the newest, replacing Cindy Birdsong in early 1976; her voice had been dubbed onto two of High Energy‘s tracks, but this would be her first full LP with the group.  In Susaye Greene, the Hollands were given a different kind of Supreme to work with; her multi-octave range and unique tone provided some interesting opportunities for new sounds and vocal blends.  Both Payne and Greene were also accomplished songwriters, although neither got the chance to write for the group; interestingly, a week after “You’re My Driving Wheel” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, the Susaye Greene-penned “Free” (by Deniece Williams) followed it there, charting one position higher.

What nobody knew when Mary, Scherrie & Susaye hit store shelves in October was that it would be the final studio album from The Supremes, ending a storied career at Motown that began in January of 1961.  Like the group’s very first album, 1962’s Meet The Supremes, this one didn’t even make the album charts, and its singles only scraped the lowest reaches of the Billboard Hot 100.  “I was frustrated and disappointed,” wrote Mary Wilson in The 70s Anthology. “It was time to do something.”  That something, of course, was to go solo; Wilson left the group less than a year after the release of this album, and eventually Payne and Greene abandoned the “Supremes” name, too, releasing a joint album on Motown of their own compositions.  It would be a quiet end to the group which had undeniably changed the course of popular music history, breaking down barriers for artists of color and women and inspiring generations to come.

The real shame is that Mary, Scherrie & Susaye is one of the most interesting and experimental albums to ever come from the group; it’s perhaps not as sonically seamless as High Energy, but it takes far more risks, giving the trio of singers challenging material and using their voices in clever, unusual ways.  Ironically, the three songs which got the most attention (“You’re My Driving Wheel,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good”) are the most formulaic on the album, all three the kind of frenzied disco recordings one would expect of the era.  But the deep cuts are the ones that really stand out, proving that this latest (and final) incarnation of The Supremes was capable of delivering exciting performances which could have evolved the group further, had it been given the chance.

***

Billboard: November 13, 1976

1.  You’re My Driving Wheel:  The album’s first single and most recognizable song, this was released on September 30, 1976; listed together with “Let Yourself Go” and “Love I Never Knew,” the song ended up peaking at #5 on the National Disco chart in Billboard in January of 1977 (incidentally, labelmate Thelma Houston held the top spot at the time with “Don’t Leave Me This Way”/”Anyway You Like It” and Stevie Wonder was at #3 with “Another Star”/”I Wish”/”Sir Duke”/”Isn’t She Lovely”).  Written by Brian Holland, Reginald Brown, Stafford Floyd, and Harold Beatty, “You’re My Driving Wheel” is a banging, breathless song that starts out zooming at 100 miles per hour and never lets up; the track is the musical equivalent of a car careening out of control on a winding mountain road.  The arrangement is marked by thunderous work on the keyboards and the punctuations of a terrific funk brass section; all of it, of course, set atop a racing beat tailor-made for disco clubs.  Scherrie Payne takes the lead and unleashes the full power of her pipes, blasting her way through the track like a stick of dynamite.  Miss Payne has a skillful, crisp way of delivering lyrics, enunciating each word while never losing momentum, which makes her a perfect fit for this kind of rapid-paced production; although her tone is thick and gutsy, there’s enough lightness to her voice to keep her from getting swamped by the very busy instrumental track.  Of course, she’s well-supported by Mary and Susaye, who absolutely belt behind her, practically screaming out the words, “You’re my driving wheel!”  Greene, in particular, adds in a lot of nice little flourishes, using her voice like an instrument and contributing to the tapestry of sounds.  It’s not hard to understand why this song did so well in clubs at the time; it spent several months on both the national and regional disco charts.  That said, it’s also not that hard to understand why it didn’t do so well at radio; “You’re My Driving Wheel” peaked at a dismal #85 on the Billboard Hot 100, and only managed #50 on the R&B side.  The issue, I think, it how cluttered and frantic the whole thing is; there’s absolutely no breathing room here, and it’s exhausting to listen to without any real valleys to balance out the peaks.  Something like this works for the dancefloor, of course, but not necessarily elsewhere.

2.  Sweet Dream Machine:  A sultry, low-key number with elements of funk and jazz laced into the danceable track, this is one of the album’s clear highlights; although it never seems to have shown up on any of Billboard‘s regional disco charts, I imagine it got some play, as it’s hard to imagine clubs ignoring this sterling cut.  Led off by quivering vibes and slowly intensifying beat, the musicians here offer up some sweet, jazzy flourishes before Scherrie Payne begins singing, her voice hushed to a sexy whisper.  Payne is beautifully controlled in her delivery, once again displaying a real gift for interpreting lyrics in a crisp, concise way.  Mary Wilson takes over on the second verse, singing with the kind of gutsy soul she’d displayed on “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” from High Energy; Wilson has commented that the addition of Susaye Greene to the group helped her feel more “free” in her singing, and this is the first indication of increased risk-taking from the singer on Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.  Although Greene doesn’t have any solo parts on “Sweet Dream Machine,” her presence is more than felt with her superb background work and some nice stand-out vocal moments, like her sustained high note at 3:38.  All three Supremes strongly contribute to the success of the song, but in the end, it’s the gorgeous production that sets it apart; this is a classy, elegant recording that transcends the boundaries of disco with its fabulous instrumental track and smart arrangement.  Written by the Hollands and Harold Beatty, there’s a great bridge starting at 2:07 which sounds like an updated version of the kind of musical break one would expect from a 1960s Motown hit, and the final minute-and-a-half of the song’s running time is taken up by the hypnotic repetition of “You’re into me/I’m into you/Wooo!/Sweet Dream Machine” (also notice the muted male voice that surfaces during this final section, a great touch).  “Sweet Dream Machine” is a terrific addition to the album, and still sounds fresh today.

Billboard: January 8, 1977

3.  Let Yourself Go:  Though this isn’t one of the more familiar Supremes songs, it is one for the history books; when “Let Yourself Go” was issued on January 25, 1977, it became the final single ever released by the group in the United States, capping off a singles discography that stretched back to March 9, 1961 and the release of “I Want A Guy.”  Sadly, like that first single, “Let Yourself Go” missed the Billboard Hot 100 completely, although it managed to just squeak onto the R&B chart at #83 and topped out at #5 on the National Disco Action Top 40 chart, listed alongside “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good.”  As with this album’s first single (“You’re My Driving Wheel”), this is a densely-produced, frenzied disco cut that speeds out of the gate and never looks back.  Scherrie Payne again takes the lead, and she sounds terrific; “Let Yourself Go” features a feel-good lyric and boasts a strong melody (written by the Hollands and Beatty, again), and Payne sells both with ease.  The problem is that the melody and lyric get lost a bit in the frantic production; there is absolutely no wiggle room here, and the track is so thick with sound that it’s hard to step back and appreciate the musicality of the song.  Compare it, for a moment, with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a huge hit at the same time for labelmate Thelma Houston; Houston’s recording is equally hard-hitting, but there’s space left in the track, and enough musical variation that it allows listeners to appreciate more than just a thumping beat.  It’s ironic that a song which urges listeners to “relax” and “hang loose” doesn’t follow its own edict; “Let Yourself Go” is a strong production, but had it been loosened up just a little bit, it could have been even better.

Billboard: January 15, 1977

4.  Come Into My Life:  The Hollands, along with co-writer Richard Davis, seem to anticipate the Motown arrival of Rick James with this starkly modern cut, filled with eerie electronic sounds atop a bongo-driven beat.  The producers wisely give the song to Susaye Greene, who leads with a sexy confidence and shows off her range with some wild high notes; the way the Hollands blend those high notes into whistling synthesizer work is pure genius.  Greene’s voice is wholly unique within the Supremes realm; there’s a sulky, kittenish quality to her delivery (she sounds like she’s pouting during her first “Darling, Come Into My Life” at 1:46) which sharply contrasts with the maturity inherent in her tone.  This makes her a natural fit for this offbeat tune; lyrics that would have sounded generic or phony in another singer’s hands sizzle with energy here.  Greene is perfectly backed by Mary Wilson and Scherrie Payne, who seem to be singing from another dimension; the producers wash the backgrounds in heavy echo, so that they seem to be alien voices beamed in from an icy planet.  Every element here defies the odds by working together perfectly; what probably should have been a weird mess ends up becoming the most dazzling cut on the entire album, and a song which should have injected The Supremes with renewed energy.  It did apparently gain some decent club play; the song showed up on the regional disco chart for Philadelphia in Billboard‘s January 15, 1977 issue, and the trio performed it on the popular television show Soul Train.  It’s too bad Motown chose to focus what little attention it gave to Mary, Scherrie & Susaye on the album’s more predictable dance recordings; this song is the one that deserves to be remembered and rediscovered.

5.  We Should Be Closer Together:  How do you top the weird, wild groove of “Come Into My Life”?  You don’t.  You follow it with a smooth, creamy ballad featuring an arrangement so gorgeous it’s almost heartbreaking to listen to, and you let Mary Wilson finally deliver the ballad performance fans always knew she was capable of giving.  “We Should Be Closer Together” is credited to a slate of names that will be familiar to fans of both The Supremes and/or Motown; the song was written by Brian Holland, Janie Bradford, Freddie Gorman, and Barbara Gaines.  Bradford, of course, is the woman who apparently came up with the name “Supremes,” having given founding member Florence Ballard a list of several possible names from which to choose back in 1961; Gorman, meanwhile, was a member of vocal group The Originals and co-wrote “I Want A Guy,” which became the first-ever Supremes single, released in 1961.  With that kind of artistic muscle, you’d hope that “We Should Be Closer Together” would be a song fit for Motown’s top female vocal group, and it is; it’s surely one of the label’s best ballads of the decade.  Arranged by the great James Carmichael, the song consists of a gauzy, easy-going instrumental that seems to be shrouded in fog; various sounds swell and fade into the track, creating a rich tapestry of sound upon which Mary Wilson places an accomplished lead vocal.  Although Wilson must be ranked as one of the best harmony singers in the business, her record as a lead vocalist had been a little spotty up until this point; she excelled at the right material, but her misty voice was also vulnerable to sounding “competent yet colorless,” as John Lowe wrote in his AllMusic review of this album.  That’s not the case here; Wilson mints a nicely restrained performance, and she’s helped out by Susaye Greene, who adds her emotional soprano to several key moments in the song.  The real star here, though, is the beautiful production; it virtually lays the blueprint for the airy ballads later made famous by Janet Jackson and her frequent collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, particularly in the achingly lovely final minute-and-a-half.  “We Should Be Closer Together” is easily among the very ballads recorded by the 70s Supremes, and is a high water mark for Mary Wilson during her years as a Supreme; had the song come just a few years later, it probably could have gained plenty of spins at Quiet Storm radio.

Billboard: November 13, 1976

6.  I Don’t Want To Be Tied Down:  This is the third knockout cut in a row; in terms of pure, hard-driving disco tracks on Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, this is the best.  It did gain some club play; it made the regional disco charts for Miami, New York, and Atlanta in Billboard, generally listed along with “Let Yourself Go” and “You’re My Driving Wheel,” and it was named a standout track in the magazine’s so-so review of the album in November of 1976.  It’s a shame Motown didn’t jump on this cut as the first single and really push it to radio; the crisp, funky production probably would have appealed to a broad audience of disco fans, soul lovers, and pop music buyers.  There are similarities here to first single “You’re My Driving Wheel,” but this is a more evenly-paced track; it’s got a hard-edge and angular rhythm, but never loses itself in a breathless beat.  Scherrie Payne gives a S-T-A-R performance, deserving of every single capital letter; she swaggers through the song with what is perhaps her toughest vocal as a Supreme, tearing into each verse and chorus as if she wrote the words herself.  Listen to the singer at 1:21, as she sings, “A domesticated life, hey/I ain’t ready for it, yet” and then follows the words with a gut-wrenching, “No!” — it’s one of the most thrilling moments on the entire album, and she does it again just as effectively a minute later.  Payne’s groupmates ably back her up, but this is really Scherrie’s recording from start to finish; it’s impossible to listen to this cut now and not wonder why the singer didn’t enjoy a bevy of solo hits following her time with The Supremes.  Beyond that, there’s a refreshing message of assertiveness in the song, which comes as a nice balance to the many years of “Please don’t leave me” and “Come see about me” begging by The Supremes; these ladies aren’t yearning or burning for anything except independence.

7.  You Are The Heart Of Me:  This is probably one of the best known latter-day Supremes cuts, thanks to the fact that it closed out the group’s fabulous 2000 four-disc box set and was performed by the trio a few times on television in promotion of this album (with what Don Cornelius of Soul Train called “some of the most unusual choreography that you’ll ever see.”).  Interestingly, the song wasn’t written for The Supremes; it had already been recorded by Dionne Warwick back in 1973 for the singer’s Holland-Dozier-Holland-produced LP Just Being Myself, which also featured her version of “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” (covered by The Supremes on High Energy).  As with the previous “We Should Be Closer Together,” this is a lushly-crafted ballad tailored to Mary Wilson’s straightforward alto; it’s a tighter song than the album’s other soul ballad, which is probably why the group chose to perform this one on television, but it doesn’t quite capture the same dreamy feeling.  The subtle differences begin right at the beginning, with a stark opening that lends the recording an unexpected coolness; although sweet strings take over, the orchestration never reaches the level of rapture one would expect for a song which declares, “You’re everything to me” over and over again.  Despite some orgasmic moans in the middle of the song, Mary Wilson never quite seems to hit that level of rapture, either; she delivers a fine, professional performance, but it comes off as too calculated to be completely engaging.  The flatness of this central performance also leads the song to feel repetitive; and the singer loosened up just a little bit (think about her tremendous live performance of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on In Japan!), it would have really helped sell the unabashed romanticism of the song’s message.  This isn’t to say “You Are The Heart Of Me” is a bad recording; I imagine it remains a favorite for many longtime Supremes fans.  In the end, though, its unusual orchestration and restrained vocals probably would have worked better on the trio’s previous LP, High Energy.

8.  Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good:  “[This] is the strongest cut, with the group at its vocal best.  There is a drive to this cut that is not only overwhelming, but also reveals a whole new dimension to the Supremes,” raved Tom Moulton in his Billboard “Disco Mix” column (November 20, 1976), and he’s certainly justified in calling this song’s drive “overwhelming.”  Mary, Scherrie & Susaye closes out exactly as it opened, with a recording that gallops forward with a fiery intensity; it forms a kind of trilogy with “You’re My Driving Wheel” and “Let Yourself Go” as densely packed tracks aimed squarely at the dancefloor.  It’s no surprise that this song hit #5 on the National Disco Action Top 40 chart (with the pair of aforementioned songs); it’s an easy one with which to work up a sweat.  That said, it falls into the same trap as the other two songs, packing so much into its running time that it’s hard to focus on anything aside from the pounding beat.  Thank God for Scherrie Payne, who once again plows through the lead vocal with awe-inspiring power and precision; she’s joined by Mary Wilson and Susaye Green for some great harmonies, too, something this album could have used more of.  But Payne really has to work not to be swallowed up by the dense musical track; it’s a thick, noisy recording, and the melody (with a refrain reminiscent of that featured on the far-superior “You’re What’s Missing In My Life,” from High Energy) just isn’t memorable enough to compete.  Certainly this song did what it was meant to do, which was to get people dancing in the clubs; unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up particularly well next to some of the more experimental material on the album.

***

The Supremes didn’t last long following the release of Mary, Scherrie & Susaye; when the album failed to chart following its October, 1976 release, Mary Wilson and her husband, Supremes managed Pedro Ferrer, made the decision that Wilson would go solo.  During a group appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1977, Wilson commented that Marvin Gaye would produce an album for her, and that she was “doing a solo album for now and we’ll see what God and everyone has in store for us.”  The group’s final performance together came on June 12, 1977 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, during which Wilson told the crowd, “I do hope that you will give all your support, all the wonderful love you’ve given The Supremes all these years, to both Scherrie and Susaye in their endeavor, because they will be going on as The Supremes.”

Jet: January 19, 1978

Payne and Greene, of course, did not end up continuing on with the group; after a period of uncertainty, the duo released an album called Partners on Motown in 1979, the same year Wilson released her own solo album on the label (produced by Hal Davis, not Marvin Gaye).  It was a fairly quiet, unceremonious end to one of the most influential groups in music history, a far cry from the protracted extravaganza afforded the trio when Diana Ross left for a solo career in 1970.  Still, the music lives on; Mary, Scherrie & Susaye would finally get a CD and digital release in 2011, with the issue of Let Yourself Go: The 70s Albums, Vol. 2: 1974-1977 — The Final Sessions.  In reviewing the package for the BBC online, Daryl Easlea called this album a “minor masterpiece,” affording it a measure of respect it had often been denied.  Does this album equal the brilliance of More Hits By The Supremes or The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart or Love Child?  Of course not.  But very few albums do.  It is, however, an accomplished, unique addition to a catalog that deserves far more attention than it’s ever been given.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Sweet” Studio Farewell)

Paul’s Picks:  “Come Into My Life,” “We Should Be Closer Together,” “I Don’t Want To Be Tied Down:

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High Energy (1976)

“In just a few hours, you showed me new dimensions…”

Although the 1975 album The Supremes was not a significant hit for Motown’s top female trio, the release proved there was still life in the group, particularly when it came to the burgeoning disco movement.  Songs like “He’s My Man,” “Color My World Blue,” “Early Morning Love,” and “Where Do I Go From Here” all caught the attention of club-goers; the latter two were particularly notable for being the work of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, two-thirds of the team responsible for writing ten #1 hits for The Supremes during the previous decade.  Although Holland-Dozier-Holland had spent years in litigation with Motown, the Holland brothers (sans Dozier) were now working independently for the label; they were put in charge of the next new Supremes release, the bulk of which they wrote with Harold Beatty.  Beatty would later recall in the liner notes to the Supremes box set (released in 2002),  “I always liked the lushness of a symphony.  That’s where the concept for the High Energy album came about.”

Jet: November 24, 1966

Meanwhile, The Supremes underwent another lineup change just as it wrapped up recording High Energy.  Cindy Birdsong, who’d returned to the group after a brief break in 1972-1973, left again; in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, Mary Wilson details turmoil between Birdsong and the group’s then-manager Pedro Ferrer (who also happened to be Wilson’s husband).  To replace Birdsong, Ferrer and Wilson brought in singer-songwriter Susaye Greene, notable for singing backup for both Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder and co-writing the huge hit “Free” by Deniece Williams.  Greene boasted a multi-octave range quite different from any Supreme voice before her; according to Harold Beatty, “Susaye was more like a Minnie Riperton — she could do the same things” (The Supremes booklet).  Although High Energy had already been recorded by the time Greene joined the group, her voice was added to the opening pair of tracks.

High Energy was released in April of 1976, just a few weeks after its first single, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.”  The album and single quickly became the most successful releases by The Supremes in years; the LP peaked at #42 on the Billboard 200, the group’s second best showing since Diana Ross had left the group (only 1970’s Right On charter higher), and the single climbed to the Top 40, becoming the 33rd (and final) Top 40 pop hit for the group.  For Supremes fans, seeing the group back on the charts must have been thrilling, especially when joined by the names Brian and Eddie Holland.  That said, the album is really more a showcase for the lush production than for the featured singers; you’ll hear some absolutely stunning instrumental work on every cut, but some of the vocal work gets lost in the busy, sometimes bombastic arrangements.

***

New Music Express (NME): May 8, 1976

1.  High Energy:  Harold Beatty’s comment that the “lushness of a symphony” inspired High Energy certainly makes sense given this opening track, which isn’t so much a song as it is a “mood-setter” in its execution.  It’s ironic that this song is one of the lowest-energy tracks on the entire album; those expecting a dancefloor banger are instead greeted by a slow-groove, Middle Eastern-flavored number that sounds about one-step removed from the “Charlie’s Angels” theme song.  The production here is high-gloss all the way; sweeping strings and funk-lite keyboard work are layered in over a sizzling, clicking beat, the instrumental opening lasting a full two minutes before there’s a single note sung by The Supremes.  This is the kind of thing the Hollands never could have gotten away with during Motown’s heyday in the 1960s; the hook-conscious Berry Gordy, Jr. would have had a fit over such an extended intro.  But times had changed; it speaks volumes that we don’t hear any vocals for so long, making clear that the intended stars here are the production and the beat.  When The Supremes do finally come in, it’s Mary Wilson we hear first, offering a spoken passage in which she proclaims, “I will never share my man!”  It’s a silly little section, but at least Wilson seems to be having fun with it, exaggerating her already famously sexy voice for maximum effect.  She’s followed by Susaye Greene, in her formal introduction as a Supreme; again, although “High Energy” had already been recorded with Mary, Cindy, and Scherrie, Greene’s lead vocal was dubbed in before the release of the album.  It’s immediately clear that Susaye Greene will bring a new, exciting sound to the group; her high, lilting voice bears a much closer resemblance to that of Deniece Williams than Birdsong, Lynda Laurence, or any other Supreme.  Greene’s voice flutters up and down the scale here, notably hitting some glass-shattering high notes; although Greene had already been performing for most of her life, it’s still hard to believe this is her debut given the technical proficiency she displays.  According to Mary Wilson’s 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, Greene garnered a five-minute standing ovation during a stop on the group’s European tour promoting this album; Wilson would also write that Greene was a “catalyst” in making the other Supremes more free in their own vocal performances.  She certainly sounds amazing here, and her performance is ultimately better than the material; “High Energy” is a beautifully-produced piece of music, but its glossy sheen hides a lack of substance and throwaway lyric.   Still, disco fans loved it; according to the liner notes in The 70s Anthology, the song hit #1 on Billboard‘s Dance Chart/Club Play, listed alongside “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.

Billboard: 1976

2.  I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking:  Released as the album’s first single on March 16, 1976 (backed with “Early Morning Love” from The Supremes), this song leapt up the Billboard Hot 100 to #40, then stalled there; it climbed to #25 on the R&B side and topped the Club Play chart, but it remains a mystery why it didn’t do any better on the pop charts.  Supremes fans could at least take solace that it added to the group’s run of Top 40 hits, becoming the first since 1972’s “Automatically Sunshine” to peak so high.  Led by thumping congas courtesy Eddie “Bongo” Brown and a stratospheric vocal by Scherrie Payne, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” is a terrific dance cut, easily one of the best recorded by The Supremes and probably one of the best ever released by Motown.   Much of the credit for the song’s success must go to the bright, snappy production and the crisp, singable melody; unlike some other disco cuts recorded by The Supremes (and many other artists, to be fair), this song doesn’t rely on a beat to cover a lack of musicality.  The lyrics here can be seen as a forerunner to the 1978 monster hit “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor; both songs share an assertive message of independence and moving on from a failed relationship, although in this case the narrator is the one doing the leaving (incidentally, Dino Fekaris, one of the writers of “I Will Survive,” had previously worked at Motown and provided The Supremes and Four Tops with several songs the their 1971 joint LP The Return of the Magnificent Seven).  Scherrie Payne is absolutely the right singer to deliver the message here; her vocal is confident, powerful, and masterfully efficient.  Better yet, the Hollands again dubbed Susaye Greene into the mix here, her fluttering soprano adding colorful vocal flourishes; her sustained high notes during the climax at 2:30 are spine-tingling.  Again, although the song should have climbed even higher than #40 on the pop chart, it was a huge hit in the clubs; in its year-end issue, Billboard listed this song at #24 on a chart of disco tunes with the biggest audience response in 1976.  “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” remains irresistible to this day.

3.  Only You (Can Love Me Like You Love Me):  Blaring horns announce the entrance of the next song, a sexy cut that’s sparked by a superb lead vocal from Scherrie Payne.  Aside from boasting powerful pipes and an impressive range, Payne is also clearly capable of producing some really interesting tones, as demonstrated by her opening lines here; her breathy delivery is unlike anything we’ve heard from her before on a Supremes recording.  The beat charges forward with an urban edge, as if the electricity of New York is pulsing through the track; in a way, it foreshadows the 1979 Crusaders hit “Street Life” in the way it seems to musically interpret the swagger of a city (by the way, musician Joe Sample, who plays keyboards on High Energy, was a founding member of The Crusaders and co-wrote “Street Life”).  Payne’s elastic vocal gets better and better as the number unfolds and she pleads, “Come on, love me now!” — there are times when the singer sounds a bit like Stephanie Mills in the way her voice bursts forth and skyrockets over the track.  Meanwhile, the singer is supported by perfectly delivered background vocals, with every Supreme offering up an engaging, energetic performance.  This cut also features really nice guitar solo at 2:00; it doesn’t last long, but it’s a great addition to the song, adding a little complexity to the repetitive disco arrangement.  I’m not sure who the featured guitarist is, but Ray Parker, Jr. (of future “Ghostbusters” fame) is one of the credited players on the LP; given his superb work on so many albums of the era, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that’s him on the solo.  While “Only You (Can Love Me Like You Love Me)” may not be a particularly original disco tune, it’s a really good one; it’s certainly only of the best inclusions on High Energy, and would have made a solid follow-up single to “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” had one been issued.

4.  You Keep Me Moving On:  Not to be confused with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” a #1 hit for The Supremes back in 1966, this track was written by the Holland brothers along with Richard Davis and Hugh Wyche.  Think of this a “trial run” for the later Supremes single “You’re My Driving Wheel” (which would lead off the group’s next album, Mary, Scherrie & Susaye); both are frenzied, unruly disco cuts which depend on the sheer force of the group’s vocal performances to hold them together.  “You Keep Me Moving On” makes strange use of brief, racing musical vamps leading into each verse, which seem to be the musical equivalent of an accelerating car (listen at :21 to hear the first one); unfortunately, these little snippets sound quite cartoonish when listened to today.  The rest of the production is standard disco, with the typical chunky beat and slicing strings; the melody is also fairly limited, although it’s elevated by the dependable Miss Payne, who attacks the lyrics in one of her gutsiest readings yet.  The song’s greatest strength is in its refrain, which prominently features all three Supremes repeating “Moving, moving, moving, moving/Moving on!”  It’s not the most poetic thing the Hollands ever wrote, but it is catchy; it’s also nice to hear Mary, Scherrie, and Cindy really belt out the words, each unique vocal tone clearly audible.  Aside from the vocal performances, however, this just isn’t a particularly interesting cut to listen to; it probably got people dancing back in the day (which was it’s purpose, after all), but it doesn’t stand up against the preceding two  tracks, which both boast a clearer musical identity.

Billboard: December 25, 1976
The Supremes come in at #17 on Billboard’s list of the year’s top disco artists (and former lead singer Diana Ross charts at #4)

5.  Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You:  The album’s seconds side shifts focus away from disco and the raging vocals of Scherrie Payne; “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” is the first of three Mary Wilson-fronted ballads in a row, a trio of songs which drains energy from High Energy but at least provides a nice (and literal) change of pace.  This song was written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and notable musician Richard Wylie (a Motown recording artist, himself) and had been recorded by Dionne Warwick for her 1973 album Just Being Myself, which was also produced by H-D-H.  Warwick’s version of the somber ballad was already arguably overproduced (AllMusic notes the “piping trumpets and cascading strings” of the album), and the Hollands ratchet it up a notch here, surrounding Mary Wilson a swirling storm of phased keyboards, church bells, sweeping violins, and a rather clunky wind instrument section.  It’s a lot to take in at first, but once the track quiets down a bit, it becomes clear just how good this song is; it’s a really satisfying soul ballad, with memorable lyrics and a pretty melody, and it finds a good match in Miss Wilson as vocalist.  Mary’s vocal is extremely controlled here, relaxed during the verses and passionate on the refrain, and she manages to just stay out front enough to not get swallowed up in the overblown arrangement.  Wilson’s leads as a Supreme have been a bit inconsistent up to this point, but this is easily one of the strongest; she displays a lot of soul in this performance, but never seems to be pushing too hard or singing beyond her range.  There’s also some lovely texture to her voice; I love the way her voice sounds slightly frayed at 1:31, as she sings the word “find,” giving the lyric another layer of resignation and melancholy.  It should be noted that an alternate mix first surfaced on The 70s Anthology, released in 2002, and it’s light years better; the instrumental is toned down considerably, placing even more attention on Wilson’s lead and the crisp, effective background vocals.  It’s too bad that wasn’t the mix included on the original album release; as it is, this is one of the best songs on the album, but the alternate mix is one of the standouts of the entire Supremes discography.

6.  Till The Boat Sails Away/I Don’t Want To Lose You:  Although compact disc and digital download reissues of High Energy split these into two selections, the original album release listed this pair of songs as a single track on the album label, and the two are musically connected by the producers so that one seamlessly flows into the next.  “Till The Boat Sails Away” was penned by the Hollands, Harold Beatty, and Barry Payne; it’s a slow, meandering ballad that lacks the focus of the previous cut, not to mention a particularly strong melody or lyric.  The producers start the track with the sound of rolling ocean waves; it’s a nice touch, and gives way to another Middle Eastern-inspired flourish which harkens back to the album’s opening track.  The problems begin when Mary Wilson starts singing; the arrangement is so incredibly slow and bland that she sounds like she’s drowning in those ocean waves.  The song desperately needs a singer with a more buoyant voice, one to lightly bob around the melody instead of dragging it down; unfortunately, Wilson’s dusky alto just can’t get the job done, even when she’s singing with more power toward the song’s climax.  Again she’s not helped much by the material; with all due respect to the talented writers and producers, this one sounds more like a syrupy Carpenters b-side than a production meant for The Supremes.  Eventually the tracks fades into nothing but the sound of a tolling bell, which immediately bleeds into the lush “I Don’t Want To Lose You,” a song penned by Philadelphia soul legends Thom Bell and Linda Creed and recorded by The Spinners for the 1975 LP Pick Of The Litter; it was featured as the b-side of that group’s fabulous #1 R&B hit “Games People Play.”  Produced by Bell for The Spinners, “I Don’t Want To Lose You” was a stripped-down, keyboard-heavy ballad; The Hollands wrap the entire thing up in a warm, fuzzy sweater of symphonic strings.  It’s a beautiful production, but again, once Mary Wilson starts singing, things go downhill; in this case, the singer gives a performance so unadorned and low-key that it barely registers.  Aside from her spoken whispers throughout the song, there doesn’t seem to be even a glimmer of passion in Wilson’s delivery; for someone who practically defines the word “smolder,” it’s a disappointment.  It’s also a shame that with a Philly soul song like this, tailor-made for gorgeous group work, the vocal arrangement skimps on three-part harmony; the backgrounds are mainly quick, staccato echoes that don’t make use of the trio’s talent and only really come alive at the very end.  A year later, singer Phyllis Hyman would cover this song on her debut album; it’s a spectacular version and demonstrates just how good the song is.  The best thing about this version is the beautiful instrumental track and the way the producers delicately tie it together with the preceding song, but those elements aren’t enough to keep it from being a low point on High Energy.

Billboard: February 5, 1977

7.  You’re What’s Missing In My Life:  Here’s the good news — after Mary Wilson practically sleepwalks through the previous medley of ballads, she wakes up and brings tremendous grit and energy to this great disco cut, arranged as a duet with the fiery Scherrie Payne.  Written by the Hollands and Harold Beatty again, the song begins with a series of fluttering musical flourishes that work in the context of the “symphony” concept of the album, but otherwise sound unnecessary.  But once the track opens up, it becomes an upbeat, jazzy soul number irresistible both on and off the dancefloor.  The musicians are really popping here; from the funky bassline to the sparkling keyboards, there’s a real joy and sophistication in the playing that immediately elevates the track.  When Miss Wilson begins singing, she absolutely tears into the material; her “I thought the I was fulfilled” at 1:06 is so powerful it would be easy to confuse her for Scherrie.  In fact, as the ladies trade lines back and forth, it’s a bit difficult to tell them apart, which is a huge complement to both.  The melody is strong here, and paired with snappy, eloquent lyrics impossible not to sing along with; lines such as, “I had a hunger I never knew/Until we loved and you fed it” could have come straight from one of the classic H-D-H songs of the 1960s.  In the end, “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” emerges as the strongest cut on High Energy after the album’s first (and only) single; it’s incredible that Motown wouldn’t think to release this song in the wake of the Top 40 success of “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking.”  Instead, Motown singer G.C. Cameron (former lead singer of The Spinners, and the man who led that group’s 1970 hit “It’s A Shame”) got it as a single; a cover of the song would become the title track of his 1977 album produced by Brian Holland.  Cameron’s version is great; his throaty vocals recall Marvin Gaye a bit, and he really sinks his teeth into the melody.  Both versions demonstrate the overall strength of the song; it’s too bad The Supremes didn’t get the chance to take it to the charts, too.

***

The AllMusic review of High Energy calls it “perhaps the most vigorous (and best) album of [The Supremes’] latter-day career,” and many fans will likely agree with that assessment.  It’s a cohesive, opulent set with top-notch production and instrumental work; the way little orchestral riffs tie many of the songs together is really sophisticated.  But there are a few clunkers here, and the vocal work is uneven; it’s a solid album, but it doesn’t quite transcend the disco genre, largely because of that unevenness.  Interestingly, another song recorded during these sessions, “There’s Room At The Top,” was left in the vaults and wouldn’t find release until 2002’s The 70s Anthology; it’s a great song, and could have replaced one of the weaker cuts here.  Still, High Energy delivered a measure of success that The Supremes hadn’t experienced in quite some time, and led to an immediate return date to the studio with the Holland brothers — a move that would result in an even better album.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (The Hollands Deliver Much-Needed “Energy”)

Paul’s Picks: “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking,” “You’re What’s Missing In My Life,” “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You”

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The Supremes (1975)

“Things won’t get any better unless we keep on trying…”

By mid-1975, fans must have been wondering if The Supremes were ever going to release new music again.  The group hadn’t had a single on the charts since “Bad Weather” came out in March of 1973, and there hadn’t been a full-length studio album since The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb hit shelves in November of ’72.  Considering The Supremes had released a whopping twelve singles between 1970 and early 1973 (averaging one every three months), a wait like this was unheard of.  But in May of 1975 — seemingly out of nowhere — The Supremes were suddenly back, represented by a new album of ten tracks heavily geared toward the growing disco movement around the country.  Titled The Supremes, the album came courtesy six different producers, most of them new to working with the group — with one very notable exception.

The Supremes themselves were also a new entity, with one new member and another rejoining the group after an extended absence.  When Lynda Laurence left the group in late 1973 to have a baby, former Supreme Cindy Birdsong returned.  More crucially, lead singer Jean Terrell also left the group in the fall of 1973, and to fill her place, Supreme Mary Wilson turned to a trusted name from her past.  “On a whim I called Lamont Dozier,” Wilson recalls in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, and he instantly suggested a singer named Scherrie Payne.  “Lamont went on to say that she was Freda Payne’s [of the 1970 hit “Band Of Gold”] younger sister and that, by the way, he and Scherrie were dating.  That was enough recommendation for me” (116).  Mary, Scherrie, and Cindy made their debut on Halloween, 1973 at the Phoenix State Fair,  and once contracts were finally worked out, began recording in December of 1974.

Jet: December 6, 1973

First single “He’s My Man” was released on June 12, 1975, and The Supremes made several appearances on national television to promote the song and its parent album, including performances on “Dinah!” (hosted by Dinah Shore), “Soul Train,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”  Many of the album’s songs did get significant club play; several showed up in Billboard‘s “Disco Action” report, which tracked sales and audience response in New York.  And even though The Supremes didn’t sell particularly well, the renewed attention certainly made a statement that this was a new Supremes; gone were the folksy rock-pop tunes from earlier in the decade, and anyone looking for an acoustic guitar or a “peace and love” message would need to search elsewhere.  These Supremes were dance divas, plain and simple; the bevy of producers behind The Supremes turned in a batch of beat-heavy, funky tracks tailor-made for the nationwide disco explosion.

***

Billboard: August 16, 1975

1.  He’s My Man:  The album’s opening track and first single explodes from speakers with a blaring, morse-code opening and the roaring vocals of new Supreme Scherrie Payne; it certainly sounds designed to send a message that The Supremes are back.  “He’s My Man” was written by Greg Wright and Karin Patterson, and produced by Wright; Wright and Patterson were also responsible for two of the best Diana Ross album cuts of the late 1970s, the smooth “Never Say I Don’t Love You” and the gloriously funky “You Were The One,” both from Diana’s 1978 LP Ross.  Wright’s production here is loud and glossy; any trace of Motown grit has been buffed away, leaving a danceable sheen led by crisp percussion and wah-wah guitars.  It’s all way too slick and obvious, but the energy level is high and the enthusiasm sounds authentic, which helps keep the production afloat.  The song itself is a sexy celebration of love; the lyrics are silly, but they get the job done, and as with previous singles “Touch” and “Floy Joy,” two Supremes share the bulk of them.  Mary Wilson splits the lead with Miss Payne here, and unlike those earlier singles (shared with former lead singer Jean Terrell) the combination of voices works extremely well; Wilson shows much confidence in her work on “He’s My Man,” putting some muscle behind her performance rather than coasting on her unique, misty tone.  There’s a good chance she’s stepping up her game due to the fireworks provided by Payne, who possesses a brassy, soulful instrument that surges up and down the scale with ease.  As Wilson would later write in Supreme Faith, “Scherrie was more than a terrific singer; she had that indescribable something that makes audiences sit up and listen…Scherrie had a fire, a spark, that the Supremes had been missing” (127).  Wilson and Payne bounce off of each other nicely; while their vocal textures are very different, they’re singing in a similar range, which helps bridge their performances.  There’s also a nice blend when Wilson and Payne sing in unison with Cindy Birdsong; their work on the bridge (“Some people say he’s no good/But they’d have him if they could”) is smooth and supple, and seems to predate a sexy funk sound that would become more popular toward the end of the decade.  When “He’s My Man” was released on June 12, 1975, The Supremes had been available for a few weeks and discotheques were already playing their favorite LP cuts; the June 14 issue of Billboard shows strong interest in the song “Early Morning Love.”  Unfortunately, this probably hurt the chances for this single’s chart success, since attention wasn’t focused solely on “He’s My Man” from the beginning.  The song ended up missing the pop chart altogether (the first Supremes song not to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 since the early 1960s) and peaked at just #69 on the R&B side.  Had Motown released this single before the album, and promoted it in clubs and to radio, it likely would’ve have done better.  It’s not the best song on the album, and it certainly sounds dated today (I could really do without Payne’s ‘Tarzan yells’ at the end), but “He’s My Man” is a solid effort from a group working hard to establish itself in a new era of music.

Billboard: June 14. 1975

2.  Early Morning Love:  As previously noted, this song generated early attention, showing up in Billboard’s “Disco Action” charts the week of June 14, 1975, when it sat at #6 for retails sales at Melody Song Shops in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island.  It’s not a surprise that listeners picked up on this song; it boasts a nice, chunky groove and sexy lyrics that are frank but tasteful.  But there is a surprise associated with this track, and it involves the names listed alongside it on the album credits.  “Early Morning Love” was written by Harold Beatty, Eddie Holland, and Brian Holland, and produced by the latter…and yes, those are the same Holland brothers of the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland team, which wrote ten of the twelve #1 hits recorded by The Supremes in the 1960s.  H-D-H gave the Diana Ross-led Supremes their first hit in 1963 with “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” and followed that song with the iconic “Where Did Our Love Go,” which shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964 and turned them all into major stars.  The Supremes worked almost exclusively with H-D-H until 1968, when the writers left Motown in a dispute over money; the departure was a devastating blow to both The Supremes and Motown.  Now, years later (and with litigation complete), the Holland brothers were working with writer Harold Beatty and resumed relations with The Supremes, providing old friend Mary Wilson with her gutsiest song yet; few producers had ever seen Wilson as anything but a ballad stylist, but the guys allow her to showcase some grit and depth in an uptempo setting.  Mary certainly sounds like a different singer here when compared to earlier leads (i.e. “I Keep It Hid” from The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb); she attacks her vocal, revealing a roughness that we really haven’t heard before.  It’s an energetic delivery, but it’s not one of Wilson’s best; the fact is, the song’s pace and melody are really better suited to Scherrie Payne, and it’s hard not to wonder how the recording would have sounded with her on lead instead.  In the end “Early Morning Love” is a strong production and it’s easy to hear why club-goers would take to it so quickly; it’s not a classic disco cut, but it’s an enjoyable one.  (NOTE: “Early Morning Love” would eventually be placed on the b-side of the “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” single, released in March of the following year; that song would go on to become the group’s final Top 40 hit.)

3.  Where Is It I Belong:  …and speaking of ballads, this is a much more typical song for Mary Wilson, a melancholy love ballad given the gauzy treatment of a perfume ad.  “Where Is It I Belong” was co-written by Elaine Brown and produced by Mark Davis; Diana Ross fans will know Davis thanks to his production of the song “I’m Falling In Love With You” from 1973’s Diana & Marvin, one of the best tracks on that uneven album.  There are actually some similarities between “Where Is It I Belong” and that earlier recording, in terms of the dreamy way in which both are produced; that said, “I’m Falling In Love With You” is the far superior track, with its sizzling groove evocative of classic Motown.  “Where Is It I Belong” is really sappy, lacking much fire or soul and sounding far too much like generic Muzak to really register; it doesn’t help that lyrics like “He was Capricorn/And a love was born” instantly date the song.  Wilson sounds okay, but her delivery isn’t particularly distinctive and she’s swamped by the schmaltzy surroundings; Cindy Birdsong and Scherrie Payne are given very little to do behind her.  The repetition of a plaintive question (“Where is it I belong?”) recalls another recording from a female trio, the monster hit “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees; that song had peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1974.  But play the two songs back-to-back and you’ll hear what’s missing on the Supremes cut; there’s a freshness and energy that just aren’t present here.

4.  It’s All Been Said Before:  This upbeat song was slated to be the first single from The Supremes; Motown assigned it a catalogue number (Motown 1350) before cancelling the release and choosing to go with “He’s My Man” instead.  The two songs couldn’t be more different; this is a peppy pop tune, written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter (who penned hits including “Keeper Of The Castle” for The Four Tops) and produced by Michael Lloyd, who’d enjoyed success with The Osmonds.  “It’s All Been Said Before” actually had been said before; it was recorded by soul singer Bobby Hutton and released on his 1973 ABC album Piece Of The Action; I’ve read the song was written for The Four Tops, which makes sense since Lambert and Potter had written for the Tops and the group was also signed to ABC.  Fascinating, then, that a song for the post-Motown Four Tops ends up with The Supremes…at Motown.  The angular arrangement and urgency in the track recall classic Motown a bit; the opening “duh-duh-duh” beats could have come from a Holland-Dozier-Holland hit of the previous decade.  The song serves as a showcase for Scherrie Payne, who gets her first full lead of the entire album; her boisterous performance is confident and impressive.  Although Payne boasts a thick, muscular voice that bears some similarities to that of Aretha Franklin, she sings with a crispness reminiscent of her Supreme predecessor, Diana Ross; both women can skip lightly over a melody, nailing each note and never getting bogged down with too many ad-libs or riffs.  This might be what Mary Wilson had meant when she wrote that Payne’s voice possessed “that indescribable something that makes audiences sit up and listen” — Payne’s enunciation and precision are immensely listenable.  That said, “It’s All Been Said Before” isn’t the “lost hit” some fans might hope for; it hasn’t aged well and sounds campy in execution, thanks to the cutesy production that really is more suited to The Osmonds than The Supremes (and indeed, Donny and Marie ended up covering this tune).  This is a memorable tune, but it’s not a standout on The Supremes.

5.  This Is Why I Believe In You:  The album’s mainly lackluster first side comes to an end with this disjointed disco cut, produced by the one and only Hal Davis; Davis had worked with The Supremes since way back on the A Bit Of Liverpool album from 1964.  The writer-producer had just enjoyed a major success with “Dancing Machine” for The Jackson 5, and would soon blow the doors of the disco genre wide open with two more classic Motown releases; first came “Love Hangover,” recorded with Diana Ross in 1976, which was quickly followed by “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a huge hit for Thelma Houston.  With Davis behind the board and songwriter Pam Sawyer behind the tune, fans must have had high hopes for “This Is Why I Believe In You.”  But…it’s a mess.  The song is produced with all the subtlety of a used car commercial, utilizing a hodgepodge of disco clichés including frantic tempo changes and overenthusiastic vocals; it’s clearly a calculated effort to jump on the disco bandwagon, and it’s not a smooth ride.  Mary Wilson leads the first half of the song, giving a performance that’s sorely lacking in character; although the melody isn’t that exciting to start with, the singer doesn’t give it any punch.  As with “Early Morning Love,” Wilson doesn’t sound quite up the task of fronting something so upbeat, and her voice doesn’t have the tonal quality  to cut through the chunky track in the way that Scherrie Payne’s does.  Speaking of, the second half of the song transforms into a pseudo-gospel breakdown during which Miss Payne unleashes a series of yelps and the backing track becomes a barrage of handclaps; this kind of drastic mid-song change is something Davis would handle much, much better the following year with “Love Hangover.”  Overall, the biggest issue with “This Is Why I Believe In You” is just how plastic and forced it feels; the best disco songs moved people because there was a real feeling and musicality behind the beat, and that’s not the case here.

Jet: April 3, 1975

6.  You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love:  It’s a rare Motown album that features a second side better than the first; the label (and probably most labels) typically front-loaded its LPs, placing the hits early and letting filler pad out the rest.  But The Supremes is a different story; there’s a major improvement in quality starting with “You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love,” thanks to a batch of songs turned in by Muscle Shoals producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford and an increased focus on Scherrie Payne as lead singer.  Though this is one of the lesser-known tunes featured on The Supremes, it is easily the best; this is a shimmering slice of light soul that injects the album with a needed shot of sophistication.  The song was written by Ivey and George Soulé, and opens with bouncy piano chords that instantly recall classic Supremes songs like “Baby Love” — the entire production is, in fact, a glorious play on the Motown Sound, without ever sounding like a weak imitation.  The recording is spearheaded by a classy instrumental track with twinkling keyboard work and soulful horns during the refrain; Payne’s lead vocal is sparkling, delivered by the singer with ease and honesty.  Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong offer up classic Supremes backgrounds, “oohing” and “ahhing” with grace and minting a fun “Give it up, give it up” hook.  The song just sounds good, it’s actually quite similar to the fantastic “All Night Lover” from the Diana Ross LP Baby It’s Me, and predates that song by two years; both knowingly nod toward the storied Supremes past, but never sound anything but contemporary.  It’s unfortunate that Motown was so quick to jump on the “disco train” and really couldn’t see past it when releasing Supremes singles; had someone been able to think outside the dance club, this might have gotten a chance at radio.  If this song had been pushed to R&B and Easy Listening stations, it would have been a beautiful way to re-introduce The Supremes after such a long absence; given the right kind of support, it also probably could have crossed over to some pop success.

Billboard: September 6, 1975

7.  Color My World Blue:  When it comes to true disco cuts on The Supremes, this is the best; it’s another cut produced by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford, this time written by Frank Johnson.  Although the song was never released as a single, it did garner interest among must fans; it showed up several times on the Billboard “Disco Action” chart for retails sales at Melody Song Shops in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island.  Since Motown clearly wanted to push a dance-oriented cut for The Supremes, it’s too bad the company didn’t go with this one; it’s superior to first single “He’s My Man” in every way, featuring a challenging melody and lyric, better vocals, and a more soulful and sophisticated production.  Producers Ivey and Woodford give the song a chugging beat, reminiscent of a locomotive picking up speed; a repetitive guitar riff provides a nice undercurrent of electricity (think of it as a more subdued version of the iconic riff Stevie Nicks would could up with a few years later for her hit “Edge Of Seventeen”).  Scherrie Payne leads the song, and it’s one of her best vocals on the album; she’s really engaging, taking the lyric literally by “coloring” her delivery with some really nice textures in her voice.  Listen to the way she opens the song, letting the lyrics “I still thank the Lord above for ya, baby” drag a bit with resignation; the lack of joy sounds strange at first, until you realize she’s singing from the point of view of a woman who’s wronged her man and realizes what a mistake it was.  This demonstrates a real gift for interpretation; it’s another quality she shares with former Supremes lead singer Diana Ross.  Although Scherrie gets most of the attention from producers Ivey and Woodford, there are some terrific moments of group singing; listen to the beautiful blend of voices at 1:21, as all three Supremes begin the second verse together.  There’s something about the way the Payne-Wilson-Birdsong combination sounds that just works; it’s a smoother sound than previous Supreme groupings.  But the real reason this recording works so well is because it’s really a good song; as noted earlier, disco worked best when there was real feeling behind a song, and when a strong melody was woven into the beat.  “Color My World Blue” would still work with a completely different arrangement; it’s a smart song that really stands out here.  (NOTE: It was recorded again, although with a fairly similar arrangement; soul singer Anne Sexton included it on her 1977 album The Beginning, and Billboard named this cut as a highlight on that album.)

8.  Give Out, But Don’t Give Up:  This is the third Ivey and Woodford song in a row, and it’s the third straight home run; at this point, it’s clear that the writing-producing duo was the perfect choice to be working with The Supremes, and should have just handled the entire album.  Someone at Motown obviously liked it, too; “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up” was first slated to be the b-side to the “It’s All Been Said Before” single, and when that release was scratched, the song was put on the b-side to “He’s My Man.”  Then, in a totally weird move, this song was used again as the b-side to “Where Do I Go From Here,” released in September.  It’s not the first time one Supremes song had been used on multiple single releases (“Time Changes Things” back up both “Let Me Go The Right Way” in 1962 and “Forever Came Today” in 1968!), but there’s no telling why the label decided to recycle “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up” so quickly.  That said, the song is better than any of the a-sides it supported; it’s easily one of the best cuts on the album.  Although most listeners today would probably lump the tune in with the other disco cuts on the album, it’s actually a laid-back, midtempo number with a powerful message and sterling production; as with their previous two offerings, Ivey and Woodford clearly paid close attention to the details, crafting a lush and interesting musical track spearheaded, in this case, by a joyful brass section that sounds like it comes straight from a New Orleans street corner.  Interestingly, the guitar work here lends the production just a touch of country-western; this cross-section of Louisiana soul and country twang is no surprise given the Muscle Shoals connection here.  Anyone fearing that Scherrie Payne didn’t have enough seasoning or experience to lead a supergroup like The Supremes need only to listen to this track to hear just how dynamic she really is; Payne sings with a wisdom and maturity that far exceeded her actual age at the time of recording, and the low-key groove really gives her a chance to unfurl her impressive, powerful instrument.  This isn’t just one of the best songs on this album, it’s one of the best of the the group’s 70s output; those turned off by the repetitive beats of the trio’s late-stage work should give this cut a spin.  (NOTE: The trio of Ivey, Woodford, and Barbara Wyrick also wrote the song “Bend A Little,” recorded by The Supremes but left off of this album.  It should have been included; it’s just as good as this song.)

Billboard: September 13, 1975

9.  Where Do I Go From Here:  This song was released as the second and final official single from The Supremes; although several cuts got club play and generated sales by fans, this song was slapped on a 45 and released as Motown 1374 on September 5, 1975.  Sadly, it tanked; while the song showed up on the “Disco Action” sales charts, it missed the Billboard Hot 100 altogether and only reached a paltry #93 on the R&B chart.  As with “He’s My Man,” part of the problem was likely the fact that so many different album tracks were getting club play, splitting attention and thus forcing The Supremes to compete with themselves; Diana Ross albums like Baby It’s Me and The Boss suffered this same fate, missing out on producing some deserved hits due to unfocused radio and club play.  “Where Do I Go From Here” was written by Brian and Eddie Holland, the second and final cut on The Supremes to come from Holland/Dozier/Holland Productions, Inc.; when the song was released, it would become the first Supremes single bearing the Holland name since “Forever Came Today” in 1968.  This is a harder-edged song than the previous “Early Morning Love,” featuring a darker melody and melancholy lyric; the instrumental is marked by slicing strings and some funky guitar work which really drive the song forward.  Scherrie Payne leads the recording and she sounds great; as with the past few cuts, she sings with soul and feeling, clearly connecting with the lyrics and interpreting them with honesty.  The backgrounds are a lot of fun, as they recall some of the trio’s early work with the writers; listen to the way the group sings “All about loving!” at :36, and it’s easy to imagine Mary and Florence Ballard giving the same performance behind Diana Ross.  If there’s a weak link here, it’s probably the melody, which isn’t as strong as anything else on the second side of The Supremes; while this is a good dance song, it doesn’t sound as alive as “Color My World Blue” or “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up.”

10.  You Turn Me Around:  This is a fantastic ballad, and again comes courtesy producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford; the song itself was written by the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, responsible for many, many classic songs including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”  As with that song, “You Turn Me Around” was first cut on The Righteous Brothers; it was featured on the 1974 LP Give It To The People, wherein it was arranged as a sparse piano ballad.  In the hands of Ivey and Woodford, the song is transformed into a slow-burn number reminiscent of the Philly Soul Sound; the instrumental is warm and intimate, and it’s matched by one of Mary Wilson’s best lead vocals ever.  Wilson is beautifully controlled here; listen to her opening lines (“When I feel the walls start closing in on me…”), and the way she delivers the words with understated elegance.  As the song continues, Miss Wilson never falters in her confidence, nailing each passage as if the tune had been written specifically for her.  As good as the lead vocal us, the real ace in the hole is the sparkling background arrangement; the addition of the “‘Round and ’round/’Round and ’round” at :43 is genius, adding a soulful sophistication and bringing to mind the kind of striking group arrangements you’d expect from The Delfonics.  It’s unfortunate that this song was never given a chance at R&B radio; perhaps it would have been a little too understated to gain much traction, but it’s superb recording and representative of what The Supremes had been about since the beginning.  As much as the trio had evolved over the decade, the group’s calling card remained glitz, glamour, and sophistication; this creamy ballad is exactly what The Supremes did best.

***

Listening to The Supremes today, it’s pretty clear that Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford were the right producers to be working with the trio; the four tracks they completed for the album are the best, and are among the best tracks released by The Supremes during the post-Jean Terrell era.  Ivey and Woodford didn’t run away from the disco sound, but they also didn’t solely rely it; they clearly saw the group as capable of handling more than one type of song, adding variety and soul to an otherwise beat-driven and repetitive album.  Ivey and Woodford produced additional songs that were left off the album; “The Sha-La Bandit” is a fabulous doo-wop inspired song eventually released on the 1978 compilation At Their Best, and the hard-driving “Bend A Little” showed up as an instrumental track on the album Motown Magic Disco Machine Volume II.  It’s mind-boggling that these were cut from the album; both are far superior to some of the weaker cuts included on The Supremes.

Although the group worked hard to promote the album, The Supremes met with middling success overall; it peaked at #152 on the Billboard 200 and #25 on the R&B side.  That said, the growing popularity of dance clubs was giving the group boost; people were hearing the music of The Supremes in a new way, and even if radio wasn’t giving the trio much attention, club-goers were.  The fact that so many of the album’s songs showed up on the “Disco Action” charts in Billboard demonstrates that even without major sales, people were still being exposed to the music of The Supremes.  This would continue in much more significant way with the trio’s next album, released less than a year later; The Supremes were about to score their biggest dance hit of the decade.

Final Analysis: 3/5 (Supremes Take An Uneven “Turn”)

Paul’s Picks: “You Can’t Stop A Girl In Love,” “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up,” “You Turn Me Around”

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In Japan! (1973)

“Why is it we can’t be the way we used to be?”

Once upon a time, this was one of the rarest of all Supremes collectibles, an obscure live album released for a short time overseas and never issued in the United States.  In Japan! was recorded on June 3, 1973, during a performance at Shinjuku Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo, Japan; at the time, the group was promoting its latest single, the Stevie Wonder-produced “Bad Weather.”  The trio then-consisted of original Supreme Mary Wilson, lead singer Jean Terrell, and newest member Lynda Laurence, who’d been with the group for roughly a year at that time; all three had sung on the group’s previous studio album, 1972’s The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb.  After releasing “Bad Weather” in March of 1973, the group remained busy touring the world and performing on various television shows; they’d even ventured into the business world, promoting a line of Supremes wigs.

Billboard: February 17, 1973

But this was also a troubled period for The Supremes; as they were performing this show in Japan, rumors were swirling at home that the group was planning to leave Motown, the record company with which it had been signed for more than a decade.  The trio’s releases had been performing progressively worse on the charts, and group members were open about their disappointment in the record company’s promotional efforts (or lack thereof) on their behalf.  According to Mary Wilson in her 1990 memoir Supreme Faith, dissatisfaction with their situation had led to mounting tensions within the group; a Billboard review from February of 1973 commented that The Supremes “exhibit more individual differences than the tight togetherness of their past,” perhaps a result of those backstage tensions.

Part of the problem was undoubtedly the schizophrenia of the group’s musical identity, something on full display in the eleven tracks of In Japan!, which reveal a trio caught somewhere between its “supper club” past and soulful present.  Back in the 1960s, Motown had worked hard to break The Supremes into the upscale (and primarily white) club circuit; thanks to a triumphant opening at New York’s Copacabana in 1965, the group smashed through the glass ceiling and never looked back.  But the 1973 Supremes was a completely different entity than the 1965 Supremes; selections like “T.C.B.” and “Somewhere” had been in the group’s show for years and sound really dated here, especially given the trio’s move toward pop-rock music in the new decade.  Beyond that, these “showbiz” songs are made up of crisp melodies and sharp lyrics which require great attention to detail to pull off, and Jean Terrell mumbles and riffs her way through them, resulting in tuns that are unrecognizable.  “T.C.B” is a long way from “Nathan Jones” — and it’s an uneven show that attempts to bridge the two here.

***

The Detroit Sun: September 3, 1976

1.  Introduction:  The album opens with an energetic overture consisting of several Supreme melodies woven together by a funky beat.  The band is led by conductor Teddy Harris, an incredibly talented, well-respected musician who had a long career in the industry and spent several years with The Supremes.  Because this is the only live album recorded on The Supremes in the 1970s, it gives listeners a unique chance to hear some of the great musicians who played with the group during the decade; late in the album, the group introduces the band, giving the players well-deserved recognition.  Just as Gil Askey provided the dynamic backing and arrangements for the Diana Ross-led Supremes, Harris leads a show of exuberance and pizzazz, clipping this show along at a heart-pounding pace and keeping the energy up even when the lead vocalist seems to be coasting.

2:  T.C.B./Stop! In The Name Of Love:  Here we go again with this two-song mashup, used by The Supremes since the 1968 television special TCB with The Temptations.  “T.C.B.” (which stands for Takin’ Care of Business, in case you forgot) is a splashy Vegas-style tune written by Buz Kohan and Bill Angelos, who were both credited as writers for that earlier television special.  The song had been a perfect vehicle for Diana Ross to dazzle audience members and prime them for an evening of entertainment; the group ended up keeping the song as an opening number for its stage show, and you can hear it again on the Farewell album, recorded live at the Frontier Hotel in January of 1970.  Unfortunately, despite buoyant backing from Mary Wilson and Lynda Laurence, Jean Terrell doesn’t capture the excitement needed to sell the song at all; she alters the phrasing and melody so much that she just sounds lost during most of it.  The same is true once the lyric “Stop, whatever you’re doin'” becomes “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” which the crowd greets with a warm applause; Jean clearly works hard to make the iconic Holland-Dozier-Holland hit her own, but she strays so far from the original melody that she ends up sounding like she’s forgotten the song!  This isn’t to say Terrell’s voice sounds bad; it doesn’t, of course.  Her silken pipes are in tremendous shape during this show, but her riffing often comes at the expense of melody, effectively erasing the qualities that make a number like “Stop! In The Name Of Love” a classic in the first place.

3.  Medley (For Once In My Life/I’ll Take You There/Cabaret):  This medley is a standout of the entire album, if only for the fact that it showcases some gorgeous three-part harmony from The Supremes.  It begins with the classic tune written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden and turned into a huge pop hit by Stevie Wonder in 1968; The Supremes breathlessly race through “For Once In My Life,” somehow managing to stay in tight harmony through the entire thing.  The ladies sound great together, and each gets in some solo time; Lynda sings “Could make my dreams come true” at :30, revealing a gloriously brassy instrument that never got enough play in the studio.  From this standard, the medley transforms into the title song of the famed Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, which opened on Broadway in 1966 and was turned into a hit film starring Liza Minnelli in 1972 (Liza, of course, won an Oscar for Cabaret, beating out none other than Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues.  I’m sure the inclusion of this song raised a few eyebrows!).  Again, the song is delivered at about triple the pace it’s usually performed at, and The Supremes skillfully ride the melody without a missing a beat.  Their three-part harmony beginning at 2:05 is unbelievable; these are some of the best vocals on a Supremes album ever, with Mary’s misty alto, Jean’s round soprano, and Lynda’s blaring, bugle-like voice blending to create a magnificent sound.  “Cabaret” immediately halts, becoming “I’ll Take You There,” a #1 hit from the previous year by The Staples Singers, which was written by Al Bell (who, coincidentally, would go on to head Motown Records in the 1980s); Jean Terrell seems to come alive a bit here, offering up a soulful lead before Mary and Lynda move into a few lines from the 1969 Sly Stone classic “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”  Finally, the ladies swing it on home with a few more lines from “Cabaret,” their voices soaring to the sky as they stretch out the ending and really belt out the words, displaying the kind of pipes you’d expect from seasoned Broadway performers.  Overall, this medley is a little strange in song choice; there doesn’t seem to be much of a connecting thematic thread.  However, the band and the vocalists really sell it; there’s style and energy to spare here.

4.  Stoned Love:  After some cute banter at the end of the previous track, The Supremes launch into their biggest hit of the decade, the #1 R&B hit “Stoned Love” from the New Ways But Love Stays LP.  Jean Terrell opens by soulfully belting out the title of another earlier Supremes single, “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love,” before delivering the dramatic introduction to “Stoned Love.”  The singer really takes her time here; it’s more than a full minute before the song falls into its groove, and Terrell runs up and down the scale in an effortless melisma that would make even Mariah Carey jealous.  Once the beat sets in, it becomes apparent just how watered down this arrangement is going to be; the pace is quickened, of course, and the Motown Sound is gone, replaced by frantic guitars and Vegas-style horns.  This is what happened to all of the group’s hits after the breakthrough Copacabana gig in 1965; live orchestrations went heavy on pizzazz and light on soul, transforming the songs into something more palatable for upscale audiences.  This worked better on some tunes than others, and “Stoned Love” really isn’t one of the successful ones; it loses the sense of majesty present on the original recorded version, sorely missing the expansive orchestra backing The Supremes.  Speaking of, Jean Terrell throws away a lot of lyrics while racing through the song, and Mary and Lynda hoot like helium-inhaling owls behind her thanks to the rapid-fire pace.  Overall, this is a perfect example of the strange line being straddled by The Supremes at this time; with club work still a main focus for the group, these razzle-dazzle arrangements weren’t going anywhere, but the group’s 1970s material isn’t necessarily melodic enough to survive the transition.  The 70s songs were more about the message of the lyrics and the sound created in the studio, rather than the kind of crisp, singable melodies written by Holland-Dozier-Holland in the 1960s; the message is really lost in this particular recording, leaving “Stoned Love” as a mainly forgettable selection in the show.

5.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars:  Jean Terrell next introduces Mary Wilson, who jokingly dedicates this medley to “some of my favorite things in life…men.”  It’s is frankly a little strange that Mary Wilson was still singing the same old song as her solo number; she’d been doing the Frankie Valli hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for years, and it had already shown up on three albums by this time (TogetherFarewelland Motown At The Hollywood Palace).  The good news is that this is her absolutely best reading of the song; in fact, it’s probably her best solo performance on record up to this point.  After racing through the previous selections, the band finally settles down here, letting Wilson take her time and dive into the song; it’s a real showcase for her voice, which sounds far stronger and confident than anything we’ve heard on the past several Supremes albums.  She soon segues into the jazz standard “Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars,” written by Bossa nova master A.C. Jobim; this is a newer addition to Wilson’s solo spot, and it’s a terrific one.  Wilson’s warm, misty tone is a perfect fit for jazz music, and her voice beautifully floats along sexy Brazilian melody, with able support from Lynda and Jean behind her; they spend a good portion of this song harmonizing, and it’s gorgeous.  Finally, Mary moves back into “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and she absolutely wails, belting the lyrics and allowing her voice to run all over the scale; this part of the performance definitively proves her abilities as a singer, displaying a larger range than many give the singer credit for and a soulfulness that much of her recorded work doesn’t take advantage of.  Wilson stretches out the song’s finale, tearing into it with both guttural lows and stunning high notes; she’s deservedly rewarded with a long round of applause.  This is a clear highlight of the entire evening; Wilson’s live performance experience and growing confidence as a vocalist are more than evident.

6.  New Hit Medley (Automatically Sunshine/Floy Joy/Nathan Jones/Up The Ladder To The Roof):  As good as Mary Wilson’s previous solo feature is, it’s criminal that she gets more than five minutes for those two covers while four of the group’s own best recordings are condensed into a medley of shorter total running time.  Then again, that’s how it always was for The Supremes; “hit medley” had been a dreaded phrase for years, right?  There’s a cute little set-up for the medley, with Jean telling a story of The Supremes as “three little girls” in a “kingdom by the sea” and being interrupted by Mary and Lynda to contradict her (listen to Mary’s “Wait a minute, honey” — it’s pure Florence Ballard).  The medley begins with a few lines from the group’s 1970 hit “Up The Ladder To The Roof” before abruptly switching to “Automatically Sunshine,” the Smokey Robinson-penned single from Floy Joy, and a release which had peaked in the pop Top 40 the previous year. The single had fared even better in some overseas countries, and it gets a warm applause here; although the arrangement is predictably jazzed up, there’s a nice swing to the bassline and the trio offers up a bouncy vocal performance.  Next up is the group’s Top 20 hit “Floy Joy,” also penned by Robinson and lifted from the album of the same name; as with the preceding tune, this one works reasonably well with a quickened pace and big-band backing, although the entire point of the original recording was to serve as a “throwback” to the group’s hits of the previous decade, so taking away the deliberately self-referential arrangement leaves very little aside from a sing-song melody and simplistic lyric.  “Nathan Jones” follows; this, of course, was a solid hit for the trio in 1971, a rock-pop dazzler from the superb album Touch.  There is nothing dazzling about the arrangement here, however; it sounds like a cheap imitation of the original recording, robbing the song of any power or soul.  The quickened pace isn’t really the problem; speeding it up actually reveals some gospel roots that aren’t so obvious on the studio version.  But the performances are a mess; the band and singers don’t seem to be together, creating some odd shifts in timing.  Mercifully, “Nathan Jones” ends pretty quickly and the medley flips back to “Up The Ladder To The Roof,” which provides a boisterous finish for The Supremes.  This medley — particularly the non-Smokey Robinson songs — once again shows how much the group’s 70s hits depended on the sound and mood created in the studio; such a radical makeover leaves the tunes feeling really weak.

7.  Hit Medley (Reflections/Where Did Our Love Go/Baby Love/My World Is Empty Without You):  After running through a few of their hits from earlier in the decade, The Supremes go even further back in time, presenting a mash-up of four big hits from the 1960s.  This is an interesting listen, given that all four songs are inextricably linked to the voice of Diana Ross; “Baby Love” and “My World Is Empty With You” are songs that have rarely left Diana’s stage show since she went solo, appearing on most of her live albums and concert specials.  “Reflections” was a #2 hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes back in 1967 (and the title track of the 1968 Reflections album), and it turns out to be a really nice fit for Jean Terrell’s voice; she sounds better at the beginning of the song, when she’s singing it straight, but by the end she’s riffing all over the place, massacring the melody.  Mary Wilson takes over on the bouncy “Where Did Our Love Go,” which was the group’s very first #1 hit back in 1964; nine years later, Mary was the only Supreme still part of the group, so it’s nice to hear her step out and deliver the hit here.  The arrangement is actually a little bluesy, as is Wilson’s vocal, a nice reminder that there were many layers to the work of writers Holland-Dozier-Holland; the hits they penned for The Supremes in the 1960s had sometimes been written off as “pop ditties,” but in reality they are clever compositions that tie together pop, soul, jazz, and blues.  Next up is another song from the Where Did Our Love Go LP, and another #1 hit; “Baby Love” only gets about 20 seconds here, before the tempo slows down and Jean Terrell leads a torchy version of “My World Is Empty Without You” from 1966’s I Hear A Symphony.  The original recording’s dark, driving beat is gone, replaced by sparse, piano-driven accompaniment; the piece is a vocal showcase for Miss Terrell, who gives an interesting and textured performance.  Her melisma-heavy reading is way ahead of its time; the vocal itself sounds like it could be a hit today.  It’s a nice way to end the medley, because at least the group sounds interested in investing it with some new energy, rather than running through it out of obligation.  To be honest, I’d have rather heard a longer version of this final number than a medley including all four.

Billboard: April 13, 1973

8.  Bad Weather:  This was the group’s current release as the time this album was recorded, a single written by Stevie Wonder and Ira Tucker, Jr. and produced by Wonder.  The driving force behind getting this recording made was newest Supreme Lynda Laurence, who happened to be Mr. Tucker’s sister and had sung background for Wonder before joining The Supremes; according to Mary Wilson in Supreme Faith, “[The Supremes] were discussing our trouble getting a decent record out, when Lynda suggested, ‘Why don’t I talk to Stevie about it?  We’re still great buddies.  He’ll write us something.’  When Lynda proposed the idea to Stevie Wonder, he accepted immediately” (79-80).  The group recorded the song in late January of 1973 (according to Wilson, during a performing engagement near Detroit) and the single was released on March 22; reviews were strong for uptempo funk number, but it ended up flopping, barely making the pop and R&B charts (sadly, further work with Wonder was scrapped, including the never-released “Soft Days”).  The studio version is a pre-Disco dancefloor workout, several years ahead of its time; Wonder arranges it as a big, brassy statement, giving Jean Terrell a rollercoaster of a track upon which to unfurl a plaintive, urgent vocal.  It’s the best single released by the group since “Nathan Jones,” and deserved much more success than it ultimately found.  It’s nice to hear the song in full here, rather than having it crammed into a larger medley; although the arrangement cries out for the Wonder-led fullness of the studio version, the band does an admirable job of recreating the urgency and playing with energy.  Terrell’s vocal is a bit more laid back in the beginning than one might expect; she certainly doesn’t attack it the way she did in the studio.  But she picks up steam as the song continues, offering up some really powerful moments and showing off her impressive range.  Lynda Laurence also emerges a real standout on this number; her brassy cries behind Jean are so dead-on that they sound like they were recorded in a studio.  It’s too bad we don’t hear more from Lynda overall on this album; at time, she was given the standard “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” as a solo during the show, but for whatever reason, it’s not included on this album.  After The Supremes wrap up “Bad Weather” to extended applause, they take a moment to introduce “a very good friend of ours in the audience tonight,” who happens to be singer Dionne Warwick, and then tell the audience that they’re about to go back to the 1950s…

9.  Cherry Cherry Pie:  Going back to the 1950s first means a brief but delicious version of this Marvin & Johnny doo-wop hit from 1954.  Led by Mary Wilson, the trio breaks into a luscious three-part harmony, sensually delivering the double-entendre lyric  for just under one minute of running time.  It’s too bad this is so short; Jean-Mary-Lynda are clearly at their best when harmonizing, and they sound terrific.  However, this trip to yesteryear isn’t done yet…

10.  Tossin’ And Turnin’:  Next, The Supremes encourage the audience to do The Twist (Jean: “You must shake it but never break it…”) as they break into a showstopping version of  the Bobby Lewis classic “Tossin’ And Turnin'” (which, by the way, was actually released in the early 1960s, not the 1950s), a song which The Supremes had recorded with Jimmy Webb and which was included on the group’s previous LP, The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb.  This was one of the standouts on that album, a rollicking recreation of the original hit version sparked by a soulful vocal attack by Jean Terrell and full-throated background vocals; here, the song is stretched into an extended, exciting grand finale clearly designed to leave audiences wanting more.  All three Supremes absolutely come alive, with Jean Terrell sounding more engaged than she has during the entire preceding show and Mary Wilson and Lynda Laurence backing her up with a sound so big you’d swear there were extra vocalists joining them.  The trio is more than matched by the band, which creates a sound that absolutely leaps out of the speakers; after about five minutes of singing, the group pays the musicians well-deserved respect by introducing members of “The Supremes rhythm section,” including Marvin Marshall (lead guitar), Nate Neblett (drums), and, of course, Teddy Harris (pianist/conductor).  The Supremes also introduce each other to the audience before the band finally ends with a big, blaring climax.  And this is where the show should end, too; this nearly eight-minute track is just about worth the price of the album, finally showcasing the group and the band as a tight, dynamic performing entity.  But…

11.  Somewhere:  …a Supremes show wouldn’t be a Supremes show without an encore consisting of some pop standard; it was “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” on At The Copa and Live At London’s Talk Of The Town, and “The Impossible Dream” on Farewell.  Here, the ladies deliver another old standby which had been part of the group’s stage show since that 1965 Copacabana debut, the ballad “Somewhere” from Broadway’s West Side Story.  The song itself served various purposes for The Supremes; in the beginning, it was an opportunity for Diana Ross to really belt out a showtune, and later it became a call for Civil Rights and social justice, delivered with drama by Miss Ross, complete with a passionate monologue quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I’m not completely sure what purpose it serves here; there’s some nice harmony by the singers, and a showy vocal from Miss Terrell, but the entire thing seems redundant and dated.  The monologue has also been changed, and without the reference to Dr. King, it loses its power.  Again, the ladies sound good, but coming after the passionate, frenzied “Tossin’ And Turnin’,” this encore feels unnecessary. 

***

Although it’s nice having a high-quality recording of a live performance by the 70s Supremes, In Japan! emerges as the least successful of all live albums by the group; to put it simply, there’s an electricity missing from this album that’s present in the three live recordings which preceded it.  The album works best when Jean, Mary, and Lynda are singing together, using their voices to create uplifting harmonies; whatever might have been happening behind-the-scenes, the vocalists do seem to feed off of each other when singing in this way.  But there’s no denying a lack of something in Jean Terrell’s work here; she’s an immensely talented vocalist, as proven by her overall work with The Supremes, but she just doesn’t seem to be really working here to sell the songs.  And the material is a problem, too; the continued reliance on pop standard and showtunes just doesn’t make sense of a group which had evolved so much during the new decade.

