Tag Archives: The Supremes

A rather (un)comprehensive list of 10 Ladies of Queer Soul that you should know.

As I’m dusting off this blog and working towards crafting my lecture for the Queer Astrology Conference in March, I stumbled on this blog post from 5 years ago and thought it was time for a refresh/update and debate.

The inspiration initially came from looking at photos of Etta James for a “Happy Birthday” post then. I thought about how her iconic look was created/based on the drag persona of embellishing upon feminine virtues. She wasn’t the only R&B diva to openly create personas that borrowed or gave a knowing wink to their LGBT fanbase.

It’s not a new cultural phenomenon that began with Beyonce, Mandonna, Kylie Minogue and others. Nor was it something that our list of ladies of soul and pop started. Countless other performers along the gender continuum continue this kinship with queer fans as well.. It’s not a widely covered subject around this era of music, however.

So… here’s my list. What do you think?

1) Dusty Springfield
I think the most accurate description of Dusty Springfield’s persona was that she envisioned herself as “A Gay Black Mans interpretation of a female soul singer, filtered through the prospective of a closeted lesbian Irish Catholic with layers of catholic guilt that she tried to run from.” Her look, a combination of Italian Actress Monica Vitti, The Ronettes and Mary Wells via London West End Drag Queens is one of the best examples of porcine, over the top camp glamour that sets a precedence for drag queens to this day.

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2) Tina Turner
I rate Tina Turner highly in her 1960s caricature because she is remembered in this period as being raw, wild and sexual. It’s a trait that was rarely allowed to be visible in African American Women in the 1960s. Then again Janis Joplin was the only white female that was allowed real raw sexual power on record and onstage. This open display, however created partially by her husband-manager Ike, allowed a generation of Closeted Gay men to hope and believe that being wild open, and potent, sexually liberated, was possible if you wanted to be. Luckily for them the door started to open in June, 1969. Tina would have to suffer with Ike for 7 more years.

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3) The Ronettes
Their towering Bouffants (of actually their hair), Their Racial ambiguity (Veronica and Estelle being Black, Native American and Irish, Nedra being Black and Puerto Rican) and their far more blatant form of Coy Catholic bad girl sexuality made them as much unpeggable outsiders as Queer folk in the 1960s. All the more wonderful once they started having hit records, toured with The Rolling Stones (and were bigger stars than them) and had fans masturbating in the Audience. Who wouldn’t want that compliment?

Photobucket4) The Supremes (Especially Post October, 1966)
I denote the Fall of 1966 since this denotes the 3 year period where it was obvious that The Supremes were being used as Diana Ross’s launchpad into gay icon–err–Solo stardom success. The Chiffon gowns gave way to bugle beads and millions of sequins. More layers of hair and make-up were plastered onto Diane, Mary, Florence and soon Cindy to hide the fact that underneath the happy melodies and perfect dance steps, in the Spring of 1967 that the group was splitting in two. The songs became more baroque and ridiculous as well. Need we talk about “I’m Living In Shame” being Douglass Sirk’s Imitation of Life on vinyl?

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5) Etta James
As I said earlier, her initial choice to bleach her hair blonde was influenced by her gay best friend that she took along with her on her initial tours. The skin hugging dresses (despite her often size 12+ frame) and penciled in eyebrows that would make Joan Crawford jealous were the result of her love and affinity for local drag queens and trans women that made up her pool of best friends. And her raw, honest songs make her a twin in spirit for the reasons gay men grasped onto Tina Turner. I can’t give you the full scope of her long standing relationship with her queer fanbase, so it would be best for you to read her Auto Biography, Rage To Survive for a fascinating read.

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6) Dionne Warwick
She’s everyone’s favorite Ice Queen of Soul. The pretty, pristine, complex Burt Bacharach Songs, the slinky gowns, the tours of Europe, being the “Black Pearl” to French Music critics. The odd balance of restraint, hurt, the “closet” aspect of the rage seething underneath. She’s also a member of a super extensive, melodramatic music family dynasty that included her sister Dee Dee, Aunt Cissy, adopted Sister Judy, Cousin Whitney…on and on… If there’s a mini-series meant for Lifetime it would be about Dionne and her relatives.

