On The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland

The reissue of a classic Supremes album brings new appreciation for what it means to be seduced by soul

The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, photo courtesy of Motown

Generalization is rarely reliable. Stereotyping is far worse. Categorizing… well, that’s okay… but only sometimes. So, at the risk of crushing our credibility, we’ll opt for the latter and simply say that the Supremes still remain the most important African-American group of female persuasion to  ever emerge from this country and, most likely, the world overall.

Granted, that’s a broad sweep, but in terms on their impact on mid ‘60s pop, Black Music’s crucial crossover and the group’s role in setting the standard for soul music in the decades to come, there are few other outfits that even come close.

Not that they did it all on their own. They had the voices, but it was Motown’s star-making machinery, the ace studio musicians that the label employed, and the reliable chart-topping hits that were spun from the team of Holland, Dozier and Holland, that gave them all the elements necessary to ensure success. One glimpse at the track listing of this newly expanded classic album provides all the proof necessary. It boasts a veritable role call of hits — “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” “The Happening,” et. al. — with even more stone cold classics occupying the bonus live disc that was recorded at the Copacabana.

Sadly though, what this album also makes clear is that they simply don’t make solid soul music like they used to. Where are the groups like the Jackson 5, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles? Nowhere to be found unfortunately.  For that matter, how many of today’s so-called artists compare to the likes of Otis Redding, Al Green, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett or Diana Ross herself?  Not too many, we’d hazard to say.

Admitted, there are some that fit the mold; Bruno Mars, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Drake and the dubiously named The Weeknd all consider themselves contenders. Yet none of them have the songs and savvy that the classic crooners of the ‘60s possessed, and few of them even come close. It was one thing to have cool choreography back in the day when it was performed by the singers themselves. However having a stage full of dancers who do nothing more than preen, posture and pose really says more about the affectation of glitz and glamor than the smooth moves that were couched in natural choreography.

What a concept then… individuals who could harmonize and shuffle in place simultaneously; Performers who put an emphasis on their songs and didn’t need a stage full of dancers in clownish costumes simply to make moves for the sake of added effect.

In other words, it was the music that was mesmerizing enough.

That was what old school soul was all about…amazing singers with enough power and passion to keep their audiences enthralled even without the extra additives or the goofy gimmicks to provide added enticement. Sadly, it’s all but disappeared from the musical mainstream, and most of that which attempts to fill the gap is nothing more than commercial pablum designed to placate the masses.

So too, blame rap and hip-hop from marginalizing the very essence of R&B and the sanctity of soul.

Need proof? Listen to Al Green stir up the sentiment with a song like “Let’s Stay Together.”  Or move on to the emotion of the Big O, Otis Redding, as he makes his case to “Try a Little Tenderness.” And will there ever be anything equal in intensity to hearing the Godfather of Soul, Mister James Brown, wail aloud that it’s “A Man’s World?”

Obviously, music has to move on, and there’s no growth, no progress, no incentive for younger listeners if we allow ourselves to simply be confined to the past. And yet, once a standard’s been set, is it unreasonable to refuse to accept or simply tolerate anything less?

All it takes is a revisit to a classic album like The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland to understand and appreciate the incredible combination of singers and songs. Consider a lesson learned that ought not be forgotten.


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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