I woke up this morning with the very sad news of the passing of former Supreme, Mary Wilson, at the age of 76. This weekend I finished re-reading the first of her two autobiographies and weirdly had a review scheduled to post this morning. I’m posting this today in tribute to one of the Great Ladies Of Motown.
I love this book. I think I’ve read it twice before but not for the last 30 years so it was time to revisit my now orangey-paged paperback edition. (It now only seems to be in print in an omnibus 2000 edition together with its follow-up “Supreme Faith, also highly recommended, available from Cooper Square Press.) It is one of the great showbusiness memoirs.
Mary Wilson was one of four girls from The Brewster Projects in Detroit who formed a sister group to male R&B combo The Primes (the nucleus of the Temptations). Mary, together with Flo Ballard, Betty McGlown and Diane Ross became The Primettes in 1959 and spent the next five years attempting to realise their dream of musical stardom building up a local reputation and hanging around the local studios of Motown Records until label boss, Berry Gordy, relented and signed them up as The Supremes. Betty had been replaced by Barbara Martin who also left in 1962 leaving the girls as a trio. They became known as “The No-Hit Supremes” by other artists whose careers at Motown soared until for their 9th single for the label songwriters/producers Holland, Dozier and Holland wanted to try them on a song already rejected by The Marvelettes. “Where Did Our Love Go?” topped the US pop charts and started a career which made the trio three of the most famous faces of the 1960s.
So far, so much like a fairy story. Yet this book, alongside J.Randy Taraborrelli’s “Call Her Miss Ross”, published a year after this and “The Dreamgirls” Broadway hit musical (which has never said it was based on The Supremes although Mary was overawed by the parallels when she saw it) has changed the perception of this fairy tale and put serious doubt on any “happy ever after” ending.
Mary saw it all. Diane metamorphosing into Diana moving from background singer to lead vocalist to solo ambitions fuelled by a relationship with Gordy to becoming one of the most successful female artists of all time and Florence, from lead vocals to being undermined and eventually jostled out of the group with tragic consequences. Mary knew what was going on and was unable to speak up.
She took it all in though and there is excellent detail in the recall in this book ghosted by Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard. There’s the perfect balance between the personal and the career (there is an extraordinary appendix of an itinerary which exists only because Mary was a keen diarist which shows how hard these girls were worked). Alongside this you get the changing dynamics of the group which is just fascinating together with Mary’s ill-fated relationship with Tom Jones.
It is this balance which makes this book such a great read. Mary’s voice comes through strongly (certainly more strongly than on a lot of the later Diana Ross & The Supremes single releases). There is just something about tarnish in the glitter which just so appeals.
Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme was published in the UK in 1987. I read the 1988 Arrow paperback edition.
I’ve read this before back in 2008 when I thought it was okay but this is a book which cranks up to another level in this music streaming era. An alphabetical listing of key figures in Soul and R&B over a span of approximately 50 years with recommended albums and playlists of their best work. Back when this was written it meant downloading tracks onto I-Pods or splashing out on CDs which would have turned out to be prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, it’s risk-free with streaming services. That is why after reading this a second time I now have placed the massive total of 101 albums into my Spotify playlists to see if I agree with the author’s judgements.
I wasn’t really intending to re-read this. First time round it was a library copy but I spotted it pre-lockdown in a charity shop and thought it would be a useful book to have as research (I do use another of Shapiro’s books“Soul: 100 CDs” quite a lot) . I just pulled it off my shelves this week to browse and found myself reading from cover to cover.
I have read Peter Shapiro before and he does come across as quite grumpy for a music fan. There’s loads of opinions here- very few artists seem to come away with unqualified praise, he is often dismissive of their bigger commercial hits, he’s certainly not a huge fan of much of 90’s R&B especially anything resembling “piercing whining” or excessive melisma or histrionics (Boyz II Men get a rough deal here and actually I have no issue with this). He can be sniffy about the type of soul music favoured in the UK and Disco can be love it or hate it (surprisingly as he wrote one of the seminal works in this genre in his study of the Disco Era “Turn The Beat Around” (2005) I actually felt that his individual style was to the detriment of this book. I said of it “He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters.”. Here, because his brief is wider and he cannot be expected to like everything from Aaliyah to Zapp it didn’t grate as much and I occasionally laughed out loud at his viewpoint. He is good with adjectives, which certainly gives his work his personal slant. Take Diana Ross, after acknowledging her star power and “unquenchable force” we get “wretched”; “surprisingly acceptable”, “mediocre”, “uptight”’ “disastrous”, “ generic, “rather hideous”, pointless” and “shockingly awful” all for an artist he acknowledges as significant and even can form a recommended playlist for. (True, it is only 8 tracks when he normally gives 10). Slightly more disturbing are textual inconsistencies, an example of this is Stevie Wonder and his 1972 album “Music Of My Mind” which was the first time he was given more control and independence by Motown. In the Wonder entry it is described thus ; “It was no masterpiece, it didn’t have the songs to back up his mercurial wanderings across the boundaries of texture, timbre and taste.”. Underneath the entry it is highlighted as one of his greatest recordings saying “he unleashed a set of songs that demanded attention, incorporating soul and gospel, melody and funk, every track is a smash.” Now we can all change our minds, but on the same page?
I do like the format of these musical Rough Guides but I think that this is the only topic that I would be interested about in reading all the way through. Shapiro also authors “Drum N’Bass” although it does seem that the company has abandoned its music titles in favour of the obviously more lucrative travel guides with none of them (on the back cover Jazz and Hip-Hop are advertised) being readily available. I would certainly pick up other copies if I came across them. I’ve enjoyed this more as a re-read than I did first time round and expect it will be staying quite a bit longer in my collection.
The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B was published as a Rough Guides paperback (distributed by Penguin) in 2006.
The development of the Motown label is one of the most important cultural aspects of the second half of the twentieth century. I never tire of hearing how Berry Gordy crammed young talented artists into the little Hitsville studio in Detroit and through hard work, determination and drive to succeed turned a significant number of these artists into household names and maintained success throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. The seventies side of things tends to be overlooked. Gordy decided to up sticks and move out of Detroit and relocate in LA, a decision which rankled with many fans and was seen as selling out for the glamour of Hollywood and the general feeling was that Motown was never the same again. Not so, the 16 tracks on this CD which first appeared on vinyl in 1979 are of a quality so high that this is probably my favourite compilation album of all time. The recordings date over a period of four years which does show that the pace of hits had slowed down from the time when they could put out two of these hits compilations a year and it had been five years since the preceding volume which I also have on my Essential CDs list. Not everyone who was entitled to have tracks on this album has done so, there’s no Stevie Wonder for the first time ever on a Chartbusters recording and he was probably at his commercial peak at this period, there’s no David Ruffin, who had made a strong comeback with tracks produced by Van McCoy. Some of the old guard are represented, especially Diana Ross with three tracks, the three track award is also given to newer act The Commodores who had featured on Chartbusters 9 with their debut instrumental hit but had in the intervening years gone on to become a supergroup. There’s also newer names such as Rick James, Teena Marie and Tata Vega who were paving the way for Motown’s continued success. Statistically, the tracks look impressive with 9 of the 16 being Top 10 UK hits and six US number 1’s. There was no way that Motown was a spent force, a great number of these tracks are amongst my all-time favourites. However, this was the last essential Motown Chartbuster CD as far as I am concerned. Volume 11 was released just a year later and despite highlighting Diana Ross’ work with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic and having big hits from the likes of Teena Marie, The Commodores and Billy Preston & Syreeta a lot of the magic and creative inspiration which fills Volume 10 had gone.
Once again with these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.
When I focused on the essential 20 Greatest Hits by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons I lamented the absence of this particular track. In the early 70’s the band signed to Motown with fairly disastrous commercial results. Berry Gordy put them on his subsidiary Mo-West label which was set up to branch out with more rock orientated acts when the band, with their brand of blue-eyed soul could have been very much at home on the main Motown label. Mo-West wasn’t such a great priority and the albums recorded for them (although history has seen them critically well-received) did not sell. “The Night” however found its way to the UK charts via the Northern Soul clubs who pounced on its rarity and forced a commercial release. This is a superb, driving track which is a great British favourite for the group which almost certainly would not have appeared on any US hits compilations. The Chartbuster series was an innovation from the UK arm of the label which is why we are treated with gems like this.
4. Got To Give It Up (Part 1) – Marvin Gaye (1977) (UK#7,US#1)
Another track which was left off another of my Essential CD’s which got me moaning when I reviewed it. On 40 Motown Greats by Diana Ross & The Supremes there was no room for this solo classic from Ross. I’d even specified the track I would have sacrificed for this superb Ashford and Simpson song which behind the disco gloss tells the story of a woman claiming to be totally in control and not prepared to be sideswiped by love. There’s some lovely touches in the lyrics and a great performance from Ms. Ross. At the time we might have expected this to be a bigger hit, certainly in the UK, where it just scraped the Top 40 but time has been very good to this track. I did buy a considerable number of Motown singles at the time this was released but I never bought this and it was only hearing it in a nightclub probably 15 years later and the response it got that I realised I had missed out on how good this sounds. Its continued popularity tempted girl group (and sisters of Toni) The Braxtons to revisit it which performed nine places better than the original in 1997 and topped the US Dance charts but which isn’t a patch on Ross’ version. The production and songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson is still under-rated and this is one of their finest efforts.
11. I’m A Sucker For Your Love – Teena Marie (1979) (UK#43)
An influential artist who was not as big as she should have been. When I first heard Madonna I thought she was somebody who wanted to be another Teena Marie. I’m sure there would not have been a Madonna without Teena Marie to pave the way. This was her debut hit for the artist born Mary Brockert signed to Motown and recording material that was being left unreleased by them until Rick James, the label’s new hot act, passed on producing Diana Ross and asked to work with Teena instead. This first single was actually a duet with an uncredited James which would have gained it radio play but the title was open to misinterpretation which might have caused some anxiety to radio programmers. There was also the difficulty of how to market the artist, it was assumed she was black and she became the first white artist to perform on “Soul Train” showcasing this track. In the late 70’s with the restrictions from American radio Teena probably suffered but she was largely embraced as a soul act getting more play from R&B radio because of her voice and obvious love of black music. Her biggest hit in the UK would come a year later with “Behind The Groove” and she put out some excellent material for the label. Ironically, her biggest US hit would have to wait until 1985’s “Lovergirl” made it into the Top 5 three years after becoming dismayed by the handling of her career by Motown which saw her move to the Epic label. Incidentally, mentor Rick James’ best track, his debut hit “You And I” is also on this CD.
12. Love Machine – The Miracles (1976) (UK#3, US#1)
Containing members of the first group to make serious money for Motown with 1960’s “Shop Around”, by 1976 lead singer Smokey had gone solo but by the time this album was released he was struggling to find material. The track by him here the theme to some long forgotten film was an attempt to make himself relevant in the way Ross and Marvin Gaye had done, by embracing disco, it’s a fair enough result which the label had high hopes for but is the only track on this album not to have pop success on either side of the Atlantic. His old band-mates The Miracles were having a completely different experience in the mid 70’s with this classic chart-topping track with Smokey’s replacement Billy Griffin as lead vocalist. It’s a joyful piece of music which combines 70’s disco with a feel of the doowop type song The Miracles would have begun their career with. It was a great comeback for the group, but unfortunately, the Motown of the 70’s would struggle with consistency and couldn’t come up with the goods for this group to continue this success. No longer having the cream of song writing and production teams on staff to build on this great commercial sound this was the last time this incarnation of the group would make the charts.
