Diana Ross & The Supremes broke many records throughout the 1960s. Over time, though, their stunning run of #1 hits has often obscured some of the group’s trailblazing artistic endeavors. As part of the Motown family that gave rise to many African American acts across genres which typically excluded them, The Supremes explored everything from country to show tunes to complement their pop and R&B chart action.
1968’s Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” their only album never afforded a CD release until now, was not the group’s first foray into the Broadway realm. They interpreted stage tunes spanning several decades on 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart. …Funny Girl, however, found Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong (who had recently replaced Florence Ballard) covering the lion’s share of numbers from the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill songbook to the much-loved musical starring Barbra Streisand. Delivering a pliable, effervescent execution of the material shortly before the film version hit theaters, The Supremes offered a formidable alternative to the official movie soundtrack, released during the same month.
The general public was most likely unaware that Wilson and Birdsong’s backing vocals were largely replaced by Motown session singers on The Supremes’…Funny Girl LP. Thus, a highly appealing component of Second Disc Records’ new two-CD reissue of the album is a restored selection of the tracks featuring Wilson and Birdsong’s never-before-heard backgrounds. The original LP is included in both stereo and mono mixes, while three alternate mixes and two live performances round out the expanded package.
The Supremes’…Funny Girl was clearly tailored in part as a vehicle for Ross’ then-imminent solo career. From her sassy and playful approach to the title tune, to her emotionally phrased take on “People,” the album showcased dimensions of her vocal talent not necessarily highlighted on The Supremes’ more commercially successful records. Although the LP ultimately failed to grab much of an audience, the groundwork was partially laid for Ross’ venture into film as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues several years later.
What stands out upon first revisiting The Supremes’ …Funny Girl is arranger Gil Askey’s crafty, spot-on segues from song to song, which transport the listener to the auditorium of a sparking, live stage show. With composer Styne as an advisor, Askey produced a collection that consistently matches Ross’ sprightly tone with bright horns and lively percussion. Regrettably, as with many Motown releases, musician credits were not supplied and are presumably lost to the ages. Whoever the players may be, they kept it tight throughout the repertoire—effectively capturing the essence of a full-fledged musical while infusing just a trace of extra spice to lure popular-music enthusiasts unfamiliar with certain theatrical components.
Of particular note, “I Am Woman” finds Ross swinging subtly and stylishly, graced by the airy yet soulful aplomb of Wilson and Birdsong, while the ragtime swagger of “Cornet Man” is ripe with bluesy and jazzy appeal. The previously unreleased “Supreme mix” of the latter, upon just a casually comparative listen, makes one wonder why Motown CEO Berry Gordy found his studio singers’ style more fitting for the final released product. Likewise, the backings on the closing “I’m the Greatest Star” make the case for the actual Supremes’ group vox as striking a better balance of sophistication and youth than the alternate singers do.
Colorful photos abound in the reissue’s accompanying booklet. Additionally, Joe Marchese’s historical essay provides an impressive timeline on the conception of Funny Girl and its revolving door of players both before coming to and once on the stage. An archive interview with the late Jule Styne—who penned the liner notes (also included here) for the original album release—sheds additional light on how this often overlooked piece of Supremes history took shape.