Supremes, The Motown’s most successful girl group, led in their heydey by the sweet-voiced Diana Ross. MEMBERSHIP: Diana Ross (b. Detroit, Mich., March 26, 1944), Florence Ballard (b. Detroit, Mich., June 30, 1943; d. there, Feb. 22, 1976), Mary Wilson (b. Greenville, Miss., March 6, 1944), and Barbara Martin. Martin left the group in 1962 and Ballard departed in 1967. Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong (b. Camden, N. ]., Dec, 15, 1939). Later members included Jean Terrell, Lynda Lawrence, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Green.
Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Betty McGlown began singing together while still in high school in 1959 as The Primettes, the companion group to The Primes, whose members Otis Williams and Eddie Kendricks later formed The Temptations. In 1960, Barbara Martin replaced McGlown and the group made their first recording for Lupine Records. They auditioned for Berry Gordy Jr., while still in high school, but he insisted they finish high school. Signed to Tamla Records in January 1961, the group changed their name to The Supremes and recorded two unsuccessful singles for the label before switching to Motown in 1962. Barbara Martin left the group in 1962, and they continued as a trio, working as backup vocalists for other Motown artists until 1964. With Florence Ballard on lead vocals, The Supremes scored their first minor pop hit in 1962 with Smokey Robinson’s “Your Heart Belongs to Me” and were subsequently placed with songwriter-producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland. After Diana Ross supplanted Ballard as lead vocalist, they finally achieved their first major pop and rhythm-and-blues hit with “When Your Lovelight Starts Shining through His Eyes” in late 1963.
In the summer of 1964, The Supremes7 “Where Did Our Love Go” marked their breakthrough and initiated a string of five top pop hits with “Baby Love,” “Come See about Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again.” Only “Come See about Me” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” failed to top the rhythm-and-blues charts. In the spring of 1965, they toured Europe, performing at N.Y.’s Copacabana night club in July Further top pop and R&B hits provided by Holland-Dozier-Holland through the spring of 1967 were “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone.” “I Hear a Symphony” and the psychedelic-sounding “The Happening” became top pop and smash rhythm-and-blues hits, and “Nothing but Heartaches,” “My World Is Empty without You,” and “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” were smash pop and rhythm-and-blues hits.
In 1967, Florence Ballard quit or was forced out of The Supremes, to be replaced by Cindy Birdsong, a former member of Patti Labelle and The Blue Belles. Ballard briefly attempted a solo career on ABC Records and eventually died impoverished of cardiac arrest on Feb. 22, 1976, at the age of 32. The group was subsequently billed as Diana Ross and The Supremes, scoring a pop and rhythm-and-blues smash with another pyschedelic soul song, “Reflections.” After the near-smash pop and major R&B hit “In and Out of Love,” the Holland-Dozier-Holland team left Motown Records. In 1968, Diana Ross and The Supremes scored a top top and smash R&B hit with “Love Child,” one of Motown’s few attempts at socially conscious lyrics, followed by the crossover smash “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” recorded with The Temptations. In 1969, “I’m Livin’ in Shame” became a crossover smash and “ITI Try Something New,” recorded with The Temptations, became a major pop and R&B hit, as did “The Composer.” Diana Ross’s final single with The Supremes, “Someday We’ll Be Together,” was a top crossover hit.
At the beginning of 1970, Diana Ross left The Supremes for a solo career. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong persevered with new member Jean Terrell. Over the next two years, they scored major pop and smash rhythm-and-blues hits with “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” “River Deep-Mountain High” (with The Four Tops), “Nathan Jones,” and “Floy Joy,” with the smash pop and top R&B hit “Stoned Love” intervening. Birdsong left the group in 1972 (replaced by Lynda Lawrence), returned in 1974, and left again in 1976. Terrell left in 1973, replaced by Scherrie Payne, sister of Freda Payne (1970’s pop smash “Band of Gold”). They scored their last major R&B and moderate pop hit with “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking” in the summer of 1976. By late 1976, The Supremes comprised Wilson, Payne, and Susaye Greene. The group essentially disbanded in 1977, although Wilson toured England with two new members in 1978. In 1979, Payne and Greene recorded a duet album and Mary Wilson recorded a solo album for Motown. Wilson subsequently sustained her own career largely in Europe, returning to the American cabaret circuit in the 1990s.
Diana Ross made her solo performing debut in March 1970 and initially worked with songwriter-producers Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. They provided her with the top pop and rhythm-and-blues hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the major crossover hits “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” and “Remember Me.” Ross’s next major pop hit came in 1973 with the top pop and smash R&B hit “Touch Me in the Morning,” cowritten by Michael Masser. In the meantime, she had begun regularly appearing on television and made the movie Lady Sings the Blues, portraying Billie Holiday. The soundtrack album became a best-seller, remaining on the album charts for more than a year.
In 1973, Diana Ross teamed with Marvin Gaye for Diana and Marvin. The album yielded three hits, including the major pop hits “You’re a Special Part of Me” (a rhythm-and-blues smash) and “My Mistake (Was to Love You).” In 1975, Ross starred in the film Mahogany and the movie’s theme (also known as “Do You Know Where You’re Going To”), written by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin, became a top pop and major R&B hit. Her most successful album in years, Diana Ross, produced a top pop and R&B hit with the disco-sounding “Love Hangover” and a major pop and R&B hit with “One Love in My Lifetime.”
