The Supremes - Live at the Copa (2012)

The Supremes
The Supremes Live at the Copa.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

People who know the history of The Supremes – not the history as told by “Dreamgirls” or “Sparkle,” but real history – will hear two very interesting things in Diana Ross’s introduction of the group that can be heard in Live at the Copa. The album is a recording of the Supremes’ first performance at the famed Copacabana Club in New York in the summer of 1965.  Ross, who of course handled the task, introduces Florence Ballard as “the quiet one,” and Mary Wilson as “the sexy one.” She introduces herself, Diane Ross, as “the intelligent one.”

People who know the history of The Supremes – not the history as told by “Dreamgirls” or “Sparkle,” but real history – will hear two very interesting things in Diana Ross’s introduction of the group that can be heard in Live at the Copa. The album is a recording of the Supremes’ first performance at the famed Copacabana Club in New York in the summer of 1965.  Ross, who of course handled the task, introduces Florence Ballard as “the quiet one,” and Mary Wilson as “the sexy one.” She introduces herself, Diane Ross, as “the intelligent one.”

Fans in the know will note Ross’s use of her given first name Diane. However, the string of number one hits in 1964 and 1965 and the show at the Copa would be key in the decision to chuck Diane for the more glamorous “Diana.” The group’s name would eventually become Diana Ross and the Supremes. Supremes fans know that Ballard was anything but quiet. She didn’t approve of the direction that Motown head Berry Gordy was taking the group, and she wasn’t shy about saying so. Mainly, Ballard didn’t like the fact that Gordy wanted to make The Supremes a vehicle to promote Ross while relegating Ballard and Wilson to back up-singers. The Copa date became, if not the original manifestation of this vision, the performance where it became clear that Ross would become The Supremes’ de facto leader. Ross’s and the groups name change made the move official.

The reasons for this shift are often obscured by pop culture’s myth-making machine, and that’s not to say that elements of popular history are not accurate.  Yes, there was creative tension between Ballard and Gordy. Of course, there was the simmering and not yet consummated sexual tension between Gordy and Ross.  However, there were clear creative and commercial reasons for Gordy’s tilt toward Ross, and listening to Live at the Copa confirms that the Motown boss’s decision to make Ross the group’s focal point was correct.

Gordy was a macro thinker. Conquering the Copa was crucial in Gordy’s plan to transform Motown into a crossover label filled with mass appeal artists. He immediately identified The Supremes as a group with the highest crossover appeal, and that’s why he stuck with them throughout the early 1960s when they released a series of middling ‘hits’ while other groups – including female acts such as The Marvalettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Mary Wells – were topping the charts.  The Supremes’ peers on the label noticed their lack of production and mockingly dubbed the trio “The no-hit Supremes.”

The jokes stopped when “Where Did Our Love Go” reached number one in 1964. The group quickly scored four other top choppers, and Gordy quickly began preparing them for their debut at the Copa. Ross probably understood the importance of playing the Copa, but Gordy, who grew up as a jazz fan, was from a generation where performing at the venue was viewed as a crowning achievement. While Gordy had no intention of abandoning the young listeners of both races who made Motown the most successful independent label of the era, he had his eyes on the pocketbooks of those kids’ parents. That probably explains why the group performed twice as many tunes from the Great American Songbook as cuts from the Motown library. Ross, who was all of 21 at the time, proves to be an adept interpreter of the songbook. Her perkiness shows through in her energetic rendition of “Put on a Happy Face.”

Ross, who would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1972, proves to be quite the actress during this Copa date. She manages to show to the audience that she’s the consummate pro during a rollicking performance of “Rock-A-Bye-Your-Baby.” Any black person who could sing that song in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement with a straight face is an actor without peer. Ross shows a humorous side that many didn’t think she possessed when the group performs “Queen of the House,” a domestic goddess restyling of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

Gordy’s decision to make Ross the lead singer dates back to 1963. Ballard and Wilson serve as backing vocalists during the Copa date. The two were more than capable in that role, showing why The Supremes were the label’s go to backing vocalists during their “no hit days.” Still, Ballard chafed in the role, and she often vented her frustrations with the shackles Gordy forced her to wear while on stage.

During a lush and swinging performance of “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You,” Ballard takes the opportunity to offer some commentary to the lyrics Ross sings. Just as Ross completes the tunes opening lines “You’re nobody til somebody loves you/you nobody til nobody cares,” Ballard intones in a mock self pitying voice “don’t nobody care about little ole’ me.”

The crowd chuckles and Ross waits for the laughs to subside and then sassily retorts, “little.” A little later, Ross sings “gold won’t bring you happiness,” Ballard jabs back, “wait a minute honey. I don’t know about all that.” The crowd laughs, but Gordy simmered with rage at Ballard’s successful attempt to upstage the star. The audience members likely had no clue about the label politics that prompted those exchanges. However, Ballard was an expert reading the crowd and she correctly surmised that they’d love a little improvisation.

The Rat Pack entertained this type of crowd with similar antics, and Frank, Sammy and Dean specialized in tunes from the Great American Songbook. Gordy knew how to give the people what they wanted, and that explains why the set list tilted heavily to music from the songbook, Broadway show tunes and bossa nova. While The Supremes dove into the standards and spent time fleshing out those tunes, they rushed through the Motown material. The pace of the music picks up considerably on Motown songs such as “Stop! In the Name of Love.”

Critics will likely view this as another Gordy sell-out. I can see that narrative, but it’s just as likely that the Motown boss was ahead of his time. These days, pop artists wishing to showcase their vocal chops sing standards and allow the video to get posted on You Tube. Artists such as Beyonce and Mariah Carey want to make the transition from being viewed primarily as R&B singers to world wide crossover acts who dominate pop music, film and television. In short, they want the world to know them on a first name basis. Contemporary fans can be excused for believing that the late Whitney Houston is the prototype. Live at the Copa serves as an auditory reminder that before there was Whitney or Beyonce or Mariah or Madonna, there was Diana.  Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
Featured Album - Conya Doss - CLEAR
Album of the Month - Cecile McLorin Salvant - The Window
Featured Album - Raul Midón - If You Really Want
Featured Album - Anthony David - Hello Like Before

Leave a comment!