City Slang: “I Hear a Symphony” Revisited

Jul 6, 2011 at 2:52 pm

In Mark Ribowsky’s book, The Supremes – A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal, the Supremes’ 1966 album I Hear a Symphony barely gets a mention. Right at the end of Chapter 15, Robowsky says, “

in February came I Hear a Symphony, which included their next single, “My World Is Empty Without You” as well as a mish-mash of L.A.-recorded covers such as the Beatles’ “Yesterday” (produced by Norman Whitfield), “Unchained Melody,” “Wonderful Wonderful,” “Stranger in Paradise,” and – as a sop to Bob Crewe – “A Lover’s Concerto.”

First of all, it’s really no secret that Berry Gordy liked to make a buck. He never hid the fact. Rather, he wallowed in it. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when he had his Supreme girls record an album of a few originals mixed in with a whole bunch of chart hits. In Gordy’s mind, these three beautiful girls could easily make a mockery of racial divides and break the middle class white suburban America market. Let’s face it – Gordy was absolutely on the nose.

History hasn’t been too kind to I Hear a Symphony though. That’s why Ribowsky pretty much brushed over it in his book, and it may be why I was able to buy a vinyl copy in good condition for 25 cents from Record Time in Ferndale. Score.

It is true that the Supremes have made better records than this, but the album is still, in parts, magnificent. The aforementioned single, “My World Is Empty Without You”, sees the trio at their harmonic, energetic best. Of course, it’s the covers that come in for the most criticism but they’re hardly disastrous. The record could, in all honesty, do without the lifeless rendition of “Unchained Melody” (nobody should have ever attempted that song after the Righteous Brothers anyway), but the girls do a great job with “Yesterday” and “Stranger in Paradise”.

The motives for this record may not have been entirely pure, but thanks to Diana, Florence and Mary, what could have been a disaster became something to celebrate and rediscover for decades to come.