13. It Should Have Been Me – Yvonne Fair (1976) (UK#5)
The history of Motown is peppered with extremely talented artists that the label did not really know what to do with and Yvonne Fair is another of these. She’d been around long enough on the label to have had a small part in the game-changing “Lady Sings The Blues” movie and had already proved her musical worth as part of the James Brown Revue before coming to Motown. Working with Norman Whitfield they came up with the idea to reinvent a song that Whitfield together with Mickey Stevenson had penned for Gladys Knight & The Pips and as in a previous reinvention of a Gladys song “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” which was reworked for Marvin Gaye the end result was extraordinary. It’s no easy feat to outdo Knight’s vocal but Yvonne turned this into a blistering soul shouter which begins menacingly quiet set in a church where Yvonne’s love is about to get married to somebody else. Well, not if she has anything to do with it. Knowing this song it’s impossible to attend a wedding ceremony and get to the bit where the celebrant begins “if any objection to this wedding” without Yvonne’s response coming to mind. The UK loved this song giving her a Top 5 hit, extraordinary for a raw soul performance but it was seen as somewhat as a novelty which meant that Fair’s continued success was probably doomed. This was a tragedy because follow-up single was even better, there were few emotional tour-de-forces out there as “It’s Bad For Me To See You” which I think is an all-time Classic Motown track which did get radio play but didn’t make any inroads in the pop charts. It took 34 years for Motown to put Yvonne’s only album “The Bitch Is Black” out on CD which showed someone as at home with raw funk as the deep soul which made her name. Yvonne Fair was also another of the Motown artists who passed away too soon, of cancer at the age of 51 in 1994.
14. You And I – Rick James (1978) (UK#46, US#13)
15. Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston (1977) (UK#13, US#1) (also on “Nights In Heaven“)
This review is the final piece of the puzzle of my 100 Essential CDs which is now complete. It’s taken almost five years to run through these which means my list is now already five years out of date. Even though there’s been good music over the last five years these 100 CDs are so entrenched in my psyche that it might be hard for me to move one out of the list to put something else in so it’s going to stay exactly as it is. I hope you enjoy reading my CD selections and that it might have prompted you to rediscover some of the artists I have written about. A quick word count suggests something in the region of 187,000 words have been written in this section so many thanks if you have read all, some or any of them. I’m going to be leaving writing about music for a little while but no doubt a new thread will be back soon. In the meantime if you have just stumbled across this review there are another 99 to go!
Motown Chartbusters was a brilliant initiative from the UK branch of Motown over at EMI Records. It began in 1967 with the first of two which were entitled “British Motown Chartbusters” giving UK fans the chance to buy an album of their favourite Motown singles which had proved themselves commercially. This was of course some years before the “Now” and “Ministry Of Sounds” compilations, even the budget sound-alike “Top Of The Pops”/”Hot Hits” albums which found their way into so many British homes had not been launched at this point so the concept felt original. They did not seem to have a regular release pattern I think the powers that be waited until there had been enough hits to fill up an album.
By 1974 they had reached Volume 9. (There would go on to be 12 releases lasting until 1982). This edition featured chart hits from 1973-74. The vinyl edition was amongst the first albums I bought and I did so because of the familiarity of so many of the tracks (when you were reliant on saved pocket money purchases you did not want to make any mistakes). This CD came out on 1998 from the budget label Spectrum who re-released the whole series. This is not the best Motown Chartbusters but it is still an essential release.
By the mid 70’s Motown had undergone changes. Most significantly they were no longer based in Detroit but had moved to LA with some rejiggling of artists on their roster. They were very aware of the power of their back catalogue and two of the tracks here were old favourites that scored chart hits the second time around due to public demand. There’s also a significant disparity between the UK and US markets with UK Motown beginning to release different tracks as singles to the US and chart placings for songs released internationally looking very different. In fact out of the 17 tracks on show here only two scored a Top 30 placing in both the UK and US markets.
Despite these changes in how the business was run the label was still very much relying on the stars from its golden sixties days to keep the Motown flag flying. Here really only The Commodores represented what could be seen as names that hadn’t been around since the previous decade. Two lead singers from hit-making groups Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks also had solo tracks for consideration here, Eddie with great success at that time in his homeland but otherwise it was business as usual for artists such as Diana Ross (represented on a hefty six of tracks here), Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
Once again with these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.
1974 was a great year for Diana Ross in the UK with six Top 40 hits thanks to solo tracks from her “Last Time I Saw Him” album, some shrewd marketing in pairing her with Marvin Gaye for an album and a Supremes hit from ten years before rebranded to put her name out in front. This track came from her 1973 album “Touch Me In The Morning” and was not released as a single in the US. This is one of those big sweeping pop ballads for which she became known for at this point in her career before disco kicked in for her she became once again more relevant as an R&B artist. It’s a good track and we Brits liked it as it became her sixth UK Top 10 hit as a solo artist.
4. Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – My Mistake Was To Love You (1974) (US#19)
5. Syreeta – Spinnin’ And Spinnin’ (1974) (UK#49)
An inexplicably low chart placing for this joyous song which just undulates gleefully with a lovely vocal performance. Syreeta had certainly waited for her moment since joining the label as a receptionist in 1965, progressing to demo recordings for The Supremes and her own unsuccessful solo career as Rita Wright in the late 60s. She was considered as a replacement for Diana Ross when she left The Supremes and was married to Stevie Wonder between 1970 and 1972. Her ex re-launched her career in 1974 by producing an album for her and this classy composition was penned by the two of them. It sounds like a Stevie song down to its almost fairground like ending. Syreeta would go on to reach the upper sections of the singles chart with “Your Kiss Is Sweet” and the stately duet with Billy Preston “With You I’m Born Again” which was a translatlantic Top 5 hit in 1980. These are three very different tracks but this is undoubtedly my favourite of hers.
6. Eddie Kendricks – Keep On Truckin’ (1973) (UK#18, US#1)
Big things were expected when Temptations lead singer Kendricks began working on solo tracks. Initially, not much happened but his voice was perfect for the developing disco scene and this Frank Wilson track made great use of his falsetto over a driving rhythm with a title which became a catch-phrase as the song ascended to the top of the US chart. There’s more of the same with his US#2 follow-up “Boogie Down” on this CD but that doesn’t quite hold together as well as this track is which is dominated by that driving trucking beat and recalls some of the ground-breaking work Norman Whitfield had done with The Temptations.
7. R. Dean Taylor – There’s A Ghost In My House (1974) (UK#3)
I always see this as a companion to The Four Tops’ “Seven Rooms Of Gloom”. Canadian R. Dean Taylor was a bit of an all-rounder and was signed to the label as a song-writer, producer and artist although this track recorded in 1967 has the Holland-Dozier-Holland stamp all over it. Not at all successful on its first release this became a staple of the UK Northern Soul Scene and when re-released in 1974 gave Taylor a huge hit. He was known to British audiences through his 1968 hit “Gotta See Jane” and three years before “Ghost” he had almost made number 1 (and a #5 US hit) with the country-flavoured “Indiana Wants Me”. This was a very different sounding track and it has always been a big favourite of mine with a definite Four Tops feel and a theme which makes it an essential track for a Halloween party made creepy with the feel of those footsteps of the departed clumping around the house.
There’s a ghost in his house!
8. Smokey Robinson – Just My Soul Responding (1974) (UK#35)
Another artist going it alone by 1974 was Smokey Robinson and a track from his debut album as a solo artist. By this time Vice-President of the company Smokey has always been seen as the poet of the label through his song-writing achievements whereas Stevie Wonder is seen as the social commentator and Marvin Gaye as the visionary but all elements are combined with this odd but effective track for him which didn’t really do the business it could have been expected to do as an early solo track from one of Motown’s greats. Beginning with a “Happy Birthday” refrain and Native American rhythms (written with Miracles band-mate Marvin Taplin) this focuses on life in the ghetto. It’s the combination of Smokey’s wistful vocal and Indian style chants which is decidedly curious and lyrics like “too many roaches and not enough heat to keep my babies warm” makes this some distance away from “Tears Of A Clown”.
9. Diana Ross – Last Time I Saw Him (1974) (UK#35, US#14)
10. Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – You Are Everything (1974) (UK#5)
A fat bonus due to the person in the Motown offices who suggested this as an idea. Marvin had previously been paired with great success with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell but an album of duets with the Queen of Motown was always going to be a huge commercial proposition. The songs that made it bigger in the US were a little edgier but over here the big hit was a cover of the song that had been the first US Top 10 hit for the Stylistics three years before but had not charted in the UK but was a well-known song. From its wheezy intro into Marvin’s spoken opening you just know it is going to go well and the song works perfectly as a duet. It seems that things in the studio were not always as harmonious as they appear on vinyl and because of commitments and Diana being pregnant some tracks were recorded separately with the vocals being mixed together. This is common practice with all those “featuring” tracks which litter the pop charts today but it seemed odd in 1974 that one of the all-time classic duet albums was recorded in this way.
11. Stevie Wonder – He’s Misstra Know It All (1974) (UK#10)
12. Diana Ross & Supremes – Baby Love (1964) (UK#1,US#1) 1974 (UK#12)
13. Jimmy Ruffin – What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (1966) (UK#8,US#7) 1974 (UK#4)
Both this and the preceding Supremes track show how loved the back-catalogue of Motown was in the mid 70’s with this re-release performing even better than it did the first time round. This is not surprising as it is an all-time classic which fully deserved its Top 5 chart status. Jimmy, older brother of Temptations lead David was always better received in the UK and this reissue became the 8th of his 11 Top 40 hits (in his homeland he scored four). This is an exceptional song written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean and Jimmy needed to do a bit of persuading to be allowed to record it as it was intended for The (Motown/Detroit) Spinners. Jimmy’s version flows beautifully which builds up the heartbreak. A song which has survived many cover versions including a US hit for Paul Young and a UK one for Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone and inexplicably topping the charts for thespian songsters Robson and Jerome this is one of those songs that every artist tackling it should know that they are not going to surpass the original.
14. Stevie Wonder – Living For The City (1973) (UK#15, US#8)
15. Diana Ross – Love Me (1974) (UK#38)
16. Eddie Kendricks – Boogie Down(1974) (UK#39, US#2)
17. Commodores – Machine Gun (1974) (UK#20, US#22)
A track to catch them out in pub quizzes up and down the country. “Who recorded this song?” The debut hit from who would go on to become one of the top funk and soul acts of the 70’s with lead singer Lionel Richie going on to dominate charts in the 80s and well beyond with his brand of sophisticated pop is this zinging instrumental which did well on both sides of the Atlantic and was certainly not typical of the sound they came to be associated with. It’s the clavinet which gives this its machine-gun feel, hence its title. Motown were not known for its instrumental hits but rival label Philadelphia International had topped the US charts earlier in 1974 with MFSB and “TSOP” which showed the market was there. This gave Motown the confidence to get behind the title track from the debut funk-filled album from their new signings, one of its two instrumental tracks. It paid off as it introduced the group to the world. In the US they followed it with a steady run of ballads and uptempo tracks although in the UK it would be take three years for them to get another Top 40 hit with “Easy” a classic track which really established the blueprint for what this group and its fledgling superstar lead singer was going to be all about.
