Girl Groups no: 8 the Supremes
Isn't it interesting that the two most distinctive sounds of the girl groups era derived from the fact that the producer (in the Motown instance the uber producer) was besotted with the lead singer in question, Phil Spector with Ronnie of the Ronettes, and Motown Records owner and chief Berry Gordy with Diana Ross or the Supremes.
Much has been said about how Diana Ross was the third best singer in the Supremes, behind Florence Ballard (lead singer before Berry promoted Ms Ross) and Mary Wilson. But they miss the point. Berry Gordy may have been besotted with Diana, but in the early days he never let that get in the way of business. It was the thing that he saw in her that was the thing that made the Supremes global superstars, the vulnerability, the whiteness rather than the blackness, the little girliness and the vulnerability combined with that ol' girl groups confidence and sassiness.
And dare I say it, a motherliness as well, that reached out to every grown up lonely boy in America.
It's all there in that determined first line of their first hit:
Baby, Baby, Baby don't leave me,
please don't leave me, all by myself
delivered to a back beat of - what is it - clumping shoes? - as though she's just walked in and is spelling things out
I've got this burning, yearning, feeling inside me,
Deep inside me, and it's hurting so bad
And on we go with Flo and Mary "Baby Baby"ing in the background like a pair of Zombies whose love blood has been sucked from them. This extraordinary song is so relentlessly depressing, it's amazing we like it at all, it's as though she just won't let go of your sleeve, and it's wonderful because we totally feel for her. Why? The voice. Berry Gordy realised that he wasn't going to become the multimillionaire he wanted to be if he didn't crack the white market. Ross has a unique voice that - especially when she was young - was as stated both tender and strong, was light and golden like the lead singer of the Chiffons, but most importantly didn't sound particularly black.
I know this for a fact. I was exposed to the Supremes just before my 12th birthday, just before I was sent from Bahrain where I was born, to the other side of the world to a boarding in school in the North of Scotland. And, I kid you not, Diana Ross became my surrogate Mother. I played the Supremes all the time, and rushed out to buy their latest singles as soon as they came out. I had a tape of their greatest hits, and it never occurred to me that she might be anything but white. Most important, the pop soul of the Supremes was accessible to everyone in the U.S and paved the way for other Motown acts such as the Four Tops and the Temptations.
By 1968, and after 5 years of assertive but wonderful upbeat hit love songs (Baby Love, Stop in the Name of Love, You Can't Hurry Love, You keep Me Hanging On etc etc) the Supremes (now termed Diana Ross and the Supremes) were moving with the times, taking on social issues in with the US number One "Love Child" bringing the girl group idiom bang up to date while at the same time remembering its origins, with the vulnerable but tough girl growing up fast - or even the result of that tough girl, the illegitimate daughter of a single parent.
"Started my life in an old, cold, run-down tenement slum" she begins
and goes on
this love we're contemplating
is worth the pain of waiting
we'll only end up hating
the child we may be creating.....
I started school in a warn torn dress that somebody threw out
I knew the way it felt to always to live in doubt....
Diana Ross sounds so earnest in this, you believe that this is where she came from (she actually came from a comfortably-off middle class Detroit family), and reaches new heights of tragic yearning with the final keening "I'll always love you - ou - ooooo-u" as she turns down her love to ensure that her tragedy is not repeated by producing another love child.
But I prefer their later (by one year) offering, the lesser known "I'm Living in Shame", every single line cutting deep, expressing the guilt of the girl that made it away from the tenements and never came back, even to see her mother. Now this IS the Girl Groups grown up, they've got out, but at what cost?
I must have been insane
I lied and said Mama died on a weekend trip to Spain
she never got out of the house
never even boarded a train
Married a guy was living high I didn't want him to know her
She had a grandson two years old that I'd never even shown her
While the ending is a bit hammy
Came the telegram
Mama passed away while making home-made jam......
Many a son of my generation will recognise the next bit
She always did her best
cooking, cleaning always in the same old dress
and the final yearning heart-rending call of the Supremes gets me every time
Mama, Mama, Mama can you hear me?
Mama, Mama, Mama can you hear me?
and touches a sense of guilt in all of us, especially as we get older. Why on earth I felt guilty about my mother all those years ago when it was she and my Dad who sent ME away, I'll never know, but I did, and Diana Ross helped me get over it, first as an audio mother substitute, then later articulating that guilt for me, and chasing away my loneliness and finally giving me such a good time with the fantastic high energy toe-tapping production and pace of their singles and "I'm Living in Shame" especially.
I wonder what Freud would've made of that?