In 2006, Hip-O Select/Universal released a beautifully packaged boxed set, THIS IS THE STORY: THE ‘70s ALBUMS, VOL. 1 - 1970-1973, of the post-Diana Ross’ Supremes’ first five studio albums. They now follow it up with LET YOURSELF GO: THE ‘70s ALBUMS, VOL.2: 1974-1977 – THE FINAL SESSIONS which captures the last 3 studio albums recorded by the trio. Whereas THIS IS THE STORY featured Jean Terrell on the majority of the lead vocals, LET YOURSELF GO primarily features Scherrie Payne, with Susaye Green sharing some leads. Just as its predecessor included the previously unreleased PROMISES KEPT album, LET YOURSELF GO features an abundance of bonus tracks and the Russ Terrana mix of, arguably, the best album of this Supremes line-up, HIGH ENERGY. Just like the original group produced fans of individual group members, the aptly named “Supremes ‘70s” has a dedicated group of fans that are sometimes different from the fans of the original Supremes.
In some ways, by the time Scherrie Payne joined the group in 1975, the group was indeed quite different. (She had experienced a degree of modest success on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Hot Wax label with a group called The Glass House). Where the Jean Terrell led Supremes had a more mature image, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Green gave the group a more youthful look though the ladies were virtually the same age as the original Supremes. (That more youthful look would prove advantageous when Diana invited Scherrie and Lynda Laurence to join in a salute to the legacy of The Supremes music in the “Return To Love” tour). Perhaps that was, in part, due to the disco leanings of their 3 studio albums, THE SUPREMES, HIGH ENERGY and MARY, SCHERRIE & SUSAYE. By 1975, when the self-titled debut featuring Scherrie Payne was released, Billboard instituted its first Dance/Disco charts. That album enjoyed two huge dance hits in the #1 “He’s My Man” and #3 “Where Do I Go From Here”. There was an energy in the vocals that seemed to give the ladies a new lease. Scherrie Payne’s passionate vocals on “Where Do I Go From Here” is an example of how much more energized the group sounded. After the beautiful, but adult, THE SUPREMES PRODUCED AND ARRANGED BY JIMMY WEBB, it helped them find a new audience at the discos. Scherrie Payne was as distinctive a vocalist as Jean Terrell, though neither possessed the charisma of Diana.
Supremes ‘70s fans will be happy to know that the additional songs intended for this release, including “The Sha-La Bandit”, “Bend A Little” and “Can We Love Again”, have all been included. Also included are extended mixes of the dance hits “He’s My Man” and “Where Do I Go From Here” along with alternate versions of “Color My World Blue” and “Give Out, But Don’t Give Up”. Yet, the flipside of how renewed the group sounded would be somewhat betrayed on the Mary Wilson-led nondescript “Mr. Boogie”. But the most thrilling performance on THE SUPREMES remains Scherrie Payne’s supreme vocals on “Where Do I Go From Here”. In some ways that song seemed a tad autobiographical with lyrics “you’ve been the road I’ve traveled on... you taught me everything I know, but I never learned which way to turn... tell me where do I go from here after you sheltered me for so long”. Wilson had already begun complaining that Motown had lost interest in the group. That song seemed to capture the mix of confusion and liberation. Though THE SUPREMES was hardly a monumental album, the songs, production and vocal arrangements proved very listenable. That lineup included Scherrie, Cindy Birdsong and the sexy one.
By 1975, Motown may have seemed preoccupied with solidifying the mega-stardom of their Mount Rushmore of artists in Diana, Stevie, Marvin and Smokey. However, it was wrong to think that Motown had walked away from The Supremes ‘70s. No better example of that would be than the triumphant release of HIGH ENERGY. HIGH ENERGY, and its subsequent bonus material, makes up the second disc. It also introduced new member, Susaye Green. Susaye had pedigree coming from Stevie’s back-up group, Wonderlove. Along with that, she was a formidable songwriter contributing to iconic albums like Stevie’s SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE and Michael Jackson’s OFF THE WALL.
