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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Ways But Love Stays (1970)

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

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

Jet: August 18, 1977

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

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

 ***

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

Billboard: December 12, 1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billboard: October 24, 1970

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

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

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

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

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

***

The Billboard 200: January 23, 1971

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

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

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

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The Magnificent Seven (1970)

“Together we can make such sweet music…”

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

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

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

***

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

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

Billboard: July 29, 1972

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

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

Billboard: November 14, 1970

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

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

Billboard: November 21, 1970

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

Jet: February 18, 1971

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Billboard: October 24, 1970

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

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

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

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Right On (1970)

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Billboard: August 15, 1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billboard: July 24, 1965

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

Billboard: May 30, 1970

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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In The Name Of Love…

Just bought my tickets to see Diana Ross in West Palm Beach next month.

This will be my 7th Diana Ross concert.

I’m as giddy as I was 22 years ago, the first time.

Last Time I Saw Her: May 22, 2015. Yes, I’ll be wearing the shirt this time.

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Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing Smokey: A Retrospective

“I’ll gather melodies from birdies that fly…and compose you a tune…”

In the annals of music history, The Supremes will forever be linked to Holland-Dozier-Holland, the writing-producing team responsible for ten of the singing trio’s twelve #1 pop hits.  And this is as it should be; Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard proved the perfect match for the crisp melodies and urgent beats penned by Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, with Ross in particular excelling in the delivery of sweetness, soul, fire, and icy detachment required by the songs.  But take away these classic recordings — from “Baby Love” to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to “Reflections” — and The Supremes are left with an unusual and often uneven catalog of songs produced by some of the most prolific artists on the Motown roster.  Of those, arguably the most successful in crafting quality recordings for The Supremes is the legendary Smokey Robinson.

Billboard: March 20, 1965

Robinson’s history with The Supremes goes back to nearly the beginning; it was he who helped orchestrate the group’s initial audition with Motown Records, thanks to the persistence of his neighborhood friend Diana Ross.  Once the group signed with the label in 1961, Robinson provided the young ladies with songs like “Who’s Lovin’ You” (included on Meet The Supremes), “After All,” and “Those D.J. Shows” (both unreleased), and eventually wrote and produced the exquisite “Your Heart Belongs To Me” for them in 1962, which became the group’s first song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.  But when The Supremes teamed with Holland-Dozier-Holland the following year for “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” the resulting magic was undeniable.  Over the next several years, from late 1963 to early 1968, The Supremes would solely release singles written and produced by H-D-H, effectively blocking any other producer from attempting to gain a hit with the girl group.

When Holland-Dozier-Holland eventually left Motown in a dispute over money, Robinson began working with the group again, offering up the sterling “Then” on the group’s 1968 album Reflections.  The next several songs he cut with Diana Ross and The Supremes — with one very notable exception (“The Composer”) — would be among the best of the group’s latter-day output, restoring melodic order to an otherwise fractured discography.  Robinson continued his association with The Supremes even after Ross left the group, producing the 1972 album Floy Joy and giving The Supremes a final top 20 hit with the title track.  Smokey will forever be identified with The Temptations, Mary Wells, and (of course) The Miracles, but his work with Motown’s top female trio deserves more respect than it often gets.  Here, then, are what I consider to be the finest Smokey-Supremes collaborations (with abbreviated discussions from previous DIANA ROSS PROJECT posts) — consider it the lineup for a “lost” album that might have been.

***

Billboard: June 2, 1962

1.  Your Heart Belongs To Me:  This song garnered a four-star review in the June 2, 1962 issue of Billboard, with the magazine predicting, “Smart arrangements might make this one to watch.”  Unfortunately, few disc jockeys followed the advice, and the song peaked at #95 on the Hot 100, although it was the group’s first to make the chart.  Still, this is the first really strong single released by The Supremes, and easily the best song featured on the group’s debut album, Meet The Supremes.  More than any other song on that album, “Your Heart Belongs To Me” hints at the sophistication these young ladies were capable of; there’s a sexy maturity to the vocals here, especially those of Diana Ross, that would become much more pronounced in the next few years.  This is a softly-swinging ballad, driven by surf-style guitars and snapping percussion; with lyrics that mention “faraway sand” and the sea, listeners can practically hear the rolling of waves in the background.

2.  A Breathtaking Guy:  It’s still surprising that this song wasn’t the group’s first big hit.  Once again, it gained a four-star review in Billboard (July 6, 1963), but only managed to climb to #75 on the pop chart.  Eventually placed on 1964’s Where Did Our Love Go, the song stands up alongside the hit Holland-Dozier-Holland productions also included on the album.  Robinson’s lyrical genius is evident, with a whimsical chorus composed of the refrain, “Are you just a breathtaking…first sight soul-shaking…one night lovemaking…next day heartbreaking guy?”  Wordy?  Yes…but Robinson wisely breaks up this chorus, allowing each Supreme to take a line.  No matter how talented Motown’s other female groups — and there was great talent there — no other group featured three such distinct, polished voices, all of which are on glorious display here.

3.  You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me:  Smokey Robinson didn’t produce this recording, but he did write it; it was a top 10 hit for The Miracles in 1962 and covered by The Beatles a year later, which explains its inclusion on A Bit Of Liverpool.  The album is largely a disasterbut this cover is the unqualified highlight, with a stunningly soulful lead by Diana Ross, sexy underscoring by Mary Wilson, and full-throated background work from Florence Ballard.

4.  Take Me Where You Go:  Recorded in 1965, this track first surfaced on the 1979 release From The Vaults, a collection of unreleased tracks from various Motown groups.  Since then, “Take Me Where You Go” has been released with several different mixes on compilations including the 4-disc box set The Supremes (2000), 2008’s Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities, and More Hits By The Supremes: Expanded Edition (2011).  In any of its versions, this is a near-perfect Supremes recording, mirroring the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound in many ways, but filtering it through Robinson’s melody-heavy, lyrically-inspired lens.  Unfortunately, “Take Me Where You Go” came along precisely as the group was hitting hard with its first batch of five consecutive #1 hits, all written by H-D-H, which means anything written or produced by anyone else was forced to take a backseat.  Had “Take Me Where You Go” been released, it easily would have been a hit for the group, and it would have seamlessly fit in with the lineups of either the More Hits or I Hear A Symphony albums.

5.  Then:  Three singles were released from 1968’s Reflections album, and it remains a mystery why this song wasn’t one of them; if ever there was a lost hit for The Supremes, this is it.  Mr. Robinson delivers one of his patented sugary confections, boasting typically clever lyrics and an exciting, driving instrumental.  Diana, Mary, and new Supreme Cindy Birdsong are in glorious form here; Ross sparkles with a relaxed, assured lead vocal, and her groupmates offer up tight harmonies, their voices ringing like bells in the background.  More than just the strength of the writing and the performances, Robinson captures a real magic here; again, it’s hard to believe Motown didn’t jump on this song and rush it to radio.  Interestingly, Diana Ross and The Supremes would record “Then” again; it’s included on 1968’s Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations as a collaboration with Motown’s top male vocal group.  It’s a good version, but this one is the standout.

6.  I’ll Try Something New:  Although “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is the signature song of the supergroup known as Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, this is their collective masterpiece.  Smokey Robinson didn’t produce this one, but he wrote it and first recorded it with The Miracles.   Producer Frank Wilson (website Don’t Forget The Motor City also credits Deke Richards as co-producer) gives this version a quiet, dreamy interpretation; his musicians create an instrumental so light and airy it feels like it’s floating up into heaven.  The male and female voices are perfectly matched; Eddie Kendricks delivers an effortless falsetto and Diana’s vocal oozes over the track like honey.   The entire production builds to a powerful climax, with both groups repeatedly belting the song’s title and the lead singers ad-libbing until the fade.  There is something eminently listenable about this recording; it’s so tightly pitched and performed that multiple listens reveal little riffs and harmonies just beneath the surface that are easy to miss the first time.  When it was released in February of 1969, the song was only a moderate success; it reached the Top 10 of the R&B chart, but stopped short of the Top 20 on the pop side, peaking at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100.  It deserved to do much, much better.

