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 lost world into her five-second imitation in Baby It’s You–and for 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. 

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 9: The Supremes-Reflections-The Definitive Performances: 1964-1969)

Reflections, The Definitive Performances: 1964-1969. is a collection of period videos from the vintage years of the Supremes. It’s part of a series Motown put out about a decade back which included similar tributes to the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Marvin Gaye.

They’re all worth owning. What makes this one stand out is that it is just the videos. The others come with narration, structure, context. This is just the Supremes: Diana, Mary, Flo and a little Cindy, performing, as it were, naked, no matter how spectacular the gowns are.

The performances are all from period television (with a couple of turns from a stage show in Stockholm real standouts–in one of them they prove you can dance the “The Happening” which is on par with repealing the laws of gravity). Thus, the usual mix: Live vocals and backing. Straight lip-synching, with one or the other of the backing singers not always bothering to move her lips being just one of the tells of the massive tensions that simmered inside the group almost from day one). Live vocals to studio tracks. Live lead vocals to studio tracks including studio vocal backing. Promo videos. You name it.

If you like to have fun figuring out that sort of thing, this will keep you hopping. If you are looking for one stellar vocal or visual performance after another, I can suggest you stick with the other titles in the series, especially the one on the Temptations.

If you want to be thrown into an impromptu journey through the glory and chaos that was “the sixties,” this lays the others to waste.

Just be sure to hit “Play All.”

Rest assured, there are glories to behold, the aforementioned Stockholm performances and their “Love Child’ on The Ed Sullivan Show, featuring ghetto fabulous outfits, bare feet, and Diana wearing a tee-shirt that reads “Love Child,” principle among them.

Also, be sure to check the “Studio Audio” version of “Baby Love” from Shivaree, which jumps, and the way they redefine too-cool-for-school on the promo for “My World is Empty Without You,” standing next to a white orchestra in a recording studio that, through the magic of video, psychically connects white teenagers gobbling up albums in a record store with the auto assembly lines everybody at Motown would have been working on if Diana Ross’s beau ideal, Berry Gordy, Jr., had never been born.

But the essence is limned by the extremes.

This version of “Come See About Me,” where, for once, the glamour drops away, and not only are they still the sexiest things walking, you get to hear the neighborhood harmony that was the real reason they were able to fight their way from the streets to the palace–why Gordy, the anti-Phil Spector, who believed his artists should be stars who outshone him, couldn’t stop believing in them through all the months-turning-to-years of the “No-Hit Supremes” back-story that would have underpinned the obvious narrative if the DVD was designed to tell their story. Sure, Diana slept with the boss. Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the goods:

Then watch the pure joy of performance devolve into the spirit of anarchy…in a promo, no less, the kind of thing which was invented to suppress every suggestion of unease or disorder…this is the closest I’ve seen to them being allowed to act out. It almost doesn’t matter what song is playing under it.

Unless the song is “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”….

Mary Wilson wrote in one of her memoirs about the pressure the group was constantly under to be “blacker” and what a ridiculous and de-humanizing limitation that was–as though one’s blackness could only be authenticated by adherence to preordained expectations.

She was right.

But Gordy wanted to get all the way to true integration, all the way to the main part of the mainstream, the one place where a new America could finally be forged out of the old one, rather than in lazy, nihilistic opposition to it.

He thought the Supremes, and only the Supremes, were his ticket…and America’s.

He was right, too.

If it didn’t quite work out all the way–if we hove within sight of shore and then, inexplicably, with the harbor in reach, chose to steer back toward the wild, gloomy sea–that’s our fault, not his. Great and successful as all the other Motown acts were, the Supremes, with more #1 pop hits in the sixties than all those other acts combined, were the ones who cashed the ticket on Gordy’s very Rock and Roll dream.

So, in a way, the bare bones approach of this up and down collection is, as the kids used to say, right on time.

I imagine the real reason there’s no narration/context is the permanent tension between Gordy, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.

But you could also look at it this way:

Given what’s here, what could anyone possibly add?

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izzKUoxL11E

To this:

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

And, yeah, failing.

DID WE REALLY NEED ROCK AND ROLL?…UH, YEAH, I THINK WE DID.

I saw several posts last week that addressed the music that was on the charts at the time of John Kennedy’s assassination (Steven Rubio had a particularly nice take here)…But what might be at least as interesting is to take a look at the charts a year later.

For the record, the Supremes’ “Baby Love” was ending a month long run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 on the exact anniversary. But, perhaps more to the point, “Leader of the Pack” was set to take over at the top of the following week’s chart (officially, Nov. 28, 1964, so it was, in effect, the #1 record of the anniversary week, which, for chart purposes began on Nov. 22).

In some ways identifiably old-fashioned (especially in its evocation of fifties-era biker imagery), it was probably also the first record–certainly the first chart-topper–to really suggest the style of extremity that would become a touchstone for much of the rest of the decade and a good deal more that has happened since.

And, of course, all that extremity did not happen in a vacuum. Nothing ever does. Not even Shadow Morton and Mary Weiss.

Somebody has finally posted the full version of the game show clip where the Shangri-Las (uncharacteristically dressed like all the other girls) perform “Leader of the Pack.” As a pleasant coincidence, that sure looks and sounds like the Supremes’ Mary Wilson introducing the clip. As a not-so-pleasant anti-coincidence, it’s worth noting that, eight full years after Steve Allen humiliated Elvis by having him sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound, he’s still at it. Worth noting, too,  that Robert Goulet (Allen’s co-host, who also plays the “biker” here) became the main reason Elvis shot televisions.

And, finally, worth noting that the Shangri-Las were good sports in much the same way that Elvis had been (even if they weren’t subsequently known for blasting tv screens).

And that they didn’t blink. That, in addition to being pure rock and roll, they also–like all really great rock and rollers–remained professionals through and through even as the “adults” around them made fools of themselves.

(The first version below is the full ride…the video/audio isn’t very good, but it’s enlightening to see the whole thing and be confronted with the full depth of the culture clash that was looming even in the days when LBJ  was still promising to keep us out of Viet Nam…the second version doesn’t have the intro but has a much cleaner look and sound)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNWsD0BL1SQ

And, of course, I wouldn’t leave you with that, so here’s the Shangs–Cashbox‘s #1 New R&B Group for 1964 (Billboard didn’t keep an R&B chart that year) in their element, declaring–like all really great rock and rollers–for a future that returned to the Primitive (I’ll let you decide when) long before it ever caught up to them: