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. 

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2018, Countdown)

10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!

9) The Rascals Anthology: 1965-1972 (1992)

This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.

I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.

6-8) War All Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)

No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.

Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.

More coming…eventually…I promise.

4) The Four Tops Anthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)

The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”

But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!

Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.

3)  The Stylistics The Stylistics (1971)

Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.

Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.

If there could be such a thing.

2) Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1989)

It would be hard to overstate how hard “Buffalo Stance” hit the radio in the wasteland of the late eighties. It has lost nothing. It’s one of those records like “Eve of Destruction” which no one but a genius could ever follow up.**

Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.

1)  Al Green Green is Blues (1969)

Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.

**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.

QUIET MIRACLE, DEEP MIRACLE (Pete Moore, R.I.P.)

Sometimes one gets by me. Pete Moore (second from the left), passed away last November on his 78th birthday.

With his childhood friends, Ronnie White and Smokey Robinson, he formed one of the greatest vocal groups of the twentieth century (Bobby Rogers and his cousin, Claudette (soon to be Mrs.) Robinson rounded out the group).

Moore was a fabulous bass singer, the foundation of all deep harmony groups, especially in the soul tradition.

But he was more than that. Smokey Robinson, one of popular music’s greatest arrangers, was also the hardest working man at Motown in the sixties. In addition to leading, writing for and producing his own group, plus the usual heavy touring and television load, he was competing with Holland-Dozier-Holland to see who would cut hits with the remaining cream of the label’s crop.

Meanwhile he entrusted Moore with the background arrangements on their own group’s records–and the results were both unique in form (when Smokey developed his signature technique of dropping off the end of a key line, which gave many of his greatest records an extra layer of quiet desperation and allowed him to fray his near-falsetto range for startling emotional effects without having to make awkward swoops back to the melody before drawing a breath…it was Moore’s arrangements that filled the empty space, and, more often than not, heightened the drama) and among the supreme achievements of group harmony.

Later on, when Smokey left, Moore–who had co-written plenty of the classic-era hits (including the one above)–also co-wrote a number of the tracks that kept the group relevant for most of the seventies, including “Love Machine.”

Not that he forgot how to sing bass…

I have it on my usual good authority that Miracles never die. They just move on.

Four months?

Bet he’s got a helluva group together by now….

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.