by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
New Ways but Love Stays (1970)
An unfortunately dramatic drop-off in quality from Right On, the group’s second proper studio album with Terrell feels a bit rushed, if only for the presence of a Four Tops-less re-recording of “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music” from The Magnificent 7 and needless covers of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” which make it feel as if the group is back-pedaling into its late ‘60s form. But when the group stays away from re-recordings and covers, they’re on, and there are still some excellent cuts here, namely “Shine on Me,” the much-sampled “It’s Time to Break Down,” and, best of all, the punchy Top Ten hit “Stoned Love.”
The Return of the Magnificent Seven (1971)
A very underrated album, the group’s second full-length collaboration with the Four Tops is even better than the first. Unlike The Magnificent 7, there are unfortunately no hit singles here (at least nothing that reached the Top 40 like “River Deep, Mountain High” did), but that’s more than made up for by the fact that there are only two covers here – the most recognizable of which, Petula Clark’s “Call Me,” is still fairly obscure. This abundance of new material – highlighted by “I’ll Try Not to Cry” and “You Gotta Have Love in Your Heart” – not only helps to make the album feel fresh, but it also prevents the album from ever feeling like a variety-show soundtrack and allows the two groups to sound much more with the times than they sounded the last time around.
Not quite a return to the form of Right On but better overall than New Ways but Love Stays, this is a very solid outing heavy on original material from such great in-house Motown writers as Pam Sawyer, Clifton Davis (the man responsible for penning the Jackson 5 hits “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Lookin’ Through the Windows”), Leonard Caston, and Kathleen Wakefield. Even the disc’s lone cover, Laura Nyro’s “Time and Love,” is a fitting choice for the group. While nothing here might be quite as brilliant as Right On’s “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” nothing here is bad, either, and both of the disc’s singles are quite underrated; the gentle balladry of the title cut is the group at its most seductive, while the slightly-rock-tinged Top Twenty hit “Nathan Jones” packs some real muscle to it and is also a rare full-group lead vocal from the ladies. [Bananarama would have a sizable U.K. hit with the song in the late ‘80s.]
The third and final Four Tops duets album – the Tops would leave Motown shortly after for a new deal with ABC/Dunhill – is easily the most forgettable of the three. Motown didn’t even bother to issue a single from this disc in the U.S., but that’s somewhat understandable – nothing here especially sounds like an obvious hit. But whereas the equally hit-less The Return of the Magnificent Seven at least sounded contemporary and boasted a plethora of new original material, Dynamite is a retreat to the cover-heavy format of their first collaboration together, and it just doesn’t really work, not in the least since many of the choices – such as Perry Como’s “It’s Impossible,” Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” and Bread’s “If” – don’t really suit either act. The two Jerry Marcellino-penned tunes (“Melodie” and “The Bigger You Love (The Harder You Fall)”) are a nice change of pace, as is the Gladys Knight co-write “Do You Love Me Just a Little, Honey,” but nothing here really qualifies as essential listening, and it’s hard to avoid feeling as if this is just one duets album too many.
Floy Joy (1972)
For an album entirely written and produced by Smokey Robinson, you might hope that this disc would be better than it is; however, this isn’t bad stuff, either – merely mildly disappointing. There are two lost Top 40 hits included here: “Automatically Sunshine” can best be described as an R&B spin on the Turtles’ “Elenore,” while the title cut hearkens back to the stomping beats of such early Supremes sides as “Baby Love” or “Where Did Our Love Go.” The percolating, percussive “Your Wonderful Sweet, Sweet Love” stopped at #59 but is actually both the best and most underrated cut here and really should have been selected as the lead-off single from the disc over the title cut. It’s less essential than Right On, New Ways but Love Stays, or Touch, but it’s still strong enough to make it an interesting and sporadically captivating listen, if a spotty one. This would notably be the last album to feature Cindy Birdsong, her place being taken by Lynda Laurence.
The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb (1972)
Fair warning: this is easily the least R&B-oriented disc the Supremes have made since their full-length disc of covers from Funny Girl. That being said, if you’re not an R&B purist, you’ll find that this album ranks right up there with Right On as the most hidden gem in the entire Supremes catalog and is, in fact, arguably one of the five or six best albums the group ever made, with or without Diana Ross in the group. Jimmy Webb – the writer of such pop standards as Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the Fifth Dimension’s “Up-Up and Away,” and Brooklyn Bridge’s “The Worst That Could Happen,” just to name a few of his many, many hits – produced and arranged all but one of these songs (a cover of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” from the musical Pippin) and writes most of the songs as well. It’s a very unlikely teaming, of course, but it works like a charm – Webb brings out an adult-contemporary side of the group without wandering too deeply into schmaltz territory, alternating from stunningly pretty lush ballads (“When Can Brown Begin,” “La Voce del Silencio”) to easygoing light-soul grooves (“5:30 Plane,” “Once in the Morning”) and even snappy beats (a surprisingly rock-tinged, horn-laden cover of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want.”) If you’ve ever wondered what the Motown equivalent of Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Sings Newman would be like, look no further. This might not be the best album the Supremes ever made, but it’s arguably the most interesting.