Motown Chartbusters Volume 9 is currently available in the UK from Amazon used from £1.95 and from $10.76 in the US.
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.
Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection (Motown 2002)
In 1967 The Supremes recorded their eleventh album, a twelve tracker made up of standards written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. These were songs from a previous generation dating from 1925-43 and were all part of Berry Gordy’s plan to make the trio (and especially Diana Ross) have a large a fan base as possible. The producers who had brought about their fame, Holland-Dozier and Holland, were for this album cast aside as Berry Gordy himself took control with musical arranger Gil Askey and produced an album which was both polished and sophisticated. In the US it reached number 20 in the album chart which was their lowest placing since their non-charting 1965 Christmas album. In the UK it reached number 25.
Producers Berry Gordy and Gil Askey
It is an album which has always been critically acclaimed. It had been originally planned as a double album and in 2002 Motown dug out the other 13 tracks from the original recording sessions and topped things off with a live recording from The Copacabana, New York City – a venue which Berry Gordy saw as the epitome of just how far his Detroit recording artists had come. These twenty six tracks stand up with the best of the Supremes’ output. A number are the definitive versions of the Rodgers and Hart songs as far as I am concerned.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
To appeal to an older generation from those who bought Motown singles an old showbiz trouper was asked to write the sleeve-notes for the album’s original release. Cue Mr Gene Kelly who tells how he was converted to the Supremes music by hearing his daughter playing their records. Obviously, a performer of Gene Kelly’s standing was more familiar with the legendary songwriters who inspired this album than Motown’s leading girl group but he approved of the way The Supremes took to this task. He writes;
“While maintaining the individuality of their own style, these clever singers have avoided the temptation to distort the beat or the music beyond recognition to conform to some far-out tastes. Yet it is all as modern as this moment in time, and the music and lyrics remain as fresh as tomorrow morning.”
Fifty-one years on from this album’s original release his words still ring true. This would also be the last album before the group were retitled to “Diana Ross and The Supremes” and the last to feature the original line-up as just after the release of the album Florence Ballard departed and was replaced by ex Patti Labelle and Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong. Listening to this album as a whole I tend to be more impressed by the tracks where Flo and Mary Wilson are less marginalised- a number really function more as Diana Ross solo tracks with a minimum of involvement from the other two. I just love the harmonising of the three voices but that, by this stage, was becoming less and less Berry Gordy’s plan for the group.
The days were numbered for this line-up
The Rodgers and Hart songbook had been explored before by the trio. “With A Song In My Heart” had been on their Essential 1965 album “I Hear A Symphony” and the girls had sung on a Rodgers and Hart TV special but for Top 40 pop artists to give over an album to songwriters of a generation or more before was an unusual move in 1967.
Things get off to a rousing start with a traditional feel on “The Lady is A Tramp”. This is one of the tracks where Diana largely goes it alone and of course it is no match to Ella Fitzgerald’s definitive version. This is also the case with a couple of other songs strongly associated with Fitzgerald, “My Funny Valentine” and “Manhattan” the first of the bonus tracks. On this opener, however, there’s lively piano work over a swinging orchestra and it’s all a lot of fun with Flo and Mary only evident in the closing moments as Diana holds a big note. You can’t help feeling that this opening track is setting out the stall for the future- a time when Diana the solo artist is moved centre stage.
The girls work more as a trio in the charming “Mountain Greenery” with those kooky lyrics “Beans could get no keener/reception in a beanery/Bless our mountain greenery home.” I especially like the tracks where the hint of Motown merges with the show tune style. “This Can’t Be Love” does this, going at a frantic pace with some “hey,hey,heys” from the back-up which works so well and this ends up as one of the stronger songs. The gloss of sophistication is back on a lovely “Where Or When” with its tempo changes and leg-kicking Broadway- worthy finish. “Lover” gets a 60’s girl-group work-out which one again illustrates that they are not playing things totally safe and are exploring different sounds within the remit, all of which are enriched by exemplary productions.
The harmonies are to the forefront in “My Romance” another of the strongest tracks which has a great back-up performance from Ballard and Wilson. The 6o’s feel is certainly present on “My Heart Stood Still” which has a feel of a Holland-Dozier-Holland song and production and would not have been out of place in the pop singles charts of 1967. The decision was made not to release any of the tracks here as a single but this could have given them a big hit. The most unusual track comes next. Unusual, because Diana shares the lead vocal with Mary Wilson whose rich tones on “Falling In Love With Love” make this one of the best tracks on the album. We don’t hear enough of this voice until the latter years of The Supremes when Mary was the only original member left. Both “Thou Swell” and “Blue Moon” are good versions but are eclipsed by the lovely “Dancing On The Ceiling” a less familiar Rodgers and Hart song which dates from the 1930 musical “Ever Green”.
These first 12 tracks make up the original album but there are many pleasures to be found in the thirteen bonus tracks which were part of the plan when a double album was scheduled. These include a revisit of “With A Song In My Heart”, an unusual appearance of a verse on “Little Girl Blue” which I was not familiar with from the Nina Simone version. There’s also a couple of tracks taken from “Pal Joey” , the show which propelled its lead and this album’s sleeve-note compiler Gene Kelly to stardom, a great uptempo version of “I Could Write A Book” and “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered”. The strongest moments for me come with the sultry and accomplished “Spring Is Here”, the ultimate feel good factor of anticipation in “Wait Till You See Him”. Perhaps my most favourite track of all is hidden amongst the bonus tracks the frantic “Johnny One Note” where the girls offer the best version I have heard of this song from the 1937 musical “Babe In Arms”.
