The times, they are a-changin’.
Love Child came into this world during the final weeks of 1968, as the album’s title track knocked the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” from the peak of the Billboard Hot 100. It had proved to be a most tumultuous year in America, not least because of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and continuing involvement with the war in Vietnam.
Motown was experiencing change, too. The architects of the Supremes’ success, Holland/Dozier/Holland, had departed amid a flurry of litigation, and the record company had moved its headquarters to downtown Detroit from West Grand Boulevard. What’s more, the Supremes’ previous single, “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” had been their lowest-charting release in years.
Berry Gordy was determined to recapture the public’s love for his premier girl group, and show that his business was not terminally damaged by the H/D/H exit. He put some of his most capable songwriters – Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor, Deke Richards and newbie Pam Sawyer – to work as a team, locked away in a plush Detroit hotel until they came up with the result he wanted. According to the liner notes of The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 8, the out-of-wedlock idea came from Sawyer, then everyone, plus arranger/producer Hank Cosby, set about shaping it into a complete song, sanctioned by Gordy. Once finished, “Love Child” was swiftly recorded and sent to market. In three weeks, the single soared into the Billboard Top 10, soon followed by its claim on the crown.
Diana Ross & the Supremes were back where they belonged.
Quality control did not rest. Aside from its barnstorming title song, the performances, material and production values throughout this album stand tall against Motown’s prolific output of the late 1960s, with Diana’s voice especially forceful and mature. The musicianship is equally blue-chip, and the only disappointment is that the album jacket contains no backroom credits except for the songwriters. The guitar, bass and percussion work merits special mention, as do the stunning arrangements, some of which were doubtless done by Paul Riser. For example, listen to “Keep An Eye,” and you’ll hear a tambourine like a rattlesnake and a hi-hat like a viper – the perfect accompaniment for a song about betrayal. Diana Ross must have been impressed: she re-recorded it for her first solo album, a couple of years later.
“Keep An Eye” is one of three compositions by Ashford and Simpson on Love Child, and they sing behind Diana, as do the Andantes on other tracks. Gordy was so determined to return lustre to the Supremes’ reputation that, if Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong weren’t available (in the case of “Love Child,” Mary was on vacation when it was recorded) or considered essential for a particular session, it went ahead without them. Fans of the group might have suspected as much, but given an album as strong as this, the focus was on the music, not the line-up.
If betrayal is in the air, “How Long Has This Evening Train Been Gone” is equally sublime on that score. A sinister piano yields to an impossibly fluid bass line as Diana’s dismay (“How could the guy just up and leave me?”) becomes apparent. On “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” the question appears to be about race, as the singers – mostly Diana – tackle the controversial ballad that was a hit earlier in ’68 for Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. It’s more plaintive than the original version, but no less intriguing. Chinese-American co-writer Tommy Chong, the future stoner comedian, is on record as saying the lyric is based on his experience with his African-American wife. Call it music’s variation of a theme essayed the previous year in Sidney Poitier’s hit movie, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?
The mood on Love Child is not all serious. An upbeat “Honey Bee (Keep On Stinging Me)” is as infectious as any of the Supremes’ earlier big hits, complete with midpoint sax solo. “You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me” is lighter, fluffier but highly appealing, and Smokey Robinson’s “He’s My Sunny Boy” has an impossibly catchy hook and a lyric as smart (“My cloudy days have been de-clouded”) as almost anything he’s written. “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin’” keeps the mood bright, just as it did when previously cut by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
This album’s Fifty Shades Of Grey moments come in the form of “Chains Of Love” and “I’ll Set You Free.” Above a palpitating bass line, the background singers on “Chains…” call out “tighter, tighter” while Diana wails “lock it up/lock it up/lock it up” – her heart, presumably. “I’ll Set You Free” maintains the commanding pace, with Diana’s lead and the backing vocals unusually upfront in the mix. (Another version can be found on 2008’s Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities.)
The finale of Love Child is as compelling and catchy as anything else here, with an unusual story, to boot. “Can’t Shake It Loose” was first recorded circa 1966 by Pat Lewis for Golden World Records, one of Motown’s rival, albeit small, independent labels in Detroit. The song’s authorship is attributed to, among others, Joanne Jackson, the wife of Golden World’s owner, as well as George Clinton, the future high priest of P-Funk. Clinton claims he heard the song’s title used as a catch-phrase by Detroit radio diva Martha Jean the Queen; he evidently liked it so much that he had Funkadelic cut “Loose” in 1969.
All that said, the Supremes work “Can’t Shake It Loose” for everything they’ve got, and – since Berry Gordy had bought out Golden World by the time this album was made – the songwriting income stays in-house.
Even in changing times, dollars keep a-flowin’.
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