(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
The long, laboured rise to stardom of the Supremes is a well-known story, and it’s been entertaining to tell it. Many Supremes fans will have been reading with increasing impatience through our reviews of their six Motown singles to date (the spellbinding I Want A Guy, the horrible Buttered Popcorn, the very pretty Your Heart Belongs To Me, the messily mediocre Let Me Go The Right Way, the misjudged country pastiche My Heart Can’t Take It No More and the passable A Breath Taking Guy). These releases were of varying quality, but all flopped on the charts, none reaching the top seventy. You’d think, then, that reaching this one – their first Top 30 hit – ought to provide a cathartic release, as the group finally break through into the big time. But hold the phone, Supremes lovers, we’re not done with that “rise to fame” story just yet. This isn’t the real breakthrough. It’s a false start, a diversion, a dead end.
Oh, this is still one of the most significant of all Motown singles, there’s no doubt about that. Marking as it does the beginning of one of the most successful writer/artist combinations in the entire history of popular music, this has to be seen as a turning point, the start of a shift in the balance of power not just at Motown but in all of American culture.
For once, I’m not over-selling this: for all the success various Brill Building-style girl groups had had prior to 1964, people had never seen anything quite like the Supremes before they arrived on the charts, and their impact was such that – even today, 48 years on – the very mention of their name conjures up an image of three ladies in slinky gowns and synchronised dance moves, even for those who’ve never consciously set out to listen to any of their records.
The synergy between the Holland-Dozier-Holland team and the Supremes is one of those very rare occasions when all the hype turns out to be justified, where the weight of expectation and reputation doesn’t crush the poor mortal artist when you finally get to hear the records. Whatever you think about Diana Ross, or Berry Gordy, or Motown, it doesn’t matter – when the Supremes are at the top of their game, there’s not a single person in the world who professes to care about pop music, not one, who can resist.
But they’re not quite there yet. Almost (almost!)… but not quite.
(I feel like a stressed-out parent on a long road trip, having promised the kids we can all stop at the next gas station, 20 miles to go, 10 miles to go, 5 miles to go, 1 mile to go, look, there it is on the horizon… and then driving past it with the weak justification that the next one’s much nicer, and it’s only another 40 miles. Ah, it’ll be over before you know it! Why not pass the time counting the other cars, or try to get some sleep?)
The Supremes’ exceptional début Motown single, I Want A Guy – man, that , the first one I ever gave out, feels a long, long time ago now – and indeed the group’s whole body of work in the 1960-1963 period in general, doesn’t get a lot of exposure (or regard) nowadays, not even among Motown fans. The Supremes’ début LP, Meet The Supremes, a grab-bag release anthologising their material up to 1962, remains a perennially poor seller, then as now. I feel quite confident in stating that for a majority of Supremes fans, all those records leading up to this one – which is to say, all of the Supremes records we’ve covered so far on Motown Junkies – are a footnote, interesting as historical background but of little relevance as pop music.
The reason for that, I’m also pretty sure I know: they don’t really sound like Supremes records. Obviously, this is mainly because nobody at Motown, not even the Supremes themselves, knew what a typical Supremes record might sound like, and so we end up with a shapeless melange of attempts to market the group in different ways, those six singles all sounding like they were made by five or six different groups, and none of those groups the ones who’d shortly be conquering the world.
I’m still proud of describing I Want A Guy as bearing the same relationship to the Supremes’ mid-Sixties triumphs as the Beatles’ Love Me Do does to Revolver or Sgt Pepper, because that pretty much sums it up for me; those early records are all good and everything, sometimes exceptionally special, but they don’t sound like the stuff the group became famous for. (If anything, the comparison is even more pointed in the case of the Supremes, because (a) I Want A Guy didn’t get re-released and storm to the top of the US charts once they got famous, and (b) their early records just don’t attract the same scrutiny as the Beatles’ comparable efforts do – there’s a lengthy discussion to be had there on racism, sexism and the cult of the singer-songwriter which will have to wait for another day, because this is already going to be the longest thing I’ve yet written for this site.) But that comparison starts to falter when we stop talking about the artistic relationship between early efforts and mid-career peaks, and instead talk about what gets listened to today.
Ten years ago, pre-Wikipedia (and, heck, pre-Motown Junkies), I’d have wagered that a majority of music fans, when asked to identify the Supremes’ début single, wouldn’t have plumped for I Want A Guy. (Strictly speaking, even that could be considered the wrong answer – the group had released an earlier record as the Primettes – but let’s not muddy the waters any further.) Here’s the thing, though: I’d also bet that not many people would choose When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes either. Like Wade Jones’ I Can’t Concentrate back in 1959, When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes (not one of Motown’s snappier titles, that, now that I come to notice it) sort of makes sense as an “origin myth” for those looking to dig further back than Where Did Our Love Go, more sense than I Want A Guy at any rate, but it isn’t really any kind of marker for the future.
Because nothing on this record would go on to influence all those later HDH/Supremes smash hits. This isn’t the starting point anyone’s looking for. Even in commercial terms, whilst this was very definitely a hit – number 23 pop, as any historian knows, finally dispelling that “no-hit Supremes” tag – it wasn’t a huge seller, and the follow-up release a few months later bombed. So it’s a breakthrough of sorts, but not the sort of thing to propel the group into the national and international consciousness, not a ticket to the very top table. The snide nickname was dispelled, but only temporarily; the difference between the no-hit Supremes and the one-hit Supremes wasn’t enough. It still remained to be seen if they could repeat the feat and get back into the Top 30; with their Motown labelmates racking up ever bigger hits with increasing regularity, even that might not be enough to vaporise that nickname forever.
Musically, too, it’s not the herald of a new era that it’s sometimes painted as. The HDH trio had the Midas touch by the time 1963 rolled around to autumn; if there had been any doubts over the three youngsters’ place in the Motown creative hierarchy, then writing and producing a big Top Ten hit record for none other than Smokey Robinson, the company’s acknowledged top writer and producer, would have gone a long way towards silencing any doubters. As flavour of the month, that they’d be tasked with writing for the Supremes was pretty much inevitable (just a year later and they’d be seen as too important to waste good material on a no-hit group, so the timing was right for all involved), but the resulting record isn’t a sign of things to come.
Rather, it’s an illustration of just where HDH were at at the time; successful, and on the verge of a stardom seldom granted to writers and producers, but still looking for that magical missing ingredient, that “X factor” to define their individual sound. In the meantime, they were pursuing what turned out to be a dead end, albeit a highly entertaining one which resulted in several fine records.
(Including this one, obviously. I haven’t talked about this record very much yet, I know, but it’s good. I just thought I’d slip that in there. Anyway. I digress.)
The direction HDH were briefly following in the autumn of 1963 led to Phil Spector and the looming spectre (!) of the Brill Building. That big hit they’d cut on Smokey Robinson was Mickey’s Monkey, with its Spectorisms and Bo Diddley riff rhythms; they’d since made an out-and-out pastiche of Spector’s then-current hit, the Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me, in the form of the Darnells’ similarly lengthily-titled Too Hurt To Cry, Too Much In Love To Say Goodbye. (There’s also the small matter of Holland-Dozier’s Lead Me And Guide Me as featured on A Cellarful of Motown, Volume 4.)
Given the job of reviving the commercial fortunes of the Supremes (who’d recently lost their grip on even the very modest levels of success they’d managed to previously achieve in cracking the lower reaches of the Hot 100 with a brace of non-charting singles), HDH continued in the same vein. First up, they supplied a storming re-imagining of another Crystals smash, Da Doo Ron Ron, titled Run, Run, Run, and then – before that could be placed before Quality Control for evaluation as a potential single – they added a significant dollop of their best song to date, Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave, and turned in another, less blatant but still fairly blatant Spector soundalike song. This song.
So, however much history and the narrative of the Motown Story require it to be, this isn’t a precursor to Where Did Our Love Go on any level other than the fact its significant, if not spectacular, success got HDH assigned to the Supremes gig long enough to change the course of history. Rather, Motown likely saw this as just another pop trend cash-in, the Supremes now packaged as just another girl group, unknown in the marketplace, obscure enough to be marketed as a new act, to sit alongside the Darnells in the racks in the hope of catching a lucky break and picking up a surprise hit.
They’d eventually get those things, but not until the summer of 1964. It didn’t happen earlier because as good as this is, it’s not an overlooked masterpiece or a crucial “lost” Supremes single, and certainly not a criminally-ignored “should-have-been” alternate universe Number One.
All of which is fine and dandy, but I guess I’ve spent enough time discussing what When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes isn’t. Let’s instead now celebrate what it is: it’s a strong, very likeable pop record and a fully deserving Top 30 hit single, a great hook and an instantly appealing sound that demands you listen to it right now. It doesn’t really sound much like the Supremes, but it’s a lot of fun in its own right, a headlong rush of the joys of new love: muddled but somehow uncomplicated, incoherent yet somehow totally relatable.
Reduced to its bare elements, it seems almost mechanical, an equation (Phil Spector + Mickey’s Monkey + (Too Hurt To Cry, Too Much In Love To Say Goodbye x Heat Wave) = When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, QED) – but throughout their three years of being unceremoniously shuffled around various writer/producer combos, the Supremes hadn’t ever had the chance to cut anything like this before, an uptempo Brill Building girl group stomp-along pop record, and they grab the chance to be that kind of group as if their lives depended on it. (Which in a way they did, I suppose.) That gleeful abandon, coupled with more than a hint of desperation, lends the track both an intensity and an almost tangible freshness, like opening a window in a dusty room on a crisp spring day.
It’s a girl group record in the lyrical sense, too: no country and western pastiches or stories about banjo-toting boyfriends here. Instead, there’s something of the naive charm of the Shirelles and the Chiffons in the atmosphere here, the images of sweaters and class rings and holding hands and stolen kisses conjured up by the words here given added impetus by Diana Ross’ high, piping, girlish delivery; there’s an illicit thrill of transgression in those stolen kisses that only works precisely because the character painted by the lyrics lives in a society that’s so very chaste and proper.
The story features the narrator, in successive verses, meeting and then dating a guy who doesn’t say much but shows how he feels when the when the titular “lovelight” starts… well, you can guess the rest. The story doesn’t actually make any sense, and the lyrics are full of holes. There’s dodgy scansion (including a habit – in the chorus especially – of using three syllables for a lot of two-syllable words, suggesting an intentional gimmick rather than an inexplicable lapse of concentration by the hitherto ultra-professional HDH team – WHE-EN the lovelight starts / SHI-I-NING through his eyes / MA-A-ADE me realise / how HE-E felt inside / and when he placed a kiss / U-U-UPON my face…), and a maddening shift in tense, the whole song being narrated in the past tense but then having the present-tense title crowbarred in, so Diana has to sing “starts” rather than “started”.
Though I can’t quibble too much, as it makes for a better, more quotable title for sure, aiming for quotable rather than cheesy and getting pretty close; Oh, when the lovelight starts shining through his eyes, complete with wistful reverie. Diana is telling her schoolfriends a story, breathless with excitement, and so it’s okay if she trips over her words in her dizzy haste – it’s like (He’s) Seventeen, only done competently this time.
That just drives the point home, I guess. It’s a teenage record, quite unlike the grown-up baroque intensity of the Supremes’ later run of famous mid-Sixties hits, instead harking back to I Want A Guy and its flip, Never Again for the first time since those records were released – but with angst and doubt replaced by a huge smile and a giddy celebration of good fortune.
The effect is amplified by Diana’s delivery, such that she sounds younger than she actually was when she recorded this. She was actually 19, but sounds maybe 5 years younger here – compare and contrast Carolyn Crawford’s Devil In His Heart, featuring a girl who really was 14 years old but who sounds so much more mature. (Similarly so Cal Gill of the Velvelettes, or even Mary Wells.) The Supremes were unique, and perhaps uniquely prescient, in going for an aura of youth rather than maturity to tap into a carefree teenage girl group vibe (and market!) It all lends …Lovelight an innocence that really sells both the lyric and the song as a whole, a kind of wide-eyed naïveté which adds to the story rather than detracting from it.
But all this analysis of lyrical and vocal moods is as nothing, really, because first and foremost – as with all of Phil Spector’s really big hits – this is a record to get you moving. From the opening salvos of crashing drums and blaring horns, to the almost-constant handclaps and tambourine beats, and the raucous baritone sax (complete with an anguished background yell of YEAAARGHH!! at 1:50, one of the more startling things to crop up on a Motown record so far) and the cooing backing vocals from Florence and Mary, this is a single that sounds so incredibly alive compared to what came before that it’s almost impossible to dislike. If no later Supremes records really sounded much like this one, their pop and vigour – their undeniable energy – was first let loose here; the genie was now out of the bottle and the stopper could only be pushed back in partway.
Too many words; time to wrap this up. The way Diana sings about her boyfriend here actually mirrors the way the song always makes me feel about the Supremes: we have our ups and downs, but man, when HDH give the signal and the chorus rattles along in its awkward, clumsy, totally idiosyncratic but somehow irresistibly charming way…
Then I knew
Oh, then I knew
That he won my heart
Yeah, Diana – I know exactly how you feel.
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Devil In His Heart”
“Standing At The Crossroads Of Love”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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