I can’t be the only one who’s had (of all things) a Supremes song stuck in his head ever since seeing a trailer for M. Night Shyamalan’s forthcoming disaster flick (which is being heavily touted for carrying Shyamalan’s first R rating): The Happening. Despite the film’s deliciously retro title which evokes images of arsty hippies staging random acts of public randomness, the trailer brims over with Shyamalan’s by now familiar (to the point of virtual self-parody) bubbling stew of supernatural terror and quasi-religious inscrutability. Urgh. On the other hand, the scariest thing about The Supremes‘ positively rapturous 1967 single “The Happening” (their 10th #1 hit on Billboard‘s Pop chart), is the way Diana Ross’s smile (to say nothing of her Bruckheimer-scale hairdo) threatens to consume the rest of her face (and everything else in the immediate vicinity) as she effortlessly maneuvers through the song’s brisk tempo and relentlessly acrobatic melody in this live performance.
This dizzyingly catchy song, a collaboration between Motown’s venerable Holland-Dozier-Holland team and TV theme composer Frank DeVol (whose most famous composition centers on the story of a lovely lady bringing up three very lovely girls), was written for the 1967 movie The Happening starring Anthony Quinn as a mobster restauranteur who gets kidnapped by a bunch of hapless hippies (including Faye Dunaway in her screen debut!) in a plot that would get recycled for Ruthless People in the mid-80s. But despite the song’s boundlessly chipper veneer, it marks a pivotal point in the Supremes’ history. Their very next single – the #2 hit “Reflections” – would be the first one credited to “Diana Ross and the Supremes”. Meanwhile, Florence Ballard, who gave the group their name, would soon be signing away her rights to it. Considered by many to have the superior voice, Ballard actually sang lead on some of the group’s earlier tracks, but with Ross’s star ascendant, she was increasingly marginalized in the group. Her alchohol problem didn’t help matters: though she sang on “Reflections”, she’d been fired from the Supremes (replaced by Cindy Birdsong of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles) by the time it was released. In 1976, she died of heart failure at the age of 32. What did they say about that fickle finger of fate?