TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Released as a single (Tamla 54045) on Friday, July 21, 1961.
SONGWRITERS: Berry Gordy Jr., Barney Ales.
PRODUCER: Berry Gordy.
BACKSTORY: When this, the Supremes’ second Tamla single, was issued, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson were both 17 years of age, Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin were 18. The group had been signed to Motown for just six months, and even recorded what became their first 45 for the company (“I Want A Guy”) before ink reached paper. Unfortunately, none of their 45s troubled the charts until their fourth, “Let Me Go The Right Way,” at the end of December 1962.
Nonetheless, “Buttered Popcorn” is close to the hearts of many Supremes fans because it featured Flo Ballard singing lead, and doing so soon after she had picked the group’s new name. (Before that, they were the Primettes.) “Everything about the record – the background vocals, the lyrics, the music – was upbeat and sassy,” wrote Mary Wilson in her autobiography, My Life as a Supreme, adding that Ballard “really jammed with it as only she could.”
Flo herself recalled the excitement of hearing the record on the Detroit airwaves. “All that day, I was turning on the radio, turning to different stations, trying to pick it up,” she told Peter Benjaminson, author of The Lost Supreme. “It was just a fantastic feeling to hear myself singing. Family members would be calling up and saying, ‘I heard you on the radio! I heard you on the radio!’ The phone would be jumping off the hook.”
“Buttered Popcorn” was noticed by the media. “A novelty by the Supremes merits attention,” declared music columnist Wayne Harada in The Honolulu Advertiser, four thousand miles west of Detroit. In music industry trade magazine Cash Box, the B+ review noted, “Gals take advantage of the ‘Peanut Butter’ hit with a similar-sounding romp tribute to buttered popcorn, which the gal’s boyfriend can eat morning, noon and night.” (The other song was a West Coast recording, a Top 20 pop hit for the Marathons one month before the Supremes’ release.)
Despite this, “Buttered Popcorn” was not a success, not even when producer Berry Gordy recut it in a slightly smoother version and shipped the retake swiftly. The “open to interpretation” nature of the lyrics may have posed too great a risk for some radio programmers. “We were very disappointed that it wasn’t one of our earlier hits,” recalled Mary Wilson. “We always thought it would be, because Barney co-wrote it.” Ales was Motown’s Detroit distributor at the time (soon he would join the firm’s staff full-time) and close to Gordy. The song was written after the pair and their wives had gone to a movie theater, and Gordy was inspired when Ales made a comment about all the popcorn the four were eating. “Sounds like a good title for a song,” he said, when recalling the incident several years ago in Motown: The Sound of Young America.
REMAKES: Given its risqué lyrics and lack of chart presence, “Buttered Popcorn” was never going to attract dozens of new versions. But Motown’s creative team in Los Angeles, Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, did try a remake with a group called the Vows, a vocal quartet organised by James Moore, an import from Belaire, Ohio. They had recorded for an obscure local label before joining Motown, where Davis and Gordon initially had them sing background on Tamla sides by Brenda Holloway and Stevie Wonder, according to the liner notes of The Complete Motown Singles Volume 5: 1965. Then they cut “Buttered Popcorn,” and it was released in May 1965 on the V.I.P. label. Whether or not the Vows heard their version on the radio and became as excited as Florence Ballard had been four years earlier, the outcome was the same: not a hit.
FOOTNOTE: The liners of The Complete Motown Singles Volume 5: 1965 also revealed another fact about “Buttered Popcorn.” It had previously been said that the Vows’ version was fronted by Motown musician Richard Wylie, because his name had appeared, handwritten, on an acetate of their 45. This was not the case; researchers for the singles set played the Vows’ track for Wylie, whose nickname was “Popcorn.” He confirmed that he had no involvement with it.