Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Song A Day: The Supremes, "You Can't Hurry Love"

MAY 16, 2017





During the 1950s and 1960s, most Americans heard recorded music via radio or turntable. There were no audio cassettes, no CDs, no home computers, no digital music. Rare was the family with high-quality equipment.  The music option with the highest fidelity—reel-to-reel tapes—was somewhat difficult to use and the players expensive.

“Popular” music from that time (non-classical and, usually, non-jazz) was made to be heard on cheap equipment. It blared from small, low-fi radios in cars, from portable radios toted to the park or the beach or listened to at home by teenagers, from radios at offices, and from inexpensive record players. Pop music’s audience was young and had transient tastes, being susceptible to fads and fashions and, especially during the 1960s, frequent sea changes in pop’s style and substance.

Back then, record companies got exposure for their products primarily through radio. Even the biggest U.S. cities didn’t even have ten TV channels, and little time was made on the tube for pop music. While few “rock clubs” existed even for people over 21, live teenage music—rock and R&B—could be heard at church dances, teen clubs, carnivals, Battles of the Bands, and even shopping center openings.

The professional goal for many (perhaps most) musicians back then would have been to record a 45 RPM single and somehow get it played on Top 40 radio. Of course, the business was more complex than they knew, rife with payola even after a late 1950s scandal that resulted in attempts to “clean up” the industry.

The biggest record companies employed “pluggers,” whose job was to visit radio stations, befriend DJs and program directors, and get their labels’ records played. Smaller record labels hired independent promoters for the same purpose. Pluggers and promoters servicing their radio station clients in those days may have had to offer any number of “inducements” (think Mad Men) to get their catalogue represented on the airwaves.

None of this should be surprising; people have always done whatever they have to do to sell a product. What I find amazing is that that era’s pop music is heard today in a way that few people experienced it 50 to 60 years ago.

Until 1968 or so, pop records were made to be heard in mono, or monaural, with the sound coming through one channel rather than a left and right channel, as in stereo. Mono was the original format for recorded sound, largely because it cost much more to record and reproduce music with two signals. A strong majority of the public, and certainly most Top 40 listeners, bought the less expensive mono systems and mono recordings. 45 RPM records were rarely made available in stereo until the early 1970s.

The record business was going great guns in the 1960s due to the emergence of a new youth culture sparked by the arrival of the Beatles. But in the record biz, as in every industry, too much money is never enough. To further jack up revenue, the major record companies decided in the mid 1960s to gradually phase out mono recordings. Making all recordings stereo meant that they could charge higher prices.

Audio component manufacturers were, of course, ecstatic, because the market was already growing for greater sophistication in sound reproduction, and making all recordings stereo would goose the sale of more expensive equipment.

By 1967, most companies had begun limiting the release of mono recordings. Within two years, the large record labels had converted to issuing stereo singles and albums.

Before 1969, most of the music heard and consumed by teenagers was in mono. Yet when you hear music on an oldies station today, or buy a compilation of 50s or 60s songs, you’re more than likely to hear the stereo versions of these songs, which far fewer people heard at the time. Back in 1965, a song would only have been mixed into stereo if a stereo album including the song was to be issued, which wasn’t always the case.

Much of the greatest pop of the 1950s and 1960s loses some power in stereo. The main reason for this is that records were mixed first for mono, with stereo mixing being an afterthought. For example, the biggest act of the era, the Beatles, and their producer George Martin, spent far more time mixing their records (i.e. balancing the volume of the different instruments and vocals) to mono than to stereo.

Even Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was mixed initially and primarily for mono, with the band not even present for the more hastily completed stereo mix. This means that the listener to the original mono tracks (on record or radio) received the intended mix, the package first meant to be heard.

In addition, differences often exist between mono and stereo mixes. A stereo mix made for an album might use various components not intended for release on the 45 RPM single, or use components re-recorded and added following the single’s shelf life.

The biggest acts in pop, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel, the Supremes, Steppenwolf, and the Monkees, often employed different lead vocal performances, instrumental choices, or mixing level variations on their stereo album tracks than on the original 45 singles.

At times, entirely different takes of songs might be used for a stereo mix. The single version of The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall,” from 1965, reached the top five in the Billboard charts. But the version heard now—in the film Pulp Fiction or on oldies shows—is the stereo version, an entirely different performance not heard by most listeners at the time.

This is a really long way of introducing the 45 version of The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.”

For two years beginning in July 1964, the Supremes had six of their seven consecutive 45s on Motown hit #1 on the pop charts. Four of them hit #1 on the R&B charts and two went to #2. But then two consecutive excellent singles failed to make the top five. Were the Supremes fading, a spent force? Were they already passé?

Not a chance. Their trio’s next release, “You Can’t Hurry Love,” written and produced by the Supremes’ usual team of Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier, is a masterpiece of composition, arrangement, and vocal and instrumental performance. At a time where the Supremes needed a huge hit, H-D-H delivered a strong single with a beat that defines the Motown sound of the 1960s.

On this number, Motown’s backing musicians (an aggregation known internally as the Funk Brothers) played a straight 4/4 drum/tambourine rhythm with a one-note bass line on the 1-2-3, 1-2-2½-3-4 beats. Numerous major acts, including the Doors, Hall and Oates, Jet, and even Stevie Wonder himself, have mined that deceptively simple, iconic groove, with artistic and fiscal success.

To their credit, H-D-H didn’t load down that funky, urgent setting with other elements. A couple of rattling rhythm guitars set the scene, and in the chorus, a piano and a vibraphone(?) playing the same notes offer counterpoint to Diana Ross’ lead vocals and the backing from Flo Ballard and Mary Wilson. And that’s it: no orchestra, no brass section, no bleating saxophone solo. Keeping the frosting to a minimum allows the singers to come through. Among other great moments in the record, the two-second “break” at 1:58 remains absolutely singular.

Lyrically, “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a sort of girl-power answer to the Miracles’ 1961 hit “Shop Around,” in which Smokey Robinson relates how his mother told him to pick over the girls in order to find the best in the bunch. Diana Ross, on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” admits that she’s lonesome, and needs some love, but that she’s holding out…because her mamma said that you can’t hurry things, you have to wait for the right one. (And it’s never stated that the right one is necessarily a guy.) The lyrics are inspired by a gospel song from the previous decade.

Since most of the Supremes’ prior singles involved the singer either falling in love or being dumped after putting out, “You Can’t Hurry Love” indicated some much-needed lyrical variation (and backbone). Unfortunately, while Holland-Dozier-Holland kept making musical advances with the Supremes, their lyrics for the trio mostly remained submissive. Of their singles after “You Can’t Hurry Love” through Diana Ross’ departure in 1969, only 1968’s “Love Child” indicated agency, or could be called assertive.

The version of “You Can’t Hurry Love” released on 45 in 1966, the one loved by millions of American kids and young adults, crackles with energy. Yet it’s not available on iTunes. At least two stereo mixes are currently available, both inferior to the mono original. The stereo versions have horns added and many of the instruments are buried in reverb. These mixes are dodgy, diffused, and a bit soft, while the mono mix is direct, straightforward and punchy. It’s a mix to play people who insist that Motown’s records were wimpy.

What’s nice is that you can hear the mono mix either on a 45 (not hard to get), a mono version of the Supremes-a-Go-Go LP (not too hard to get), or on the YouTube video below (even easier). It’s well worth your 2:50.

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