The good times for the Supremes were so very good, that it was even harder for them to take when some of their singles of the later 1960s found the going considerably tougher. Among their releases of the period, “The Composer” is an interesting, if less well remembered, part of the story, brought to fruition by its writer and producer, Motown master Smokey Robinson.
Diana Ross and the Supremes, as they had been billed since 1967, may now not have been guaranteed pop chart-toppers every time. But they were still able to make major soul-pop crossovers with almost every release. In early 1969 they peaked at No.2 in both formats when matched with fellow Hitsville heavyweights the Temptations on the Gamble & Huff tune (written with Jerry Ross), “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.”
Their next single, “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” was created for the trio by the writers collectively known as The Clan, formed of Frank Wilson, Pam Sawyer, R. Dean Taylor, and Deke Richards. Lyrically and musically adventurous, it was something of a leap from the automatic No.1s of their recent past, but still landed in the Top 10 of the two charts.
Another 45 from the Diana Ross & the Supremes Join The Temptations LP, a take on Smokey and the Miracles’ already time-honored “I’ll Try Something New,” was popular with soul fans and broadcasters, climbing to No.8, but fell well short of their pop track record, fizzling at No.25.
“The Composer” combined prominent strings and piano with the increasingly funky groove of the day, and was billed as a single to the trio even though it was the Andantes, not Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, accompanying Diana Ross. It debuted on Bestselling Rhythm & Blues Singles for the week of May 10, 1969 at No.25, but peaked only four places higher.
The ambitious sentiment of the lyric was one that surely few writers but Robinson would even have attempted. “You may not what quarter notes are, or what I mean by four to the bar now,” he wrote. “Such musical terms may be Greek to your ears, but deep down inside of me, you have created a melody.”
The Miracles’ own version had been recorded in 1967, but wasn’t released until the summer of 1969 on their Time Out for Smokey Robinson & the Miracles album. By then, it was on the Supremes’ Let The Sunshine In set. But Mary Wilson pulled no punches when she wrote about “The Composer” and its follow-up, “No Matter What Sign You Are,” in her bestselling memoir Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme. “That these records charted so poorly compared to our biggest hits,” she reasoned, “was due in part to the fact that, as several critics have since pointed out, they did not sound like ‘Supremes records.’”
According to The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 9, “The Composer” sold a “mere” 200,000 copies. Such were the Supremes’ standards that their idea of failure would have been spectacular success for others.