Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Supremes Redux....

Between 1961 and 1963, the Supremes released eight singles, none of which charted within the Top 40 positions of the Billboard Hot 100. Jokingly referred to as the "no-hit Supremes" around Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. offices, the girls tried to make up for their lack of a hit by taking on any performing chore that was available at the studio, including doing hand claps and singing backup for Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. During these early years, all three members took turns singing lead on various songs: Mary Wilson favoring the soft ballads; Florence Ballard favoring the soulful, hard-driving songs; and Diana Ross favoring the more mainstream pop songs. Most of their early material was written and produced by Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson.

In December 1963, the Supremes song "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes", peaked at number 23 on the Billboard pop chart. "Lovelight" was the first of many Supremes songs written by the Motown songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Also, in late 1963, Berry Gordy made Diane Ross, now going by Diana, the official lead singer of the group, because he felt her distinctive, nasal quality would help the group cross over to white audiences. Ballard and Wilson were periodically given solos on Supremes albums, and Ballard continued to sing her solo number, "People", in concert for the next two years.

In the spring of 1964, the Supremes recorded a single titled "Where Did Our Love Go". The song was originally intended by Holland-Dozier-Holland for The Marvelettes, who rejected it. In August 1964, while traveling as a part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars tour, "Where Did Our Love Go" reached number one on the US pop charts. It was also their first song to reach the UK pop charts, going to number three.

"Where Did Our Love Go" was followed by four more US number-one hits: "Baby Love" (also a number-one hit in the United Kingdom), "Come See About Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again." Between late 1966 and early 1967, the Supremes charted four more number-one hits in a row: "You Can't Hurry Love", "You Keep Me Hangin' On", "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone", and "The Happening."*

The rise of The Supremes coincided with the arrival of the British Invasion and, for a brief moment that felt like it lasted forever - like most brief moments do when you live through them - the Top 40 charts (which we studied like clerics poring over scriptures) were weekly battles between The Beatles and The Supremes.

My memory of the Summer of 1965 was of an ongoing battle between the boys and the girls at the local public swimming pool over the juke box and the back and forth of "Can't Buy Me Love" "Baby Love" "Help!" "You Can't Hurry Love" created the most perfect soundtrack imaginable.

To this day, "She Loves You" and "Baby Love" hold the top 2 positions in my own personal "Best Songs of the Sixties" list.

In 1964 The Supremes released the LP, A Bit Of Liverpool, a collection of British Invasion covers of songs by The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five and The Animals. It's fun to hear Lennon & McCartney channeled through Motown.

There are, of course, arguments made now with the benefit of four decades of hindsight that understand the success of The Supremes in terms of "market forces making black music more palatable to white audiences," which is proof that arguments can be both accurate and utterly beside the point at the very same time.

"Baby Love", like The Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl" or Chad & Jeremy's "Summer Song" or The Happenings' "See You In September" these songs represent the very last moments of innocence in a culture that would never know that kind of innocence ever again.

* The first 4 paragraphs are taken from the Wikipedia Supremes entry.


Rock Turtleneck said...

Nice post on the Supremes - check out Stevie Wonder's cover of "We Can Work It Out" from the same time period - one of my favorite covers ever. The Supremes also did a wonderful version of "Hi Ho Hi Ho" from Snow White that is a hoot - don't know if it's still in print.

Stan Denski said...

Dittos on your post on Neil Young's cover of "A Day in the Life." Nice one.