I’ve been on a big Diana Ross and the Supremes kick lately, gorging myself with back-to-back plays of their albums like their music is Halloween candy. I listened to seven Supremes longplayers yesterday alone. I’m just not in the mood for anything else. But as anyone who has ever owned classic Motown albums can tell you, for the most part the Supremes catalog sounds terrible. Motown wax has always had the reputation for being highly compressed and ALL TREBLE. Not a bad strategy for 60s hit singles and jukeboxes perhaps, but this approach didn’t always translate to albums very well. It’s also difficult to find 50-year-old Supremes records in mint condition, and even if they do appear to be flawless, there’s still at least a 50/50 chance that they will sound like bacon frying when you get them home. From an audiophile standpoint, Motown albums are usually the worst. Many original Supremes albums were serious ear-bleeders and frankly Motown has never really done right by them on CDs either. I can recall eagerly busting the velvet-covered box set The Supremes out of its cellophane wrapper when it came out in 2000 and how disappointed I was. It sounded so shrill that I thought my speakers’ tweeters would explode. Like having sonic screwdrivers aimed straight for your eardrums. What on paper should have been the ultimate Supremes collection, was largely unlistenable.
If you wanted to reliably hear the Supremes at their best—minus the bad compression, minus the crackly, cheap vinyl, then this pretty much meant shelling out for pricey Japanese SHM-CD imports. Everywhere else the Supremes catalog has been given short shrift. Certainly there’s still a sizable audience out there who’d like to hear the Supremes sound the best that they can, they were after all Motown’s premiere group of the 60s, rivaling even the Beatles in records sales internationally and racking up twelve #1 singles, five of them consecutive. The Supremes were the most successful girl group of all time and yet unless you’re ready to shell out for the Japanese discs, your options in recent decades have been limited to a choice between the horribly mastered and pressed original records, really horribly mastered CDs and a few that sounded okay. Quality vinyl? Not so much.
No doubt sensing this heinous gap in the marketplace, the mighty Third Man Records has served up a tasty platter—make that four tasty platters—of Supremes goodness in the form of the new box set Supreme Rarities: Motown Lost & Found. This product is as good as vinyl box sets come. Not only does it sound amazing—mastered, I am told by Third Man’s Ben Blackwell, from high quality digital transfers that Motown struck from the original analog master tapes—it’s nicely designed and HEAVY. Not only the records themselves—pressed to Third Man’s exacting standards in their Detroit plant not far from where the Supremes themselves were raised, the first time for a Motown product believe it or not—but also the firm, substantial built-to-last packaging. You know when you are holding a new record in your hands and you’re thinking “Fuck yeah, this is gonna be good”? That’s what I was thinking when my review copy arrived in the mail and trust me Supreme Rarities: Motown Lost & Found does not disappoint. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Speaking of the Supremes, Motown, vinyl box sets, the perfect pairing for Supreme Rarities (there’s no overlap) is the superb Diana Ross And The Supremes – 25th Anniversary set from 1986. One half greatest hits and one half unreleased rarities, this now 32-year-old three record set is one of those instances where Motown got everything quite right. It’s also the first place that anyone heard any of the Supremes songs known to be in the Motown vaults. The Supremes were Berry Gordy’s cash cow, his greatest international success and he worked them around the clock. Aside from released “theme” albums where the Supremes would “sing Rodgers & Hart,” numbers from Funny Girl, country and western songs, get the Liverpool sound or do Broadway show tunes, they were known to have had dozens of songs recorded for these albums that never saw the light of time until decades later. The Rodgers and Hart album, for instance, was intended to be a two-record set. Twenty-seven songs were recorded while only twelve were released (the other thirteen were released as bonus cuts when it was reissued on CD in 2002.) The trio also recorded an album that was to be titled Diana Ross & the Supremes sing Disney Classics which was completed in 1967, then shelved. Over the years some of these songs—“Heigh-Ho,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “When You Wish upon a Star,” “I’ve Got No Strings,” and “Whistle While You Work”—have appeared as bonus tracks on Supremes CDs, whereas known recordings of “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” never have.
Here’s hoping for more Motown/Third Man collaborations. A great place to go next would be an expanded version of that stellar 25th Anniversary collection.
Below, a collection of amazing Supremes TV performances:
Much more after the jump…