Monday, July 9, 2012

Reading the Supremes

I joke about all the things in my childhood that "made me gay": seeing The Music Man on TV, buying the cast album of Man of La Mancha, reading Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, taking acting lessons and having to recite "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden," all of which happened between the ages of 9 and 11. I could also blame (or credit) Diana Ross and the Supremes. One the earliest non-Beatles 45s I bought was their "Love Child." I was 12 and didn't completely understand the meaning behind the lyrics, but I sure belted them out in my best diva fashion as I played the record, over and over, in my bedroom. Sadly, "Love Child" was one of their last big hits before Miss Ross left for a solo career, though later in my teens, I caught up with their earlier hits, and have a vivid memory of lip-syncing and dancing to "Stop! In the Name of Love" at high school parties.

I just finished reading a bio of the group, The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal by Mark Ribowsky. I was too young to experience the Supremes' earliest glory days when they had an unprecedented ten #1 hits between 1964 and 1967, but one of things this book does well is to recreate the pop culture milieu of that era and show just how successful they were and how important they were to Motown Records and its founder, Berry Gordy. In fact, Gordy seems to have focused so strongly on the Supremes that he ignored other Motown talent in the late 60s, and may have hastened the end of Motown's glory days. He was in love with Ross and with the money and power that the Supreme's fame brought him.

The book also goes into great detail about the acrimony in the group, especially against Florence Ballard (at right), who was considered troublesome, expelled from the group in 1968, struggled with alcoholism and died a few years later. In fact, in some ways, Ballard is the central character in Ribowsky's narrative. This is an interesting view, though I think it was partly necessitated by his reliance on only a handful of fresh interviews, relying largely on previous published biographies and autobiographies. Ribowsky clearly doesn't always believe what Ross, Gordy and Mary Wilson have written about themselves, but he's not always able to build a persuasive alternate story, except with Ballard's life, which isn't hard to do given the posthumous attention she's gotten--Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for playing a fictional Ballard in the movie Dreamgirls.

But for me, Ribowsky's book is essential reading for the focus it puts on the music. Ross is a good song stylist, but does not have an especially strong voice; Ballard and Wilson, who, after 1967, never sang lead vocals on any of their hits, are fine but given their use as background singers, could have, in terms of sound, been replaced by anyone--indeed in the last few years, they only sang in concert, not on the records, which were recorded with studio singers. Ribowsky made me realize that the appeal of their music (and that of probably 75% of pop music) is in the the production and the songwriting.

His crucial interviews are with the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie, who were two-thirds of the legendary songwriting and producing team known as Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H), responsible for all the Supremes' hits until 1968, as well as hits for Marvin Gaye ("How Sweet It Is"), the Four Tops ("I Can't Help Myself," "Reach Out I'll Be There") and Martha and the Vandellas ("Heat Wave"). Though much credit for Motown's success has been given recently to the pack of studio musicians, informally called the Funk Brothers, who played on most of the hits, the Hollands make a case for the equal importance of their catchy songs and production hooks.

And sure enough, no matter how good the voices are or how funky the musicians were, it's H-D-H's work that stands out to me: the marching percussion that leads to the chanted "Baby, baby" at the beginning of "Where Did Our Love Go"; the swirling organ figure that leads to the shouted "Stop!" on "Stop! In the Name of Love"; Diana name-checking Florence and Mary in "Back in My Arms Again" ("And Flo, she don't know/'Cause the boy she loves is a Romeo"); the psychedelic swirls of "Reflections"; and, of course, the symphonic bombast of "Love Child." When I was 12 and singing along with lines like "Started my life/In a worn torn dress that somebody threw out," I wasn't identifying with the song, I was glorying in the music, the rhythms, the voices, and the words, and all of those together made (and still make) the music of the Supremes unforgettable.