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(Not) leaving on a jet plane

Lynda Laurence, Jimmy Webb, Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell (photo:Jim Britt)

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the album the Supremes made with the songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb for Motown in 1972. The 26th of their 29 studio albums, the collaboration represented a pretty lateral move for the group. Commercially, it wasn’t a success. Its leaden title — The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb — was a bit of a charisma-killer. Only one single was issued: its A-side was the one track on the album in which Webb had no hand. “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”, a nondescript cover of a song from the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, produced by Motown regulars Sherlie Matthews and Deke Richards, made it to No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100: a long way from their long run of chart-toppers in the mid-’60s.

It was in 1965 that the Supremes first sang a Jimmy Webb song. That was “My Christmas Tree”, produced by Harvey Fuqua for the group’s Christmas album. Webb was 18 years old and had signed his first publishing deal with the Motown-affiliated Jobete Music, and this was the first of his songs to be recorded by a major artist. By the time he joined the group in the studio seven years later, his track record included “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. With the Fifth Dimension’s Magic Garden, he’d shown that his songs and arrangements could shape the sound of a sophisticated vocal group.

At no point does the Supremes’ Jimmy Webb album sound like a Motown production. No Funk Brothers, that’s for sure. It’s a typical product of early-’70s Hollywood, applying standard-issue studio polish to modish concerns represented by the presence of a Joni Mitchell song (“All I Want” from Blue) and Webb’s own “When Can Brown Begin?”, which he wrote after hearing Sammy Davis Jr use that phrase. There’s not much inspiration to be found in “Silent Voices”, a pleasant cover of Mina’s “La Voce del Silenzio”, and any comparison between this version of Harry Nilsson’s “Paradise” and the Ronettes’ original provides only irrefutable evidence of Phil Spector’s genius.

But there are two memorable moments. One is Webb’s “I Keep It Hid”, the only track on which the excellent Jean Terrell doesn’t take the lead. This one is sung by Mary Wilson, and it was her recent death that made me go back and listen to it again. The Supremes’ greatest team player — the only one who was there from start to finish — had a lovely voice, if not a wildly distinctive one. Here she handles a very nice pop ballad with poise and confidence.

The other moment is one I’d put up alongside any of Webb’s early classics. It’s called “5:30 Plane” and it’s one of those marvellous songs in which he captured all the subtleties and nuances of an entire relationship through snatches of thought and circumstantial detail. The singer is in the throes of a break-up. Both parties have been unfaithful and things have become desperate. “I don’t want to know about the whole affair,” she sings, “and you don’t want to know about his pretty hair.” So she’s decided to go. She doesn’t want any more talking. She’s bought a ticket to another town. But here she still is.

What makes you want to play this mid-tempo song over and over again is the glorious melody over beautiful changes, with a hook in the chorus that represents Webb at his best as a pop-music craftsman. But what makes it a great song is the detail of the flight time. “I didn’t want to be here, baby, when you got home, sitting alone,” Terrell sings, her voice soaring and swelling with sadness over the supporting choir, “but the 5:30 plane has already gone.” You’re in the room with her as she sits there, thinking of that plane heading through the evening sky towards Houston or Phoenix or Albuquerque, waiting for what comes next.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert Landrum #

    This is an OK album. I laughed at the quote from Up Up and Away in the intro to All I want. But the real gem of a record of the same time is Sunshower by Thelma Houston, produced and written by Jimmy Webb. Check it out.

    March 10, 2021
  2. Paul Crowe #

    Thanks, Richard. Never heard of album. As you say, an unwieldy title.

    March 10, 2021
  3. GuitarSlinger #

    ” Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the album the Supremes made with the songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb for Motown in 1972 ”

    First … absolutely NO insult intended nor inferred

    This is a case in point of the fact that despite your position and the advantages of your chosen profession mate ….

    …… you were there (UK) … while I was here ( US ) 😉

    Cause brother.. let me tell ya … the only way you could of missed out on this one here ( in the US ) would of been if you were that deaf dumb and blind kid the bard ( Peter Townsend ) wrote so eloquently about .

    So now good sir … in light of this … care to revisit that little Keith Jarret ( regarding his growing legend in the early 70s ) discussion we had recently ? Should I tell you about Paul Desmond wanting to hire Keith …as a guitar player in the early 70’s .. yeah he was that damn good on the guitar as well ) etc et al !

    March 10, 2021
    • Dear “GuitarSlinger” — If you want to carry on using this blog as a vehicle for the tiresomely arrogant expression of your own opinions, then you’re going to have to grow up and stop hiding behind anonymity. Your ex cathedra pronouncements would be more credible if backed up by a real identity. The use of a nom de plume seems to me like cowardice. One or two other musicians of reputation and accomplishment chip in from time to time, unafraid to use their real names. So should you. If you decline that invitation, then I’m going to have to hit the trash button on any further communication from your direction. RW

      March 11, 2021
      • aka GuitarSlinger ( #

        Amazing … pay the highest compliments to a CD review and get lambasted by a critic ( who write instead of does ) for doing so . Damn … Dylan was right .. you’re all the same .

        As for the moniker … if you haven’t sussed out by now from all the hints etc I’ve given who I am .. well …. need I say more ?

        Hasta la vista ! .. and click away… suffice it to say your books ended up after a single read right where you’re about to send this . Especially that joke of a Senna book !

        😉

        March 14, 2021
  4. GRAHAM RICHARD ROBERTS #

    I hadn’t heard of the ‘The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb’ either – but now that it has been drawn to my attention I will be seeking out a copy. It’s one of the joys of being a music lover that there are always new discoveries to be made, overlooked gems that passed (some of) us by at the time. And in that respect, I am also grateful to Mr. Landrum for pointing us in the direction of Thelma Houston’s ‘Sunshower’ – another addition to my ‘to buy’ list, not just on the strength of the singer, but the stellar cast of ‘A’ list session players that accompany her on the recording. One of the things I really enjoy about this blog is the platform it provides for others to share their enthusiasms – thanks for sharing yours, Mr. Landrum; much appreciated.

    March 11, 2021
  5. Tim Adkin #

    Nice post Richard about an album I likewise had pretty much forgotten about. I think in the UK the album was not released until 1973 and then it was overshadowed by the release of the Stevie Wonder 45 collaboration ‘Bad Weather’ (which itself didn’t even chart). From memory it got a decent review in MM – not yourself clearly but maybe Michael Watts? I think The Supremes did some shows over here around that time too.
    ‘5.30 Plane’ is indeed wonderful as is the oft covered ‘I Keep It Hid’. I know ‘When Will Brown Begin’ from Webb’s own version on ‘Letters’.
    Nice to see a mention of the great ‘Sunshower’ (with its turntable hit version of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’) although for me the gold standard of Webb collaborations will always be ‘Magic Garden’.

    March 11, 2021

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