Motown Spotlight, March 2020

The Supremes 1970
Right On

I've transported myself back to the early seventies to revisit an album – yup, original vinyl here with its occasional needle jump (why didn't I look after this disc more than I obviously did?)  - that I chanced to find while searching for a Stevie Wonder album. There's a logic to that statement, but won't dwell on it now.  Remember The Supremes' "Right On" release, where we were treated to Jean Terrell's gloriously warm voice for the first time on record with Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson? Actually, I'll correct that now, because in the passing of time, it appears the two ladies were often absent from the studio whereupon The Andantes and/or The Blackberries stepped in.  Nevertheless, back in the day, Motown fans like me, were totally happy to accept what we were told and what we read.  The "Right On" sleeve showed the "new" Supremes' membership, with a gloriously happy pose of Jean on the left, Cindy, middle, Mary to the right, all with wide smiles, wearing golden/orange beaded gowns.  However, before getting into the actual music, let's have a quick back story.

When Berry Gordy and Diana Ross decided the time had come for her to branch out as a solo artist, because she had outgrown The Supremes on several levels, which was, of course, evidenced for some time by the growing media interest in her.  Besides, Berry had his eye on Hollywood and who better to open the door than his top selling product.  It took some months to facilitate this move; setting the wheels in motion for her meant he needed to find a suitable replacement.  Initially, he was keen on Rita Wright (Syreeta).  He believed she sounded like Diana which would make the transition a whole lot easier. But Mary Wilson vetoed this.   "I spent a long time trying to figure out how to make Diana's leaving a positive," Berry wrote in his autobiography To Be Loved.  "We started a massive search, everybody looking everywhere." That included Shelly Berger, The Supremes' manager, who said.  "Berry and I happened to be in Miami Beach, and the boxer Ernie Terrell invited us to see a how he was doing at the Fontainebleau Hotel.  His sister Jean stepped onstage, she looked sensational and sounded great."  Berry agreed. "She had class, style, looks and talent.  If anyone could step into Diana's shoes, I felt she could."

Jean Terrell

 

Jean Terrell was therefore signed as a solo artist, yet began working with Mary and Cindy   in the studio while Diana, as far as the public was concerned, still with the trio.   In a David Frost interview, Jean explained what happened.  "When Motown) called me, I said "Are you kidding?' I just didn't want them to play with me like that because this was what I'd been looking for for years…..They said, 'Oh, we're serious' and it was as simple as that."  At the time of the phone call, Jean was living with her parents in Chicago, so hightailed it to Los Angeles to meet up with Cindy and Mary, who told author J Randy Taraborrelli in Call Her Miss Ross "To say we were anxious is an understatement….(we) were excited about the prospects of the new Supremes.  Anything we had to do with Diana…was just a matter of formality none of us wanted to bother with.  But Berry insisted we go out with a bang, even though we already felt we'd gone out with a whimper."

Motown's archives have revealed that Mary and Cindy had accomplished what Berry Gordy had intended: they were Diana's background singers.   Needless to say, many disputed this, arguing they formed two thirds of the whole unit. However, when it became public knowledge that Diana had recorded a raft of Supremes' tracks with The Andantes, or whoever,  Berry had proved his point.  Hence, he only needed Cindy and Mary to uphold The Supremes' image as performers.  Was he exploiting them?  No, I doubt it, as they both pulled a healthy salary and enjoyed the trappings and privileges of fame that went with being a member of the world's most successful black female group at the time.

Behind scenes though the arguments had continued to flare up, particularly when Berry once more pushed home that perhaps Syreeta was the better contender to fill Diana's shoes.  Again, Mary and Cindy dug in their heels, with the latter telling Taraborrelli that Berry was furious with them. "He had never been that angry with us before, to the point of threatening that we must do what he said, or else…..He made the choice in singling out Diana.  He got what he wanted.  So we demanded Jean Terrell."  Whether the Motown boss also said, "I wash my hands of the whole goddamn group" remains to be seen, as it's certainly not included in To Be Loved.  One thing perhaps he hadn't banked on, however, was the huge wave of public support for The "new" Supremes' first single "Up The Ladder To The Roof" which shifted 800,000 plus copies following their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on 15 February 1970.  It was the kick start they needed; the underdogs or also-rans had shown they were more than background vocalists by demonstrating they were strong, worthy contenders in the lucrative markets of record sales and personal appearances. As for Diana Ross, she was her gracious self saying she believed they would be "just fine…Berry won't let them down."

"The breakup of Diana Ross and the Supremes had taken its toll on everybody," wrote Berry Gordy.  "For nearly a decade they were the symbol of the many triumphs of the Motown Machine.  Their break up represented the end of an era but it was inevitable.  The growing tension between Diana and Mary was becoming obvious to everyone."

Cindy Birdsong

 

The newest Supreme was presented to the world on 14 January 1970, following the trio's magnificent farewell concert at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, before a packed house of excited guests.  However, when the stage was cleared, it was a different story.  "It was all acting," Cindy Birdsong told J Randy Taraborrelli.  "The smiles, the tears, all of it. Just acting…..I remember watching Diana and wondering how she was feeling….To work with someone for so long and then really not know what was going through her mind on that important night.  I guess it said a lot more than I care to remember." On the other hand, a Soul magazine journalist reported "Diana, Mary, Cindy and Jean…toasted each other with champagne, displaying much love all around."

Once the break was publicly confirmed and the dust had settled, Berry acknowledged what most people had thought, that he would be spending his time with Diana Ross, working on her solo career and pushing her towards a debut movie role.   "I made sure the new Supremes had strong support.  I assigned talented producer Frank Wilson to work with them.  Gil Askey as their musical director, and Shelly Berger as their manager….Two of the first (songs) Frank produced on them were big hits…so they were off and running. …we were ecstatic."  Meanwhile, he assigned Ashford & Simpson to work with Diana on her first solo album: it was a perfect match.

Mary Wilson

 

"We had a job coming up with a record that would be suitable and live up to our standards, and yet be different," said Mary Wilson. "'Up The Ladder To The Roof' was different enough and yet it was still The Supremes."   In the notes for the 2020 4-CD box set The Supremes, Frank Wilson remembered the song came from "a Puerto Rican kid, Vince DiMirco, in New York.  I just loved the melody and chorus, and I came back to Detroit and re-wrote it to fit Jean." It was just right, blowing me away with their seductive voices…."come with me"…the song rose to reach a stirring beat, and was loyal to the legacy of Diana Ross and the Supremes, with Jean's warm, soulful vocals wrapping itself around the upbeat music.  Its lyrics pushed home a message of racial harmony as did Diana Ross' debut at a soloist with "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)".

Up The Ladder To The Roof

 

Recorded and subsequently re-cut during January 1970, "Up The Ladder To The Roof" was the opening track on the "Right On" album and when lifted as a single was universally accepted by fans and radio programmers alike;  it soared into the US top ten, top six in the UK in April 1970. A month later Diana's "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)" peaked in the US top twenty and stalled in the UK at number 33 during the June.  The socially conscious "Everybody's Got The Right To Love" was next, about which Mary wrote in Supreme Glamour. "When we were recording it, I felt like we were healing the world. I will always remember the recording session…the joy I felt looking at both Cindy and Jean.  We were not only accomplishing what we set out to do, but we were creating something quite magical."

In actual fact, Mary believed every song Frank Wilson presented to them had goose bumps dancing up her arms as they recorded them. "The vocal blend between the three of us worked perfectly.  Jean's vocals on all the tracks are magical.  When we recorded, she had a way of riding in and around the notes with a very natural ease."  It was no longer the case of a lead singer pushed miles in front of two support vocalists, but rather, a lead singer who was able to embrace her backing voices to blend with hers.   Once again Diana Ross released a single within weeks of the trio. When "Everybody's Got The Right To Love" - kicked off with "Say I, Say Yeah" … peace, love and understanding… -  hit number 21 in the US chart during June, Diana sat at the top with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough".  In the UK, The Supremes bypassed the singles chart, whereas Diana soared to number six during the August.  

The third Frank Wilson track smacked me right between the eyes.  "But I Love You More", relegated to the flipside of "Everybody's Got The Right To Love", was written by Frank and Sherlie Matthews, a member of one of  "Motown's Best Kept Secrets", The Blackberries.  A sensual Jean took the song to her heart to deliver, with Cindy and Mary's voices, one of the most inspiringly emotional tracks I've heard. It was one of two standout ballads here,the other being "Then I Met You", written and produced by Jimmy Roach, who, I believe, went on to co-pen David Ruffin's "My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)". Once again Jean effortlessly took on the song, producing one helluva performance to melt the heart.  Produced by Johnny Bristol, who shared composing credits with Pam Sawyer, "Bill, When Are You Coming Home" was an anti-Vietnam war song actually recorded prior to Diana's farewell concert with Cindy and Mary. The flipside to "Up The Ladder To The Roof", I felt it should have warranted a top side status.  However, in hindsight, we played B-sides back in the day, didn't we?  A pity radio jocks didn't.

I won't go through any more tracks individually because space is of the essence.  However, the remaining titles are "Then We Can Try Again", "Wait A Minute Before You Leave Me", "You Move Me", "I Got Hurt (Trying To Be The Only Girl In Your Life)", "Baby Baby" (penned by Motown's recording duo, Helen and Kay Lewis), "Take A Closer Look At Me" and "The Loving Country".  Other tracks that appear to have been recorded for the album included "I Want To Go Back There Again", "Life Beats", "You Only Miss Me When You See Me" and "The Day Will Come Between Sunday And Monday."  

"What I loved most about 'Right On' was that all of the songs carried a universal theme of inspirational love," Mary Wilson wrote.  "For this particular album several different writers and producers were used from the Motown roster.  (Clay McMurray, Henry Cosby, Al Kent, Johnny Bristol, Jimmy Roach etc.)  On the five songs we worked with Frank Wilson, I think he had the best vision for how we should sound and how we should be recorded.  It was truly the start of a whole new group."  Fans embraced the album, curious to hear how the trio sounded without Diana, while others followed Jean Terrell into the group.   At one point there was the ‘Marmite’ division between fans – you loved or hated them. It appeared that supporting both wasn't an option.

Mary, on the other hand, said that as "Right On" sold extremely well, it proved "the public embraced us and that our devoted fan base had stayed with us."  I couldn't agree more.  There was ample room in the public arena for both acts to grow and flourish which, of course, they did in the ensuing years.  However, for now, I cherished the battered copy of "Right On", promising as it did, an exciting future for the trio, with me alongside them as a fan.  A journey I've never regretted.

That's me finished for this month.  All I can say to you all is, please, please, please take extra care out there.  This is a dreadfully sad time for everyone, but we will get through this.  My love to you, your family and your friends.

Sharon Davis

 

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