Their story could be said to start back in January 1961. “They were in the studio, just hanging around,” recalled the late Freddie Gorman, who co-wrote the Supremes’ debut release. “Brian Holland and I had them start singing ‘I Want A Guy.’ Berry came in, and said, ‘Are you girls still here? Didn’t I tell you to go home? I don’t want another girl group.’ We told him, ‘Berry, you should hear this song that we’re doing.’ Diana was singing the lead, [Mary, Barbara and Florence] were doing the backgrounds we showed them. And he liked it. Then he got involved, actually wrote some lyrics to it.”
As the Primettes, the youngsters’ line-up was Betty McGlown, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. They recorded one single for a local label, Lupine. McGlown left, replaced by Barbara Martin, and the foursome persisted at Motown, eventually getting studio time, a contract – and a new name.
‘I Want A Guy’ was the first of six Supremes singles released during 1961-63. Despite the best efforts of Gordy, Gorman, Holland and Smokey Robinson, among others, not one sold outside Detroit, until Motown’s staying power was proven through hits by the Miracles, the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. Even so, the charm and ambition of those first sides is showcased on their first LP, Meet The Supremes, issued in December ’62. (Barbara Martin had left the group by this time.)
Ambition stepped up a notch nine months later, when a new writing/producing team – Holland/Dozier/Holland – cut the first bona fide hit for the “no-hit Supremes”: ‘When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.’ And then…
Five 45s transformed Motown Records in America between August 1964 and June 1965. Each one – ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’ ‘Baby Love,’ ‘Come See About Me,’ ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love,’ ‘Back In My Arms Again’ – bore the name of the Supremes.
Five consecutive No. 1 hits. The American music industry knew that Berry Gordy’s company already had pop chart credentials. It recognised that the Supremes’ records were an innovative, intoxicating blend of R&B and pop. And it realised that the group’s sound – and look – represented a striking new level of sophistication for black female singers. But what really blew the industry off its feet was the sheer audacity of that achievement: five consecutive No. 1 hits.
“You have to remember that we did not know what we were doing,” said Lamont Dozier, one of the alchemists behind this explosion. “We were just going on pure instinct and feeling. There were really no rule books.”
Perhaps not, but there came to be record books. The heights the Supremes climbed, they held for decades: more No. 1 hits (12) in the US than anyone except Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Reaching the Top Ten 19 times between 1964 and 1969, with record sales estimated above 50 million. Defining Motown as “the Sound of Young America.” Bridging the gap between pop and rhythm & blues.
The Guinness Book of Records concurred in 1994, anointing Diana Ross as the most successful female vocalist in the British charts, with 22 hits with the Supremes and 51 solo successes. You could almost forgive Diana for the day she declared, “Every time I sing a song, it’s part of my body.” Fortunately, at another time, she also said, less pretentiously, “I sing through my nose.”
“I consider myself the original Supremes-aholic. We would wait to see them on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ like a junkie waiting for a fix. It was amazing, because in addition to what they sang, we were always ready to see what they would wear.” – the late Luther Vandross
Regardless of anatomy, charts or costumes, the group’s considerable body of work – and magic – lives on: Where Did Our Love Go (1964) and More Hits By The Supremes (1965) obviously contained plenty of hits, as did 1966’s The Supremes A’Go-Go, 1967’s The Supremes Sing Holland/Dozier/Holland, and 1968’s Reflections.
“I liked to cut [Diana] beneath her key,” said Lamont Dozier, “because she got more of a sultry thing than nasal.” They also recorded Ross’ lead vocals fast, he explained, “to keep an edge to her sound before she knew the song too well.” Brian Holland added, “After we mixed a song, we would go back and play it through a small speaker, to make sure it sounded like a car radio. If [a mix] sounded good through a small speaker, it would be more like a radio sound.”
Often, specific instruments were EQ’ed to provide intensity and clarity, such as the explosive bass line which opens ‘You Can’t Hurry Love,’ and the morse-code guitar which heralds ‘You Keep Me Hanging On.’
There are further delights in the catalogue: At The Copa (first issued in 1965, later as an expanded edition in 2012) and Live At London’s Talk Of The Town (1968) capture the group’s on-stage personalities and effervescence. Their youthful but knowing style is also evident on 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart.
Love Child is another coherent set, with the fresh writing/producing talent of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, as well as a song co-authored by George Clinton (!) and, of course, title track – the group’s No. 1 comeback smash of 1968, penned by an in-house coalition known as The Clan. Other highlights from the period include four albums with the Temptations, two of which came from highly rated TV specials: Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations and TCB (both ’68) and Together and On Broadway (both ’69).
