Tag Archives: girl groups

148) The Supremes – “I Hear a Symphony”

After “Nothing But Heartaches” broke The Supremes’ run of number-one records – failing to even scrape the Top 10 – it was time to rethink the formula. “I Hear a Symphony” offered a more complex take on the Supremes sound, even more than “Stop! In the Name of Love” had been. “Symphony” may have been inspired by fellow girl group The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” a record pairing an adaptation of the Minuet in G Major from Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach with lyrics about the ecstasy of falling in love. “Symphony” attempts the same sort of pop-classical fusion but in reverse, dressing a simple pop melody in an elaborate, faux-orchestral production.

While “I Hear a Symphony” retains some of the Supremes’ trademarks (vibes, heartbeat bass, Flo and Mary’s cries of “baby, baby”), the stomping rhythm that had dominated all their previous hits is replaced with a sprightlier backbeat. “Symphony” also adds strings to the mix – first, just as an accent when the girls sing the word “symphony,” then a constant, if subdued, presence from the second chorus on. There are no fewer than three key changes over the course of the song, beginning in C and rising by semitones till it reaches E-flat. Together, the key changes, syncopated rhythm and soaring strings help the song maintain a degree of lightness, even as the record swells in its second half. This light touch extends to the song’s lyrics, the purest, sweetest declaration of love that had appeared on a Supremes number-one to date. When Diana Ross cries here, her tears are not over an unsteady boyfriend, but out of sympathy “for those who’ve never felt the joy we’ve felt.”

In a way, “I Hear a Symphony” can be considered as The Supremes’ “Yesterday,” and not just because of the strings. Both records find their respective groups moving forward by looking backward, cutting their respective genres (R&B and rock) with MOR pop and crossing over to a wider audience in the process. (Incidentally, The Supremes’ version of “Yesterday” appears on the I Hear a Symphony LP, alongside their take on “A Lover’s Concerto.”) But while The Beatles were free to indulge their eclectic streak, The Supremes began catering more and more to the mainstream, performing in supper clubs and stocking their LPs with Top 40 covers and easy listening standards. Surprisingly, the group would take their biggest artistic leaps on their singles.  After “I Hear a Symphony,” Supremes songs no longer had to fit a narrow definition, freeing them to trade consistency for greatness. 8

Hit #1 on November 20, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
148 of 1014 #1’s reviewed; 14.60% through the Hot 100

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137) The Supremes – “Back in My Arms Again”

After a taking few tentative steps toward independence with “Stop! In the Name of Love,” The Supremes retreat back into the arms of a man who may not be worth the trouble. But the narrator of “Back in My Arms Again” isn’t begging for her man not to leave her. She’s broken it off with him once before, but her pleas for him to come back have paid off. It’s not enough for her to take comfort in their reunion, though; no, she has to get all smug about it. “I listened once to my friends’ advice, but it’s not gonna happen twice,” she smirks, willfully ignoring that if everyone’s saying the same thing, they might have a point. But give her the benefit of the doubt: it is easy for them to say when they’re not the ones in love. The canon of popular music would be far slimmer without all the lovers who made it against the protestations of friends/parents/the world at large. But then our narrator needles her fellow Supremes by name, and all sympathy dissipates. Oh Diana, didn’t you “lose your love so true,” just like Mary? And isn’t calling Flo’s boy “a Romeo” engaging in the same judgmental gossip you’ve just spent two minutes dismissing? Suddenly, “Back in My Arms Again” starts sounding less like a love song than an anti-friendship screed, maybe even a precursor to the ’00s fascination with telling off haters.

Musically, it’s a step back from the more sophisticated “Stop!” as well, essentially reprising “Come See About Me” without the call-and-response vocals and crisp bounce. “Back in My Arms Again” would become even more redundant when the pre-chorus, one of the song’s best hooks, would be recycled for The Isley Brothers’ superior “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” the following year. The Supremes’ first three number-ones are still terrific singles, but (as with the boyfriend in the song) we know they can do better now, so it’s disappointing to watch them backpedal. Maybe that’s why “Back in My Arms Again” would end The Supremes’ streak of five number-ones in a row, after soundalike follow-up “Nothing But Heartaches” stalled at #11. If the girls were to regain their place at the top, they’d have to stop spinning their wheels and keep moving forward. 6

Hit #1 on June 12, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
137 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.58% through the Hot 100

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131) The Supremes – “Stop! In the Name of Love”

The Marvelettes were sassy, and Martha and the Vandellas tough, but The Supremes, under Berry Gordy’s watch, were the ladies.  The group’s best strategy for crossover stardom was to construct a persona embodying the ideals of postwar middle class femininity. Each of The Supremes’ prior number-ones found the girls on the losing end of a bad romance, but did they complain? Retaliate? Threaten to break it off? Of course not — they were resigned to moon about, pleading feebly while their boyfriends went out on the town, consequence-free. The idea that The Supremes could record a kiss-off like “Too Many Fish in the Sea” or “Come and Get These Memories” was unthinkable. But by 1965, the definition of what was proper for a lady was due for revision. Thematically, “Stop! In the Name of Love” is a continuation of The Supremes’ eternal suffering narrative. The difference is in the title. The boyfriend’s still unfaithful, but the girls now refuse to suffer in silence. The command may be hollow, and Diana Ross’s smiling, preening live performances might deflect from the force of the message, but for a group as demure as The Supremes, it’s strikingly forceful, particularly when paired with the iconic choreography — right hand shoved forward, firm and unflappable — and the unrelenting repetition of the notes in the chorus.

