The Supremes: how we made Baby Love

Mary Wilson: 'We were beginning to be known as the "no-hit Supremes". Then we had five number ones in a row'

Mary Wilson, singer

In the early days of Motown, it felt as if all the girl groups were having hits apart from us. The Marvelettes had Please Mr Postman; Martha and the Vandellas had Dancing in the Street. We were playing shows and people were going crazy, but in the office we were beginning to be known as the "no-hit Supremes".

Mr Gordy [Motown boss Berry Gordy] believed in us, and so he put us in with his best songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The first song they showed us was Where Did Our Love Go, which we didn't want to record – it sounded sweet and bubblegum. At this point, Berry also appointed Diana Ross as the lead singer, with Florence [Ballard] and I providing backing. That became difficult later on, when we felt we weren't being allowed to sing enough, but it wasn't a problem in the early days.

We recorded Where Did Our Love Go and it became a hit, which changed everything. Once H-D-H found that formula for us, we had five consecutive [US] number ones. Baby Love was our second hit and our first UK number one. Again, we initially felt that the song was a bit cute, but the upbeat feeling of the music is counterbalanced by the lyrics: someone pleading with a lover not to leave them. It's the Motown way: the music is beautiful but the words are stories about life and hurt, which reflect the way life is. The combination of the two made the music last.

The Holland brothers produced everything. Eddie worked on the lyrics; Brian the music. Lamont [Dozier] did a lot of the background parts, so he may have suggested the famous "Oooooh oooooh" intro.

We recorded the song live with some of the Funk Brothers, the name given to the pool of Motown musicians. James Jamerson played bass on all our stuff, Hank Cosby played tenor saxophone, Mike Terry the distinctive baritone saxophone solo and I think Pistol Allen was on drums. It's hard to remember specific sessions, but sometimes we would get a song in a couple of takes. Other times, we would record a song 30 times, then come back the next day and do it another 50 – as many as 100 takes in all.

Baby Love's distinctive beat was people footstomping on the floor. H-D-H would just grab whoever was around. Motown was such a creative environment like that. I remember, one day, Mr Gordy saying: "I have this nine-year-old genius coming in," and little Stevie Wonder proceeding to play every instrument in the studio. Nine years old and blind. Motown was like Disneyland and we felt privileged to be there.

Performing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 was enormously important. Prior to that, you saw very few black people on television, [other than] actors playing maids or janitors. So to have three well-dressed, glamorous black women in gowns come on and be stars was significant.

I've spoken to Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey and they've both said that that moment really showed them as black people that they could succeed. Prior to that we were not considered citizens. We couldn't dream of being rich and famous.

Shelly Berger, Supremes manager

Mr Gordy's favourite saying was, "The cheapest thing we have is tape." He didn't care about mistakes on recordings; he wanted to capture emotion. He made artists do take after take to the point where it became a joke, but he never did it for the sake of it. Similarly, he would pull a record off the radio and out of the shops and say, "This is not right. You've got to redo this."

So there is a first version of Baby Love that maybe could have been a top 10 hit. The girls were coming off a huge smash with Where Did Our Love Go, so were guaranteed airplay. But he wasn't happy and sent them back to record it again.

If you listen to that early version of Baby Love and then the version that was released, it's day and night. The saxophone and the claps are different and the first version doesn't have what became one of the most famous intros in popular music. But that's Berry. He was always reaching for something more and pushing his writers and artists to do the same, and that's why the music was so successful and has lasted.

People on the outside just see the glamour, but there was a tremendous work ethic. [Artists'] lives were very regimented: the studio, the road and the hotel. You're going from adoration to being alone in the space of an hour. It is not the easiest of lives. With the Supremes you were not just talking about stardom. It was top-of-the-heap stardom.

• The album The Nation's Favourite Motown Songs is out on Universal.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The O'Jays: how we made Love Train
‘Donald Trump used it in his campaign – join a Trump train. Our lawyers sent him a cease and desist letter’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

01, Nov, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
How we made Motown
Berry Gordy: ‘I didn’t like Stevie Wonder’s singing – but I loved his harmonica-playing’

Interviews by Dorian Lynskey

22, Mar, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
How we made Sister Sledge’s We Are Family
‘The boss of our label had paper dolls made of us. We were like … nah’

Interviews by Alexis Petridis

12, Apr, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
How we made: Just My Imagination by the Temptations

'We were having big disagreements. The lead singer had to finish the vocals on his own'

Interviews by Dave Simpson

26, Mar, 2012 @5:34 PM

Article image
How we made Booker T and the MGs' Green Onions
‘It was originally called Funky Onions – but to laced-up, deep-south America, that sounded like a cuss word, so we had to retitle it’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

11, Mar, 2019 @4:23 PM

Article image
How we made Back to Life by Soul II Soul

Jazzie B and Caron Wheeler on how reggae violins, shuffling beats and an outstanding vocal made a 1980s club classic

Interviews by Jack Watkins

22, Oct, 2012 @4:03 PM

Article image
How we made Funkadelic's One Nation Under a Groove
‘A woman came up on stage butt-naked and started blowing smoke rings out of her private parts’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

04, Jun, 2018 @10:52 AM

Article image
Candi Staton: how we made Young Hearts Run Free
‘I was with a pimp and a con man. The hurt in my voice is real. I was singing my life’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

30, Jun, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘My mum made outfits for us to wear on Top of the Pops’: how the Real Thing made You to Me Are Everything
‘I took a white label record to my local hangout in Liverpool. The DJ put it on and the floor filled up. We knew then we were on the button’

Interviews by Sarfraz Manzoor

08, Aug, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
How we made the Jackson 5's I Want You Back
‘Michael and I were such pranksters. We’d put itching powder on men’s bald spot – or a bucket of water over a door to give someone a soaking’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

09, Oct, 2017 @4:18 PM