This is not to paint only a picture of peerless harmony as the group’s success, income and career pressure grew exponentially. Florence Ballard was particularly unhappy. She began to skip rehearsals, recording sessions and concert dates, and was eventually forced to quit. Motown sought to minimise this 1967 exit, choosing Cindy Birdsong as her replacement, and adjusting their name to Diana Ross & the Supremes.
Star-billed Diana appeared only too willing to become an all-round entertainer. And so it was in October 1969 – to the surprise of few – Motown confirmed that she would go solo. Just three weeks earlier, the company had released her farewell single with the Supremes, ‘Someday We’ll Be Together,’ and the trio played their last concert on January 14, 1970, in Las Vegas. The occasion was captured on a double album, Farewell.
A Motown executive likened the separation to a two-for-one stock split – and he wasn’t wrong. While Diana Ross’ solo career advanced in line with her ambitions and those of Berry Gordy, embracing movies as well as music, the Supremes acquired fresh spirit and a new lead singer, Jean Terrell.
She proved to be a commanding vocal presence from the get-go: the February 1970 release of ‘Up The Ladder To The Roof.” She did so again with the track which became the new Supremes’ biggest hit, ‘Stoned Love,’ an intriguing, reverberating pop-soul epic clocking in at 4+ minutes. Its producer, the late Frank Wilson (part of The Clan responsible for ‘Love Child’), confided that Berry Gordy “hated that record.”
Jean, Mary and Cindy – like the original Supremes – acquitted themselves well with further hits (‘Nathan Jones,’ ‘Bad Weather,’ ‘Floy Joy’) and albums throughout the 1970s. Standouts include a ’72 set produced and arranged by Jimmy Webb; 1976’s ‘High Energy,’ aimed at the dance floor and fronted by ‘I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking’; and three LPs with the Four Tops. All of this music has been anthologised in The ’70s Albums Vol. 1: This Is The Story and Vol. 2: The Final Sessions, and (with the Tops) in Magnificent: The Complete Studio Duets.
All along, Mary Wilson remained the centre of gravity, as Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene passed through the line-up. “The Supremes throughout our long and successful history have been blessed with loyal and devoted fans,” she said in 2011. “To us, you are much more than fans, you are our dear friends.”
Fifty years earlier, when the Supremes began, fans were fewer but sentiments the same. “It was such a small community,” Mary recalled, “that when a song was finished and the producers felt really great about it, they’d run around and call everybody in the studio. You’d have the Temps and Marvin Gaye and the Supremes and the Marvelettes all in the studio listening to it, and we’d take the records home and pass them around the projects.”
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The romantic and sentimental "Your Heart Belongs to Me," written by Smokey Robinson, should have been the Supremes' first hit. It's every bit as charming as his chartbusters for Mary Wells. Diana Ross' sweet tender lead, assisted by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard's warm harmonies, could melt icebergs. Ross' vocals on "Who's Lovin' You" are intense and bluesy; Wilson leads the soulful "Baby Don't Go"; and Ballard leads the raucous "Buttered Popcorn," a tune more suited for the Contours. "I Want a Guy," their first recording, had been done by the Marvelettes -- the backing voices are buried, and Ross' voice sounds whiny and high-pitched. This song, along with the '50s-sounding "He's Seventeen," are the only bummers. Ballard shines again on "Let Me Go the Right Way," delivering a tough vocal on top of Ross and Wilson's enthusiastic vocals. "Time Changes Things," written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Janie Bradford, was a forerunner to later efforts by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Blues lovers will relish the torching "Play a Sad Song." "Never Again" is straight '50s doo wop; if you didn't know, you would think it was the Chantels.
Words - Andrew Hamilton
Its title might lead one to think this was a compilation, but it wasn't -- rather, More Hits by the Supremes is merely a valid presumption of its worth. It was also the original group's third highest charting album of their five years on Motown, and came not a moment too soon. The Supremes were doing incredibly well as a singles act, but not since Where Did Our Love Go had any of their LPs done particularly well on the pop charts; even a well-intentioned Sam Cooke-tribute album recorded early in 1965, which ought to have done better, had only reached number 75 (though it had gotten to number five on the R&B LP charts). "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again" helped drive the sales, but those singles had been out six and three months earlier at the time this album surfaced -- listeners were delighted to find those singles surrounded by their ethereal rendition of the ballad "Whisper You Love Me Boy" with its exquisitely harmonized middle chorus; the gently soulful, sing-song-y "The Only Time I'm Happy"; and the sweetly dramatic "He Holds His Own" (with a gorgeous and very prominent piano accompaniment).
