Greatest Hits And Rare Classics (Motown 1991)
The Post- Diana Ross Supremes years are sometimes merely recorded as a footnote to the illustrious five years of hits where the trio scored an astonishing 12 US#1 pop hits but this 22 track 1991 compilation release would suggest otherwise. From 1970-76 there were another eight top 40 hits, 7 of which are included here (the exception being the pairing with the Four Tops on “River Deep Mountain High” which can be found on 40 Golden Motown Hits.
Taking over from Diana Ross must have seemed something of a poisoned chalice. If the hits stopped coming then there would soon be tension from the other girls, from the record label and fans. If the hits were too big then this might overshadow the former lead’s solo career and label boss, Berry Gordy, at this point infatuated with Diana would not allow this to happen. The woman chose initially to fulfil this role was Jean Terrell. Berry Gordy had discovered Jean singing in Miami in the late 1960’s and was keen to sign her to a solo Motown contract. Vocally, she resembled Diana Ross and this would probably not have been a diplomatic move on his part and as plans grew to launch Diana solo, Motown began recording the new trio of Terrell, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong whilst the original trio were still doing live performances. Jean Terrell could be introduced as part of a smooth transition for the group. There was a bit of wavering and later solo hitmaker and wife of Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright , was also suggested but the remaining Supremes preferred to have Jean in the role.
It was a time of great anticipation. In her autobiography “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” Mary Wilson had this to say.
“People must have asked us how we felt over a million time, and there were a hundred different emotions, but for me the main one was relief….Diane’s status at Motown and her relationship to Berry made it impossible for things to be otherwise, and if she hadn’t left the group something would have had to change. Working with Jean and Cindy was a joy. Maybe we weren’t as close as Flo, Diane and I had once been, but we were starting fresh. After years of hard work, I felt I was embarking on another wonderful adventure”.
The fresh start began with “Up The Ladder To The Roof” a sophisticated soul track released in 1970 which took the girls to US#10, (Ross’ first solo single out just a few weeks earlier had stalled at number 20). In the UK this track was given even more of a thumbs up, getting to number 6, the biggest hit for the trio since “Reflections” back in 1967. The early hits were produced by Frank Wilson who gave things much more of a group feel than there had been in latter years and produced highly polished numbers which had both the glam and glitz we might expect from the group as well as feeling very contemporary. “Stoned Love” did even better on both sides of the Atlantic becoming the biggest hit of the post Ross years, number 7 in the US and #3 in the UK. This had the rhythm of the 60’s HDH hits yet still felt hip, with its groovy lyrics of peace and love and more than a fair share of controversy from those who saw the lyrics as drug references. “Stone” was a term at the time to show total involvement (also present in “Stone In Love With You” by The Stylistics). There was apparently a mix-up when the record was labelled which saw the extra “d” be added and opened up a whole can of worms (and of course much publicity from those who saw the wholesome Supremes apparently declining into a drugs lifestyle as another step on the road to the end of civilisation).
Frank Wilson was also behind “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love” (US#21), which carried on the late 60’s/ early 70’s social consciousness of the label and a good old love song about a man who let the girls down “Nathan Jones” (UK#5, US#16). This is a good song and unusual that the lead is sung by the three in unison. 17 years later a Bananarama got to number 15 in the UK with a likeable enough version which lacked the production and vocal depth of the original.
There were those in the Motown camp who were amazed at how successful the Ross-less Supremes were being, particularly in Europe and the UK where sizeable hits were also being buoyed up with pairings with The Four Tops, which led to a big selling album “The Magnificent Seven”. Other names were keen to work with this trio. In the queue were two of Motown’s legendary stars, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.
In the early days of the group when Motown staff were referring to the group as the “no hit Supremes” Smokey Robinson tried and failed to give them their first hits. Two of his first class songs and productions can be found on the group’s debut “Where Did Our Love Go?” album. In 1972 he recorded a whole album on the girls. It was at this point that Lynda Laurence was brought in, initially to deputise during photoshoots for a pregnant Cindy Birdsong. This began a bit of to-ing and fro-ing for the group with Birdsong officially leaving the group and returning to deputise when Lynda Laurence was having a baby. The album with Smokey, “Floy Joy”, had a very lightweight piece of confection as the title track, but with its stomping beat and cooing vocals it harked back to the sounds of yesteryear and became a UK#9, US#16 hit. A better track was the follow-up “Automatically Sunshine” which certainly brought out the Ross-like qualities in Jean Terrell’s voice and became their last Top 10 UK hit, not doing quite as well in the US (#37).
Motown were keen to promote The Supremes as a sophisticated group and to this effect brought in songwriter and arranger Jimmy Webb to emphasise this. Webb was noted for his complex pop song compositions such as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Macarthur Park” and “Witchita Linesman” which instantly became staples for acts who aimed for the supper club, lucrative Las Vegas market. He had enough kudos to be in the title with the girls on the album he worked with them “The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb”. Although a commercial disappointment this sound can be heard to good effect on the dramatic “Paradise” (a Harry Nilsson song) and the big Italian balladry of Il Voce De Silenzo (Silent Voices), both of which I think are great tracks. There’s also the slightly frantic gospel edge to “Tossin’ And Turnin’” which is certainly different from tracks recorded with Diana Ross as lead. It’s hard to gauge Motown’s response to this album, especially as the only track released as a single was neither produced nor arranged by Jimmy Webb, it was a plaintive Broadway ballad “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” which came from the show “Pippin” and was very much a showcase for the solo talents of Jean Terrell.
With Lynda Laurence now the official third member of the group she asked an artist she had worked with, Stevie Wonder, to produce a funkier sound for them and this he certainly achieved with the great “Bad Weather” which sounds like a female-led Wonder track. If Motown had really got behind this track this could have been a new lease of life for the group. It certainly sounds like a big hit to me yet failed to chart Stateside and just crept in the lower reaches of the chart in the UK.
The end of the Terrell years are marked on this album by an unsensational version of the O’Jays “Love Train” and an attractive solo track, a version of the Gallagher and Lyle song “I Had To Fall In Love”.
Enter Scherrie Payne. The sister of “Band Of Gold” chart-topper Freda came into the group as it’s third lead singer and the first we heard from here was certainly explosive. “He’s My Man” was released in June 1975 as the title track from the album “The Supremes”. This is very possibly, in my opinion, the best thing this group ever did both from the Ross-led years and afterwards. It’s a powerhouse of a track with great vocals and hooks a plenty and I can remember forking out my pocket money on a 7” vinyl copy (incidentally the only Supremes single I had bought apart from the hit reissue of “Baby Love” and an inherited from my sister copy of “Nathan Jones”). I can remember on the same day as this I bought my first ever pair of headphones, a pair of monster-sized cans which was perfect for the clip-clop rhythms and thrilling vocal arrangement of this track. There’s range and power and it sounded like a huge hit, but it wasn’t. It did, however top the Billboard Disco charts, but crossover success eluded it. It has always been a bit of an underground classic for the group and this new sound here produced by Greg Wright seemed very promising with great commercial potential.
It wasn’t long before the revolving door of Cindy Birdsong and Lynda Laurence ground to a halt and they both decided to hang up their wigs. In came Susaye Green, another real powerhouse of a singer with a great range and vocally this combination of Scherrie, Mary and Susaye was outstanding and a long way from the Ross voice out front and the other two cooing in the background. These girls could sing anything. It’s just a pity that by this time Motown seemed to be losing faith in the group. There was a final hurrah with the album “High Energy” with its stunning title track, a song which should have done for the girls what “Love Hangover” did for Diana Ross and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” for The Temptations -a lengthy workout of a disco track with great orchestration and production. And that producers? None other than Brian and Eddie Holland returning to the Motown field to work with the group they had launched into superstars a dozen or so years before. The track “High Energy” is sorely missed on this compilation (try the 2005 double CD “Motown Disco” to hear it in its full length glory) but here we do have “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” a track which had something of the feel of “He’s My Man” but is slightly more disjointed but which took the trio into the US Top 40 for the first time in four years, scraping in at the anchor position. This was to be their last US hit single. The “High Energy” album also had a couple of great ballads which showcased Mary Wilson on lead vocals with great effect. The voice that HD&H had largely silenced in the 60’s hits was allowed to shine at last. Only the hit single from “High Energy” is included on this compilation but the whole album is certainly worth checking out.
It’s follow-up “Mary, Scherrie and Susaye” seemed like a last-ditch attempt to establish this new line up. The disco metaphor of “You’re My Driving Wheel” is the track on show here, but it is far from their best. The Supremes eventually disbanded officially at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in June 1977. Scherrie and Susaye would continue to record together as a duo for a time and there have been various incarnations of the group over the years. In the mid 80’s I saw Mary Wilson touring as Mary Wilson and The Supremes and a group entitled The Former Ladies Of The Supremes which has involved at times Scherrie, Jean, Lynda and Cindy, a long-lasting collaboration which has over time involved singers who were never former Supremes. Some members of the group were also involved in solo and group capacity with recording with Ian Levine at Motor City Records. The Payne/Green project “Partners” featured a solo track by Scherrie Payne which is this CD’s closer and is another excellent track, the ballad “Another Life From Now”, a song written by Payne and produced by Eugene McDaniels which demands to be heard.
Scherrie, Susaye and Mary
The hey-day of The Supremes may have very well been in the 1960’s but this 70’s compilation shows how good and varied they can be and the great vocal talent that has been in this group over the years. All this goes to make this compilation of 22 tracks an essential release.
Greatest Hits And Rare Classics is available from Amazon in the UK from £23.20 and used from £16.87. In the US it is only currently available used from $18.90. Also available from this era is the 42 track 70’s Anthology and all the albums are covered in two volumes 1970-73- The Jean Terrell years and Let Yourself Go – 1974-77. These three compilations are all available to stream on Spotify in the UK.