Every Supremes single so far improves on the last, but “Stop! In the Name of Love” is a drastic step forward in terms of production, thanks largely to Motown’s newfound stylistic cohesion. There’s still a snare on every beat so that you know it’s a Supremes record, but the chord progression is the most complex yet, and the vibraphone adds a kick that’s both classy and slightly exotic. Likewise, the organ and sax parts find the group courting a more R&B sound for the first time since the days before superstardom. “Stop! In the Name of Love” isn’t deep soul, nor is it a feminist anthem. What makes the single exciting — other than the monster chorus, of course — is the suggestion that The Supremes can expand their sound and subject matter without betraying their inherent grace. 8

Hit #1 on March 27, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
131 of 1008 #1’s reviewed; 13.0% through the Hot 100

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124) The Supremes – “Come See About Me”

According to Lamont Dozier (quoted in Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits), “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me” were written and recorded at roughly the same time, in the wake of the unexpected success of “Where Did Our Love Go.”  The three tracks share a number of similarities: accents on every beat, lyrics pleading for the return of an unfaithful lover, a repetitive chord progression.  But “Come See About Me” builds on the established hit-making Supremes template, just as “Baby Love” was a step more musically advanced than “Where Did Our Love Go.”  “Come See About Me” is the closest the Supremes had come yet to a traditional verse-chorus structure. Still, both parts of the song are too underdeveloped to stand on their own, and there’s no middle eight or key change to break up the monotony.  What does make it pop is the record’s bright, punchy sound, as represented by the drum intro, the rhythm guitar and the increased prominence of Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson’s backing vocals (now shouted instead of cooed).

Even the title of “Come See About Me” represents a greater degree of sophistication, calling to mind both The Dixie Hummingbirds’ gospel hit “Lord, Come See About Me” and Mae West’s iconic line from She Done Him Wrong: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” This double-coding of the sacred and the profane, so common in the gospel-R&B hybrid that is soul music, speaks to both religious and secular audiences – or, at least, to the religious and secular impulses within each listener.  Between Diana Ross’s thin vocals and the bouncy pop of their early records, it’s easy to forget that The Supremes were essentially a soul outfit.   The handclaps and call-and-response vocals common to girl group records are rooted in the tradition of African-American church music, and Ballard in particular possessed a voice with a richness and emotional intensity nearly unrivaled among Motown artists.  Just as their first three number-ones increased incrementally in complexity, “Come See About Me” finds The Supremes inching toward a harder, more soulful sound. 7

Hit #1 on December 19, 1964 for 1 week; repeaked on January 16, 1965 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
124 of 1000 #1’s reviewed; 12.40% through the Hot 100

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121) The Shangri-Las – “Leader of the Pack”

The girls were a very nice bunch of street urchins, I called them … At the beginning we did not get along – they were kind of crude and having to deal with them on a daily basis used to get me very uptight – with their gestures, and language, and chewing the gum, and the stockings ripped up their leg.  We would say “Not nice, you must be ladies …”
-Ellie Greenwich (quoted in Alan Betrock’s Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound)

Their songs captured how many teenagers talked and felt or, more precisely, how they wished they talked and felt, mixing trash and tragedy.
Ken Emerson, Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era

The girl groups emerged in an era of musical and sartorial conservatism, between the decline of rock and roll and the beginning of “the Sixties” as they’re now remembered.  Even the groups that didn’t graduate from the Motown Finishing School nevertheless dressed in satin, sat up straight and avoided using any slang that might make them sound like actual teenagers.  But around the same time that the men of the British Invasion were bringing back real rock music, a few girl groups began to break from the starched-and-pressed pack.  The ethnically ambiguous Ronettes were the first to cross over to the dark side, wearing thick Cleopatra eyeliner and flouting the rules of what “proper singers” were supposed to sound like.  But it was two pairs of white sisters, The Shangri-Las, that became the quintessential girl group gone bad.  Instead of matching prom dresses and hair-dos, the girls dressed in black leather and go-go boots.  Unlike the eternally angelic Darlene Love, lead singer Mary Weiss sounded like a girl who might actually date a rebel. And while The Shirelles may have wondered, “Will you still love me tomorrow?“, the Shangri-Las seemed to have no such qualms.

Even the name “The Shangri-Las” is heavily ironic, as nearly all their songs were about some form of teenage tragedy.  The most tragic of them all was their second single and biggest hit.  “Leader of the Pack” stretches and distorts Phil Spector’s teenage melodramas to grotesque extremes.  Sure, a broken heart can feel like dying when you’re a teenager, but it has nothing on a grisly motorcycle crash – especially one reported moment by moment with accompanying sound effects.  It’s so over-the-top that it verges on parody – and has been claimed to be such to some writers – but at the same time, it’s simply too melancholy, too pretty, too desperate to be just tongue-in-cheek.

