Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Supremes: 1970-1977

SUPREME: Highest in Rank or Authority, Highest in Degree & Quality, Ultimate, Final

The truth? It's assumed The Supremes, Motown's leading act, the eternal female vocal group blueprint, ceased to exist when Diana Ross departed in 1970.The real truth? The Supremes relaunched in 1970 to record and release 10 albums. Scuzzy revisionists usually tend to diminish the kaleidoscopic heights these incarnations of The Supremes scaled. To be fair, The Supremes weren't up against just historical rewriting, the times had changed in the 1970's. Competition from other up and coming black female groups, evolving tastes and their own revolving line-up provided challenges.

The latter tip, it should be stated, really was only a problem for the casual observer. Five women inherited the mantle of being a Supreme from 1970 through 1977. Mary Wilson was the sole original member to navigate each line-up from 1959 through 1977. Each woman who came into The Supremes brought a distinct color all their own. In the last decade, their works have finally gotten the spotlight they so richly deserve.

A series of epic reissues starting with The '70's Anthology (2002) led to This Is the Story: The '70s Albums, Vol. 1–1970–1973: The Jean Terrell Years (2006), Magnificent: The Complete Studio Duets (2009), and Let Yourself Go: The '70s Albums, Vol. 2–1974–1977: The Final Sessions (2011). All revived by the reissue imprint Hip-O-Select, The '70's Supremes have been allowed to tell their story, and what a tale it is. For those, and there are still many, unfamiliar with The '70's Supremes this overview will remedy that.

Right On
Released: April 1970
Produced By: Frank Wilson
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #25, U.S. R&B #4, U.K. # (Did Not Chart)
Singles: "Up the Ladder to the Roof," "Everybody's Got the Right to Love"
Line-Up: Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong

After three years of running on empty, Right On was a glorious return to form and rebirth. The Supremes were a unit again and producer Frank Wilson made that a reality on record. Right On was seminal, as it was the first record without Diana Ross, announcing the arrival of Jean Terrell. Also important was that it  was the first studio recording to restore Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong to the fold after being supplanted by session singers The Andantes on the bulk of the D.R.A.T.S. (Diana Ross & The Supremes) album output. A pool of graceful soul and pop, Right On was luxurious. The ephemeral highs of the lead single "Up the Ladder to the Roof" immediately won over the wary. Deeper cuts such as "But I Love You More" and "The Loving Country" fulfilled further investment from the listeners. Back in business, three-part harmonies and all, Right On was a top to bottom victory for The Supremes.

"Up the Ladder to the Roof" & "Everybody's Got the Right to Love" Circa 1970

New Ways, But Love Stays
Released: October 1970
Produced By: Frank Wilson
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #68, U.S. R&B #12, U.K. #(Did Not Chart)
Singles: "Stoned Love"
Line-Up: Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong

Frustratingly bold and limp, New Ways, But Love Stays was the rushed follow-up to Right On. Frank Wilson again steered the good ship Supremes sewing psychedelia into the soul-pop mix. The three-part, segued opener of "Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music," "Stoned Love," and "It's Time to Break Down" was a wall of auditory sensations. New Ways placed more emphasis to the distinct sounds of Terrell, Wilson, and Birdsong. They rolled on "Together," took to the gospel cosmos on "Stoned," and occupied majesty with "It's Time to Break Down." "Stoned Love," the biggest hit single for the '70's Supremes, was controversial in that many misread its call for "solid" or "stoned" love as a veiled drug reference. Performances on "Is There a Place (In His Heart For Me)" and the sunny "Shine On Me" were fantastic due to these songs being written for The Supremes. Majority of New Ways was constructed out of cover material, distributing an uneven quality. For every assured turn on Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" their were anemic takes on The Beatles "Come Together" or The Four Tops "I Wish I Were Your Mirror." A transitional piece, but with vocal prowess to spare, New Ways, But Love Stays was a rare misfire in the '70's Supremes discography.

"Stoned Love" Circa 1970

Released: June 1971
Produced By: Frank Wilson
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #85, U.S. R&B #8, U.K. #40
Singles: "Nathan Jones," "Touch"
Line-Up: Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong

The first Supremes album to be reviewed, and favorably, by a then up and coming music magazine called Rolling Stone, was Touch. The last of the Frank Wilson trilogy, Touch was a monochromatic wonder, sonically speaking. It  was the first Supremes record to have a detectable atmosphere. The brisk "Nathan Jones," its verses and chorus sung in unison, sat next to the ringing "Love It Came To Me This Time." "Love" revealed Terrell's unaffected ability to read the feelings of the track in an astoundingly astute fashion. Leads from Birdsong and Wilson were becoming more prominent, in fact the titular cut and second single, had Wilson going toe-to-toe with Terrell. Her first commercial single release as a co-lead was spellbinding. Touch benefited from what New Ways, But Love Stays lacked: an abundance of original songs written for The Supremes. One cover, The 5th Dimension's "Time & Love," vibrantly tackled by The Supremes soared. Interestingly enough, Diana Ross also recorded a version for her eponymous solo debut, which remained vaulted until 2001. Dark and lovely, Touch was top shelf Supremes, age of its creation notwithstanding.

"Touch" (Audio & Still Photography Only)
*Performance clips from this period are rare, none were available at this time*

Floy Joy
Released: May 1972
Produced By: Smokey Robinson
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #54, U.S. R&B #12, U.K. # (Did Not Chart)
Singles: "Floy Joy," "Automatically Sunshine," "Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love"
Line-Up: Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, Lynda Laurence

Motown alumni Smokey Robinson (of The Miracles) took duties for The Supremes fourth album of the '70's. Robinson's prior production past included a bulk of material The Supremes first released to mild fanfare. This took place before their hit streaking pairing with Holland-Dozier-Holland in '63. Robinson decided to guide The Supremes into joyful, but no less evocative, waters on Floy Joy. Girlish and playful, Floy Joy ended up as the aural equivalent of fresh cream. By now, Terrell, Wilson, and Birdsong had adhered to one another. Snappy on the title track (the larger hit on the LP) or low and groovy on "Now the Bitter, Now the Sweet" stated that The Supremes had established their own brand separate from their previous decade. Pictured on the album cover and present for all promotional performances, appearances, etc. was Lynda Laurence. Birdsong's voice is unmistakably heard on Floy Joy, but her impending pregnancy meant she departed The Supremes after the Floy Joy recordings wrapped. Laurence, a Wonderlove vocalist from the legendary backing troupe for Stevie Wonder, left with Wonder's blessing to become a Supreme. Floy Joy became the last successful album The Supremes knew, as Motown's support for them began its inexorable decline.

"Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love" Circa 1972

The Supremes Produced and Arranged By Jimmy Webb
Released: November 1972
Produced By: Jimmy Webb, Deke Richards (on "I Guess I'll Miss the Man")
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #129, U.S. R&B #27, U.K. # (Did Not Chart)
Singles: "I Guess I'll Miss the Man"
Line-Up: Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson, Lynda Laurence

Jimmy Webb touched The Supremes with his silk and lavender tones, giving Produced & Arranged an adult contemporary, if staid feel. Terrell was provided with fantastic songs like "5:30 Plane," "When Can Brown Begin," "Tossin' and Turnin'," and "Beyond Myself." Wilson shared the forlorn "I Keep It Hid," a solo number. Ballads were fast becoming Wilson's calling card and she almost exclusively handled them in the last three years of The Supremes lifespan. Oddly, the solitary single, from the play Pippin, "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" made minimal impact. It was also the only song on the record not produced by Webb, but Deke Richards. Richards was a popular Motown stable producer.

Produced & Arranged's notoriety increased by the fact that it was the first, and last, Supremes album to host Supreme Lynda Laurence. The commercial failure due to Motown's non-support on Produced & Arranged soured Terrell and Laurence on the label. Laurence's last ditch effort led to persuading her mentor Stevie Wonder to produce a single-only release for The Supremes. "Bad Weather" became popular with fans and R&B disc jockeys. Issued not long after Produced & Arranged had cooled the single stalled. It was the final curtain for Terrell and Laurence, both asked to be released from Motown. Mary Wilson, now alone, had to reconfigure the group who wouldn't have another record released for two years.

