The Second Disc

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Review: The Supremes, “The Supremes at the Copa”

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The building on New York’s East 60th Street might between 5th and Madison Avenues might not have looked like much from the outside.  But within the walls of 10 E. 60th, it was a different story altogether, as that address housed the fabled Copacabana.  Lyricist Fred Ebb asserted of New York City itself, “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere,” but he could have been writing of The Copacabana.  And Berry Gordy wanted to make it there.  More accurately, the Motown Records chief wanted his acts to make it there, breaking not just a color barrier but an age barrier.  Diana, then Diane, Ross quipped from the Copa stage, “I know if there were teenagers in the house, they’d know our names!” as she introduced her fellow group members to the sophisticated Manhattan crowd. The Supremes’ August 1965 engagement was such a success that it led to stands there by Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It also yielded the only full live album issued by the classic Supremes trio line-up, which has just been remastered and expanded by Hip-o Select.  In its new 2-CD form, The Supremes at the Copa (Motown/Hip-o Select B0016644-02, 2012) has never sounded fresher.

The Supremes weren’t the first African-American artists to play The Copacabana, with Harry Belafonte, Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis Jr. all having preceded them.  But when they triumphed at the venue, it was clear that the Sound of Young America had appeal to a much wider demographic than might have been expected.  The transformation of the Supremes, already the No. 1 vocal group in America,  into supper-club superstars was orchestrated to a tee by arranger/musical directors Gil Askey and Maurice King, choreographer Cholly Atkins and Artist Development personnel including producer Harvey Fuqua and instructor Maxine Powell.  No stone was left unturned in Motown’s quest for true Supremacy.  Luckily for Gordy, Diane Ross (jokingly referred to as “the intelligent one” in her own stage patter), Mary Wilson (“the sexy one”) and Florence Ballard (“the quiet one”) were all up to the task.

Hit the jump to explore The Supremes at the Copa!

Producers Andrew Skurow and George Solomon have addressed the August 1965 gig from every angle.  The original 15-track, overdubbed stereo LP is joined on Disc One by ten tracks in alternate mono mixes.  (The set’s notes explain that the standard mono LP preserved a near-identical line-up to the stereo mix, whereas an unreleased mono master drew on different songs and performances, with no overdubs.)  The mono tracks don’t “pop” like the stereo ones do, but they’re notable for presenting the unvarnished vocals in addition to being historically significant as the first “reference” mixes of the album.  Disc Two then creates a “complete” composite show, again with no studio overdubs, drawn from the six performances recorded by Motown.

The carefully-selected material was diverse in nature.  Broadway material would, naturally, have been familiar to an adult audience in 1965, and so the Supremes tackled songs from 1957’s West Side Story and 1960’s Do Re Mi and Bye Bye Birdie, as well as 1964’s hot ticket Funny Girl.  (1968’s altogether enjoyable Diana Ross and the Supremes Sing and Perform ‘Funny Girl’ is still inexplicably not on CD.  You’ll get a taste of the album, though, via the saucy live performances here of “I Am Woman.”)  A sensitive reading of Do Re Mi’s “Make Someone Happy” shows a sensitive Ross honing her interpretive skills as a tinkling cocktail piano accompanies her.  Current pop hits were also featured, including “The Boy from Ipanema” and Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House,” a female turn on Roger Miller (no relation)’s “King of the Road.” And no Supremes concert would have been complete without bona fide Supremes hits, so “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Back In My Arms Again” and more all appeared in the Copacabana programs.

