Monday, 9 November 2009

Diana ROSS and The SUPREMES and The TEMPTATIONS: Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations

(#63: 15 February 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Try It Baby/I Second That Emotion/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough/I’m Gonna Make You Love Me/This Guy’s In Love With You/Funky Broadway/I’ll Try Something New/A Place In The Sun/Sweet Inspiration/Then/The Impossible Dream

It is a matter of some irony that in early 1969, as Motown finally managed the major commercial breakthrough in Britain, thanks to the twin powers of Dave Godin and Tony Blackburn – I will examine this phenomenon in greater detail in entry #75 – the label was experiencing something of an identity crisis back home. The sixties, and maybe Motown’s golden age, were coming to an end and facing the seventies was not going to be a simple shoo-in; the label’s best known songwriters, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, had walked out and their top female and male acts also had an urgent need to re-establish themselves. What did Gordy and Motown have to say about the blood, confusion and abandonment of 1968? Were they really intent on a one-way trip to the supper club – or did this trip have a greater purpose?

The Supremes/Temptations team-up was a matter of economic as well as aesthetic urgency. Ed Sullivan’s sleevenote and the track listing – not to mention the TCB (Taking Care Of Business) television special which inspired the album – suggest another journey to that unreachable Ark of the Covenant, All Round Entertainment, but as ever the story and art are a little more complex. By 1968 the Supremes had lost Florence Ballard and the Temptations had lost David Ruffin; I say “lost” but both departures were a matter of a combination of jumping and being pushed – neither had done themselves any favours, and by all accounts were pretty well asking to be fired, but audiences had not taken to Cindy Birdsong or Dennis Edwards with the same, enthusiastic rapidity (again, the latter was not helped by Ruffin’s early attempts to gatecrash Temptations gigs and steal the show).

Furthermore, while the Supremes had long since crossed over to white audiences, the Temptations’ core constituency had remained black; it is significant that “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” marked the group’s first appearance in the UK top ten, and while their Temptations’ Greatest Hits package from 1967 spent ten months on our album chart they remained very much a cult, worshipped by the Beat Boomers from the Beatles and the Stones on down, but not really crossing over; there was both a darkness and a certainty about their strut, their underplayed but titanic influence on the groups who would appear in their wake. Unlike the reaching out of the Four Tops, there was a proud air of self-sufficiency about the Temptations, their act and their songs, even when shards of grief rained down on Ruffin in “I Wish It Would Rain” and elsewhere. Daryl Hall has termed them “the black Beatles” and that too cannot be understated; if James Brown was Elvis, then the Temptations changed the rules and redefined the boundaries again. But now Ruffin was gone, Edwards was settling in – he only gets two lead vocals on this album, so the welcome remained tentative – and on the sidelines Norman Whitfield had big ideas for where he thought they should go.

Still, Whitfield played no part in this record – Frank Wilson, the stalwart Motown backroom man responsible for “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” one of the greatest of all Northern Soul records, as well as (in combination with Smokey Robinson) later Four Tops masterpieces like “Still Water,” was the project’s executive producer – and the focus did seem to be an attempt at audience widening; bringing the former Primes and Primettes together in an effort to sell the Temptations to a bigger audience, and it is significant that the Temptations have by far the greater impact here than the Supremes; of the latter, only Diana Ross – also then beginning to consider jumping ship and going solo - is heard alone and Wilson and Birdsong make no impact at all.

“Try It Baby” begins like no other previous Motown album had done; with near inaudible nightclub finger snaps and bongos and, of all Temptations, Melvin Franklin, the group’s basso profundo, taking the lead vocal (a marked contrast to the androgynous wistfulness of Marvin Gaye’s 1964 original). Then HB Barnum’s rather intrusive big band arrangement strikes up, and in wafts Diana, crooning sweetly that her man should “move back across the track where you came from.” Then Paul Williams bursts into the proceedings with a fervid “Listen!” but the spectre of All Round Entertainment is sadly dominant.

