The Supremes – “Up the Ladder to the Roof”

The Supremes – “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” Pop # 10, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Life in the Supremes had been rocky for a while. First, Diana Ross got top billing, then founding member Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. To add insult to injury, several tracks credited to Diana Ross and the Supremes were glorified Ross solo tracks, recorded with no input from Birdsong or Mary Wilson.

When Ross finally left to launch a solo career, Wilson regained control of the group. As the sole original member, she became the unofficial leader. For the first time in a while, Wilson’s voice was prominent among the backing vocals. In her autobiography, Wilson recalled that the backing vocals were recorded with the three Supremes sharing a microphone, something the group did frequently in the early days but had not done in years.

Although she never reached the same level of fame as her predecessor, Terrell was an excellent replacement for Ross. Terrell’s voice had greater range and tone with a strong gospel emphasis. Producer Frank Wilson (no relation to Mary), frequently told Terrell to dial back her performance during the recording of “Up the Ladder to the Roof” because he thought Motown listeners wouldn’t like her soulful delivery.

The title is a nod to Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s 1962 hit for the Drifters, “Up on the Roof.” In the Drifters’ song, the roof is a romanticized utopia, free of the worries and stress of urban life. For the Supremes, however, the roof represents not only sex (check the way Terrell coos the lines “where we can be closer to heaven” in the chorus) but commitment and a new life together, stopping just short of being a marriage proposal. Although the string arrangement gives the song an elegant feel, the funky wah-wah guitar and percussion breakdown in the middle is definitely a nod to the times.

“Up the Ladder” successfully launched the “new Supremes,” lodging at No. 10 on the Pop chart and making it all the way to No. 5 on the R&B chart. It was covered by Bette Midler in 1977, the a capella group the Nylons in the early ‘80s and Al Green during his gospel phase later in the decade.

12 thoughts on “The Supremes – “Up the Ladder to the Roof”

  1. One of my favorites! As much as I like the Supremes with Diana, I really, really like them with Jean. All of my favorite Supremes songs are post-Ross.

    1. A good magician never reveals his secrets, Andrew. Seriously, though, I have several Motown books and the Hitsville USA box set that come in handy. And there’s always the interwebs.
      Thanks for reading,
      Joel

  2. Interwebs are the most obvious source – but I figured you were hoarding some tunes in a box set. I might have to steal your concept and follow suit with a few compilations in my own collection…

    1. I got the Hitsville USA Vol. 1 box set back in college. Its 104 tracks have been an endless supply of fun and enjoyment. We’re now about to start the fourth disc of the set. After it is done, I’ll cherry-pick 40 songs or so from the vastly inferior Hitsville Vol. 2 set. At the current pace, the Motown project will probably last well into next year.

      1. “Vastly inferior” is putting it mildly!

        I do adore this record, though. At the rate I’m currently going at, I won’t actually get to writing about the 70s Supremes until some time in 2014, but I did do a mini-review when going through the Complete Motown Singles: Volume 10 box set last year (which can be read here, about halfway down the page). It contains some titbits from the VERY interesting liner notes, which I know you’ve been interested in in the past.

        “…Blessed with another absolute killer chorus, and an utterly unstoppable bit at the two minute mark which just builds and builds in volume and intensity before driving things home, it’s one of the best Supremes singles, straight up, no asterisks, caveats or anything else. Hilariously, when it was eventually released, it sailed into the top ten and handily outsold the first Diana Ross solo effort, Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand). Can’t imagine the label top brass were particularly delighted with this turn of events, but I bet wherever she was, Florence Ballard was laughing her arse off.”

        Love it, love it, love it.

  3. It’s difficult to describe how bracing and fresh this sounded in March 1970, but we all wasted no time gobbling it up. From first note to last it was all optimism, energy, urgency and even a nice suggestion of sexual bliss. Not since before Florence left did any Supremes single sound so obviously a GROUP effort. Frank Wilson gave them a fiery new relevance, and Jean Terrell could not have wished a more stunning debut. The record remains majestic now-42 years later.

  4. It’s a shame this great Supremes single isn’t played more regularly on mainstream radio stations nowadays. Heck–almost no Motown is played with regularity on pop radio stations any longer, very sad to say… In the Boston area, there is a nice pop radio station on FM that plays many songs that you almost forgot existed from the 1960s through the early ’90s–and they do play this in their rosters. But they play the “Right On” album version, which is not nearly as explosive and memorable to me as the remastered mono single version, which I wish they’d play instead.. Sometimes, I think Motown still has an office whose job is to deliberately not have any Ross-less Supremes hits (and there were many in the 1970s!) allowed play on radio stations today, only half-jokingly said. :o This is a very great record to listen to, including when it’s on the radio airwaves, and a very underrated hit for The Supremes. When you listen to it, even the uninitiated, non-hardcore-Supremes fans will hear this and reflect, “Wait, this sounds like a good Motown song that is by The Supremes!” Thanks for this post.

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