By Joel Francis
(Note: Since the producers of the “Hitsville U.S.A.” box set programmed these tracks back-to-back, we’ll tackle them in one entry.)
For most people, the Supremes are Motown. Label founder Berry Gordy certainly didn’t hesitate to promote and encourage their singles, seemingly above all other releases. Gordy had been looking high and low to find a female face for his label. Early contender Mary Wells defected, and for some reason Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Gladys Knight and the Pips didn’t fit his image. The answer was right under his nose the whole time.
Supreme Florence Ballard grew up in Detroit with future Temptations Paul Williams and Eddie Hendricks, who were performing as the Primes. Their management wanted a female group, so Ballard formed the Primettes with best friend Mary Wilson, who recruited schoolmate Diana Ross.
In 1960, Ross pestered her old neighbor Smokey Robinson for an audition at Motown. He thought the girls were too green, but snagged their guitarist to join the Miracles. Undaunted, the trio stopped by the Hitsville studio every day after school and bugged Gordy for a spot on his label. The persistence paid off and in 1961 The Supremes released their first Motown single.
The Supremes were hardly the overnight success history has made them out to be. Their first eight singles, released over three years) did absolutely nothing on the charts. In 1964 they were turned over to the Holland-Dozier-Holland machine and their fortunes improved.
“Baby Love” was the Supreme’s second No. 1 hit with HDH. Any listeners that Ross’ opening coo didn’t seduce were captured by the catchy chorus that opens the song. The Funk Brothers shuffle underneath the lyrics imitates the footsteps, but are they walking away or coming back? The sexy saxophone accompaniment seems imply a lover’s return, but Ross is so insistent throughout it’s impossible to be sure.
“Come See About Me” continued the Supreme’s No. 1 success. Yet another HDH song and production, the repeated musical and lyrical theme – a spurned Ross singing over a shuffling Funk Brothers track – the assembly-line criticism holds up in this case. Why did such lovely ladies do to be treated so badly and ignored by the men in their lives?
Both songs have risen to the top of the oldies pantheon, and performed by dozens of artists. As with most of his major hits, Gordy passed both numbers around his stable of singers. For my money, the definitive version of “Come See About Me” is Jr. Walker’s 1967 cover.