It does seem to me, looking back on the first year of this our new plague, that we have lost a lot of...let’s call them, luminaries. Not knowing how attentive you are to the obits, safe to say, we have lost folks, many up in years, from all areas of endeavor in U.S. affairs and culture. Considering current events, “rest in peace” should not be a heavy lift.
The recent departure of Mary Wilson, I find (in my desperate appetite for distraction) quite resonant. It is not my intent to discuss the Supremes or Motown here. If that is what you want, there is plenty out there. I would discuss other things. Yeah.
There is a great pop hit from the 15th century called “the Cricket” by Josquin du Prez (I’ve seen this name spelled or translated a number of ways). Its original form or setting was something like a vocal quartet. This unit was in vogue for centuries prior to and after the Cricket.
Jumping to our culture/era, barbershop quartet is an obvious link in this chain. After Louis Armstrong landed, it moved towards Jazz and recording. Most visible to us now are groups like the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters, but there were more and they were excellent. They displayed dazzling musicianship and were popularly embraced, beloved and most importantly, imitated. Country music and Rhythm n’ Blues, both with direct links to Gospel music, retained their love of voices. But Rock n’ Roll...not so much. DooWop did, for its short tenure, and the Beatles and the Beach Boys sang beautifully, but as Rock got louder and tougher, the angels of harmony were replaced by guitars, anger and special effects.
Motown, Detroit, Michigan, USA. It was founded by a man with a plan. His name was Berry Gordy and biographies will be written about him. He established what seems like an industrial process for producing the music America would love, hits. That sounds cold and maybe he was, but the music was hot, like a heat wave.
On any given day, there was so much talent at Hitsville, well, it defies description. But I digress.
What do you need for a hit song? Well, you need a few things. You need singers. Nowadays, not so much. Nowadays, they look at your head shot before they play the demo. Sometimes now, if you just look really good, they can figure out the singing thing later. And you need a song. And you need smokin’ musicians, arrangers and producers (I can’t stop to explain that last one—I’d be here all day).
Berry Gordy assembled that, and the hits rolled out of Hitsville for most of the ’60s and into the ’70s.
Back to music: one of the essential miracles of music, any music and all pop music, is the recombination of the same 12 notes (western music) to create a new and distinct tune. Go to the piano and count ’em, 12 notes, then it repeats.
Much is said, and should be said, about George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and the significant others in that rarefied group. Not enough though is said about Holland Dozier Holland and the other Motown song writers like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
H-D-H cranked out tunes for Berry Gordy’s vocal groups at an unbelievable pace. Look up their catalog on Wikipedia, unbelievable. Starting around 1963 or so, under the guidance of Gordy’s Hitsville, H-D-H found their ideal vehicle with the Supremes: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross They showed up with a different name, but Gordy changed it. The house band was referred to as “the Funk Brothers” and they must be credited too. The musical output of this four-way partnership—Hitsville, H-D-H, the Supremes & the Funk Bros—is one of the high-water marks of American popular music. Thank You(s).
Something about singing; the Supremes, together and individually, were not good singers; they were great singers. It must be said here that some of those early hits were pure unaltered records of performance in a studio. No hocus pocus, dubbing, tuning technology or any of that stuff.
Listen to those hits, how perfectly every word, every syllable and every consonant at either end of every word and phrase is clear as a bell. And when a phrase was over, they clipped their notes, snapped them off like twigs. When the back-ups were singing with the lead, they were in tune and perfectly aligned, one mind. When back-ups were in response to the lead, the lead got out of their way and vice versa, and I would add, the band didn’t overplay where the vocals were.
In a sense, it is technically more difficult to sing back-up than lead. You don’t have the restrictions up front by yourself that you do in the back, having to function both in a unit and as part of the support structure. Don’t believe me on this, but do ask a singer about it.
Now all the Motown groups did this sort of thing well, but the Supremes were the best, and Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard were the best of the best.
I could listen to the Supremes’ catalog on Monday and sing along with Diana, but Tuesday and Wednesday, I’ll sing with Mary and Flo.