The Supremes: Best of the Rest

Writing a post on Phil Collins’ chart-topping cover of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ made me realise how little we have heard from The Supremes on this blog. In fact, most of the comments on that post turned to the joys of the Supremes, rather than the merits of Collins’ cover. Which inspired this post!

There was a huge disparity between the girl-group’s US and UK chart fortunes. One #1 in Britain (‘Baby Love’), to twelve Billboard #1s between 1964-69! Here, then, are the ten Supremes singles that came closest to matching their only number one… ranked by chart position, rather than by preference.

‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ – reached #8 in 1966

Perhaps a little surprising that this doesn’t come in higher up. The ‘morse code’ guitar lick that comes in and out is great – this is possibly one of their ‘rockier’ hits – and I just noticed the galloping, hand-played drums. It’s not in the very highest echelon of Supremes songs, though. Not for me. It was later covered in a sprawling, psychedelic version by Vanilla Fudge, which manages to outdo the original, and then taken back to #1 in the US – and all the way to #2 in the UK – by Kim Wilde.

‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ – reached #7 in 1965

An even bigger surprise, that this one would be so low down the list. ‘Stop!’ is another classic, one of their best-loved tunes, and a song that practically begs you to do a certain dance move. More songs need exclamation marks in their titles, no? The video above is from a TV performance, but the trio seem to be singing live, showing off just how good their voices were.

‘Up the Ladder to the Roof’ – reached #6 in 1970

While The Supremes couldn’t match their home success in the sixties, by the 1970s they were scoring hits in the UK that struggled on the Billboard charts. ‘Up the Ladder to the Roof’ was their first release without Diana Ross. Jean Terrell is the new lead singer, and she has a throatier voice which she uses to full effect in the final chorus. I hadn’t heard this one before, however, and I’m not sure it will linger very long in the memory.

‘The Happening’ – reached #6 in 1967

From a movie, apparently, of the same name that’s been completely forgotten. This was the final single they released as ‘The Supremes’, before Ross got top billing. And it’s one of my favourites: playful, light, catchy as anything, frantic, slightly demented… Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for it, but that’s just fine.

‘Reflections’ – reached #5 in 1967

And here’s the first of their songs released as ‘Diana Ross & The Supremes’. It feels like a bit of a fresh start, the trio’s classic sound updated with some space-age, psychedelic sound effects. (Which I’m not sure the song really needs, but OK…)

‘Nathan Jones’ – reached #5 in 1971

Their best post-Diana moment? (Ok, there’s one more song to come that could claim that title…) But ‘Nathan Jones’ is my personal favourite. It takes the group’s sound in a very trippy, early-seventies directions, especially in the extended mix above, and is one of the few Supremes records where lead vocals are shared. I’m always amused by the normal-ness of the title. There must be tens of thousands of Nathan Joneses in the world, haunted by this song…

‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ (with The Temptations) – reached #3 in 1969

The last four songs in this countdown all peaked at #3, starting with this A-List Motown collab. It’s every bit as smooth and classy as you’d expect a record by two of the 1960s great vocal groups to be. Diana Ross’ verse is excellent here, with a real playfulness in her voice…

‘Stoned Love’ – reached #3 in 1970

How about this, their joint second-highest UK chart hit is a Jean Terrell number…! The Supremes call for world peace… by getting stoned. Goodness. Either that, or by rhinestoning another fabulous dress… Both might work. Motown tried to distance themselves from the suggestion that it was about drugs, though the lines about lighting up the world suggest otherwise to me…

‘Where Did Our Love Go’ – reached #3 in 1964

Their breakthrough hit… The Supremes first US #1, and their first UK Top 10 hit. My favourite of their big hits? Probably. The boot stomping intro is iconic, especially in stereo as it travels across the room. The rest of the song is quite understated, compared to some of the bells and whistles tunes we’ve seen above. In fact, the girls thought the same, and were unsure about recording it to begin with, thinking it lacked a hook (further proof that most pop stars can’t spot a hit song if it bites them on the arse…)

‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ – reached #3 in 1966

And we end with the song that inspired this ‘Best of the Rest’, the one that made #1 in 1983 thanks to Phil Collins. It’s a bouncy, upbeat classic, though not one of my very favourite Supremes songs. It is, though, probably their most famous hit – it’s by some distance their most listened to song on Spotify – even more famous than the one Supremes single that charted higher.

I hope you enjoyed this short journey back to the sixties/early-seventies. Back on the regular countdown, things are getting even more ’80s… Coming soon!

513. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, by Phil Collins

We embark on 1983, then. And we start off with a classic. Well, a version of a classic…

You Can’t Hurry Love, by Phil Collins (his 1st of three #1s)

2 weeks, 9th – 23rd January 1983

I’m a big fan of The Supremes. Who in their right minds isn’t? They only had one (1!) chart-topper in the UK – unlike the States, where they went toe-to-toe with The Beatles for the most #1s in the ‘60s – but they churned out pop gem after pop gem. ‘Baby Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, and this ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. (They loved to ‘love’ in a title…)

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that this song is classic… And, actually, Phil Collins does a decent enough job of covering it. He doesn’t ruin it. He keeps all that makes it great – most notably that much-copied bass intro (which we last heard on the Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’.) He doesn’t go all ‘eighties’ on us, and he doesn’t strip it back. As a record, it stands out as ‘retro’ among the class of ’82-’83.