The Supremes (1975)
Unfortunately for the Supremes, the post-Diana Ross version of the band never truly got the promotional support from Berry Gordy and Motown that they deserved – but then again, neither did most of the label’s female acts in the ‘70s not named Diana Ross – so it had to be disheartening for the group to see their commercial fortunes steadily wane over the early ‘70s, even as they continued to put out a relatively solid string of albums from Right On through Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb. Worse still, contract disputes with the label would result in a three-year quiet period between the latter album and its follow-up, during which both Terrell and Laurence would leave the group. (Scherrie Payne and a returning Cindy Birdsong would take their place.) Unfortunately, Motown had too little interest in the group at this point to make sure they got the best material or production help, and the group seems a bit lost for direction, utilizing over half a dozen different producers and splitting the leads almost evenly between Mary Wilson (who only rarely sung lead in the past) and newcomer Payne. There are some good tunes here – “It’s All Been Said Before,” scheduled as a single but scrapped at the last minute, is particularly catchy, and the delightful “Early Morning Love” and “Where Do I Go from Here” mark the return of Brian and Eddie Holland as writers – but the album is ultimately just a bit too spotty and disjointed to rank with their earlier post-Ross albums.
High Energy (1976)
The good news: High Energy is a more cohesive and focused affair than its predecessor. Brian and Eddie Holland are also back here and both write and produce all the cuts here. The bad news: the ladies have taken a clearly-calculated sharp turn into disco territory here. It’s actually not an altogether bad move – the title cut is fairly good, while “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking” returned the trio to the Top 40 for the first time since 1972’s “Automatically Sunshine,” though it’d also sadly prove to be their last hit. But it’s when the ladies take a break from the disco beats on the second side for a trio of ballads – “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You,” “Till the Boat Sails Away,” and “I Don’t Want to Lose You” – that they truly sound the most like their old selves and the most genuine.
Mary, Scherrie & Susaye (1976)
Once again utilizing Eddie and Brian Holland, this disc is essentially a carbon copy of High Energy, right down to the heavily-disco-flavored similar first sides and the more ballad-oriented second halves. For a disco album, it’s actually not bad at all – “You’re My Driving Wheel” was a minor Hot 100 hit, while the lush “Let Yourself Go” is moderately hooky and “Sweet Dream Machine” quite gorgeous for an up-tempo disco cut – but, like its predecessor, it has more artistic integrity when the beats slow down, and as far as ‘70s Supremes albums go, it’s not nearly as appealing or charming as the bulk of their post-Diana albums from Right On through Jimmy Webb. Only Dynamite prevents this disc from feeling like the most calculated album of their post-Ross period. It’s a bit of a shame the group had to go out like this – had the trio called it a day after their poor-selling but considerably more respectable collaboration with Webb, their reputation among critics might be greater than it is.
The number of Supremes hits packages to choose from is nothing short of dizzying – well over two dozen have been released to date – but most of them fall short of being particularly satisfying. If you’re only interested in the Diana Ross years, you can’t do much better than 2008’s filler-free The Definitive Collection, which includes 18 of their 25 Top 40 hits from 1963 through 1969, including all their Top Ten hits except for the oft-forgotten “In and Out of Love,” which most listeners likely won’t even notice. But if you also want to have the best of the criminally-overlooked post-Diana Ross years, then do yourself a favor and instead pick up either the 1986 Motown double-disc package Anthology or the 2005 Motown/Chronicles/UMe double-disc Gold; the former package has a slightly more complete collection of hits (containing 49 tracks in all and including all 33 of the ladies’ Top 40 hits with the sole exception of the Four Tops duet “River Deep – Mountain High”), while the latter package contains two fewer hits than Anthology (excluding “I’ll Try Something New” and “Automatically Sunshine”) but boasts fuller sound, so it’s a bit of a trade-off.
Unfortunately, the Supremes had a tendency to lean towards schmaltz in their live act, so most of their live albums are plagued by an abundance of show tunes and standards, which makes them seem more like a Vegas act. By default, the most interesting of their live discs is 1970’s Farewell, a double-disc set that also has the distinction of being a recorded document of Diana’s final show with the group. But even that disc is surprisingly short on hits – they perform a grand total of nine of their twenty-five hits to date, and four of those have even been abbreviated and compiled into a medley – while the package also contains a nearly rendition of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” that nearly takes up the album’s entire third side (all the weirder when you consider that it’s not even their own hit – it’s the Fifth Dimension’s) and no less than six between-song extended monologues, the package even closing with eight-and-a-half minutes of dialogue! Unless you’re a diehard, skip over this one and stick to the studio albums.
In addition to their studio and live output, the Supremes also released a pair of soundtracks – 1968’s TCB and 1969’s G.I.T. on Broadway – from their late-‘60s television specials with the Temptations. (Strangely, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is not included on either. Go figure.) Of the two, the former is the better purchase, but neither disc is especially essential, particularly when compared to Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations.