[5 December 2002]
I have vivid recollections of my childhood introduction to soul music. Songs like Junior Walker’s “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)”, Aretha Franklin’s version of “Don’t Play that Song (for Me)”, and Diana Ross’ epic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”—all released before I reached the age of five—conjure post-toddler memories of infectious soul confections, which I ate up like the soul baby that I am. But it was the Supremes’ “Stone Love”, released in October of 1970, that I singularly recall as my first “favorite” record. At the time I was oblivious to the fact that they were not my momma’s Supremes, or rather Ms. Ross’ Supremes, but a post-Diana version of the group that featured Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell (who replaced Ms. Ross), and former Bluebell Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Florence Ballard in 1967). “Stone Love” was the lead single from the second post-Ross Supremes disc New Ways, But Love Stays (1970). The just released two-disc retrospective, The Supremes: the 70s Anthology is the first compilation wholly focused on the post-Diana Ross era of the group.
According to Mary Wilson, the Supremes, were already in the studio recording Right On with Jean Terrell, when Diana Ross and the Supremes, closed out their farewell tour (“Someday We’ll Be Together”) in January of 1970. The lead single from Right On was “Up the Ladder to the Roof”. A wildly rollicking ditty written by Frank Wilson and Vincent Dimirco, the song perfectly updated the sound of the flagship Motown group for audiences becoming more familiar with the post H-D-H (producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland) sounds of the Jackson Five and the Norman Whitfield-ized version of the Temptations (see “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion”). The funkified force of the song, created the perfect soundscape for lead vocalist Mary Wilson, who possessed a much stronger and soulful voice than that of Ross, who perfected the AM-radio shrill, that made the group a household name. In this regard, the Wilson led version of the group was ready made for FM radio audiences, and thus marks an important distinction between the two versions of the group. Nevertheless, Right On was a tenuous step into the future and tracks like “Everybody’s Got the Right to Love” and the Smokey Robinson-penned “The Loving Country” showed that the new version of the group wasn’t quite ready to give up on the Copa set just yet. A track like “Life Beats” (which was recorded during the Right On sessions, but unreleased until The Supremes: the 70s Anthology) gives a better indication of where the group was headed.
That new direction was cemented with their follow-up New Ways, But Love Stays, which was the first disc in which the trio worked exclusively with producer Frank Wilson. The foundation of the project was “Stoned Love”, the highest charting Supremes’ song in the post-Diana era. The song begins with a slow schmaltzy intro where Wilson coos over some forgettable lyrics, but the action of the song really begins when Wilson utters “Stoned Love”. The structure of the song’s opening mirrored the kind of break that the group was making with their past, giving up on the Copa and giving a holla to the “hood” (like Frank Wilson’s “Love Child” a few years before). The single version of the song though, simply began with Wilson’s uttering of “Stoned Love”, so the effect was lost on most audiences. With lyrics like “If the war between our nations pass / Will the love between our brothers and sisters last” and a dramatic arrangement by David Van Depitte (who arranged parts of MPG’s What’s Going On), “Stoned Love” was an accomplished piece of funk-based crossover pop and one of the best Supremes songs regardless of the roster. According to Wilson, despite the song’s inspirational message (“And if you’re young at heart rise up and take your stand I pray for peace and love, amen”), many stations were hesitant to play the song thinking that it was a veiled reference to drugs. It was clear though that the trio had sex on their mind on the wah-wah laden “It’s Time to Break Down”, which at five-plus minutes in length marked the group’s first foray into quiet storm grooves (“say yes, when you touch me”).
The same year that Right On and New Ways, But Love Stays were released, the trio paired with the Four Tops to record The Magnificent Seven trying to capture the magic of an earlier Supremes and Temptations collaboration (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”). In an interesting move, the supergroup recorded Phil Spector’s “River Deep, Mountain” (produced by Ashford and Simpson), which was of course the track that Tina Turner recorded for Spector in 1966, beginning her slow crawl away from Ike’s world. The star of the track was Levi Stubbs, the lead on the Tops, who while recording in the shadow of the great Temps’ leads (David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and even Dennis Edwards), Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, has never gotten his due as a vocalist.
