It’s been a particularly rich several years for Supremes fans as Universal (previously under the now-defunct Hip-O-Select imprint) continues its series of classic album “expanded editions” from Motown’s leading ladies.
The latest — perhaps the series’ best, although that’s a tough call — is the deluxe reissue of “The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland: Expanded Edition,” a two-CD digipak that features the original album in both stereo and mono mixes, 12 alternate takes/extended mixes and a jaw-droppingly pristine recording of the group’s 1967 engagement at the famous Copacabana nightclub in New York where just a few years earlier, they’d recorded their legendary “At the Copa” album (itself reissued in deluxe format in 2012).
The album — named for Motown’s main songwriting team — features the Supremes’ no. 1 hits “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” as well as a cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ hit “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” (interesting, though the girls don’t capture the Vandellas’ fire; it illustrates beautifully how different the two groups were) and “Going Down for the Third Time,” one of the Supremes’ best deep album cuts (it was later the B-side to “Reflections” and sounds like it could have been a smash itself).
The 1967 Copa recordings are notable on several counts. One, they’re the final group appearances of founding member Florence Ballard who was officially ousted from the group soon thereafter and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Two, while bootlegs have circulated of these shows among fans in recent years, they’ve either been very hard to come by and/or available only with distorted audio. Everything’s cleaned up just so on the new album and we get the pleasure of hearing Ballard and fellow Supreme Mary Wilson’s backing vocals surprisingly high in the mix (we hear them much more prominently than we do on the accompanying studio recordings although, even there, they’re prominent).
The Supremes in their last few years with Diana Ross (she left in 1970) were a mixed bag. There were still hits (although not nearly as many) in the post-Ballard era (“Love Child,” their joint albums with the Temptations), but it was never quite the same. Birdsong did an admirable job with big heels to fill (her singing was lovely) but she could never hope to match Ballard’s sassy persona and brassy vocals. There’s a reason characters inspired by Ballard — played by Jennifer Holliday and and Jennifer Hudson in the stage and screen versions of “Dreamgirls” — are the ones everybody remembers.
The second disc here, with the Copa material, gives us the chance to hear Ballard on classic Supremes live material, especially a mash-up of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Second Hand Rose” and “Mame” we’d previously only known from the group’s 1968 “Live at London’s Talk of the Town” album with Birdsong (itself, admittedly, a gem).
Culled from the best takes from two shows, we also get an alternate version of “Put On a Happy Face” (a different take than the one on the Supremes 2000 box set),” an uber-rare live version of “My Favorite Things” (recorded on the Supremes’ Christmas album) and a blistering live version of their 1967 No. 1 hit “The Happening.”
Thanks to these wonderful reissues, we now have a much better picture of the Supremes’ true stage act throughout the ‘60s. For decades, all we had were the original “At the Copa” and “Talk of the Town” albums (both heavily edited), but it’s now possible to truly feel what the Supremes classic lineup was like live between the “Copa” reissue album, this 1967 Copa show on the new release and the bonus disc of the 2012 equally grand re-release of the “I Hear a Symphony” album which features a previously unreleased (and complete!) live performance of the Supremes at the Roostertail in Detroit.
It’s all dated in the most deliciously endearing way, a breath of fresh air in our exceedingly jaded and ironic era. The cheesy, Vegas-y string section, the reprises that are nothing more than a retread of the last several bars of music, the canned stage patter — it just all works the same way you never get tired of “Carol Burnett Show” reruns or other classic relics of the era. It’s just a bit raw too — Ross’s lead vocals sound a tad weathered by constant touring. There’s a gritty topcoat on the otherwise wonderfully syrupy vocals we hear her offer on the studio material here.
Even though these final moments with Ballard are bittersweet to hear, I’m still champing at the bit for Universal to continue this series into the Birdsong years. It will be amazing — one can only hope — to hear the full “Talk of the Town” live recordings as well as a proper reissue of the group’s “Farewell” 1970 album. Although most notable as the group’s final shows with Ross, it’s of greater historical note to me because it’s all we really know of the Supremes’ 1969 live act.
Wilson told the Blade in a 2017 interview the “Farewell” material was pretty much the group’s 1969 live show, i.e. it was not greatly altered for the Frontier engagement (which became the “Farewell” album), still I yearn to hear what the group sounded like on a “normal” night that final year together. They toured relentlessly that year — let’s hope series producers Andrew Skurow and George Solomon are eventually able to unearth some heretofore unknown 1969 live material or at least some alternate Frontier-recorded Supremes performances.
Also, do yourself a big favor and don’t get this release on a digital or streaming medium. The foldout digipak is gorgeous and comes with two booklets, both chocked with vintage photos. One features an amazing interview with Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier (of the title); the other is a reproduction of the Supremes’ 1967 tour program.