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7) Nina Simone
I don’t know if I can fully say it has been more historical re-evaluation or delayed appreciation of her work by Queer and not so queer folks of all ages, blurring the lines between appreciation and appropriation. It seems appropriate for the Piscean High Priestess of Soul. Or maybe I’m playing ultimate cynic and there’s a sincere bond to the (Bi-Polar) High Priestess of Soul. Her songs, alternating between hymns, folk songs, battle cries and uptown soul, always done with the alternate of a twinkling smile and a righteous roar will forever attract new fans.

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8) Lesley Gore
She went to #1 across the board in 4 weeks whining about how she lost her boyfriend at a party. When I say across the board, yes, that means “It’s My Party” also conquered the R&B Charts with it’s unabashed scorned brattiness. As wimpy as that sounds, a teen icon was born, with a perfect Aqua-netted flip. Underneath the veneer of wondering about hetero-normativity, true sexual identity questioning happened, and slipped out at hilariously unintentional moments (See “Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy”).
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9) Tammi Terrell
1) Who wouldn’t want to be the most glamorous Marvin Gaye duet Partner (and the only one to ever appear on Television with him!) 2) Have men fight over you 3) Die Tragically young and beautiful and 4) Leave men weeping for you?
Ok, maybe not the dying part, but Tammi Terrell’s short life is comparable to a Bronte Novel in the amount of beautiful sorrow. Solo and in partnership, her discography details with rich emotion all of the up and downs, ins and outs of being human. Thankfully, nearly 50 years after from the beautiful yet tragic final act of a woman fiercely determined to leave her mark on the world, this talented Taurus is getting the respect as an artist she was always due on her own, alongside the remarkable work she did in pairing with her handsome duet partner.

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10) The Shirelles
The Shirelles took over the baton from The Chantels. From extolling passionate, but teenage pleas of wondering about love, came  more adult, sophisticated, and blatant intertwining of sex and love that The Shirelles spun off with “Tonight’s The Night” and “Will you Still Love Me Tomorrow.” It’s healthy to believe that a few guys amongst the millions of women where those who made those records best sellers. “Mama Said” and many other countless musings where heard as templates on how to navigate the adult world for folks of all stripes, including queers wondering, if he’ll/she’ll/they’ll love them once the night met the morning sun.
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Motown Summer ’65 #1: More Hits By The Supremes

For the next 4 or 5 posts I’m going to write about what is widely acknowledged as the peak of the Motown Sound: The Summer of 1965. By this point the label had formulated all of the stylistic elements that it would be classically defined by, and produced it’s most memorable material

First up is the reigning queens of Motown at that point, and their LP (which to me always plays as their absolute best of original material)

More Hits By The Supremes (released July, 23rd, 1965).

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This LP was the first album of original material released in nearly 11 months by the group (The intervening LPs, such as We Remember Sam Cooke were tribute albums, although The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop had a few originals), and included chesnuts such as the now well worn “Stop! In The Name of Love” and “Back In My Arms Again” (which actually 45 years ago this week was spending it’s time at the top of the Pop and R&B Charts).

At the same time the finishing touches were being put on this LP, The Supremes made their absolute mainstream breakthrough into Middle of The Road American pop culture: on June 29th, 1965 they debuted at the Copacabana, filling their live act with Tin Pan Alley standards and shunning the R&B roots and condensing their hit song performances into medleys and advertisements for their latest singles.

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The material included here was as old as a reusage of “Ask Any Girl” (recorded in April, 1964) as the opening track, to “Mother Dear” which was finished just a month before the LP was released, and represented a time in The Supremes where the group would last be presented as a full group before it became obvious to all that Diana Ross was being spotlighted as the star in the group.

Never again would you hear the pure, tart and moody harmonies that rang so true on tracks like “The Only Time I’m Happy” or “Honey Boy” and soon after you wouldn’t see them perform as a cohesive unit on stage.

Starting with “I Hear A Symphony” (The Song and the LP) Diana was always seemingly to the right:

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In the right channel of the Stereo Mix, in the right of your TV screen to capture her close-ups.

