Good morning, afternoon, or evening to you. Whenever and wherever you are reading this week’s newsletter, I hope it finds you well.
This week my pick has been influenced by the news of yet another sad passing in the music world. We learnt that Mary Wilson, founding member of one the greatest pop groups of all time, The Supremes, passed away Monday at 76. Her legacy as a solo artist, group member, and activist will live on and cannot be underestimated. Her story and that of The Supremes and Motown can be easily researched and you should do so if you are only vaguely aware. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Supremes I’ve realized I’m a lot older than some of you dear readers, and information that I take for granted might not be as familiar to all of you.
The Supremes were the flagship act on Motown. Mostly due to boss Berry Gordy’s interest in Diana Ross, but certainly because of the huge talent all the girls possessed. Gordy groomed the group as a classy, uptown act that would appeal to black and white audiences. They appeared in beautiful gowns and hairdos and favored a polished, feminine, and sophisticated look and approach. As a group, they notched up a dozen number one hits and became stars worldwide. Chances are The Supremes were the first act that most people heard when introduced to Motown. I can vividly remember being at a youth disco in the mid-seventies and hearing You Can’t Hurry Love for the first time and thinking how great it sounded. A love affair with Motown, Soul music and records began that night. Kudos to the DJ for playing adult themed records to us kids that night. Anyway, The Supremes along with Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Marvelettes and Martha & The Vandellas, defined the Motown sound and ruled the mid-sixties charts home and away. The Motown influence on the British Invasion acts cannot be under-played. The Beatles were big fans. It was a wonderful era of cross Atlantic inspiration as the ball of creativity passed back and forth between the US and the UK. Beatles covering Motown. Motown covering Beatles etc. etc.
Motown and soul music in general connected to the working-class kids of Britain and laid the foundations for what we now term Northern Soul. But that’s a whole other story.
Back to The Supremes. Although a four piece in their early days, the core of the group was Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross. Although it took a minute to find the right song and to register a hit, from early 1964 through 1967 it was hit after hit. Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love (their first UK number one), Come See About Me, Stop! In The Name Of Love, Back In my Arms Again, all hit the top spot. Ballard, however, was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in 1967 and when Ross herself left for her solo career to be replaced by Jean Terrell early in 1970, it left Mary Wilson as the only original member. She remained throughout the 1970s until the group disbanded. Other members came and went, including a brief return by Cindy Birdsong in 1973, who had left the year before to start a family.
The 70s Supremes records get overlooked by most, but for those in the know, these records hold some real gems. The last couple of albums have some good disco era soul music and for my money, the second post Diana Ross Supremes album from 1970 called New Ways But Love Stays might be their best. With Ross’s replacement Jean Terrell handling the leads and produced by Frank Wilson, the album contained the hit Stoned Love and embraced the funkier and slightly psychedelic side of soul music that elsewhere at Motown producer Norman Whitfield was making with The Temptations and The Undisputed Truth. My favorite track is It’s Time To Break Down, which has become a digger’s nugget. It always went down well as a DJ track for me and has been sampled by hip-hop producers, most notably by DJ Premier for Gang Starr. The album artwork too is a little different from previous Supremes records, sporting a more “Black Power” look from the girls on the front cover and back photo.
Years ago, in the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to be working on a cruise ship that had Mary Wilson as one of the star acts. I got to see her perform up close and had the opportunity to say hello and briefly speak to her. It was a huge honor and is banked in my vault of treasured memories. Talking of the ships, I was also lucky to be the personal dining room waiter to jazz legend Sarah Vaughan during one of my early voyages. A story for another time, but I still get chills thinking about how amazing it was to have conversations with her.
So, let us raise our glasses to Mary Wilson, The Supremes, Motown, and all the incredible artists that created this treasure trove of American music. Artistry so fine, it made such an impact, the ripples are still being felt around the world. This is The Sound Of Young America and is what helped make America Great. Part of history now, hopefully not just remembered in February, but celebrated year long.
Here’s a link to the cut I mentioned above for you to enjoy-It’s Time To Break Down
and also, another one of my fave Supremes tracks that still goes down well when played to a dance floor, a song called Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart that came off their 1966 classic LP The Supremes A’ Go-Go.
Until next time kids - Dom