It's taken me this long to
narrow down the Supremes' music catalogue to just two songs that I feel represent Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson at their absolute pinnacle.
Each of these songs, Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart, and Reflections, showcases the Supremes in their finest moments. And I think I selected these in the end because neither of them is from the usual mold from which, let's face it, so many of their songs were cast.
No Holland-Dozier-Holland composition was ever arranged into a sassier and more hard-driving record than Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart ... it exudes sensual energy of the most life-affirming kind. The blending of Ross' wail with Ballard's and Wilson's surging backing ooh-ooh-oohs puts me into the same frenzy 42 years later as it did as a teenager. The Funk Brothers' Benny Benjamin's 4/4 stomp alone ensures its place in the pantheon of kinetic history and what's up with Jack Ashford on the tinkling vibes? It just doesn't get any better than this, and it was never duplicated, unlike so many of the other carbon-copied hits. Inexplicably, one of the few Supremes hits not to chart at #1.
Reflections was the Supremes grown up and responding to shifting musical trends. Opening with an oscillator that led to its being pegged "psychedelic soul," it was just a beautiful song and an indication of what the girls could have done together if Berry Gordy had left well enough alone. It will forever symbolize the Supremes on the cusp of demise, being the first song on which Gordy put Ross on a pedestal and gave her top billing, and the last on which Ballard appeared. I'll admit its place in my heart is in part secured because of its inspired "casting" as the opening theme song of China Beach, one of the best ensemble TV shows ever made on any subject and certainly on war, in this instance the Vietnam war. The character of Colleen McMurphy, for me, was every bit as influential as that of Mary Richards in embodying young women's stories at that time in our evolution.
But in terms of the Supremes' story, much has already been written: Three close friends from the Detroit projects, in their own girl group called the Primettes (a sister act to the Primes which, featuring Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, was the Temptations precursor group), busting out with the knowledge that they had something special to offer as performers and dreaming of being discovered by Motown. Ross's lesser, shrill, voice but greater capacity for showbiz exploitation eclipsing the possibilities for powerful tenor Ballard and alto Wilson (both of whom could also sing lead more than competently) and setting up a chain of circumstances that led to Ballard being fired from the group in 1967, losing a lawsuit against Motown over that dismissal and ultimately dying, destitute, of a heart attack at the age of 32. And on and on ... it's a great American success story turned turbulent and tragic ... ambition gone awry. My generation was lucky to bask in it while it was good.