Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Supremes Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Meet The Supremes (1962, Motown)

C +

One recurring problem at Motown in its earliest days is that it didn’t always know what to do with its artists right away – Stevie Wonder, for instance, made his debut on the label not as a singer but as a jazz instrumentalist, while Marvin Gaye spent much of the early part of his career crooning standards a la Nat King Cole – and the Supremes are no exception. This disc is an anomaly in their catalog for several reasons: it’s the only one recorded as a quartet (Barbara Martin would depart before the album’s release and is consequently not pictured on the cover, but her vocals can be heard throughout), and it’s the only early Supremes album of original material where Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson have more songwriting credits than either Brian Holland or Lamont Dozier, who have only minimal involvement in this disc. Consequently, this disc sounds more like the kind of music that, say, Mary Wells was making around this time than the feisty singles that would make stars of Diana, Mary, and Florence. There are some good tunes here – namely the Latin-tinged Smokey composition “Your Heart Belongs to Me” and Gordy’s stomping “Let Me Go the Right Way” – but though the trio demonstrates some potential, the disc lacks the magic of the band’s later albums.

Where Did Our Love Go (1964)

A +

A wildly dramatic improvement in quality over the trio’s debut album, Where Did Our Love Go finds the ladies paired up for the first time with the ace songwriting and production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, and that combination makes all the difference in the world. There are three bona fide classics here, all Number Ones: the finger-snapping “Where Did Our Love Go,” the lighthearted playfulness of “Baby Love,” and, best of all, the sassy beats of “Come See About Me.”  But what’s most impressive about the disc is the large number of overlooked gems surrounding the singles. The brass-driven “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” swings like few other singles from the ladies, while “Standing at the Crossroads of Love,” the Smokey Robinson-penned tango-tinged “A Breathtaking Guy” and the squawking horns and insistent piano of “Run, Run, Run” are just as appealing. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is “Ask Any Girl,” which sounds like Holland-Dozier-Holland’s attempt to craft the Motown equivalent of a Burt Bacharach-Hal David song. Track for track, this is arguably the finest overall album that Diana, Mary, and Florence ever made together.

A Bit of Liverpool (1964)

C –

A mildly crass attempt to capitalize on the biggest international threat to Motown’s dominance of the pop charts, the trio’s third album finds the ladies covering nothing but British Invasion covers from the likes of the Beatles, Peter & Gordon, the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and the Animals. Naturally, the album works best when the three stick to songs that technically originated at Motown itself – such as “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (first done by the Miracles but covered by the Beatles, hence its inclusion here) or “Do You Love Me” (the Contours classic re-popularized by the Dave Clark Five) – but there are some inspired selections elsewhere, namely the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” and Dave Clark Five’s “Bits and Pieces,” both of which sound just enough like the Supremes’ regular material to seem appropriate for the group.

The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop (1965)

D +

Arguably the oddest album in the group’s ‘60s output, this disc looks at first glance like a full-blown disc of country covers, but that’s not quite accurate; there are three country covers here – Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” (the most memorable thing here), Eddy Arnold’s “It Makes No Difference Now,” and Sons of the Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” – but there’s also a Tin Pan Alley tune (the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer classic “Lazy Bones”) and seven tunes penned by Motown’s in-house songwriter Clarence Paul, making the disc a bit of a confused mess.

We Remember Sam Cooke (1965)

C –

It’s certainly more cohesive than Sing Country, Western and Pop was, but it seems rather silly in hindsight that Motown could have its hottest female act of the ‘60s follow up their commercial breakthrough, Where Did Our Love Go, with three consecutive albums either centered around or exclusively assembled from cover versions. For this third covers-oriented affair, the group sticks exclusively to Sam Cooke covers. The ladies turn in perfectly serviceable versions of these songs, so it doesn’t exactly qualify as being bad per se – it’s just completely unnecessary. Thankfully, Motown would – temporarily, at least – take a break from the covers albums for a while and let the trio go back to what it does best. 

More Hits by The Supremes (1965)

A

An entirely Holland-Dozier-Holland-written-and-produced affair and the group’s first full album of original material since Where Did Our Love Go, this is easily their best album since that disc, if not quite as consistent from start to finish. Strangely, “Ask Any Girl” is repeated here (if in slightly remixed form), but there are two enduring Number One hits here – the dramatic “Stop! In the Name of Love” and the charmingly self-referencing “Back in My Arms Again” – as well another near-Top-Ten hit (“Nothing But Heartaches.”) Like Where Did Our Love Go, this disc also has its share of appealing non-singles, especially “Mother Dear” (originally slated to be a single but cancelled after the “disappointing” sales of “Nothing But Heartaches”), “Whisper You Love Me Boy,” “He Holds His Own,” and “The Only Time I’m Happy.”  

I Hear a Symphony (1966)

B +

A slightly overrated disc, I Hear a Symphony does have its great moments – namely the two Number One hits included here (the finger-snapping title cut and the throbbing rhythms of the frantic “My World Is Empty Without You,” one of the most appealingly upbeat songs in the entire Supremes catalog) – but it’s weighed down slightly by the abundance of covers (including the Beatles “Yesterday” and the Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” though the latter song fits the Supremes perfectly) and standards (including “Unchained Melody,” “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” and “Stranger in Paradise.”) Still, the few Holland-Dozier-Holland songs here – including the non-singles “He’s All I Got” and “Any Girl in Love (Knows What I’m Going Through)” – are fabulous and make up for the slight excess of covers.

The Supremes A' Go-Go (1966)

B

Like its predecessor, A’ Go-Go is too reliant on covers to pad out its running time, but this time around, the covers are nearly all from within the Motown family – three from The Four Tops and one a piece from Barrett Strong, Martha & the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Isley Brothers, and the Elgins – so the ladies do largely stick to R&B material (though they also cover the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’,” the latter of which works much better than the former.)  There are just two genuinely brand-new compositions here, but they’re both winners: “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” is one of the group’s more underrated Diana Ross-era singles, while “You Can’t Hurry Love” might be the greatest single the Supremes ever made, period. (It’s telling just how strong a piece of writing the latter song is that performers as wildly different as Phil Collins and the Stray Cats could put out equally great covers of the song in the early ‘80s.)

The Supremes Sing Holland–Dozier–Holland (1967)

A –

Their best album since More Hits by the Supremes, Holland-Dozier-Holland dials back on the covers-heavy nature of the previous two discs and puts the group’s ace songwriting/production team back in the forefront for the entirety of this disc. There are still a handful of covers here (“Heat Wave” and “It’s the Same Old Song” being the most familiar), but they make sense within the context of the disc and consequently don’t feel completely like padding, and the original tunes are excellent. The lovely melancholy of “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” and the feisty “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” were both deserving Number One singles, and some of the surrounding album cuts – namely “Mother You, Smother You,” “Going Down for the Third Time,” and “Remove This Doubt” – are awfully good in their own right. 

The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart (1967)

B –

Better than it has any right to be, this all-show-tunes affair (devoted exclusively to the music of the legendary songwriting team of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart) can be a bit alienating at first – it’s certainly not R&B by any stretch of the imagination – but it’s strangely charming once you allow yourself to try and appreciate it for what it is, and it’s this disc that makes it more obvious than any in the band’s catalog up to this point that Diana Ross would inevitably have to go solo. Ross clearly relishes this material and wants to be something more than just a contemporary-R&B singer – this is the sound of a woman aiming not for the Apollo, but the Copa – and she’s surprisingly quite good at this sort of thing, too, turning in delightful renditions of such tunes as “Thou Swell,” “This Can’t Be Love,” “Falling in Love with Love” and “My Funny Valentine.” More R&B-minded fans of the trio may want to shy away from this one, but this disc is a real showcase for the versatile Ross that really helps to bridge the vast divide between her more R&B-oriented earlier sides with the Supremes and her more pop-oriented early solo singles like “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Last Time I Saw Him.”