Jet: November 1, 1973

It’s really not a surprise to learn that, according to Mary Wilson, Terrell asked to be released from her Motown contract within weeks of this performance in Japan; by fall, she was gone from the group, as was a pregnant Lynda Laurence.  Although press reports insisted Laurence would return to the group after giving birth, this never happened; Cindy Birdsong re-joined The Supremes, and dynamic singer Scherrie Payne was hired to fill the group’s third spot sharing lead vocals with Mary Wilson.  By January of 1974, this grouping was performing on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” effectively beginning a new era in the story of The Supremes.  It’s unfortunate that Jean Terrell couldn’t go out on top, in the way that Diana Ross did; it’s also too bad that Miss Laurence didn’t get more of a chance to shine during her brief tenure with The Supremes.  Still, In Japan! proves an infusion of new energy was needed, and The Supremes would certainly have a new sound by the time their next album was released, in May of 1975.

Final Analysis: 2/5 (An Interesting, But Ultimately “Empty” Album)

Paul’s Picks: “Tossin’ And Turnin’,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”/”Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars,” Medley (“For Once In My Life”/”I’ll Take You There”/”Cabaret”)

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The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb (1972)

“Some folks say the world ain’t never gonna change…”

“David Geffen called and asked if I would like to produce the Supremes.  I thought Motown was a small receding speck in my rear-view mirror and suddenly here they were with a dream project” (245).

So begins Jimmy Webb’s memory of working with The Supremes, as told in his 2017 book The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir.  Webb had spent time as a writer for Motown early in his career, turning in “My Christmas Tree” for the 1965 Supremes album Merry Christmas, but it wasn’t until he left the company that he hit it big, penning classic songs including “MacArthur Park,” “Up, Up And Away,” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”  By 1972, Webb wasn’t just a successful songwriter, but also a recording artist himself, releasing a series of critically acclaimed albums.  Upon getting the call to work with The Supremes, Webb remembers thinking, “Perhaps we could rework the franchise and cut something that would take advantage of the singer-songwriter wave currently inundating the nation” (246).

Billboard: May 27, 1972

For her part, Supreme Mary Wilson remembers being “surprised but thrilled” by the idea of working with an outside producer.  By this time, the group was gaining a new member; Lynda Laurence previously sang backup for Stevie Wonder and was brought in to replace a pregnant Cindy Birdsong.  Laurence had appeared on the cover of the Floy Joy album in early 1972, but hadn’t performed on it; her recorded work here would be her first as a Supreme.  Laurence’s reviews were strong upon joining the group; a July 29, 1972 notice in Billboard raved, “The current Supremes (Lynda Lawrence, Jean Terrell and Mary Wilson) are a more open, individual act than in the past.  There are more solo opportunities while their sound retains its harmonic strength.”

Unfortunately, fans wanting to hear that strength on record wouldn’t find it here.  Producer Webb cut a terrific batch of songs which basically amounts to a solo pop album for Jean Terrell (aside from one cut fronted by Mary).  It’s a good album, and a showcase for Webb as a writer and producer; it’s not, however, really a Supremes album.  According to Webb, “I…wasn’t getting the sound I needed.  I called Darlene Love and she brought in Fanita James and Jean King and now the sound was fat.  The Supremes backgrounds never sounded so good” (246).  He’s half-right; it certainly is a big sound.  But he completely missed the fact that smooth, polished backgrounds were an essential ingredient of the Supremes sound; even when The Andantes were added to Supremes songs (as on Floy Joy and other albums), the additional voices generally didn’t muddy the sophisticated blend.

When it was released in November of 1972, The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb garnered some good reviews and was named “Best New Album of the Week” by Billboard.  But it tanked commercially; none of Webb’s productions was even released as a single.  Webb blames part of the failure on the generic cover design, saying Motown should have called attention to the group by featuring their pictures on the front.  This is a good point, but Webb also does little to establish a group identity with his music; aside from her one solo, good luck finding Mary Wilson’s voice anywhere on the album, or Lynda Laurence’s.  Today, the project is best looked at as something of a concept record, in the way that The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart or the Funny Girl albums were.  There’s really interesting, complex music to be explored here, but if you’re not a fan of the Jimmy Webb sound, there’s not much for you here.

***

Billboard: November 11, 1972

1.  I Guess I’ll Miss The Man:  Let’s face it, Motown always played fast and loose with the rules.  The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop was positioned as a country standards album, but featured several songs that were Motown originals.  Same goes with A Bit Of Liverpool, which included a Smokey Robinson cut and one written by Berry Gordy, Jr.  So it’s really no surprise that an album titled The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb would open with a track that wasn’t produced by Jimmy Webb, wasn’t arranged by Jimmy Webb, and wasn’t even written by Jimmy Webb.  “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” is a beautiful ballad from the Broadway musical Pippin, which premiered in October of 1972  at the Imperial Theatre and ended up winning several Tony Awards.  The musical also happened to be financed by Motown, and in a shrewd marketing move, the label had several of its top acts record and release songs from the score.  The Jackson 5, for example, had a Top 20 hit with “Corner Of The Sky,” Michael Jackson recorded “Morning Glow,” and The Supremes lent their voices to this one, released as a single on September 15, 1972.  Deke Richards and Sherlie Matthews produced the cut; Richards had just worked with former Supreme Diana Ross on her second solo album, Everything Is Everything, and Matthews was a prolific singer, songwriter, and producer who’d already turned in “But I Love You More” from the 1970 Supremes LP Right On.  Richards and Matthews give the song a low-key, acoustic arrangement; the beginning of the track is very stripped-down, and slowly builds in intensity with the addition of some lovely strings.  There’s a haunting quality to the background voices, which seem to softly wail like ghosts behind Jean Terrell, who turns in a lean, emotional performance.  Miss Terrell had sometimes strained a bit on previous ballad performances; on earlier single “Touch,” for example, she seems to be working a little too hard to put over the lyric and showcase her voice.  Here, however, she is pitch-perfect, transmitting a feeling of helplessness through her restraint and focus.  Given the strength of the finished record and the buzz building around Pippin, this must have seemed like a surefire hit.  Unfortunately, the single barely scraped the charts, topping out at #85 on the Billboard Hot 100 and missing the R&B chart altogether (it did, however, manage #17 on the Easy Listening chart).  The good news is that the addition of “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” isn’t terribly jarring here; the arrangement boasts enough elements of pop and folk music that it fits in well with the Jimmy Webb material.  It’s also a much less cluttered production than the rest of the songs, which makes this a welcome inclusion.

Billboard: October 7, 1972

2.  5:30 Plane:  This song had already been released as a single back in 1968, produced by Webb on a group called Picardy; at the time, Billboard called it “strong rhythm ballad material” and predicted it could be a hit.  Produced for The Supremes, it better than a strong rhythm ballad; it’s a dynamic opener to the album and a clear standout, not to mention one of the few songs that sounds like it could have gained some airplay at the time.  The track opens with Webb’s powerful piano chords set to a shuffling beat, the chord progression subtlety setting a mood of both turmoil and cautious optimism; when Jean Terrell begins singing, it’s obvious that the mood is intentional.  Webb’s arresting lyrics tell the story of a crumbling relationship, and the narrator’s decision to “make it on my own” — a classic breakup ballad told with emotional honesty and intensity.  If the crisp pop production didn’t clue listeners in that this would be a different kind of Supremes album, the lyrics certainly did; Webb’s fairly abstract use of language certainly differs from the poetic lyricism of someone like a Smokey Robinson.  The song opens with the lines, “All the empty reasons that we give ourselves/For going on are dying in your misty eyes,” and just the fact that the lines are broken up in such an unorthodox way speaks to Webb’s different style of storytelling; he also creates a sophisticated rhyme scheme that’s really a lot of fun to listen to.  As the song builds to the refrain, a bittersweet declaration of independence, it’s delivered with just the right emotional investment by Jean Terrell; the singer’s silken voice sounds just a little strained from time to time, as though she’s working a little harder than she needs to, but it helps sell the story of a woman freeing herself from a failing relationship.  The whole thing is really quite cinematic; Hollywood missed the boat on this song, which would have made a great closing theme to a romantic drama of the period.  And because it’s so cinematic, the big choir of female voices backing Jean Terrell don’t sound terribly out-of-place; the bigger sound actually seems to add to the story being told.  “5:30 Plane” sets the bar for the Webb-produced material very high; it’s a touchstone for not only the album, but for the entire 70s Supremes discography.

3.  Tossin’ And Turnin’:  This song, as performed by Bobby Lewis, was the biggest hit of 1961, named by Billboard as that year’s #1 Hot 100 and R&B single after spending an astounding seven weeks at the top of the pop chart.  The rollicking tune became an instant classic; it still shows up in television shows and movies all the time, and gets plenty of spins on oldies radio stations around the world.  Interestingly, country singer Ronnie Sessions was having a minor hit with the song at the end of 1972, just as this Supremes album hit store shelves; his version is pure honky-tonk, while Jimmy Webb opted to keep his arrangement close to that of the original recording.  Opening with a tremulous piano intro and Jean Terrell pleading, “Can’t you see/What you’re doing to me?” the song quickly picks up steam with a rocking horn-and-organ-laced track; although it’s slickly produced, Webb creates a spontaneous energy that mimics the feel of a live performance.  This song is a tour de force for Terrell, who tears into the material with abandon and turns in into a real soul workout; in his book, Jimmy Webb calls Terrell, “a powerful singer, more from the Aretha Franklin mold of gospel influence” (245), and you can really hear what he means in this performance.  Listen, for example, to the amazing sound the singer produces at 1:57, and she stretches a single note up the scale until she finally just screams into the microphone; it’s unlike anything we’ve heard from her before.  The background vocals are also very strong here; the original recording’s memorable background arrangement is essential to its success, and Webb wisely leaves it intact.  A nice addition is the playful banter of the background singers during several verses, turning them into “girlfriends” commiserating with the lead singer; again, this helps add to the spontaneous feel of the recording.  As with the album’s previous track, “Tossin’ And Turnin'” is extremely strong and could have done well at radio; Ronnie Sessions had his country hit with the song, and Philadelphia International’s Bunny Sigler charted with a cover in February of 1973, and The Supremes could have done the same thing had Motown given it a chance.

Billboard: November 18, 1972

4.  When Can Brown Begin:  In his 2017 book The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir, Jimmy Webb traces the origins of this song to attending a Sammy Davis, Jr. show in 1968.  He writes, “After his show Sammy came out and joined us.  He and I had a most spirited conversation about civil rights, which ended with his demanding, ‘Why doesn’t someone write a song called When Can Brown Begin?’ I wrote the title on the back of a linen napkin and carried it away with me” (217).  The song he eventually came up with is a moving introspection on race relations, asking the central question, “If white is right/And black is beautiful/Lord, tell me, When Can Brown Begin?” — in other words, what good does it do to keep groups of people in their own little separate boxes?  It’s clear how much Webb believed in this song; his arrangement is lush and full of care, marked by glossy strings and Webb’s own deeply-felt piano work.  Jean Terrell’s vocal recalls her work on “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” in its quiet confidence; she delivers some gorgeous riffs, such as the way she stretches the word “free” at 1:41 into several notes.  The soaring harmonies behind Terrell are also lovely; the voices are woven into the track in such a way that they seem to be instruments themselves, adding to the tapestry of sound.  Years later, this track would be included on the CD release of The 70s Anthology, and Mary Wilson would write in the liner notes, “In a time of our people singing ‘Black Is Beautiful,’ I felt ‘When Can Brown Begin’ could have been a hit.  I remember how wonderful it was to be singing such a socially poignant song.”  Certainly The Supremes had sung socially conscious material before; they Diana Ross-led group delivered a powerful call for racial harmony on primetime television, during the 1968 TCB special.  But interestingly, the 70s Supremes hadn’t really addressed race on record in this way, which make this a really special recording.  Could this have been a hit for the group?  It’s hard to say.  But it’s become a beautiful piece of the group’s history and sounds just as relevant today as it did more than 40 years ago.

5.  Beyond Myself:  According to Mary Wilson, Beyond Myself was to be the original title of this album, which would have made this the album’s title track; in retrospect, changing the title was a good move, as this is easily the weakest inclusion on the album.  The song itself is a pretty piano ballad; it rambles and doesn’t have a particularly memorable hook, but that’s not the issue.  The problem comes in with Jean Terrell’s vocal performance.  In his memoir, Jimmy Webb talks of really pushing the Supremes in the studio, to the point that Jean showed up with a doctor’s note saying the producer was damaging her voice by requiring her to sing so high (the story is on page 246).  Listening to Terrell sing “Beyond Myself,” it’s easy to side with her doctor; her voice has never sounded this rough on record.  It starts out okay, with low-key vocals accompanying a piano, but as the song grows in intensity, the singer’s performance becomes less and less controlled, and her voice strains higher and higher until it ceases to sound good.  The perfect example comes at 2:15, as Jean sings the word “understand” and stretches it well beyond her range; it’s painful.  Considering The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb has been so solid thus far, “Beyond Myself” is really a letdown.  Skip this one.

6.  Il Voce De Silenzio (Silent Voices):  This is a bold, dramatic ballad with big everything; big vocals, big production, big theatricality.  It sounds to me a little like Nilsson’s powerful “Without You,” which was peaking at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 around the time that Jimmy Webb and The Supremes were recording this album; both songs are piano-driven pieces that build into stratospheric climaxes, and both require an enormous range from their vocalists.  “Silent Voices” had already been recorded by Dionne Warwick for her 1968 LP Dionne Warwick In Valley Of The Dolls (which, incidentally, included her take on the Jimmy Webb song “Up, Up And Away”); Warwick’s recording showcases some really powerful vocals which, by the way, bear quite a resemblance to the future work of her cousin, Whitney Houston.  But Jimmy Webb turns everything up a notch for this version, transforming it into a baroque pop-opera led by delicate piano work and cinematic strings.  Jean Terrell begins the song in a quiet, almost child-like voice, whisper-singing, “I think of you when I’m alone/And dark of night begins to fall.”  Her voice becomes more powerful as the song progresses, but she never loses the tremulous quality that helps really sell the lyrics; the song talks of  desperation, longing, and being driven insane, and Miss Terrell invests all of these words with emotion and honesty.  The voices behind her, it should be noted, aren’t silent at all; Webb’s desired “fat” sound is fatter than ever here, ringing out over the track like out-of-control bells.  There’s no denying that the backgrounds sound good on this recording — really good.  The choir of voices is pure theatre, adding to the drama of the song and giving it an operatic feel; it works, but it’s the most obvious example yet of just how far Jimmy Webb was taking The Supremes away from themselves.  If not for Jean Terrell, this would be unrecognizable as a Supremes recording, something Mary Wilson would later vocalize when talking about the album:  “My only issue is that Jimmy added background singers,” she writes in The 70s Anthology liner notes.  “This was no reflection on the singers.  I just took it personally against my group.”