In recent months, we’ve seen Captain Sensible, and before him Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin, take fifties and sixties classics and, well, re-invent them. Collins doesn’t do that. But the problem with sticking so close to the original is that it’s clear when it’s not in the same league. Phil Collins is not Diana Ross, in more ways than one. You do wonder why he bothered…? It sounds nothing like his stuff with Genesis, or his biggest previous solo hit: ‘In the Air Tonight’. But then again, it delivered him his first number one. So whatever he was going for worked.

Like The Supremes, Collins had much more (solo) chart success in the USA than in Britain (seven #1s to three). As someone who wasn’t around at the time, he’s always seemed such an unlikely figure for one of the decade’s biggest stars… Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Phil Collins… It just seems weird.

Then I grew up with him as half-laughing stock beloved by estate agents, half-reclaimed hip-hop icon. He’s never been an easy man to categorise, I suppose. And that’s not a bad thing. But, he will be back atop the UK charts again, so we don’t need to sum his career up just yet. This looks like it’s going to be quite a short post; but I don’t think a straight-forward cover such as this needs much more analysis…

Though if even that was too much, here’s my TL;DR: ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ is a great song, and Phil Collins neither ruins it, nor makes it his own.

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181. ‘Baby Love’, by The Supremes

For the intro to this next post, I was going to go all overboard on how this was the first time in ages that two female acts had replaced one another at the top of the UK charts. Sandie Shaw making way for The Supremes’ girl-group stylings. The first time that this had happened since September 1956!!!! Except… For a week in between, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, by most-definitely-a-man Roy Orbison, sneaked back to the top of the charts. Ah.

So I need a new intro… How about: And so, with this next number one, Motown arrives at the top of the singles chart! And what a record with which to arrive. A piano intro that slides down the scales – in stereo it sounds as if it’s travelling right to left through your brain – and then the voice of one of the most renowned female singers in pop history:

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Baby Love, by The Supremes (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 19th November – 3rd December 1964

Oooh-hooo-oo… Baby love, My baby love, I need ya, Oh how I need ya…. A girl loves a boy, but he doesn’t seem to be returning the sentiment. All he does is treat her bad, breaks her heart and leaves her sad… Baby love, My baby love, Been missin’ ya, Miss kissin’ ya…

It’s a gorgeous song, the production all warm and glossy, the drums keep swinging time, a mournful sax comes in mid-way through… And Diana Ross’s honeyed voice. A voice that sounds effortlessly perfect. It’s a world away from some of the other female voices we’ve heard so far – she doesn’t belt like Shirley Bassey or sparkle like Helen Shapiro – but it has a special quality to it. In the closing lines – Need to hold you, Once again my love, Feel your warm embrace my love… you can really feel her pleading.

The lyrics, as a whole, though, are pretty meh. Standard ‘Oh baby come back to me I’ll do what you want and give you all my love’ kind of stuff. The default setting for sixties girl-groups. And I don’t want to go all ‘woke’ here but, I’d like a little more sass and swagger from my girl groups. Look back a few years, and Rosemary Clooney and Connie Francis were serving up plenty of attitude in ‘Mambo Italiano’, say, or ‘Who’s Sorry Now’. ‘Baby Love’ comes across as soppy next to those discs.

The other two Supremes – Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson – have equal billing here but aren’t much more than backing singers. 70% of the time they’re chanting Don’t throw our love away… Which they do beautifully, but you can see why the group soon became Diana Ross & The Supremes. Ms. Ross was definitely front and centre from the start. In the UK this would be their only #1 (though we will be hearing from Ms. Ross again), while in the US they enjoyed a staggering twelve (12!) chart-toppers between 1964 and 1969. Of course, classics like ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ and ‘The Happening’ were big British hits; but another chart-topper always eluded them.

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A few weeks ago, I did a series of posts on songs that should have topped the charts, in which I included Best Pop Song Ever ™ ‘Be My Baby’, by The Ronettes. ‘Baby Love’ isn’t in the same league as that, but in hitting the top spot I feel it kind of represents for all the sixties girl groups (all of them American) that missed out. For The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Shangri-Las, The Marvelettes, The Vandellas… Plus, this is also basically ground-zero for all the girl groups that are yet to come. When I was a teen they were ten-a-penny – The Spice Girls, Eternal, En Vogue, All Saints, B*Witched… They can all be traced back through these three girls and this sweetly sung chart-topper.

A final thought: ‘Baby Love’ really stands out when you hear it in context. On a ‘Motown’s Greatest Hits Compilation’ it might have passed you by; but hearing it now, after months, years even, of boys with guitars and their beat-pop ditties, this record hits you like a crisp, clean breath of Detroit air. Inhale it, and enjoy.