The Supremes followed-up in 1971 with two discs, Touch and Dynamite in June and December of that year respectively. The title track of the first disc, written by Frank Wilson, is one of the most beautiful melodies in the Motown catalogue. The song was later recorded by the Originals and the Jackson Five, in one of Michael Jackson’s most under-appreciated performances. Dynamite rejoined the Supremes and the Tops as the supergroup put their distinct spin on tracks like “Love the One You’re With” and the late Shorty Long’s BBQ classic “Function at the Junction”. Dynamite was the last projects that the trio did with Frank Wilson and one of the last discs that the Tops recorded for Motown. By 1973, the Four Tops rejuvenated their careers at ABC with the memorable “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)”.
The Supremes: the 70s Anthology includes a few other selections from the 1971 recording sessions, that were previously unreleased, including versions of Bread’s beautiful “Make It With You” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” (written by Clifton Davis—yes, he of the show Amen!) which was already a hit for Isaac Hayes and the Jackson Five and would later become one for Gloria Gaynor (1976). With Frank Wilson working exclusively with the newly soloed Eddie Kendricks, the Supremes tuned to Smokey Robinson to write and produced Floy Joy (released in 1972). The title track harked back to the earlier Supremes’ sound (specifically “Where Did Our Love Go”). Floy Joy was one of the last Motown recordings done in Detroit, so the nostalgia was understandable. The trio followed-up Flow Joy with The Supremes (Nov. 1972), a disc produced and largely written by Jimmy Webb (“Up, Up and Away”, “This is Your Life”, and “Wichita Lineman”). Besides covering Joni Mitchell (“All I Want”), the trio recorded Webb’s beautiful “Where Can Brown Begin” and Stephan Schwartz’s “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”. The later song was featured in the Broadway musical Pippin and was the only single release from the project.
The Supremes was the first and last project for Lynda Laurence, who replaced Cindy Birdsong, who left the group to have a child. By 1973, Jean Terrell also left the group. In late 1974, Wilson reconstituted the group with a returning Birdsong and Scherrie Payne (as fine as her sister Freda). Also titled The Supremes, the disc reintroduced audiences to the seminal Motown trio. The group began to garner new audiences with the success of their club (disco) hit “He’s My Man” which topped the dance chart. They returned to that formula a year later with High Energy, with the title track (written by Brian and Eddie Holland) and “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking”, which both topped the dance chart. The latter was the last Supremes’ track to hit the pop-chart. Ironically the disc featured several H-D-H productions (almost a decade since they worked with the trio and five years since they left the Motown stable in a contract dispute) including “You’re What’s Missing in My Life” and the beautiful “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You”.
The Supremes officially retired after the release of Mary, Scherrie, Susaye in 1976 (Susaye Greene, who co-wrote Deniece Williams’ “Free” and later MJ’s “I Can’t Help It” replaced Birdsong). Like their two previous discs, the Supremes went after the dance floor as “You’re My Driving Wheel”, “Let’s Yourself Go”, and the stirring “Love I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good” were all moderate dance hits for the group. Interestingly, Diana Ross had her most successful solo recording to date, with the dance-floor anthem “Love Hangover” that same year. One of the highlights of that last Supremes’ disc was the haunting slow-jam “We Should Be Closer”. The group issued one last single in 1978 with “Bad Weather” which was taken from At Their Best which included previously unreleased tracks from Wilson’s Supremes. “Bad Weather” was co-written by Stevie Wonder and Ira Tucker (the legendary lead on the Dixie Hummingbirds) in 1973, the same year that the ‘Birds recorded Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America”.
The Supremes: the 70s Anthology is a thoughtful correction to the common belief that the Supremes ended when Diana Ross went solo. Tracks like “Up the Ladder to the Roof”, “Stoned Love”, and “He’s My Man” are as good as any that the classic lineup of Ross, Wilson, and the late Florence Ballard recorded. The two-disc set is also a reminder of just how potent the Motown machine was as few groups could have sustained themselves, to the extent that the Supremes did, after the defection of their signature voice (and the label’s signature icon). If anything the anthology, it is a much needed tribute to the fortitude of Mary Wilson, who was the longest serving Supreme.