A piece of raw, ribald soul lacking the polish that gilded their later hits, the Supremes’ third single is an anomaly within the Supremes’ discography. Preceding their 1962 debut album, Meet the Supremes, it was the group’s only single to foreground the group’s original lead vocalist, Florence Ballard, who had also fronted their pre-Supremes incarnation, the Primettes. A bold, big-voiced belter, Ballard growls salaciously on Buttered Popcorn that her boyfriend “likes it greasy, and sticky, and salty, and gooey”, a knowingly saucy performance that somehow escaped the interference of Motown’s infamous Quality Control department. After the single’s failure to chart, Ballard was soon sidelined by the youngest of her bandmates, as the Motown factory retooled the Supremes for broader appeal. Indeed, Buttered Popcorn sounds like the work of a different group – closer to pure R&B than the sweetened Sound of Young America with which Motown later crossed racial and cultural barriers – but its smutty charm lingers.
2 Baby Love
In 1964, everything changed for the Supremes. Motown and its head, Berry Gordy, had spent the previous two years tinkering with the group’s formula, installing Diana Ross as the group’s lead singer – a choice motivated in part, he admitted in his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, by his infatuation with her. As the summer of 1964 began, his plan began to pay off, with Where Did Our Love Go? kickstarting a remarkable run of five US chart-topping singles for the group. Two months later they followed up with Baby Love, an infectious, effervescent and perfect pop hit penned and produced by Motown’s godhead songwriting team Holland/Dozier/Holland. It proved Where Did Our Love Go? was no fluke, and that Ross – whose dulcet coo and sigh so wonderfully captured the song’s bittersweet mix of heartache and hopefulness – deserved every iota of stardom Gordy had plotted for her.
3 Stop! In the Name of Love
In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, author Craig Werner draws pointed comparison between Ross and gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates, arguing Ross was “pop confection”, pushing “the gospel roots of her singing deep into the background shadows”. But if Ross lacked Coates’s fiery roar, she could still stir high drama, as on the fourth of their initial run of chart-toppers. Stop! opens with an infernal swell of keyboard, before the Motown backbeat kicks in and Ross and her Supremes – mostly relegated to the shadows by now – belt out the song’s agonised, unforgettable hook. But it’s in the verses where the real tragedy lingers: in Ross’s sad acknowledgement that she is “aware of where you go each time you leave my door”; in the humiliation that her fear of losing her man trumps her anger at his straying; in the way she asks, “Haven’t I been good to you? Haven’t I been sweet to you?”, just begging for a crumb of kindness. Like its similarly sublime (and chart-topping) predecessor My World Is Empty Without You, it’s pop heartache raised to bleakly operatic heights, and you would have to be dead inside not to be moved by the dark edge to Ross’s yearning, or to resist dancing to the combustible Holland/Dozier/Holland production.
4 You Keep Me Hanging On
Inevitably, the hurt turns to anger. The year is 1966, and – over tense, terse guitars that pan between the speakers and jangle like frayed nerves, and with the Supremes offering supportive, affirmative “ooh-ooh-ooh”s behind her – Ross announces she is done playing the sappy victim, demanding justice (“Let me get over you/ The way you got over me”) and telling her beau to “be a man about it and set me free”. Her pain is never in question, but neither is her resolve, and, as she whispers, “There ain’t nothin’ I can do about it”, the music seems to seethe along with her. It’s the Supremes’ heaviest moment, serious as a heart attack. Vanilla Fudge later recast the song as seven minutes of agonised, overdriven psychedelic sludge, but it hit nowhere as hard as the original, which stands alongside Marvin’s Heard It Through the Grapevine as Motown’s sharpest 60s single.
Reflection only leads to regret for Ross, as she dwells on the happiness she once had, the hurt that followed, and “the love you took from me”. Her lonely introspection is scored by sweeping screes of synthesised noise – the work of engineer Russ Terrana, abusing a signal generator used to test electronic equipment – as producers Holland/Dozier/Holland doffed their caps toward the psychedelic rock scene. But the track’s true magic lies in more traditional tools – James Jamerson’s restless bassline, the brooding keyboards, the relentless tambourine rattle and insurgent snare drum through the chorus, not to mention a delicious call-and-response middle eight, in which Ballard and Mary Wilson got to share the spotlight for a few seconds. This moment of harmony was deceptive, however: Reflections saw the Supremes rechristened Diana Ross & the Supremes, and, by the time of its release, former leader Ballard had been fired following a drunken performance at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Ballard signed with ABC Records for a solo album that remained unreleased until 2002. After a descent into poverty and alcoholism, she attempted a comeback in 1975, but died the following February of coronary thrombosis, aged only 32.
6 Someday We’ll Be Together
The Supremes’ name change was meant to increase the wattage of Ross’s starpower, but the group’s golden touch crackled only intermittently in the aftermath. The controversial Love Child scored the group another chart-topper, while a collaboration with labelmates the Temptations delivered a No 2 single and album; otherwise, Diana Ross & the Supremes struggled to scale the upper reaches of the top 30, a parlous state that can perhaps be explained by Holland/Dozier/Holland’s acrimonious exit from Motown in 1968. Gordy was already planning Ross’s move from the Supremes, and this 1969 single – along with a glitzy concert at Las Vegas’ New Frontier Hotel in January 1970, released as a plush boxed double-album – was her farewell to her bandmates. Indeed, it had been initially scheduled as Ross’s debut solo single, with a repurposed backing track for an intended version of the song by Jr Walker & the Allstars and harmonies already cut by Merry Clayton and the Waters Sisters, and it doesn’t even feature Wilson or Birdsong, a typically perverse kiss-off. Still, the song’s sweetly elegiac mood and Ross’s hopeful, yearning vocal struck a perfectly bittersweet note, and delivered the group their final No 1 single.
7 Bill, When Are You Coming Back?
As Ross rocketed off to solo stardom, the Supremes enlisted Jean Terrell to take her place and scored a top 10 hit with Up the Ladder to the Roof. But perhaps the best track from their first post-Ross album, Right On, was Bill, When Are You Coming Back? Not, as the title might suggest, another song of yearning for a man that done them wrong. Bill was a product of the Vietnam era, when young men were drafted into a war from which many would never return, and that’s the tale Terrell spins here: her beau has gone to war, his letters home have stopped, and she is driven so crazy with grief that she’s hugging random soldiers at the railway station. As Terrell reminds herself that “No news is good news, at least that’s what your mama said/ But I could see in her eyes, she too is so afraid”, the ebullient bustle of the tune seems to embody her hope-against-hope spirit, making the tragedy at the heart of the song all the more affecting: that trademark Motown happy/sad cocktail put to particularly pointed use. The Supremes had attempted “issue”’ songs before, notably with Love Child. But this anti-Vietnam message was subtle and powerful, eschewing polemic and instead gazing empathetically at the suffering of those left at home.
8 Stoned Love
In its full-length album incarnation, Stoned Love opens with swelling strings, celestial pianos and Terrell’s solemn dedication to “a great love”, one that “will surely light up the world”. Though its title secured the single unwelcome controversy, Stoned Love is no glib paean to drugs – no, the love in question is solid like a rock, and in this ecstatic pop-symphony it has the power to bring peace to warring nations, unite enemies within countries, and bring brother and sister closer together. In 1970, with no end to the Vietnam war in sight, and America riven by civil rights struggles, generation gaps and other seemingly insurmountable conflicts, Stoned Love’s message – set to a deathless, soul-kissed groove – proved seductive enough to top the Billboard R&B chart and reach No 7 (their final top 10 showing) in Billboard’s singles chart. Terrell’s performance is soulful, spiritual, on a secular gospel that endures.
9 Nathan Jones
The post-Diana Supremes didn’t only cut protest songs. But when they returned to the familiar territory of deadbeat boyfriends, as with this 1971 single, they seemed reluctant to assume the role of wronged, needy victim that came so easily to Ross – times, after all, had changed. Here, the titular Nathan has been absent for a year, off to get his head sorted out, and though the Supremes – who, unusually, sing in unison here – admit that “if a woman could die of tears” they’d be long-buried, they’re done with waiting for his return. Nathan Jones, thoughtless scamp, “never wrote, never called”, and – over a righteous stomp possessing more sass than the Ross-era group ever mustered, and with a sly wink at the clear double entendre – they inform the lousy deadbeat “the key that you’re holding won’t fit my door”. The message is clear: Nathan, mate – you messed up.
10 Bad Weather
1971’s Floy Joy marked the Supremes’ final appearance in the top 30. The booster rockets that had initially sent Ross into orbit fell to Earth as Gordy lavished his attention and resources on Ross’s solo career. The Supremes, meanwhile, often had to make do with subpar material, and generated poor sales as a result. Bad Weather, in 1973, partially bucked that trend: the song was a jazzy and irresistible treat brought to the group by new addition Lynda Laurence, who fleetingly replaced the pregnant Birdsong. Laurence had previously sung with Stevie Wonder’s backing group the Third Generation, and prevailed on her ex-boss to gift the Supremes a sorely needed hit. Writer/producer Wonder – then midway through a purple patch – delivered a peach of a song in Bad Weather, while Jean Terrell showcased her considerable range. America’s record-buying constituency didn’t bite, however, and the single stiffed at No 87. Two further albums followed, but in 1977 America’s most successful vocal group called it a day.