(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
Here we are, then.
More than two years of writing this blog, and it’s only now we can say with confidence that Motown’s Golden Age is definitely upon us. Everyone’s seen this record coming a mile off, and regardless of what’s gone before, it feels like this is somehow the official start of the Motown story, as though we’re finally getting permission: now. Now you can celebrate.
All of which is pretty ironic, because this record – a benchmark in so, so many ways – came into the world almost entirely unheralded, an unwanted and unloved bit of rejected Marvelettes album filler that somehow ended up changing the game forever.
* * *
Imagine, if you will, that you are a bookmaker in the early winter of 1961. The door opens with a creak, and October sunlight briefly floods your dingy shop. A figure walks in off the street, and everything goes dim again as the door closes behind them. It’s a man in a heavy coat and dark glasses. He is in fact a time traveller, though of course you aren’t to know that. He comes up to the grille and hands you two battered 7-inch singles. One of them is a German pressing of something called My Bonnie, credited to “Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers”. The other is a cheap-looking thing on Tamla Records out of Detroit (never heard of them myself, but the label says that’s where they’re from!), I Want A Guy by some group by the name of The Supremes. The guy says he bets that, by 1964, these two acts will between them rack up no less than NINE number one records – that year. What odds do you give him?
* * *
I love this record.
In Britain, where this got to number three – Motown’s biggest hit to date, surpassing Mary Wells’ top five with My Guy – this isn’t anywhere near as well-known as the Supremes’ follow-up record, Baby Love, I’m guessing because Baby Love has in a way superseded Where Did Our Love Go. I was probably about fourteen when I first heard Where Did Our Love Go, despite the fact Baby Love was and is on wall-to-wall rotation as the go-to record whenever a show wants some Sixties Motown.
As a result, I can never experience what it was like to encounter these two records for the first time in the right order; I can’t listen to Where Did Our Love Go except through the prism of hundreds, possibly thousands, of listens of Baby Love. And the effect of hearing them in the wrong order was that this one was like a colossal endorphin rush, burying me with a collapsing wall of the building blocks that make up Baby Love, leaving me with a feeling of something like mainlining the essence of that record; if Where Did Our Love Go is missing some of the poise, and the riveting oooooh! break, from the later hit, it’s still somehow more direct, its blunt force trauma (aural and emotional) somewhat akin to being bludgeoned by a graceful, dainty woman wearing heavy boxing gloves. It is such a strange, beautiful record.
I love it because – musically – it takes four bars to hear the entire song, and the rest of the record just luxuriates in it, or rather lets the listener luxuriate in it; like all the best pop songs, it surprises with a clever and beautiful hook and then plays on it, teasing the listener and then granting them the intense hit of pleasure they crave. It’s just that Where Did Our Love Go manages to compress that entire experience into about five seconds, and then spends the entire remaining two and a half minutes running time playing with loose variations on those same four bars. Only one musical element ever gets changed from cycle to cycle – the lyrical cadences, the drum fills, the backing vocals – but it’s enough that it somehow feels fresh and irresistible every single time. Even now, on what Winamp tells me is my two hundred and twenty first play, I’m still noticing tiny little things I hadn’t noticed before.
It’s four magical bars, something that might conceivably have been discovered in the studio by accident – whether by the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team, or the studio band, the Funk Brothers, messing around between sessions – and you can imagine everyone just turning to each other, shocked, and giving a look that just said “whoa.” So it’s surprising that, according to all first-hand accounts, there doesn’t ever seem to have been any great enthusiasm for this song until it started to sell, and sell, and sell; initial reactions ranged from indifference to mockery and open hostility, and it wasn’t until the whole completed production was finished and in the can that anyone thought of putting it out as a single, and even then there were serious doubts all over Hitsville. What the hell is this thing, anyway?
* * *
It was indeed born of some between-sessions studio noodling, Lamont Dozier “tinkering on the piano” when he came up with the simple piano melody and the title phrase (the tune of which, as Terry Wilson notes, is actually strongly reminiscent of Martha Reeves’ “something inside” from Heat Wave). Together with Brian Holland, the two quickly wrote a throwaway little song around that central riff – Baby, baby, where did our love go? – and proposed it to the Marvelettes as something to bulk out their mooted upcoming LP (an LP that never actually materialised).
But the Marvelettes were in a strange place when this was offered to them, having recently cut a string of underwhelming singles for various Motown writer-producers. Stories differ as to exactly what happened – some accounts have Motown offering the girls a choice between this and another track, Too Many Fish In The Sea, while others have the Marvelettes simply rejecting Where Did Our Love Go out of hand. Either way, in one of the great Motown stories, the Marvelettes turned this down.
It’s easy, with hindsight, to call this a dumb move on the Marvelettes’ part. It really wasn’t anything of the sort; there were perfectly good reasons for the girls to turn down Where Did Our Love Go, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest it would have become a similar hit – or even been released as a single – had the Marvelettes relented and cut it like they were supposed to. (Though it’s tempting to wonder just what Berry Gordy made of this little show of independence.) Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, but by the Marvelettes’ own accounts, it’s a completely understandable call.
Gladys Horton, in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4: “When they played us the band track of Where Did Our Love Go, they also played us the band track of Too Many Fish In The Sea. We picked “Too Many Fish” becuase it had all of the music and the bongos. If you listen to it without the lyrics, you hear all of the music. When you listen to Where Did Our Love Go without the lyrics, you hear nothing.”
Katherine Anderson Schaffner, talking to Goldmine: “That was a very good song, but it really wasn’t a song for us… The tempo of it was rather slow. And the voicing and stuff like that was rather slow. I can’t imagine us, the Marvelettes, which was a high-spirited kind of group, doing something like Where Did Our Love Go?. Even though we did ballads, I couldn’t imagine that we would have done that one. I don’t know that (Wanda and Gladys) had that much clout to say what they would take or what they wouldn’t take. And I think Too Many Fish In The Sea did us very well.”
Rebuffed, the HDH team initially approached the often-absent Velvelettes, offering Where Did Our Love Go as a “comeback” single, before Motown encouraged them to offer it to the Supremes – who were now back to being the “no-hit Supremes” after the brief Top 30 false dawn of When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, the follow-up (the superb Run Run Run) having tanked just inside the Hot 100.
The Supremes weren’t any more thrilled than the Marvelettes with the song, and doubly frustrated at the prospect of inheriting someone else’s hand-me-downs. Mary Wilson, controversially denied the opportunity to sing lead despite being Eddie Holland’s first choice for the song – something which has inspired whole chapters of other books, and which still seems to be a sore point even now, almost fifty years later – apparently burst into tears during the session as she reflected on how wrong things had seemingly gone. (Bear in mind, too, that this is a woman who’d already made it through The Man With The Rock & Roll Banjo Band, so you know this must have felt like a low point.)
Unhelpfully cajoled by the Marvelettes, who warned the Supremes about how poor the song was and advised them not to let HDH bully them into accepting it, the Supremes would almost certainly have turned this down too if they’d had the opportunity. But the Marvelettes had had lots of hit records; the Supremes had had one, and even that was starting to look like a fluke. They’d do as they were told, albeit grumpily and with no great enthusiasm. As it was, they still managed to impose a little of their will on the session, refusing to engage with Lamont Dozier’s planned intricate backing vocals – described by Florence Ballard as sounding “like a nursery rhyme” – and forcing Dozier to alter the charts so that the much simpler Baby baby / Baby baby backing vocals were used instead.
Even that was a grudging compromise on the part of the Supremes. Mary again: “We didn’t want to record that at all. They said ‘trust us, it’ll be a hit.’ We said, ‘yes, but it sounds like a kid song. It’s not Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street, it’s baby baby… baby baby. Very childish, right? Eddie Holland said ‘Just trust us, it’s going to be a hit.’ I was the main one saying we’ll do it, but my God.”
Brian and Lamont voted for Diana Ross, ahead of Mary, to sing lead on the song. The track had been pitched for Gladys Horton, whose usual range was a good octave below Diana’s recent high, piping deliveries; Holland and Dozier, by now seasoned producers, wanted to see what would happen if they forced Diana into a lower, breathier register than she was used to.
The recording was completed on April 8th, 1964.
* * *
It’s so weird, so alien (listening to it alongside the rest of Motown’s 1964 output really underlines this point), and yet now so familiar. All the trainspotters’ Motown Sound hallmarks are here – the 4/4 beat, the crotchet pulse piano/guitar, the sparse arrangement showing up the thudding bass – but they blend with the vocals so perfectly that it just says “Supremes”, straight away, heralding a whole new sound.
I don’t think anyone but Diana Ross could have done this with the material. She is incredible here; pushed out of her supposed comfort zone, we hear for the first time Motown’s most unique lead singer. Technically speaking, she’s nothing special, thin and wispy, lacking energy; as an actress, she’s so-so, frequently misinterpreting the mood of a lyric to what should be the detriment of a song. Emotionally, when it comes to conveying the direct, full-on anguish of a broken heart, there’s never been anyone else who even comes close.
The frailty in her voice, the slight wavering (And all of your promises?), the sheer vulnerability and woundedness of it all (don’t you want me no more?… PLEASE don’t leave me)… it is something we haven’t heard before. But it’s not just the pain, it’s the combination of the pain with a stomping, driving beat and a simple tune so infectious it can feed an entire song with the same four bars, without ever pushing it too far one way or the other. The Supremes, all together, sound absolutely great here – Diana out front in the spotlight, sure, but the sweet harmonies and ever-so-slightly throaty edge of Flo and Mary’s backing vocals seem to reflect the tenderness of Diana’s delivery, the high, chiming quarter notes and the direct drive of those footstomps all at once. When the backing vocals and lead vocal combine – somehow both predictably and unexpectedly – to sing Where did our love go? in unison for the first time, it’s like a light being switched on somewhere in heaven.
If ever a record were much, much more than the sum of its parts, more than those basic elements written down on paper should by rights add up to – well, this is it. The record is better than its song suggests it should be. For all its importance in the Motown/Jobete canon, it’s attracted very, very few attempts at cover versions, whether inside or outside the organisation – Soft Cell’s effort is the only notable one I can think of that gained any kind of traction. I like to think this is because Where Did Our Love Go is a once-in-a-lifetime, one-shot deal; it’s the birth of the Supremes as we all know them, the birth of a whole style of music (the first record you can immediately point to and say “that’s the Motown Sound” as if it were the archetype), impossible to recreate, pointless to try.
* * *
It seems to reflect the listener’s mood; sometimes it’s the wide open spaces and detached froideur that emphasise themselves, while the next time you hear it it might be the beat, the piano, the finger-clicking rhythm; the next time, the vulnerable desperation; the next time, the anger, soothed or amplified by the backing vocals.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like hearing this for the first time; a group nobody had really heard of before, a sound that hadn’t been heard before. The first time I heard it – and like everyone else my age or younger, I certainly had both heard of the group and heard the sound – it still grabbed me by the collar, because it’s so obviously, obviously good. Motown must have felt the same way, scheduling this as the Supremes’ next single (the group’s ninth overall), confident enough to start ploughing some of the money coming in from Mary Wells’ My Guy into its promotion, buoyed enough by the immediate positive reaction to take out big adverts in the trade papers a month after release hubristically announcing – not predicting – the record would become Motown’s fourth Number One hit. Which of course it did.
* * *
One of my favourite stories concerning this record’s rise is that the Supremes were actually out on tour when Where Did Our Love Go was released, occupying the bottom slot on Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars, a slot they’d only been granted by Dick Clark’s people because Motown insisted it be a condition of Brenda Holloway appearing on the tour. On the first few dates, the crowd reaction was muted; a bit of polite applause, otherwise confused indifference.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Supremes!”
As the record rose up the charts, the applause started to get louder, and Where Did Our Love Go was met with increasingly ecstatic screams. (I imagine the scene to be something like the bit in O Brother, Where Art Thou when the crowd suddenly realises it’s the Soggy Bottom Boys performing in front of them. If you don’t get this reference, you need to watch more films.)
By the end of the tour, the Supremes were heading the bill. Not only was this single flying off the shelves, but Motown had prepared a second album (above), titled after the song, and also repackaged their hitherto-overlooked 1962 début LP Meet The Supremes to capitalise on the girls’ new image (left). It all sounds unbelievable, like the sort of thing that would be depicted by a montage in Dreamgirls, and yet it’s true.
* * *
That feeling of overcoming the odds, climbing to the top – we made it, guys! – is yet another reason I love this record; the sense of relief and achievement isn’t just extra-textual context, it’s right there for everyone to hear. But I don’t want anyone to go away thinking that I’m praising this just for its historical significance, or because it introduces us (properly!) to one of the all-time great groups; I’m praising it because it’s a magnificent pop record, at once cold and stately and also swaggering and hip-shaking, and because I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing it for as long as I live.
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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“A Little Bit Of Sympathy, A Little Bit Of Love”
“He Means The World To Me”
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