How much power did Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn have in 1971? Quite a lot it seems, as it’s thanks to him that Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep topped the charts, and only a few months later he persuaded EMI (who distributed for Motown in the UK) to release this album track by the former Supremes singer as a single. It went on to become Diana Ross’s first solo number 1.
I covered The Supremes when I reviewed their 1964 number 1 Baby Love, but Ross’s life deserves a closer look. She was born in Detroit, Michigan on 26 March 1944. Her mother actually named her Diane, but a clerical error resulted in ‘Diana’ appearing on her birth certificate. She was billed as Diane Ross on early Supremes records. Growing up, Ross had Smokey Robinson and Aretha Frankin among her neighbours.
On the day she turned 14 in 1958, the Ross’s moved to the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. She had ambitions to be a fashion designer and took several classes, in addition to modelling and hairdressing for neighbours. A year later, she joined Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown in The Primettes, the sister group of The Primes.
Thanks to Robinson, The Primettes auditioned for Motown in 1960. Berry Gordy Jr recalled being blown away by Ross’s voice in his autobiography, but he felt they were too young. In these early years, Ross would be responsible for the group’s look, serving as hair stylist, costume design and make-up artist.
In 1961, with McGlown gone and Barbara Martin in, Gordy signed The Primettes on the condition they change their name. Ballard chose ‘The Supremes’, and Ross was worried it made them sound like a male group, but as we know, The Supremes they became, and from 1963 onwards, reduced to a trio without Martin, they became one of the most successful groups in history. They scored their sole UK number 1 with Baby Love, but had many more in the US.
From around 1966 and for the next few years Gordy began pushing for Ross to take centre stage. He had considered getting her to go solo, but deciding the timing was wrong he settled on renaming them Diana Ross & the Supremes instead. Ballard was fired and replaced with Cindy Birdsong, and Ross would often be the only Supreme to actually feature on recordings, backed by session singers like The Andantes. The pressure resulted in Ross developing anorexia, and she collapsed on stage during a 1967 performance, and had to be hospitalised for exhaustion.
Nevertheless, Gordy continued to shine the spotlight on Ross, having her perform solo in 1968 TV specials by The Supremes. The following year he decided the time was right, and it was announced she was leaving the group. Someday We’ll Be Together became Ross’s swansong, and the single was the final US number 1 of the 60s. She made her final appearance as a Supreme in January 1970.
It was only four months later that her eponymous debut solo LP was released, and it featured her cover of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (originally recorded by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell), which climbed to number six in the UK and was number 1 in the US.
November 1970 saw the rush-release of her second album, Everything Is Everything. Deke Richards was commissioned to make the LP more pop than her debut, and it featured two Beatles covers (Come Together and The Long and Winding Road), as well as a sad ballad by Richards himself – I’m Still Waiting. No singles were released from it, initially, with Motown choosing to mine her next album, Surrender, released in the summer of 1971. Unusually, both Remember Me and the title track performed better on these shores than America, both reaching the top 10.
Blackburn, then in charge of the Radio 1 breakfast show, was a huge fan of Ross, and he loved I’m Still Waiting. He promised Motown/EMI that if it was made a single, he would make it his ‘Record of the Week’ and play it every morning for five days. Both sides kept their end of the arrangement, and the hype saw it reach number 1. It was Motown’s biggest-selling single in the UK until Three Times a Lady by the Commodores in 1978.
I’m baffled as to why this is the case. For me, I’m Still Waiting should have remained an album track. It’s dated, melodramatic and rather unmemorable.
Ross sings from the point of view of a woman who met the love of her life when she was five and he was 10. He would tease her, as boys do, but she loved him. Then he had to move away, and told her not to wait for him, but for love. But Ross couldn’t forget him, and nobody else compares.
Nice sentiment, but it could have been so much better. It has a slick production, but the tune is certainly not up there with the classics of The Supremes. Ross isn’t known for displaying too much emotion in her singing, which is probably a good thing in such a sentimental song, but I find it hard to believe in the performance. I much prefer her next number 1, Chain Reaction, which came 15 years later in 1986.
An ill-advised dance remix of I’m Still Waiting charted in 1990.
Written & produced by: Deke Richards
Weeks at number 1: 4 (21 August-17 September)
Actress Gaynor Faye – 26 August
Business executive Nicola Mendelsohn – 29 August
TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp – 31 August
Conservative MP Daniel Hannan – 1 September
TV presenter Lisa Snowdon – 2 September
Actress Louise Lombard – 13 September
Fashion designer Stella McCartney – 13 September
Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda – 17 September
Travel writer Peter Fleming – 30 August
1 September: The end of an era, as the pre-decimal penny and three-pence ceased to be legal tender.
3 September: Qatar became independent from the UK.
7 September: Three years after the beginnings of The Troubles, the death toll reached 100 with the death of 14-year-old Annette McGavigan, who was fatally wounded by a gunshot in crossfire between British soldiers and the IRA. There would be many more deaths still to come.
9 September: British Ambassador Geoffrey Jackson was freed after being held captive for eight months by extreme left-wing guerrillas Tupamaros in Uruguay.