The Supremes

The story of the Supremes can be traced back as far as 1958, when a trio of singers called The Primes, consisting of Eddie Kendricks, Kell Osborne and Paul Williams, were starting to make a name for themselves in the Detroit area and decided they needed a female version to go along with their act. Their manager, Milton Jenkins, was dating the sister of 15-year-old Florence Ballard, who, because of her clear and powerful voice, was picked to head the new group. Florence recruited her friend, Mary Wilson and after several auditions, added Betty McGlown. Finally, Paul Williams recommended a young lady named Diane Ross. (Her birth certificate says Diana, but friends and family called her Diane throughout her teens).

In the summer of 1960, the group, now calling themselves The Primettes, wrangled an audition at Berry Gordy's Hitsville studio in Detroit through Diana's former next door neighbor, Smokey Robinson, Even though Gordy liked the teenagers, he told them that they were still too young and to come back again when they finished high school. Undaunted, the four began persistently showing up at Motown's headquarters after school, but they were mostly ignored by Berry Gordy. Eventually, Betty decided that she was going to get married and dropped out of the group. Several others auditioned, including Flo and Mary's friend Jackie Burkes, but Diana ruled her out. Finally they settled on Barbara Martin, who was only a fair singer, but was well liked by Diana.

The Primettes recorded two tracks for a single release on the Lu-Pine label, but lack of promotion and distribution ended any hope of having a hit record. A few months later, the girls were still hanging around the Motown studio when the call went out for some back-up singers to accompany Mabel John. The four sang their part well enough to get Gordy's attention and from then on, it seemed like they were always available for background vocals, hand claps or whatever else was needed. Soon, they were being paid a small salary, $2.50 a week, to be divided between the four of them. By the Fall of 1960, The Primettes were given the opportunity to record some material themselves, including a song called "After All", which was never released. In December they tried again, this time with "I Want A Guy". Berry Gordy was still undecided about the group, but with the encouragement of Smokey Robinson, the girls were signed to the label in January 1961. One of the first things Gordy wanted changed was the quartet's name and gave them a list from which to choose one. Florence chose The Supremes. Diana hated it, saying it sounded too male, but the other three over ruled her and the name stuck.

The Supremes' first Motown recordings were much more girl-group-oriented than their later hits. Additionally, not all of them featured Diana Ross on lead vocals. Florence Ballard, considered to have as good or better voice, also sang lead. Berry Gordy steadily groomed the group's sound, but in 1962, after all had graduated high school, Barbara Martin announced that she was pregnant and was asked to leave. From that point on, the remaining members agreed to go on as a trio. The girls recorded a number of songs for Motown, but they either flopped completely or went un-released. By the time they finally did get their first Top 40 hit, "When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," (#23) in late 1963, Diana Ross had taken over the lead singing for good.

Because the group still did not have a major hit record, they were not respected by their Motown colleagues who called them 'The no-hit Supremes.' Their first eight singles hardly cracked Billboard's Hot 100. In June 1964, the girls considered themselves lucky to be invited to appear on Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars tour. They would do anything to perform in front of an audience. As a warm up act for other groups, The Supremes watched and learned from the wings when the more seasoned artists performed on stage. Right before the tour, their latest single was released. "Where Did Our Love Go" was a song with a thumping beat and a hypnotic 'baby, baby' in the background. Even though The Supremes did not particularly like this song, after so many unsuccessful records, they were ready to try anything. Much to their delight, while they were touring the country, "Where Did Our Love Go" started to climb the Billboard Hot 100, eventually making The Supremes the major act on the Caravan Of Stars.

Diana Ross was not the most talented female singer at Motown, Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight in particular had superior talents. What she did have, however, was the most pure Pop appeal. Berry Gordy's patience and attention paid off in mid-1964, when "Where Did Our Love Go" climbed all the way to number one. Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, it established the prototype for their run of five consecutive number one hits in 1964-65, including "Baby Love", "Stop! In the Name of Love", "Come See About Me" and "Back in My Arms Again". Ross' cooing vocals would front The Supremes' decorative backup vocals, put over on television and live performance with highly stylized choreography and visual style. Holland-Dozier-Holland would write and produce all of The Supremes' hits through the end of 1967.

