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.
Over the course of the ’60s, the Beatles had 18 different #1 hits. The Supremes were the only act who came even remotely close; they reached the summit 12 times. You could argue that those two acts, more than any others, defined the pop music of the ’60s. In September 1969, John Lennon told the rest of the Beatles that he was leaving the band. Two months later, Motown announced to the public that lead Supreme Diana Ross would be going solo. (The Supremes kept going after Ross left and even scored a handful of hits, but the Supremes without Diana Ross weren’t really the Supremes.) So right when the ’60s came to a close, the two most popular pop groups in the world essentially blinked out of existence. There’s something weirdly beautiful about that, as if the people who defined this era were determined, in their own ways, to mark its end.
Those weren’t the only goodbyes. The Rolling Stones, of course, would not break up in 1969 (or ever), but the notorious murderfuck of the Altamont Free Concert in December would change public perception of both the Stones and the ’60s forever. (Many years later, when I wanted to go see the Stones’ IMAX movie about their Steel Wheels tour, my dad would explain that he didn’t want “some guy with a big beard to hit me with a chain and steal my wallet.” Years after that, he would admit that he simply didn’t want to go and that he was just making excuses, but that one left an impression.) Simon & Garfunkel broke up in 1970. So did the Turtles, the Dave Clark 5, and Peter, Paul & Mary. In the years ahead, plenty of the old titans, including Diana Ross, would stick around, but music would change, completely and irrevocably.
“Someday We’ll Be Together” plays like a goodbye to all that. It’s a Supremes song in name only. Ross sings the song’s lead vocal. The other two Supremes, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, aren’t anywhere on it; Motown session singers handle the backup vocals. The song was originally intended to be Ross’ solo debut. Instead, Motown founder Berry Gordy decided that he wanted one last Supremes #1, and that is exactly what he got.
It’s not a song about the Supremes, of course. It’s not a song about the end of the ’60s, either. It’s a song from a woman who misses her ex and who promises that they will reunite one day. But the people at Motown were experts at finding songs that quietly pushed in new directions, that said more than what was on the lyric sheet. So maybe it’s a song about an era ending, or a beloved group disbanding. Maybe it’s a song about the civil rights struggle, or the women’s liberation struggle, or any other cause that needs a kind of tough, beaten-down, idealistic optimism to keep going.
“Someday We’ll Be Together” was not a product of the Motown songwriting machine. Instead, it came from Johnny & Jackey, the Detroit soul duo who’d released the original version in 1961. Group members Johnny Bristol and Jackey Beavers had co-written it with the Moonglows founder Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua had released it on his Tri-Phi label, and it had been a regional Midwestern hit, but it had never crossed over. In the mid-’60s, Gordy bought Tri-Phi from Fuqua, and he brought Bristol, Beavers, and Fuqua over to Motown. (The Motown machine, then, absorbed the people who’d made the song.) By 1969, Bristol was getting ready to record a new version of “Someday We’ll Be Together” with the Motown group Jr. Walker & The All-Stars. He’d already produced the instrumental track and the backing vocals when Gordy decided that it should go to Ross instead.
The song’s needling riff was already there in the Johnny & Jackey original, but at Motown’s studio, Bristol fleshed it out with symphonic strings and lush little Funk Brothers touches. When he recorded the vocal track with Ross, Bristol accidentally recorded himself doing ad-libs to help urge Ross on. Gordy liked the version with Bristol’s ad-libs, so Bristol ended up as the hypeman on his own song.
“Someday We’ll Be Together” isn’t the best of the Supremes’ hits, and it isn’t the worst, either. But it nails a sound that would never come back again: a regal swirl of rich melodies and bittersweet poise. Maybe that’s why Gordy decided that it was a Supremes song and not a Diana Ross one. And that makes it a fitting goodbye to a great era in American pop music.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Janet Jackson’s lithe, percussive, horny 1993 single “If,” which sampled the string intro from “Someday We’ll Be Together”:
“If” peaked at #4, and it would’ve been an 8.
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chicago house pioneer Frankie Knuckles’ 1993 remix of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” a big club hit: