Love Child, by The Supremes

1968 was a year of change on many fronts in the United States, with the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, riots in major cities, assassinations and a widening generation gap. Social messages found an outlet through songs by artists from all ranges of the musical spectrum, and audiences were expecting their music heroes to sing about things that matter. But even in that climate no one expected a message song from The Supremes. Up until 1968 they were America’s Sweethearts, dressed up for TV in matching gowns singing their top charting hits, all but none about teenage girls blissful  or painful love tangles. Their hits, such as Baby Love, I Hear a Symphony, Baby Love, Stop! In the Name of Love and You Keep Me Hangin’ On were some of the best songs recorded at the Motown label snake pit recording studio.

The Supremes Mid 60s

But when they showed up on the Ed Sullivan show to sing their latest hit Love Child on Sunday September 29, 1968, a day before the single release, gone were the shiny dresses of their previous performances. Instead there was a shabby over-sized yellow sweat shirt wrapped around Dianna Ross with an Afro wig to match, while her two band mates wore pantsuits and jackets. All three were barefoot.

The Supremes at Ed Sullivan Love Child

This complete change of direction came from a new songwriting team that replaced the hugely successful team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who after writing some of Motown’s biggest hits between 1963 and 1967 left the label after a dispute about royalties. H-D-H knew how to craft great pop songs with irresistible melodies and hooks, but a message song was not part of their menu. Enter new songwriting team The Clan, who consisted of R. Dean Taylor, Frank Wilson, Pam Sawyer and Deke Richards. The group was assembled by Berry Gordy and placed at the historical Ponchartrain hotel to produce Motown’s next hit. Pam Sawyer, the only woman in the group, suggested a song about teenage pregnancy. As expected, Berry Gordy was not enthralled. Controversy over social issues was not his aim. The original lyrics were in the blues tradition of the singer telling the world of her troubles, caused by the pregnancy. Gordy, always with an eye on the bank account, wanted a more positive narrative. As Gordy wrote: “We arrived at a really touching story about a girl who herself was born out of wedlock and is telling her boyfriend she doesn’t want to go the wrong way with him and bring another love child into the world. We had managed to take a negative image and turn it around in a positive way”.

The Clan: Pam Sawyer, Frank Wilson, Deke Richards and R Dean Taylor

But Gordy did not stop there. He helped with the song’s arrangement and chord structure. Gordy’s management style and stories about how he run the label are often discussed, but his musical contributions had been no less significant. Gordy wrote many songs for Motown artists, among them Money (That’s What I Want), Shop Around, You’ve Made Me So Very Happy (Later covered by Blood Sweat and Tears), ABC, I’ll Be There. The joint writing effort for Love Child resulted in a song that is one of Motown’s best.

Berry Gordy in the control room

The arrangement by trombonist Paul Riser gives the song the urgency needed to support the lyrics, with a string accompaniment far from the syrupy arrangements you would expect from a pop song. Dianna Ross sings like she means it, even though she was not enamored by the song to start. I also like the backing vocals on this performance. Unlike the sweetness of previous Supremes hits, this one is more syncopated, almost like parts played by a brass section.

Paul Riser (Middle)

Love Child’s lyrics present a topic you do not usually hear on the hits parade. It was certainly a taboo subject for many artists, in particular the Motown roster. The song deals with the illegitimacy of a child to be born to a girl if her boyfriend keeps pursuing premarital sex. The ensuing dangers of pregnancy resulting from that enjoyable act resonated well with late 60s young audiences. Even though the birth control pill, “The Pill”, was approved for contraceptive use in 1960, it was still controversial in 1968, the year Pope Paul VI declared his opposition to it. The pill was not available to married women in all states until a supreme court ruling in 1965 and was not available to unmarried women in all states until 1972. Teen pregnancy was at a sharp incline after WW2 and during the baby boom years, peaking in the late 50s. While starting to decline in the 60s, the rate was still pretty high in the late 60s, about 70 births per 1,000 girls between the ages 15 and 19.

Unknown to the masses who flocked to record stores to buy the single and the LP of the same name, Diana Ross is the only Supremes member who actually sings on the record. The background vocals who up to that point were sang by Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Florence Ballard), are performed by Motown’s house vocal band The Andantes (Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps). While performing on Motown’s big hits such as My Guy by Mary Wells, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and Reach Out I’ll Be There by the Four Tops and I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye, they were never credited for their work. Motown did not discriminate when it came to dishing out credits for studio work. Funk brother or an Andante – you get no credit. This nasty habit finally changed in 1971 with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

Love Child topped Billboard’s hot 100 pop chart on November 30 1968, dislodging The Beatles Hey Jude who nested in the first position for nine weeks. It became one of the biggest hits in the Supremes career and a defining moment for the social awareness direction that Motown artists would take, with songs such as Cloud Nine by the Temptations, War by Edwin Starr and What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye.

Here are the Supremes at the Ed Sullivan Show, September 29, 1968:

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these:

You think that I don’t feel love
But what I feel for you is real love
In other’s eyes I see reflected
A hurt, scorned, rejected

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, born in poverty
Love child, never meant to be
Love child, take a look at me

I started my life in an old, cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

This love we’re contemplating
Is worth the pain of waiting
We’ll only end up hating
The child we maybe creating

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, (scorned by) society
Love child, always second best
Love child, different from the rest

Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)
Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)
I started school, in a worn, torn dress that somebody threw out
I knew the way it felt, to always live in doubt
To be without the simple things
Sop afraid my friends would see the guilt in me

Don’t think that I don’t need you
Don’t think I don’t wanna please you
No child of mine ‘ll be bearing
The name of shame I’ve been wearing

Love child, love child, never quite as good
Afraid, ashamed, misunderstood

But I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you

Categories: Song

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10 replies »

  1. Ah, yes… those strings! And that amazingly simple-but effective guitar riff in the verse and pre-chorus! What an enjoyable resource you have, here. Since my music obsessions cross unusual lines (from Beatlemania to Prog to vintage Soul, avant garde jazz and Doo Wop et al) your archives are feeling like my playground!

  2. The picture next to The Andantes happens to be The Trammps…not The Funk Brothers.

  3. Search
    Diana Ross and the Supremes “Love Child” My Extended Version!
    by mosogotam on YouTube Music. An arrangement that’s well worth a listen.

  4. The song served a purpose: It put The Supremes back on top and it saved their careers. Gordy and The Clan knew a hit and so they pressed on. There is entirely too much “Introspection” placed upon the song. Yes, it was controversial but it saved The Supremes from oblivion and that was its ultimately merit. Diana nailed it and The Andantes supported it; there were no Supremes in the background! Diana Ross’ solo career had already begun!

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