Susaye Greene: The last Supreme
We talked about gardening, wildlife and exotic plants, fruit pies and custard or, maybe, cream, British weather, the state of the world, her contribution to a Hiati project to raise much needed funds and ..being a member of The Supremes. We laughed ‘til we cried, and gossiped ‘til we ran out of breath. My, did the phone wires burn that night, let me tell you. But first, a little background information about the last official Supreme.
Miss Susaye Greene was born in Houston, Texas in September 1949. Thanks to her mum’s involvement in the music business, she sang with Harry Belafonte and can be heard on his 'Streets I Have Walked'. During her teens she moved to New York City to appear in commercials and to attend the NYC High School of Performing Arts from which she later graduated. It seems Susaye’s first recorded title was 'Please Send Him Back' for a New York label, before she became a member of The Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backing group. From here she sang lead in the group New Birth, and joined Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove during 1974. As well as singing, Susaye had another huge string to her bow – that of accomplished songwriter. Indeed, she co-wrote 'Free' for Deniece Williams which became an international seller and topped the UK singles chart in 1977. And more, like Michael Jackson (for whom she wrote 'I Can’t Help It' with Stevie Wonder for his 'Off The Wall' album. This story will be told to mark the first anniversary of Michael’s death) and Stevie Wonder himself. She then joined The Supremes to replace Cindy Birdsong, with the membership of Mary Wilson and Scherrie Payne. And this is where we came in.
Supreme fans will recall that during Susaye’s stay with the group, they never recorded any of her material. So I asked, did this piss her off? “Yes!!” came her instant reply. Do tell all, I encouraged. “I can tell you exactly what happened because I don’t have any bitterness about it, or with things that happened or didn’t happen, y’know. I’m such a blessed person..things fall in my lap and come my way that you could never go out and plan them.” She continued - “I was brought into the group because of my writing and my talent. I’m telling you what I was told. Bob Jones, who you know has gone now, was the head of publicity at Motown. He was also on the Beverly Hills branch of the NAACP with my mom, Vivian Greene. They were an influential group in entertainment and so on. Bob came to her and said they were going to let Cindy Birdsong go - I didn’t know what the arrangement was but she was going to leave – and would I be interested? Now, I had met Mary and Cindy when Jean got in the group. They were playing at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington… I was with Ray Charles at the time. And when they came back into town I met with Pedro (Ferrer) first. He was their manager (and Mary’s husband) and he was in charge. I was with Wonderlove at the time and Mary’s long white Mercedes limousine with the blacked out windows, which was George Harrison’s car, rolled up to a Wonderlove rehearsal. I got in and never went back.“ Susaye then contacted Stevie Wonder to say she had left, and although he was upset at her decision, understood her need to progress.
Prior to signing her Supremes’ recording contract, Susaye recalled her several conversations with Pedro, who knew of her composing pedigree, her success with “Free” and insisted that she was what the group needed. “They knew what kind of a writer I was and that was one of my stipulations, because I had carte blanche with Stevie, like I could pick what I wanted to sing on stage. I was told I was going to get to write and produce for The Supremes, as well as upgrading everything – the sounds, the look, music, everything. I signed the contract, left my good job and got involved. Basically I found out that Pedro would’ve said anything that he felt would get the job done to get me involved in the group.” Before she knew it, Susaye was rehearsing and touring as the new Supreme, and from 1976 to 1977 she became a member of the world’s most famous of all girl groups. Her instant appeal, friendly approach, sense of humour and her voice that covers many octaves, won her a huge and loyal following. And that distinctive voice can be heard on the trio’s last two albums, 'High Energy' and 'Mary, Scherrie & Susaye'.
Susaye’s position within the trio was then explained to her, as she told me. “I went to Mary’s house one day. We had a lot of fun, Mary and I, so long as Pedro wasn’t around” Susaye laughed. “When he was, she was Mrs Ferrer, let’s put it that way. Anyway, basically she said to me, I know you’re this hot shot writer and all, but I don’t think you’re ready to write for us. I said ‘great’. I’ve got a number one record in England right now and you don’t think so……I’m a smart girl and I knew then that is was about – ‘Mary’s in charge’ . Pedro had been smart enough to do whatever he was doing with the group, and he did a lot, even though he’s not given a lot of credit, and I understand the problems all round. But that’s neither here nor there – he was Mary’s husband and it was wrong that she was in charge of the group, and that’s how I feel. It made things very difficult with his personality, in a lot of ways. He was very forward and he could be inappropriate in a lot of ways. I’m a very professional person and I’d been hired to do a job. And I did a good job. I put my whole heart in. Anybody can see that – just look on youtube!”
We then talked a bit about The Supremes’ farewell concert in London’s Drury Lane Theatre in June 1977. A party was held after the concert at the Mounkberry Club, where one of the highlights was a cake shaped like a Supremes’ album. Somewhere here, you’ll see pictures from that party. I said to Susaye that I recalled chatting to a pregnant Mary in the ladies’ loo. She was pregnant wasn’t she? Susaye laughed out loud. “Mary was pregnant most of the time. Seriously, she showed me how to be a professional singer with a baby. She was an excellent mother. She had that baby on her hip and she could still do The Supremes’ swirl.”
Before leaving the subject, I said that it must be the greatest feeling in the world to have included in your work cv – “a member of the Supremes” – because not only does the name conjure up music but a kind of magical feeling. So why didn’t she join Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne to keep the music alive? “It’s not the same thing. I knew, you know too, there are a lot of issues. I adore both of them, all the Supremes I adore. Mary is a tremendous entertainer and to see the way she has grown as an entertainer is just marvellous. But she has a very short memory. Scherrie and I helped her to continue and now she wants to either deny or erase that. I really think that’s silly and rather short-sighted. It’s also sad. I’ve enjoyed most of my association with The Supremes. The only real downside is the lack of creative freedom. Everything else was just a party – and for free! By the time I got into the group, we know things weren’t like they had always been. So what? It was a tremendous experience. And guess what? I’m still here. I can still sing. I’m still in good shape, you know what I mean. And I’m happy.
From The Supremes, Susaye recorded a duet album with Scherrie Payne titled 'Partners' – quite an interesting release and one we hoped would herald the start of a new Motown career, but sadly no. Even Mary’s Motown career stopped with one eponymous album in 1979. However, I understand that there maybe plans afoot for 'Partners' to be re-issued - which’d be just great. During 1989, Susaye signed with Ian Levine’s Motorcity to release a pair of singles, namely, 'Stop, I Need You Now' and her own interpretation of 'Free'. She also duetted with the wonderful Billy Eckstine on 'It’s Impossible'. Moving into the new millennium, Susaye issued 'No Fear Here' on Dollface Music International, from which two singles were lifted. Her second solo album 'Brave New Shoes', issued in 2005, was also on Dollface.
Let’s talk more. Some personal stuff now. “I’ve been married for twenty five years to Steve, an Englishman.” An Englishman living in America? I asked for the details. They met while she was touring the UK with Stevie Wonder, and later relocated here. “I then came back to America because my mom asked me to help her with something she was trying to get together. A foundation for the arts, a non-profit organisation to help educate kids and mentor them. But she became gravely ill and passed. She was gone in three months. And now I’m involved in a lot of things – painting (Susaye has, for instance, designed the poster used to advertise James Bartling’s 'Nostalgia' movie - see recent news item), sculpture, ceramics, jewelry making, all kinds of things.” Another reason why America won out, she insisted, was its weather. “I have tremendous problems with my hands and that (British) dampness would get to me and I couldn’t take it any more. I miss England so much, but we go back and forth now.”
Susaye and Steve have one son, Daniel, who’s followed his mother into the business. He’s a rap artist and one of these "frighteningly talented people" she glowed. “He’s masterful with his words, he’s extremely introspective and is a wow!” And, she laughed - “why wouldn’t he be!” We then touched on our feelings about today’s music generally, and why some aspects of it is dull and mundane. However, Susaye was quick to point out – “It’s just like any other art. There are cycles and we’ve had a really long dry cycle, and people know it. There’s so many young musicians – and this has been the phenomenon of the web for me - who are able to reach out. The hip hop community has used this medium to reach out, and young people from all over the world, are using it to spread their expressions, their words. It’s their power. And they know there’s a whole underground movement that’s out there, if they really look for it. But what gets praised and well paid is what I call real crap hip hop – excuse my language – but it is. If I want to dance, then I want something that’s danceable. Come on!” As with most things in life with ladies our age, we have to make comparisons to ‘back then’. This was no exception. “When we were growing up there was a lot of mindless music as well” Susaye conceded. “There was also that high standard of musicianship. You’d find there were unique artists who were pushing their uniqueness at us, and we had great musicians of all genres to emulate. There were places you could go to jam, there were people you could learn from. And now, if I have those tools, and have a way to get samples, then I can make records and it doesn’t matter whether I’m talented or not, so long as I’m technically proficient! I think the advent of home recordings has, to a degree, given the average punter a way to express himself.” From her point of view, she believed that when rap took over the world’s young people, it was the result of accessible technology to record music with words that had to rhyme, but not particularly well. “And if you have a generation that doesn’t have anything to compare with, because mom’s not home to play her Motown because she’s working to pay off her mortgage. Or, dad doesn’t have time to sit in his den and play his jazz. Then, where are these young people gonna learn? Actually, you can look around LA and see what music is forming. There are little bands of young people standing on street corners, where there used to be doo-wop. And they’re doing hip hop!”
Interestingly, Susaye is sent loads of music to listen to by enthusiastic singers and groups. Sometimes too many, she smiled. “Sometimes I take the time to sit and listen to a batch, or listen to them while I’m on the move, like in the car, or whatever. Young people want guidance, they want someone to show them what to do, to help. That’s why they’ve been so sweet to me. I’ve never had one person disrespect me. I mean, any artist, which is why I always encourage them to use the web. You don’t have to have a record company anymore. You can make an MP3 to send to a distributor for download, and it doesn’t cost you anything. And publicity is taken care of because you have it on Twitter and Facebook and so on…that collective thread. It’s all free publicity. It’s called social media marketing, and artists still don’t get the media marketing part. It’s anybody’s game - and this is why I won’t quit!”
This is all well and good I protested, but what about me? I was raised on The Beatles and Motown, I bemoan the demise of vinyl, and that choice of listening to ‘real’ music played by, say, a full orchestra in a studio while the singer bursts forth into the microphone. Surely, I can tire of electronically or technically –produced music? Susaye agreed. “Motown and The Beatles took the world and they changed it. The Beatles gave everyone, every musician, what the power of great writing, great production and of course, the big machine behind them, could do. These days if you have that kind of talent all you’ve got - is keep putting it out there and hope that your audience will find you. “ And, I teased having The Beatles meant we were able to beat off you Americans! “That’s right. I love that whole thing, that time...it was just magic. The Sixties was the best decade. I can remember when I first heard ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. From the opening strains of that, I was gone. I can still feel that feeling I had, that pure youthful exuberance. I can also remember screaming and screaming…”
I’m glad I wasn’t the only one, Susaye!
“Not at all honey, we loved the whole thing.”
Thanks Susaye, I loved every minute of the interview too. We sure know how to chinwag!! As I mentioned before, her story about meeting and being with Michael Jackson will be printed to remember the first anniversary of his death in July. Please don’t miss it.
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Words SHARON DAVIS