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 Betty had been replaced by Barbara Martin who also left in 1962 leaving the girls as a trio.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.
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.