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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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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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