Frederick Douglass Housing Project in Detroit
In Detroit in 1958, Florence Ballard, a junior high school student living in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, met Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who were two members of a Detroit singing group known as the Primes. Ballard sang, as did Paul Williams' girlfriend Betty McGlown, so Milton Jenkins, the Primes's manager, decided to create a sister group to be called the Primettes. Ballard recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who recruited classmate Diana Ross. Mentored and funded by Jenkins, the Primettes began by performing hit songs of artists such as Ray Charles and the Drifters at sock hops, social clubs and talent shows around the Detroit area. Receiving additional guidance from group friend and established songwriter Jesse Greer, the quartet quickly earned a local fan following. The girls crafted an age-appropriate style that was inspired by the collegiate dress of popular doo-wop group Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers; and, for the most part, Ballard, Ross and Wilson performed equal leads on songs. Within a few months, guitarist Marvin Tarplin was added to the Primettes' lineup— a move that helped distinguish the group from Detroit's many other aspiring acts by allowing the girls to sing live instead of lip-synching.
After winning a prestigious local talent contest, the Primettes' sights were set on making a record. In hopes of getting the group signed to the local upstart Motown label, in 1960 Ross asked an old neighbor, Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson, to help the group land an audition for Motown executive Berry Gordy, who had already proven himself a capable songwriter. Robinson liked "the girls" (as they were then known around Motown) and agreed to help, but he liked their guitarist even more; with the Primettes' permission he hired Tarplin, who became the guitarist for the Miracles. Robinson arranged for the Primettes to audition a cappella for Gordy—but Gordy, feeling the girls too young and inexperienced to be recording artists, encouraged them to return when they had graduated from high school. Undaunted, later that year the Primettes recorded a single for Lu Pine Records, a label created just for them, titled "Tears of Sorrow", which was backed with "Pretty Baby". The single failed to find an audience, however. Shortly thereafter, McGlown became engaged and left the group. Local girl Barbara Martin was McGlown's prompt replacement.
Determined to leave an impression on Gordy and join the stable of rising Motown stars, the Primettes frequented his Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio every day after school. Eventually, they convinced Gordy to allow them to contribute hand claps and background vocals for the songs of other Motown artists including Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. In January 1961, Gordy finally relented and agreed to sign the girls to his label – but under the condition that they change the name of their group. The Primes had by this time combined with Otis Williams & the Distants and would soon sign to Motown as the Temptations. Gordy gave Ballard a list of names to choose from that included suggestions such as "the Darleens", "the Sweet Ps", "the Melodees", "the Royaltones" and "the Jewelettes". Ballard chose "the Supremes", a name that Ross initially disliked as she felt it too masculine. Nevertheless, on January 15 the group signed with Motown as the Supremes. In the spring of 1962, Martin left the group to start a family. Thus, the newly named Supremes continued as a trio.
Between 1961 and 1963, the Supremes released six singles, none of which charted in the Top 40 positions of the Billboard Hot 100. Jokingly referred to as the "no-hit Supremes" around Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. offices, the group attempted to compensate for their lack of hits by taking on any work available at the studio, including providing hand claps and singing backup for Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and the Temptations. During these years, all three members took turns singing lead: Wilson favored soft ballads, Ballard favored soulful, hard-driving songs, and Ross favored mainstream pop songs. Most of their early material was written and produced by Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson. In December 1963, the single "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
"Lovelight" was the first of many Supremes songs written by the Motown songwriting and production team known as Holland–Dozier–Holland. In late 1963, Berry Gordy chose Diane Ross — who began going by "Diana" in 1965—as the official lead singer of the group. Ballard and Wilson were periodically given solos on Supremes albums, and Ballard continued to sing her solo number, "People", in concert for the next two years.
In the spring of 1964, the Supremes recorded the single "Where Did Our Love Go". The song was originally intended by Holland-Dozier-Holland for the Marvelettes, who rejected it. Although the Supremes disliked the song, the producers coerced them into recording it. In August 1964, while the Supremes toured as part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, "Where Did Our Love Go" reached number one on the US pop charts, much to the surprise and delight of the group. It was also their first song to appear on the UK pop charts, where it reached number three.
"Where Did Our Love Go" was followed by four consecutive US number-one hits: "Baby Love" (which was also a number-one hit in the UK), "Come See About Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again". "Baby Love" was nominated for the 1965 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.
The Supremes deliberately embraced a more glamorous image than previous black performers. Much of this was accomplished at the behest of Motown chief Berry Gordy and Maxine Powell, who ran Motown's in-house finishing school and Artist Development department. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ross sang in a thin, calm voice, and her vocal styling was matched by having all three women embellish their femininity instead of imitate the qualities of male groups. Eschewing plain appearances and basic dance routines, the Supremes appeared onstage in detailed make-up and high-fashion gowns and wigs, and performed graceful choreography created by Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins. Powell told the group to "be prepared to perform before kings and queens." Gordy wanted the Supremes, like all of his performers, to be equally appealing to black and white audiences, and he sought to erase the image of black performers as being unrefined or lacking class.
Public magazines such as Time and The Detroit News commented on the Supremes' polished presentation. Time called the Supremes "the pride of Detroit" and described them as "three thrushes who have a touch of gospel and sweet lyrics like 'I'm standing at the crossroads of love'." Arnold S. Hirsch of The Detroit News said about the Supremes: "they don't scream or wail incoherently. An adult can understand nine out of every 10 words they sing. And, most astounding, melody can be clearly detected in every song." In addition, unlike most American vocal groups, the group members became easily identifiable by their fans, thanks partially to the cover of their album, More Hits by the Supremes, which each member was pictured separately on the front, with her signature above it.
By 1965, the Supremes were international stars. They toured the world, becoming almost as popular abroad as they were in the US. Almost immediately after their initial number-one hits, they recorded songs for motion picture soundtracks, appeared in the 1965 film Beach Ball, and endorsed dozens of products, at one point having their own brand of bread. By the end of 1966, their number-one hits included "I Hear a Symphony", "You Can't Hurry Love" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On". That year the group also released The Supremes A' Go-Go, which on October 22 became the first album by an all-female group to reach number one on the US Billboard 200, knocking the Beatles' Revolver out of the top spot.
Because the Supremes were popular with white audiences as well as with black ones, Gordy had the group cater to its middle American audience with performances at renowned supper clubs such as the Copacabana in New York. Broadway and pop standards were incorporated into their repertoire alongside their own hit songs. As a result, the Supremes became one of the first black musical acts to achieve complete and sustained crossover success. Black rock and roll musicians of the 1950s had seen many of their original hit tunes covered by white musicians, with these covers usually achieving more fame and sales success than the originals. The Supremes' success, however, counteracted this trend. Featuring three group members who were marketed for their individual personalities (a move unprecedented at the time) and Diana Ross's pop-friendly voice, the Supremes broke down racial barriers with rock and roll songs underpinned by R&B stylings. The group became extremely popular both domestically and abroad, becoming one of the first black musical acts to appear regularly on television programs such as Hullabaloo, The Hollywood Palace, The Della Reese Show, and, most notably, The Ed Sullivan Show, on which they made 17 appearances. The Supremes' cross-cultural success effectively paved the way for the mainstream success of contemporaneous label mates such as the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5.
Problems within the group and within Motown Records' stable of performers led to tension among the members of the Supremes. Many of the other Motown performers felt that Berry Gordy was lavishing too much attention upon the group and upon Ross, in particular. In early 1967, the name of the act was officially changed briefly to "the Supremes with Diana Ross" before changing again to "Diana Ross & the Supremes" by mid-summer. The Miracles had become "Smokey Robinson & the Miracles" two years prior. The fall of 1967 saw Martha & the Vandellas become "Martha Reeves & the Vandellas". Having learned that Ross would receive top billing, David Ruffin lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have the Temptations renamed as "David Ruffin & the Temptations", although Gordy maintained that because they would be providing two acts, a lead singer and a group, Motown could demand more money for live bookings.
The Supremes' name change fueled already present rumors of a solo career for Ross and contributed to the professional and personal dismantling of the group. In fact, Gordy intended to replace Ross with Barbara Randolph as early as the fall of 1966, but changed his mind and instead kept Ross in the group for several more years. Gordy's caution may have been sparked by an incident in early 1966 as the group prepared to make their second appearance at the Copacabana. Angered by erratic behavior from Florence Ballard, Gordy intended to replace her with Marlene Barrow, a member of the Motown in-house singing group the Andantes. However, when club management heard of this change, they threatened to cancel the group's appearance if Ballard was replaced, as they saw Ballard's banter with her group mates as a major part of their act's success.
