Tag Archives: holland-dozier-holland

180) The Supremes – “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”

You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was The Supremes’ biggest departure, and also their best record yet – dramatic but deeply felt, emphasizing the “soul” part of their soul-pop hybrid while still sounding recognizably like themselves. For the follow-up, producers/writers Holland-Dozier-Holland admirably continued to experiment, rather than adhering to their standard operating procedure of cloning the previous hit. In doing so, they gave Motown’s most commercial group one of the label’s most out-there singles.

“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” is built on juxtaposition: a conventional ballad with a full band and a strings-heavy arrangement, interrupted by despairing spoken-word fragments backed only by bass, harpsichord and cries of “look what you’ve done! look what you’ve done!” Spoken interjections were nothing new for Holland-Dozier-Holland – Levi Stubbs’s “just look over your shoulder!” in “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is one example – but the writers usually incorporated them into the body of the song. “Love is Here” instead splits these vocal interludes off into discrete sections. The dramatic lurches between them and the melodic parts of the song create an disconcerting effect, befitting the lyrics of a promised future abruptly wrenched away.

Apart from the characteristic fluid bassline, the restless pacing of which echoes the uneasy fluctuations of the song structure, the satiny production on “Love is Here” sounds oddly un-Motownlike – even the label’s trademark stomping beat is muted to a soft thud. As it turns out, “Love is Here” was largely recorded not at Hitsville USA with the Funk Brothers, but in Los Angeles with the Wrecking Crew, a harbinger of Motown’s permanent relocation to the West Coast a few years later. Perhaps this change of scenery explains why “Love is Here,” with its frothy strings and overripe soliloquies, seems less influenced by Detroit soul than by Hollywood melodrama.

As hammy as Diana Ross’s line readings may be (complete with a gasp in the first section!), her actual singing on “Love is Here” is the subtlest and richest of any Supremes record yet. She no longer leans on the innate vulnerability of her fragile little-girl voice; instead, she adds careful shading to her phrasing, and delivers some lines with surprising strength. Ross begins the song in a crystal-clear, brisk tone, at a remove from the hurt-filled lyrics. Starting in the second verse, a slight cloudiness creeps into her timbre, as if she’s pushing through a catch in her voice. In the coda, she clings to the phrase “oh my darling, now you’re gone,” afraid to let the words get away from her as easily as he did, her soft vibrato on the word “gone” trembling like unsuccessfully suppressed sobs. While the subject matter of “Love is Here” is close to that of “Where Did Our Love Go” or “Baby Love,” Ross’s performance has progressed beyond the self-victimization of those earlier singles. Here, her hurt reaction isn’t defensive; it’s a means to force a confrontation (“look at my face!”) and assert her dignity. Ross’s revelatory performance is somewhat undermined, however, by the rather uninspired harmony arrangement given to Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, a warning sign of changes to come.

While “Love is Here” is moderately successful in its own right, it’s more impressive when considered as a warm-up for “Reflections,” recorded the week “Love is Here” topped the charts. “Reflections” pushed the gothic pop experimentation into a decidedly psychedelic direction (most blatantly in its oscillator motif), and its slow-downed, bass- and organ-dominated groove gave The Supremes their most soulful and sexiest record to date. (Nevertheless, it topped out at #2 on the charts.) Yet “Reflections” also marked the end of an era: their last great Supremes single written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, who soon went went on strike and eventually left Motown; one of the last Supremes recordings featuring Flo Ballard before she was fired from the group; and the first release to be credited to “Diana Ross & The Supremes” – a name change that pointed to the squeezing out of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (Ballard’s replacement), both of whom would only occasionally appear on the records bearing their group’s name. Ross’s performance on “Love is Here” proved she had the talent to carry a record, but it also meant the beginning of the end of The Supremes as a distinct entity. In that sense, the biggest transformation in “Love is Here” wasn’t its song structure or production style, but the shifting group dynamic – firmly entrenching Diana as the star, and rendering the other Supremes anonymous and inessential. 7

Hit #1 on March 11, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
180 of 1032 #1’s reviewed; 17.44% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1967

174) The Supremes – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”

 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

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Filed under 09, 1966

170) The Four Tops – “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

Motown writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland frequently sneaked references to traditional gospel music into their otherwise secular records. On the Supremes tracks “Come See About Me” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” paraphrases of familiar gospel songs function as a shibboleth, tacitly invoking a culture shared by the artists and a specific (African-American, Christian) subset of their audience. For records like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” though, the allusions are more thematic than literal, a means of adding heft to a formula love song. The song, directed toward a depressed woman apparently on the verge of suicide, promises everlasting love, support and consolation to guide her through her trouble. The narrator is portrayed as a near-omnipotent force capable of salvation. All the woman has to do is ask and her prayers will be answered.

