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.
If the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” was a “pocket symphony,” as it was so masterfully marketed, then the Supremes’ classic singles were pocket melodramas. Those songs were heavily and fascinatingly orchestrated in their own ways, but the arrangements, nimble and groundbreaking as they might’ve been, were there to serve the stories. The Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team found simple, direct ways to write about complicated feelings — heartbreak, elation, faint embers of hope. And Diana Ross sang those songs with poise and sensitivity, maintaining her composure even as she subtly hinted at huge and overwhelming feelings.
For years, the Supremes were an absolute machine. They cranked these songs out with a terrifying efficiency, and almost all of them hit their marks. And maybe that’s why “The Happening” stands out in the group’s catalog. It’s a rare miss, a song that deviates from the plan and goes all the way awry. It’s the moment where everything falls apart.
“The Happening” was the Supremes’ last song as a unit. The group had been coming apart for years, with Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson resenting the way they’d been reduced to Diana Ross’ backing singers. Ballard in particular was drinking more and getting depressed. Soon after, Berry Gordy fired Ballard, replaced her with Cindy Birdsong, and changed the name of the group to Diana Ross And The Supremes. Nine years later, Ballard died of a heart attack. She was 32.
It’s also the last Supremes #1 hit with Holland-Dozier-Holland working as the group’s writer/producer team. (They came close later in 1967 with “Reflections,” which was an absolute masterpiece. It would’ve made a fitting bookend for that partnership, but it peaked at #2, so we won’t be talking about it in this space.) A year after “The Happening,” Holland-Dozier-Holland parted ways with Motown.
But internal dissension, both within Motown and within the Supremes themselves, doesn’t fully explain “The Happening.” There’s more going on. For one thing, Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote it for a movie. The Happening was a screwball romp about four wacky counterculture kids who kidnap a mob boss for ransom. Anthony Quinn, Faye Dunaway, and Milton Berle were all in it. (Sadly, the movie has nothing to do with the 2008 film of the same title, the M. Night Shyamalan/Mark Wahlberg movie about the killer plants.) The Happening bricked at the box office. I’ve never seen it, but it looks terrible.
So: Holland-Dozier-Holland had to write a song called “The Happening.” And it had to match the movie’s antic, swingin’ tone — a Hollywood idea of whatever the kids were into at the moment. They had to collaborate with Frank De Vol, the movie’s musical director, who’d already come up with an instrumental theme. And they had to record it in Los Angeles, with the Wrecking Crew backing the Supremes up instead of the usual Detroit Funk Brothers unit. Everything was working against “The Happening” being a good song. And it’s not a good song. The team of the Supremes and Holland-Dozier-Holland could do a whole lot of things, but they couldn’t pull a miracle out of thin air.
“The Happening” has a cool intro, a tense spy-movie thing, but everything falls apart after that. It’s too busy, with flutes and tubas and trebly guitars flying all over the place. There’s no real central groove. The emphasis is more on the horns than on Ross’ voice. And Ross, for once, gets no room to sell the song’s emotion — to even make it register as emotion.
The song, like so many Supremes songs, is about heartbreak. Holland-Dozier-Holland found a way to write around the song’s title. “The happening” becomes a breakup, a sudden rupture for which you’ve always got to be ready. Ross sings about it as a sudden cataclysm that’s always ready to strike: “So sure, I felt secure / Until love took a detour.” But the song is so chipper that Ross’ sadness fails to register entirely.
“The Happening” sounds like exactly what it is: a cynical tie-in with a bad movie. But it doesn’t sound like a Supremes song — even though, in some literal sense of the term, it’s the last Supremes song.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fantasia’s pretty great 2006 Big Boi collab “Hood Boy,” which samples the intro from “The Happening”:
A weird confluence: Fantasia won the 2004 season of American Idol, famously defeating her friend Jennifer Hudson. In 2006, the same year that Fantasia released “Hood Boy,” Hudson won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a fictionalized version of Florence Ballard in Dreamgirls.