New ways but 'Stoned Love' stays
‘This kid gets out a guitar, there were only two strings on it’
Now, I want to tell you of a great love
It will light up, it will surely light up darkened worlds
If you’ll just believe…
These, as you know, are the opening lines of “Stoned Love,” one of the Supremes’ more unusual and most compelling singles. It was released 47 years ago this weekend, going on to become a U.S. Top 10 hit, the trio’s highest-charting single of the 1970s, and also their most successful in Britain, where it reached the Top 3.
“Stoned Love” was a record I wrote about in The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, having interviewed its producer, the late Frank Wilson, and its arranger, the late David Van DePitte, as well as the song’s writer, Kenny Thomas, otherwise known (on the record’s label copy) as Y. Samoht. But there were space limitations in the book, so what follows is an expanded version of the tale, with previously unpublished material. If it’s brevity you prefer, stick with my Billboard account.
“Stoned Love” could just as easily have been titled “Rock of Ages.” Kenny Thomas was striving for a message of permanence in the lyrics of the song, written at a time of seismic social change. “We had civil rights issues going on in this country,” he told me. “Vietnam, drugs, ‘make love, not war.’ But stones are forever – they don’t break or come apart. Love will be here forever. It’s not important about colour and things of that nature.”
At the age of twelve, Detroit native Thomas began learning music on a neighbour’s piano. “I never fared well with formal piano lessons,” he said. “Hence, I played by ear.” He and a friend graduated to entertaining guests at private parties around the city. Later, the budding musician entered a teen talent contest staged by WJLB-AM Detroit and hosted by influential DJ Ernie Durham. “He heard some of my music,” recalled Thomas, “and said, ‘Come on down and do the show.’ ” That's how Motown producer Frank Wilson became aware of Thomas and made the effort to track him down at home.
“He came by and had me play several of the songs I played at the contest,” Thomas explained. “He asked if I had anything else, and I said, ‘Yes, there’s this song I’m working on right now, that I haven’t actually performed yet.’ And I played ‘Stoned Love.’ He said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is wonderful.’ I’m seventeen, I’m beaming because I’m thinking, ‘My family is finally getting a break.’ Frank had me play the song about ten times.”
Wilson invited Thomas to his home in Detroit’s Palmer Woods district and asked to hear “Stoned Love” again. “He said, ‘This is going to be our next hit,’ but I said, ‘I’m not a singer, I cannot perform it.’ He said, ‘That’s all right, I have someone.’ ” The next day, Thomas returned to the producer’s house. “In comes Mary Wilson – and I die. He introduces us, and she asks, ‘Gee, Frank, this is a baby, what does he have?’ Frank says, ‘Go get him a 7-Up, he’ll play it.’ ” The soft drink collected, Thomas reprised the song. “And she says, ‘Oh my goodness.’ ”
At which point, Wilson recruited Motown arranger David Van DePitte to give “Stoned Love” a formal structure. “David was my first experience of seeing a person write notes and play,” said Thomas. “He charted it all out.”
Van DePitte recalled the occasion in detail. “Frank said, ‘Kenny has written this tune, and I want you to hear it.’ We went down in the basement and this kid gets out a guitar. There were only two strings on it. The kid had worked out a system of binary chords that he could plunk along, and he was singing this tune. The problem was that not having the third member, at least, of the chord structure, you don’t know whether he is in major or minor, you don’t know exactly what the changes are.” Thomas played the song once more, to have it taped. “Then Frank sat down with the kid at the piano and went over what he thought he heard.”
The eventual outcome was among Van DePitte’s most imaginative arrangements, alive with grand piano strokes and the strings of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Van DePitte thought the pianist was Leonard Caston, but Wilson suggested otherwise. “I didn’t use a lot of people outside of Earl Van Dyke,” he said. “I was very clear about exactly what I would want. I said, ‘You have to do it just like this.’ And so ‘Stoned Love’ was just that.”
According to details in The Complete Motown Singles Volume 10: 1970, Wilson had the track recorded during March 1970, with background vocals, horns and strings added over the next couple of months at Motown’s Studio B. In May, Kenny Thomas was invited to watch the orchestral session. He remembered it happening in Hitsville’s Studio A, but his specifics matched the former (and much larger) Golden World room. “It was almost as big to me as a football field,” he recalled. “They’d torn out a lot of walls and enlarged it. David hits the baton on the podium, and the musicians play – maybe a 50-piece orchestra, strings and everything. I cried.”
Frank Wilson saved the best for last, but not in Detroit. “I loved working with Jean Terrell and we did the vocals in Washington, D.C.," he said. “[The Supremes] were doing the Shoreham Hotel, so I had to go there to record from about 1 a.m. to 6 a.m..” He was certain that all three women – Terrell, Wilson, Cindy Birdsong – were at the session, but couldn't remember which studio it was. For his part, Kenny Thomas believed the group's vocals were cut elsewhere. “Frank said, ‘We need to go to New York, where they’re in concert.’ My mom said that no way was I going to New York. [My parents] were afraid I was going to put my schooling on the back burner, which I was.” Nonetheless, said Thomas, he and a cousin did travel to New York. “Jean goes into the song and once more, I die. She finished it, then we had about an hour to make the flight back to Detroit.”
Once completed, “Stoned Love” became part of the Supremes’ second post-Diana album, New Ways But Love Stays, released in October 1970. But the song didn’t impress Berry Gordy. “I remember that he hated that record,” said Frank Wilson. “He called it garbage.” Gordy only agreed to its release as a single after Barney Ales, who was then Motown’s executive VP and general manager, promised that it would be played by the RKO chain of radio stations.
Ales knew influential RKO programmer Paul Drew. Years earlier, when Drew was a disc jockey at a minor AM station in Port Huron, Michigan, Ales used to visit regularly and buy him lunch. Few other Detroit promotion people made the trip: Port Huron is more than fifty miles north of the Motor City. By 1970, Drew was a radio industry guru. “He must have programmed eight or nine RKO stations,” said Ales. Among them were Canada’s CKLW-AM-FM in Windsor – a powerhouse platform for Motown – and San Francisco’s KFRC-AM-FM.
With RKO’s support, “Stoned Love” became the Supremes’ greatest R&B and pop success since the departure of Diana Ross. Even so, Mary Wilson was disappointed that the album wasn't renamed after the hit. “The country was then in the midst of an antidrug hysteria,” she noted in her book, Supreme Faith, “with self-appointed experts ‘discovering’ drug references wherever they looked.” After the Supremes taped “Stoned Love” for CBS-TV’s The Merv Griffin Show, the performance was dropped because of the drug connotations. “Motown is justifiably hot about the censorship,” reported the Detroit Free Press at the time.
Kenny Thomas was high on the hit, nevertheless, and remembered Frank Wilson calling when sales topped a million. He said, ‘Kenny, you’ve just got a gold record for your song.’ ” It was also Wilson’s song. “Frank added about four lines for continuity – they worked well,” said Thomas, who reversed his name for the writer’s credit, in the manner of Stevie Wonder’s Eivets Rednow. It also hinted at one of his influences, Nina Simone. “Ynnek Samoht sounds a bit like that – the Simone part, anyway – and it became my personal tribute to her.”
Thomas composed other material for Jobete Music, including “Sing A Song Of Yesterday,” recorded by the Four Tops on their changing times album, and “Come Join My World” for the Jackson 5, although the latter doesn’t ever seem to have been released. He and Wilson also penned a song called “Stoned Groove,” but the chances are that with that title, it would have upset Merv Griffin again.