Billboard: December 2, 1972
Motown took out this full-page ad to congratulate the winners of the NAACP Image Awards

7.  All I Want:  This is an exciting, energetic record that was written and originally recorded by Joni Mitchell; “All I Want” is the leadoff track on her iconic 1971 album Blue.  Mitchell’s  version is far more stripped down than what you’ll hear on this album; her melodic vocals are basically accompanied by an acoustic guitar.  Here, Jimmy Webb brasses up the arrangement, seemingly taking a cue from The Supremes themselves and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to create a track pulsing with energy.  In his 2017 memoir, Webb remembers this as being the first song he presented to The Supremes; he’s also very vocal in his admiration for Mitchell and her songwriting, so it’s no surprise he chose one of her songs to produce.  Although listeners still seem surprised today that The Supremes covered Joni Mitchell, it’s not that much of a stretch; back in the 1960s, the group covered everyone from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones.  Here, Jean Terrell acquits herself exceptionally well to the material; it’s been tailored by Webb to fit her, of course, but the singer brings a brisk energy to the song, plowing through it with maximum efficiency much in the way her predecessor, Diana Ross, was known to do.   Jimmy Webb opens the track with a chugging guitar that evokes a speeding locomotive (perfect for the “traveling, traveling, traveling” lyrics) and a siren of horns heralding its arrival; there’s a swirling excitement in the extended intro, which goes on for a full 30 seconds before Jean Terrell begins singing.  Producer Webb surrounds Terrell’s lean vocal with muscular backgrounds which bubble up from the track like boiling water; the soulful voices buoy the entire track. The vocals really are a key to this recording’s success; for proof, look no further than The Supremes performing this song on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” in January of 1974.  By that point, Jean and Lynda were gone from the group, replaced by Scherrie Payne and a returning Cindy Birdsong; for the performance, the ladies lip-sync to their own pre-recorded vocals, which are dropped on top of Jimmy Webb’s track.  Each of The Supremes gets a solo verse, and they are far more laid back in their delivery than Jean Terrell and the backing voices are on the studio version; the result is a performance that feels like sloppy karaoke, with the lack of energy sinking the production.  In the studio, Jimmy Webb obviously coaxed a real excitement from the singers, and it makes all the difference.  If Motown had been willing to release one of Webb’s productions as a single, this one probably had the best chance at becoming at hit; as far removed as Joni Mitchell might seem from The Supremes, this ends up sounding like a natural evolution of the youthful urgency present in the trio’s biggest hits of the previous decade.

Billboard: November 18, 1972

8.  Once In The Morning:  Back in 1970, Motown had been hesitant to release “Stoned Love” by The Supremes for fear that people would mistake the song for being about drugs. So there’s a good chance they had no idea what “Once In The Morning” is actually about; according to Webb in The Cake and the Rain, “‘Once In The Morning’ was a cocaine song, a satire on Freud’s Rx to patients…he prescribed a dollop of coke ‘once in the morning’ and ‘once at night'” (247).  The song is actually duet between Jean Terrell and Webb himself; the writer had already recorded the song for his own 1972 album Letters, and he keeps the exact same arrangement here, merely re-working the vocals.  The result is a country-pop collaboration which works surprisingly well; Terrell and Webb volley back and forth nicely, adding in a lot of little playful flourishes to their performances, and there are some really interesting harmonies during the song’s refrain.  The way Webb underscores Terrell’s voice during those refrains verges on Fleetwood Mac-territory; she sings the melody, and his voice slides up and down the scale under hers, creating an aural dance that’s really fun to listen to.  Jean Terrell sounds like she’s having a good time on this one; listen to her sing at 1:42 (“I was hanging ’round London/tryin’ to pick up a new line”) of an example of a really different tone than we’ve heard from her before.  Terrell’s early work with The Supremes was sometimes marked with a sameness in the way she approached each song, and it’s nice to hear such experimentation with her on this album, and this song in particular.  It’s unfortunate that, once again, there are no other Supremes to be found on this recording; it’s three verses long, and perhaps Mr. Webb could have given Mary, Lynda, and Jean each a turn at a solo here.  But it does work well as it is, thanks to the unique performances of both singers, and is a memorable addition to the album.

9.  I Keep It Hid:  This song has been recorded by several notable artists, ranging from Glen Campbell to Ray Charles to Linda Ronstadt; here, Miss Mary Wilson gets a chance to dig into the beautiful ballad, about which she would later say, “The lyrics seemed as if I had written them myself” (The 70s Anthology).  Indeed, there’s an intimate, confessional quality to the lyrics which makes the song a good fit for Wilson’s warm, misty voice; as producer Harold Beatty would later say, “There was something honest about that voice” (The Supremes box set).  Webb’s production comes right at the intersection of country, pop, and soul; his own twinkling piano opens the piece, leading into a shuffling 3/4 time signature that seems to come straight out of a dusty honky-tonk bar somewhere in the American West.  Wilson quietly croons into the microphone during the first verse with such simplicity that, frankly, it sounds a little jarring at first, especially coming after the heightened vocals of “Once In The Morning.”  However, as the song swells to a powerful refrain, she’s backed by a large, mournful group of voices that adds a lot of emotion; it’s a nice move by Webb to keep Wilson solo during the quiet voices, and then have the backgrounds join her for only the moments of dramatic intensity.  Wilson’s best moments probably come at the end to the song, as she ad-libs some gorgeous high notes from way up in her “head voice” (if you really want to hear how high she can sing, check out her amazing performance of “The Way We Were” on British television in the late 1970s).  To be honest, this isn’t Mary’s most distinguished vocal performance of the decade; there’s no denying that her voice would get stronger as she took more and more leads, and she’d develop much more of her own style in time.  But there is a lack of artifice in her performance, which is refreshing, and it’s nice to hear another Supremes get a chance to shine on this album.

10.  Paradise:  This is a fascinating song choice for The Supremes, in that it harkens right back to the trio’s girl-group roots of the early 1960s.  “Paradise” was co-written by Harry Nilsson and had been cut by Phil Spector on The Ronettes back in the 1960s (there’s also a version by The Shangri-Las).  Webb predictably takes Spector’s classic “Wall of Sound” production and transforms it into another majestic pop-opera, recalling his work on the earlier “Silent Voices” (which, remember, I had compared to Nilsson’s “Without You”…and here we are with a song actually written by Nilsson, also given a bold and theatrical treatment).  You’d be forgiven for thinking the first verse of this “Paradise” was taken from a Disney film; Jean Terrell’s delivers the sing-song melody in a thin, childlike voice, singing of crossing rainbows and time standing still.  But with the arrival of the refrain comes an explosion of sound that’s as over-the-top as anything on this album so far; the layers of voices repeating the song’s title seem to go on forever (coincidentally, or maybe not, the Ronettes were almost certainly backed by Darlene Love, Fanita James, and Jean King, who are backing The Supremes here).  The entire thing is very, very syrupy — you might actually feel like you’re drowning in Mrs. Butterworth’s listening to it — but the sound Mr. Webb achieves is unquestionably impressive.  It feels like he’s trying to outdo Phil Spector, and in terms of drama and pure volume, I’d say he succeeds; props must also go to Jean Terrell for holding her own against the Amazonian backgrounds and not getting lost in the giant arrangement.  That said, as with “Silent Voices,” it’s really stretching things to call this a Supremes record; even though Mary Wilson and Lynda Laurence might be singing on the track, it sounds even less like them than the 1960s recordings that didn’t feature any actual Supremes on backgrounds.  “Paradise” emerges as an impressive document of Webb’s capabilities as a producer, but really doesn’t showcase The Supremes in any meaningful way.

11.  Cheap Lovin’:  Back in the late 1960s, Jimmy Webb had produced Thelma Houston’s debut album, called Sunshower; this was long before the singer signed to Motown and enjoyed a #1 hit with “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”  One of the songs on that album was “Cheap Lovin’,” a fiery workout that showcased Houston’s powerful vocals, and Webb recreates it here as a similar vehicle for Jean Terrell.  There is energy to spare in this recording, which outdoes both “Tossin’ And Turnin'” and “All I Want” in terms of red hot excitement; Webb creates a driving track that’s a cyclone of horns, sharp guitars, and soulful organ work.  Jean Terrell shreds the melody, digging in with everything she’s got; in retrospect, it’s the best way possible the singer could have ended the final studio album of her Supremes career.  She gets to deliver some great lyrics, too, boasting she’s a “Hard, fast drinker/With a good head-shrinker” and pledging not to give her phone number out to any more strangers.  The idea of the reportedly conservative Jean Terrell partying all night   and picking up random men is ridiculous, but she sings with such conviction that you believe everything she says; this is a tough, aggressive Terrell, far removed from the lady that was singing about “Paradise” only a few minutes before.  “Cheap Lovin'” is a real standout on this album; it was named as the album’s best track in a New York Times review, and again, it’s a mystery why the brass at Motown didn’t take a good, hard look at the material it had here.  Had this song been thrown at R&B disc jockeys, surely it could have gained some support; it would have sounded phenomenal blasting out of radio speakers back in 1972-1973.  Hell, it sounds just as good blasting out of radio speakers today.

***

Jet: May 17, 1973

It’s been long said that this is Jean Terrell’s favorite album as a Supreme; I’m not sure if that’s true, but if it is, it makes perfect sense.  This is the best work she ever did at Motown; she’s been handed a very challenging collection of songs here, and when she nails them, she really nails them.  Mary Wilson would also say in the liner notes to The 70s Anthology that she’d never seen Jean happier in the studio than when she was recording this album, so it must have been crushing when it performed so poorly.  The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb peaked at a dismal #129 on the Billboard 200, the worst showing yet for the 70s Supremes (discounting their Four Tops collaborations), and it was a blow from which the trio wouldn’t recover.  Rumors soon began swirling that The Supremes would leave Motown, following in the footsteps of The Four Tops and Gladys Knight & The Pips, among others.

The Supremes didn’t leave Motown, but two of its members did; by the end of 1973, both Jean Terrell and Lynda Laurence were gone from the group.  It’s unfortunate that Terrell didn’t get a “Someday We’ll Be Together”-type swan song with which to leave the group; she’d done a tremendous job leading the group into the new decade.  Her talent shines through on The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb, and it’s an album of which she should be very proud.  But overall, Loraine Alterman seems justified in what she wrote for the January 7, 1973 issue of The New York Times:  “[Webb] proves here that his overdone concepts are more appropriate to a nonsinger like Richard Harris than to a group that used to make records that sizzled with energy.”

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Superb Production, But “Miss”-ing The Supremes Sound)

Paul’s Picks: “5:30 Plane,” “All I Want,” “When Can Brown Begin”

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INTERVIEW: Hamilton Bohannon on Good Day Atlanta (8/1/17)

If you’ve ever checked out the 1969 Motortown Revue Live album featuring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Temptations, and more, then you’ve heard the Bohannon sound.  The entire show was backed by Motown drummer and bandleader Hamilton Bohannon (billed on the album as Bohannon and The Motown Sound), who also backed Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many other Hitsville acts.  In the 1970s, he’d start releasing his own albums, scoring some big disco and R&B hits which are still sampled by artists to this day.

Mr. Bohannon was recently honored by his hometown of Newnan, Georgia, which re-named the street on which he was born “Hamilton Bohannon Drive.”  And I was honored to sit down with Mr. Bohannon and chat with him about his life and legendary career.

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Floy Joy (1972)

“I thought it was gonna take a miracle to make things right…”

“Thank God for Miracles,” Mary Wilson wrote in the liner notes to The 70s Anthology, and she meant that literally.  After two successive singles failed to make the pop Top 40 (“You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” with The Four Tops and “Touch”), The Supremes entered the studio with singer, songwriter, producer, and Motown Vice President Smokey Robinson, recording a bopping little throwback over four days in October of 1971.  Released two months later, “Floy Joy” returned the group to the Top 20, peaking at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B chart.  Additional material was worked up early in 1972, and a full-length Floy Joy album hit store shelves in May.  The album, while not a blockbuster success, was the trio’s highest charting on the Billboard 200 since 1970’s Right On.

Jet: April 6, 1972

The sessions for Floy Joy came at a time of change for both Robinson and The Supremes.  Smokey was just ending his run as frontman of The Miracles; the July 1972 release Flying High Together would be his last studio album with the group, his final performances with The Miracles coming the same month.  Meanwhile, Cindy Birdsong was pregnant and decided to leave the group of which she’d been a member since 1967; although she recorded Floy Joy with the group, she’d be gone by the time it was released, replaced by Stevie Wonder background singer Lynda Laurence (her addition to the group had been reported in early April by Jet, using her given last name).  Lynda’s picture appears on the cover of Floy Joy, although her voice isn’t on the album.

Billboard: July 10, 1971

But an even more monumental change was happening, one which would have far-reaching impacts on every artist of the Motown family.  Just as “Floy Joy” was hitting the airwaves in December of 1971, principal photography was beginning on Lady Sings The Blues, starring former Supreme Diana Ross and produced by Motown.  It would be the company’s first foray into filmmaking, cementing a new focus on the West Coast.  Soon, the entire company would be based out of Los Angeles; according to Mary Wilson, “Floy Joy was our last album recorded in Detroit, and one of the last Motown albums cut there, period” (The 70s Anthology).  Although The Supremes (and many other artists) had already been recording vocals at Motown’s West Coast studios, it was truly the end of an era; the work of the Detroit musicians and background singers (the glorious Andantes, to whom Robinson gives credit on the back cover of the album) are to be savored on Floy Joy.

Having Smokey Robinson produce The Supremes was certainly a full-circle moment, considering Robinson had helped orchestrate the group’s first audition at Motown and then gave them some of their first songs to record; late in the 1960s, he provided the trio with some of their best album tracks ever, including “Then” from Reflections and “He’s My Sunny Boy” from Love Child.  But no matter how hard he tried, Robinson never did give the Diana Ross-led group a hit, so it’s kind of poetic that he would be responsible for the group’s final Top 20 pop record.  He also turns in an exceptionally good album here; it’s not as exciting as Touch, lacking the peaks and valleys of that record, but it’s an appealing, cohesive collection that plays to the group’s strengths and positions them right in their comfort zone.

***

1.  Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love:  Named a Billboard Pop Pick on July 22, 1972, this would be the third and final single released from Floy Joy.  Robinson and The Supremes recorded the track in February of that year, but the song itself dates way back to the previous decade, when the writer-producer cut it on Motown singer Kim Weston (it went unreleased for a long time).  Weston’s version is surprisingly similar to that of The Supremes; Terrell sings in a slightly higher key, but the arrangement is otherwise the same.  Of course, the instruments and recording techniques are a bit more sophisticated, but the background arrangement is identical and both songs achieve the same buoyant feeling.  Set to a galloping beat and featuring a bouncy melody, this is a joyful, feel-good song, and producer Robinson fills it with whimsical touches, including the prominent background voices wailing “oh-oh-oh-yeah!” and the occasional appearance of a cartoonish, deeper voice echoing Jean Terrell.  Speaking of the lead Supreme, she serves up a soulful performance full of riffs and some fun, breathy ad-libs (I love her “I got to have it” at 1:55), and she’s ably supported by Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who seem to be joined be a few other voices at times.  In many ways, this production recalls “He’s My Sunny Boy,” cut by Robinson on Diana Ross and The Supremes for 1968’s Love Child; both songs share the same kind of lightness and optimism, not to mention a similar beat.  While “Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love” isn’t quite as successful as that earlier Supremes recording, it is a satisfying recording and was a very good choice for single release.  Unfortunately, there obviously just wasn’t pubic demand for a third single off the album, and it struggled to #59 on the Billboard Hot 100 (although it did hit a respectable #22 on the R&B chart).  Still, this is a great way to lead off the album, and is easily one of the best cuts here.  (NOTE: Interestingly, this was the first and only time three singles were released from the same album by the 70s Supremes.)

Billboard: January 1, 1972 (Note the weird mistake on the title of the group’s previous hit, “Nathan Jones”)

2.  Floy Joy:  A sugary confection that’s pure Smokey, this is a classic “throwback” that manages to sound both retro and contemporary at the same time.  Although many compare “Floy Joy” to the classic Supremes hits penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland, it’s equally reminiscent of the Robinson-helmed hits by The Marvelettes from the previous decade.  In many ways, “Floy Joy” can be viewed as a companion piece to the 1965 hit “Don’t Mess With Bill” in terms of its vibe-heavy, slinky production; in the earlier recording, the lyrics speak to other women seeking the love of the titular man, while this time around, they speak right to the man himself.  Opening with a phased update of the classic Motown footstomp, the track is light as air and bouncy as a rubber ball, featuring a twinkling piano line and swinging bass; Robinson also liberally uses a saxophone on the track, which certainly harkens back to songs like “Back In My Arms Again.”  The producer also gives Mary Wilson a chance to shine, allowing her a co-lead with Jean Terrell; Wilson would remember in her 1990 book Supreme Faith, “During the sessions, he was so supportive and patient, guiding me through my lead lines…It was an experience and a kindness I will never forget” (60).  Although Wilson and Terrell had shared a lead on previous single “Touch,” the pairing is far more successful here; their vocal styles were so different on that earlier song that they seemed to be working against each other, which made no sense given the sensual lyrics.  On “Floy Joy,” the lyrics speak of a man attracting the attention of “a million girls,” so it’s natural to have more than one woman singing to him; although Mary and Jean still sing with vastly different vocal styles, they share a playfulness that helps tie the performances together.  Mary, of course, oozes with sensuality during her solo lines; her misty alto is like a curl of smoke, similar in sound to Marvelette Wanda Rogers on the aforementioned “Don’t Mess With Me.”  If Mary is a revamped Wanda, then Jean gives a modern take on classic Diana Ross, delivering a high, crisp vocal that cuts sharply right through the track.  Both women are backed by some really nice harmonies (for example, the “I know!” at 0:36) which are likely the work of The Andantes; if this is the case, it’s just another way in which “Floy Joy” recalls the classic 1960s Motown Sound.  Oddly, there are some sloppy edits on the finished version of “Floy Joy” where it’s obvious that producer Robinson cut some sections; listen closely at :44, and you’ll hear that Jean Terrell doesn’t even finish singing the word “joy” before there’s a cut to another section.  And indeed, the 4-disc box set The Supremes released in 2000 contained a fully unedited version which confirmed that a few little sections were sliced out of the originally release.  There’s no telling why the unedited version wasn’t just released in the first place; it’s not that much longer, and it’s much smoother without the weird cuts.  In any case, “Floy Joy” remains a sparkling track that deserved its success; released on the first day of December in 1971, it quickly climbed to the pop and R&B Top 20.

Jet: March 23, 1972
“Floy Joy” climbed all the way to #3 on the magazine’s Soul Brothers chart

3.  A Heart Like Mine:  As with Floy Joy‘s first track, this is another much older song resurrected by Smokey Robinson for The Supremes; written by Smokey and Ronald White, it initially appeared on 1961’s Hi! We’re The Miracles, the very first album released by The Miracles, not to mention the very first album ever released by Motown.  Robinson turns the song into slow, dreamy ballad here, lacing it with South Pacific-inspired guitars that recall his arrangement for the early Supremes single “You Heart Belongs To Me.”  Appropriately, as Mary Wilson was the only group member to sing on that earlier recording, she’s given the lead here; this is the actually the first 70s cut that is completely led by Miss Wilson from start to finish.  The song fits her like a glove; there’s a tinge of jazz in the song’s melody, and Wilson’s smoky, languid tone was always a natural match for jazz and blues material.  One of Smokey Robinson’s great gifts as a producer is coming up with gorgeous, intricate harmonies; the group vocal work on this cut is absolutely breathtaking, with each voice working together create light, airy flourishes so good you’ll swear they can’t be real.  The same must be said for the instrumentation on the track; every single player manages to capture the same faraway feel, weaving together a magical tapestry upon which Miss Wilson doesn’t have to do much except delicately place her distinctive voice.  That’s not to say Mary doesn’t skillfully deliver the lead vocal; she does, singing with greater confidence and control than she had on “Touch.”  But this is a song on which every single element works, and each is essential to creating the resulting atmosphere.

Billboard: June 10, 1972

4.  Over And Over:  This song would eventually find itself as a b-side of “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man,” the first single released from the next Supremes album, The Supremes — Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb.  “Over And Over” is an unusual mid tempo number, arranged with some interesting touches including a funky organ and an echoed guitar that gives the entire song a psychedelic feel.  Jean Terrell’s performance is as unorthodox (for her, at least) as the instrumental track; she delivers most of the song in a high, raspy tone that sounds surprisingly like that of Marvelettes singer Wanda Young at times.  Listen, for example, to her coo the words “Suggest it, now” at :38; she could be doing an impression of Young’s work on “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.”  It’s nice to hear such a variation in Terrell’s vocal work here; as gifted a singer as she is, Terrell sometimes fell into a trap of approaching songs in the same way, leading certainly tracks to blend together (this was particularly the case on 1970’s Right On).  Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong add their particular brand of sophistication to the background, generally echoing Miss Terrell in unison and then breaking out into little solo bits, repeating the word “…again.”  Although “Over And Over” doesn’t stand immediately stand out in the way that the album’s previous three tracks do, there’s something hypnotic about this recording; there’s a good chance that long after listening to Floy Joy, it’s the “Closer and closer/Over and over/Again…” refrain that will be stuck in your head.

5.  Precious Little Things:  This is a jazzy Bossa nova tune, a kind of Motown-meets-Brazil number seemingly inspired by “The Girl From Ipanema.”  Smokey Robinson wrote this one with Pam Moffet and Marvin Tarplin; Supremes aficionados will remember that Tarplin is the guitarist first discovered by The Supremes and later “stolen” away by Smokey Robinson, a funny story still told by Robinson, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson to this day.  Assuming it’s Marv Tarplin who’s playing guitar on this track, it’s easy to see why both The Supremes and Smokey wanted him; the delicate touch with which he plays on this track is lovely.  His instrumental break at 1:51 is the highlight of the entire song; the quick-fingered guitar work, which leads into a superb piano solo, evokes the feeling of a dim supper club somewhere on the coast of South America.  The song itself isn’t the most inspired; while the track is beautifully done, the lyrics are a little clunky in spots (“And your my stopper in life’s tub/When I’m heading down the drain” has to be one of the the corniest lyrics ever uttered by a Supreme), but Jean Terrell delivers them with such a lightness that they go down smoother than they sometimes deserve.  There’s also a nice, uncluttered feel to the vocal arrangement; Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong croon softly in the background, their voices clear enough to be heard individually but never taking attention away from the melody.  “Precious Little Things” ended up being placed on the b-side of the album’s second single, the moderately successful “Automatically Sunshine,” and you have to wonder if any radio DJs flipped over the 45 and gave this one some late-night spins.  Smokey Robinson hadn’t coined the term “Quiet Storm” yet, but this song is certainly an example of the genre that continues to keep so many “night owls” company.

6.  Now The Bitter, Now The Sweet:  This jangly tune is certainly a product of its time, a kind of philosophical poem set to music that perfectly captures the ethos of the early 1970s.  The lyrics muse on the balance of good things and bad things in life, that pleasure cannot come without pain, loss without gain, etc.  The spiritual bent of the song, as The Supremes repeat “Say Amen!” during one section, comes as no surprise given the song’s co-writer, Robinson’s friend Cecil Franklin; Franklin was a Reverend…not to mention the older brother of Aretha Franklin.  The song is set to a slow, pulsing beat; at more than five minutes in length, it’s a recording that takes its time, never rushing its message and allowing plenty of time for Robinson to layer in unexpected vocal flourishes. The track is led by Marv Tarplin’s twangy guitar work, giving the song a dusty, down-home feel; this is off-set by the ethereal feel of the background vocals, particular the high harmonies of The Andantes, which take over in fantastic little snippets of staccato syllables that seem to mimic exotic birds.  Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong deliver most of the song in unison, blending really nicely; Mary and Cindy also get a chance to stand out during the end of each section, and they individually repeat the same phrase.  It’s really nice to hear Miss Birdsong singing so clearly; this long into her tenure as a Supreme, she certainly deserved the opportunity to display her vocal gifts.  Overall, the entire recording feels like something of a fever dream; there are so many quirky moments and strange vocal effects that it really takes multiple listens to catch them all.  Interestingly, “Now The Bitter, Now The Sweet” is one of only two songs on Floy Joy to never be placed on either the a- or b-side of a single, which makes it a bit more of a rarity.  It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s a fascinating song and an interesting departure for The Supremes.

Billboard: September 2, 1972

7.  Automatically Sunshine:  This song was released on April 11, 1972 as the album’s second single; although not as successful as “Floy Joy,” it did make it into the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at #37) and missed the R&B Top 20 by just one spot.  It’s hard to say why it didn’t do better on these charts; it spent many weeks on the Jet Soul Brothers Top 20 chart, and several radio disc jockeys are quoted in Billboard issues of the time as putting the song into rotation. Perhaps the release of the Floy Joy album in May slowed down sales of the single a bit; if fans wanted to buy the song, they could just pick up the entire album by then.  But in terms of quality, “Automatically Sunshine” deserved be a much bigger hit; it’s just as good, if not better, than the album’s title track, and certainly a more challenging recording.  Mary and Jean share the lead again on this one, with Wilson taking on the role of wise flower child as she murmurs the memorable opening lines, “Ooh, baby, let’s take life’s highway/It’s automatically yours and my way…”  Both she and Miss Terrell deliver solid and fairly straightforward vocals, appropriately toning down the playfulness they displayed on “Floy Joy” to fit the more mature feel of this song.  Now, let’s be honest about something: The track itself and the melody bear a noticeable resemblance to those of the 1967 hit “Happy Together” by The Turtles.  Listen to them back-to-back; there’s a similar beat to both songs, along with the use of electric guitars and and organ to create a psychedelic pop sound, and at times the melodies can be perfectly sung together.  However, Robinson’s concept and lyrics are good enough to separate the two songs, and to give this one a unique identity; “No road is too rough to travel/We’ll walk barefoot on life’s gravel” is certainly evocative of the time, and the phrase “Automatically Sunshine” remains a great hook.  Although the song was only a moderate success in the United States, it did well elsewhere; it was a Top 3 hit in Bangkok, and peaked at #10 in the UK, where it was eventually used in a television ad for Percil Automatic washing powder!

8.  The Wisdom Of Time:  This is a terrific track that incorporates elements of soul, pop, jazz, and Classic Motown; it’s surprising that this wasn’t originally recorded by The Miracles back in the 1960s, as it certainly sounds like it could have been.  Written by Robinson with Clifford Burston and Pam Moffett, this is another philosophical poem set to music, with the lyrics musing, “As the world turns/We live and learn” and that time is the “healer of wounds, the sealer of fate.”  Although they are two very different songs, there are some sonic similarities to one of Robinson’s all-time great recordings, the sublime “The Tracks Of My Tears,” a hit for The Miracles in 1965; listen to the chord changes in both songs, and Marv Tarplin’s prominent guitar work, and you might hear the resemblance.  “The Wisdom Of Time” is set to a nice, subtle groove and features superb vocals by The Supremes; Jean, Mary, and Cindy sing much of the track in unison, their voices gently blending until Terrell breaks out for some lovely, soulful solo parts.  This is easily one of Terrell’s best vocals on the album; her voice dances lightly over the melody, slipping in and out of the harmonies with a breathtaking skill.  Cindy Birdsong steps out to deliver a great spoken section, her sexy, soulful voice absolutely perfect as she whispers words of wisdom into the microphone.  The end result is a charming recording that’s as soothing as an iced drink on a hot summer day; like the best work by Smokey Robinson, it just seems to float into the sky like a lost balloon.  “The Wisdom Of Time” would be placed on the b-side to “Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love,” released as a single in July; it’s too bad the song didn’t do better, as it might have prompted disc jockeys to flip over the record and give this one a spin.  I’m not sure “The Wisdom Of Time” could have been a big hit, but it’s easily one of the best cuts on the album, and one of the sparkling highlights of the group’s 1970s output.

Billboard: May 27, 1972

9.  Oh Be My Love:  Floy Joy closes with a song that had actually been recorded a few times before; The Miracles first cut this tune in 1966, and it backed up the group’s single “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ In My Heart (Since I Met You)” (which, incidentally, was written and produced by Frank Wilson).  According to Motown website Don’t Forget The Motor City, Wilson ended up cutting the tune on both Barbara McNair and Kiki Dee before Robinson revived it for The Supremes.  Smokey gives the song a considerably harder edge than it had back in 1966; what was a sugary ballad is now a guitar-driven rocker that sounds inspired by the work The Supremes had already done with Frank Wilson on their previous three albums.  It actually works surprisingly well in this funked-up arrangement; the song’s got a great groove and Jean Terrell offers up a punchy performance with just right amount of restraint and toughness to it.  The background vocals are a lot of fun, too; it’s hard not to sing along with the voices during their wordless syllables following refrain.  “Oh Be My Love” is not the most memorable song on the album, but it’s another solid recording; there’s a nice simplicity to the arrangement that balances out some of the most complex work on the album, and it’s another one that will unexpectedly get stuck in your head.  (NOTE:  The song would also get something of a second life the following year, when it was placed on the flipside of the group’s Stevie Wonder-produced “Bad Weather” single, released in March of 1973.)

***

Motown got a lot of mileage out of the Floy Joy album; a full seven of its nine tracks were released as singles, either as a-sides or on the flipside of other songs.  Although not a monster hit, the album charted better than anything by the group since 1970’s Right On, climbing to #54 on the Billboard 200.  Mary Wilson would later write, “These tracks were the realization of what I’d felt the Supremes should be…And after losing Frank Wilson, having Smokey now was the best thing that could happen to us, and I wanted him to be our producer forever” (Supreme Faith 61).

Unfortunately for The Supremes, Robinson eventually turned attention to his own solo career, releasing his debut album Smokey in June of 1973; it wasn’t a big hit, but his solo career would pick up steam throughout the decade.  The Supremes, meanwhile, would go on to work with outside producer Jimmy Webb for their next album, leaving fans to wonder “what if?” when it came to further work with Smokey.  Had Robinson produced a second album on The Supremes, he might have positioned them as the Queens of the forthcoming Quiet Storm movement, giving them sweet melodies and subtle arrangements upon which to lay down polished harmonies.  We’ll never know.  But with the “wisdom of time,” as Smokey might say, it’s obvious that the pairing was capable of creating magic.

Or, perhaps more accurately, miracles.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (An “Automatic” Success)

Paul’s Picks:  “Floy Joy,” “The Wisdom Of Time,” “A Heart Like Mine”

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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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