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The Supremes

+ {Diana Ross & The Supremes}

Schooled in the legendary Motown method (i.e. choreography, etiquette, fashion, et al), 60s girl-group greats The SUPREMES outshone their contemporaries in every department (i.e. more glitzsy and glamorous, more professional, more adaptable, more urbane). Above all they had the best tunes and, in DIANA ROSS, a secret weapon of a singer capable of transforming even mediocre material into gold-dust.
R&B at the heart and soul of their pop appeal, The SUPREMES had a total of a dozen classic chart-toppers, historical in the fact they – and writers Holland-Dozier-Holland – had a consecutive run of five in the space of under a year:- `Where Did Our Love Go’, `Baby Love’, `Come See About Me’, `Stop! In The Name Of Love’ and `Back In My Arms Again’; this would’ve been extended further had `Nothing But Heartaches’ been issued prior to `I Hear A Symphony’. If the period August 1964 to June 1965 had not been sufficient to grant the trio legendary status, then the feat was almost achieved (between September 1966 and May 1967) when `You Can’t Hurry Love’, `You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, `Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone’ and `The Happening’ was spoilt only by `Reflections’ (a No.2 that August); ironically, the group were now billed as DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES. At a time when The BEATLES were at a similar peak on both sides of the Atlantic, this assembly-line girl-power phenomenon (under the auspices of Motown boss Berry Gordy, Jr.) was heightened even further.
Back in their salad days of 1959, singing teenagers Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Betty Travis (the latter superseded by Barbara Martin), signified their intentions to succeed in Detroit, Michigan’s most promising outfit, The Primettes; an in-house off-shoot for The Primes (future TEMPTATIONS in part), led by their manager at the time, Milton Jenkins. Making a name for themselves around town by guesting on records by established artists, the girl group were eventually signed to (Tamla) Motown, where the aforesaid label owner, Berry Gordy Jr. took them under his wing, renamed them The SUPREMES, and singled them out for special treatment on debut platter `I Want A Guy’; that summer of 1961 also saw a second 45, `Buttered Popcorn’, also burn out.
Reduced to a trio when a pregnant Barbara Martin took her leave, the group delivered a combination of minor hits (or misses) over the ensuing couple of years, including `Your Heart Belongs To Me’ (penned by SMOKEY ROBINSON), `Let Me Go The Right Way’ and `My Heart Can’t Take It No More’. Many of these teething tracks had showcased Ballard’s earthy vocal style, while Ross and Wilson were identifiable on a few of the other pop-soul pieces within the grooves of MEET THE SUPREMES (1963) {*5}.
The transformation only really began paying dividends when Ross’s cooler, more seductive tones were pushed to the fore on another Smokey cut, the Top 75 breakthrough platter `A Breathtaking Guy’. Set to work on material by the crack songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, the eye-candy trio secured their first Top 30 hit later in ’63 with `When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’.
The following summer, after `Run, Run, Run’ stalled at the starting gates, The SUPREMES hit the top spot (and UK Top 3) with the wonderful `Where Did Our Love Go’, one of three number ones from parent album, WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO (1964) {*8}, along with soon-to-be pop gems `Baby Love’ and `Come See About Me’. Predominantly the work of HDH, there was room for a further Smokey cue in the doo-wop `Long Gone Lover’, plus Norman Whitfield’s `He Means The World To Me’ and `Harvey Fuqua’s (of The MOONGLOWS) `Your Kiss Of Fire’.
The “Invasion” from overseas affecting everything in its path, British fans were fobbed off with a compilation of both Stateside sets under the title, MEET THE SUPREMES (1964) {*6}, while back on American soil, punters and pundits alike were bemused by the inaccurate theme of their third long-player, A BIT OF LIVERPOOL (1964) {*5}. Cheekily exported into Old Blighty early the following year under The BEATLES-flavoured nom de plume of WITH LOVE – FROM US TO YOU, musos pondered over the inclusion of “bits of” London (The DAVE CLARK FIVE’s `Bits And Pieces’), Dagenham via Detroit (a la The CONTOURS’ `Do You Love Me’ re-vamped a la BRIAN POOLE AND THE TREMELOES) and Newcastle via New York via public domain (for `House Of The Rising Sun’ by both The ANIMALS and DYLAN!) – `You Can’t Do That!’, indeed.