Though The Supremes were young, they took like fish to water in performing this diverse repertoire. The Supremes at the Copa, amazingly, was the only live LP released during the group’s time together, but its abridged track listing (the composite show contains 21 tracks vs. the album’s 15) offered something for everyone.  Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Put on a Happy Face” was the infectious opener.  George Solomon’s fine liner notes inform us that the group continued to use the song to open live concerts for another three years.  Of the Supremes’ own hits, that LP contained “Baby Love,” “Stop!  In the Name of Love,” “Come See About Me” and “Back in My Arms Again.”  Most striking about these tracks is the fact that they were rearranged, from top to bottom, for the Copa crowd by arranger/conductor Askey.  The arrangements were heavy on the brass and show-biz style with big finishes rather than pop fades.  Though these might have de-emphasized the “rhythm and blues” in the Brian Holland/Lamont Dozier/Eddie Holland songs, the Supremes compensated with sheer panache.  And “Stop!” still manages to rock – at least a little bit!  A lengthy medley paid tribute to past Copa headliner Sam Cooke, which included a hyper-charged “Shake” that must have shown off the Supremes’ energy at its fullest.  (We’re still awaiting an expanded reissue of The Supremes’ 1965 We Remember Sam Cooke!)  Another frequent Copa visitor, Dean Martin, was feted with one of his signature tunes, “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.”  (Dino’s fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr. contributed liner notes to the original album, which are reprinted here.)  The Copa recordings also preserve some patter and a cute “special material” introduction to “Baby Love.”  There’s a strong feeling of intimacy, with Ross taking an almost-conversational approach to many of the songs.

Although Diana Ross’ lead vocals were re-recorded in Detroit for the original LP (a common practice in those days and also attributable to deficiencies in the audio), the actual live vocals are no less impressive.  2012 technology has been able to solve the problems posed in 1965, and Ross’ charmingly coquettish leads shine on both the mono set and the complete show on Disc Two.  That composite set is most notable for the inclusion of numerous songs that didn’t make the cut for the original album.  These “cut songs” include the Cole Porter-penned opening number “From This Moment On,” Hitsville classics “Where Did Our Love Go” (or “that baby song,” as Ross recalled onstage) and “Nothing But Heartaches,” and more standards such as “Tonight/The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).”  That latter song, a 1949 Carl Sigman/Herb Magidson composition popularized by bandleader Guy Lombardo, even gave Mary Wilson a rare solo turn when she took the lead on one verse!  “From This Moment On” is taken at a fast clip: “From this happy day, no more blue songs/Only hoop-de-doo songs!” offers the appropriate sentiment, but it’s easy to see why the peppier “Put on a Happy Face” took its place.

Although standards and theatre music aren’t always associated with The Supremes, Live at the Copa was not anomalous; Motown never shied away from assigning classic songs to its star performers.  Hip-o Select has already excavated The Supremes’ then-unreleased 1965 LP There’s a Place for Us, so named for Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story lyric to “Somewhere.”  (Another highlight of the “complete” show is an otherwise-unheard performance of “Tonight,” also from West Side, in a medley with the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields standard “The Way You Look Tonight.”)    George Solomon’s notes astutely point out that many of these songs remained with each of the Supremes for years, with Diana performing “Somewhere” as recently as 2000 and Mary Wilson having added “The Boy From Ipanema” to her jazz show in 2005.  Great songs don’t age, and now, many of Motown’s pop hits have themselves entered the “standard” songbook!  In fact, the Holland/Dozier/Holland songs heard here are far older now than many of the standards were when The Supremes performed them at the Copacabana!  (Interestingly, when the Supremes sang “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” the oldest song the group performed, it was 47 years old.  That’s the same age “Stop! In the Name of Love” is now!)

The Supremes’ stint at the Copacabana was so successful that the group played the prestigious venue for another seven years preserving the set heard here.  A May 1967 concert was also recorded by Motown, but that complete show remains unissued to this day.  The Supremes paved the way for many other Motown acts to headline The Copa; the liner notes reveal that a 1968 stand from Martha and the Vandellas remains ripe for a first-time release.

Housed in a digipak, At the Copa reprints the original album artwork plus related posters and advertisements.  Kevin Reeves has remastered, and has also mixed the tracks on Disc Two which are making their premiere.  George Solomon’s detailed notes are split between two essays, one on the shows and one on the albums; both are informative and entertaining.  The booklet, of course, also features numerous pictures of The Supremes looking resplendent in blue!

Ed Sullivan, Jack Cassidy and Sammy Davis Jr. all took seats at The Copacabana to witness Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard work their magic.  Thanks to Hip-o Select’s generously expanded edition, we’re able to join that esteemed company and take a front row seat for a couple of hours At the Copa!

Written by Joe Marchese

June 13, 2012 at 09:46

Posted in Diana Ross, News, Reissues, Reviews, The Supremes

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