Signed to Berry Gordy’s Motown label in 1961, it took a few years for the Supremes — local Detroit girls Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard — to find their brand, their sound…
…but when they found it, they really found it.
Between 1964 and early 1967, the Supremes produced a mind-boggling nine singles that went to #1 on the US pop charts, all written and produced by hit-makers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland. ‘Baby Love’ is the second of these nine #1’s, following ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ and followed by ‘Come See About Me’.Though ‘Come See About Me’ was actually recorded before ‘Baby Love’.
All these songs are very much of a piece, chapters in the same dreamy American romance, sugary and shimmering with hope and sensitivity. What sadness exists here is of the High School Confidential variety, temporary as a prom dress and worn for specific effect in a specific situation.
The Supremes were literally teen-aged girls in high school when they were signed to Motown. At the time ‘Baby Love’ was recorded, the oldest of them, Florence Ballard, was 21; Diana Ross and Mary Wilson were just 20. So…no longer girls, exactly, but not so far distant from girlhood either. ‘Baby Love’ was written and arranged by men, performed by women, but the proximity to the fictional tropes of girlhood and its mythical purity — ‘Baby Love’ is about as wholesome as it gets — is downright palpable, which may help explain the song’s enduring life. It’s my understanding that actual girlhood is a savage fucking jungle of heartbreak, fear, and treachery. To be fair, a lot of actual boyhood is like that too. Or at least it was in my experience.
I searched in vain for a list of who played what on ‘Baby Love’, in the hopes of confirming what my ears were telling me (is that a goddamn vibraphone?). All I know is that members of the Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary backing band, played on the song, and that it was produced by Holland, Dozier, and Holland. Still, it has all the hallmarks of the Motown sound. I’ve yet to categorize exactly what those hallmarks are, but no one’s going to mistake a Motown song for anything else, that’s for certain.
Michael Strum: “Is there anything more American than the Supremes? Listening to them makes me profoundly happy. I feel the same way watching Michael Jordan highlights or reading about the Apollo program. It’s exhilarating to see people do something as well as it can be done. That’s what we get here: this is as well as pop music can be done. The production, the musicianship, the execution; it’s all simply first-class. I think the talent and skill presnt is unassailable, even if this isn’t your cup of tea. Excellent selection.”
Rolling Stone: Diana Ross wasn’t the strongest vocalist in the Supremes, but as the Motown production team discovered, when she sang in a lower register, her voice worked its sultry magic. Berry Gordy instructed the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team to come up with something that replicated “Where Did Our Love Go,” the Supremes’ first Number One single. He thought the result wasn’t catchy enough and sent the group back into the studio. The result: the smoky “Oooooh” at the start. “Baby Love” went to Number One too, the first time a Motown group had topped the charts twice.
|↑1||Though ‘Come See About Me’ was actually recorded before ‘Baby Love’.|