The ‘Other’ Supremes

WHO’S YOUR favorite member of the Supremes? Do you still worship at the gilded altar of Diana Ross? Perhaps you champion ballsy yet blousy Florence Ballard, dismissed in 1967, or her replacement, Cindy Birdsong. Maybe Mary Wilson won your heart with her 1986 memoir Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme.

Me? I’m a Scherrie Payne fan. Oh sure, the Detroit singer lost points when she hitched her wagon to “Call Her Miss” Ross’ star for last summer’s Return to Love “reunion” debacle after Wilson and Birdsong declined to work for peanuts. But, hell, we’ve all got bills to pay.

The popular misconception is that the Supremes dried up shortly after the trio’s final performance with Ross, on Jan. 14, 1970, in Las Vegas. Not true. The group soldiered on for another seven years. Although Wilson remained the sole constant, the ladies that joined her in latter-day lineups—Payne, Jean Terrell, Lynda Laurence, and Susaye Greene—were extremely talented, too.

Sadly, Motown hasn’t made life easy for fans of these apr賭Diana incarnations in the CD era. Unless you wanted to seek out their 12 albums (including three with the Four Tops) on used vinyl, the best representations of their oeuvre were the final disc of the 2000 four- CD Supremes box set or a shoddy, budget-priced best of. Finally, this oversight has been righted by The Supremes: The ’70s Anthology, a new double disc featuring 42 tracks (16 previously unreleased) that highlight the group’s consistent ability to weather fluctuations in membership and musical trends.

Wilson and Birdsong had already begun recording the album Right On with new lead vocalist Terrell four months before Ross’ splashy 1970 send-off. And initially, they kicked Diana’s skinny butt on the charts. The new Supremes’ debut, “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” went Top 10 in the U.S. and U.K. that March; two months later, Ross’ first solo single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” stalled at No. 20.

With one exception (1976’s “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking”), all the group’s subsequent Top-40 entries can be found on disc one: the chugging No. 1 R&B smash “Stoned Love”; a cover of “River Deep, Mountain High” on which Terrell has no trouble keeping up with the Tops’ Levi Stubbs; and “Nathan Jones,” which Bananarama recycled note-for-note in 1988, right down to the phased vocal effects. But there are plenty of lesser-known gems here, too, including a sultry reading of Bread’s “Make It With You,” rescued from an aborted 1971 full-length.

DESPITE CONSTANT touring, the Supremes pumped out an astonishing eight albums during Terrell’s three-year tenure. Even more impressive is how well they adapted to working with different producers and songwriters, from Frank Wilson, who integrated Terrell’s more soulful style without shoving Wilson and Birdsong’s trademark harmonies back in the shadows, to Smokey Robinson, who put a new spin on their trademark mellifluous R&B with cuts like the groovy “Automatically Sunshine.” This set also includes four tracks from 1972’s ambitious The Supremes —Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb, for which the oddball genius behind “MacArthur Park” whipped up some dandy tracks, particularly the black-is-beautiful original “When Can Brown Begin” and a driving cover of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” that neatly rips off the horns from Webb’s own “Up, Up, and Away.”

When Terrell left in 1973, Wilson replaced her with Payne. Scherrie was no stranger to showbiz. Her powerful pipes had propelled Glass House’s 1969 hit “Crumbs off the Table,” and both she and her sister, Freda (“Band of Gold”), were key players at Invictus, the label started by former Motown hit machine Holland-Dozier-Holland. Throughout disc two, Payne and company transcend marginal disco ditties like “He’s My Man” and “Let Yourself Go,” the latter a favorite of Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan. And when the group dips its toe into rock-oriented fare, wailing in tight formation on the previously unheard “Give a Little,” they prove worthy of comparisons to Patty LaBelle.

Surveying The ’70s Anthology, it’s tough to understand why this material didn’t fare better. “Bad Weather,” a 1973 single penned and produced by Stevie Wonder, should have been huge, but it flopped. In her second book, 1990’s Supreme Faith (which isn’t nearly as tactful about her fellow Supremes as her Anthology liner notes are), Wilson alleges that Motown chief Berry Gordy Jr. washed his hands of the Supremes after she nixed his last-minute attempt to replace Terrell with Wonder prot駩 Syreeta Wright and that after their first run of hits, the label ceased to aggressively promote the group. It’s taken Motown a quarter-century to right that wrong, but thanks to The ’70s Anthology, a whole new generation of music lovers finally gets the chance to appreciate the fact that some of the best Supremes records were ones Diana Ross had nothing to do with.