The material dated across six months of work, from late 1964 through the spring of 1965 (apart from "Ask Any Girl," the B-side of "Baby Love," which was cut in the spring of 1964), and showed that Motown could put a Supremes album together piecemeal around the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team and place the trio right up at the top reaches of the charts, in the company of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, et al. Its release also opened a floodgate of killer albums by the trio -- overlooking their 1965 LP of Christmas songs, they were destined to issue three more long-players that delighted audiences a dozen songs at a time over the next two years, which was a lot of good work.
Words - Bruce Eder
Recorded in 1965, this live album from The Copa in New York features many of the Supreme’s major hits and a medley of Sam Cooke songs. This album originally charted at No 11 in the US charts. The expanded version was released in May 2012 - It’s a collection on 2 CD’s of 46 tracks altogether. Disc One contains the digitally remastered original album, Disc Two features the full Copa Show as only the audience would have experienced in 1965.
Highlighted tracks include ‘Stop in the Name of Love’, ‘The Boy from Ipanema’ and ‘From this Moment On’.
I Hear a Symphony has some great soul numbers on it, mostly by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, including not only the title track but also "Any Girl in Love (Knows What I'm Going Through)," "My World Is Empty Without You," and "He's All I Got" -- the latter is one of the greatest album tracks the group ever recorded, with stunning vocals by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard behind Diana Ross, showing the trio in just about its peak form. Other parts of I Hear a Symphony seem to take its title track almost literally, with the inclusion of the majestic "Unchained Melody" and the Bach-based "A Lover's Concerto"; the latter, in particular, is a Diana Ross tour de force, with very sweetly understated accompaniment by Wilson and Ballard.
And elsewhere, Berry Gordy was pushing his vision of the Supremes as a mainstream pop trio, covering "A Stranger in Paradise," "With a Song in My Heart," "Without a Song," and "Wonderful, Wonderful." None of these are bad, but neither are they terribly distinguished -- the group even adds a certain fresh sparkle to "Wonderful, Wonderful," but realistically, people were paying their money for the Holland-Dozier-Holland and Eddie Holland-authored songs, any of which would have made about as fine singles as anything the trio ever put out, and all of which are still a chunk of the best part of the group's legacy.
Words - Bruce Eder
The somewhat unlikely appearance of an album's worth of show tunes from a group primarily known for R&B and pop music proves once again that Motown was producing artists and concepts that reached far beyond that of other record labels. The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart began as a multimedia spinoff based on the female vocal trio's appearance on the prime time ABC TV special Rodgers & Hart Today during the summer of 1966. Although the original idea that included a double LP was scrapped, the dozen tracks that made the cut are indeed the creme de la creme of savory and sophisticated stage and screen showstoppers with '60s soul. The naturally dramatic vocal delivery of the Supremes -- Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard -- was an obvious key to the success of their chart-topping hits "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Where Did Our Love Go," and "You Can't Hurry Love."
Additionally, the trio had incorporated show tunes both into its stage performances as well as recordings, so the concept was not as foreign as first impressions might infer. The mix of traditional and modern arrangements also lends to the ageless quality of the music. The album is bookended by the lavishly orchestrated "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Blue Moon"; however, the whole of pop music is explored in between. The intimate jazz leanings of "My Funny Valentine" and "Thou Swell" foreshadow the role Ross would play in Lady Sings the Blues. There are also a few instances of the fusion between the hip-shakin' Motor City R&B magic that had become synonymous with Motown and the songwriting craftsmanship of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The up-tempo "My Heart Stood Still" and "This Can't Be Love" mirror the funky and contemporary rhythms of "You Keep Me Hanging On." The perky "Mountain Greenery" has a bossa nova influence, with the trio's cherubic and spry vocals gently peppering the melody. These recordings also marked a historical milestone for the Supremes.
Not only would this project be the last time the trio would receive group credit -- as all future releases involving Ross would give her top billing -- but sadly, these also turned out to be the final studio recordings made by the original lineup. Shortly after a final run of shows at the Copa in New York, Flo Ballard would be replaced by Cindy Birdsong. A greatly expanded version titled Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Recordings was issued in 2002. The single CD includes all 25 unique recordings that they made during those sessions, including two previously unissued sides: "I Could Write a Book" and a medley of "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Let's Get Away From It All" from their legendary Copa performances.
Words - Lindsay Planer
Even though this long-player was the second collection to have featured the original Supremes lineup with Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross, Where Did Our Love Go (1964) was the first to significantly impact the radio-listening and record-buying public. It effectively turned the trio -- who were called the 'No-Hit Supremes' by Motown insiders -- into one of the label's most substantial acts of the 1960s. Undoubtedly, their success was at least in part due to an influx of fresh material from the formidable composing/production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (HDH). They had already proven themselves by presenting "(Your Love Is Like A) Heatwave" to Martha & the Vandellas and providing Marvin Gaye with "Can I Get a Witness." Motown-head Berry Gordy hoped HDH could once again strike gold -- and boy, did they ever. Equally as impressive is that the Supremes were among the handful of domestic acts countering the initial onslaught of the mid-'60s British Invasion with a rapid succession of four Top 40 sides.
Better still, "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love" and "Come See About Me" made it all the way to the top, while "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" (number 23), "Run, Run, Run" (number 93) and "A Breath Taking Guy" (number 75) were able to garner enough airplay and sales to make it into the Top 100 Pop Singles survey. HDH weren't the only contributors to the effort, as William "Smokey" Robinson supplied the catchy doo wop influenced "Long Gone Lover," as well as the aforementioned "Breath Taking Guy." Norman Whitfield penned the mid-tempo ballad "He Means The World to Me," and former Moonglow Harvey Fuqua co-wrote "Your Kiss of Fire." With such a considerable track list, it is no wonder Where Did Our Love Go landed in the penultimate spot on the Pop Album chart for four consecutive weeks in September of '64 -- making it the best received LP from Motown to date. In 2004, the internet-based Hip-O Select issued the double-disc Where Did Our Love Go in a limited pressing of 10,000 copies. The package included the monaural and stereo mixes, plus a never before available seven-song vintage live set from the Twenty Grand Club in Detroit and another 17 unreleased studio cuts documented around the same time.
Words - Lindsay Planer
Between late 1964 and mid 1967, the Supremes were the nearest thing to perfection at Motown Records. This limited edition Anthology spotlights an impressive 4 dozen previously unissued Diana Ross and The Supremes selections from the Motown archives.
Supreme Rarities includes some interesting, non Motown material from the world of rock and roll. Included are The Beatles ‘I Saw Him (Her) Standing There’, and Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’, Sam Cooke’s ‘Cupid”, Tom Jones’s ‘It’s Not Unusual’, The Rolling Stones (‘I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Bacharach and David’s ‘The Look of Love’ and Jimmy Webb’s ‘Macarthur Park’.
Hip-O Select's The Complete Studio Duets rounds up the recordings the Supremes made with the Four Tops after Jean Terrell took over for the departed Diana Ross: 1970's The Magnificent 7, its 1971 sequel The Return of the Magnificent 7, 1971's Dynamite, and 13 bonus tracks, 11 of which are previously unreleased. Neither the Supremes nor the Four Tops were at a commercial peak when producer Frank Wilson brought them together for the duets, so the pairing was something of a way to goose the groups toward hits. Wilson didn't produce The Magnificent 7 -- its title a clever reference to the group's combined numbers -- having Ashford & Simpson, Duke Browner, and Clay McMurray producing four songs a piece for the LP.
Apart from the opening song and lead single "Knock on My Door," the bulk of the album is devoted to glitzy covers of contemporary hits, whether it's from the Motown stable ("Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing"), the Fifth Dimension ("Stoned Soul Picnic"), Phil Spector ("River Deep, Mountain High"), or Sly Stone ("Everyday People"). The three sets of producers mesh well, offering subtle hints of trademark flair -- particularly the lushness of the Ashford & Simpson productions -- but the focus is entirely on Jean Terrell and Levi Stubbs, who tear into these familiar tunes and make them feel like more than a Motown hits revue. Despite its title, The Return of the Magnificent 7 didn't simply offer more of the same: in fact, it took a considerably different tactic than the debut, emphasizing new songs instead of covers. This is a sharp move, since the Supremes and the Four Tops don't quite seem like an oldies act in hiding when they're singing new songs with modern productions courtesy of Clay McMurray, Henry Cosby, Johnny Bristol, Bobby Taylor, and Ashford & Simpson. That's a lot of producers for an 11-track album, but this isn't a case of two many cooks spoiling a soup: all the producers are complementary, with the glitzy, fuzz-toned '70s cuts from McMurray sitting nicely along the lightly funky "One More Bridge to Cross" and proto-quiet storm "I'm Glad About It," from Ashford & Simpson, and Taylor's deeply soulful "What Do You Have to Do (To Stay on the Right Side of Love)." Although there are no real knockouts here, the songs are all solid, adding up to a thoroughly underrated record, and the best duets that the Supremes and the Four Tops recorded.
The Supremes and the Four Tops concluded their early-'70s duets with Dynamite, an album that abandons the progress of The Return of the Magnificent 7 and returns to the covers-heavy formula of their first album, balancing oldies like Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger" with then-current hits like Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" and Bread's "If." Because this doesn't rely so heavily on older Motown tunes and familiar hits like The Magnificent 7 does, this escapes the oldies revue feel that sometimes plagued that record, and this is also down to the savvy, modern production, mostly by Frank Wilson and Bobby Taylor, but also Johnny Bristol and Joe Hinton on a couple of tracks. They, as much as the harmonies of the two groups, help push this record into a moderately enjoyable piece of early-'70s Motown product.
The unreleased tracks here derive from the sessions for The Return and Dynamite, with a slight emphasis on new songs over covers. The covers that are here are strong enough that it's something of a wonder that they didn't make it onto Dynamite: there's a nicely funky version of "It's Your Thing," a nicely rolling "Function at the Junction," and really good take on "Gimme Some Lovin'." The rest of the bonus tracks maintain the standard of The Return of the Magnificent 7: contemporary soul that isn't flashy but is solid.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The Supremes were Motown's most popular act, so there was much anticipation for a comprehensive box set, especially since Motown waited many years to assemble one. So, the question is, was the wait worth it? Almost. It's a lavish set, spanning four discs (five, if you include the limited-edition live bonus disc included with the first 25,000 sets), housed in a red-velvet plated book and boasting a 70-page booklet, plus alternate takes, original 45 mixes, and other rarities. The devil is in the details, though. Rarities are substituted for original hit versions; for instance, the original versions of "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" are not here. Then, there are the little omissions, like noting Elvis Costello's cover of "Remove This Doubt" in a list of great Supremes covers, but not including the original.
These curious choices, along with the decision to devote the fourth disc to post-Diana Ross material, makes the set feel a little incomplete even though it covers a tremendous amount of ground. There are some classic cuts missing, and it's not a good thing that some of those missing items are the single versions of the hits. Still, it's hard not to like The Supremes as a set for hardcore fans, who will thrill to the different mixes and alternate versions, unreleased photos, Top Ten Lists, and illustrated discographies. But for the listener looking for one exhaustive set containing all The Supremes they'll ever need, this set falls short of the mark. In fact, for that kind of listener, a good double-disc hits compilation remains a preferable choice over this set.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Motown's endless musical assembly line yielded a number of incomplete or otherwise shelved projects. This is especially true during the label's heyday, when sessions were being held around the clock in the infamous 'Snakepit' studio of Motown's 2648 West Grand Boulevard digs. In the case of There's a Place for Us (1965) for instance, there was also recording going on in other facilities at the same time. The concept behind the unissued long-player was to spotlight Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross in a setting of tunes from the stage and silver screen, coupled with the occasional well-known traditional standard. Producers Hal Davis and Marc Gordon called the shots on the West Coast, while Ivory Joe Hunter, Mickey Stevenson, Ron Miller and Henry Cosby did the same back in Detroit. The Supremes turned on their inimitable charm, creating a collection that would appeal not only to the youth market, but hopefully their older siblings and parents, too.
The dozen-song album has something for practically every taste from big, bold and brass-driven workouts such as "Put on a Happy Face" and "Big City Babies Don't Cry" to the bountifully orchestrated "Make Someone Happy," "Something for My Heart" and "Fancy Passes." They delve into the boss sound of the bossa nova on "The Boy From Ipanema," offering a highlighted interpretation that is arguably one of the best ever done. Closer to their soul roots are the arrangements of "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," as well as a superior reading of "You're Nobody 'Till Somebody Loves You" that will set toes a-tappin' once the sophisticated score kicks in.
Additionally, West Side Story's show-stopping ballad "Somewhere" -- from whence the package gets its name -- also deserves a nod for the inspired three-part vocals. It took nearly 30 years, but A Place for Us was finally issued along with another 14 cuts -- most being made available for the first time -- on to the limited-edition single-CD compilation There's a Place for Us: The Unreleased LP + Much More (2004) from Hip-O Select. The package is available exclusively at hip-oselect.com and includes a 12-page liner booklet with all manner of detailed discographical minutia, rare photos and a short essay on just exactly where this minor masterpiece has been for the last three decades.
Words - Lindsay Planer