Motown had started life with the goal of representing the polished and mainstream-friendly face of African-American pop, and was immediately rewarded with a string of blockbuster hits. By the mid-’60s, though, the label’s strict adherence to its sophisticated, conventional pop format began to relax. The chart hits of Stax/Volt and Atlantic proved that racially mixed audiences were open to more concentrated strains of soul, as did Motown’s own success with the likes of the gospel-influenced Four Tops and the funky R&B of Junior Walker & the All Stars. Likewise, rock and roll, which had re-entered the popular consciousness around the same time as Motown via the traditionally-minded, melodic pop of the early British Invasion, was now veering into experimental and bluesier territory, expanding the boundaries of what constituted popular music.
While Motown was understandably hesitant to fiddle with the guaranteed-hit formula of its biggest stars, even The Supremes were eventually geared for an update. “I Hear a Symphony” freed the girls from the repetitive stomp of their previous hits, while the two singles that followed continued playing with the definition of what a Supremes record could sound like: the uncharacteristically moody “My World is Empty Without You,” and “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” which set up house in Martha and the Vandellas’ brasher neighborhood. Neither of those songs became number-one hits (though both made the Top 10), so a corrective course was charted to return the girls to their rightful spot on top. Lamont Dozier has said that “You Can’t Hurry Love” began life as a rewrite of “Come See About Me,” and indeed it repeats that record’s melding of worried lyrics with a cheerful, uptempo arrangement. And like “Come See About Me,” Holland-Dozier-Holland sneak in references to a gospel song that would be familiar to much of The Supremes’ black audience – in this case “He’s Right On Time” by Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes. (Sample lyrics: “You can’t hurry God, you just have to wait/ You have to trust Him and give Him time, no matter how long it takes.”). But this time around, the gospel feel isn’t just confined to the lyric sheet. “You Can’t Hurry Love” swings more than any Supremes number-one before it, propelled along by the sprightly bouncing bass and staccato rhythm guitar. “You Can’t Hurry Love,” then, can be thought of as a turning point for The Supremes, transitioning the group from the dainty, airtight pop of their early hits to the more soulful and dramatic sound of their future.
It wasn’t just the Supremes’ sound that was developing, though – the lyrics too were showing signs of maturity. If we think of the Supremes singles as the saga of an on-again, off-again romance where Diana tears herself up over a guy who’s not worth the trouble, “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the point where she begins to step back and reconsider what love is supposed to mean. She’s learning patience and finding the strength to break off the bad relationship, even though she’s terrified of being single (“How much more can I take/ Before loneliness will cause my heart, heart to break?”). The reassuring maternal figures of Flo and Mary help ease some of Diana’s anxiety and frustration, their backing vocals reenforcing key nuggets of wisdom (“Wait!” “You got to give and take!” “Love don’t come easy!”). The music too is brisk and bouncy – a celebration of the happiness and freedom that await Diana once she stops mooning over her false idea of love. Whether it sticks, though, is another matter. For now, her mother’s advice is “the only thing that keeps me hanging on” – but soon those words will stand for another meaning entirely, and just as desperate. 8
Hit #1 on September 10, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
168 of 1022 #1’s reviewed; 16.44% through the Hot 100