‘One & One & One Is Three . . .’

Originally posted February 19, 2008

Even before I listened to Top 40 radio, it was impossible to escape Diana Ross & the Supremes. In its most simplistic terms, the Motown formula was to take girl-group harmonies singing songs whose writing had echoes of New York’s Brill Building – in their hooks and melodies if not always in their subject matter – and lay the resulting product over a bed of R&B that cooked, but cooked nicely. Berry Gordy’s genius was in overseeing the creation of a sound that would, in the early to mid-1960s, be embraced by teens of all races and social strata. He knew what he was doing; he called Motown, “The Sound of Young America,” not the sound of any other aspect or subculture of America.

There were other geniuses involved, too, of course, chief among them Smokey Robinson, who wrote and produced records for numerous Motown groups, including his own Miracles, and the team of Brian Holland, LaMont Dozier and Eddie Holland, with all three of them writing and two of them producing. It was their work, chiefly, that helped the Supremes reach the top of the charts and stay there for twenty-three Top 40 hits, sixteen of which reached the Top Ten and twelve of which went to No. 1.

Even an unhip kid in the Midwest couldn’t escape the sound of the Supremes (and to a lesser extent the rest of the Motown stable: the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey and the Miracles and all the rest). No matter that he didn’t purposely listen to the radio much; his older sister and kids all around the neighborhood did. And the Supremes’ songs poured out of Motown and into the radio stations and out of the speakers: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” and so many more.

(Here’s a dare: Go ahead and read that list of titles one more time. It’s a hard person – or one who cares nothing about music, in which case, why are you here? – who can read through that list even today, forty years down the pike, without at least one of those song titles sparking a melody in his or her head. The one that may be the most insidious is “Where Did Our Love Go,” with its “Baby, baby . . .” but the one I find the most arresting is “Come See About Me.” And remember, those five singles came out in less than one year’s time. The Supremes had another ten years of hits to come, although the last four years of Diana Ross’ time with the group were much more successful than the six years that followed.)

So even if I’d wanted to avoid the Supremes and the rest of Motown during the middle 1960s, I couldn’t have. I heard the music all around me, and the hooks and melodies and superb production slid their way into my head in a way that maybe only the Beatles’ work was also doing at the time. Motown’s music, especially that of the Supremes, was part of the landscape, and thus, when it comes time to assess the work critically, it becomes very difficult to do to.

Diana Ross’ work, on the other hand, is easier to consider, maybe because it wasn’t so omnipresent, maybe because it never seemed as good as the work she’d done with the Supremes. She sold well: Through the middle of 1981, when she left Motown, she had  nineteen Top 40 hits, six of which went to No. 1. Eight more hits followed through 1985, the best of which went to No. 7.

Even so, I never thought much of her solo work. Of the hits, I liked “Touch Me In The Morning,” a judgment that I think separates me from a lot of critics, and “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” is another single I liked. In addition, I enjoyed Ross’ excellent work for the film Lady Sings the Blues, including the single “Good Morning Heartache.”

Otherwise, I didn’t pay much attention. Her first solo album, 1970’s Diana Ross, did well enough and was fairly well received. It spun off a No. 1 single – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a record I don’t much care for – and went to No. 19 on the album charts. Her second album, Everything Is Everything, in 1972, went nowhere. But it’s on that album, oddly enough, that one finds perhaps the funkiest track Ross has ever recorded. And it’s a cover of a Beatles’ song.

Plenty of people have covered “Come Together,” the song that led off 1969’s Abbey Road. Aerosmith had a hit with it in 1978, and others who have recorded the song include the Bankrupt Sugar Daddies, the Count Basie Orchestra, Blur, the Brothers Johnson, Michael Jackson, Herbie Mann, Marilyn Manson, Ike & Tina Turner, Paul Weller and many, many more. (All-Music Guide is being uncooperative this morning, which makes this list shorter than I would like. The site notes that there are currently 340 CDs that include a version of “Come Together.” That total includes a large number of duplicates, of course.)

Even though I’ve only heard a handful of versions of “Come Together,” I’d be willing to put Ross’ version pretty high on the list. Her waifish voice surrounded by a halo of echo, she doesn’t try to make sense out of John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics, and the backing – maybe by the Funk Brothers still? I don’t know – is chunky, clunky, spooky and, I would imagine, immensely fun to have played. I doubt if the record sounds like anything else Diana Ross ever recorded, but that’s okay. I think it’s a great track.

Diana Ross – “Come Together” [1970]


One Response to “‘One & One & One Is Three . . .’”

  1. Saturday Single No. 438 « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] files (as do two others from later years, but we made those two sit in the corner this morning). We long ago listened to the deliciously crazed version released as an album track by Diana Ross, and we’re […]

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