As Ross became the focal point of the Supremes, Ballard felt pushed aside in the group. Depression ensued, and Ballard began to drink excessively, gaining weight until she could no longer comfortably wear many of her stage outfits. The friendship, and later the working relationship, between Ross and Ballard became strained. During this turbulent period, Ballard relied heavily upon the advice of group mate Mary Wilson, with whom she had maintained a close friendship. Wilson, while outwardly demure and neutral in hopes of keeping the group stable, privately advised Ballard that Ross and Gordy were eager to oust Ballard. Although the Supremes scored two number-one hits during the first quarter of 1967, "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" and "The Happening", the group as a unit began to disintegrate.
By 1967, Ballard would not show up for recording dates, or would arrive at shows too inebriated to perform. For some early 1967 shows, she was replaced by Marlene Barrow. Looking for a more permanent replacement, Gordy once again thought of Barbara Randolph, possibly believing that Randolph could be groomed as lead singer for the group once it was decided to take Ross solo. However, Ross did not receive Randolph well. In April 1967, Gordy then contacted Cindy Birdsong, a member of Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles who superficially resembled Ballard, with plans to bring her in as Ballard's replacement. He made his plans clear to Ballard and her group mates at a mid-April meeting, and Birdsong was brought in to begin rehearsals. Gordy did not fire Ballard outright at that time, asking Ballard instead to quit on her own.
Birdsong first appeared with the Supremes in Ballard's place at a benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl on April 29, 1967. Following the performance, Gordy quickly learned that Birdsong was still contractually committed to the Blue Belles when that group's lawyers filed an injunction against him. In May, Ballard returned for what she believed was a probationary period, although in reality it was a stopgap measure until Gordy was able to buy out Birdsong's contract. During May and June, knowing that she was one step away from being dismissed, Ballard made an attempt to toe the line, slimming down and showing up to commitments on time and sober. Despite this, Birdsong was secretly traveling with the Supremes, studying their routines.
On June 29, 1967 the group returned to the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas billed as "the Supremes with Diana Ross", the first time in which Ross was billed separately from the group. One month later, Gordy renamed the group "Diana Ross & the Supremes," putting Ross's name ahead of the group.
The first two days of the Flamingo engagement went by smoothly. On July 1, when reporting for makeup and wardrobe before their first show of the evening, Ballard discovered an extra set of gowns and costumes that had been brought along for Cindy Birdsong. Angered, Ballard performed the first concert of the night inebriated, leading to an embarrassing on-stage incident in which her stomach was revealed when she purposely thrust it forward during a dance routine. Enraged, Gordy ordered her back to Detroit and permanently dismissed her from the group. Birdsong officially assumed her place during the second July 1 show.
Ballard's release from Motown was made final on February 22, 1968, when she received a one-time payment of US$139,804.94 in royalties and earnings. She attempted a solo career with ABC Records, and was forced to formally reject a solo contract offered by Motown as part of her settlement. Ballard's two 1968 singles failed to chart and her solo album was shelved. In 1971, Ballard sued Motown for $8.7 million, claiming that Gordy and Diana Ross had conspired to force her out of the group; the judge ruled in favor of Motown. Ballard eventually sank into poverty and died abruptly on February 22, 1976 from coronary thrombosis at the age of 32. At the time of her death, she had begun to make financial and personal strides and was planning to reinvigorate her solo career.
Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in early 1968 after a dispute with the label over royalties and profit sharing. The quality of Motown's output (and Diana Ross & the Supremes' records in particular) began to falter as a result. From "Reflections" in 1967 to "The Weight" in 1969, only six out of the eleven released singles reached the Top 20, and only one of those, 1968's "Love Child", made it to number one. Due to the tension within the group and stringent touring schedules, neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong appear on many of these singles; they were replaced on these recordings by session singers such as the Andantes. The changes within the group and their decreasing sales were signs of changes within the music industry. The gospel-based soul of female performers such as Aretha Franklin had eclipsed the Supremes' pop-based sound, which had by now evolved to include more middle-of-the-road material. In a cultural climate now influenced more than ever by countercultural movements such as the Black Panther Party, the Supremes found themselves attacked for not being "black enough", and lost ground in the black music market.
In mid-1968, Motown initiated a number of high-profile collaborations for the Supremes with their old colleagues, the Temptations. Besides the fact that both groups had come up together, the pairings made financial sense: the Supremes had a mostly white fanbase, while the Temptations a mostly black fanbase. By 1969, the label began plans for a Diana Ross solo career. A number of candidates—most notably Syreeta Wright—were considered to replace Ross. After seeing 24-year-old Jean Terrell perform with her brother Ernie in Florida, Berry Gordy decided on Ross' replacement. Terrell was signed to Motown and began recording the first post-Ross Supremes songs with Wilson and Birdsong during the day, while Wilson and Birdsong toured with Ross at night. At the same time, Ross began to make her first solo recordings. In November 1969, Ross' solo career was publicly announced.
