With 12 #1 pop singles, numerous gold recordings, sold-out concerts, and regular television appearances, the Supremes were not only the most commercially successful female group of the '60s but among the top 5 pop/rock/soul acts of that decade. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard comprised Motown's flagship group, Berry Gordy Jr.'s black pop music crossover group that paved the way from rock radio hits and package bus tours to Las Vegas showrooms and Royal Command Performances. At the height of the civil rights movement, they were also embraced by the world as symbols of black achievement and black womanhood. Fronted by Diana Ross during their peak years, they epitomized Holland-Dozier-Holland's classic Motown sound and the label's sophisticated style. Unlike other so-called girl groups, the Supremes had a mature, glamorous demeanor that appealed equally to teens and adults. Beautiful, musically versatile, and unique, the original Supremes were America's sweethearts, setting standards and records that no group has yet equaled.
Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard met while each was living in Detroit's Brewster housing project. They began singing together in their teens and in their early years were a quartet, abetted by Betty McGlown and then Barbara Martin. Ballard was the most enthusiastic about pursuing a music career. While still in high school, she and the others became friendly with members of the Primes, a male vocal trio that incuded founding Temptations Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. That group's manager formed the three girls, along with Williams' girlfriend, McGlown, into a "sister" group and dubbed them the Primettes. Of the three, Ballard, whose soulful style was closer to Aretha Franklin's than Ross', was originally considered the lead singer, although Ross and Wilson both sang lead. They became known locally, and through Ross came to know Smokey Robinson, who arranged their first audition for Gordy. Not yet out of high school, the Primettes were deemed too young to be signed, but they continued to hang around Hitsville, where they met other performers and contributed to the occasional background vocal to records by other artists, including Mary Wells. In the meantime, they cut a single record for another local label, Lupine. Finally, in January 1961, Gordy signed the group to Motown and suggested that they change their name. Ballard suggested the Supremes.
Gordy groomed all his groups but paid special attention to the Supremes. Years later both Ross and Wilson, like several other Motown acts, would claim that Motown PR exaggerated their alleged impoverished upbringings and state that they had come to the label with their own coordinated stage costumes and choreography (masterminded by Temptation Paul Williams). The girls received instruction in dance, etiquette, and singing and were closely chaperoned. Although rumors of a romance between Gordy and Ross have endured over the years, neither specifically confirmed or denied them until Gordy revealed in his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved, that Ross' eldest daughter, Rhonda, was his. Gordy was especially protective of the group and provided them with support not always offered to all his other acts.
Despite the attention, the group released nine singles that were either moderately successful (such as "Let Me Go the Right Way" and "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes") or flops before the Holland-Dozier-Holland team hit on the dramatic, seductive formula that showcased Ross' distinctive vocal style. Their 10th release, "Where Did Our Love Go," became their first #1 hit in summer 1964, selling over 2 million copies and starting a streak hat resulted in two more chart-topping singles before year's end: "Baby Love" and "Come See About Me."
The Supremes' big singles of 1965 were "Stop! In The Name of Love" (#1 pop, #2 R&B), "Back In My Arms Again" (#1 pop and R&B), "and "I Hear a Symphony" (#1 pop, #2 R&B). "You Can't Hurry Love" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" were #1 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1966. "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" (#1 pop and R&B), "The Happening" (#1 pop, #12 R&B) and "Reflections" (#2 pop, #4 R&B) hit in 1967. During that period the group averaged at least one national television appearance or major concert a week. Not only were the Supremes regular guests on such popular shows as Shindig and Hullabaloo, but on mainstream programs, such as Ed Sullivan's, The Tonight Show, The Hollywood Palace, and countless other variety programs where they acquitted themselves in performances with show-business legends like Pearl Bailey and the Andrews Sisters. Early on, Gordy decided that the group's major television performances would feature their latest hit and a Broadway show tune or standard. They soon became steady headliners at top Vegas venues and supperclubs around the world, including the Copacabana and London's Talk of the Town, and other top Motown acts followed suit. They recorded in several foreign languages and drew huge audiences wherever they appeared. They were also important symbols of black success. As such, they were often seen at Democratic political fund raisers, for President Lyndon Johnson, among others, and were specially invited to attend the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Although the individual group members insisted they were a team, there was no denying that the public saw Ross as the star. Gordy, who had set his sights on moving Motown to L.A. and becoming a movie mogul, laid plans for Ross' eventual solo career. In 1967 "Reflections" was the first single credited to Diana Ross and the Supremes. By then, years of relentless touring and recording had taken their toll. Although both Ross and Wilson always credited Ballard with having founded the group, both later revealed in their respective autobiographies that Ballard's unpredictability, mood swings, and excessive drinking were threatening the group's future. In their and Gordy's defense, Ballard had missed several concert dates and became careless about her appearance and performance. Further, she was embittered by the attention being lavished on Ross, and finally in 1967 either quit or was asked to leave the group.
Although until recently Ballard was portrayed as a victim of Gordy and Ross' ambitions, her story was more complicated. She left Motown and turned management of her career over to her husband, whose sole experience in the area consisted of being Gordy's chauffer. Contrary to popular misconception, Ballard did not leave Motown penniless; rather, she received approximately $160,000 but was cheated out of it by her own attorney (who was later disbarred). She recorded an album for ABC that, to date, has not been released, and her two singles releases ("It Doesn't Matter How I Say It" b/w "Goin' Out of My Head" and "Love Ain't Love" b/w "Forever Faithful," both in 1968) failed to chart.
Within a few short years Ballard had three daughters, an unstable marriage, and was suffering from depression, alcoholism, and myriad health problems, including high blood pressure. She lost her home and for a while was separated from her husband and receiving aid for dependent children. Despite a few public appearances, including one that was part of President Richard Nixon's inaugural festivities, she basically gave up singing. Nine years after leaving Motown, she died of cardiac arrest in Detroit at 32. Both Ross and Wilson attended the funeral, presided over by Aretha Franklin's father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Among her pallbearers were the Four Tops.
Ballard was replaced by a member of Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, Cindy Birdson. By that point, Holland-Dozier-Holland had left Motown, and while the Supremes continued to have hits with material recorded before the production team's departure, there were signs that in the wake of Aretha Franklin and the rise of soul, their smooth sophistication was becoming passé. "Love Child" (#1 pop, #2 R&B), an uncharacteristically bold song about illegitimacy, was the Supremes' biggest hit of 1968. They continued in the same vein with another slice of ghetto life, "I'm Livin' in Shame" (#10 pop, #8 R&B, 1969). These records were also significant for being the first on which Ross sang with anonymous background singer rather than Birdson and Wilson. Others included the relatively less popular "The Composer" and "No Matter What Sign You Are." Their other big hits were group duets with the Temptations, with whom they costarred in two highly rated television specials, "T.C.B." (1968) and "G.I.T. on Broadway" (1969). These spun off hit albums and a string of popular singles, including "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" and "I'll Try Something New."
By early 1969, Ross' future departure was widely rumored, and that November Motown issued the official press release. Speculation as to who would replace her focused on Syreeta Wright, but Gordy gave the spot to Jean Terrell, boxer Ernie Terrell's sister, to whom he'd signed to a solo contract earlier. The year ended with "Someday We'll Be Together" (#1 pop and R&B), a record that featured only one Supreme, Ross. In January 1970 Ross made her farewell appearance at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. The event was documented on the live album Farewell. Though Ross went on as a hugely successful solo act [see her entry] her initial efforts were bested on the charts by the so-called "new" Supremes' first releases. Terrell was a stronger, earthier singer, and 1970 brought two Frank Wilson-produced hits: "Up the Ladder to the Roof" (#10 pop, #5 R&B) and "Stoned Love" (#7 pop, #1 R&B). Along with the Four Tops, this new lineup recorded three albums and hit with a powerful version of "River Deep—Mountain High" (#14 pop, #7 R&B, 1970). The progressive psychedelic blues "Nathan Jones" (#16 pop, #5 R&B) was considered their best effort of 1972.
By then the Supremes were not the only Motown act to suffer from the company's lack of support. Unlike early Motown artists, however, the newer Supremes, including Terrell, bristled at Gordy's authority and early on (Wilson claims as early as January 1970), he lost interest in the group. Through a series of producers, among them Jimmy Webb and Stevie Wonder (1973's "Bad Weather") and personnel changes that left Wilson the only original and consistent member, the group struggled against Motown's, and eventually the public's indifference. Interestingly, the latter versions of the group didn't suffer from a lack of talent: Lynda Laurence and Susaye Greene had both been members of Stevie Wonder's group Wonderlove; Greene was a proven songwriter who would later cowrite "I Cant' Help It" for Michael Jackson's Thriller. Scherrie Payne, sister of Freda, had sung with Holland-Dozier-Holland 's group Glass House and was considered a technically gifted vocalist. In 1976 the Greene-Wilson-Payne lineup released the Supremes' last Top 40 single, "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking." Wilson, who became the group's leader, decided to pursue a solo career and the last version of the Supremes gave their final farewell performance in London in 1977. Payne and Greene continued briefly as a duo. Birdsong worked as a secretary at Motown, then attempted a solo career. She has since become intensely religious. Terrell and Laurence both retired to marry. They, along with Payne, have performed together in recent years as "Supremes." Rumors that the hit Broadway play Dreamgirls was based on the Supremes' story were confirmed with the 1986 publication of Mary Wilson's best-selling autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme (cowritten with Argus Juilliard and Patricia Romanowski). Aside from Ross, Wilson remains the best known ex-Supreme, and she also authored a sequel recounting the latter-day Supremes, her abusive marriage, and ongoing legal disputes with Motown, Supreme Faith (with Romanowski) in 1990.
The first attempt at a Supremes reunion of Ross, Wilson, and Birdson, occurred at the taping of Motown 25 in 1983 and ended in embarrassment when Ross pushed Wilson's microphone away from her face. Though the segment was not aired, it was widely reported and seemed to confirm the old image of Ross as the pushy leader. Despite the author's protests to the contrary, Wilson's depiction of Ross further damaged whatever relationship the two might have had.
In 1988, when the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ross declined to attend, leaving Wilson and Ballard's youngest daughter, Lisa, to accept on behalf of the group. Although Wilson's solo records have not been successful, she continues to perform around the world. In January 1991 Wilson was injured and the youngest of her three children, Pedro Ferrer, was killed in a car accident. In the wake of that accident, she and Ross reconciled. Wilson continues to perform around the world to good reviews; she is also pursuing a degree at New York University.
The Supremes were front-page news again in the spring of 2000, when Ross announced what would become known as the Supremes Return to Love Tour. To the disappointment of fans and critics alike, Ross chose to tour with Payne and Laurence—two Supremes who had not joined the group until after her departure and with whom she had never worked before—after Wilson and Birdsong declined to join her. Though accounts of the negotiations differ in their details, Ross stood to earn an estimated $20 million for the tour, but she and/or her representatives refused to pay Wilson and Birdsong more than $3 million each. Clearly underestimating the public's affection for Wilson and Birdsong and its desire to see a real reunion, Ross forged on with a pretour campaign that included a VH1 Divas tribute to her, an hour on Oprah, and an interview with Barbara Walters in which she described Wilson as "vindictive" and "angry." While ticket sales were brisk in some cities, most venues did not even sell half their seats, and the tour was cancelled midway through. Ross was savaged in the media for what some critics flatly termed egomania. Ironically, the tour's failure reminded anyone who might have forgotten that the Supremes were first, foremost, and always a group of three whose collective magic could not be eclipsed by any individual, not even Ross.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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