TRACK-BY-TRACK: DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES–THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION

The Definitive Collection
Diana Ross & the Supremes (2008)

Let’s start with this: The Supremes, in their various incarnations, have thirty-one comps listed on Wikipedia. I doubt that’s all of them, but it’s enough to suggest there is probably no such thing as a “definitive” Supremes collection. I have four, including the four-disc CD box, which stretches from the very beginning (when it wasn’t clear whether Diana Ross or Flo Ballard would be the lead singer) to the very end (by which time Mary Wilson had, for years, been the only remaining original Supreme and Ballard was in the boneyard). It sustains.

But for getting to the essence, it’s hard to beat this one–and the essence is as essential as anything in the rock and roll era.

How essential?

Consider this:

In the 173 weeks preceding the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” reaching #1, (Oct. 3, 1961 to Feb 1, 1964) the top of the American pop charts looked like this:**

Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 53
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 4

In the same length of time after (Feb. 1, 1964 to June 3, 1967):

Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 32
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 26
Weeks the Supremes spent at #1: 19

Short summary: In the middle of what is supposed to have been Rock and Roll America’s most expansive period, absent Motown (meaning absent Berry Gordy, Jr.), Black America’s time at the top of the Pop Chart would have reverted to the pre-Elvis standard.

Without the Supremes, even Motown would have made little difference in this respect (something Berry Gordy understood better than anyone).

This was after a period–supposedly rock’s most limited and fallow–when Black America had sustained enough chart action over the entirety of the early Rock ‘n’ Roll era for both Cashbox and Billboard to experiment with ending the R&B (or “race”) chart–an experiment a year’s worth of the British Invasion ended for good. So much “for good” that recent years when White America dominated the Hip Hop chart–including one year (2013) where white acts occupied the top spot forty-four out of fifty-two weeks–have not revived the concept.

“Race” dies hard.

If the Supremes had not existed–had not been what and who they were–the shape of the dream that is receding behind us, the restoration of which will be the bedrock of any future revival of anything worth either living or dying for, would be a great deal smaller and meaner.

I listen to them hard and often. Always have. Always will.

Lately, when I listen, I listen to this–because I hear the perfect shape of something America responded to like no other version of ourselves that existed in their time. Hit play:

“Where Did Our Love Go”–By the time they broke out, in the summer of ’64, it was Diana Ross’s show. But the other key elements were already in place. The neighborhood harmonies, the pounding rhythm, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s gift for tying memorable melodies to stringent-but-far-from-simple lyrics that turn on the subtleties of Ross’s timbre: “I’ve got this burnin, burnin, yearnin’ feeling inside me” had never been followed quite so smoothly and irresistibly by anything as turned-on-its-head as  “Ooooohhhh, deep inside me….and it hurts so bad.”

“Baby Love”–In true Motown style, the hit formula was copied closely on the subsequent release. Unlike all the other hit formulas, this went straight to #1 again. (Nice story, which I’ll paraphrase: Years ago, I heard all three members of HDH interviewed on public radio. One of them told a story about hanging out on the porch at Motown’s Hitsville after a long, not especially fruitful day of songwriting. He happened to overhear Gordy telling someone that, after the years-in-coming success of “Where Did Our Love Go,” he was going to put all the company’s promotional muscle behind the Supremes because they were the ticket to the white mainstream he had been seeking. Back inside, the eavesdropper went to the room where he had been working with the others, locked the door, hooked a chair under the knob, told his partners what he had heard, and said “We’re not leaving here until we write three number one hits for the Supremes.” “Baby Love” was the first.

“Come See About Me”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the second.  And #1 again. However great it was in conception, it grew by leaps and bounds when Ross got hold of it. There’s no question in your mind that he’ll come see about her. Who wouldn’t! Hers is the only mind filled with doubt.

“Stop! In the Name of Love”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the third.  And #1 again. Their signature stage song–Rock and Roll America produced nothing more iconic than their hand-motion choreography for this one and Rosanna Arquette fit a a lost world into her five-second imitation in Baby It’s You–and the first time James Jamerson’s bass emerged from the mix so powerfully that it became its own voice, counterpointing Ross’s desperate lead with a sound that seems to lead her down a path where hope and fear are forks in a road with no signs. To listen close is to be forever lost on that road….where you can never know if the path taken is right or wrong, no matter how many times it put a smile on your face when you were just singing along with the radio.

“Back in My Arms Again”–And, just like that, they were personalities. “And Flo, she don’t know, ’cause the boy she loves is a Romeo!”…And #1 again.

“Nothing but Heartaches”–A brilliant record, featuring some of the most haunting and complex harmonies found on any Motown record, plus the usual sterling qualities all the way around….and a flop! After five straight #1’s, this only got to #11. Not sure oldies radio ever made a distinction–but the Corporation noticed.

“I Hear a Symphony”–And went back to basics. The beat’s BIG again (especially that bass!), the harmonic lines cleaned up and deepened, the booting sax from ’64 restored to the bridge. Plus a lyric that’s a straightforward Ode to Joy. Back to #1!

“My World Is Empty Without You”–The lyric complexity returns. Is she pleading for forgiveness, extending it, or admitting she doesn’t care? The track retains the back-to-basics feel. The chart split the difference. It peaked at #5.

“Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”–A fair bid for the sexiest vocal ever recorded. I don’t think it’s her heart that’s itching. Deeper than you might think, even so. The charts noticed (else fatigue was setting in)–this, as great and joyous as anything, settled for #9.

“You Can’t Hurry Love”–No way to stop this one, even if it plays like a sequel to “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart”–straight-up itching traded for Mama’s advice. By itself, that might have thrown the radio audience, but it was #1 by the time the bass intro reached the third note.

“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”–A shock. Still. Decades of radio play could never wear it smooth. The track itself was so compelling that Kim Wilde’s note-for-note copy went #1 two decades later…and was promptly forgotten. What neither Wilde nor anyone else could match was Ross’s combination of intimacy and distance–as if she’s finally grown terrified of a version of herself it would cost her life to reject. And across those same decades, seven thousand white boy critics echoed each other with some version of “Why doesn’t this weak women just leave the bastard?” Gee, all that liberation theology, all those leftover groupies, and they still never heard about the thing called Sex. #1 of course.

“Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”–“Into your arms I fell, so unaware, of the loneliness that was waiting there.” It’s what you might call a theme. #1 again.

“The Happening”–Okay, here’s why there will never be a perfect Supremes comp. It’s another #1 (and therefore can’t be left off) and a good enough record that I could imagine it gracing a run of hits by someone else and not interrupting the flow. But this is the Supremes. And it’s only 1967. The quality doesn’t matter. It will just never fit. (Click the link, though. It’s the Sullivan appearance where Ed forgot the name and just introduced them as….”the girls!” Plus, they could dance. In case anyone forgot.)

“Reflections”–The themes reach culmination–loneliness, despair, the Morse Code of heartache, reflection. My pick for their greatest record, and Motown’s. It’s given extra weight by being so close to Flo Ballard’s last gasp (she would last only another six weeks before being fired). Somehow, this most perfect intimation of its time and place only reached #2. And that after even “The Happening” had gone to the top. One of life’s little mysteries. It’ll be worth every step of the hard road that ends with both feet inside the pearly gates to have that one explained.

“Love Child”–With Ballard gone, Mary Wilson was frozen out of the studio and backing vocals were turned over to the thoroughly professional Andantes. Three fantastic singles followed “Reflections” (to diminishing chart returns–with Ballard gone, they fell from the Top Ten like a stone). I feel their loss. But hearing “Reflections”bleed into this one elevates both. Which in the abstract, I wouldn’t believe was possible. And back to #1.

“I’m Livin’ in Shame”–A “Love Child” sequel and nearly as good. Standing on it’s own, it can slide by you and you can hear why it only reached the Top Ten. But placed here–and knowing the end is near–it gains weight, as the kitchen-sink details that lay hidden between the grooves of its predecessor are filled in and turned into pure loss. “She never got out of the house, never even boarded a train.” It’s all in the voice–Ross’s sly ability to shift between Ghetto Child and Worldly Sophisticate Looking Over Her Shoulder without losing the plot–and no record caught Black America’s then emerging, still unresolved, cultural dilemma better.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (with The Temptations)–Pure product. And as irresistible as the Art that preceded it.

“Someday We’ll Be Together”–Their last release with Diana Ross and the last #1 single of the 1960s.

Of course it was.

Now excuse me while I hit replay.

**NOTE: I chose the period of 173 weeks based on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” marking a new era for Black America in terms of reclaiming the charts….The other non-Motown acts who reached number one between the arrival of the Beatles and the week “Respect” topped the chart were Louis Armstrong, the Dixie Cups and Percy Sledge. I wrote about the significance of Percy’s record here. 

MY FAVORITE MOTOWN RECORDS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).

Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.

And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those! 

The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)

The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)

Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)

Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)

Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)

The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)

The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)

Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)

Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)

The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)

Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)

Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)

Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)

The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)

Diana Ross (solo)  “Upside Down” (1980)

Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)

Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)

The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)

Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)

Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)

And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):

Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)

Always loved that there was no question mark.

A SERIOUS GAME….

Just off the top of your head, name the ten most important people in the History of Rock and Roll (individuals, not groups, though group members, including your favorite Beatle, are eligible). Not your favorites or who you think was the greatest, just the most important to the history of Rock and Roll America, however you define it. Here’s mine, in chronological order, by year of their first major impact (crazy game, so feel free to argue/substitute/debate in the comments. Just remember if you add somebody, you have to take somebody out!):

1) Fats Domino (1950) The Originator

2) Elvis Presley (1954) The Driver of the Narrative

3) Chuck Berry (1955) Rock and Roll America’s First Poet Laureate

4) James Brown (1956) The Visionary

5) Berry Gordy, Jr. (1960) Master of the Game

6) Bob Dylan (1962) Rock and Roll America’s Poet Laureate Redux

7) Jimi Hendrix (1967) Traveler through Time and Space

8) Aretha Franklin (1967) The Definer of Soul

9) John Lydon/Kurt Cobain (1976/1989) The Twinned Spirits of Destruction….neither complete without the other…and no, they didn’t need their particular groups the way John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger needed theirs.

10) Madonna (1982) The Solvent.

A PICTURE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #38)

 

SUPREMES

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.

And failing.

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:

1965.

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:

To this:

..with America–not just college radio–running to keep up.

And, yeah, failing.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.