Monday, September 19, 2011

The Fabulous SUPREMES!!

I think everyone who knows me knows that I *love* MOTOWN music. I grew up in St. Louis surrounded by black, white, jewish, and methodist people. I was like a sponge and absorbed Rhythm & Blues, Pop/Rock, and Country/Western music. And of course my mother loved classical music and my father had various sound-track albums in the house. So I literally listened to *everything*. But as soon as my sister Connie turned me on to Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Diana Ross & The Supremes, I was hooked.  I don't really remember a time when there wasn't Motown in my life. As for "The Girls," I know I bought into the whole "package" of the Supremes: how Diana was the natural lead, and how her talent was too large to keep constrained in the trio, and how the group died off without her around to guide them. My sister had the three album ANTHOLOGY collection and I would listen to sides 2 and 3 over and  over again. Even then I could tell there was a definite gap in quantity after 1967, and I almost never listened to that last LP with the final songs of the trio. And oddly enough (or perhaps not, seeing how I am not a gay male, haha) I never really liked Diana Ross as a solo artist: her "diva" status never appealed to me and her solo records sounded way too over-produced for me. She has a few good songs but in general I am not a fan.  I was definitely a fan of the Golden Oldies. Besides, so many of her solo songs sound like they should be Supremes songs, what with the heavy background vocals in them; I thought AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN was by her & The Supremes for YEARS!

Later in high school and college I read books like NOWHERE TO RUN by Gerri Hirshey and THE STORY OF MOTOWN and realized that for all the great music there was also great drama and tragedy. To this day I regret that I did not know who Florence Ballard was when she died in 1976. When DREAMGIRLS came out I was fascinated by this Broadway musical supposedly "about them" but I never did get to see it (I was in St. Louis or at college in St. Paul MN by this point, remember!). I began to understand that Diana had *not* been the original lead; that the group was a victim of their own success once they were so popular; that Florence and fellow original member Mary Wilson were treated badly, both emotionally and financially. 
My sister bought me Mary Wilson's autobiography DREAM GIRLS
when it came out in the early 80s and after reading it I stopped listening to "Diana Ross & The Supremes" records. No offense to Flo's replacement, Cindy Birdsong, but evidently she isn't actually singing on their two biggest hits, anyway! (nor is Mary). As Motown owner Berry Gordy and Diana Ross conspired (if that is the word) to rename the group in order to give Diana a solo career, Flo's pride wouldn't allow her to put up with it and she either quit or was fired (depending on your point of view). As soon as she left, in the spring of 1967, Commercialism won out over Art. So now when I listen to The Supremes I can either think of a nicer, gentler nation, or I can think of all the "what ifs" of the situation, or I can think Gosh those girls can sing. It depends on my mood.

One of my favorite memories of my college days is taking a bus down to Minneapolis and seeing Mary Wilson live in concert at some club. I even got to say hello and tell her how much I loved her music. It was an adventure that I will never forget.
I'm not going to make a list of My Favorite Supremes Songs but I will say that my favorite album is The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart with Live at the Copa a distant second. There are quite a few songs on the Rodgers & Hart CD where all three women are allowed to sing, and their harmonies are beautiful. "Falling In Love With Love" and "My Romance" are two of the highlights. And during their live performances you can really hear all three women; I recommend you track down some live songs and compare them to the studio versions just to hear for yourself how drowned out Mary and Flo ended up being. On YouTube search for The Supremes and Bobby Darin, The Andrews Sisters, and Sing Rodgers & Hart for some great stuff.

To end this article, here's the only "happy" hit The Supremes ever had: "I Hear A Symphony" from 1966. Every other song they had was a sad song in the He Done Her Wrong vein...think about it: "Where Did Our Love Go?", "Stop In The Name of Love," "Come See About Me," "Love Child" etc etc are all great songs but they are not "happy." The closest other "happy" song they have is "Back In My Arms Again," which IS a great fun song, but *this* one is just plain beautiful. This version appears to be from The Mike Douglas Show in 1966. The song was so new that Diana hadn't actually remembered the words yet, so you know they aren't lip-synching. ;-)

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