In Detroit, Mich., on April 8, 1964, it?s getting late in the evening, and producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier are attempting to coax a credible vocal take from the three very unhappy young ladies gathered around the microphone in Hitsville?s Studio A.
The Holland-Dozier team is eager to wrap things up this night. They have a session booked the next day with the First Lady of Motown, Mary Wells. Her current single, ?My Guy,? had just debuted on the national charts at #50 the previous week ? an out-of-the-box smash.
And while her chief writer-producer, Smokey Robinson, has got dibs on the A-side of the follow-up, the flip side of a hit 45 will be just as lucrative for the B-team.
But tonight, the focus is on the ?no-hit? Supremes, so dubbed by their Motown colleagues for a nearly unbroken string of chart flops. And in the opinion of Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, this latest song will do nothing to turn their fortunes around.
Wilson: ?To my ears it was a teeny-bopper song ? and I couldn?t imagine anyone liking it.?
After all, if Motown?s leading girl group, the Marvelettes, rejected the tune, how promising could it really be? And a rhythm track that featured studio personnel stomping on the wooden floor? This was not the sort of sound that made stars of their idols, the Shirelles.
Nevertheless, the tape of the backing track is cued to the top, and two measures of foot-pounding percussion cues Diana?s breathy vocal intro, ?Baby, baby. Baby don?t leave me??
Within three short months, ?Where Did Our Love Go? topped both the Pop and R&B charts, marking the ascension of the Supremes as the most popular female recording group in history.
And while the Marvelettes still had several hits ahead of them, their first right of refusal of Motown?s ?A? material would no longer be an option ? their greatest success behind them.
As for Mary Wells? session the following day? It would be one of the last for the then-reigning Queen of Hitsville. Within weeks she would wrestle free from the contract she had signed as a minor, lured by a sizable deal with another label. But the first bona fide superstar of Motown would see her career go into eclipse, free-falling into relative obscurity for the rest of her life.
Such are the vagaries of fame and fortune in the music business, as brilliantly illustrated in a comprehensive series of reissues ? from both sides of the Atlantic ? chronicling Motown?s recorded legacy.
The crown jewel in this ongoing campaign may be the most exhaustive project of the CD era.
The Complete Motown Singles (www.hiposelect.com) ? inaugurated in 2004, with an anticipated completion date of 2009 ? is a 12-volume series of multiple- disc sets, reproducing the A & B-side of every Tamla/Motown-affiliated 45, from the label?s launch in 1959 through 1972, when the firm migrated west from Detroit to Hollywood.
Lavishly packaged in 8″ x 7″ binders resembling vintage 78 rpm albums, replete with historical photos and superb annotation, each set chronicles a single calendar year (the exception being Volume One: ?59??61) in the evolution of the Motown Sound.
The executive producer for the series, Universal Music?s Harry Weinger, was pleasantly surprised to find the Hitsville?s master tape archives remarkably intact.
?Despite the fact that the library has bounced around from Detroit to L.A. and back to New York, we found the masters for nearly every single release,? he said. ?The only exceptions are two dozen of the very earliest tracks from Volume One. In those cases, we made digital transfers from pristine 45s.?
But let?s go back to the beginning, nearly 50 years ago, when that vinyl was hot off the stamper.