Monday, October 5, 2009

October 5: The Supremes, "Where Did Our Love Go"

Artist: The Supremes
Year: 1964
Label: Motown

Quick, name the most commercially successful U.S.-based musical act of the 1960's. This group rattled off five consecutive number one singles in 1964 and had a dozen number ones' throughout their career. They are, by far, one of the most instantly recognizable groups in music history, and their songs remain mainstays on both radio, as well as any party atmosphere. With their stunning sound and amazing style, there are virtually no artists anywhere in history that can remotely compare to the power and presence of the trio of girls from Detroit's Brewster Housing Project, the deservingly named, Supremes. In the early and mid 1960's, The Supremes rivaled The Beatles in terms of chart success and overall public demand, and their singing style was copied countless times over, though they were never equaled. Along with being the most successful group in the history of Motown Records, The Supremes also still hold the title of the most successful vocal group in U.S. music history. Though in later years, the lineup saw many changes, throughout a majority of the 1960's, the original trio worked their way to become one of the most dominant acts in music history, and their songs truly transitioned the classic soul/r&b/doo-wop sound into the more pop based style that stands to this day. Perfectly embodying everything that was "the Motown Sound," the groups' finest moment is undoubtedly their magnificent and monumental second album, 1964's Where Did Our Love Go.

Nearly every song found on Where Did Our Love Go comes from Motown's legendary writing team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland, though the reality is, many of these songs were actually "b-sides" from The Supremes first album, released a year earlier. Along with being an absolutely sensational sounding record, the album re-wrote the record books. Where Did Our Love Go was in fact the first album ever to produce three number one singles on the Billboard charts, with the album itself topping the charts as well. Containing many of The Supremes' most famous songs, the title track, "Baby Love," and "Come See About Me" all topped the charts, as the three songs were released as consecutive singles, and instantly turning the trio into international superstars. It was also largely due to Where Did Our Love Go that the general public was introduced to the "Motown sound," and the "new sound" was so successful that the album itself remained on the charts for nearly two years, a feat that remains a rarity to this day. Perhaps the reason that Where Did Our Love Go so perfectly represents the Motown sound is due to the fact that the production team contained the likes of Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and Robert Gordy, along with the Holland/Dozier team. Also, having backing vocals from the likes of The Four Tops on a handful of songs certainly didn't hurt the record, nor did the constant backing music of the greatest backing musicians in history, The Funk Brothers. With all of the talent behind them to focus and enrich the groups' sound, this is an album that was truly destined for success.

Though The Supremes had begun as a quartet, after changing one member, the group trimmed to a trio and found their signature sound. When it comes to gorgeous, perfect harmonies that overflow with emotion and power, there are few groups worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as The Supremes. Simply put, the chemistry between the original trio is stunning to experience, and it is almost hard to imagine such an overwhelming amount of talent within a single group. Understanding that singing louder or more aggressively did not necessarily equal better, the softer, more soulful singing style became one of the many distinctive aspects of the singing of The Supremes. Having handled many of the lead vocals on their first album, Florence Ballard is just as stunning throughout Where Did Our Love Go. Easily one of the most powerful singers in history, popular rumor is that, whilst in the studio, Ballard had to stand nearly twenty feet from the microphone so her vocals would not become distorted. The second Supreme was the voice of another music legend, Mary Wilson. Having the longest tenure of any member of the group, Wilson is truly extraordinary on every song, most notably on "Long Gone Lover" and "A Breathtaking Guy." While each of the three Supremes are beyond talented in their own right, the sound that they create as a group is nothing short of blissful, and there have been few groups anywhere else in music history that achieve such perfect harmonies.

While both Ballard and Wilson are absolutely fantastic throughout the album, it is on Where Did Our Love Go that The Supremes found the key to their recipe for success: handing the lead vocals to Diana Ross. The personality that comes across in her singing is unlike that of any other singer in history, and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. felt that her slightly nasal tone would be more appealing to white audiences. Ross takes the primary lead on each of the singles from Where Did Our Love Go, and her calm, clear style of singing makes her voice one of the most recognizable in history. Featured in heavy, almost sad lament throughout the title track, Ross flawlessly captures the overall mood of the nation at the time, and the ability for the song to have many equally strong meanings was one of hte many reasons for its success. Attempting to replicate everything that made "Where Did Our Love Go" so successful, "Baby Love" has comparable instrumentation, as well as the focus on Ross' soft, almost whispery vocals. In fact, the second single was even more successful, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and it made The Supremes the first Motown act to have more than one number one single. The third number one single, "Come See About Me" cemented the trio's place as legends, and earned them a highly coveted spot performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in December of 1964. Again, the focus on Ross' light vocal style powers the song, along with the signature "walking" bassline from The Funk Brothers. Looking back at the entire recorded history of The Supremes, handing a majority of the lead vocals to Diana Ross was undoubtedly the moment that forever changed their career, as well as the overall landscape of music.

Style, sex appeal, and some of the most sensational singing ever recorded is what continues to make The Supremes one of the most highly respected groups in the history of music. With harmonies that are truly amazing to experience time and time again, there are few groups that were able to create similar musical magic. The trio of Ballard, Wilson, and Ross sing together like no other group, perfectly complimenting one anothers' style, and the soft power behind the vocals is one of the keys to their extraordinary sound. The absolutely brilliant music created by The Funk Brothers stands among their finest work, and as the girls cemented their legacy as singers, so did The Funk Brothers as the greatest backing band in history. Utilizing everything from foot stomping and hand clapping to early rumblings of funk and blues-rock, there are few musicians with the vision and talent as can be found on every song on thanks to The Funk Brothers. Perfectly capturing a truly special moment in music history, The Supremes represent everything that it means to perform the "Motown sound," and there songs have reached the level that can only be categorized as "timeless." Beginning their unprecedented string of five consecutive number one singles, there is not a moment anywhere on their second record that is anything less than phenomenal, and it makes The Supremes 1964 release, Where Did Our Love Go by far one of the greatest musical moments ever committed to recorded tape.

Standout tracks: "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," and "Come See About Me."

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