303. Diana Ross – I'm Still Waiting (1971)

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.

Written & produced by: Deke Richards

Weeks at number 1: 4 (21 August-17 September)

Births:

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

Deaths:

Travel writer Peter Fleming – 30 August

Meanwhile…

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.

181. The Supremes – Baby Love (1964)

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In the US, The Supremes were one of the biggest acts of the decade, certainly the most popular on Motown, and rivalled The Beatles for commercial success, scoring five consecutive number 1s in a row and 12 in total at the end of the 1960s. However, the girl group only ever peaked at the top once in the UK, with Baby Love.

Originally the trio were a quartet known as The Primettes. Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diane Ross and Betty McGlown all hailed from the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit. They began as a sister act to soul group The Primes, and their line-up featured Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who went on to form The Temptations. They covered songs by artists including Ray Charles and The Drifters at local talent shows, with a vivacious youthful sound akin to The Teenagers.

In 1960 the Primettes wanted a recording contract, so Ross asked her old neighbour Smokey Robinson to get them an audition with Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown label. Gordy decided they were too young and should try again after high school, so they released a single elsewhere, but it sank and McGlown left when she became engaged, to be replaced by Barbara Martin. In January 1961, Gordy relented on the proviso they changed their name. He gave them a list of ideas and Ballard liked ‘The Supremes’ but Ross thought it too masculine.

Fast forward to 1963, and The Supremes were a trio, minus Martin, who left to start a family. And who could blame her? They had released six singles and got nowhere, earning them the nickname ‘the no-hit Supremes’. Finally, December’s When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, by Holland-Dozier-Holland saw them enter the charts. Around this time, Gordy decided Ross should be their main singer (she didn’t go by ‘Diana’ until 1965).

Early in 1964 they recorded Where Did Our Love Go? despite not being keen (it had already been rejected by The Marvelettes). To their surprise, it was massive, topping the charts in the US and reaching number three in the UK. Clearly Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Supremes were the perfect match, and Gordy insisted they repeat the formula for the follow-up, Baby Love.

In my opinion, it follows the formula a little too closely, and the previous single is superior, but you’d be a fool to deny Baby Love is a great pop and soul song. Ross coos her way through effortlessly, with an excellent backing from the always reliable Funk Brothers. Ballard and Wilson get to ad-lib towards the end, before Ross was thrust firmly into the spotlight and the resentments began. I’m not sure it earns the right to be called a classic, in part due to its lack of originality, and I find The Supremes a bit too slick and lightweight when compared to other Motown acts. Or perhaps I’ve just heard it too many times?

The hits kept coming, with Stop! In the Name of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love (a number 1 for Phil Collins in 1983) and You Keep Me Hangin’ On among their best. Thanks to The Supremes, Gordy realised his dream of making a Motown act have crossover appeal among black and white audiences. But with that success came greater tension.

In 1967 he renamed them The Supremes with Diana Ross, then Diana Ross & the Supremes. Ballard hit the bottle and her weight gain meant she was becoming unable to wear her stage outfits, when she was in a fit state to perform. Wilson came across as staying neutral, but in private she told Ballard that Ross and Gordy wanted her out. She tried to slim down and go sober, but she was unaware that he had already hired lookalike Cindy Birdsong from Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles. Ballard was eventually sacked in 1968. Her solo work was poorly-received and she unsuccessfuly sued Motown in 1971. She died suddenly in 1976 from coronary thrombosis.

1968 was also the year Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown, and The Supremes suffered from a lack of decent material. They were also starting to look a bit middle-of-the-road compared to artists like Aretha Franlin. Wilson and Birdsong were often replaced by session singers on their singles. In November 1969 the long-rumoured Diana Ross solo career was announced, and she was replaced by Jean Terrell. Someday We’ll Be Together marked the end of Ross with The Supremes, the end of the group’s number 1s in the US, and was also the final US number 1 of the 60s.

The 70s began promisingly for The Supremes, with hits including Stoned Love (the song the reformed Stone Roses walked out to on all their reunion shows), but fortunes began to fade, and the line-up changed several times as disco became the prevailing chart sound. They finally disbanded in 1977. Diana Ross’s career? Another time.

Written by: Lamont Dozier & Brian and Eddie Holland

Producers: Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier

Weeks at number 1: 2 (19 November-2 December)

Births:

Astronaut Nicholas Patrick – 19 November 

Deaths:

Geneticist JBS Haldane – 1 December