The Tremeloes did it and The Mindbenders did it. The Shadows did it with more success and The Supremes did it too. What? They all had a healthy chart career when their main lead singer left.
The Supremes broke all sorts of records in the States since their formation in 1959 as The Primettes. They notched up 32 Billboard hit singles in the 60s alone and were the first act to have five consecutive number ones. By the end of the decade things were changing at Motown. Diana Ross left for a solo career following the possibly prophetic hit Someday We’ll Be Together, Stevie Wonder began producing his own songs, Marvin Gaye refused to record or perform, Tammi Terrell died and Smokey Robinson delayed his departure from the Miracles following the surprise transatlantic number one The Tears Of A Clown.
Berry Gordy had decided that an existing Motown singer was going to replace Diana Ross, that singer was Syreeta Wright. She had recorded a few songs that had overlapped with Diana’s choices which led her to believe she was doing the demos for the Supremes and thus being groomed to take Diana’s place. At the last minute that was changed. One night Berry and the Supremes’ manager, Shelly Berger, went to see the ex-boxing champion Ernie Terrell perform with his group The Heavyweights at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami. His sister Jean was a singer and after a quick audition, Berry signed her to his label. He decided that Jean was now to replace Diana and that was announced to the world at the Supremes final concert at the Frontier hotel in Las Vegas on January 14th, 1970 and, on the Ed Sullivan show. Then Berry, again, changed his mind and told Mary Wilson, “I don’t like Jean Terrell and I want to replace her with Syreeta Wright.” Mary was shocked and retorted with a firm “No.” Berry replied, “All Right, then I wash my hands of the group.”
Up The Ladder to The Roof was the first song released as the ‘new’ Supremes. Their profile was boosted when they made their debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan show where he introduced Cindy Birdsong as Cindy Birdstone and was also confused over which one was Jean until Mary put his straight. The song was written by Frank Wilson and Vincent DiMirco. Frank had worked with the ‘old’ Supremes as co-writer of Love Child and I’m Livin’ In Shame and as producer of I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, I Second That Emotion (the duet with the Temptations) and the lesser known Why (Must We Fall In Love). Johnny Bristol who had worked on a few of the ‘old’ Supremes’ hits had produced a song called Life Beats which he was led to believe was going to be the Supremes’ first single, but instead Gordy asked Frank to look after business. Dimirco was an up and coming Puerto Rican songwriter living in Brooklyn, New York. He wrote Up the Ladder to The Roof and submitted it to Wilson who recalled, “I just loved that melody and the chorus and I came back to Detroit and re-wrote it to fit Jean. The girls were working live so much I’d cut the tracks, get on a plane and go where they were. We may have recorded the vocals in either Vegas or D.C. I can’t remember.”
Dimirco had it in his mind that he might be signed to the label and record the track himself but it was not to be although he did play guitar on the recording. Wilson remembered, “I usually worked material up from the piano but gave this song a second favour by building it around Vincent’s guitar, that session came very easy.” The sentiment is about a woman who invites her man to be hers forever so that even after they die, their spirits will climb the ladder that leads to the roof of heaven. The original plan was for Terrell and Wilson to alternate on the lead vocal but Terrell, whose roots were in Gospel, possessed a much stronger and soulful voice and thus got the job. During the recording of the song, Frank Wilson had to ask Terrell to cut down on the amount of vocal runs she was doing.
In the recording studio, Mary Wilson recalled, “I found myself standing in front of the microphone with Jean and Cindy and as I looked at this new grouping of the world-famous Supremes I reflected on the first time Diane (that’s what they called Diana. Diane was her real name but in the early 60s she decided to call herself Diana originating from a spelling error on her birth certificate), Florence and I were together in the studio. It dawned on me how much the three of us had accomplished. At first it felt odd without Diane but I realised that my life must go on and that there was no sense in dwelling in the past.”
The song has been covered by Al Green on his 1984 album Trust in God and also by Bette Midler on her 1977 Live At Last album. The Nylons did an acapella version in 1982 which was featured in the 1987 film Made in Heaven. In 1997, the female leads of the Fox Network sitcom Living Single (Queen Latifah, Erika Alexander, Kim Fields, and Kim Coles) performed the song in an episode during a fantasy sequence depicting them as a Supremes-esque girl group called the Flavorettes.
Vincent still lives in New York but is now a recluse. After leaving Motown Frank Wilson recorded a track called Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do) which years later became a Northern Soul favourite and probably the rarest record on that scene. He later produced tracks for the Four Tops and Eddie Kendricks and then in 1976 he became a born-again Christian and eventually a minister but kept his hand in by producing gospel music. Frank died on 27th September 2012 in Duarte, California, he was 71. According to his daughter Tracy Stein, the cause was complications of a lung infection but he had also been treated for prostate cancer.