40 Golden Motown Hits (Motown/Polygram 1998)
UK Chart Position – 35
Found languishing in a bargain bin at Asda Supermarket a few years after its release this has probably proved to be my best value CD of all time given the number of times I have played it since purchase. Back in 1977 Motown had used the same artwork to promote 20 Golden Greats a single album compilation and had scored a UK chart-topper. In 1993 in a deal reputed to be worth $300 million Polygram purchased Motown and now had the right to their extensive back catalogue.
This and the rise of CDs meaning that more tracks could be fitted on a single disc resulted in a double CD release which was basically the original 20 enriched by a further twenty. These new tracks incorporated a handful of Ross-less Supremes tracks, the super-group pairings with The Temptations and The Four Tops and a second CD of Diana Ross solo hits (including her duets with Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie). With these additions the 20 Golden Greats release was redundant. There was a TV campaign yet this release made only 35 in the UK Charts of 1998. It is, however a superb release and a great overview of the careers of two legendary acts – both the group and the soloist.
On the first CD we proceed through the Supremes hit catalogue in largely chronological order. We get the hit tracks from the Essential CDs I lumped together from “Where Did Our Love Go/”I Hear A Symphony”. In between those album releases we had one of the girls’ greatest recordings “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (1965 US#1, UK#7) and their 5th US number 1 single in a row “Back In Your Arms Again” (1965) which only scraped the Top 40 in the UK, There was another run of four consecutive US chart-toppers from 1966-67, “You Can’t Hurry Love” (UK#3, later to become a UK#1 in an inferior version by Phil Collins in 1982), the excellent “You Keep Me Hanging On” (UK#8, later to get to number 2 and to also top the US charts in an inferior version by Kim Wilde in 1986, proving just how long-lasting these Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions were), “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” (UK#17) but the best of all these came last of all.
“The Happening” (UK#6) was the theme tune for a long-forgotten film and manages to combine a modern sound with a glitzy razzle-dazzle Broadway type feel which is just so infectious and ingeniously combined what the girls had been up to this point and what Berry Gordy wanted them to become – sophisticated chanteuses who would transcend musical barriers. Things changed after this release.
Cindy Birdsong (right) joins Diana Ross and The Supremes
From this point on Diana Ross’ name came before The Supremes. You can sense the arguments over this one to this day. Smokey Robinson had been pushed in front of the Miracles, Martha led the Vandellas so it was inevitable that the ambitious Diana Ross would want to formally recognise her dominant position in the group. Also at this point, Florence Ballard left to be replaced by ex Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong, an act which would further entrench the rivalry between these two groups with Patti Labelle often venting her frustration at the unprecedented success of Ross when she had an inferior voice. How much of this went on at the time or appeared later as a result of Mary Wilson speaking out in “Dreamgirls” a book which spawned the idea of a Broadway show, a revival of which is still packing them in at the West End to this day. In 1967, however there was no denying the commercial appeal of the group.
The first single under the new billing ended the run of US number 1’s as “Reflections” stalled at number 2 (UK#5). The label had begun to experiment with a slightly different sound and there is a distinctly trippy introduction to this track, which was the last single to feature Flo on vocals, although TV promotion was done by Cindy. The reputation slipped a little further with “In And Out Of Love” (US#9, UK#13) and a couple of singles became smaller hits on both sides of the Atlantic and are not featured on this compilation.
“Love Child” saw a new direction for the group
All was redeemed, however, by the trio’s third hit single of 1968. The mood was changing in this revolutionary year and Motown responded by injecting a bit more social awareness into their releases shifting away from everyone having a good time and innocent first loves. 1968 was also the year Holland-Dozier-Holland quit Motown and the new hit was to be penned and produced by Berry Gordy alongside others who were here to be known as The Clan. The response as far as The Supremes were concerned was “Love Child”, a track which has as the first words you hear – “tenement slum”. A song about illegitimacy and a woman resisting sexual pressure from her boyfriend might not seem a likely chart-topper for the 60’s but this is absolute classic Motown – a real gem of a track. It became their 11th US #1 and reached #15 in the UK and might have perhaps mistakenly led to the conclusion that HDH were not essential to the continued success of The Supremes.
The writing was on the wall for the group anyway as it seems that Cindy and Mary were only being used as the public face of the group. They did not apparently contribute to the recording of this song or of other later hits. Motown back-up group The Andantes were doing the honours. The social awareness continued with the guilt of a woman who had abandoned her roots in “I’m Living In Shame” (1969- US#10, UK14) with a return to the more traditional sounds of the label with the very successful pairings with The Temptations which provided a US#2, UK#3 “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and a raiding of the Miracles’ back catalogue “I Second That Emotion” released in the UK in 1969 where it reached #18.
The parting of the ways happened after their twelfth chart-topping single, the anthemic “Someday We’ll Be Together”. This song penned by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua was planned to be the first Ross solo single yet when it came to record it both Ross’ vocal and Bristol’s guide-line vocal were laid down. The result was approved of and since it was not strictly a solo outing the decision was made to put it out as a Supremes single, although once again, Mary and Cindy do not appear. The single reached number 13 in the UK.
In 1968 The Supremes appeared as nuns in the TV series “Tarzan”. Was it this that pushed Diana Ross into her solo career?
Fleshing out the first CD we have a handful of tracks released by the Supremes once Jean Terrell had come in to take lead vocals, ranging from the good as the glory days “Up The Ladder To The Roof” to the less than thrilling “Floy Joy” and the pairing of this new trio with old hands The Four Tops led to a #14 US, #11 UK hit cover of “River Deep Mountain High” a fact that must have caused Phil Spector some irritation. His original version of the song recorded by Ike and Tina Turner he felt was one of the best recordings of all time and his whole life began to freefall when it missed the US charts completely. (We had a softer spot for it over here. It reached number 3 for the duo in 1966 and was the track which introduced Tina Turner to a mainstream UK audience ).
Onto the second disc and we get sixteen of most of the greatest tracks Diana Ross recorded at Motown. For me, the disco era is a little unrepresented as there is no “The Boss” a brilliant Ashford and Simpson song and the version of the phenomenal “Love Hangover” is in the short 7″ single format which always sounded a little disjointed and lacked the flow of the original album track and 12″ version but I’m niggling here.
Things didn’t exactly go immediately to plan when the Ross career was launched. “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand” stalled at a surprisingly low number 20 in her homeland and missed out on the Top 30 in the UK. The social consciousness of the later Supremes recordings had been abandoned for what was felt to be a crowd-pleaser and although it has remained a track long associated with Ms. Ross it didn’t actually set the charts alight on release. That happened with the follow-up, which like the debut was penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a reworking of an earlier hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. This was Diana Ross setting out her stall, a big, blowsy track with spoken interludes and a big build-up which really paid off. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” gave her a first US Pop #1 and got to #6 in the UK. From this point she had arrived.
Big hits followed one after another in the early 70’s and by 1975 she had topped the American charts on another two occasions both with disarmingly tender tracks. “Touch Me In The Morning” from 1973 (UK#9) and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (1975 UK#5) which was the theme from her second film “Mahogany” which is fairly essential viewing in the so- bad- its- good category, where Ross’ performance is distinctly subtle compared to Anthony Perkins. Her UK #1 came with “I’m Still Waiting” not intended for a single release but heavily pushed by DJ Tony Blackburn until the Tamla Motown UK label relented (Incidentally her post Motown UK#1 “Chain Reaction” was also largely ignored in her homeland). She also had a UK only hit (#12- 1972) with a song with the most annoying title of all time, I’m dreading typing it, but here goes: “Doobedood’ndobe, Doobedood’ndobe, Doobedood’ndoo” which always sounds like a few songs going on at once and is the track I would have happily sacrificed for “The Boss.”
Disco revitalised Diana’s career from her mid 70’s chart-topper “Love Hangover” (UK#10) and when it began to falter again the hottest producers in town, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards transferred the Chic sound to the Motown label with her biggest selling album “Diana” of which really the only good tracks were all released as singles. But what singles they were. The biggest was “Upside Down” (US#1,UK#2), the UK went with “My Old Piano” (#5) and then came my favourite of the bunch, another truly anthemic Ross recording which acknowledged a large part of her fan base (although not much was made of this at the time) “I’m Coming Out” (US#5, UK#13). This association was reputedly stormy but it certainly paid dividends. Dodgy films with strong soundtracks became a feature of the 1980’s and we end this marathon trawl through the Ross career with two songs which certainly outlived the films, the lovely Michael Masser and Carole Bayer Sager song “It’s My Turn” (US#9,UK#16) and the track which went onto to become Motown’s best selling single to date, her duet with Lionel Richie “Endless Love” from some cinematic drivel featuring Brooke Shields. It topped the US charts for nine weeks and reached number 7 in the UK.
Richie and Ross
Following this release Diana Ross decided to up sticks and move away from her 22 year hit career with the Motown label and strike out on her own at RCA. A brave, some said foolhardy move but these 40 tracks representing these years are a superb testament to Ms Ross at Motown and there are so many highs amongst these songs.
On a historic TV moment The Supremes made their last appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and whizzed through a medley of their hit career before singing their final number 1 single.
40 Golden Greats seems to be quite difficult to find with the cover I have shown but Amazon has a CD with the same title and it looks like the same track listing with a cover which just features a drawing of Diana Ross. That can be purchased for £8.72 and used from £0.09. There are a number of other Diana Ross and The Supremes compilations available but this one offers the best overview of group and solo careers.