Their “I Second That Emotion” sticks very close to Robinson’s original (which, as Robinson was producing, is unsurprising). Ross takes the initial lead but any tension is soon dispersed by imbecilic owl and car horn imitations (“Hoot! Hoot!”) from the Temptations. Paul Riser’s strings begin to exhibit some of the shivering glimmer which would eventually bear stark fruit on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and Eddie Kendricks does his best to inject some proper emotion into the song but the Miracles remain untouched, as indeed does the ascetic stillness of David Sylvian and Japan’s subsequent reading.

One has simply to say no to their “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; in the Marvin and Tammi original you can palpate their ecstasy, their passionate rush across continents towards each other’s embrace (and indeed it was one of the first tracks they cut together). Despite Riser’s Morse code orchestrations, this version comes nowhere near that power (even with Dennis Edwards making his first solo appearance), nor to the starkly screaming reading which Diana herself would give the song scarcely a year later (the glutinous grand piano and glockenspiel flourishes in this reading do nothing to create astonishmnent). Overall the feeling thus far is one of Motown paying tribute to Motown; efficient enough but scarcely affecting or profound. The sound of water being trodden.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was the album’s big hit (although the song did not form part of the TV special); co-written by the young Kenny Gamble, it patters along fairly pedantically without any real explosions – Otis Williams’ winking “I’m yours!” retort to Diana’s “Hey baby” and Kendricks’ dynamic entry into the final bridge notwithstanding – and with the first of several pained and schmaltzy talkovers making its appearance. Surely the original purpose of the Supremes and Temptations was not to form a template for Donny and Marie.

The album reaches a dreadful nadir with their assassination of “This Guy’s In Love With You.” Some years ago I wrote the following about the definitive Herb Alpert reading:

“Think of the build-up of "This Guy's In Love" - just as the orchestra and chorus are about to boil over to a climax, Burt's piano suddenly shuts everyone up, there is a brief silence, and Herb's lone semi-voice is alone in its own sudden realisation of dread. He whimpers "if not, I'll just . . . die." A longer silence (why can't anyone use silence properly on records these days?). The trumpet resumes the tune to fade, almost reluctantly (no wonder the song was originally earmarked for Chet Baker).”

None of this combination of joy (for there is slowly awakening, gradually dumbfounding joy in Alpert’s version too) and dread filters through to the Supremes/Temptations version. Otis Williams sings the initial lead but Diana soon detours him with her raised eyebrow of “Really?” Dividing up the song between two voices makes no logical or emotional sense whatsoever, and matters are far from helped by Gene Page’s “It’s All At The Co-Op” arrangement of Radio 2 muted trumpets (which later, and unaccountably, turn military). After the climactic “die” – which Diana sings as anything but a climax, and significantly it’s the only “die” in this reading – there is a peculiar, out-of-tempo instrumental interlude before the song clumsily starts up again. The track is a mess, unworthy even of the George Mitchell Minstrels, and it’s something of a relief when the second “die” is avoided altogether and the song is put out of its misery before segueing straight into “Funky Broadway.”

It’s a pity that Motown didn’t do Stax more often (but then, didn’t Stax represent everything that Gordy was trying to escape from?), and Edwards’ update on Wilson Pickett marks the first moment on this album which actually sounds like 1969; James Jamerson’s unmistakeable bass making itself felt, the cat-like collective “OWWW!!!” squeals making a real, forceful impact, and overall this track is the real pointer to where Whitfield would take the Temptations with “Cloud Nine” and beyond – dynamic, and much too short.

Side two, gratifying, is a far more satisfactory affair, and not surprisingly the Temptations begin to take the upper hand here. “I’ll Try Something New,” an unhackneyed and seldom-heard Smokey/Miracles song, is given a fine reading and a genuinely inventive arrangement from Page (a truer line between his work on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and his future as Barry White’s arranger); note the single note organ sustenato which accompanies the “tower so high” sequence. Their “A Place In The Sun” is not quite as appealing as the easy, optimistic swing of Stevie Wonder’s original but then times had changed since the latter; Jamerson introduces the song with a solemnly roving bass and the feeling is much more spiritual, hymn-like; Sullivan’s comment that “their harmonies go back to the headwaters of religious music” is particularly pertinent here. In addition there is evidence of genuine emotional exchange here as Otis Williams offers “On that OLLLLLLDDDDD….” and, in response to Ross’ “I want you always to remember” talkover, utters an unscorable “YEEEEEAAAAHHHHH!!!!” There is something of Stephen Foster coursing through the veins of this performance.

