Rhythm and blues group
The first girl group signed with Motown Records, the Supremes achieved widespread popularity and scored twelve number-one hits. Although the Supremes experienced several changes in their lineup, the group achieved their greatest success with Diana Ross as lead singer and Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard as backing vocalists. According to Black Issues Book Review, the Supremes “heralded the success of other sister-girl groups…connecting with listeners nationwide, regardless of color.”
Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard, were teenagers in Detroit when they formed a quartet called the Primettes in the late 1950s. The young women attempted to audition for Berry Gordy, head of Motown Records, but he considered them too young. So instead, the Primettes recorded—both as a featured group and as back-up singers—for Lupine Records, a local Detroit label. The Primettes continued their efforts to gain a contract with Motown, however. Barbara Martin, the fourth member of the group left in 1961, and the Primettes become a trio. They signed a contract with Motown and changed their name to the Supremes. They released their first album, Meet the Supremes, in 1963.
For the group’s first six singles, either by Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson acted as producer, but none of these early singles performed very well. For their next single, the Supremes, although they reportedly did not like the song, recorded “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.” The song was written and produced by brothers Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, known as Holland-Dozier- Holland.
The Supremes’ first consecutive string of hits were all written and produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. This string began in July of 1964 with “Where Did Our Love Go,” and was followed by “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In The Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again.” With Ross on lead vocals, the Supremes produced a brand of pop/rock that, with a good beat for dancing, complemented by striking melodies and memorable lyrics, captured the attention of American teenagers. Within a few years, the group was also playing the nightclub circuit and singing for more mature audiences.
The fall of 1965 found the Supremes in great demand for television appearances, and the trio was featured on variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, and Red Skelton, in addition to several “Hullabaloo” shows. The glamorous look of the Supremes began to take shape in 1965. On-stage, the girls had previously worn little makeup and knee-length dresses, but they now began wearing their signature wigs, heavy false eyelashes, and glamorous gowns. The Supremes toured the Far East, and upon their return, made their first Las Vegas appearance. By the end of the year, “I Hear a Symphony” was added to their list of chart-topping hits. The “symphony” heard in the background was provided by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
In 1966, still working with Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Supremes began another string of hits that continued into the next year. “My World Is Empty Without You” and “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart,” their first two songs of the year, reached the top ten. Those songs were followed by four straight number ones: “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” and “The Happening.”
At a Glance …
Born Florence Ballard (original member) on June 30, 1943, in Detroit, MI, died February 22, 1976, in Detroit; born Diana Ross (original member) on March 26, 1944, in Detroit; born Mary Wilson (original member) on March 4, 1944, in Detroit; born Barbara Martin (original member), left group, 1961. Born Cindy Birdsong (replaced Ballard, 1967) on December 15, 1939, in Camden, NJ; born Jean Terrell (replaced Ross, 1970) on November 26, c. 1944, in Texas; Also in group; born Scherrie Payne; Lynda Laurence; Susaye Green; Karen Jackson.
Education: (Wilson) New York University, A.A., 2001.
Career: Group formed in Detroit as vocal quartet the Primettes, 1950s; disbanded, 1977.
Awards: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted, 1988; received star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1994.
Motown’s most popular singing group, the trio’s schedule of live appearances had become extremely demanding by mid-1967. In live performances, the group was now being billed as “Diana Ross and the Supremes.” Where the group had once been presented as a unified trio, Ross was now presented as the leader of the Supremes. Wilson and Ballard both felt crushed by this change, and tension arose within the trio.
Florence Ballard, was removed from the Supremes in 1967, and replaced by Cindy Birdsong, who had worked as a backup singer in Patti LaBelle’s group, the Blue Belles. Motown explained Ballard’s departure on exhaustion, saying that the girls’ demanding schedule had taken its toll. In a lawsuit Ballard later accused Motown, as well as present and future Supremes, of forming a conspiracy to oust her from the group. Some saw Ballard as a victim of Berry Gordy’s greed and Diana Ross’s ambition, and others felt that she had brought about her own downfall through her behavior and unrealistic expectations. Ballard was unable to launch a solo career, and she died of cardiac arrest in 1976.
Initially, Motown had promoted the group in such a way as to downplay the individuality of the group’s members—least until the Supremes became a launching pad for Ross’s rise to individual stardom—so most casual fans of the group were probably unaware of the personnel change. With Ross clearly featured as the group’s lead singer, the Supremes achieved two more top pop hits, 1968’s “Love Child” and “Someday We’ll Be Together” in 1969. During the 1968 Christmas season, the Supremes, along with the Temptations, co-hosted Motown’s first television special, T.C.B.: Taking Care of Business. In addition to several albums, this collaboration with the Temptations produced the number-two pop hit, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” which featured the lead vocals by Ross and Eddie Kendricks.
“Reflections,” the first song released by the Ross-Wilson-Birdsong lineup, reached number two, and their next song, “In and Out of Love,” made the top ten. Reflective of Motown’s lack of concern with the group’s individual members, “Reflections” according to Mary Wilson, was recorded when Ballard was still a member of the group. In fact, Wilson’s and Ballard’s vocals were not included on “Love Child” or “Someday We’ll Be Together.”
When Ross decided to leave the group in favor of a solo career, the Supremes held a series of farewell shows at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in January of 1970. Highlights from these performances were recorded for the double-album set, Farewell. In addition to a medley of their mid-1960s hits, Ross led the group through a variety of show tunes and pop songs.
Ross went on to a successful career as a solo artist and film star. The Supremes went through a succession of personnel changes. Ross was replaced by Jean Terrell, who had been discovered in 1968 by Berry Gordy. The Terrell-Wilson-Birdsong edition of the Supremes proved the most popular post-Ross combination, producing such hits as “Stoned Love,” which charted in the top ten in 1970; “Nathan Jones” in 1971, which reached the top twenty; and “Floy Joy” in 1972.
In 1973 Terrell left the group to get married. The Supremes did not release any albums until 1975, when Scherrie Payne joined the group. The Supremes officially disbanded in 1977. However, Wilson toured the United Kingdom the following year, performing with Karen Ragland and Karen Jackson as the Supremes. In 1988 the group, in their Ross-Wilson-Ballard incarnation, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Upon their induction Rolling Stone said of the Hall of Famers: “The Supremes embodied the ’Motown sound’ that kept America dancing throughout the Sixties.” Furthermore, the citation concluded, the Supremes “set a gorgeous new standard for Top Forty pop.”
The announcement that Diana Ross and the Supremes would launch a reunion tour in 2000 was followed
almost immediately by controversy. Due to money squabbles, the “Return to Love” tour did not include original Supreme Mary Wilson or Cindy Birdsong, who had replaced Ballard. Where Ross was offered $20 million to do the tour, Wilson was offered $2 million, and Birdsong was offered less that $1 million. Feeling such offers unfair, Wilson and Birdsong declined. Instead, Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence, who had joined the group after Ross had left the Supremes, were recruited for the tour. The tour was not nearly as successful as it was controversial. At most venues, less than half of the tickets were sold. Gary Bongiovanni, a concert magazine writer, told People Weekly that the public felt the tour “wasn’t a real Supremes reunion.” The tour also suffered from frequent cancellations before it was canceled in July of 2000.
As the Supremes
Meet the Supremes, Motown, 1963.
Where Did Our Love Go, Motown, 1964.
A Bit of Liverpool, Motown, 1964.
Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop, Motown, 1965.
We Remember Sam Cooke, Motown, 1965.
More Hits by the Supremes, Motown, 1965.
Merry Christmas, Motown, 1965.
Supremes at the Copa, Motown, 1965.
I Hear a Symphony, Motown, 1966.
Supremes a Go Go, Motown, 1966.
Supremes Sing Holland, Dozier, Holland, Motown, 1967.
Right On, Motown, 1970
(With the Four Tops) The Magnificent Seven, Motown, 1970
New Ways but Love Stays, Motown, 1970.
(With the Four Tops) The Return of the Magnificent Seven, Motown, 1971.
Touch, Motown, 1971.
(With the Four Tops) Dynamite, Motown, 1971.
Floy Joy, Motown, 1972.
The Supremes, Motown, 1972.
Anthology, Motown, 1974.
The Supremes, Motown, 1975.
High Energy, Motown, 1976.
Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, Motown, 1976.
At Their Best, Motown, 1978.
As Diana Ross and the Supremes
Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart, Motown, 1967.
Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits, Motown, 1967.
Reflection s, Motown, 1968.
Diana Ross and the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” Motown, 1968.
Diana Ross and the Supremes “Live&” at London’s Talk of Town, Motown, 1968.
Diana Ross and the Supremes Join the Temptations, Motown, 1968.
Love Child, Motown, 1968.
(With the Temptations) TCB, Motown, 1968.
Let the Sunshine In, Motown, 1969.
(With the Temptations) Together, Motown, 1969. /L Cream of the Crop, Motown, 1969.
(With the Temptations) On Broadway, Motown, 1969.
Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits, Volume 3, Motown, 1970.
Farewell, Motown, 1970.
Betrock, Alan, Girl Groups: The Story Of A Sound, Delilah Books, 1982.
Bianco, David, Heat Wave: The Motown Fact Book, Pierian Press, 1988.
Contemporary Black Biography Volumes 27, 28. Gale Group, 2001. Contemporary Musicians, Volume 6. Gale Research, 1991.
Hirshey, Gerri, Nowhere To Run, Times Books, 1984.
Turner, Tony, with Barbara Aria, All That Glittered: My Life With The Supremes, Dutton, 1990.
Wilson, Mary, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, St. Martin’s, 1986.
Wilson, Mary, Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, Harper & Row, 1990.
Black Issues Book Review, March 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, January 10, 1992.
Jet, March 28, 1994; July 24, 2000; May 28, 2001.
People Weely, July 17, 2000.
Rolling Stone, November 11, 1988.
Biography Resource Center, Gale Group, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
—David Bianco and Jennifer M. York