7.  He’s My Sunny Boy:  1968’s Love Child was a return to form for Diana Ross and The Supremes, and “He’s My Sunny Boy” is a major contributor to its overall success.  This is a joyous, brassy celebration of love, featuring celebratory horns and a great bongo intro; even though the “sunny” tone of the song might have sounded a little old-fashioned at the time, the expert guitar picking helps give the song a folksy feel that’s totally of the late-60s.  Robinson’s lyrics are as sharp as ever, with Diana, Mary, and Cindy cooing “Looks good in everything from silk to corduroy (Or mohair!)/For him I’d walk from Idaho to Illinois (Or anywhere!)” — and a real joy here is the clarity of all three Supremes’ voices.  Just the three ladies are singing here, and there’s a purity in their sound that makes you wish Motown hadn’t been so reliant on session singers.  Plenty of people would get a listen to this song when it was placed on the b-side of “Someday We’ll Be Together” — released as the final Diana Ross and The Supremes single in October of 1969.  It’s a shame, however, that “He’s My Sunny Boy” never got a shot at success on its own.

8.  Will This Be The Day:  This is an absolutely sterling track which originally surfaced as the b-side to the group’s “Love Child” single in September, 1968.  It’s no surprise that this is a Smokey Robinson tune, co-written with Warren Moore and Beatrice Verdi and produced by the Robinson and Moore; this lush slice of pop/soul bears many “Smokey hallmarks,” including impossibly sweet lyrics and a symphonic production backed by a gentle beat.  Best of all, this is the only track on Let The Sunshine In on which Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong seem to be actually singing together, and all three ladies sound terrific.  Miss Ross offers up an accomplished vocal full of warmth and yearning; the textured maturity of her voice at this point in her career serves the song well, lending some depth to the recording.  Behind her, the background vocals are smooth as silk; the soft, sophisticated harmonies are exactly what one would and should expect from a superlative Supremes track.

9.  Loving You Is Better Than Ever:  The final studio album from Diana Ross and The Supremes, titled Cream Of The Crop, is a mixed bag of recordings that had been held back from other releases; the main purpose of the album was getting the group’s final #1 hit, “Someday We’ll Be Together,” onto an LP and surrounding it with decent filler.  But once again, Smokey Robinson provides a highlight with “Loving You Is Better Than Ever,” a wonderful tune with a swinging melody and big band instrumental track.  Interestingly, that instrumental seems to foreshadow the coming wave of Disco, too; there’s something about the swirling strings and blaring horns don’t sound far removed from the dance club hits that would dominate R&B and soul music in the following decade.  The real joy in this recording is how effortless it all sounds; unlike some other late-era Diana Ross and The Supremes tracks that seem too calculated and/or overworkedthis one is merely an appealing chunk of pop/soul that exists on its own terms.

Billboard: May 27, 1972

10.  Floy Joy:  Although THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT has focused exclusively on recordings featuring Diana Ross, it’s impossible to mention Smokey Robinson’s contributions to the Supremes discography without including the 1972 LP Floy Joy, which he wrote and produced for the Jean Terrell-led incarnation of the group.  The album’s title track became the final top 20 hit for the group, peaking at #16 pop and #5 R&B.  Featuring a shared lead by Terrell and Mary Wilson, the song is something of a snappier update of the Marvelettes hit “Don’t Mess With Bill” (also written and produced by Robinson), with sexy vocals and a vibe-heavy instrumental track.  Wilson really shines here, with a sultry delivery that oozes over the track like honey; after a decade of stardom, it was certainly time for Wilson to get a shot like this on one of the group’s singles, and she seizes the opportunity.

