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.