Perhaps no other act defines the Motown sound better than the pop-soul firebrand, The Supremes. Championed by Motown founder Berry Gordy and paired with the label’s most successful songwriting trio, Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers, the group would go on to become one of the 1960’s most successful acts.
With a sweet, soulful sound all their own, and led by Diana Ross’s angelic, siren-like vocals, they amassed twelve number one singles during their time together. They survived multiple lineup changes, and scored hits despite the modifications. However, no other lineup could truly rival the magic they created while Diana headed up the group for several years (We cover her solo career separately). Their vast collection of music spanned genres, and over the course of the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, they proved they could shine while performing anything from R&B and soul music to country-western and funk. They were regulars on the popular Ed Sullivan Show due to their dynamic live renditions of their singles.
By the end of the decade in the ‘70s, the remaining members embarked on their respective solo careers, but the legacy they left behind while working with Motown is objectively historic in the scope of the modern music landscape both in the States and in Europe.
One of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Groups of All Time” and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, we take a wildly entertaining walk down memory lane with this distinctive list of Supremes songs.
15. Love Child
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy had a hand in writing this controversial Supremes track from 1968. ‘Love Child’ tells the story of a young couple’s experience with an unplanned pregnancy. Though the subject matter was taboo, the single became a number one hit in America. Surprisingly, only Supremes frontwoman Diana Ross sings on the track. The backup vocals were provided by studio session group The Adantes. This didn’t sit well with fellow Supremes Mary Wilson or Cindy Birdsong, and the move sanctioned by Gordy sparked a bit of a divide between the members.
14. Nathan Jones
The release of ‘Nathan Jones’ marked a big turning point for the girl group. Not only had frontwoman Diana Ross left The Supremes, but the fresh lineup managed to put out their 23rd studio album with Touch, which this track was the leading single for. Another tune exploring the emotions of pining for a long lost relationship, the 1971 tune showed listeners the group had life post-Diana Ross era. It became one of several hits without Diana that made it into the Billboard top 40.
Written by the popular Motown songwriting trio of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, the three lyrical geniuses penned many tracks for The Supremes, including ‘Reflections.’ The tune was a bit unconventional for the group, who found themselves experimenting with early psychedelic pop sounds while in the studio. A song about a woman looking back on a failed relationship and wondering if she and her former flame should have given it another try, it proved to be a huge hit in both the states and in the UK.
12. Bad Weather
Debuting during a time of great upheaval for The Supremes, the aptly named ‘Bad Weather’ is a metaphor for an overall theme focusing on a stormy relationship. This release featured yet another different lineup, with the group still trying to get their groove back after Ross’s exit. Because of this, the girls weren’t receiving much air time despite their stellar hit track record, and this caused a couple of the members to leave as well. Despite all of this turmoil, ‘Bad Weather’ gave the team a bit of hope when it managed to crack Billboard’s top 100 singles chart and breathe some life back into the new Supremes outfit.
11. Buttered Popcorn
An early single for The Supremes, ‘Buttered Popcorn’ became a defining release for the group, though it’s one of their more eclectic efforts. The vocal lineup hadn’t quite been solidified yet. Not only does the tune feature four distinct voices with the addition of Barbara Martin (she left the group shortly after), but instead of Diana taking lead per usual, fellow bandmate Florence Ballard took center stage for the recording. With unconventional lyrics about a man who loves the movie theater staple above all else, leaving the female protagonist feeling inadequate, this is another tune Motown originator Berry Gordy helped write.
10. The Happening
The Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland were back at it again with ‘The Happening,’ a tune written specifically for a 1967 film by the same name starring Faye Dunaway. While the movie didn’t do well at the box office, the song fared splendidly. The zany, pop-tinged single became a number one hit for the group despite them having to step out of their comfort zone with it. Normally, the girls recorded their hits in Detroit, but with ‘The Happening,’ they headed out to sunny Los Angeles to get the job done. It also represented a key turning point for them in the late ‘60s. Right after the success of this track, they added in Diana Ross’s distinctive vocals to officially become Diana Ross & the Supremes for the next three years.
9. Stoned Love
After heading up The Supremes for three years, manager Berry Gordy wanted to take Diana Ross’s career to new heights as a solo artist. Though her exit left big shoes to fill, the ladies proved they were up for the challenge and despite limited resources and a lack of odds in their favor they continued to score hits. One of those was ‘Stoned Love,’ which was co-written by a budding 17 year old songwriter, Kinney Thomas. A top ten hit in the US and taking the third spot on charts in the UK, though many associated the song’s title with drug use, Thomas actually wrote the lyrics about the Vietnam War, and the need for empathy and compassion among human beings.