If I was a big Supremes fan in 1967 (I was far too young) waiting for a follow-up to their chart-topping “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” single I am not sure how I wold have felt about the release of this album but with history to help us seeing it as a launch-pad for The Supremes becoming Diana Ross & The Supremes and then eventually Diana becoming the consummate all-round solo entertainer and Motown not writing off the group but continuing it without her this is actually a significant release. And those Rodgers and Hart songs are just great and have certainly stood the test of time. If I’m looking to listen to a legendary songwriter’s output Ella Fitzgerald may be my first port of call but the versions on here by this Detroit trio are essential recordings.
The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection seems to be currently not easy to find on CD in the UK. Amazon have it used and new from £44.72. A £7.09 download is available consisting of the original 12 tracks. In the US the CD is available used from $34.22 but the complete recordings are available to download for $12.49. The original 1967 version is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK.
Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony (Motown 1986)
Back in the mid 1980’s the Motown label began a series of releases to capitalise on the vibrant back catalogue CD market. These releases put together on one CD two albums by one artist giving those of us replacing our vinyl copies with CDs great value for money. This 1986 release was the best of the lot.
The CD was credited as being by Diana Ross and The Supremes yet when the original vinyl recordings were released the trio were just known as The Supremes. This two in one put together their 1964 second album, which very much marked their breakthrough, a superb girl-group album containing three of their five consecutive number one singles alongside their eighth album released just two years later (boy, these girls were being worked hard in the recording studio) which gave them another US number 1 with the title track. Chartwise, on original release the album “Where Did Our Love Go?” reached number 2 in the US and “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8. The innocent girl group sound of chirpy three minute tracks had over those two years evolved into a more sophisticated sound which combined the tracks written to appeal to Young America with cover versions of standards which might appeal more to their parents. This was all part of Berry Gordy’s strategy to make his acts appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Occasionally, on some recordings this acted as little more than filler around the hits but here sublime Holland-Dozier-Holland productions ensure that this is a top-notch pairing alongside the first classic Motown album. Neither albums were UK hits but that says more about the UK album chart of the mid 60’s rather than the quality of either of these recordings.
It had taken quite a while for the career of The Supremes to get off the ground and it would have been likely that had they been with a larger record company they would have been dropped. But the early days of Motown were very much a family affair, with all the acts supporting one another and schoolgirls Diane Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard had just hung around at the Hitsville studio until they got noticed and continued to hang around until they were offered songs that could become hits. They had been recording singles since 1961. Berry Gordy, fascinated by Diane (soon to change the last letter of her name) had seen them as his pet project but hadn’t had a hit with the singles he had written and produced for them and neither had Clarence Paul or Smokey Robinson. People were referring to them as the “No Hit Supremes”. It took the genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s writing and production skills to ensure that within the space of a few months The Supremes had become one of the world’s top recording artists and it all began with the tracks on this album.
Lamont Dozier and the Holland Brothers at the piano
In fact, the game changer was the title track which kicks off this CD. An H-D-H song and production which was reputedly turned down by the top Motown girl group of the day, the Marvelettes (who to this point had scored five US Top 40 hits including the #1 “Please Mr Postman”) but before it might be offered to the second group in line, Martha and The Vandellas , the Supremes stepped in. It’s a simple song, distinguished by a stomping beat and set the pattern of Supremes recordings with Diana as lead vocal and Mary and Florence reduced to little more than “baby-baby – ing”. Although early Supremes releases had switched lead vocal duties once the hit pattern was established it became very much Diana Ross’ group. The song reached the top of the US charts. In a UK, obsessed with everything Liverpool in 1964 it got to number 3. The album was released just a couple of months after the single and it did give fans the opportunity to catch up with previously released singles and B sides together with some new tracks.
The new track that caused the most attention was put out as the follow-up single, something of a rush release in the UK where its predecessor was still in the charts but “Baby Love” just could not be contained. One of the finest girl group singles ever, it retains the simplicity of “Where Did Our Love Go” and is not so rhythm dominated and just has an extra little sparkle which makes it a phenomenal track. It topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic and is perhaps the song most strongly identified with the group. A further US chart-topper “Come See About Me” was less successful in the UK where it stalled at number 27.
Other first class Holland-Dozier-Holland recordings on show here include the track which marked their first actual appearance on the US pop charts the #23 hit “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” an excellent but unexpectedly raucous sing-along track for the ladies who would be known for their sophisticated cooing. On some of the earlier tracks there are male voices (apparently the producers themselves and The Four Tops) and this is certainly the case for the rather startling male grunt which explodes mid-way through. “Run Run Run” has a honking brass and piano sound and male voices in the back-up and a great rough edge to it. There’s a much softer edge to the subtle soul ballad “I’m Giving You Your Freedom”, “Standing At The Crossroads Of Love” is a charming piano backed mid-tempo number and “Where Did Our Love Go”’s closer is one of the finest tracks Motown never released as an A-side. “Ask Any Girl” sounds like a monumental hit that never was with its flamenco feel, dramatic intro and perfect girl-group feel with a nod towards the best of the Phil Spector groups, the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las. The couplet “It’s heartaches without number/ Many nights without slumber” is one of the greatest girl group lines. It’s a stunning track which has that heady combination of youth and sophistication.
Other song-writing and production teams do get a look-in. Smokey Robinson was one of those that had tried and failed to give the Supremes a hit and it is rather amazing that he missed out with the sultry “A Breath Taking Guy”, which is unusual in that it features all of the girls having a stab at lead vocals. The other Robinson track “Long Gone Lover” is a nod back to earlier doowop tracks given a girl group slant. Norman Whitfield would go on to produce some classic tracks for The Temptations but here his “He Means The World To Me” is an attractive Mary Wells-style track. Label boss Berry Gordy gets in on the action with “This Kiss Of Fire” without challenging the best tracks on the album.