There’s a sense of detachment in “Leader of the Pack” that rescues it from the soporific depths of “Teen Angel,” the record that kicked off the whole teenage death disc craze.  The song’s conceit is that Betty, the girlfriend-widow of Jimmy the motorcycle rebel, is calmly recounting their relationship and his subsequent death to her classmates (whose lack of awareness is kind of puzzling, as Betty complains that “in school, they all stop and stare”). There’s no hysterical pleading to the deceased up in heaven.  Instead, when Mary Weiss solemnly recites “The leader of the pack, now he’s gone” over and over in the coda, it’s the aural equivalent of one solitary tear rolling from a mascaraed eye.

But “Leader of the Pack” is also an exceptionally well-made record, almost more like a radio play than just another pop song.  Along with their bad-girl image, The Shangri-Las’ trademark became this almost avant garde disregard for what pop radio considered acceptable.  Their first hit, “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” is mashed together bits of melody without a chorus (but with seagull sound effects); a later single, “Past, Present and Future,” is a spoken word piece.  Even their more conventional singles like “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and “Out in the Streets” display a heavily theatrical bent, thanks to Mary Weiss’s passionate delivery and impossibly girlish voice.  In She’s So Fine: Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class, Laurie Stras writes that the group sang “as if they were speaking (or whining, or shrieking, or sobbing, or yelling) to approximate pitches, substituting ‘real’ emotive vocal disruption for the technical affectations of doo-wop.” It’s this rawness that makes Weiss sound simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than her girl group peers, and unquestionably like a real teenager.

“Leader of the Pack” is the apotheosis of The Shangri-Las’ blend of the dramatic with the pop.  The way the soaring verses deflate into a sudden, accompaniment-free line “the leader of the pack” may not make for the catchiest of choruses.  However, it’s an instantly memorable effect because it’s the ultimate representation of how an epic love is cut short by a violent death.  Where a guitar solo or a dance break should be, there’s the graphic sounds of the fatal crash.  Did we really need to hear the tires skidding, the sickening crunch of metal hitting metal, the girlfriend crying “Lookout! Lookout!” in vain?  Yes, we do.  In an era where cultural repression was the norm, the Shangri-Las’ lurid take on death was a refreshing bit of candor.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that The Shangri-Las became a touchstone for punk rock.  The opening line of “Leader of the Pack” (“Is she really going out with him?”) was recycled for the first-ever British punk record, The Damned’s “New Rose” (as well as for the title of Joe Jackson’s debut single); the intro from “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V”) turns up in the New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss.” (And this is just the iceberg’s tip – for a mind-boggling extensive list of other quotes and references, check out The Shangri-Las’ Wikipedia page.) By being one of the first groups to disregard the rules about what was appropriate for girls to sing about, how they were supposed to dress and what constituted good singing, The Shangri-Las helped usher in an era of frankness and realism in pop music, one that’s reverberations still shake the charts today. 9

Hit #1 on November 28, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
121 of 994 #1’s reviewed; 12.17% through the Hot 100

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120) The Supremes – “Baby Love”

Where Did Our Love Go” was The Supremes’ tenth single, but it was the first to be recorded in what became the group’s signature style.  It was also their first single to make much of an impact. Wisely, Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Supremes returned to the well for the follow-up. “Baby Love” borrows several elements from that previous single, as if trying to determine which was the variable that made it a hit.  Back are the stomped-out beat, Diana Ross’s little-girl-grown lead vocals, and the theme of trying to persuade a cheating boyfriend to stay, even if breaking up would be more merciful for them both.  But there are also a few added frills.  “Where Did Our Love Go”‘s repetitive structure only managed to avoid irritation thanks to its brief running time.  While “Baby Love” never quite busts into anything resembling a chorus, a few extra chords keep the verses from going stale.  The “baby, baby” backing vocals are back, but supplemented with Mary and Flo’s ghostly “don’t throw our love away,” an addition that results in the record’s most memorable hook.  There’s even a fake key change right in the middle.

Following a big hit with a retread is a business strategy as old as the record industry.  Usually, though, these soundalikes are released to diminishing returns, à la The Marvelettes‘ “Twistin’ Postman” or Chubby Checker’s infinite attempts to replicate “The Twist.”  But “Baby Love” was a surprise: not only was it a better song, but it was a bigger hit. “Baby Love” realizes the promise of “Where Did Our Love Go” with a richer sound and a more confident performance.  It also foreshadows the group’s upward trajectory; within months, The Supremes would become the biggest pop group in America.  While so many of their peers struggled to repeat the success of their One Big Hit, The Supremes were just getting started.  But having mastered the elements of their style, it was time to progress. 7

Hit #1 on October 31, 1964; total of 4 weeks at #1
120 of 992 #1’s reviewed; 12.10% through the Hot 100

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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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