In June 1976, Ross brought her Evening with Diana Ross stage show to Broadway, later touring the country with the show and appearing in the first one-woman, prime-time television special in March 1977. After the crossover hit “Gettin’ Ready for Love,” Ross appeared in the film version of the hit play The Wiz with Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, and Richard Pryor. Probably the most expensive all-black film ever made ($20 million), the film was visually spectacular, utilizing stunning costuming, elaborate special effects, and massive production numbers, but, despite a $6 million promotional campaign, it proved a relative failure.
Diana Ross was using producers outside the Motown organization by the late 1970s. The Boss, produced by Richard Perry, included the major crossover hit title song, written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and 1980’s Diana, written and produced by Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, yielded a top crossover hit with “Upside Down” and a crossover smash with “I’m Coming Out.” “It’s My Turn,” from the movie of the same name, became a major crossover hit and, in 1981, her collaboration with Lionel Richie, “Endless Love” (again from the movie with the same title), became a top pop, easy-listening, and rhythm-and-blues hit.
In 1981, Diana Ross switched to RCA Records for a reported $20 million, recording six albums for the label through 1987. Smash rhythm-and-blues and major pop hits through 1985 included a remake of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Muscles” (written and produced by Michael Jackson), “Swept Away” (written and produced by Daryl Hall), and “Missing You” (written and produced by Lionel Richie and dedicated to Marvin Gaye). Her final major R&B hits came with “Telephone,” “Eaten Alive,” and “Dirty Looks.” She scored a top British hit in 1986 with “Chain Reaction,” written and coproduced by Barry Gibb. In 1989, she conducted a world tour and returned to Motown Records, but Berry Gordy Jr., was by then no longer involved with the company. Neither Workin’ Overtime, produced by Niles Rodgers, nor The Force Behind the Power, largely produced by Peter Asher, sold well. In 1993, Villard Books published Diana Ross’s evasive, self-serving autobiography Secrets of a Sparrow.
In December 1981, the musical Dreamgirls, ostensibly based on the career of The Supremes, began a long run on Broadway and later went into repertoire. Although Diana Ross disavowed the show and refused to see it, Mary Wilson endorsed it. In 1983, The Supremes (Ross, Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong) reunited for the 25th-anniversary Motown television special, but tales of Ross’s untoward behavior at the ceremony were confirmed with Wilson’s best-selling book Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1986. Having persevered with regular tours of Europe in the 1980s, Wilson experienced a revitalization of her career with the publication of Dreamgirl. She later wrote the sequel Supreme Faith. From 1986 to 1993, Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne, and Lynda Lawrence toured as The FLOs (Former Ladies of the Supremes). The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Meet The Supremes (1963); Where Did Our Love Go (1965); A Bit of Liverpool (1964); Country, Western and Pop (1965); More Hits (1965); We Remember Sam Cooke (1965); At the Copa (1965); Merry Christmas (1965); I Hear a Symphony (1966); Supremes a Go-Go (1966); Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland (1967); Sing Rodgers and Hart (1967). DIANA ROSS AND THE SUPREMES: Reflections (1968); Love Child (1968); Funny Girl (1968); Live at London’s Talk of the Town (1968); Let the Sunshine In (1969); Cream of the Crop (1969); Farewell (1970); Never-Before-Released Masters (1987). THE SUPREMES AND THE TEMPTATIONS: The Supremes Join The Temptations (1968); T.C.B.(1968); Together (1969); On Broadway (1969). THE SUPREMES AND THE FOUR TOPS: The Magnificent Seven (1970); The Return of The Magnificent Seven (1971); Dynamite (1971). THE SUPREMES (WITHOUT DIANA ROSS): Right On (1970); New Ways, but Love Stays (1970); Touch (1971); Floy Joy (1972); High Energy (1976); Mary, Scherrie and Susaye (1977). MARY WILSON: Mary Wilson (1979). SCHERRIE PAYNE AND SUSAYE GREENE: Partners (1979). DIANA ROSS: Diana Ross (1970); Diana! (1971); Everything Is Everything (1970); Surrender (1971); Lady Sings the Blues (1972); Touch Me in the Morning (1973); The Last Time I Saw Him (1973); Live at Caesar’s Palace (1974); Mahogany (soundtrack; 1975); Diana Ross (1976); An Evening with Diana Ross (1977); Baby, It’s Me (1977); Ross (1978); The Boss (1979); Diana (1980); To Love Again (1981); Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1981); Silk Electric (1982/1990); Ross (1983); Swept Away (1984); Eaten Alive (1985); Red Hot Rhythm and Blues (1987); Workin Overtime (1989); The Force behind the Power (1991); Endless Love (1992); Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings...Jazz and Blues (1993); Musical Memoirs, Forever (1993); Take Me Higher (1995). DIANA ROSS AND MARVIN GAYE: Diana and Marvin (1973). DIANA ROSS AND OTHERS: The Wiz (soundtrack; 1978).
J. R. Taraborrelli, Call Her Miss Ross (Secaucus, N. J., 1989); T. Turner with B. Aria, All That Glittered: My Life with The S.(N.Y., 1990); D. Ross, Secrets of a Sparrow (N.Y., 1993).—Brock Helander