b/w Never Again
b/w Never Again
(Limited release on Motown Records; withdrawn)
Unquestionably the quintessential Motown group, the group that would become synonymous with Motown, the group that would take the world by storm, the group that would score Motown no less than twelve Number One pop singles, among them some of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s greatest, most wonderful records. The Supremes: the Motown group. But it started so far from the spotlight that the odds on any of those things ever happening wouldn’t even have been worth mentioning back in 1959.
Some history. As every Motown nerd knows, the Supremes didn’t start out at the top of the Hitsville pecking order; in fact, for the first four years of their involvement with the company, they were closer to the bottom. Like the Beatles before them, they were grudgingly carried along by their more successful peers, scorned for both their lack of commercial success and their awkward, ugly first steps, earning themselves the ubiquitous nickname “the No-Hit Supremes”. The group weren’t daunted, and refused to be broken (as if a character like Diana Ross would let a few jibes and cold stares get in her way). Instead, they served their long, hitless apprenticeship, doing shows from the bottom of the bill and then watching and learning in the wings, before putting together everything they’d learned, taking off almost without warning and eclipsing their erstwhile betters on a previously unimaginable scale.
The Supremes started as a quartet (depending on your level of Motown nerdiness, you may already be shouting “Barbara Martin!” at the screen. In which case, sit down.) Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown formed the Primettes in 1959. Like Smokey Robinson, all four girls were residents of the grim, gargantuan Brewster-Douglass high-rise council estate that towered over Detroit’s East Side, home to over ten thousand people.
The Primettes were formed as a female counterpart to the Primes, a popular male vocal group on the Detroit live circuit who would eventually merge with another group to form the Temptations; the Primes’ Paul Williams was going out with Betty McGlown, who was friends with Ballard, who was friends with Wilson, who was friends with Ross. At some stage they also recruited guitarist Marv Tarplin, who ended up being poached by Smokey for the Miracles. All aged between 14 and 16, and earning a strong reputation, the young quartet used their relationship with Smokey to land an audition for Motown at the start of 1960. The audition didn’t go well, but the girls were undaunted and cut a fun, frothy Primettes single, Tears of Sorrow / Pretty Baby, for the Lu Pine label a couple of months later. This was the last showbiz sighting of Betty McGlown; she left the group to get married, replaced by schoolfriend Barbara Martin.
The Primettes’ youth and their artless lack of finesse didn’t do much to endear them to Berry Gordy, but with Motown’s star in the ascendant the young group started hanging around the Hitsville USA reception before and after school, doing impromptu office junior work, occasionally being drafted into studio sessions (as almost anyone who happened to be hanging around the increasingly crowded building would be) as handclappers and footstompers, and pestering passing songwriters and producers to give them a shot. Gordy himself told them to get lost on at least one occasion; luckily for him, they would still uniformly turn up the next day regardless.
Which is pretty much where our story picks them up. The four Primettes, as usual, were mooching around the office in January 1961 and buttonholed “singing mailman” Freddie Gorman, who happened to be Mary Wilson’s postman. It was their lucky day; Gorman had just been writing a song with his new writing partner, one Brian Holland, who promptly came out and asked the girls to pop into the studio to try out some harmonies for the song. The result worked so well that the two budding songwriters had the girls try out a few more things. After this had gone on for a few minutes, Berry Gordy emerged to find out what the commotion was, and again told the Primettes to sling their collective hook. (The quote given in The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 is “I don’t want another girl group”, which is incongruous at best, since at that time Gordy didn’t have any other girl groups on the books – the Marvelettes hadn’t been signed yet, and wouldn’t release their first Motown single for another six months).
Instead, Holland and Gorman stood their ground and excitedly asked Gordy to listen to what they were doing. Gordy was hooked after a couple of minutes and started writing some new lyrics for the song. The song, if you hadn’t worked it out by now, was this song, and while it wasn’t the first thing the group recorded at Hitsville once they were officially signed up (After All, trivia fans), it became – once it was brushed up and reworked to Gordy’s satisfaction – the first single for the hastily-renamed Supremes, the first female vocal group to sign with Motown.
It’s a real oddity, this; it bears the same relation to the Supremes’ mid-Sixties hits as Love Me Do does to the Beatles’ Revolver, but it’s also totally out of step with the rest of the Supremes’ pre-1964 output. The rest of the Supremes’ early singles (most of them featured, along with the two sides of this first 45, on the group’s début LP Meet The Supremes, left) are cut from the same cloth as their Primettes single – light, graceless, upbeat, charming Fifties girl group pop with a massive dollop of doo-wop and all the bite of a milkshake. This, though, is completely different.
For a start, the structure is just from another planet. The song seems to have started out as a doo-wop ballad in the mould of a thousand other early Motown slowies; instead, it’s mutated to a point where those origins are barely recognisable. Opening with a hesitant, echoey Ondioline organ riff, frosty and alone, setting the song’s yearning tone straight from the off, there’s the merest hint of a gliss before we’re treated to a couple of organ-backed bars of brushed drums and intricate bass and guitar work, before all the music stops nine seconds in and the world is introduced to sixteen-year-old lead vocalist Diana Ross, who’s left to carry a complicated tune all on her own – “I – i – i – i – I / Want a guy” – before the band and the organ come back in, and the other Supremes start singing backup, completely flat and yet somehow fitting the melody with lethal accuracy, and then out of nowhere, over the top of everything, comes a prominent flourish of jazz flute courtesy of Beans Bowles… It just keeps coming, and it’s as though the general aura of “oh, what the hell, let’s sign them” has permeated the entire session, and everyone is trying new ideas, all at once.
I’m making it sound as though it should be a disaster, an unlistenable hotch-potch of crazy ideas, but in fact it’s so good it’s almost gallingly perfect. There’s nothing about this song that isn’t riveting. I’m no fan of Diana Ross, at all, and I give advance warning right now that she’s going to come in for a fair bit of criticism over the course of this blog, but she totally nails this one. It’s the song of a yearning, lonely young girl, and it’s an astonishing match of vocalist and material that Ross wouldn’t manage again until being forced to sing below her usual range on Where Did Our Love Go three and a half years later. When she sings “I’ll never be lonely again”, to a melody Brian Holland would have killed to hit on again during H-D-H’s mid-Sixties heyday, her performance is so spot-on you know she believes every word of it. The bridge – where the nascent Funk Brothers highlight what is easily their best band performance to date, strumming and then jabbing guitars in perfect unison – “As long as he holds me tight / As long as he treats me right” – is more Brian Wilson than Brian Holland, and it’s just incredible. I could go on. I won’t.
I really wanted to dislike this, before I’d ever actually heard it. I had it in my mind that the Supremes were nothing special until H-D-H took them over; certainly the virtual crateful of mediocre singles that come between this one and When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes nearly three years later do nothing to dispel that theory. But this is immensely likeable, genuinely beautiful, and above all pants-wettingly good. Even if it sounds nothing like the Supremes everyone knows, it’s as good a début single as anyone, anywhere, has ever recorded. Ever.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- The Marvelettes (December 1961)
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“Come On And Be Mine”