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Diana Ross & The Supremes: Reflections

Updated: May 6, 2020

Phil Shaw

You will shortly be bombarded with guff about the Summer Of Love, the flowering of hippiedom in San Francisco 50 years ago. Newspapers which in 1967 stood for the stiff upper lip and conservativism against the peace, love, anti-war and anti-consumerism values on offer at Haight-Ashbury will be waxing nostalgic and listing the key songs connected with the phenomenon.

Any credible playlist ought to include American tracks such as For What It’s Worth, Creeque Alley, Somebody To Love, Groovin’, Alone Again Or, Light My Fire and Country Joe’s Fish Cheer. British contributions should feature A Whiter Shade of Pale, See Emily Play, Sunshine of Your Love, A Day In the Life and Purple Haze.

I’d like to propose another song for the soundtrack to that lysergic summer. Not San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair) or Flowers in the Rain, although in common with many of the records from half a century ago its lyric did contain the buzz word ‘mind’. There was also fashionably trippy reference to ‘distorted reality’. Yet it came out of industrial Detroit, not California or London, and was Tamla Motown’s first stab at an improbable musical hybrid: psychedelic soul.

Reflections – penned by the company’s near-infallible writing production line of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr – was also the first single on which Diana Ross’ leading role in The Supremes was confirmed by her name’s appearance before the group’s on the label. Recorded in March ’67, released in July and a top-four hit on both sides of the Atlantic, it was, on the surface, just another lament to lost love, a yearning for ‘the way life used to be’. However, on closer inspection it sounds and feels like nothing Motown had done before; an unlikely trailblazer for the work Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations would soon produce.

When one considers that the previous Supremes single had been titled The Happening, they might be perceived as being early advocates of the counter culture. In truth, that song was an easy-listening confection (the theme for a film in which Faye Dunaway made her debut) and actually represented a dip in their standards. Reflections put Ross and what was now her backing group back at the cutting edge.

In 1966 the black rock band the Chambers Brothers had recorded the acid-inflected Time Has Come Today, featuring the line ‘my soul has been psychedelicised’. It was not released until 1968, leaving the way clear for ‘The Sound of Young America’, as Motown billed itself, to steal a march with Reflections. According to Herb Jordan, a music producer, cultural commentator and author of 2006’s Motown In Love: Lyrics From The Golden Era, the song ‘should have been a disaster’.

In a foreword to the book accompanying the 1967 volume of The Complete Motown Singles, he elaborated on its comparative weirdness. ‘The concept of passing off a miniature suite with extra-terrestrial sound-effects and symphonic interludes featuring a choir of flutes as a three-minute, AM radio pop/R&B song is mind-boggling.’ Reflections, added Jordan, could well have ended up in the vaults rather than the charts.

Put another way, it was the sound of Motown picking up on what was going on in pop and the increasing appearance of so-called psychedelic sounds in mainstream music. H-D-H were reputedly impressed by the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and by the more expansive way The Beatles were using the studio, although the sound effects that launch its arresting intro, more outer space than spaced out, were more redolent of Star Trek than Dark Star.

Dozier explained they came upon the ‘bleeping’ intro by chance after passing through the studio when a staff engineer was ‘tuning the room’. He and the Hollands were working on Reflections and felt there was ‘something missing in the song’. Inspired by the noise the engineer had created they grafted an oscillator (an intermittent electronic signal) on at the start.

In comes a moody electric piano followed by what sounds like a tambourine but may be a loose-tuned snare drum, or a tambourine on the hi-hat timed with the snare beat. James Jamerson’s fabled bass broods and bubbles, holding together the disparate parts (unusually there are two different bridge sections). The production manages a clever trick – it has that integrated Motown sound, but with a twist.

Ross sings in an anguished yet authoritative way, as if keen to justify her new, named status. Meanwhile a call-and-response middle eight gives Mary Wilson and soon-to-be-fired Florence Ballard a platform to show their worth: ‘All the love’, they sing, prompting Ross to bemoan ‘All the love that I wasted’, and then ‘All the tears that I tasted’.

‘It was our answer to a new medium of psychedelic music,’ Dozier mused years later. As a 16-year-old at the time, I probably heard it as a ‘girls’ record’; for dancing around the handbags to, albeit slowly, rather than something to turn on, tune in and drop out to.

Ironically, Reflections heralded a change H-D-H would not be part of; a change that eventually brought us Talking Book, What’s Goin’ On and a slew of psych-soul singles by The Tempts. A dispute over royalties with Berry Gordy – then Ross’s lover – led them to quit Motown to form the Invicta label and write for Chairmen Of The Board et al.

The song did not point to a shift in direction for Ross, Wilson and newcomer Cindy Birdsong. Watch them perform Reflections on The Sammy Davis Jr Show and the mesmerising strangeness evaporates the moment the song finishes. They sweep forward and launch into a cheesy cabaret version of The Lady Is a Tramp, closer to Buddy Greco and Las Vegas than Buffalo Springfield and Monterey Pop.

When their next single was the pleasant but lightweight In And Out Of Love it was clear Reflections was a supreme aberration. Remember it, along with the boys with guitars, when the Mail or Telegraph paint CND symbols on a model’s face and reminisce fondly about the Sixties they feared and disdained.


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