116) The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go”

When The Beatles are framed in the context of ‘60s pop, they are often paired with The Rolling Stones (their compatriots in the British Invasion), The Beach Boys (with whom they competed in pushing sonic boundaries), or Bob Dylan (as cultural game-changers testing the limits of what pop music could express).  Arguably, though, their closest analogues were a trio of young women from Detroit. The Beatles revitalized a moribund genre by increasing the focus on melody and upping the overall complexity and sophistication, aiding the transition from “rock and roll” to “rock.”  Likewise, The Supremes developed as part of Motown’s effort to make pop-soul the dominant “black music” sound. As The Beatles had polished up the scruffy sounds of 1950s youth, The Supremes sanded the rough edges off of R&B.   Diana Ross sang with a voice atypically thin and high for the genre, even when compared with previous crossover singers like Shirley Owens and Mary Wells.  Groove was minimal, instrumentation restrained, syncopation nonexistent.  Yet somehow, these concessions to mainstream pop didn’t result in a pandering, anemic facsimile of the original genre.  Like their British male contemporaries, The Supremes successfully overlaid their sound on the existing pop framework.  Then, their popularity firmly established, they were able to take chances and lead their listeners down experimental alleys.  Separately but in parallel, The Supremes and The Beatles expanded the boundaries of pop music.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  “Where Did Our Love Go” is not the first Supremes single, but it may as well be.  The group had famously earned the sobriquet “No-Hit Supremes” before Berry Gordy revamped their sound, axing the freewheeling R&B arrangements and lead vocal parts for Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson. As the first fruit of the new Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go” is a cautious exploration of their new identity.  It’s a song without verse or chorus, just the same eight bars over and over with little variation, stretching to fill two minutes and 40 seconds.  In short, it’s a debut closer in spirit to “Love Me Do” than “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But beneath the repetitiousness and timidity are hints that, given time, something great and original could develop. The interplay between Ross’s lead vocals and Ballard and Wilson’s ethereal “baby baby”-s suggests a sultriness foreign to prior girl-group records, and the stomps-and-handclaps percussion adds just enough of an edge to keep the song from drifting into easy listening waters. Like The Beatles’ earliest singles, “Where Did Our Love Go” is almost less a great pop song than it is a promise of future brilliance.  7

Hit #1 on August 22, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
116 of 986 #1’s reviewed; 11.77% through the Hot 100

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1 Comment

Filed under 07, 1964

One response to “116) The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go”

  1. There’s syncopation here, sure enough — that stuttering tap-dancing chorus-line beat is set against the pop of the bass and the tick-tock sway of the repeated “baby”s. It’s not funk, but it’s not a march or a waltz either.

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