"I Guess I'll Miss the Man" Circa 1972

The Supremes
Released: May 1975
Produced By: Hal Davis, Mark Davis, Brian Holland, Clayton Ivey, Michael Lloyd, Terry Woodford, Greg Wright
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #152, U.S. R&B #25, U.K. # (Did Not Chart)
Singles: "He's My Man," "Where Do I Go From Here?," "Early Morning Love"
Line-Up: Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, Scherrie Payne

Two years of contractual struggles with Motown Records occurred before Produced & Arranged had a proper follow-up. New changes in music transpired. Vocal groups were even more en vogue, some of whom were rocking a sound known as disco. How would The Supremes factor into all of this? Mary Wilson returned with Supreme favorite Cindy Birdsong and the newest member, Ms. Scherrie Payne. Without missing a beat the eponymous sixth '70's Supremes LP glistened with a rebranding of their music. Tied with Produced & Arranged as their poppiest affair, unlike the formal restraint of that record, The Supremes courted a tactful, youthful exuberance. Sporting a plethora of production talent (see credits above), The Supremes were going to find a niche to get in and fit in.
A chunk 'o' funk, "He's My Man" was their first dance hit with dual leads from the dynamo Payne and Wilson. The post-coital ode in "Early Morning Love" evenly matched the diamante of "It's All Been Said Before," which showcased harmony acrobatics from all three Supremes. Many fans over the years have commented that the Birdsong, Payne, Wilson line-up came closest to the classic Ballard, Wilson, Ross salad days.

"Color My World Blue," another Payne knockout, seized her vitality superbly. Though that "vitality" sometimes got the best of her and her fellow Supremes, as heard on "This Is Why I Believe in You." The fun, but erroneous cut marred this otherwise stainless eponymous record. The sales slump continued from a mainstream market perspective, but The Supremes made the group visible in 1975. One genre in particular showed affection to The Supremes after this recording dropped: dance music.

"Early Morning Love" Circa 1975

High Energy
Released: April 1976
Produced By: Brian and Edward Holland, Jr.
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #42, U.S. R&B #25, U.K. # (Did Not Chart)
Singles: "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking," "You're What's Missing in My Life"
Line-Up: Mary Wilson, Scherrie Payne, Susaye Green

"Out of adversity..." or so the saying goes. The sessions for High Energy had begun when Birdsong said her final goodbyes to The Supremes amid a growing turbulence within the group. Motown's lack of support, blatant by this point, was coupled with Wilson's troubled marriage to Pedro Ferrer. Ferrer assumed a managerial role of The Supremes, with catastrophic results. Despite all of this, High Energy became a definitive recording for The Supremes. In addition, High Energy played an integral role in the return of the prodigal sons, brothers Brian and Edward Holland, of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame. These two men helped make The Supremes the icons they were a decade prior. Parting with Motown over royalty disputes in 1967, they founded their own label Invictus. The Holland's returned to Motown with the bad blood washed away.

The Holland's mission with High Energy conceived to update The Supremes with the posh, orchestral brush strokes of disco and modern R&B. Joining Wilson and Payne was Susaye Green, the final Supreme to come aboard. Ms. Green, another Wonderlove vocalist, doubled as a songwriter. Upon stepping into The Supremes, she had just scored a hit penning Deniece Williams' "Free." Later, Green co-wrote Michael Jackson's "I Can't Help It" from Off the Wall (1979). It was Green's gargantuan octave range that charged the title track with a late-night sensuality. It went on to become a club classic without a commercial single release.

Brazen and feminist, "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking" graced the U.S. Pop Top 40, the last conventional hit they landed. Somewhere between the coquette and the lascivious, "Only You (Can Love Me Like You Love Me)" lived it up on record without a care. Wilson carried the end of the album, her angles bittersweet and husky on "Till the Boat Sails Away" and "Don't Let My Teardrops Bother You." Channeling her recent emotional upsets into "Teardrops," Wilson's poignancy enthralled. Start to finish, High Energy's case as another stunning entry into the 70's Supremes discography was hard to argue against.

