The Supremes speak with David Nathan about handling the changes in the group and their determnination to on top.
LOOKING back over the past few years, it's interesting to see how many performers have managed, in spite of changing musical tastes and trends, to stay in the running (so to speak) even amidst all manner of internal problems. Despite enough major personnel changes to destroy any average group, the Supremes are still considered, to be very much America's top female trio — and although the notable absence of the group from pop and soul charts in the States has caused their position to be somewhat precarious more than once, there are all the signs that the group is very determined to stay on top. Judging, that is, from assurances given by both Jean Terrell and Mary Wilson, here with new member Linda Lawrence to make another tour of this country.
The group survived what could have been its death blow with the departure of Diana Ross but Jean Terrell undoubtedly saved the ship and the recent departure of Cindy Birdsong (who had earner replaced original member Florence Ballard) didn't help reports that the group were in danger of folding. But nothing it seems was further from the truth because the group are not only very much alive — they are raring to go with a whole lot of new plans to ensure that the Supremes remain as popular as ever.
Being absolutely candid about the problems that have faced the group, Jean explained: "We were aware that we hadn't had a big chart hit in two years — not since "Nathan Jones" in fact and we were naturally worried — after all, a group like ours virtually lives on hits as does any performer. We felt that our material hadn't really captured what was happening around us — our producers seemed to be behind in feeling what the public wanted from us.
"On a number of occasions we'd talked with Stevie Wonder about working with us — you know, I really love him — but he's naturally so busy himself, being an artist too. Well, recently out of the blue, he called up and said "hey, I've got something for you" so off we went and cut our new single! It's really funky, wow — the combination of Stevie and a great song with the Supremes' name behind it should make sure it does well — I hope!"
Having now heard it myself, I can vouch that it really is something special — it's unmistakably the Supremes, but there is something there that's never really been evident up until now — a swinging funky feel that makes it really exciting. On a recent visit, Stevie Wonder explained how he felt there was a certain something in Jean's voice that had never been captured. How did she feel about that?
"Well, I know what Stevie means — but I still don't think he's captured it yet! We need to spend a whole lot more time together till we can get to what he's talking about — I think there were just flashes of it on the album we did with Jim Webb. But we do hope the single's successful so that we'll be able to go back and work with Stevie again."
Certainly, the girls are frank about their place in the present musical climate. Explained Mary: "Yes, we did feel very much that we were being left behind at Motown — with people like Stevie and Marvin Gaye forging ahead. You see, one of the problems is that we don't write our own material — not in the same way they do — so we've had to work with the material that was given to us. Changes, like the kind that are occuring at Motown, are bound to happen — and we were determined not to get lost in the midst of all the new emphasis being put on artists who were more into "doing their own thing".
"In order that the group should be given a different direction, our management went outside Motown for the very first time and contacted several people — Isaac Hayes, Elton John for example — about working with us. Of those approached. Jim Webb was free to do it — so we did the album with him. It was certainly the beginning of our new plans to keep not only up but ahead of what's happening — and there is already talk that we may work with Thom Bell."
However one views the Jim Webb album (and there are several diverse opinions) a lot of time, money and work went in to it. "We spent three weeks on it," revealed Jean, "and I worked so hard that, afterwards. I had to go into hospital — with a blood pressure problem. I found it really a strain trying to keep up with the man — he's so brilliant — and I was trying to find out exactly what Jimmy was saying in the songs. I'd frequently ask him how he'd felt when he'd written a particular song but he wouldn't tell me! But it was a real challenge and I feel it was the best album we've worked on yet.
"Naturally, we were all very disappointed with the lack of sales — the album should have done so much better. Still maybe if it does well here, it will turn people's attention back to it in the States".
Mary, too, felt the record hadn't done as well as it should: "It just didn't get enough promotion — everyone wished us luck with it but didn't really get behind it. But it was all done in rather a hurry — something that won't be happening in the future. We've more or less had to demand that we be given three months off to work on new material, brush up on our act and record — something which has never happend before.
"Motown have always felt that recording should be just fitted in wherever possible — like on off days — but now we'll have the time to sit and work out what we're trying to get to — and make sure we get to it! That should ensure that our future work is even better than things we've been doing up to now."
Yet another important change has come into the Supremes' way of thinking — they no longer feel that they should restrict each other in respect of pursuing other ventures outside simply being the Supremes. "We now realize." said Mary, "that we can still do things alone without tying the group down. Before now, if a group member wanted to go and get married and have a baby, she couldn't do it without quitting but now, once we are able to get more time off, we'll have more time for our private lives. Also, if one of us wants to go off into, say, acting — there's no problem because we can still work together as the group whenever necessary, whilst at the same time pursuing solo activities."
Jean says things will be planned so much better in the future — the group will only do selected concerts as opposed to continual nonstop dates and their annual lay-off will probably encompass June to August. Certainly three months should give the girls enough time to work in the studios — and to come up with new ideas — like the one they've had for a long time for a television show.
"We really want to do a T.V. show." smiled Jean, "because there are so many things we know we could do. In fact, we often act out little sketches in our dressing-rooms and store them up for future use!"
Certainly the Supremes are determined that in all fields they'll fiercly defend their much-coveted reputation and Jean says that despite all the new and exciting things that should be happening, the Supremes' basic image will not be changed. Looking to the future for the group is exciting but how does Mary Wilson, a founder of the group feel, looking back over thirteen years as a Supreme: "Naturally, it would have been nice for the group if it had been able to stay as it was — but it was impossible and things change. But I can honestly say that the present group is as talented as any other group of Supremes has ever been and there is a greater sense of maturity that's with the group now more than ever before." So, with the likes of Stevie Wonder guiding them into it, a new era seems to have begun for the Supremes — which hopefully will be as exciting as the last one has been!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.