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.
Motown didn’t mess around with social issues. That was part of Motown’s whole deal. Berry Gordy knew that he’d already accomplished the impossible when he turned a black-owned label into a crossover hit-factory pop juggernaut. He couldn’t have done this without vast numbers of white fans buying into what he was selling, and he didn’t want to do anything that could potentially alienate that audience. He knew how to sell dramatic, sweeping, gorgeously written songs about matters of the heart, so that’s what he did. Eventually, though, Gordy learned, or was convinced, that he had to switch up the formula.
The Supremes were in trouble. Earlier in 1968, Gordy had forced Florence Ballard out of the group, replacing her with Cindy Birdsong. Holland-Dozier-Holland, the pop-genius trio who’d written and produced all of the Supremes’ previous hits, had parted ways with the label over royalty disputes. In 1968, a handful of Supremes singles missed the top 20 entirely — an apocalyptic event for a group that used to hit #1 every time out. Diana Ross was itching to go solo. Gordy needed to try something different with the Supremes, and that’s what he did.
In the wake of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s departure, Gordy called a meeting in a Michigan hotel, where he assembled five songwriters and called them the Clan. Pam Sawyer, the only woman in the Clan, had suggested a song about teenage pregnancy, and Gordy wasn’t into it. But eventually, the group came up with a sidelong way to address the issue, telling the story of a girl who herself was born poor and fatherless telling a boyfriend that she wouldn’t have sex because she didn’t want her hypothetical kid to suffer the same fate as she had. Gordy himself helped out with the songwriting and arrangement. And that’s how we got “Love Child.”
In a lot of ways, “Love Child” is powered by the same sense of romantic drama as all those previous Supremes hits. But what Diana Ross’ narrator does with the man she’s addressing isn’t really the point of the song. Instead, what sticks with you is the intense, urgent way that narrator describes her own upbringing: “I started school in a worn, torn dress that somebody threw out / I knew the way it felt to always live with doubt.” Singing those lines, Ross isn’t lamenting her lot. Instead, she’s strong and determined and forceful: “We’ll only end up hating the child we may be creating.”
On those older Supremes songs, Ross brought a subtlety to the way she sang about romantic apocalypse. She’d reveal her feelings but she’d do so sparingly, letting them seep out in a quick voice-quaver or a half-audible sigh. That’s not what she does on “Love Child.” “Love Child” puts its emotions right out front. It’s melodramatic in a commanding way, Ross giving a sweeping and operatic diva performance. There’s nothing subtle about what she does on the song. It’s a whole new approach for her, and she sings it with tremendous levels of charisma and commitment. She was an actress before she became an actress.
And the song’s arrangement is just as overwhelming as Ross’ vocal. Musically, Motown’s sound was continuing to grow and mature at a downright frightening rate, and all of that is right there on “Love Child.” The other two Supremes, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong don’t even appear on “Love Child,” with Motown’s in-house backup singers filling in for them. But the way those session singers trill and emphasize and sometimes wail in the background lends tremendous dimension to the song. They’re a part of the sound. On the intro, the way they chillingly coo “tenement slum” and then do howling-wind ooh-ooh-oohs is a total goosebump effect.
And with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra backing them up, Motown’s Funk Brothers came up with something tense and propulsive, building from chicken-scratch guitars and tingly vibraphones to cinematic grandeur in three jam-packed minutes. Musically, “Love Child” is essentially disco; it just didn’t have the name yet.
The Clan wouldn’t last long, and the Supremes would only hit #1 one more time, but “Love Child” had its effect. In the years ahead, Motown would branch out both musically and lyrically. The artists and songwriters would take in and address the world around them, and they’d get musically expansive and creative in ways that they were only beginning to approach. Maybe “Love Child” is the sound of people who are bursting with ideas and who are only just getting a chance to get those ideas out there. It’s my favorite Supremes song, and it’s also the start of a glorious new era for a label that was only just finishing its first glorious era.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Janet Jackson’s video for her 1993 MC Lyte collab “You Want This,” which samples “Love Child”:
(“You Want This” peaked at #8, and it would’ve been a 6.)
THE 10S: Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” peaked at #3 behind “Love Child.” It’s a 10. Here it is: