This was written by the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who deliberately set out to write a rock song for the Supremes. Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier
and Brian Holland were a big part of the Motown Sound. They not only wrote most of the hits for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and many other acts on the label, but they also produced and arranged the sessions, giving them nearly complete control of the product.
The song is about a woman who knows her fellow doesn't love her, but isn't man enough to break up with her. All she can do is plead with him to set her free.
Lamont Dozier explained in a 1976 interview with Blues & Soul magazine how he came up with these tales of woe: "I've often broken up with a girlfriend for a week just to be able to get that real feeling of hurt so that I can write what I write from experience! I should add that I always make sure we patch up again after the week's over. But I'm constantly working at the piano – that's my source of release, like a tranquilizer for me."
Lamont Dozier created the stuttering guitar line, which was inspired by the radio's signal for news flashes. It was played by Robert White, who was one of the guitarists for Motown's studio band, The Funk Brothers. He is perhaps best known for performing the lead lines on the Temptations classic chart topper "My Girl
This was the Supremes' eighth US #1 hit. It was part of a second row of #1 hits they had; their first row of #1 hits were five, their second row had four. It came right after "You Can't Hurry Love" (US #1; this was later covered by Phil Collins).
That little aside when the girls say, "a there ain't nothing I can do about it" sounds like an ad-lib, but it was very much planned. In a Songfacts interview with Lamont Dozier
, he said: "We wanted to make it believable, add some everyday talk, like the girl was really going through this predicament. When you get to a certain point with a situation, you realize, 'Hey, there ain't nothing I can do about it,' because you're so wrapped up with this individual that you can't run, you can't hide, and there's nothing you can do about it. So, you just deal with it the best you can."
Although it never won a Grammy, this song (along with "Where Did Our Love Go
," which never won a Grammy either) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Vanilla Fudge recorded a successful cover version that hit #6 US in 1968. Fudge drummer Carmine Appice explained in a Songfacts interview: "In 1966, when I joined the band, there was a thing going around the New York area and Long Island that was basically slowing songs down, making production numbers out of them and putting emotion into them. The Vagrants were doing it, they had Leslie West in the band. The Rich Kids were doing it, they had this writer named Richard Supa. The Hassles were doing it, they had Billy Joel. It all started from The Rascals, I think. We were all looking for songs that were hits and could be slowed down with emotion put into them. You Keep Me Hangin' On lyrically was a hurtin' kind of song, and when The Supremes did it, it was like a happy song. We tried to slow down the song and put the emotion the song should have into it with the hurtin' kind of feeling the song should have."
Carmine Appice: "Our manager had a connection with Shadow Morton, and he connected it with us. The object was to get us in the studio. When he saw us, he loved us, and we cut 'You Keep In Hangin' On' in one-take mono. One take, straight to tape."
Vanilla Fudge has done a lot of cover songs in a similar style, including "People Get Ready," "Eleanor Rigby
," "I Want It That Way
" and "Tearin' Up My Heart."
Rod Stewart recorded this in 1977 on his album Foot Loose And Fancy Free. Appice was the drummer in Stewart's band at the time. Says Carmine: "When I was with Rod, he always said to me, 'I wish I had done that song, it's such a great song the way you guys did it.' I said to Rod, 'Why don't you do it? I'm in the band, it will give you an excuse to do it.' So we put together an arrangement a little different than The Fudge. It was similar in that it was slowed-down, but the whole middle section was a piano and orchestra thing. When we did it live, it came out tremendous. When I was on stage in 1977, playing You Keep Me Hangin' On with Rod, I was thinking how 10 years before I was on arena stages playing it with The Fudge."
In 1986 the British singer Kim Wilde had her only American #1 with her cover, making this one of the few songs to top the American charts twice. Wilde's only other American Top 40 hit was "Kids In America
," which reached #25. In her native Britain she was more successful, achieving 8 Top-10 hits, her most successful being "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Kids In America," both peaking at #2.
Kim Wilde's father Marty Wilde had some chart success in the UK in the late '50s and early '60s with cover versions of American hits such as "A Teenager In Love" and "Rubber Ball
." Kim started out as a backing vocalist for her father on live dates. She signed a recording deal in 1980 with Micky Most's RAK label and first hit the charts with "Kids In America," one of a succession of songs written by her brother Ricky and produced by him and Marty. She is now better known in Britain as a TV gardening expert.
Kim Wilde said of her cover on the BBC website, "We had feedback from the writers, who were absolutely delighted with it. But I never actually had any contact with HER (Diana Ross). I did hear thirdhand that they were not too impressed, but the writers were, and that means more to me than anything."
The working title for this song was "Pay Back."
Aretha Franklin covered this for her 2014 album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. In addition to singing throughout, the Queen of Soul also plays piano on her version.