8. I Hear A Symphony
Holland-Dozier-Holland scored The Supremes another number one chart topper with this romance track. During their Motown writing tenure, the songwriting trio managed to pen five consecutive hits for the girls, then they followed it up with this beauty featuring a string section. ‘I Hear a Symphony’ is a sweet tune highlighting a woman’s passionate love for her beau. While you wouldn’t think a group of guys could write such an endearing track from a female perspective, like the true professionals they were, they managed to do it in resounding fashion by reminiscing on their former flames for inspiration.
7. My World Is Empty Without You
A funky, uptempo track with plenty of sax and thumping bass, ‘My World is Empty Without You’ deals with a heartbreaking reality despite its exciting instrumentation. When Lamont Dozier penned this honest number, he was thinking back on all he had to sacrifice to become one of Motown’s most in-demand songwriters. This personal sacrifice for professional gain included a woman he referred to as the love of his life. For the recording, Gordy employed the talents of session musicians the Funk Brothers to really give it that punch you can hear. The tune was a major momentum driver for the group who found themselves headlining shows at the famous Copacabana and appearing on Ed Sullivan’s primetime hit variety show after its successful release.
6. You Keep Me Hangin’ On
A song that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ was a momentous commercial success for The Supremes. Dozier and his songwriting team changed things up a bit for the ladies with this song. Instead of their tried and true sound, they purposely set out to pen a rock track for them to record. And they went all out in the studio for it, recording biting guitar pieces and encouraging the girls to let loose vocally to invoke a realistic feel in regards to what the hit song entails. The moody tune involves a troubled relationship, with the female protagonist begging her lover to man up and let her go because she knows he’s not in love with her anymore.
5. Come See About Me
Diana Ross sings about a lost lover she hopes will return to her with their number one smash hit ‘Come See About Me.’ In a vein similar to ‘My World is Empty Without You,’ Ross ruminates on all she gave up to be with her man, and now she’s hoping it wasn’t all for nothing. One of the Motown era’s defining tracks, it went on to be covered by artists from many different genres, including country star Martina McBride. The popular song earned the girls another spot on the Ed Sullivan Show. They would go on to appear on the program a grand total of 20 times, which made them the pop act with the most appearances during the show’s run on air.
4. Stop! In The Name Of Love
Another painful breakup in Lamont Dozier’s life inspired one of The Supreme’s defining hits. He wrote the lyrics to ‘Stop! In The Name of Love’ after a real life fight he had with his girlfriend when she found out he had cheated on her. The lyrics of the chorus are words he actually uttered to her to try and get her to stay. Though she left him at the time, when the single became one of the group’s most successful releases ever, she took him back.
3. Where Did Our Love Go
The hit that started it all for The Supremes got off to a shaky start. Dozier had originally written ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ for the popular Motown group the Marvelettes. He even wrote it with their lead singer in mind. Much to his surprise, they passed on it. He knew if he couldn’t find someone on Motown’s roster to record the track he’d have to pay for it himself, and he wasn’t ready to give up on the song. Gordy wasn’t convinced of its hit potential and neither were The Supremes, but they were in desperate need of a song that would get them some chart action so they decided to give it a shot. Ross and Dozier immediately butted heads, and the girls gave him a hard time because they knew he had originally written the single for another group. Despite the drama, they managed to get the job done. Months later, when the song shot all the way to number one on the charts, Dozier and his songwriting team spotted the previously unheard of Supremes leaving an airport in mink coats. According to Dozier, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ made them stars overnight.
2. Baby Love
One of the group’s signature tracks, Dozier penned ‘Baby Love’ about the one that got away, his first true love who he never really was able to put behind him. The Supremes made a killing off of songs dealing with matters of the heart, and that was in large part thanks to Lamont’s songwriting abilities. The commercial treasure took the top spot on US and UK charts, making it an international number one hit. The single marked the beginning of the team figuring out the formula for the girls’ trademark sound which included Ross’s unmistakable, breathy vocals. They’re on full display from start to finish with ‘Baby Love.’ Gordy even made them re-record the track to make sure they really honed in on her unique vocal styling.
Recommended: our pick of the best Motown songs.
1. You Can’t Hurry Love
Over the course of The Supremes’ recording career they covered stylings from R&B and rock to pop. With their hallmark release ‘You Can’t Hurry Love,’ their dedicated songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland was searching for a gospel angle. They found it in an old church tune, ‘You Can’t Hurry God.’ They built on its core and wrote new lyrics with an updated melody. The exercise in adaptation paid off. Not only was the single a show-stopping hit, but it became listeners’ go-to track in the girls’ repertoire. With a timeless feel and important moral lesson, good things come to those who wait, this Motown track quickly became a best-seller.