The story’s well known now...Dreamgirls and all.
One singer (Flo Ballard, middle) had the talent. Another (Diana Ross, foreground) had the boss’ eye. Another (Mary Wilson, background facing mirror) was caught in the middle.
On some level, the well-known story is nonsensical.
Flo Ballard was indeed, a “better” singer. But Diana Ross was a far more distinctive one. And in rock and roll, at least when the revolution was young, being distinctive–having an inimitable appeal not just to the emerging world’s ear but its heart–was far more important.
Not like ever before, then. And not like ever since.
Understanding that was what made Berry Gordy, Jr. (the “boss” in question), one of four most important men in rock’s first decade (with Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry), and one of the ten most important people in the entire history of rock and roll.
Whatever Gordy’s reasons for putting the full weight of the Motown machine behind the Supremes–and later promoting Diana Ross as a solo superstar–none of it would have worked if Ross had been the mere puppet her critics (both inside the Motown family and in the world at large) presumed.
I never had Ross’ particular quality brought home more forcefully than last weekend when I happened to pause on the local college radio station (I had my battery changed about six months ago and haven’t gotten around to resetting the stations–that’s how things work in my world!) and caught “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” dropped, punch-in-the-turd-bowl style, right in the middle of all the usual angsty ready-made cultism.
Outside of truly free-form, fringe formats (like, yes, college radio), I doubt “Some Things” has been on the radio since it ended its brief run on the charts in the summer of ’68, when it reached #30 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the lowest charting single for the Supremes since “Run, Run, Run” had barely scraped the charts in the spring of ’64, when they were still being called the “no-hit Supremes.”
That had all ended with the release of “Where Did Our Love Go” in July of ’64.
In the four intervening years (and not counting a Christmas single in ’65), the group released fifteen singles. Fourteen of those went top ten, (the one that missed, “Nothing But Heartaches,” peaked at #11 and became an instant oldies’ radio staple, just like all the rest). Ten of those went to #1.
Significantly, fourteen of those fifteen singles, also featured Ballard and Wilson as backup singers (with the other featuring Wilson and a session singer, presumably because some episode in Ballard’s tormented personal life kept her from making the session).
After Ballard was essentially fired for failing to meet Motown’s exacting professional standards one too many times, the group charted an additional eleven singles before Ross left for a solo career.
Two things changed with the breakup.
First there wasn’t nearly as much success.
On three of those last eleven singles, they were paired with the Temptations (and only one of those went top ten).
Of the remaining eight, only three reached the top ten with two (“Love Child,” and “Someday We’ll Be Together,” both monumental) reaching #1.
A great run by most people’s standards, but a significant drop-off for the Supremes.
The second thing that changed was that Wilson and Ballard’s replacement, Cindy Birdsong, were no longer used as studio singers on the group’s own singles’ sessions.
That policy-of-exclusion included “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” which featured Ashford and Simpson (who were also taking over the reigns from the just-departed Holland-Dozier-Holland team that had been at the controls through the Supremes’ glory years).
What that meant, in effect, was that Ross was suddenly a separate entity, uprooted from the producers/writers who had lifted her group to the top, but also, and I think even more significantly, from the heartbeat harmonies of the women who had fought their way out of the projects at her side.
I think that told. It left her in an unprotected place and, while the public didn’t immediately respond as it had before, there was no diminution of her art. The first two singles after Ballard’s departure, “Forever Came Today,” and “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” were very nearly on a par with her finest recorded vocal, 1967’s “Reflections” which, coincidentally or not, was delivered just before the break with Ballard.
After that came “Love Child.”
So “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” fell between the cracks, relegated to compilations where its quality was evident, but never quite so forceful as when it dropped on college radio last week and left the half-dozen indie bands in the rotation around it huffing-and-puffing to keep up.
It was just by chance that I found the picture above around the same time, Sheila O’Malley having linked it in a post about her visit to the Morrison Hotel Gallery.
As powerful as the picture is by itself, devoid of any context, it struck a thousand times deeper because of the caption at the Morrison sight.
It says just this:
Not ’67, when the facade was beginning to crumble, or ’63, when the dream was still being chased, but right smack dab in the middle of a run of success that was on a level with Elvis and the Beatles.
Everything that had been, everything that was, everything that would be, right there in black and white in some shoe-box sized dressing room in the middle of some not-quite-purely-symbolic nowhere.
Right smack dab in the middle of the journey from this:
..with America–not just college radio–running to keep up.
And, yeah, failing.