Amazingly, these minor foibles did not deter the striking gold of the aforementioned `Stop! In The Name Of Love’ and `Back In My Arms Again’, although in Britain the latter received due punishment when it only dented the Top 40, amidst the versatile but back-firing SING COUNTRY WESTERN & POP (1965) {*4}. Dominated by Clarence Paul-penned pieces (their producer) and propped up by Detroit-via-Nashville readings of WILLIE NELSON’s `Funny How Time Slips Away’, Bob Nolan’s `Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ and Hoagy Carmichael’s `Lazybones’, among others, the concept would be – and rightly so – confined to the bolted-door vaults of musical history.
To mark the untimely death the previous December of one of soul’s greatest stars, the tribute covers LP WE REMEMBER SAM COOKE (1965) {*5} was a slight improvement on their previous commitments. Gordy Jr exploiting the very soul of The SUPREMES by taking on nostalgia for the live AT THE COPA (1965) {*5} and the festive MERRY CHRISTMAS (1965) {*5}, the annus horibilis was only just avoided by the uncomplicated, non-compilation of the back-to-basics, sing-a-long-sunny-day soul of MORE HITS BY THE SUPREMES (1965) {*7}. Chiefly authored once again by HDH, Diana and her dream girls resonated with the buying public on `Nothing But Heartaches’, plus their most recent No.1’s and the gorgeous `He Holds His Own’.
Buoyed by the sparkle and majesty of major strikes, `I Hear A Symphony’ (their 6th No.1) and `My World Is Empty Without You’, the formulaic chemistry of I HEAR A SYMPHONY (1966) {*7} pored sweetness and honey into the soul era. Even the mainstream MOR of `Yesterday’, `Unchained Melody’ and `A Lover’s Concerto’ (recent hits for The BEATLES, The RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS and The TOYS, respectively), steadfastly stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside nostalgic nuggets like `Stranger In Paradise’, `Without A Song’ and `With A Song In My Heart’. Yes, Ross, Ballard and Wilson could sing a phone directory and still come up smelling of roses.
Defining the sound of quintessential 60s Motown pop-soul, and on the back of the Top 10 breaker, `Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart’, the aforementioned run on the top of the charts (from `You Can’t Hurry Love’ to the cine-flick `The Happening’) was paralleled only by attendant hit factory LPs, THE SUPREMES A’ GO-GO (1966) {*7}, THE SUPREMES sing HOLLAND-DOZIER-HOLLAND {*7} – showcasing other chart-toppers `You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ and `Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone’ – and the least fruitful of the three, THE SUPREMES SING RODGERS & HART (1967) {*6}.
But there was turmoil in the camp, as jealousy, rivalry and bickering among the trio came to a head when Gordy re-billed the group as DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES, forcing an alienated and overweight Ballard to leave on her own accord; one of Motown’s truly tragic characters, she was subsequently cheated out of her severance money and died amid depression, alcoholism and personal problems on February 22, 1976, aged only 32. Although ex-PATTI LaBELLE & THE BLUE BELLES singer Cindy Birdsong was drafted in as her replacement, the trio’s next single, `Reflections’, was more an indication of ROSS’s impending solo career. REFLECTIONS (1968) {*5} – the Top 20 album – also featured two other HDH hits (`In And Out Of Love’ and `Forever Came Today’), although sales were duly diminishing.
A rollercoaster ride from then on when only the subsequent ASHFORD & SIMPSON-scribed single, `Some Things You Never Get Used To’ sold well, albums such as the medley-addled `LIVE’ AT LONDON’S TALK OF THE TOWN (1968) {*5} and the ill-conceived Sing and Perform “FUNNY GIRL” (1968) {*4} took a critical and commercial nosedive to musical hell. Then out of nowhere popped up the socially-aware, chart-scaling title track from LOVE CHILD (1968) {*6} set, a record that saved face among Gordy and his corporate clan, and a record that showed that having dispensed with the services of HDH, outsider songwriters could do just as well.
If the gamble had not paid off, then Gordy’s brainwave to simultaneously combine his proteges with The TEMPTATIONS for a series of spectacular events (including a TV special), was an inspired each-way bet. Already on “Cloud Nine”, their soul mates were the soul-pop bees knees, but together, the pairing’s flight to the top were solidified by Gamble & Huff’s `I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ (from DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES JOIN THE TEMPTATIONS (1968) {*7}; “Taking Care of Business” one might say, the television soundtrack TCB (1968) {*7} also soared to the top of the charts.
All in a busy 1969, and on either side of two other not-so-popular team efforts, TOGETHER {*5} and television’s ON BROADWAY {*5}, DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES added to their own CV by way of LET THE SUNSHINE IN {*6} – including a trio of lesser-known hits `I’m Livin’ In Shame’, `The Composer’ and `No Matter What Sign You Are’ – and the misleading CREAM OF THE CROP {*4}. Ironically, the latter set featured their the cream of JOHNNY BRISTOL’s `Someday We’ll Be Together’ (plus the “crop” of the others), which marked their lead’s last studio hurrah before a tearful Las Vegas FAREWELL (1970) {*7} show – January 14 – that confirmed DIANA ROSS would indeed be going solo.
The SUPREMES and producer Frank Wilson were already working with replacement Jean Terrell in the studio while the tour came to a close and, with the Top 10 `Up The Ladder To The Roof’ (spawned from spring 1970’s RIGHT ON {*5}), Wilson and Birdsong breathed a sigh of relief; it fared better chart-wise than ROSS’s `Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand’, although it was quite the reverse when `Everybody’s Got The Right To Love’ was out-striped by their rival’s `Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ chart-scaler.
Hoping to recreate the charismatic chemistry accrued from his previous pairing, the crafty Gordy pitted the FOUR TOPS alongside The SUPREMES for a re-take of IKE & TINA TURNER’s `River Deep – Mountain High’ (a hit from their THE MAGNIFICENT 7 (1970) {*6} LP). As much a way of churning out the hits of the day pre-karaoke-style, The SUPREMES themselves, bagged out a procession of reasonably-placed singles; their final Top 10 `Stoned Love’ stemming from the peace and love motif of NEW WAYS BUT LOVE STAYS (1970) {*5}.
Not as fruitful as The SUPREMES & THE FOUR TOPS’ previous venture, THE RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1971) {*5} fell well short of the Top 100, while attendant single `You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart’, ultimately failed to reach the heady heights of the girls’ `Nathan Jones’ (from the rather patchy TOUCH (1971) {*5}); BANANARAMA would be taking notes.
The formula tried and tested to breaking point, the not-so magnificent 7 occupied the #160 spot for one week with DYNAMITE (1971) {*5}, before miraculously – pun intended! – Gordy merged producer/songwriter SMOKEY ROBINSON for the brighter and spontaneous FLOY JOY (1972) {*6}. Hosting the delicious title piece and follow-on Top 40 entry, `Automatically Sunshine’, The SUPREMES looked to be sassier and sexier while undergoing a kind of transition.
Although only appearing on the cover shot of their previous LP, Lynda Laurence finally took over from the recently wed and now pregnant Birdsong on their lowest hit for some time, `I Guess I’ll Miss The Man’ (penned by Stephen Schwartz from the musical Pippin). Spawned from the only partly-accurate set, THE SUPREMES: PRODUCED AND ARRANGED BY JIMMY WEBB (1972) {*5}, the songwriter himself may well have been confused into the inclusion of JONI MITCHELL’s `All I Want’, NILSSON’s `Paradise’, and a few others.
On the back of a tight, career-spanning concert set from June 3, 1973, entitled LIVE! IN JAPAN {*7} – not actually released in the States! – both Terrell and Laurence quit, leaving spaces for co-lead Scherrie Payne and a returning Cindy Birdsong. Uncomfortably for Gordy, amidst the time’s disco diversions, `He’s My Man’, `Where Do I Go From Here’ and the UK-only `Early Morning Love’ (from the 60s-styled THE SUPREMES (1975) {*3} set), failed to generate any renewed interest.
Star of bio-pic The Lady Sings The Blues (and Mahogany), DIANA ROSS was now Motown’s favoured female, while The SUPREMES were struggling to compete in her musical wake. Still, as Birdsong once again moved over for another newcomer Susaye Greene, the album HIGH ENERGY (1976) {*5} was fighting back. As ever, meticulously crafted by the Holland brothers (Brian and Eddie), and unwilling to dub over the Birdsong contributions, the Blue Belle graced everything but the title track and Top 40 breaker `I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Talking’.
The eponymously-titled MARY, SCHERRIE & SUSAYE (1976) {*3} tried to steal some of the disco limelight from CHIC, ROSE ROYCE and DONNA SUMMER, and suffered as a consequence; opener `You’re My Driving Wheel’, their sayonara to the Top 100. As the night turned into day, the once-mighty SUPREMES gave up the ghost in ’77 after Karen Jackson had replaced Mary Wilson. The latter lady later toured as Mary Wilson & The Supremes, while on May 16, 1983, Diana, Mary and Cindy re-united for one-off Motown anniversary gig. A decade and a half at the top of the tree (personnel upheavals and tragedy aside), The SUPREMES were the epitome of Detroit’s hard-working soul scene, but just where did the love go?
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Dec2015

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