In 1964, The Supremes transformed overnight from Motown underdog to one of the label's premier acts. When their run of hits stumbled slightly, the pressure was on to pick up the slack - culminating in one of their most enduring tracks, "I Hear a Symphony," which topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Nov. 20, 1965 - their seventh chart-topper in just a year and a half.
A cruel descriptor followed The Supremes around the Motown offices in their early days together: "no-hit." Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard worked hard to get the recognition of their labelmates, but nothing seemed to work until they paired with the up-and-coming songwriting/production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Their first collaboration together, "Where Did Our Love Go," reached No. 1 on the charts in August 1964; five more chart-toppers, all written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland followed over the next 12 months. But in August 1965, "Nothing But Heartaches" missed the Top 10, peaking at a mere No. 11.
Label head Berry Gordy responded with a pointed memo. "We will release nothing less than Top Ten product on any artist," it read, "and because The Supremes' world-wide acceptance is greater than the other artists, on them we will only release number-one records." The pressure was on for Holland-Dozier-Holland to make some magic, albeit different than what came before.
At the time, other girl groups were starting to co-opt The Supremes' sound. In particular, New York trio The Toys scored a Top 5 hit with "A Lover's Concerto," a soul-pop groove based on a minuet believed at the time to be written by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Supremes cut their own version, but the idea of conjuring up a memory of classical style (instead of copying it entirely) was too good to ignore.
Eventually, inspiration struck Lamont Dozier at a movie house. "I used to go to the movies and I would see that the main stars had their own theme songs," he told Songfacts. "When they appeared on the screen, you would hear this melody behind them - they had their own little melody each time they appeared in the movie. So the lyrics, 'Whenever you are near, I hear a symphony,' it was about this guy. Whenever he came around, in her mind she got this feeling and she heard this melody. He brought out the music in her."
From there, they concocted a love song of emotional urgency, grandiose production and a climbing series of choruses. Ross knew right away it was something special. "Out of our singles...the one I enjoy doing most is 'I Hear a Symphony,'" she said in a radio interview shortly thereafter. "I don't do it that often, because of the key, the register. Now, if I bring the key down, it won't mean the same to me, maybe - so I only do it when it's special times."
It was special times for all who heard the track - and it eventually knocked The Rolling Stones' "Get Off of My Cloud" from the top of the charts - ironically, the song that kept "A Lover's Concerto" from ringing the bell. After two more Top 10s in 1965 and 1966, the group would hit another hot streak, releasing another four consecutive No. 1 hits through 1967.
It wasn't until much later when Brian Holland, who was carrying on an affair with Ross during the sessions, really understood the impact of the song. "It took 25 years for it to sink in how good that song is," he told Mark Ribowsky in the book The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal. "Things were happening in our lives by then, Eddie's and mine, that began to creep into the songs. Those songs were supposed to be about simple things. And at the beginning, they were. It was 'baby this, baby that.' But when I hear something like 'Symphony,' man, there ain't nothing simple about it."