#452: Anthology, Diana Ross & The Supremes
NO disrespect to the Supremes — but you can’t fault me for dreading these longass compilation albums. I’ve got fifty more to do, Rolling Stone — you couldn’t give me one of their studios? Not to mention that there were four versions of this record released, all with slight differences, all slightly longer than the last. So I decided to review the first & shortest one, with just minor samplings of the latest version. Sue me.
I’m being a baby. I got to listen to an hour and a half of Motown’s best music. And since we’ve already seen Diana, it was fun to reach back into her origin story. I didn’t realize that the Supremes were Motown’s cash cow, had no idea they were basically the most successful girl group in the history of forever. Their ninth release, The Supremes A’ Go-Go, was the very first album by a female group to claim the top Billboard 200 spot, replacing Revolver. Taking the Beatles down a peg — now that’s something to celebrate. (It makes their cover of “A Hard Day’s Night” a little sweeter. They keep it rock and roll and don’t even change the key, as if to say, Look, we can do both.)
The Supremes were a trio, fronted by Miss Ross and backed up by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, at least in their most famous iteration. And Diana nearly always sang lead, being the favorite of Berry Gordy and having one of the most unique voices of that era. I was shocked by how Disney princess-like she sounds on “I Want A Guy” and “A Breathtaking Guy.” And Holland-Dozier-Holland knew how to arrange these songs so that they showed off Ross’ girlish, feminine tone — see the chiming piano intro on “Standing At The Crossroads Of Love” while Ross sings stratospherically high notes.
Ross says it herself: “I’m The Greatest Star.” But let’s take this opportunity to focus on a different Supreme, Flo Ballard.
One disadvantage of the original Anthology is that it eschews one of their most fun songs, “Buttered Popcorn.” Who knows why — maybe because it contains some truly shocking innuendo from the princess-like Supremes. Imagine if “W.A.P.” was released by Adele. But it’s one of the rare songs that features Ballard on lead. And her voice has a completely different quality than Ross’; it’s a little more powerful, a little deeper. She carries the innuendo with the aplomb of a Disney villain. So why was the the first person to be kicked out of the group?
The reason is simple and upsetting: she was troubled. She was allegedly raped by NBA player Reggie Harding in 1960. Then, as Ross’ star rose and hers was relegated to backup singer, she became depressed and dependent on alcohol. She stopped showing up for recording dates, and would occasionally show up for gigs too drunk to sing. Finally, she was replaced by someone from Patti Labelle’s group, who was chosen purely based on her resemblance to Ballard.
That, frankly, sucks. Obviously it’s not Diana Ross’ fault, unless I’m missing something. But goes to show that showbusiness is a ruthless business. No wonder everyone from Fifth Harmony hates Camila Cabello.
It was interesting to learn that the three didn’t initially like “Where Did Our Love Go,” their first great hit. They apparently thought it was childish. That’s crazy because the songs I remembered from this anthology, the ones that I’ll be adding to my running playlist, are the upbeat, singsongy ones. See also “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the breathless “Baby Love.” They have some edgy musical moments — see the sexy sax in “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” and the Morse Code-inspired guitar on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — but Ross never compromises her understated vocals.
Personally, my favorite songs were the ones where all three sound harmonious, instead of just showcasing Diana Ross. “Stop! In The Name Of Love” would be such fun for a trio to sing, as well as some of the songs that are in a round like “In And Out Of Love.”
Just like the Temptations, I was pretty impressed by how versatile the Supremes proved they were. They cover everyone from Willie Nelson (“Funny (How Time Slips Away)”) to Sam Cooke (“You Send Me”) to Rodgers & Hart (“Falling In Love With Love”). They even take a hard pivot in the Seventies to a groovy, disco-flavored version of their own style — see “No Matter What Sign You Are.”
The Supremes were only active from 1959 through 1977, but they were deteriorating long before that. Diana Ross left to pursue her solo career at the beginning of 1970. And in 1976, long after she left the group, Flo Ballard passed away at 32 from cardiac arrest. Their life was short, but their legacy was long, Dreamgirls through and through.
Something I Noticed: No shade to Berry Gordy or HDH, but I thought “Come See About Me” sounded A LOT like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” I guess when you’re cranking them out like that, you’re bound to repeat yourself.