Through the medium of television, The Supremes were able to win over a large American audience. From December 1964 up to the end of 1969 they were regular guests on the popular Ed Sullivan Show. In 1968, TCB (Taking Care of Business) was aired, a TV special of Diana Ross & The Supremes with Motown's other top act, The Temptations. The soundtrack of the show made it to the top of Billboard's album charts within a couple of weeks. The Supremes also appeared on an episode of the Tarzan TV series and hosted their own Hollywood Palace show. They continued their co-operation with The Temptations with the TV special On Broadway. Trouble had started to brew however, with Diana receiving special attention from Berry Gordy, and Mary and Flo being pushed more and more into the background. In October, 1965, Ballard failed to show up for a recording session for "My World Is Empty Without You" and her voice was replaced electronically replaced on the track by Motown singer Marlene Barrow.

Not all of the Supremes' singles went to number one, but they usually did well, and were written and produced with enough variety, but enough of a signature sound, to ensure continual interest. The chart-topping, 1966 hit "You Keep Me Hangin' On" became one of the best of their mid-period hits. On stage the three girls were identically dressed, their hairdos matched perfectly and they performed a fitting choreography. The Supremes were a threesome in front of an audience, but three totally different characters when the curtain had closed. During the show, Diana would introduce Florence as 'the quiet one.' In reality, however, Florence was anything but quiet. Everyone knew her roaring laugh and her loud voice. She had the style and capacity to be a solo singer, but was down-to-earth about the group's success. Mary Wilson was the one with the twinkle in her eyes and a voice made of velvet. She never pictured herself as a solo singer. Her dream was to use singing to leave the Detroit ghetto and become famous. With The Supremes, her dream came true. Stuck between the ambitious characters of Florence and Diana, Mary was the stable and consoling element. And finally there was Diana Ross, who was thin, delicate, fragile, emotional, vulnerable, ambitious, and always searching for perfection. She was the girl who would use her only vacation, one week a year, to record an entire album just for fun. She could never get enough. Her perseverance was limitless.

Behind the scenes, problems continued to grow, although these only came to light long after the event. Other Motown stars, most notably Martha Reeves, resented what they perceived as the inordinate attention lavished upon Ross by Berry Gordy, at the expense of other artists on the label. The other Supremes themselves also felt increasingly pushed to the background. Florence Ballard was coping by turning to alcohol and became involved in several blow-ups with Gordy and Diana Ross. On June 29th, 1967, while the trio performed at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Flo was fired for what was deemed increasingly unprofessional behavior. She was replaced by Cindy Birdsong from Patti LaBelle And The Bluebelles.

Although she negotiated a $160,000 settlement from Motown Records, Ballard's lawyers intercepted the check and Florence never got a dime. Eventually separating from her husband, Tommy Chapman, Ballard ended up on welfare, trying to care for her three daughters and living in a two-family flat she shared with her mother on Detroit's west side. Ballard claimed that she was the one who had originally brought the group together when they all lived in Detroit's Brewster Housing Project and that she chose the name that made them famous. She also said she received only a weekly allowance while performing with The Supremes and that she thought the rest was being invested or held for her. Ballard tried to sue Motown for her share of the company's millions, but she never saw the money. She did manage however to sign a solo recording contract with ABC Records and recorded about a dozen songs. Only two of them were released as singles and when both flopped, the company dropped her. Without a hit record behind her, Florence even had trouble getting nightclub work. She was legally bound not to use the name Supremes in any billing.

After Ballard's exit, the group would be billed as Diana Ross And The Supremes, fuelling speculation that Ross was being groomed for a solo career. The trio had a big year in 1967, even incorporating some mild psychedelic influences into a song called "Reflections". Holland-Dozier-Holland, however, had become dissatisfied with the way they were being treated at Motown and left the organization, and the quality of the Supremes' records suffered accordingly, as did the Motown organization as a whole. The Supremes were still superstars, but as a unit they were disintegrating. Berry Gordy centered the group on Diana only and it's been reported that after Florence Ballard left the group, neither Wilson or Birdsong ever sang at all on the group's final string of hits.

By the Summer of 1968, The Supremes were in a slump. Berry Gordy had decided to try to make Diana an all around nightclub performer and had her record an album called "The Supremes Sing and Perform 'Funny Girl'". The effort was a miserable failure, selling less than 77,000 copies. An attempt to re-enter the Pop market called "Some Things You Never Get Used To" also came up short and it was decided that the time was right for her to split from the group. Diana Ross And The Supremes released their last song, "Someday We'll Be Together" on October 9th, 1969 and performed their final concert at the frontier hotel in Las Vegas on January 14th, 1970. Jean Terrell was brought in to replace Diana and the group continued to record with Motown. Some of the early Ross-less singles were fine records and the group reached #10 on Billboard's Hot 100 in March 1970 with "Up The Ladder To The Roof", which sold over 800,000 copies. They followed with "Stoned Love" (#7 in 1970), the Supremes-Four Tops duet "River Deep - Mountain High" (#14 in 1971) and "Nathan Jones" (#16 in 1971). The trio continued to perform and record into the seventies, with founding member Mary Wilson keeping the name and the music alive through a series of further personnel changes. Cindy Birdsong married in May, 1970 and retired from the group when she became pregnant in 1972. She was replaced by Lynda Tucker Lawrence. More hits followed with "Floy Joy" (#16 in 1972), "Automatically Sunshine" (#37 in 1972) and "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking" (#40 in 1976).

Diana continued as a solo artist and the songwriting team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were assigned to write songs for her. Her first release, "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)" stalled at #20, but her next song, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", turned her fortunes around. It was a updated, slow-building version of an earlier Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terell hit, which Diana took to number one in the US and received a Grammy nomination. Despite constant rumors that she was romantically involved with Berry Gordy, Diana Ross married Robert Silberstein on January 20th, 1971. She was a 26-year-old super-star, he was a 25-year-old, White, Jewish, Hollywood public relations man. The pair were wed in a Las Vegas wedding chapel at 1 o'clock in the morning with few relatives and no friends in attendance. On August 14th, the same year, Diana gave birth to a daughter, Rhonda Suzanne.

After starring in her own TV special, Hollywood seemed like the next logical step for Diana. Negotiations dragged on for a few months, but a deal was finally worked out for her to portray legendary Blues singer Billie Holiday in a film called Lady Sings The Blues. Shooting was to begin in mid October, 1971, but at the last minute, Berry Gordy insisted on a complete re-write which delayed the project until December. The film was completed by the Summer of 1972 and debuted on October 12th. Fans and movie critics loved it, but the Jazz experts said the story took too many liberties with the truth. In January, 1973, Diana was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, but at the ceremony on March 27th she lost to Liza Minelli in Cabaret. On October 29th, 1972, Diana gave birth to her second daughter, Tracee.

On November 12, 1974, shooting began in Chicago for Diana's next film, Mahogany. It was the story of a secretary who became a model and fashion designer, only to give it all up to be with her boyfriend. The movie opened in September, 1975 to poor reviews from the critics. Ticket buyers on the other hand loved it and the movie set box office records for its time, doing over $7 million worth of business in the first two weeks. When Motown released the theme from Mahogany as a single in late 1975, it went straight to number one in the US. In November of that year, Diana gave birth to her third daughter, Chudney Lane.

Over the years, Florence Ballard had rarely been in contact with Mary Wilson or Diana Ross. Even so, when Diana heard that Florence was broke and going to lose her house, she tried to pay off the mortgage, but Flo's husband, Tommy Chapman objected as to how the transaction should take place. Eventually, Flo and Tommy split and she was forced to move. By now she was drinking heavily and her weight had ballooned to nearly 200 pounds. Performing was out of the question. She was offered some low paying day jobs, but declined them. Then, on February 22nd, 1976, Florence Ballard died at the age of 32 after suffering a heart attack. Many Rock historians have reported that she was on welfare when she died, but in fact, that year she had received a settlement of $50,000 from one of her lawyers and had gone off of social assistance. She had even purchased another home and a new car. Those who were in attendance at her funeral reported that when Diana Ross and her entourage came to the service, several people booed her, believing that she had forced Flo out of the group, which led to her downfall. Diana however, later set up a trust fund for Flo's three daughters.

