In the summer of 1966, The Supremes had two singles competing for release. Their previous two, though both Top 10 hits, had failed to top the charts, making for the longest break between Supremes number-ones yet. Motown logically chose to release “You Can’t Hurry Love” first, a song that recaptured the bounce and light touch of their initial run of hits while adding a stronger soul influence. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the other potential single, was more of a departure – a despairing, driving record whose closest antecedent was the minor-key chorus and groaning organs of “My World is Empty Without You,” a flop by Supremes standards (in that it only got to #5). By the time Motown released the single in October, though, songwriters/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland were riding the success of a similar blend of melodrama and psych-rock touches. No coincidence, then, that “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” finally came out the same week “Reach Out I’ll Be There” topped the charts.
While the stakes may be lower on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – just heartbreak and frustration, not existential angst – the outcome is less certain. Diana Ross’s fragile vocals and inherent vulnerability render the defiant lyrics (“set me free,” “get out my life”) less as commands than feeble pleas. Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, avatars of wisdom and guidance on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” aren’t much support here either. They drift in and out of the mix, often overlapping with Diana’s lead as if singing as one muddled voice, or emitting wails that sound halfway between a siren and a sob. Distress signals recur throughout “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: the morse-code guitar lines, the flailing bass, the galloping percussion (borrowed from “Reach Out”). At the same time, though, there’s a directness and forcefulness to the record that outstrips even “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Layers of instruments (including organ, vibes and what sounds like muted brass) are doubled and tripled playing the same sustained notes, as if building a fortress out of sound. The emphatic drum/tambourine beat provides the foundation, steady but for an admission of defeat: “and there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it.”
Diana often played the romantic victim in previous Supremes singles, but usually in the sense that she was a pushover, perhaps even someone who got a thrill out of the drama. In “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” though, she really does seem to be making an honest effort to break away from the relationship (“let me get over you the way you’ve gotten over me”), making her struggle all the more tragic. This shift toward trying to take control of the relationship, whether successful or not, marks a new maturity for The Supremes, accentuated by the move from light pop to a harder-edged, more urgent sound. Unlike earlier Supremes hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland wouldn’t try to follow it up by trying to replicate the formula exactly. Instead, they’d mutate it, taking advantage of the single’s success and the expanding pop atmosphere of the late ’60s to see how baroque and experimental they could push the Supremes’ sound without losing their essence (or their audience). 9
Hit #1 on November 19, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
174 of 1025 #1′s reviewed; 16.98% through the Hot 100