"I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking" Circa 1976

Mary, Scherrie, & Susaye
Released: October 1976
Produced By: Brian and Edward Holland, Jr.
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop # (Did Not Chart), U.S. R&B # (Did Not Chart), U.K. # (Did Not Chart)
Singles: "You're My Driving Wheel," "Let Yourself Go," "Love, I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good," "Come Into My Life"
Line-Up: Mary Wilson, Scherrie Payne, Susaye Green

At the time of its release, The Supremes had become full-on dance music stars. The indifference from the pop and R&B charts hadn't dampened their spirits to create another foray toward the mirror ball realm. Unfortunately, Mary, Scherrie, & Susaye, the final Supremes long player, was more steam than heat. The ballads, while pretty, had become perfunctory. Great vehicles for Wilson's shadowy presence, they still were missing something. The uptempos had ceased to bend trends and saw The Supremes following them instead. "Love, I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good?" Too furious for its own good. "You're My Driving Wheel?" It orbited parody.

Thankfully, for every uneven number a few clear cut classics rose to the challenge. "Sweet Dream Machine," with its score-like arrangement looked back to the High Energy LP. The sci-fi Donna Summer glow of "Come Into My Life" was Green's best Supremes cut. A veritable production and vocal wonder. " I Don't Want to be Tied Down," a sassy tell-off, was unapologetic and abrasive, suggesting an even bolder direction for The Supremes. It was not to be. The Supremes finished without the "hit record" they'd been pining for. The final curtain fell on their last farewell show on June 12th, 1977 in London, England at the Drury Lane Theatre. Mary, Scherrie, & Susaye remains a perennial query of where The Supremes could have gone, given better circumstances.

"Come Into My Life" Circa 1977

The drama and tragedy of The Supremes overshadows their musical legacy more often than not. The unique epoch of these chapters in The Supremes history appeals because of the sheer excellence of the recorded product. Even with the heartache, Motown machinations, the quandary of cultural relevance, The Supremes delivered. The Supremes grew as women and the songs reflected those changes. Whether straddling soulful maturity during Jean Terrell's tenure or getting loose once Scherrie Payne touched down. Mentioning Terrell and Payne, Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, Lynda Laurence, and Susaye Green evidenced that The Supremes never wanted for talent, having the most diverse clutch of female vocalists under one nom de guerre in popular music.

The ravenous '60's Supremes aficionados may see the '70's Supremes as only shades to their earlier incarnations. Again, the truth? The '70's Supremes existed on a completely different plane, looking to birth not just hit singles, but albums. Dedicated to the music, they never relinquished the glamor and sophistication that were hallmarks for The Supremes, regardless of the decade. The '70's Supremes were just the next step in the evolution of an iconic institution. That's their story and I'm sticking to it.-QH

[Editor's Note: At the time of this writing, The '70's Anthology (2002) and This Is the Story: The '70s Albums, Vol. 1–1970–1973: The Jean Terrell Years (2006) are physically out of print. The latter was a limited run edition. However, Magnificent: The Complete Studio Duets (2009), and Let Yourself Go: The '70s Albums, Vol. 2–1974–1977: The Final Sessions (2011) are still in print. All of these packages are available digitally via iTunes and Amazon. For more information on these remaster sets, visit]


Rob Spiegel said...

BRAVO! Another Masterpiece of a Review! I'll be sharing this with fellow Supremes aficionados!

Tommy said...

Great overview of the 70's Supremes albums.. Love the music they put out, and all the talent they had in their ranks. While they may have suffered from their shifting lineup; musically speaking, it gave the group more interesting and varied catalogue. While it's unfortunate that they never got the credit and the success they deserved (IMO), the 70's Supremes and their records are like buried musical treasure for those who are willing to look..

Moanerplicity said...

As I view these album cover pics I am reminded that my mom was one of those hardcore Supremes fans who supported the various groupings during those post-Diana years. In many ways they were a more versatile in sound once Miss Ross left. Maybe not the same chart toppers, but still musically relevant.

My fave line-up: Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.

Personal Big Ups to: the multi-talented Susaye Greene, who I befriended on myspace some years back, & proved to be as down to earth & real a sista as she is a dynamo singer/writer she wrote "Free" the Deniece Williams hit among others)/fine artist and performer.