"Someday We'll Be Together" was recorded with the intent of releasing it as the first solo single for Diana Ross. Desiring a final Supremes number-one record, Gordy instead had the song released as a Diana Ross & the Supremes single, despite the fact that neither Wilson nor Birdsong sang on the record. "Someday We'll Be Together" hit number one on the American pop charts, becoming not only the Supremes' 12th and final number-one hit, but also the final number-one hit of the 1960s. This single also would mark the Supremes' final television appearance together with Ross, performing on The Ed Sullivan Show on December 21, 1969. The Supremes without Ross made their final appearance altogether on Ed Sullivan on February 15, 1970.
The Supremes in the 1970s
Diana Ross & the Supremes gave their final performance on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. At the final performance, the replacement for Diana Ross, Jean Terrell, was introduced. According to Mary Wilson, after this performance, Berry Gordy wanted to replace Terrell with Syreeta Wright. Wilson refused, leading to Gordy stating that he was washing his hands of the group thereafter. This claim is also made by Mark Ribowsky. After the Frontier Hotel performance, Ross officially began her career as a solo performer. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong continued working with Jean Terrell on the first post-Ross Supremes album, Right On.
The Terrell-led Supremes—now rebranded as "the Supremes;" known unofficially at first as "the New Supremes", and in later years informally called "The '70s Supremes"—scored hits including "Up the Ladder to the Roof" (US number 10, UK number 6), "Stoned Love" (US number 7, UK number 3) and "Nathan Jones" (US number 16, UK number 5), all of which were produced by Frank Wilson. These three singles were also R&B Top Ten hits, with "Stoned Love" becoming their last No.1 R&B hit in December 1970. Songwriting/production team Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson produced another Top 20 hit for the group, a Supremes/Four Tops duet version of Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep – Mountain High".
In 1972, the Supremes had their last Top 20 hit single release, "Floy Joy", written and produced by Smokey Robinson, followed by the final US Top 40 hit for the Jean Terrell-led version of the group, "Automatically Sunshine" (US number 37, UK number 10). "Automatically Sunshine" later became the group's final top 10 single in the UK. On both "Floy Joy" and "Sunshine" Terrell shared lead with Mary Wilson. Motown, by then moving from Detroit to Los Angeles to break into motion pictures, put only limited effort into promoting the Supremes' new material, and their popularity and sales began to wane. Cindy Birdsong left the group in April 1972, after recording the Floy Joy album, to start a family; her replacement was Lynda Laurence, a former member of Stevie Wonder's backup group, Third Generation (a predecessor to Wonderlove). Jimmy Webb was hired to produce the group's next LP, The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb, but the album and its only single "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" failed to make an impact on the Billboard pop chart, with the single charting at number 85.
In early 1973, Laurence prevailed upon her old mentor Stevie Wonder to write and produce a hit for the Supremes, but the resulting "Bad Weather" peaked at number 87 on the US pop charts and number 37 in the UK. Laurence can be heard briefly, shouting several times at the end of the song (the only recording on which Laurence is heard). Laurence left to start a family; her replacement: a returning Cindy Birdsong.
Dismayed by this poor-performing record and the lack of promotional support from Motown, Jean Terrell left the group and was replaced by Scherrie Payne, the sister of Invictus Records recording artist Freda Payne.
Between the 1973 departures of Laurence and Terrell and the first Supremes single with Scherrie Payne, "He's My Man", a disco single on which Payne and Wilson shared lead vocal, Motown was slow in producing contracts for Payne and the returning Birdsong. Before the release of the album in 1975, the Supremes remained a popular live act, and continued touring overseas, particularly in the UK and Japan. The group's new recordings were not as successful as their earlier releases, although "He's My Man" from the album The Supremes was a popular disco hit in 1975. In 1976, Birdsong, dissatisfied with the management of the Supremes (handled at the time by Mary Wilson's then-husband Pedro Ferrer), left again and was replaced by Susaye Greene, another former member of Wonderlove.
This final version of the Supremes released two albums, both of which reunited the Supremes with Holland-Dozier-Holland: High Energy, which includes Birdsong on all of the tracks, and Mary, Scherrie & Susaye. During that year, the Supremes released "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking", their final Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
On June 12, 1977, the Supremes performed their farewell concert at the Drury Lane Theater in London and disbanded.