b/w (He’s) Seventeen
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
It’s a widely known bit of Motown trivia that the Supremes, later the label’s most successful act of all time by almost any measure you care to apply, spent the first three years of their time at the label toiling in relative obscurity, becoming known disparagingly within the halls of Hitsville USA as “the no-hit Supremes”.
It’s rather less well-known that that snide moniker was factually inaccurate – with this record, the “no-hit” Supremes did actually score a Billboard Hot 100 chart hit way back in the summer of 1962, albeit a very minor one, hitting the giddy heights of number 95 pop. It was the start of a run of Supremes mini-hits in the lower reaches of the Top 100 (or in one case, the, er, Top 126) which predated their move to the big time and kept the label on-side.
Your Heart Belongs To Me was the first Supremes cut to be written and produced by Smokey Robinson, the girls’ erstwhile neighbour on the grim high-rise Brewster-Douglass council estate the group still called home, and it bears all the hallmarks of the calypso-tinged, midtempo hits he’d already crafted that year, both for Mary Wells (The One Who Really Loves You) and for his own group the Miracles (the glorious I’ll Try Something New). Settling into his new role as a top producer and songwriter, having stepped out from under the wing of label boss Berry Gordy Jr. and now a proven hitmaker entrusted with his own projects, Smokey now went in to bat for his friends, the first time he’d been tasked with writing for a female group.
Motown’s trust in Smokey’s golden touch wasn’t completely there yet, of course. Having taken nearly five months since it was recorded to find a place on the release schedules – and in the process seeing the group transferred from the Tamla label to the Motown imprint, which would remain the Supremes’ home for the next 15 years – this record was then immediately withdrawn so that a different mix could be pressed up instead (the sort of cock-up which was becoming increasingly rare as Motown grew in stature and the organisation got more professional). With hits from Mary Wells and the Marvelettes to sell, the label didn’t exactly push the boat out to back the record, either, meaning the promotional plugging was so ineffective that the record took several months before finally, briefly troubling the charts. Nonetheless, the decision to let Smokey have a crack at Motown’s other girl group paid dividends, both small commercial ones and bigger artistic ones.
The commercial rewards we’ve already talked about, but there were artistic rewards too, because if we consider the group’s breathless, unique, but generally scathingly-regarded début single I Want A Guy as an anomaly, a discographical quirk that doesn’t fit neatly into the story of the Supremes’ development into the greatest girl group of all time, then this is pretty much the only good Supremes record to come out between that tentative, nervous first step and the HDH era, starting with When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes towards the end of 1963.
It’s not as good as the wide-eyed wonder of I Want A Guy, for my money, let alone the candy-coloured starlight of the Supremes’ peerless run of mid-Sixties hits under the guidance of the Holland-Dozier-Holland holy trinity – but it’s still pretty, and not in the least bit objectionable. Nicely timed, too – hot on the heels of the previous Motown release, Marvin Gaye’s Soldier’s Plea, the young Diana Ross delivers up a tender, heartfelt plea to a soldier boy, as she both tries to raise her army boyfriend’s spirits and subtly begs him to be faithful while he’s deployed overseas (“serving your country / On some faraway sand / If you should get lonely / Remember that your heart belongs to me”), and turning in her best vocal performance to date in the process.
Diana is actually really good here, capturing something of the wounded vulnerability of early B-side Never Again but now matching it with a much-improved delivery, technically leaps and bounds ahead of her wobbly crack at Who’s Lovin’ You. She’s still young and unschooled, but it’s a fine performance nonetheless.
The rest of the Supremes are on good form, too – Flo and Mary provide sparing but rich backing, buttressed by fourth Supreme Barbara Martin, in her last appearance on a Supremes single (though she wasn’t invited to appear on the record’s B&W picture sleeve (left), having already left the group by the time the single was actually released, and being heavily pregnant to boot).
The band, meanwhile, were getting used to working with Smokey the producer and accommodating his current calypso phase, and they’re accordingly proficient here; it’s a slow, engaging, bongo-driven performance, very similar to the aforementioned The One Who Really Loves You and I’ll Try Something New but no worse for it.
The whole package just ties together very neatly. Smokey knew exactly what he was doing, and Diana is the perfect choice for the lead here; another big-voiced Florence Ballard lead wouldn’t have fit the song, and might have added saucy implications to the narrator’s sending photos to an overseas serviceman boyfriend, whereas with Diana singing one gets the feeling she’s talking about sending him a class portrait or something. But she sells it, again, and it’s beguiling. “If a pretty girl should pass you by / I won’t mind if you give her the eye / Or even if you give her a smile sometimes / But keep your heart / Because your heart is mine / Your heart is mine”, she trills in the middle eight, heartbreakingly, and you can’t see her boy putting up much of an argument. When she delivers the final plea – “Lover of mine / If I could tell you how I yearn / For the day to come / When you will return” – you’re fervently hoping he returns unscathed so they can get back together.
Hopes were high that the group had reached a turning point, and to that end their early material was even anthologised on an album, Meet The Supremes, left, for which Your Heart Belongs To Me was requisitioned as the opening track; however, nobody seemed to want to meet the girls after all. The LP failed to chart, gathering dust on record store shelves until the group rocketed straight from obscurity to superstardom in 1964, at which point it started flying off those same shelves as audiences awaited their second album Where Did Our Love Go? that August.
Indifferent though audiences may have been, this song is good stuff, nonetheless; good enough that Smokey dusted it off for the Velvelettes to take a splendid second crack at it three years later. (Their version wasn’t released until 2004.)
Sadly, though, this single would be the last really good record the Supremes released for nearly a year and a half, as the group embarked on a dismal run of dispiritingly poorly-received singles, none of which climbed higher than the pop Top 70. Left to clench their fists and watch with pretended good grace as a host of labelmates overtook them, the group – and Diana Ross in particular – must have seriously doubted whether they’d ever crack the mythical Big Time. Hindsight is everything.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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“Taking My Time”