For all intents and purposes, The Supremes should be downright laughable. Here they are, Top 40-friendly fodder made popular by Berry Gordy’s infamous Lou Pearlman-esque hit machine and dancing in perfect sync to songs that are just a smidge too catchy to be respectable. And yet, I can’t make myself laugh, because for all their readymade-ness, The Supremes were no joke.
The group, made up of bankable lead Diana Ross and founders Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, epitomized the triumph of the underdog, going from a group of starry-eyed fifteen-year-olds in the projects of Detroit to one of the most successful groups in the `60s. They had the most No.1 hits of any American act in that decade, personified girl groups and Motown’s golden age and gave pride to African-American women at a time when prejudice made that a difficult thing to find.
Of course, achievement didn’t come easy. The girls were teenagers when they first came to neighbor Smokey Robinson, who in turn sent them to Gordy. Eight singles were released over their first three years with Motown, and none of them went very far. However, in the fall of 1964, a tune rejected by the Marvelettes and written by songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland (of “Heat Wave,” “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “How Sweet It Is (Too Be Loved By You)” fame, among others) made its way across the table to The Supremes, and, as they say, there was no turning back.
The song was called “Where Did Our Love Go,” and it was the first track from the album of the same name to hit number one. Two more, “Baby Love” (also a Holland-Dozier-Holland piece) and “Come See About Me,” followed in the next few months – making Where Did Our Love Go the first American record to have three tracks from the same album go to the top. In Motown’s classic styling, the album is seamlessly produced, layering upbeat arrangements with Ross’s naïvely sultry vocals and Ballard and Wilson’s flawless harmonizing. The stunning title track is perhaps the most exemplary of this, its rhythm set by handclaps before the vibrant horn section kicks in and the three vocalists chime in perfect harmony. It’s undeniably, almost ridiculously catchy, made even more so with simple lyrics and continuous repetition – in fact, the word “baby” is repeated nearly 100 times. This follows in the other two singles before breaking a bit for “Long Gone Lover,” which puts Ross in the back seat and gives Ballard and Wilson a chance to break out of their hypnotic two-word backup state.
Overall, Where Did Our Love Go‘s themes reflect its title. It’s largely a heartbreak album, its songs written in diary-like fashion and centering on being deserted or ignored, despite its compulsive poppiness. In “He Means the World to Me,” Ross sings “If he’d just take one look at me … I’d bow down and tell him/His every wish is my command,” which is countered only by the “Ask any girl/Who’s often left alone/All by herself/Neglectfully pushed aside” of “Ask Any Girl” or even the line “Loneliness has got the best of me” smack in the middle of the chipper “Baby Love.”
It’s those kinds of factors: lovely singers with gorgeous voices, cutely depressing lyrics and snap-along sheen that make pop music of legend, and legends The Supremes became. Granted, reality broke the fairytale success of the group – Florence Ballard died of cardiac arrest at only 32 and Diana Ross became an alcoholic with her own set of problems – but for a few minutes, through only a couple of tracks, The Supremes are once again a young and hopeful group of sweet-singing girls, who have no idea that they will become stars.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
Martha and the Vandellas — Watchout!
The Temptations — Meet the Temptations
The Marvelettes — Please Mr. Postman