Berry Gordy hiding from The Supremes
It is likely that “Where Did Our Love Go” with its range of very good quality songs and performances and that great trio of HDH hits would have made it alone onto my 100 Essentials list but here we’ve certainly got more for our money with the other twelve tracker “I Hear A Symphony” on the same CD.
We fast forward to 1966 and the Supremes are known worldwide. Berry Gordy, always the businessman has begun, especially on albums, to extend the fanbase and not just bring in the young, the traditional 45RPM single buyers but also their parents and grandparents and has his eye on the world’s most prestigious night spots for his acts to perform in. By this time all the exciting rough edges have gone from the music and the girls themselves, smoothed out by formidable Deportment Coach, Maxine Powell, a Motown employee, who both Diana and Mary today would credit for turning them into ladies and who took the “girls from the Brewster Project” and enabled them to mix with VIPs and Royalty – all part of Berry Gordy’s plan for his leading act and, especially, Diana Ross.
Smokey Robinson salutes Maxine Powell
The Supremes meets The Queen Mother
“I Hear A Symphony” reflects this as alongside the four Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions we get show tunes, standards and recent pop hits. Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier get to produce all the tracks bar one from Norman Whitfield, where the girls tackle the Beatles’ “Yesterday”. Album-wise since “Where Did Our Love Go” the trio had put out a run of themed long players, tackling the Lennon-McCartney songbook with “A Bit Of Liverpool” (1964 US#21), Country and Western (1965 US#79) and a Sam Cooke tribute album (US#75). There had also been a non-charting Christmas album all of which showed that the heady days might be over as these albums garnered only a fraction of the sales of “Where Did Our Love Go”. A more traditional studio album “More Hits By The Supremes” had been a success, reaching number 6 in the US as it featured two more number 1 US singles.
The more sophisticated style can be seen in the title track which became their 6th US chart-topper with its classical musical imagery of symphonies and rhapsodies, it feels more complex than some of the earlier hits. That had been released a few months before the album, which was very much built around the sound of the hit single. Thus we get the girls’ intepretations of “Stranger In Paradise”, “Unchained Melody” “Without A Song” together with a touch of Rodgers and Hart and “With A Song In My Heart” an idea which would spawn a whole album of these songs in the future. Earlier Pop hits Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful Wonderful” and the Toys’ Bach-influenced “A Lover’s Concerto” are also present. This might sound a little hackneyed and it does veer dangerously close to the middle of the road at times but the performances and productions are exemplary. I know the people can be critical of Ross’ distinctive slightly nasal voice but given the right song and production and boy, can she shine as a song stylist. The back-up work by Florence and Mary also works sublimely on these tracks with both the versions of the Mathis and the Toys hits eclipsing the originals.
Amongst these you also get the Holland-Dozier-Holland numbers (helped out on two of the tracks by one James Dean). “My World Is Empty Without You” followed the title track up the charts (US#5) and perhaps better than all these is another of those Motown tracks which should have been a single, the excellent “Everything Is Good About You” which just must have been an influence for Barry White as it sounds so much like Love Unlimited’s “It May Be Winter Outside”.
The album “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8 on the US pop charts and is a perfect accompaniment to the earlier album on this CD to show just how good these girls can be. It revitalised the trio’s career and there would be another 6 US number 1 Pop hits before they hung up the matching sequin gowns and Diana Ross went on to solo superstardom.
The two-on-one CD “Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony is available used on Amazon UK from £14.99 and in the US from $7.99. Both albums are available separately and as a download. In the UK they are also both separately available for streaming on Spotify.
Following on from my appreciation of The Four Tops I would like to stay with the Motown label to take time out to celebrate one of the all-time great soul singers, whose life came to a premature end at the hands of his father on 1st April 1984 (on the eve of his 45th birthday). This was a man with a story to tell and an intense, disturbed story it is as well but let’s not let his life (or death) overshadow the phenomenal creative talent. I’m sure Marvin Gaye would not have been easy to live with but when on form he is almost peerless in the field of American popular music. I say on form, because this was not always the case. Marvin released some albums which challenged the patience of even his greatest fans and for me, even his most celebrated albums have the odd dodgy track or have not aged well. This is why I have opted for a Best Of compilation to join my Essential CDs list. A lot of people would agree with me as this CD, released ten years after his death reached his highest ever UK album chart position, even though it was the 7th compilation album of his to chart since 1968’s “Greatest Hits”.
In the US, however, Marvin was more consistent as an album artist with a run of four Top 20 studio albums in the early 70’s. His highest charting album “Let’s Get It On” reached number 2 in the US in 1973 yet only scraped to #39 in the UK. Perhaps his most famous album “What’s Going On?” which is now seen as a milestone in pop music history got to #6 (US) in 1971 but has never made an appearance in the UK Top 40 album charts. We seemed to love Marvin over here more as a singles artist and this collection of 22 tracks shows why.
Marvin came to Motown hoping to be the “Black Sinatra” crooning standards. To begin with Berry Gordy was not that impressed, using him as a session player and drummer. Gaye’s ambitions were bigger than this and a marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna, seventeen years older than him, cemented his relationship with the Motown family . His first break came with “Hitch Hike” (US#30 1963) with backing from Martha and The Vandellas –a typical Motown call and response type track which started off a run of hits with a similar feel. Of these only the gospel-esque stomper “Can I Get A Witness” (US#22) is included on this CD.