*BONUS* Kewpie Doll:  Both Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson were extremely busy in the 1970s and 80s, and unfortunately this kept them from working together much.  They both appeared on the 1979 novelty single “Pops We Love You” and on the smash charity recording “We Are The World” in 1985, but that’s about it.  Thankfully, with the release of Diana’s lost “baby album” To The Baby in 2009 (as part of the Touch Me In The Morning Expanded Edition), the world finally got to hear the voices of Ross and Robinson together again with this unreleased track from 1971.  Smokey wrote and produced the track, and offers up background vocals so prominent the recording almost qualifies as a duet.  Both are in fine voice; Diana Ross is as smooth and soulful as she’d ever been on record here, delivering the same kind of youthful passion heard on her earliest solo albums without any of the rawness that crept through.  Robinson’s layered backgrounds are just breathtaking; they work with Diana’s vocal rather than detract from it, adding an aching and tenderness to the recording that it really needed to have.  The end result is such a classic, timeless song that it really doesn’t sound that dated; it could easily be a “neo-soul” tune by a contemporary artist.

***

I’ve long hoped for a Ross-Robinson duets album; both artists still clearly have a great affection for one another, and more importantly, both have retained the unique vocal tones that made them stars in the first place.  I have a suspicion that a strong album of duets between the Motown legends would be heralded by critics and fans alike; it’s the kind of project that the Recording Academy loves to throw Grammys at.  (Not too long ago, I was on a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta and Mr. Robinson was seated in first class.  I spent the entire four-hour flight dreaming about somehow cornering him and pitching this idea; sadly, I was stuck back in coach!)

For now, the above-assembled playlist will have to suffice; I think it proves not only what a genius writer-producer Smokey Robinson was and is, but just how well-suited his gifts were to those of Diana and The Supremes.  And perhaps, if we’re lucky, there are even more collaborations resting in the Motown vaults, waiting to be discovered and released.  When and if they are, we’ll be waiting; after all, to paraphrase a great man, they’ve really got a hold on us.

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GR-R-R-R: Supremes “Roar” in Billboard (5/18/65)

They say May weather either acts like a lion or a lamb…but back in 1965, three “tigers” were bringing plenty of sunshine to the airwaves.

This is a great full-page ad from the May 18, 1965 issue of Billboard, promoting the initial five album releases by The Supremes and their then-latest single, “Back In My Arms Again” (which would show up on their sixth album, More Hits By The Supremes).  The single would go on to become the group’s fifth consecutive #1 pop hit, and their very first #1 on the R&B chart.

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INTERVIEW: Louvain Demps on Good Day Atlanta

Sometimes the most magical moments in life happen by accident; Louvain Demps of The Andantes remembers that being the case while recording “Love Child” in September of 1968.  As she recalls, there came a moment when groupmates Marlene Barrow and Jackie Hicks forget to sing a note, while Demps wailed it with all her heart.  Before they could do it again, she says Berry Gordy yelled, “I love it!”  And thus, Louvain Demps got her famous “solo scream” on one of the biggest hits in Motown history.

I was honored to sit down and chat with 79-year-old Louvain Demps for a two-part profile on Good Day Atlanta.  Not only was she gifted with one of the sweetest voices in soul music, she’s also a beautiful, genuine spirit who lights up when talking about the early days of Hitsville.  It’s no secret anymore that The Andantes were a major element of the Motown Sound, and Louvain’s high notes will forever ring out loud and clear from radios around the world.

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Coming Monday: Interview with Louvain Demps

As many of you know, when I’m not blogging about Diana Ross and/or The Supremes, I’m a television journalist in Atlanta.  My job has given me the opportunity to interview some incredible people (including Mary Wilson last year), and I’m thrilled that Monday morning, my interview with the legendary Louvain Demps will air on television.  Ms. Demps is, of course, one of The Andantes, the prized Motown background singers who sang on tens of thousands of recordings in the 1960s, including many Supremes cuts (that’s Louvain singing the famous high note on “Love Child”).

I’ll post the full stories here once they air on TV, but for now, here’s a little preview, as she remembers working with The Four Tops.

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