In more than a nostalgic exercise, HIGH ENERGY reunited The Supremes brand with the Holland Bros., Brian and Eddie, as writers and producers. Opening up with the grandiose title track, one of the key differences in The Supremes ‘70s and the original Supremes, was that the producers allowed their tracks to breathe more. (Think of the dramatic instrumental opening of the album version of “Stoned Love”). The title track seemed to herald a new day. Led by the first single “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking”, HIGH ENERGY possessed even more of that renewed vocal energy. Those two songs alone were wildly embraced by the club-going crowd. Side 1 was primarily dance songs. This is not to say that Jean Terrell wasn’t a unique vocalist, indeed she was. However, at times, The Supremes ‘70s in Jean emulated some of Diana’s vocal stylings. Perhaps that is why today, some still think “Up The Ladder To The Roof” is not sung by Jean. “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” opens up with tribal drum beats and Scherrie Payne scatting towards the heavens. (The album also includes an alternate lead vocal by Susaye Greene. Susaye’s version is just as credible, but there is something about the clarity and forcefulness in Scherrie Payne’s delivery that made it easy to see why that version won out). The flip side leans more towards ballads, with possibly Mary Wilson’s best solo vocals on “Till The Boat Sails Away” and even more so on “I Don’t Want To Lose You”. “I Don’t Want To Lose You” was a continuation of Motown’s sourcing the popular Philly Sound. That process had begun with the #1 remake of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” by Diana Ross and The Supremes with The Temptations.(Possibly the pinnacle of that exchange between the Motown Sound and the Philly Sound occurred on Eddie Kendricks’ HE’S A FRIEND album. That album also came out around the same time in 1975). “I Don’t Want To Lose You” was a classic Thom Bell and Linda Creed ballad that perfectly suited Mary Wilson’s adequate lead vocals. It is one of the pleasant surprises on Disc 2. Disc 2 also includes the Russ Terrana mix of HIGH ENERGY. (Russ, along with Diana Ross, would successfully remix her Chic-produced DIANA album a few years later. However, though the mixes here are fine, they are not as distinctive as the work he did on the DIANA album). “There’s Room At The Top” is one of the only non-album tracks included from the HIGH ENERGY sessions. It is a fairly unremarkable dance record.
The final disc contains their final album, MARY, SCHERRIE & SUSAYE. Though it reunites the group with the Holland Bros. it falls short of its predecessor. Unfortunately, it did not have the winning qualities that made HIGH ENERGY somewhat of a comeback for the ladies. I confess to initially rejecting the record when it first came out. It was, again, pretty much targeted to the clubs. But as time has passed, “Sweet Dream Machine” sounds a little better than first remembered. “You’re My Driving Wheel”, “I Don’t Want To Be Tied Down” and “Let Yourself Go” were the drivers of this album. Those songs lyrically spoke to a more assertive feminine stance. Gone was the vulnerable, coquettish “Where Did Our Love Go”. In its place was Scherrie Payne’s fiery deliveries. “Come Into My Life” actually recalls some of the ethereal feel of HIGH ENERGY in its instrumental musical passages.
LET YOURSELF GO will prove a delight for any fan of The Supremes ‘70s. It probably won’t win over many new converts. But fans have been waiting a long time for a comprehensive look at The Supremes ‘70s. In some ways, adopting the name “The Supremes” does a disservice. Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne, Lynda Laurence and Susaye Green did bring their own voices to the songs. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the original Supremes, Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson were specifically singled out for this honor. I suspect if the Grammys ever get around to awarding the group a much deserved Lifetime Achievement Award, then that distinction might be made again. If Jean Terrell unintentionally took on shades of Diana’s vocals on some of the first Supremes ‘70s songs, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Green brought a completely different flavor to the group.
Judged on their own merits, The Supremes ‘70s remained relevant through the mid-‘70s. Poor management, partly by Mary Wilson’s ex-husband Pedro Ferrer, did not do the group any favors. They seemed to be caught in a quagmire of honoring the original group of hits while trying to establish their own image. (The ladies even inherited the gowns and costuming from the original group. The black sequined dresses they wore on the cover of RIGHT ON, had first been worn by the group when Diana Ross and The Supremes performed “Forever Came Today” on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. In contrast, Time magazine had reported that Motown spent $100,000 on a brand new wardrobe for the “Let’s-see-if-Diana-Ross-can-make-it-on-her-own” show). By the ‘70s, girl groups had gone from being staples at Top 40 radio, to being angels of the discos. Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles had transformed into the edgier Labelle. The Pointer Sisters would hit the scene recreating an era and then segueing into mainstream hits. Barry White would mentor Love Unlimited through a few radio hits. The Three Degrees kept the Philly Sound alive for a brief period, including recording the iconic theme from “Soul Train”, “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)”. Sister Sledge would hit with a few Top 40 hits towards the end of the ‘70s. But for the most part, girl groups became more faceless in the ‘70s with dance acts like Musique, Silver Convention and Belle Epoque.
History recorded no less than 8 different members of The Supremes. The original Supremes, still to this day, remain the most successful girl group of all time. Other girl groups would come blazing in with a few huge hits and then eventually petered out like TLC and The Spice Girls. The Supremes ‘70s endured for 7 more years, pretty much in line with successors like TLC (lasting 9 years) and The Spice Girls (lasting 6 years). So, for girl groups they had a respectable run. Now with both THIS IS THE STORY and the newly- released LET YOURSELF GO, The Supremes ‘70s have finally received their props. So put on your dancing shoes and “Let Yourself Go” back to a time when disco burned brightly but briefly.
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry. Kirk can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.