In the summer of 1967, even the Supremes went psychedelic, but the times were changing for other reasons too. The inarguable status of their regular lead voice as the group’s de facto frontwoman was now to be made official. On August 12 that year, they debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at a confident No.61 with the cool, turned-on Holland-Dozier-Holland composition “Reflections.” The credit on the label of Motown 1111 left no room for doubt about the new pecking order: it read Diana Ross and the Supremes.
The New Musical Express dated August 5 covered that evolution along with another piece of noteworthy news. “The Supremes have been signed for their dramatic acting debut,” wrote Tracy Thomas in Hollywood. “The trio will guest star on a segment of NBC-TV’s new Tarzan series next season. Diana, Mary and Florence are cast as three nuns and will sing during the hour show — hymns, not pop tunes.”
A new billing
Continued the news item: “On the group’s latest single release ‘Reflections,’ which features special sound effects that are popularly described as ‘psychedelic,’ the billing has been changed to ‘Diana Ross and the Supremes.’”
As Motown’s primary standard-bearers around the world, the Supremes had first refusal on the company’s premium material. But with that came the responsibility of maintaining unbroken, unparalleled success — and in this heyday, those standards were dizzyingly high. The trio’s previous four singles, and ten of the last 13, had reached No.1 on the Hot 100. The last of those hits, a matter of weeks earlier, was H-D-H’s light and showbizzy “The Happening.” The follow-up was a step change for both writers and performers.
The backing track for “Reflections” was laid down at Hitsville in Detroit on March 2; Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard laid down their vocals some eight weeks later. Given the change in nomenclature that would now put Ross ahead of her peers, there was even more poignancy in Ballard’s participation in the sessions. By the time the single was released on July 24, she had been dismissed, to be replaced by Cindy Birdsong.
A bleeping oscillator
By a happy accident, per Vol. 7 of The Complete Motown Singles, the Supremes’ writer-producers happened to overhear Motown engineer Russ Terrana using a tone generator to tune the studio. It inspired Holland, Dozier and Holland to put its “bleeping” oscillator effect onto the intro of the already brooding and experimental “Reflections.” Further studio gadgetry, combined with a tambourine, set the scene for a single to stand comparison with the best sonic experimentation of the day.
“Reflections” climbed to No.2 on the US pop countdown, held off the top by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe.” It went to No.4 R&B, and to No.5, for two weeks, in the UK. Amusingly, it shared the upper ground there with Traffic‘s similarly innovative “Hole In My Shoe” and Engelbert Humperdinck’s all-conquering, ultra-conservative “The Last Waltz.” Nevertheless, the Supremes’ first venture into that sound “popularly described as ‘psychedelic’” was a memorable success.
“Reflections” is on Motown’s 60th anniversary Greatest Hits compilation for 2019, which can be bought here.
Celebrate 60 years of Motown history by following the Motown playlist.