The most successful female group of all time the legendary Supremes started out as a quartet known as the Primettes. In 1959, two 15-year-olds, Florence Ballard of Northwestern High School and Mary Wilson of Northeastern High School, met at a talent show. Mary sang Frankie Lymon songs like “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” while Flo belted out “Ave Maria.” Local manager Milton Jenkins, who had a doo wop group called the Primes (see THE TEMPTATIONS), wanted a sister group to accompany the Primes for stage performances, and he asked Flo to put together such an act. She remembered Mary. The two of them then brought in 16-year-old Betty Travis while Primes member Paul Williams recommended a 15-year-old from Detroit’s Brewster Housing project, Diane Ross of Cass Technical High School. Jenkins christened them the Primettes after Diane was given permission by her parents to join, and the quartet started doing club dates.
Travis was yanked from the Primettes by her parents, who wanted her to pay more attention to her studies. Then Barbara Martin joined, only to exit shortly after – along with Florence – under the same parental conditions. Mary and Diane worked as a duo until Florence and Barbara improved their grades and rejoined.
The group’s influences ranged from THE MCGUIRE SISTERS to FRANKIE LYMON AND THE TEENAGERS, and unlike most black groups of the day, they were not largely influenced by gospel music.
Florence, Mary, and Diane could all sing lead; Florence’s voice was considered the best and most powerful.
In 1960 they met Diane’s neighbor William “Smokey” Robinson and auditioned for him in the basement of the home of his girlfriend Claudette Rogers (later his wife and an original member of THE MIRACLES) in hopes of getting to Motown’s Berry Gordy, Jr. That audition turned into a dead end for the group, but they managed to try out for Gordy later on, singing THE DRIFTERS’ “There Goes My Baby.” He told them to return when they finished high school.
Undaunted, the foursome began camping out in Motown’s Grand Boulevard office reception room, but no one took any special notice. They continued doing local talent shows and were spotted by Richard Morris, who brought them to Lupine owner/producer Bob West. Bob recorded two sides on the Primettes, “Pretty Baby” with Mary on lead and “Tears of Sorrow” featuring Diane. Released in 1960, the Lupine single went nowhere, and soon the girls were hanging around Motown again, doing occasional hand claps on Marvin Gaye’s early sides and singing some backups for blues artist Mabel John.
In January 1961 Gordy finally signed the quartet but required they change their name. The girl who formed the group, Florence, was also the one to name it the Supremes, which Mary and Diane initially disliked, but Gordy approved. By now, Diane had upscaled herself to Diana, which was what her birth certificate incorrectly read.
Their first single, issued on Tamla in April 1961, was the undistinguished “I Want a Guy,” and the second was an R&B dance tune called “Buttered Popcorn” with Florence on lead. Both releases failed.
Their next three sides barely touched the bottom of the Hot 100. In fact, by the middle of 1962 the Supremes were doing so badly Diana took a job in the cafeteria of Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit and later in the year Barbara left to get married, leaving the group a trio.
In the fall of 1963 came the best of their early releases, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining,” (#23) but by the spring of 1964 the “no-hit Supremes,” as they were called by their hit-making stablemates, had seen eight of their Tamla/Motown singles come and go without a single one making it to the top 20.
It took a Marvelettes reject to jumpstart the Supremes’ career. Holland, Dozier, and Holland brought their new song “Where Did Our Love Go” to the Supremes after Gladys Horton, the Marvelettes lead, rejected it with the comment that she “wouldn’t sing that junk.” Gladys told Diana she passed on it, which may explain why the Supremes didn’t even like the recording when it was finished on April 8, 1964.
Nonetheless, by August “Where Did Our Love Go” was at number one Pop and R&B, number three in the U.K., and number 19 in Australia. In a matter of weeks the group went from no billing on a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars show (which included THE SHIRELLES and Gene Pitney) to top billing.
Diana was now doing all the lead vocals, which did not always sit well with Florence.
More Holland/Dozier/Holland magic followed. “Baby Love,” issued in September 1964, also went to number one Pop, R&B, and in the U.K. and to number 38 in Australia. With “Baby Love,” the Supremes became the first all-girl group to reach number one in England.
“Come See about Me,” released in October, also reached number one, and the Supremes became the first American group to have three number ones from the same LP.
With “Stop! In the Name of Love,” the Supremes became the first group to have four number ones in a row on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also rose to number two R&B and number seven in England, where the girls spent the “Stop” chart run thrilling the British fans on the historic Motown Revue tour through Europe. The group developed their now familiar hand motions (resembling a traffic cop stopping oncoming cars) for “Stop! In the Name of Love” in the men’s room of a London TV studio with the help of Berry Gordy and the Temptations’ Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin prior to a live appearance.
On June 12, 1965, “Back in My Arms Again” became the girls’ fifth million-selling single, their fifth number one, and the fifth mega-hit in a row from the pens of Holland, Dozier, and Holland.
The Supremes were not only competing head-on with the British invasion, they were accomplishing the greater feat of gaining superstar status in the realm of the pop establishment. The groundswell picking up strength when they appeared as head-liners in New York’s famed Copacabana nightclub on July 29, 1965.
That same month, “Nothing But Heartaches” was issued and broke the string of number ones, reaching only number 11 Pop (#6 R&B). But it was a short-lived decline; “I Hear a Symphony” reached number one on November 20th.
“My World Is Empty Without You” (#5) and “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” (#9) kept the hot Supremes in the top 10 in early 1966. Then they returned to number one with “You Can’t Hurry Love” (#1 Pop, #3 U.K., September 10, 1966).
A new string of number ones started. The hard-edged side of the Supremes surfaced with one of their best records, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (#1 Pop, #8 U.K., November 19, 1966), followed by “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” (#1 Pop, #17 U.K., March 11, 1967) and “The Happening” (#1 Pop, #6 U.K., May 13, 1967).
“The Happening” was the last of 10 chart toppers produced and written by Holland/Dozier/Holland for the trio. They left Motown to form their own labels, called Hot Wax and Invictus.
By that time the friction between Ballard and Ross had taken its toll on Florence and she missed two shows in New Orleanes and Montreal. During July, part way through their performance stay at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Florence was fired by Gordy and replaced by Cindy Birdsong of the Blue-Belles.
With Ballard gone, Gordy took the opportunity to rename the trio Diana Ross and the Supremes. Though Diana was gaining stature on her way to a solo career, the new lineup was not nearly as popular saleswise as the old. Over the next two years Motown issued 12 singles and only one, the powerful message song “Love Child,” hit number one (November 30, 1968).
Their first two singles as the new trio, “Reflections” (#2) and “In and Out of Love” (#9), were carryovers from the H/D/H days.
The group did several good remakes with the Temptations, including “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (#2, originally by Madeline Bell), “I’ll Try Something New” (#25, the Miracles), and “The Weight” (#46, the Band).
Their final record together provided for a series of lasts. “Someday We’ll Be Together,” issued in October 1969, became the last of the group’s 12 number one records (#13 U.K.), on December 27, 1969, which also made it the last number one of the turbulent ‘60s. It was the trio’s last single together, and they performed it in the last of 20 appearances of Ed Sullivan’s show. Additionally, it was the last song they sang together when they appeared at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas on January 14, 1970. The, on stage, Diana dramatically introduced her replacement, Jean Terrell (the sister of boxer Ernie Terrell), and an era was over.
The song that pulled together all these elements was not, as many believe, written to be Diana’s swan song as a Supreme. It was written and recorded in 1960 by Johnny Bristol. Jackie Beavers, and Harvey Fuqua. Johnny and Jackie sang it and Harvey produced it on his Tri Phi label, which was bought out by Gordy with Bristol coming over as a writer.
In the late ‘60s Bristol dug out a tape copy and showed it to Gordy, who immediately recognized its possibilities for the Supremes. Ironically, it was not the Supremes who sang it on the hit record. If the label had been accurate it would have read “Diana Ross and the Waters.” Julia and Maxine Waters, two pro back up vocalists, recorded it with the added depth of Johnny Bristol’s male tones.
To keep pace with their singles popularity over the years, Motown recorded the Supremes on a series of concept LPs. Some of the many were A Bit of Liverpool (featuring recordings of British bands’ songs); The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop; We Remember Sam Cooke; The Supremes at The Copa; The Supremes A-Go-Go; The Supremes Sing Disney; The Supremes Sing Motown; and The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart.
On March 7, 1970, the Jean Terrell – led Supremes hit the Billboard charts with “Up the Ladder to the Roof” (#10) and proved the name still had power even without Diana Ross. In fact, their Right On LP with Terrell did better (#25) than the double live farewell LP with Ross (#46).
Their third single as the new Supremes, the Frank Wilson-produced “Stoned Love,” was a million seller in 1970, and the number seven Pop hit became the eighth number one R&B charter under the Supremes’ name.
The group did two LPs with the Four Tops in the early ‘70s and hit with a remake of the Ike and Tina Turner 1966 single “River Deep, Mountain High” (#14 Pop, #7 R&B, #11 U.K.).
In June 1972 Cindy Birdsong left for home and family and was replaced by Lynda Lawrence.
A succession of replacements for Lawrence included Sherrie Payne (Freda’s sister), Cindy again, and Susaye Greene.
Mary Wilson, left the group in June,1977 and the group disbanded. Karen Jackson was a backup singer to Mary Wilson in the 1970’s & 1980’s. Wilson’s autobiography “Dreamgirl” was released in 1986.
Their last Pop chart single was “You’re My Driving Wheel” (#85, 1976), and the group soon disbanded.
Florence Ballard, after leaving the group in 1967, did two singles for ABC and then spent several years fighting Motown in a lawsuit over her dismissal. She lost the suit and spent some time on welfare while trying to support her three children. On February 21, 1976, an overweight and despondent Florence Ballard died of a heart attack at the Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit at the age of 32.
In complete contrast, the driving, aggressive Diana Ross realized her every dream and then some as a superstar performer and actress of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Her 41 Hot 100 hits included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (#1, 1970), Michael Masser’s “Touch Me in the Morning” (#1, 1973), “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (theme from the film Mahogany, which she starred in), “Love Hangover” (#1, 1976), “Upside Down” (#1, 1980), “It’s My Turn” (#9, 1980), “Endless Love” (#1, 1981), and Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (#7, 1981). Her movie career included roles in Lady Sings the Blues and The Wiz.
Mary Wilson later went on to form her own group called Mary Wilson and the Supremes, withKaren Jackson and Karen Ragland. She lost her right to use the name sometime after.
In May 1983, she, Diana and Cindy reunited for Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV show.
In 1984 Mary wrote her story, titled Dream Girl: My Life as a Supreme.
In 1988 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The number one female group scored 18 Hot 100 hits as the Supremes, nine as Diana Ross and the Supremes, three as Diana Ross and the Supremes and Temptations, 12 as the Supremes (after Diana), and two as the Supremes and the Four Tops (also after Diana). Obviously, the whole was always greater than it parts to their fans, and the group sounded as top-notch at the end as they did when the hits started.
– Jay Warner