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It’s a magically bittersweet snapshot of Three early twenty something women making beautiful music. From the leftover Mary Wells material, notably “Whisper You Love Me Boy” to the aforementioned “Mother Dear” dueling with “Nothing But Heartaches” for the chance to be that elusive 6th #1 hit in a row (which was destined to not happen).

There’s something extremely fleeting in quality about the complete listen of this LP. It represent a continuation of where Where Did Our Love Go left off, but in listens to songs that were recorded afterwards it was becoming obvious that the studio magic was fading. It’s a quality that is shared by the next three LPs I’ll spotlight: The Four Tops Second Album, The Temptin’ Temptations and Martha & The Vandellas Dance Party.

It wasn’t unique to The Supremes that the wick on the candle was already halfway burned as summer turned into fall 1965, as pop music goes you might be hot and cold just as much as the seasons changes, but the problems (save the Four Tops) were remarkably the same:

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the pressures of fame and ego took enormous tolls on group members, along with the pressure to stay at the top, would make the results less carefree and fun in later works.

Everyone behold, by ear why The Supremes became legendary.

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“I’ll Go On Like Nothings Happened, Instead, Somethings are better unsaid”

(So I’m starting to import music pieces over from my Livejournal account that fit this blog. This one from 2008 commemorates the 20th Anniversary of The Supremes entering into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)

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So it was 20 years ago this year,

The Supremes were inducted in the R&R hall of fame…

It just struck me as the soaring chorus of “He’s All I Got” came blaring on.

That righteous shameless plea….Hidden on a B-side, of a Top Ten single from Spring 1966….That last track on their “I Hear A Symphony” LP…

A favorite on Englands Northern Soul scene some 40 years later

“Please go to him, tell him, before he finds someone new. ‘Cause if I ever lose him I dunno what I’d do” (insert Florence Ballard “tell it sistah “oooh”).

And part of me wonders, in the great pop lexicon of music, will they ever get respect beyond the glitter?

The candied coated colors
painted on their lips…
Their hips….

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Repackaged,
again,
and again to fill the coffers of someone’s royalty check. Something to sell on the latest TimeLife infomercial of them on some variety show long gone…

There’s so many layers of criticism levied at them, granted, in 20/20 hindsight, a lot of it, with a grain of salt, is understandable

They didn’t write their own songs,
Or
Diana Ross was Evil,
And
Berry Gordy used them (for multiple purposes),
Remember?
They were superficially glittery,
and therefore fake,
they adhered to white standards of beauty and success….

And the criticism goes on and on….

But I kinda get defensive, and say, at the end of the day, nearly 50 years after they recorded their first single, the music, their artistry is still entertaining, and intriguing. And dare I say, even good enough to give repeated listens

Weirdly hard to imitate too. I got in an argument with a 60 year old lesbian about this. Her statement that the Beatles musical was some big whoop, where all the songs were strung together as some storyline.

I’m sure its entertaining, but my argument is that The Supremes first 5 #1 records (unintentionally) played out life a Dramedy, even to 1964-65 ears, from “Where Did Our Love Go” to “Back in My Arms Again” played out like a television season, in music, from the nonchalant grief of a breakup, to the triumphant touchdown of making up, when all hope seemed lost…

Not planned that way of course, because Berry Gordy just wanted to bankroll his operations, since his biggest cash cow, Mary Wells, jumped labels..

Despite what I know from education and Pop Music lore, how calculated a multitude of efforts of theirs were, I’m always suprised how enjoyable their efforts were…

How unvarnished, and sincere the results can seem to a human heart…

Then I defend myself and say its primarily their early efforts (1961 thru the Summer of 1967) that are the moments. Not Diana Ross’s solo career, not the excess baggage of the Dreamgirls pastiche…

….not the glitsy gowns, or wigs, the jetsetting they got to do, the fabulous houses they got to own, them brand new Cadillacs they rarely got to drive, the endless hours of work, the 50 weeks a year of touring, recording and promoting they did…

Hell, as girl groups go they aren’t even my favorite. But maybe because its such a long story, there’s so much to know, thousands of songs to sing along to….gossip that’s turning into faded memories…

The Supremes,

a Supremely complicated piece of art. A psychological drama, a fashion statement, a commentary on race, feminism, and identity politics, a mighty fine 4/4 groove…

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And people wonder why I hold them more important than the Beatles…

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