The intro to “Reach Out” enacts the record’s theme in miniature: a mournful cry from a flute, answered by the gallop of a woodblock rushing to rescue. Though the beat migrates to tambourine and drums/bass over the course of the song, it never ceases or varies tempo, even when most other instrumentation drops out at the song’s tensest moments. Lead singer Levi Stubbs’ declamatory baritone is nearly as constant, at times so powerful that it veers into distortion. His strained vocals and jagged phrasing attest to the intensity of his effort. His ability to rescue her isn’t in doubt; the question is whether she will reach out for him. All the Tops can do is offer a hand and beg her to accept it. The suspense builds to a climax on the bridge between verse and chorus, as the backing Tops’ cries to “reach out!” escalate and Stubbs’s pleas grow more fervent (“come on girl, reach out for me!”). The vocals cut out and, for a few moments, her fate hangs in the balance. Does she succumb to her fears and anxieties? Or does she accept his help? At last, Stubbs’ triumphant “HAH!” relieves the tension, as if he’s caught her hand and is pulling her to safety. The pleading in the bridge gives way to a reassuring affirmation: “I’ll be there/ to always see you through.” By the final verse, she no longer needs to seek him out; he’s already with her (“just look over your shoulder!”).

While gospel is the obvious reference point for the vocal style and lyrical themes, musically “Reach Out” suggests that Holland-Dozier-Holland were paying attention to rock as well – specifically “Paint It Black,” where the cantering rhythm and major-minor fluctuations stand for existential angst. The Four Tops’ run of singles from “Reach Out” through “7-Rooms of Gloom” can be considered Motown’s counterpart to the arty and experimental wing of mid-’60s rock, foreshadowing the label’s forays into psychedelic soul. As psychedelic rock sought to chronicle the interior drug experience through sound, these Four Tops singles externalize the mind-altering effects of anxiety and jealousy, jolting listeners through a series of dynamic contrasts (major vs. minor; Stubbs’ anguished roars vs. the Tops’ beatific tenors; frantic instrumentation vs. suspenseful moments of near silence), until, by song’s end, the audience is as worn out and on edge as the songs’ narrators. This unsettling physicality renders these singles tangible; unlike similarly theatrical records of the period (think “Lightnin’ Strikes”), they refuse to be reduced to camp. Even compared with its siblings “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette,” the beyond-life-and-death urgency of “Reach Out” gives it an unmatched gravity. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, though, the song is too encouraging to feel ponderous. “Reach Out” understands the depths, but it celebrates the certainty of deliverance. 10

Hit #1 on October 15, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
170 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.62% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 10, 1966

168) The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love”

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

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138) Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” replaced “Back in My Arms Again” after just one week atop the charts, giving Motown its first set of back-to-back number-ones. As with The Supremes before them, Four Tops succeeded with the help of the writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who rescued the promising group from the label’s B-list and crafted a musical persona for them that was both distinctive and easily replicable. Four Tops had bounced around labels for nearly a decade, mostly recording lite-jazz standards and touring the supper club circuit. But it wasn’t until H-D-H positioned the Tops’ sound as a heavier, more gospel-influenced take on The Supremes’ polished soul-pop that the group had their first hit, 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Lead singer Levi Stubbs began shouting against the upper limits of his baritone, the strain adding both a desperation and a forcefulness to his voice that marked it as the ultra-masculine, ultra-emotive counterpart to Diana Ross’s demure girlishness. “I Can’t Help Myself” even shares a similar chord progression and some lyrical content with “Where Did Our Love Go,” albeit fleshed out with a bridge and full Funk Brothers instrumentation, including vibes, strings and a saxophone.

While The Supremes sang in questions (“Where did our love go?” “Why must we separate?” “Won’t you hurry?”), though, the Four Tops issue proclamations. Stubbs isn’t apologetic or insecure about telling his girl how he feels; he lays out his anguish in plain terms, take it or leave it. Nor does he hold her directly responsible for causing his heartache. Rather, he turns the blame on himself for being “weaker than a man should be,” for letting himself fall in love at all. But even as he resists her, the swell of the strings and the jangle of the tambourine betray the rush of exhilaration he’s so desperate to tamp down. He may complain about the burning in his heart, but he can’t deny its warm glow. This being a Holland-Dozier-Holland production, Four Tops would repeat the formula with the aptly-titled “It’s the Same Old Song” – though as with “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me,” the knockoff arguably improves on the original. But the group’s most electrifying material was still around the corner, as H-D-H’s productions would grow increasingly gothic to match the exquisite agony of Stubbs’ voice. 8

Hit #1 on June 19, 1965 for 1 week; repeaked on July 3, 1965 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
138 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.68% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 08, 1965

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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Filed under 06, 1965

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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Filed under 08, 1965