“Sweet Inspiration” sees the two groups nodding towards Southern soul; penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, one can imagine either Alex Chilton or James Carr singing this, and perhaps with a lot more conviction (see also the subject of entry #70). Here the song is given a brisk workout. The high string drone in the middle eight is notable but the Ray Conniff trombones are misplaced; Riser had still to work out the ideal Temptations arrangemental template.

“Then” is a wonderful, underexposed Smokey song, originally recorded by the Four Tops but also given an excellent reading here (Paul Williams on lead vocals). Not many songs, even in 1969, made a point of namechecking Longfellow and Beethoven (and certainly not within the same song), but Robinson’s metaphors are perfectly controlled, his harmonies adventurous (the five note seesaw of a string/brass figure which occurs after every chorus); here is yet another direct pointer to The Lexicon Of Love (“Valentine’s Day” in particular).

Then comes the big finale, their “The Impossible Dream,” and it might be the most remarkable thing on the record. Interpreted by virtually everybody at the time, including Scott Walker – and this is far from the last time we will be hearing of the song in this tale – it is worth remembering that its parent musical, Man Of La Mancha, took a distinctly postmodern view of the Don Quixote tale (but then, was not Cervantes himself postmodern three centuries too early?), setting it within the context of a Spanish prison, the prisoner (ah!) telling his tale, making it live and breathe as theatre within his confined space – a tale of a foolish old dreamer whose ridiculous quests are no substitute for or escape from the life which he resolutely declines to fill with genuine, living and breathing people and emotions. Indeed Auden was originally approached to write the lyrics for the show but his words were felt too inflammatory and audience-baiting for the backers; still, even watered down, “The Impossible Dream”’s accent is on the “impossible”; the vain attempt to manufacture glory out of daydreams (the mere other side of the coin of nightmare), the boast about the non-existent, the song about nothing except the nothingness in the mind of its singer masquerading as everything.

But of course such a song was tailored to have its potential meanings broadened out, and so it is the crucial case here; beginning with a solitary Moog (still unsettling in this early 1969 context), Diana begins the song unaccompanied. Eventually a harmonica comes in, and then drums, bass and Barnum’s orchestra, followed by ticking clocks of guitar and harp. The number builds and builds until we reach the inevitable cascade of bells, choir and full orchestra.

Then it ends - except that it doesn’t. We next hear a procession of military drums and Last Post bugle calls (so perhaps those trumpets on “This Guy’s In Love” aren’t so unaccountable), and then the Temptations take up the song again to a second, more pronounced (yet also more subtle) climax. There is the absolute absence of schmaltz or even showbusiness here; instead there is the inescapable feeling of a subtext, of a dream seemingly rendered impossible by the events of 1968 still sung of as attainable, achievable. Finally, those mysterious walking footsteps we heard at the transition from “This Guy’s In Love” to “Funky Broadway” reappear and take us out of the record. As though embarking on the beginning of a Million Man March, and perhaps this was the record and show’s real aim; to assume the clothes and appearance of white America while bearing their Trojan horse, to persuade America of their dream, to inculcate it within their new audience. I do not make claims for this record to be a direct forebear of What’s Going On? – particularly as Gaye, in tandem with Whitfield, was already getting ready for that with “Grapevine” at the same time – but as a spectacle – as a totality - it ends up more unsettling than reassuring, and such was the trick that it pulled. The Supremes and Temptations’ “Impossible Dream” is in its way as subversive as anything to appear on BYG Actuel in its year and its underlying message cannot have failed to be absorbed – particularly by the seven-year-old Obama.