182. The Rolling Stones – Little Red Rooster (1964)

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The Supremes’ sugar-coated soul of Baby Love was knocked from the top spot by something altogether more low down and dirty. The Rolling Stones’ second number 1 holds the distinction of being the only blues song to ever get to the top of the charts. That’s a testament to just how big the Rolling Stones were quickly becoming.

Little Red Rooster (originally The Red Rooster) is a blues standard credited to Willie Dixon. It did however share similarities with Charlie Patton’s Banty Rooster Blues from 1929 and If You See My Rooster (Please Run Him Home) by Memphis Minnie in 1936. It had first been recorded by one of the group’s heroes, Howlin’ Wolf, in 1961. Two years later soul singer Sam Cooke recorded a more poppy, uptempo version that was a hit stateside. At around this time, the American Folk Blues Festival, featuring Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, was touring the UK, and among its attendees were future bandmates Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones.

Fast forward to 1964 and the Rolling Stones had just scored their first number 1 with Bobby Womack’s It’s All Over Now. Jagger and Richards were making tentative steps towards writing their own songs regularly, but were still in thrall to blues artists, particularly those on Chicago’s Chess Records. Lots of Delta blues made it on to their early material, but now they were planning to follow up It’s All Over Now with a faithful, uncommercial cover of Little Red Rooster. Producer and manager Andrew Loog Oldham wasn’t best pleased. Call it arrogance, call it a desire to put their money where their mouths were, but the UK’s biggest blues act went ahead and recorded it anyway.

Little Red Rooster was blues purist and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones’s chance to shine. It’s him playing the bottleneck guitar that resembles a rooster crowing and a dog barking, and the harmonica, and you can’t help guessing that it was his idea to release it as a single. Bill Wyman later rightly said this song was one of Jones’s finest hours. Jagger is also on form, adding a typically louche, lazy air to proceedings. So much so, in fact, that the general belief is that the red rooster in question is in fact Mick singing about his cock. Which makes the fact this got to number 1 even more unbelievable. But then again, this was the year The House of the Rising Sun got to number 1 too, and the charts were increasingly becoming ‘anything goes’ territory. It was their last cover song to be released as a single in the 1960s. Jagger and Richards were about to rival Lennon and McCartney, and Jones’s importance would slowly diminish within the band.

Written by: Willie Dixon

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 1 (3-9 December)

Deaths:

Poet Edith Sitwell – 9 December

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, in a youthful manner 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 inisisted 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 suddendly 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 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? Well you won’t be surprised to hear that’s a story for 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