In conjunction with her movie career, Diana was still having success on the music charts and had even climbed onto the Disco bandwagon with "Love Hangover", which topped the Billboard pop chart in the Spring of 1976. She even put together a new nightclub act without the help of Berry Gordy. In the summer of 1976, Diana announced 'I don't want to be married anymore.' By September, divorce proceedings were underway and in March of 1977, were complete. It was a decision that she would later say that she regretted. Her career continued and she returned to her nightclub act and recorded a new album, "Baby, It's Me". In mid-1977, Motown had acquired the movie rights to the Broadway show The Wiz, an adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard Of Oz. Diana was cast in the role of Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Richard Pryor as the Wizard and Lena Horne as the wicked witch. The three month shoot wrapped up in December, but when the film opened in October 1978, it was to mediocre reviews. Box office receipts were small and the movie lost money.

Diana set out on a 28 city tour in 1979 and released a new LP called "The Boss", her first without the assistance of Berry Gordy. Her independence came at a price, as Motown did little to promote the album. For a few months she dated actor Ryan O'Neal, who wanted her to co-star with him in his next film, The Bodyguard. When she decided not to do the movie, Ryan dropped her. Next, Diana became involved in what must be one of the most bizarre pairings ever when she started dating KISS bass player Gene Simmons. The two were together on and off over the next three years, driving an even bigger wedge between her and Berry Gordy.

In 1980, the album, "diana" was released. On the strength of two smash singles, "Upside Down" (#1) and "I'm Coming Out" (#5), it became her most successful solo album to date and was certified Platinum. The end of the year saw yet another top ten hit, "It's My Turn", followed in the Spring of 1981 by a duet with Lionel Richie, "Endless Love", which topped the charts in the US and the UK. Diana's contract with Motown had expired at the end of 1980 and several record companies offered her a huge bonus to sign with them. In March, 1981, she inked a new deal with RCA for a reported twenty million dollars. By September, her first non-Motown album, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" was released, from which the title track and its follow-up, "Mirror, Mirror" both made the top ten. The album went Platinum.

In 1983, Motown executives decided to celebrate the company's 25th anniversary with a TV special, even though they had actually been in business only 24 years. Most of the label's major acts were recruited, with the exception of The Vandellas, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and a few others who had fallen out of favor with Berry Gordy. On March 25th, the show was taped with Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong performing "Someday We'll Be Together", which was ironic, since neither Mary or Cindy sang on the original record. The camera caught Diana and Mary bickering on stage during their performance and the scene had to be cut from the final edit. Motown 25 also featured performances by The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells and Michael Jackson when it aired on NBC-TV on May 16th.

After her divorce in the early '80s, Cindy Birdsong struggled to make ends meet. She took a job at UCLA for a while, then went to work as a staff assistant at Motown Records. She eventually left to resume her singing career. Diana continued to tour the US, earning millions of dollars in the process. Her fourth RCA album, "Swept Away" was produced by Darryl Hall of Hall And Oates in 1984. The collection was certified Gold and contained the US Top Ten hit, "Missing You" and a Top Twenty duet with Julio Iglesias called "All of You". In early 1985, Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees guided her next LP, "Eaten Alive", which although produced "Chain Reaction", a number one single in the UK, flopped completely in the US when it was released in January, 1986. The record buying public seemed to be losing interest in Diana Ross records. As her sales slipped, RCA's promotion efforts were scaled back, causing even further declines. By that Summer, Diana had met and fallen in love with a wealthy European businessman named Arne Naess. They were married on October 23rd in a small, private ceremony. The Diana gave birth to two sons, Ross Arne Naess on October 7th, 1987 and Evan on August 26th, 1988.

In October, 1986, Mary Wilson's book, Dreamgirl - My Life As A Supreme hit bookstore shelves. In it, she dragged up many old arguments with Diana and in the process, ended their friendship. When The Supremes were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in January, 1987, Diana refused to attend because Mary would be there. As Berry Gordy closed in on his 60th birthday, he decided to sell Motown Records to MCA in July, 1988. The sale price was over 60 million dollars. He maintained his television production company, Motown Productions, which went on to produce the hit series Lonesome Dove. With Gordy out of the picture, Diana Ross re-signed with Motown, but her first album for them, "Workin' Overtime", was a failure and none of the singles from it could crack Billboard's Hot 100.

As her new material was no longer selling, a box set collection of Diana's solo efforts and her work with The Supremes was released as "Forever Diana" in October, 1993, followed by "One Woman - The Ultimate Collection", a year later. Diana performed at the Super Bowl half-time show in January, 1996 and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Music Awards that Spring. In May of 1999, Diana released a new CD called "Every Day Is A New Day", but sales were sparse and critics condemned the effort, calling it 'a set of soggy adult-contemporary ballads and would-be inspirational numbers.' In September of that year, she made headlines when she was arrested for an alleged assault of a security officer at a London airport after she was searched with metal detectors. Diana's troubles continued and on Valentine's Day, 2000, she and Arne Naess were divorced after fourteen years of marriage. Later that Spring, a Supremes reunion tour was launched. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong were asked to sing with Diana, but both declined, saying that they felt they weren't being paid enough. The tour went on with Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, two women who sang as Supremes after Diana had left the group in 1969. The public however, would not accept the alternate backup singers and the tour played to more empty seats than fans. Ticket prices from $42.50 to $250. didn't help either. The Supremes performed in twelve cities before the tour was finally canceled in mid July. In a statement to the press, Diana Ross said she was severely disappointed that the promoters had decided to cancel the tour. 'I just don't think that Mary had the vision at all to understand that this was not about money', Diana said. 'I really think it's short-sighted, if you know what I mean. Because five years from now, we won't be able to do this tour.' What could have been a fabulous reunion tour had ended in failure. May of 2002 brought more bad press when Diana voluntarily entered a treatment facility in California to clear up some personal issues. In December of that same year she was cited for drunk driving in Arizona after she was pulled over by the police and had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. She was ordered to serve 48 hours of jail time after pleading no-contest.

Another re-hashed collection of Supremes hits called "The No. 1's" was released in February, 2004, a set that included fifteen hits by The Supremes, eight by Diana Ross, and a remix of "You Keep Me Hangin' On". Diana continued to tour on her own, while Mary Wilson led a new version of The Supremes at live appearances across the US. A release date of January 16th, 2007 was set for a new Diana Ross album called "I Love You". The 14-track collection of covers of romantic songs also had a deluxe edition which contains a DVD with a photo gallery and an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the new album. Diana was also booked for an extensive tour of North America and Europe during April and May. In December of that year, she received a John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Honors Award.

In May 2008, Diana headlined at New York City's Radio City Music Hall's Divas With Heart concert, which also featured Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle. The following month she appeared at the City Stages music festival in Birmingham, AL. She performed at two major events in the UK in July 2008, the famous Liverpool Pops Festival and the National Trust Summer Festival at Petworth House, West Sussex. In June of '09, Diana Ross' recording of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was voted a Legendary Michigan Song. On October 16th and 17th, Diana headlined the annual Dutch concert event, Symphonica in Rosso, in the 34,000-seat Gelredome Stadium, in Arnhem, The Netherlands. She was accompanied by a forty piece orchestra. Both of the two concerts was sold out.

Ross performed a cross-country tour of America in the Summer of 2010. The More Today Than Yesterday: The Greatest Hits Tour was dedicated to her friend Michael Jackson and ran from May 2010 to March 2011. Another series of shows was slated to begin on September 11th, 2011 and yet another was set to kick off on February 11th, 2012. In November of that year, Diana performed in India for billionaire Vladimir Doronin's 50th birthday, earning $500,000 for that one performance. In 2013 she completed a South American tour as well as appearing at several U.S. venues. After a January, 2015 show in Tokyo, Japan, it was confirmed that the now 70-year-old Diana would perform nine shows as apart of a mini-residency at the Venetian in Las Vegas starting in April 2015. On September 9th, she gave a thirty minute performance at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival. In February 2016, Ross resumed her In the Name of Love tour which began in 2013. On 22nd November 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. For 2017, she was booked at The Venetian in Las Vegas through February before heading to the New York Center in April.

Mary Wilson continued to tour, and released two singles on iTunes called "Life's Been Good To Me" and "Darling Mother (Johnnie Mae)" in 2011 and 2013 respectively. In 2015, she issued a new single called "Time To Move On" which reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Dance charts, peaking at #17 on December 26th. She was still making personal appearances across America in 2017.

For more, be sure to read Gary James' interview with Mary Wilson