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Diana Ross and the Supremes – “Love Child,” Pop # 1, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland reverberated throughout Hitsville, but no one felt it as acutely as the Supremes. Between 1964’s “Where Did Our Love Go” and 1967’s “Reflections,” the powerhouse songwriting and production triumvirate landed 10 songs at No. 1 and a three more in the Top 10.

Berry Gordy spared little expense in turning the Supremes into the biggest group on his label, and he was loathe to see them slink back to their pre-HDH obscurity. Before the two trios met, the best the Supremes could muster was No. 23. Those numbers were no longer acceptable.

Desperate, Gordy sequestered a half dozen of his best writers in a Detroit hotel and demanded they come up with a new hit for Diana Ross and the Supremes. Credited anonymously to “The Clan,” the result was another No. 1 hit for Gordy’s favorite group. The Clan model worked so well, Gordy revived it the following year, this time as “The Corporation,” to write hits for the Jackson 5. Gordy gave both these teams generic names to prevent writers and producers from superseding the fame of the performer or the label.

It would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall as the writers pitched this song to Gordy. Love songs were the Supremes bread and butter, but it’s doubtful Gordy envisioned his siren singing about abstinence. In “Love Child,” a woman, scarred by being born out of wedlock, the singer tries to convince her man to “hold on just a little bit longer” and understand that “no child of mine will be bearing/The name of shame I’ve been wearing.” “Love Child” wasn’t the first song to touch on unwanted pregnancy – Gordy himself and Smokey Robinson wrote the song  “Bad Girl” in the early days of the Miracles  – but it became the definitive song on the subject until “Billie Jean.”

Diana Ross is the only Supreme to appear on “Love Child,” and for once her voice does a song justice. This might be because the background of the woman in the song mirrors Ross’s childhood in the Brewster-Douglass housing project in Detroit. Unlike the song’s subject, Ross was born to married parents. The painfully shy Ross could no doubt to the lyrics like “So afraid that others knew I had no name” and “I started school/And a worn, torn dress that somebody threw out. Too poor to afford the stylish clothes she coveted, the aspiring fashion designer made her own clothes cobbled from scraps and hand-me-downs.

“Love Child” opens with a few bars of funk guitar before the sweep of strings relegate the guitar to the back of the mix. The arrangement – particularly the strings and backing vocals – foreshadows the disco trend that would serve Ross so well in the decade to come. For such a hard-driving song, the percussion is surprisingly soft. During Hitsville’s production-line heyday, the song would have been driven by snare and tambourine. Nearly a minute of “Love Child” passes before the snare a full drum kit completely engage. Instead, the propulsion rests with what sounds like ride cymbal, maracas and a glockenspiel.

Although they aren’t on the record, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong performed the song with Ross on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, 1968. Despite the show’s conservative stance against the Rolling Stones “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and the Doors “Light My Fire,” they lyrics to “Love Child” were performed as-is with no discussion. It was one of the group’s final performances on the popular Sunday night TV staple.

Despite its success, few performers have covered “Love Child.” It is unlikely the Supremes number will be confused with Deep Purple’s 1975 song of the same name.

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