A Double History of the Supremes' "Love Child"

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[Note: This is the script to a talk I recently gave at the Experience Music Project's 2006 Pop Music Studies Conference, for which I served on the programming committee. It was a great deal of fun and my paper came off well, which was especially nice given how personal it gets at the end. I ad libbed here and there but mostly stuck to what you see below.--Michaelangelo Matos]

Let’s start with a few facts. According to a study by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), in 1960, for every 1,000 women aged 15-19 in the United States, 89.1 had a child--nearly 594,000 total. By 1970, the U.S. population had increased, and so had the raw number of women under 20 with children, to 656,460. But the numbers were actually down 2.1 percent, to 68.3 women per 1,000. In Michigan state during 1970, the number of births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 was 66--slightly lower than the national average.

I cite these numbers because when I decided to do my presentation on the Supremes’ “Love Child,” I figured the song was rooted in an increase in teen pregnancy, both nationally and more specifically in Detroit, the Supremes’, and Motown’s, hometown. Motown are not known as documentarians; their greatest records, however visceral, are as constructed as any in pop. But they’re still plenty real, and no ’60s Motown record sounds more real, more based on fact or lived circumstance--than “Love Child.” In this case, though, it might seem that what Motown’s hit machine decided to address was less a new problem than an old perennial.

Or at least a perennial with a new twist, becuase what did change over the ’60s was the number of teenage mothers who weren’t married. In 1960, 15 percent of teenage women who gave birth did so out of wedlock. In 1970 that number had doubled, to 30 percent. Teenagers began marrying less, too: in 1960, 60 percent of 19-year-old women remained unmarried, and in 1970 that number increased to 69 percent. A 1985 version of the NCHS study noted the following: “Teen parents . . . tend to have larger numbers of children, to face a higher probability of being a single parent, to experience poverty more frequently, and to be disproportionately represented on welfare.”

These are the facts that underscore the song’s urgency. The song isn’t about the rejection of childbirth--it’s about the avoidance of having kids out of wedlock. It’s about not wanting to raise your children single, to avoid poverty and welfare, about not getting locked into a cycle of having even more kids you can’t take care of as well as possible.

It’s a pop-critical truism that Motown underwent a revolution when Marvin Gaye won the freedom to make What’s Going On his way. The album is understood to have opened the door for the label’s artists to write about what they wanted, how they wanted--as long as, you know, there were hits involved. It’s striking to me how often “Love Child” is left out of this argument altogether, something that seems down more to intentional fallacy than anything. The lone genius questing for capital-T Truth against the wishes of the money men, after all, is a lot more romantic an image than that of four seasoned pros who’ve been sequestered in a hotel suite by their extravagant boss for the specific purpose of turning a fading act’s fortunes. That was where “Love Child” was conceived, sired by Motown staff writers Henry Cosby, Frank Wilson, Pam Sawyer, Deke Richards, and R. Dean Taylor, and paid for by Berry Gordy, Motown’s president.

The situation was simple: The Supremes had been Motown’s flagship act since 1964, becoming the label’s--and black America’s--glamour queens, particularly their lead singer, Diana Ross, who would have been probably been thrust out front even if she hadn’t been dallying with the boss. Ten number-ones later, they were in a rut. Their singles were only going Top 20, if that. Soul had taken on new contours thanks to Sly & the Family Stone, had subdivided into funk thanks to James Brown, had grown grit thanks to Stax and Aretha Franklin. As a whole, Motown was keeping up, but not the Supremes, who hadn’t had a Number One in--heaven forfend--an entire year, since “Reflections,” whose phased guitar intro was the label’s nod to the Summer of Love.

“Reflections” was also the last Supremes Number One written and produced by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland. Late in 1967, the trio left Motown over royalty disputes, and began working on setting up their own shop, or shops--the Hot Wax and Invictus labels would straddle the ’60s and ’70s with Supremes-modeled groups like Honey Comb and the Temptations-esque Chairmen of the Board. (Ironically, HDH would benefit from the blunter lyrical territory that “Love Child” helped open up: See Freda Payne’s 1970 hit “Band of Gold,” the greatest R&B song ever written about wedding-night erectile dysfunction.)

Dozier and the Hollands’ departure threw the Supremes into a tailspin, at a time when they didn’t need the help. At the beginning of 1967, the group had been renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes, and founding member Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Gordy, putting his coach hat on, decided to take action.

As anyone who prefers “It’s the Same Old Song” to “I Can’t Help Myself” is aware, Motown was never averse to working a formula until it felll down exhausted. (Indeed, they'd do it with "Love Child"'s follow-up, 1969's "I'm Living in Shame.") The title of “Love Child” seemed to reach back to the second Supremes Number One, “Baby Love”--just reverse the titles: “Baby Love,” “Love Baby,” “Love Child,” simple. But in this case the topic came first, and anyway “Love Child” was fairly new territory for Motown: a song about a socially relevant topic that wasn’t a cover. It doesn’t seem like an accident that “Love Child” preceded, by only a couple of weeks, the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine,” another Number One, written and produced by Norman Whitfield. Clearly, Motown was ready to answer charges that they weren’t socially relevant enough.

“Love Child” is a protest song in the same way “Blue Suede Shoes” was--a warning, or a plea, for someone to back off, in this case Diana Ross’s boyfriend. He’s pressuring her to have sex, and she wants to wait. 1968 was the year that the birth control pill, then on the market for eight years, was compared to the discovery of fire in terms of importance, but the sexual revolution wasn’t yet in full swing, and anyway the Supremes were essentially singing for kids (not a pejorative). More to the point, Diana Ross was singing as a kid--the narrative voice is clearly that of a teenager even if no ages are mentioned--a teenager telling her boyfriend why she won’t have sex with him--she will not get pregnant and continue the cycle of unwed, teenage motherhood.

Diana is also singing about something that Motown had previously used to less cutting ends: class. It came up sometimes, usually as a hurdle to be joyously overcome, as with Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” about “a poor man’s son” who wins the girl. The poverty in “Love Child” isn’t cute, though: It’s something you deal with because you have no choice, and something that, however successful you become, you never completely escape. “Te-e-e-e-nement slum!” chant the background singers (none of them actual members of the Supremes) all through the song--stagy, a little comic, difficult to know how to take the first time through, even with the string slash and uptown-blues guitar-drum breakdown that leads the record off. “In those eyes I see reflected/A hurt, scorned, rejected love child”: Those lines are equally stagy, but they’re also terse, brutal, unforgiving. Diana Ross didn’t write those lines, but she inhabits them, each word rising--“hurt! scorned! REJECTED!”--as she lifts the lid off her own vanity and exposes what’s beneath. For someone who’d recently taken star billing in a group she hadn’t even sung lead in to begin with, it’s a rather brave thing to do, and the closest she ever came to matching it weren't pieces of music but a movie, 1972's Lady Sings the Blues, in which she played Billie Holiday on junk, and an album cover, for 1980’s Diana, in which she posed wearing almost no makeup. Both the cover and “Love Child” were statements--“I am real”--that served to ground her diva moves, i.e. the rest of her career.

In a way, Diana’s divadom and Berry Gordy’s tight grip on his charges’ output make “Love Child” even more remarkable in its daring, even if social consciousness was selling. It helped open the doors for black pop to embrace lyrical realism on a widespread scale as much as any record ever made, even if, unlike “Love Child,” a lot of what came through that door was pretty macho--the strong-male-leader-of-the-family bromides of early-'70s Gamble and Huff, for example.

It also opened the subject up for other songwriters to tackle, often men. First Choice’s 1973 proto-disco cut “Smarty Pants” was written by Edward White and Mack Wolfson and was the straightforward cautionary tale that Gordy’s crew and Diana’s steely delivery never quite let “Love Child” become: A party girl goes after the best-looking guy around and ends up with his child and no him, thanks to her loose ways. (As in “Love Child,” the narrator of “Smarty Pants” is never ID’ed as a teenager, but her name gives us a clue. Her name is also “Smarty Pants.”) Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” from 1986, is a plea for reconciliation between daughter and father after the daughter gets herself into, and I quote, “an awful mess”--not quite a cautionary tale, but one where, unlike either “Love Child” or “Smarty Pants,” adults are actively involved, which by default gives it a cautionary cast.

Two other songs take “Love Child” even further--one as a parlor tragedy, the other as a modern horror story. The title character of 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” from his 1991 debut 2Pacalypse Now, is 12 years old. Her boyfriend is a cousin; her family cares less about her pregnancy than about the welfare check that accompanies it. Her boyfriend-slash-cousin leaves her and Brenda “ha[s] the baby solo . . . on the bathroom floor.” She tries throwing the baby in the Dumpster, but thinks better of it. Then her mother throws her out: “You makin’ me lose pay/The social worker’s here everyday.” 2Pac grinds the details home, blunter and more horrific by the line: “She tried to sell crack, but end up getting robbed/So now what’s next, there ain’t nothing left to sell/So she sees sex as a way of leaving hell.” Only she doesn’t get to leave; 2Pac twists the knife the final time by having her murdered by a john.

Nothing that drastic occurs in Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green,” from 1971’s Blue, thank god. But the performance is nearly as harrowing. “Little Green” is “Love Child” after Diana loses the argument, has the baby, and tries to cared it until she realizes she’s in over her head and gives it up for adoption. This never feels (and it shouldn’t) like a neat little narrative arc; on an album famous for its emotional rawness, “Little Green” is the song carrying the least amount of protective cover. 2Pac crafted a worst-of-all-posssible-cases scenario; Mitchell’s single, teenaged mother is simply left completely on her own.


Let me tell you now about a Supremes fan. The third-oldest of seven kids born to a snappish Irish Catholic mother and a Puerto Rican dad who was never around, Lorie Matos grew up on welfare in south Minneapolis, where she hung around with drug addicts, thieves, and hoodlums--her siblings, in other words. The Supremes were Lorie’s favorite group; as with a lot of girls her age, they represented an apotheosis, a potentially reachable mixture of hood and glam.

Not long after puberty, Lorie began dating an older teenager named Nick Rahoutis; shortly thereafter, she became pregnant, and went to stay at a Catholic school for girls. When she went to the Hennepin County courthouse to sign the papers putting her unborn child up for adoption, she changed her mind at the last minute, got on the welfare rolls, and moved into a Section 8 apartment. Nick Rahoutis joined the Marines. On February 18, 1975, Lorie took a city bus to Deaconess Hospital near downtown Minneapolis and after 11 hours of contractions gave birth to her first son. A week later, she turned 15. Mom’s most cherished memory of my early years, she later told me, occurred during a snowstorm, during which she fished through couch cushions and various pants pockets in the hamper, cobbled together about two-and-a-half dollars, took me to a nearby drugstore, and spent three hours in the aisles, figuring out how to spend what at that point seemed like all the money in the world.

In Christmas 1979, Santa Claus got me a Fisher-Price record player and a copy of the Grease soundtrack. Not long thereafter, Mom picked up a double-LP Supremes best-of that had been compiled two years before “Love Child.” She played it on my Fisher-Price, but the record, unlike the others she picked up for me at Target on the first of every month, belonged primarily to her.

In 1988, I was 13. Mom was 28, my sister Alex three, and my sister Brittany two. Mom bought a CD player and a copy of George Michael’s Faith. Soon after came an early Supremes CD. She was especially excited about “Love Child,” a song that I had never heard of. “Oh,” she told me, “That’s such a great song. I used to sing it to you when you were a baby.” Mom put it on and began singing along in her fragile, tone-deaf voice. There was a line in the third verse that Mom pointed out right after it had passed to the chorus. “See?” she said. “‘She changes her mind: She was going to put her baby up for adoption but decides she loves it too much.”

In 2000, when I was 25, I was working at an office and prone to going in on weekends to use the computer, since I didn’t have one at home. One Saturday before heading over, I picked up a used copy of the Supremes’ Ultimate Collection; I especially wanted to hear “Love Child,” which I hadn’t listened to in years. I played it loud on headphones; it sounded as tough and frightening and vulerable as I remembered it. Everything was in place--until the third verse, when Diana Ross sang these lines:

Don’t think that I don’t need ya
Don’t think I don’t wanna please ya
But no child of mine’ll be bearing
The name of shame I’ve been wearing
Love child

The first two lines, if you missed them, are: “Don’t think that I don’t need ya/Don’t think I don’t wanna please ya.” What Mom had told me when I was 13--and what I had been hearing as a result for a dozen years--was “Don’t think I don’t wanna FEED ya.” What my mother heard--and, through her, what I heard for a dozen years--was a shift: Diana moving from addressing her guy to addressing a baby, the one Mom thought the song was about. But there is no baby. The song is about the fact that there won’t be one. Mom had heard one word wrong and changed the song’s entire meaning to fit the mishearing.

Or maybe she changed it to fit something else. I know exactly how stubborn, willful, and frankly delusional my mother can be, and she is notorious for mishearing pop-song lyrics. I once got into an argument with her about whether Prince, at the end of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” was saying “I’m in love with God” or, as she heard it, “I’m in love with guys.” (It’s “God,” by the way.)

But I wonder whether she really did hear it wrong, because I wonder how possible it is to hear any song wrong, or interpret any work of art wrong short of it leading to murder. All art takes on a life of its own outside of its creators’ intentions, especially pop songs. Undoubtedly, Mom heard “Love Child” as a justification, a Yes from figures she admired. Oftentimes pop tells us what we want to hear. I think “Love Child” told Mom what she needed to hear, at a time when it seemed that no one else would. And that’s difficult to accept, because by all rights no one else should have told her that. I don’t think 14-year-olds should be having children; I don’t think 17-year-olds should, either. But they do, and I am both alive and an uncle as a result. My niece Veronica will turn a year old in a couple of months. My sister Brittany recently turned 19. And I wouldn’t give up my life or trade my niece for anything. So my only real conclusion is that for all my ambivalence, I have little choice but to feel indebted to “Love Child.” If a pop song can change your life or save it, this one feels like it helped to enable mine.