[18 July 2004]
The Temptations and the Supremes were the super groups of the Motown Dynasty. The groups were formed in 1959 in their home town of Detroit, Michigan, as the Primes and the Primettes. When they were signed to Motown in 1961, they took on the names that they would be forever known as. 1964 was the breakthrough year for both, as the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” and the Temptations’ “My Girl” both crossed over in major way, in many ways being the singular examples of Berry Gordy’s idea of black musical groups embodying the “sound of young America”. Though Marvin Gaye might have been the label’s “crown prince” and William “Smokey” Robinson the melodic maestro, the two super groups were Motown’s flagship products. Given Gordy’s sensibilities as a promoter—the template for Spike Lee a generation later—it would only be natural that the two groups would eventually record together. Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations (1968) and Together (1969) were the products of Gordy’s efforts. The recently released Joined Together collects the complete studio sessions from the historic collaboration between the two groups.
The idea to bring the two groups together began to take shape after the Supremes and the Temptations appeared in late 1967 on The Ed Sullivan Show (as much a precursor to MTV as American Bandstand) performing a medley of each other’s songs. By the early spring of 1968, the groups were in the studio together. Join was dropped in November of 1968 with the lead single “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, which charted at #2 on both the pop and R&B charts. Featuring Eddie Kendricks and Diana Ross on lead vocals, the official reading suggests that the significance of the collaboration ended there—“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was the only major hit from the recordings.
But Joined Together recaptures some of the—dare I say magic—that made the two groups such pop music forces in the mid-to-late 1960s. At the time that Join was released, Gordy had successfully introduced the label’s major acts to the Copacabana set—the very thing that led unimaginative critics to suggest that Motown was little more than white bread Soul. Thus both Join and Together feature songs that catered to the high-brow leisure set as well as “classics” from the Motown song book—in Gordy’s mind, really part of an emerging American song book. Some of the performances on Join are stunning—Diana Ross and Paul Williams’s take on Ron Miller’s “A Place in the Sun” rings more optimistic than Stevie Wonder’s earlier rendition. In another example, Ross and Dennis Edwards (who had just taken over for David Ruffin) transform Man of La Mancha‘s “The Impossible Dream” into a soulful anthem that probably should be considered within the context of Civil Rights era anthems given the period that it was recorded. Among the recordings from that first session that didn’t make the cut for Join was an interesting take on Lennon and McCartney’s “Got to Get You into My Life” (way more soulful than one might expect from Ross in that era) and an over-wrought version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “A House Is Not a Home”. There is little mystery as to why the version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Amen” remained unreleased until now.
With the commercial success of Join, Gordy quickly had the two groups go back into the studio to record a follow-up. Both groups were arguably past their commercial peak—by the end of 1969 Ross announced her departure from the Supremes, and though Edwards and Kendricks were more than capable leads, the Temps lacked that magical quality that David Ruffin brought to the group. The song choices on Together were much less inspired than its predecessor. Alongside versions of “The Weight” recorded by Aretha Franklin and the Band, the idea of Diana Ross singing the song is laughable. Even versions of songs like “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, as well as a not-as-cute-as-they-thought rendition of “My Girl” (“My Guy, My Girl”), sound as if they’re phoned in from Vegas. More disappointing was an attempt by Motown to make the groups more musically relevant in the face of upstarts like Motown’s own Norman Whitfield and Sly and the Family Stone. Sly Stone is likely still chuckling his ass off after hearing the Supremes and the Temptations utterly destroy “Sing a Simple Song”. The decision to include alternate versions of all the aforementioned songs on Join Together only heightens the absurdity that some of the tracks were recorded in the first place, let alone included on a collection twice.
One of the gems of Joined Together is an early Temptations recording (“Not Now, I’ll Tell You Later”) which featured the Supremes on backing vocals. It was the only studio recording by the two groups before the Join and Together collaborations. It is a fitting close to Joined Together, capturing the hunger of both groups as they rose through the ranks at Motown. Much of Joined Together is the sound of two groups plugging ably along on the fumes of past commercial glory, amidst a world they indeed helped to change, but now was moving on without them.