The Supremes were a very successful Motown all-female singing group active from 1959 until 1977, performing at various times doo-wop, pop, soul, Broadway showtunes, psychedelia, and disco.
One of Motown's signature acts, The Supremes were the most successful African-American musical act of the 1960s, recording twelve American number-one hits between 1964 and 1969. Many of these singles were written and produced by Motown's main songwriting and production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The crossover success of the Supremes during the mid-1960s paved the way for future black soul and R&B acts to gain mainstream audiences both in the United States and overseas.
Founded in Detroit, Michigan in 1959, The Supremes began as a quartet called The Primettes. Founding members Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown, all from the Brewster-Douglas public housing project in Detroit, were the sister act to The Primes (later The Temptations). In 1960, Barbara Martin replaced McGlown, and the group signed with Motown in 1961 as The Supremes. Martin left at the end of 1961, and Ross, Ballard, and Wilson carried on as a trio. After they achieved success in the mid-1960s with Ross as the lead singer, Motown president Berry Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross & the Supremes in 1967, and replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. Ross left the group for a successful solo career in 1970, and was replaced by Jean Terrell. After 1972, the lineup of the Supremes changed frequently, with Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Greene all becoming members before the group ended its eighteen-year existence in 1977.
In 1958, Florence Ballard—a junior high school student in the Detroit housing projects—met and became acquainted with Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, two members of a Detroit male singing group known as The Primes. Since Ballard herself also sang, the Primes' manager Milton Jenkins asked Florence in early 1959 to create a sister group called The Primettes. Ballard recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who recruited classmate Diane Ross; Jenkins added Paul Williams' girlfriend Betty McGlown to complete the lineup. The Primettes soon began performing at record hops, social clubs, and talent shows around the Detroit area.
One of the girls' goals was to get signed to the then-new local Motown record label. They auditioned a number of times for label head Berry Gordy, who turned them down based on his feeling that the girls were too young and lacked experience. Undaunted, The Primettes made a single for the Lupine label in 1960, "Tears of Sorrow," backed with "Pretty Baby," which failed to find an audience. During that same year, McGlown left the group to concentrate on her school studies and was replaced by Barbara Martin.
In January 1961, Gordy finally relented and decided to sign the group to Motown on the condition that they change their name (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; she chose The Supremes, which both Wilson and Ross disliked at first, thinking it too masculine. However, Gordy liked it, and the name stuck. The Supremes signed with Motown on January 15, 1961. That fall Martin left to start a family and the group continued as a trio.
Between 1961 and 1963, the Supremes released eight singles, all of which missed the US Top 40. Jokingly referred to as the "no-hit Supremes" around Motown's "Hitsville U.S.A." offices, the girls tried to make up for their lack of a bonafide hit by taking on any chore that was available at the studio, including performing hand claps and singing backup for Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. During these early years, all three members took turns singing lead on various songs—Mary Wilson favoring the ballads, Florence Ballard the more soulful and up-tempo songs, and Diane Ross the more mainstream pop numbers. Most of their early material was written and produced by either Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson.
In December 1963, the Supremes finally scored their first US Top 40 hit, "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," which charted at number 23 on the Billboard pop chart. "Lovelight" was the first of many Supremes songs written by the Motown songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. A few months later, Berry Gordy made Diane Ross, now going by Diana, the sole lead singer of the group, because he felt her higher register would help the group cross over to white audiences. 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.
The cover to The Supremes' 1964 LP Where Did Our Love Go. From left to right: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross.
In the spring of 1964, the Supremes recorded a single entitled "Where Did Our Love Go." The song was originally intended by Holland-Dozier-Holland for The Marvelettes, who rejected it. Although the Supremes did not like the idea of recording a second-hand song, they didn't feel they had a choice, given their track record. In August 1964, while traveling as a part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars tour, "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 reach the UK pop charts, going to number three.
"Where Did Our Love Go" was followed by four more US number-one hits: "Baby Love" (also a number-one hit in the United Kingdom), "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 Rhythm & Blues Recording, and "Stop! In the Name of Love" was nominated for the 1966 Grammy for Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Group Vocal Performance. After 1965, the Supremes' singles were less uniformly massive, though they still charted in the Top 10 on a regular basis. The combination of Holland-Dozier-Holland's songwriting and production, Ross' lead vocals, and Wilson and Ballard's background vocals made for a winning combination.
Unlike their predecessors, the Supremes became the first black female performers to embrace a more feminine image. 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. Also, unlike many of her contemporaries, Diana Ross sang in a thin, calm voice, and her vocal styling was matched by having the girls embellish their own femininity instead of imitating the qualities of male groups. Instead of the plain appearances and basic dance routines, the Supremes' on-stage appearance featured high-fashion gowns and wigs, detailed makeup, and graceful choreography created by Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins. Gordy wanted the Supremes, like all of his performers, to be equally appealing to black and white audiences, and he also sought to erase the image of black performers as being unrefined or lacking class.
By 1965, the Supremes were international stars. They toured the globe, becoming almost as popular abroad as they were in America. Almost immediately after their first number-one hits, they recorded songs for motion picture soundtracks, appeared in the 1965 film Beach Ball, and endorsed dozens of products, even at one point having their own brand of bread. By the end of 1966, their number-one hits also included "I Hear a Symphony,""You Can't Hurry Love", and "You Keep Me Hangin' On," and their 1966 album The Supremes A' Go-Go became the first album by a female group to make it to number-one on the US album chart.
Popular with white audiences as well as black audiences, Gordy had the Supremes cater to their middle American fan base, grooming them for 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 were arguably the first black musical act – male or female – to become a complete crossover success since the days of Cab Calloway. The black rock and roll musicians of the 1950s saw many of their hit tunes covered by white musicians, with the covers achieving more fame and sales success than the originals. Partially because of Diana Ross’ pop-friendly voice, The Supremes became hugely popular with international mainstream audiences. The group broke down many racial barriers, becoming one of the first black musical acts to appear regularly on television programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo, The Hollywood Palace, and The Della Reese Show, and achieving the crossover success Berry Gordy had been pushing for, paving the way for the mainstream success of labelmates such as The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Motown's 1970s pop sensation The Jackson 5.
Personnel problems within the group and within Motown Records' stable of performers led to tension among the Supremes. Many of the other Motown performers, particularly Martha Reeves of the Vandellas, felt that Berry Gordy was lavishing too much attention upon The Supremes and upon Diana Ross in particular. A resulting romantic relationship between Gordy and Ross further complicated matters, creating a divide between Ross and the other Supremes. As Ross became the focal point of the group, Florence Ballard began to feel pushed aside in the group she had started. Depression caused Ballard to start drinking excessively, and she gained weight until she no longer could wear many of her outfits. The friendship, and later the working relationship, between Ross and Ballard became strained. 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.
In late 1966, rumors began circulating that Motown would be renaming the group Diana Ross & the Supremes, a change which was officially announced in early 1967. After learning that Ross would begin receiving top billing, a number of the lead singers of other Motown acts demanded the same treatment: The Miracles had already become Smokey Robinson & the Miracles two years prior, Martha & the Vandellas became Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, and David Ruffin unsuccessfully lobbied to have the Temptations renamed as David Ruffin & the Temptations. Although Gordy maintained that the name change was done so that Motown could demand more money for live bookings (because they would be providing two acts – a lead singer and a group – instead of just one), the name change sparked rumors of a possible Ross solo career, and helped to tear the group completely apart.
By 1967, Ballard would sometimes arrive at shows too drunk to perform, or not show at all. Often during live shows in 1967, she would be replaced by Marlene Barrow of Motown's in house backing group, The Andantes. In April 1967, Gordy contacted Cindy Birdsong, a member of Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles who superficially resembled Ballard, and began plans to bring her in as Ballard's replacement. Birdsong and Ballard alternated performance dates for the next few months, as Birdsong was still committed to the Blue-Belles through the end of June. Birdsong's first appearance with The Supremes was an April 29, 1967 engagement at the Hollywood Bowl.
June 28, 1967 marked the group's first appearance as Diana Ross & the Supremes at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. After the first show, Ballard was permanently fired from the Supremes, and Birdsong officially assumed her place during the second show. A month later, Motown released "Reflections," a number-two US Billboard hit single the first single to feature the new group name. Diana Ross & the Supremes Greatest Hits, a number-one album in both the US and the UK, became the first album to do so that August.
Florence Ballard's release from Motown was made final on February 22, 1968, with Ballard receiving a one-time payment of $139,804.94 in royalties and earnings. Attempting a solo career with ABC Records, 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 on February 22, 1976 at the age of thirty-two.
Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in late 1967 after a dispute with the label over royalties and profit sharing, and the quality of Motown's output (and Diana Ross & the Supremes' records in particular) began to falter. From the release of "Reflections" in 1967 to the release of "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. Because of 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 like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight of The Pips had eclipsed the Supremes' pop-based sound. 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 as a result.
In mid-1968, Motown began 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 also made financial sense, since the Supremes had a mostly white fanbase, and the Temptations a mostly black fanbase. Among the joint projects were two studio LPs (Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations, featuring the number-two hit single "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me", and Together, a joint tour, and two NBC television specials, TCB (aired December 9, 1968) and G.I.T. on Broadway (aired November 12, 1969).
Exit Diana Ross
By 1969, Motown had begun plans for a Diana Ross solo career. A number of candidates, most notably Syreeta Wright, were considered to replace Ross as the lead singer of The Supremes. After seeing 24-year-old Jean Terrell performing with her brother Ernie in Florida, Berry Gordy decided that she would be 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, Diana Ross began making her first solo recordings. One of them, "Someday We'll Be Together", was set to be her first solo single; Gordy instead had the song released as the final Diana Ross & the Supremes single. In November 1969, Ross' solo career was officially announced. The next month, "Someday We'll Be Together" hit number-one on the American pop charts, becoming not only the Supremes' final number-one hit, but also the final number-one hit of the 1960s.
The cover of The Supremes' 70s Anthology shows Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong, and Mary Wilson in 1970. A photograph similar to this one was used on the cover for the Supremes' 1970 LP New Ways But Love Stays.
Diana Ross & The Supremes gave their final performance together on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas; a live recording of the performance was released later that year in a double-LP box set entitled Farewell. After the Frontier Hotel performance, Ross officially began her career as a solo performer. Over the next twelve years, Ross would record six number-one Billboard pop hits on her own, among them songs like "Touch Me in the Morning," "Love Hangover", and "Upside Down." In addition, Motown successfully helped Ross break into acting, featuring her as the star of three Motown-produced feature films: Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Wiz.
As Ross prepared her debut solo album, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong continued working with Jean Terrell on the first post-Ross Supremes album, Right On. The Terrell-led Supremes –known unofficially at first as "The New Supremes," and in later years informally called the "70's Supremes" – had a few hits of their own, including the US and UK Top Twenty hits "Up the Ladder to the Roof" (US #10, UK #6), "Stoned Love" (US #7, UK #3), and "Nathan Jones" (US #16, UK #5), all of which were produced by Frank Wilson. Each of these three singles were also R&B Top Ten hits, with "Stoned Love" going to number-one on the R&B charts. 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." Many music critics proclaimed the "New Supremes" as a "blacker" act than the Ross-led group, if not quite as unique.
In 1972, The Supremes had their last Top 20 hit single release, "Floy Joy," written and produced by former Miracle, Smokey Robinson. Motown, which by then was 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, Wonderlove. Successful producer Jimmy Webb was brought in 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 "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" charting at number 85. In late 1973, Laurence prevailed upon her old mentor Stevie Wonder to write and produce a hit for the Supremes, but the resulting "Bad Weather" only made it to number 87 on the US pop charts and number 37 in the UK. At this time, Jean Terrell decided to leave the group and was replaced by Scherrie Payne, sister of Freda Payne. Almost immediately afterward, Laurence left for the same reason as Birdsong – to start a family – and, ironically, was replaced by Birdsong.
Between the departures of Terrell and Laurence in 1973 and the first Scherrie Payne-lead Supremes single, "He's My Man", in 1975, Motown was slow in producing contracts for Payne and the returning Birdsong. However, in time, Wilson, Payne, and Birdsong continued to record and perform with little success, although "He's My Man," from the album The Supremes reached number-one on the US disco chart 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, High Energy and Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, both of which reunited the Supremes with Holland-Dozier-Holland. During that same year, the Supremes released "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking," their final Top 40 hit. On Sunday June 12, 1977, supported by singer/songwriter Billy Ocean, the Supremes performed their farewell concert at the Drury Lane Theatre in London and officially disbanded.
After their disbanding and announcements that all three members (particularly Wilson) would begin solo careers, there were soon rumors that Payne and Greene had auditioned several candidates for Wilson's replacement, including Joyce Vincent Wilson formerly of Tony Orlando and Dawn. In 1979, Wilson had her first solo album, Mary Wilson, released by Motown, which included a single entitled "Red Hot." That same year, Payne and Greene released an album entitled Partners under the names "Scherrie & Susaye." Scherrie Payne released a single titled "Fly"; the single's b-side, "When I Looked At Your Face," was recorded for the Jodi Foster film Moi Fleur Bleu.
On December 20, 1981, the Tony Award-winning musical Dreamgirls opened at the Imperial Theater on Broadway and ran for 1522 performances. The musical was loosely based on the history of the Supremes, following the story of The Dreams, an all-girl singing trio from Chicago who become music superstars. Mary Wilson loved the musical, but Diana Ross was reportedly angered by it and refused to see it. A motion picture adaptation of Dreamgirls is being produced for DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures for release in December 2006. The feature-film version of Dreamgirls is being written and directed by Bill Condon, and will star Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Eddie Murphy, and Danny Glover.
Two of the Supremes have written autobiographies. Mary Wilson's autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme was published in 1986, and in 1990, she published the follow-up Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together. In January 2000, the two books were released together as Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme, and included an afterword; Dreamgirl remains one of the best-selling rock-and-roll books of all time. Diana Ross had her own autobiography, Secrets of a Sparrow: Memoirs, published in 1993. Unlike Wilson's books, her book received poor reviews and disappointing sales.
Although the Supremes were twice nominated for a Grammy Award – for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording ("Baby Love," 1965) and Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Group Vocal Performance ("Stop! In the Name of Love", 1966) – they never won an award in competition. Three of their songs – "Where Did Our Love Go" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (both 1999) and "Stop! In the Name of Love" (2001) – have been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, and entered into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998. In addition, the Supremes songs "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "You Can't Hurry Love" are among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The black girl groups that have succeeded them in popular music, including The Three Degrees, The Emotions, The Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, TLC, and Destiny's Child, have shown the influence that the Supremes and Motown had during the 1960s. The Supremes were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.
Fan interest made the idea of a Supremes reunion tour a very profitable one during the 1980s. Diana Ross briefly reunited with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong to perform "Someday We'll Be Together" on the "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever" television special, broadcast on NBC on May 16, 1983. Their performance ended abruptly when Ross pushed Wilson onstage during the performance, and later pulled the microphone from Wilson's face while she was inviting Berry Gordy, sitting in the theatre balcony, to come down and join everyone onstage. Although these altercations were deleted from the broadcast edit of the special, they were widely reported and reinforced Ross' image as an egotistical, manipulative diva.
In 1986, Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne, and Lynda Laurence began touring the US, Europe and Japan as FLOS: Former Ladies of the Supremes. Terrell, Laurence, and Scherrie Payne recorded a cover of "Stoned Love" for British producer Ian Levine in 1989. When Terrell decided to quit to return to the family business, in 1992, new member Sundray Tucker stepped in and the trio continued performing and recording. Their first release was an album for the U.S. based Altair label titled Supreme Voices, which was recorded in the U.S. for producer Rick Gianatos. The ladies then hooked up with British producer Steve Weaver, which resulted in the album Supremely Yours on the Reflections label. Supremely Yours included a cover of The Supremes' 1971 single "Touch." FLOS then embarked on the project of re-recording virtually all of the Supremes' hits, and these tracks appear on numerous "greatest hits" compilations, billed as being by the Supremes, around the world. Payne and Laurence continue to tour under the FLOS name with third member Freddi Poole, who joined the group in 1996. FLOS celebrated their twentieth anniversary in 2006.
In 2000, plans were made for Ross to join Wilson and Birdsong for a planned Diana Ross & the Supremes: Return to Love tour. However, Wilson and Birdsong both passed on the idea, because, while the promoters offered Ross $15 million to perform, Wilson was offered $3 million and Birdsong less than $1 million. Eventually, the Return to Love tour went on as scheduled, but with Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence joining Ross, although neither of them were in the group at the same time as Ross. The public and music critics were disappointed by both this and the shows' high ticket prices, and, after playing only half of the dates on the itinerary, the tour was cancelled.
To view a performance of Diana Ross & The Supremes and David Ruffin & The Temptations, click here Supremes & Tempts