Diana Ross and the Supremes

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Diana Ross and the Supremes

Although their time in the spotlight only lasted six years, Diana Ross and the Supremes quickly became the most successful female group in the history of American popular music. During their years of greatest success from 1964 to 1970, the black female trio brought Berry Gordy's fledgling Motown Records to international visibility through a string of successive number one pop hits. With their flashy gowns, coiffed hairdos, stylized choreography, and polished harmonies, the Supremes helped define the Motown sound. Their crossover music reached diverse audiences, acting as a kind of soundtrack for the civil rights movement. Offstage, however, internal conflict often rocked the musical group. In 1970, lead singer Diana Ross left the Supremes to embark on a solo career that would bring her to unprecedented levels of fame in the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s.

While the details of their history are somewhat contentious, the development of the Supremes dates back to Detroit in 1958. Originally named the Primettes, the group was created as a female counterpart to the Primes, a male vocal quartet that would eventually rocket to success as the Temptations. The Primettes consisted of sixteen-yearold Ross, then named Diane; Florence Ballard, who was fifteen at the time; sixteen-year-old Mary Wilson; and eighteen-year-old Betty McGlown. Ballard and Ross alternated lead vocals, while Wilson and McGlown mostly sang backup. In the first year of their existence, the Primettes toured around local venues and sock-hops as the opening act for the Primes. In March 1959, the teenage girls had already recorded their first single, which consisted of two songs, "Tears of Sorrow" and "Pretty Baby." Released on a small-time record label called Lu-Pine, the record found little success or circulation outside the Primettes' hometown of Detroit.

Eventually, however, the Primettes' professional demeanor and skill won them a first-place trophy in the 1960 Detroit/Windsor Freedom Festival talent contest. There, the Primettes were spotted by a talent scout from Tamla Records (a division of the Motown Corporation), and the group managed to secure an audition with the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy. Although the audition failed to catch Gordy's interest, the Primettes soon became regulars at the Motown Studios, spending hours after school learning about the music business and singing backup vocals for known acts. When Betty McGlown left the group to get married, she was quickly replaced by Barbara Martin. The Primettes' diligence paid off in January of 1961 when they were contractually signed to Motown. After some debate, the Primettes were renamed the Supremes.

The Supremes' early beginnings were filled with obstacles. Soon after their first two singles in release failed to catch the public attention, Martin left the group to attend to family life. The Supremes decided to continue on as a trio, eventually touring around the country as the opening act for the Motown Revue. Still without a major hit, the Supremes performed strenuous hours for low pay despite their underage status. Touring the American South at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the young trio witnessed first-hand incidents of racial prejudice.

The turning point for the Supremes arrived in early 1963 when Gordy decided to match the female trio with songwriting team, Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, better known as Holland-Dozier-Holland or H-D-H. Gordy also made the contentious decision to have Ross become the group's lead vocalist. Years later, Gordy's decision proved to be a continuing thorn in the side of Ross's co-Supremes, Wilson and Ballard.

The string of hits that followed the pairing of the Supremes and H-D-H proved to be unprecedented and helped introduce the burgeoning Motown Records to wide and diverse audiences across racial lines. The Supremes' first hit, "Where Did Our Love Go?," exempli-fied the infectious rhythm that was quickly becoming known as the Motown Sound. Sung by Ross in a sultry tone, "Where Did Our Love Go?" reached number one on the pop and R&B charts in July 1964. The Supremes' next two singles, "Baby Love" and "Come See about Me," also reached number one on the pop charts.

The Supremes' first album, Where Did Our Love Go? sold over one million copies and remained on the pop charts for more than a year. After record-breaking U.S. and European tours, the Supremes became the first Motown act to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular variety television show of the era. Surpassed in success only by the Beatles, the Supremes had garnered status as surefire hit-makers. Their new status now meant that black popular music was able to reach audiences across color lines. The group's success also propelled other Motown artists to visibility, boosting the record company's revenue to levels never imagined. While black music had once previously been regarded as "race music" by the entertainment industry, the Supremes' success demanded that styles of black music become integrated into the larger consciousness of American popular music.

As the trio continued to rack up number one hits with songs like "Stop in the Name of Love," internal changes within the group began to threaten their cohesiveness. In January 1966, Ross officially changed her name from Diane to Diana. To enhance their success, the group was subjected to refinement and finishing through Motown's Artist Development Unit. The new clean-cut image of the Supremes would eventually allow them to play sophisticated venues and nightclubs, like New York's Copacabana. As music critic Nelson George claims, these turn of events would "change The Supremes from a diligent, rather juvenile trio into the epitome of upwardly mobile, adult bourgeois charm."

Although each of the Supremes underwent refinement and finishing at Motown, Ross apparently began to show a special knack for audience appeal, charisma, and performing in the spotlight. Around this time, the singer also had begun a romantic affair with Gordy, much to the consternation of Wilson and Ballard. Although their relationship remained a public secret, Gordy would eventually father Diana's first child, Rhonda, in 1971.

When Ballard left the group in 1967, she was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, who had previously been a member of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. As a result of these developments and changes within the group, Gordy decided to change the name of the trio to Diana Ross and the Supremes in order to bring more focus to the attention-grabbing lead singer. By the late 1960s, the group still continued to release chart-topping hits. "Love Child" and "I'm Livin' in Shame" featured lyrics that leaned toward social commentary, reflecting the turbulent changes that marked the era. Moreover, the group began to diversify their interests, starring in Motown's first TV productions and making over twenty-five appearances on popular television shows.

By 1969, however, Ross announced her intentions to leave the Supremes. After having changed the face of popular music over the course of twelve years, the trio played their final historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in December of 1969 and made their final live performance in 1970. Their last single, "Someday We'll Be Together," proved to be a fitting tribute to a group ready to disband.

While the Supremes continued on with Jean Terrell as a new lead singer, they never again reached the level of success they had found with Ross. As a Motown solo act, Ross quickly became the most popular black female in pop and R&B, landing chart hits throughout the 1970s that included "Reach out and Touch Somebody's Hand" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." After marrying publicist Bob Silberstein in 1971, Ross gained new levels of credibility and acceptance through her much-acclaimed film performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), for which she received an Oscar nomination. She also reunited with her Lady Sings the Blues co-star Billy Dee Williams for the romantic film Mahogany (1975). In the early 1970s, Ross and Silberstein had two children, Tracee and Chudney, but divorced in 1976. After taking a critical misstep with her performance in the film musical The Wiz (1978), Ross left the film business in the 1980s.

In 1980, Ross decided to take greater control of her career by ending her contract with Motown Records. Her last record with the company was the platinum-selling Diana, which spawned the hit singles "Upside Down," "I'm Coming Out," and "It's My Turn." As Ross's albums in the 1980s and 1990s became less commercially viable, she married Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess in 1986 and the couple had two children. By the late 1990s, Ross continued to exemplify the penchant for glamour and sophistication that she had demonstrated during her tenure with the Supremes, consistently producing work as a singer and an actress.

Diana Ross & the Supremes have proved to be a lasting cultural force. In 1982, Dreamgirls, a lavish Broadway musical, opened in New York. Starring Jennifer Holiday and conceived by Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line fame, the hit musical was based in large part on the rise and fall of the Supremes. The musical particularly focused on the drama surrounding the group's expulsion of Ballard, who had passed away in 1976. By the late 1990s, the Supremes still held the record for most consecutive number-one hits by a musical group and their legacy formed the basis of hit trios and quartet female musical groups of the 1990s including TLC and En Vogue.

Although they only lasted six years in the limelight, the Supremes managed to leave a lasting impression on U.S. society and culture. The group brought to public attention Diana Ross, the first major international African-American superstar to cross mediums of music, film, and television. The Supremes transformed live performances in R&B music through their emphasis on style, professionalism, and stylized choreography. They also helped to change racial consciousness by being highly visible, successful African-American female performers during a time of civil rights struggles and social upheaval.

—Jason King

Further Reading:

Betrock, Alan. Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound. New York, Delilah, 1982.

George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Tarraborelli, J. Randy. Call Her Miss Ross. New York, Ballantine, 1989.

Wilson, Mary. Dream Girl: My Life as a Supreme. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1986.