Someone at Motown had the good idea of pairing this good looking, growing in popularity male singer with their most successful female singer, Mary Wells and the two recorded an album together. The single“Once Upon A Time” got to #15 (US in 1964) and made a very brief appearance in the UK Top 50. Wells had recorded a string of US hits but was just coming off her worldwide smash “My Guy”. This track turned Mary’s head. She thought she was indispensible as Motown’s female star and became one of their first casualties – leaving the label at the height of her fame and finding little success elsewhere. It was a hard lesson, no-one was indispensable to Motown, especially with the ambitious Diana Ross waiting in the wings. The Gaye/Wells pairing was so well-received that it set a precedent for pairing him with other female artists over the years and eight of the tracks on this album are duets and are amongst his finest work.
Partner number 2 was Kim Weston and they also sounded good together. The highlight of their association “It Takes Two” is an all-time classic and in reaching number 16 in the UK in 1967 (US#14) became his biggest British hit to date.
Tammi and Marvin
Partner number 3 followed hot on the heels of Kim . Marvin Gaye’s recordings with Tammi Terrell show such chemistry that they are probably the greatest duet act of all time. There are five Marvin and Tammi duets on this CD and three of them are outstanding tracks . All are written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and are great examples of duet-songwriting. Ashford and Simpson of course went on to score duet hits of their own (biggest hit “Solid” in 1985) and they knew just how to pitch the songs for two voices and as a life-long couple themselves could certainly write love songs. Perhaps the best of all is “You’re All I Need To Get By” (1968 UK#19, US#7) closely followed by “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (1968 UK#34 US#8) but I have a huge affection also for the UK only hit “The Onion Song” (1969 #9). A rather heavy-handed metaphor for the state of the world telling us to “plant love seeds” this is just performed so beautifully and moves along at a great lick. What was not known at the time is much of the female vocals are actually Valerie Simpson’s as Tammi was too ill with a brain tumour to finish the recording. The single was actually released posthumously. Surprisingly absent is their other essential duet the original of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which when reworked became a massive solo hit for Diana Ross. I think I would have preferred this on the CD to the lesser “Good Lovin’Ain’t Easy To Come By”. Albums of just Marvin and Tammi’s duets (they recorded three together) as well as CDs with all of his duets are available and very well worth considering should you like this aspect of Gaye’s work. Tammi’s death sent Gaye into a spiral of depression which affected his life and his career.
Diana and Marvin
By `1974 Motown were ready to pair him up again. This time with Diana Ross. For me the album they recorded together is a commercial triumph rather than a creative one. There’s a little too much sweetness in the tracks chosen for the UK market “Stop Look (Listen To Your Heart) (1974#25) and even “You Are Everything” (1974 #5), both Thom Bell and Linda Creed songs which had been previously recorded by The Stylistics. The duo had a couple of completely different US Top 20 hits released from this duet album – but they do not appear on this CD.
I heard it through the grapevine it might be worth visiting the launderette
Marvin’s most famous solo single kicks off this CD. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1968/69. In the UK it became Motown’s third chart-topper. The song had previously got to number 2 for Gladys Knight and The Pips the year before and their version is something of a mid-paced gospel shouter. Norman Whitfield decided to transform this song that he had co-written with Barrett Strong to turn out a completely different production. Gaye’s version is chilling. From the opening chords and the snare drum beat Marvin sounds like a doomed man as he lament the fact that gossip told him that his love had found someone new. That ominous beat, excellent use of backing vocals and the tortured vocals make this an all-time classic. If someone wants to know what Soul Music is all about this makes a perfectly good introduction. A certain Levi jeans advert and a stripping Nick Kamen revitalised this track and on re-issue it gave Gaye a posthumous UK#8 hit in 1986. There’s more classic soul in “What’s Going On?” the title track from a protest concept album that Berry Gordy did not want to release and in the title track from the follow-up album which went from protest to the bedroom with the sublimely sensual “Let’s Get It On”. There’s the original and perky version of the track which became a huge debut hit for Paul Young “Wherever I Lay My Hat” which is full of charm. Another high spot is the elegy for Lincoln, Luther King and Kennedy “Abraham, Martin and John” another Whitfield production which ranks amongst Marvin’s best.
Marvin Gaye did not just sing a track, he coloured it in and there were cases where there was more colouring than song. Some of his post “Let’s Get It On” work could seem a little self-indulgent. This was the man who was ordered by a judge to give royalties to his next album to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna as part of their divorce proceedings. The result “Here My Dear” is an intense, brooding listen which many fans gave up on (was that the intention all the time?) . From this we get the best track “When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You”. This was an album which tried my patience although it is now recognised amongst his classics by some. Gaye’s second of this two US number 1 hits was the funk workout “Got To Give It Up (1977 UK#7). I’m a little ambivalent about this party-in-the-studio track but it certainly remains influential. The biggest song of 2013 “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke with Pharrell Williams and T.I found itself in breach of copyright infringement by not acknowledging the debt to Gaye’s track.
After years in the doldrums and a departure from Motown to CBS including a period of rehabilitation in Ostend, attempting to put his life back together Gaye co-wrote and produced “Sexual Healing” a track which proved a thrilling comeback and happily sits there amongst his best recordings. A UK#4, US#3 hit in 1982 gave Gaye his long-awaited Grammy award and with the big selling “Midnight Love” album it looked as if Gaye was back for good. I’m very pleased that Motown have put this non-Motown track on this CD. It all ended for Gaye just a couple of years later in tragic circumstances.
For twenty two tracks which shows the breadth, range and talent of this artist I think this is an essential CD to have in your collection. Marvin Gaye may have been a troubled soul but just listening to his music his importance shines through.
“The Best Of Marvin Gaye” is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £1.99. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is available for $8.99 and used from $1.94. It is also available to stream from Spotify.