In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Between 1964 and 1965, the Supremes accomplished what no other girl group has ever managed, before or since. They landed five consecutive singles at #1, a world-historical hot streak that quickly established the trio as the biggest non-Beatles pop stars of the era. All five songs sound pretty similar to each other, and all of them were written and produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. And if the Supremes weren’t challenging themselves from one of these songs to the next, well, maybe sometimes you don’t mess with success.
Listening now, it makes some sense why “Back In My Arms” was the last of the five. It’s the one where the group seems to be firmly on cruise control. Up front, Diana Ross coos about matters of the heart, sounding bright and upbeat even when the lyrics hint at deeper sadnesses and resentments. In back, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard coo beatifically. And underneath them, the Funk Brothers rumble and sparkle in equal measure. On “Back In My Arms,” there are baritone-sax blats and lighter-than-air xylophones and ecstatic bursts of trumpet, and they’re all chained to a four-four drum stomp that keeps things moving along with military precision. A year after the Supremes figured that sound out, it was already comfort food.
But “Back In My Arms” is the one song where Diana Ross isn’t left grieving for a lost relationship by the time the relationship is over. She’s reunited with an ex, determined that nothing will ever break them up again. There’s some gloating going on, too. She listened to friends before, and “all advice ever gotten me was many long and sleepless nights.” So now that they’re back together, she’s happy to ignore any evidence that this thing will end badly. On the one hand, it works as a nice ending to that five-single run — after all that darkness, Diana Ross has found light.
But then, it’s also a song that foreshadows stormy times to come. The song certainly leaves open the idea that Ross is fooling herself, that her friends were right the whole time. And then there’s the part where Ross directly shit-talks the two Supremes singing behind her: “How can Mary try to tell me what to do when she lost her love so true? / And Flo, she don’t know, cuz the boy she loves is a Romeo.” The other two Supremes, consigned to permanent backup-singer duty, weren’t getting along too well with Ross by this point. So maybe there’s some real-life foreshadowing in there, too.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Jam covering “Back In My Arms Again” on a 1976 demo: