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,
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
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,
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
"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."
The newest Supreme was presented to the world on 14 January 1970, following the trio's magnificent farewell concert at the Frontier Hotel in
Once the break was publicly confirmed and the dust had settled,
"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
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
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
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.