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.
Every one of the Supremes’ hits had a big beat working for it, a four-four engine driven by handclaps and bass-drum hits. But none of the hits leading up to “You Can’t Hurry Love” had a beat quite that big. The first thing we hear on the song is the bass, a perfectly syncopated riff that, at least at the beginning of the song, is just one note. Soon enough, the tambourines come in, and by time time the second verse comes around, it’s exactly as orchestral and effervescent as you’d want a song from circa-’66 Motown to be. But all through the song, that beat is the focal point, even more than the vocals. Diana Ross and her fellow Supremes flit around that bassline like hummingbirds.
Lamont Dozier, of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting/producing trio, later admitted that they were trying to recapture their previous Supremes #1 “Come See About Me” when they wrote “You Can’t Hurry Love.” This is not a surprise. Most Supremes hits were attempts to recreate the feel of previous Supremes hits. They had a formula, and that formula worked. But “You Can’t Hurry Love” was also inspired by “(You Can’t Hurry God) He’s Right On Time,” a ’50s gospel song from Dorothy Love Coates & The Original Gospel Harmonettes. And its lyrical conceit added a whole new sense of wisdom to what the Supremes were doing.
On “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Diana Ross is singing as someone who wants to be in a relationship and who finds herself getting more and more impatient: “How many heartaches must I stand / Before I find a love to let me live again?” But the part of the song that everyone remembers is the bit that her mom told her. The mom gets the chorus: “You can’t hurry love / You’ll just have to wait / Love don’t come easy / It’s a game of give and take.” So it’s really the mom’s song, and the song works less as a lonely woman’s lament and more as a piece of romantic advice.
It’s good advice, too. We all know people who forced themselves into relationships because they felt like they needed to be in relationships right then, and that always looks like absolute hell. So listen to Diana Ross’ character’s mother, everyone. And listen to that bassline, too.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Iggy Pop’s 1977 classic “Lust For Life,” which has a big central beat that’s mostly a supercharged copy of the “You Can’t Hurry Love” beat: