by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
The trio is firmly back in pop territory here, but the results are mildly disappointing, due to a combination of odd cover choices – the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up, and Away” makes some sense, but neither the Bacharach-David standard “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and, odder still, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” really play to the group’s strengths – and sub-par new material from Motown’s in-house writers. The mildly psychedelic title cut – a Number Two hit – with its spacey synth intro is an instant classic, and “In and Out of Love” is moderately charming, if a tad schmaltzy for something from the traditionally hipper-sounding Holland-Dozier-Holland team. “Forever Came Today,” on the other hand, is just too elaborate for its own good, the latter song easily being the group’s least catchy single since its infancy, while the surrounding album cuts are a bit weaker than normal. It was clear at this point that the group’s magic was starting to wear off, but that’s partly to be expected: this was the last disc to feature original member Florence Ballard, who was fired from the group shortly after and replaced by Cindy Birdsong.
Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform "Funny Girl" (1968)
This album is dubiously the lowest-charting of the Supremes albums with Diana Ross in the fold. This album might make very little sense at first glance, but it’s not entirely without some logic: Berry Gordy famously had visions of making Diana Ross “the black Barbra Streisand,” so one can only construe this album – an entire disc of covers from the Streisand musical Funny Girl – as the first step towards achieving that dream. The inherent problem is that, even if you like the idea of Ross in this sort of setting, it just doesn’t represent what the Supremes are all about, and this is the sound of a group completely ignoring all its strengths. It’s at least a more coherent album than The Supremes Sing Country, Western, and Pop, but it’s every bit as forgettable.
Diana Ross & the Supremes Join The Temptations (1968)
Likely still reeling from the disastrous sales of the last album and realizing that the group’s recent excursions into pop schmaltz, Tin Pin Alley, and musical theater were alienating longtime Supremes fans, Motown wisely tries to bring some R&B back to the group’s sound by pairing them up with their hottest male act, The Temptations. It falls just shy of classic status due to its overdependence on covers, some of them ill-fitting – for a pairing of two of the hottest R&B acts of the decade, it seems bizarre to have them cover such fare as Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You” or the Man of La Mancha theme “The Impossible Dream” – but it’s great fun to hear the two acts joining forces all the same. The covers of the Miracles’ “I’ll Try Something New” and Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun” are great, but the true highlight is hearing Eddie Kendricks sparring with Diana on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” one of the greatest – and certainly one of the most soulful – duets to ever come out of the Motown machine.
Love Child (1968)
Arguably their best album since The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, there really is no sizable hit here beyond the melodramatic chart-topping title cut – the only other single here, “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, just barely made the Top 40, peaking at #30, the group’s lowest-charting single in over five years. But what the album lacks in the way of hits, it makes up for in quality album cuts – the few covers here are all obscure enough to not actually be recognizable as covers, and nothing here feels like padding. “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone” and “Does Your Mama Know About Me” (co-penned by Tommy Chong, surprisingly enough!) are just two of the hidden gems here.
Let the Sunshine In (1969)
An unfortunate step backwards in quality from the artistic comeback of Love Child, this disc does boast one of the group’s most underrated Diana Ross-era singles, the oft-overlooked Top Ten hit “I’m Livin’ in Shame” (a less melodramatic and funkier rewrite of “Love Child”). But the two other singles included within, the psych-pop of “No Matter What Sign You Are” and the Smokey Robinson-penned “The Composer,” were relative disappointments, peaking at #31 and #27, respectively, and the album feels much too heavy on padding, namely the covers of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” Jerry Butler’s “Hey, Western Union Man,” Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from Hair.
The group’s second full-length collaboration with the Temptations isn’t nearly as magical as the first, largely due to an even greater emphasis on covers than their first outing together. It’s still great fun to hear the groups teaming up together – and their cover of The Band’s “The Weight” is actually far better than it has any right to be – but the overfamiliarity of most of the material here really works against the disc. The closing cut, the Eddie Kendricks showcase “Why (Must We Fall in Love),” is a real hidden gem, though.
Cream of the Crop (1969)
The group’s final album with Ross isn’t nearly as good as you would hope it would be – the Ross-led version of the group never really recovered from the loss of Holland-Dozier-Holland as its primary songwriting and production team – but it’s not without its moments. Bizarrely, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” recorded in 1966 while Florence Ballad was still in the group is included here. The disc also sports a misguided cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” that just feels all wrong for the group. But, on the positive side, the album is otherwise free of the glut of covers that negatively impacted the last few discs, and the disc boasts a Number One hit – “Someday We’ll Be Together,” not just the final chart-topper for the group but the final Number One hit of the decade in general – and one of the group’s most criminally underrated songs, the lush R&B protest “The Young Folks,” which sadly was confined to B-side status but should have been an A-side in its own right.
Right On (1970)
Arguably the most underrated album they ever made and kicking off with the most criminally underrated single the Supremes – with or without Diana Ross – ever cut, the group’s first post-Ross album is arguably the best disc from the group in at least three years – really! For starters, the group – with newcomer Jean Terrell, the sister of boxer Ernie Terrell, taking Ross’ place as lead singer – sounds like an actual unit again, whereas nearly all of the albums from Rodgers & Hart onwards felt very much like Diana solo albums in everything but name. The album also eschews covers of contemporary hits as a form of padding, so everything here feels completely fresh. But, best of all, the group – with Ross gone and her occasional tendencies towards pop schmaltz now confined to her solo records – has made a concerted effort here to get back in touch with their R&B roots in a big way. There are plenty of standouts here, including the soulful strut of “Then We Can Try Again” and “I Got Hurt (Trying to Be the Only Girl in Your Life,” the stomping “Take a Closer Look at Me,’ the ambling “You Move Me,” the dramatic up-tempo anti-Vietnam cut “Bill, When Are You Coming Back?,” the ambitious Smokey Robinson-penned “The Loving Country,” and the finger-snapping sitar-and-bell-laden Top 40 hit “Everybody’s Got the Right to Love.” But the most mind-blowing cut of all here is the surprise Top Ten hit “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” possibly the single funkiest song in the Supremes catalog; the rhythm track alone, with its wah-wah guitar and relentless percussion, pretty much guaranteed the song would be a hit, but the song’s lovely and infectious melody and Terrell’s powerhouse vocal put the song over the top.
The Magnificent 7 (1970)
The group’s third full-length duets album – but its first since Terrell replaced Ross – is actually a noticeable step up in quality from the second, 1969’s Together. This time around, the group is paired with the Four Tops. Like the two Temptations duet albums, this disc mostly consists of covers, but the choices are a bit more inspired this time around – hilariously enough, they even cover Diana’s first solo single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”! – and both the new, Terrell-fronted Supremes lineup and the swapping of the Tempts for the Tops help to breathe some freshness into the concept as well. Most of the best moments come from when the group ventures into less familiar territory, such as “Knock on My Door,” a re-do of the old Four Tops tune “Without the One You Love,” and the Spinners’ “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music,” but the real keeper here is the cover of the Ike & Tina Turner song “River Deep – Mountain High,” which bested the original by going all the way to #14.