The Supremes booking

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The greatest girl group ever had its origins in the late 1950s in Detroit’s Brewster Projects. At the
beginning the girls formed a quartet and named themselves “The Primettes”, achieving mild success
locally and recording a single for the Lupine record label. They ended up being a trio in 1960 shortly
after they were signed by Detroit-based Motown, a record company founded by Berry Gordy. At
Gordy’s request, the trio formed by Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diane Ross became The
In spite of the support of Motown writers and producers such as ‘Smokey Robinson’ and Gordy
himself, the group spent a few years recording songs that disappeared into oblivion as soon as they
were released. During those early years it was generally accepted that “Flo” Ballard had the strongest,
more soulful voice to lead the group, but Gordy decided that Diane Ross had a more “commercial
sound” and she became the lead singer in most of their recordings. However, his enthusiasm was not
initially shared by other producers and musicians who found Ross’ voice too high-pitched and nasal. In
late 1963 The Supremes were turned over to the in-house production team formed by Lamont Dozier
and brothers Brian Holland and Eddie Holland. From the very beginning the collaboration worked like
magic when their first release, “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” became a top
40 hit nationwide providing the first hint of the girls potential. For the next release, Holland-DozierHolland picked “Where Did Our Love Go,” a song that nobody thought much of. First they tried
recording it with The Marvelettes but the group rejected it. Then they switched to The Supremes with
Mary Wilson in mind to sing the leads but Mary didn’t like the song either. Finally the song was cut with
Ross singing in Wilson’s lower mezzo-soprano register resulting in a sound that was sexy, romantic
and extremely commercial. By pure chance they had stumbled into the right key for Diane Ross and a
unique sound for The Supremes. “Where Did Our Love Go” was up and running as soon as it was
released, an instant million seller for the group. But this was only the beginning of a Cinderella-like
story that would make the girls from Detroit a legendary institution. As The Supremes kept topping the
charts (“Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,”
“Nothing But Heartaches”) their presence was requested on national television,live concerts and even
films. Here another miracle happened when audiences – of all races, social and economic
backgrounds – fell in love with these charming black princesses, impeccably groomed, made up and
dressed in gowns that in time became more and more extravagant. Their individual personalities so
endearing, their harmonies so unique, their movements so graceful, the public just couldn’t get enough
of The Supremes and by 1965 they were the undisputed No. 1 female group in the country competing
with The Beatles for most #1 hits in the charts. Their contribution to the civil rights movement should
not be underestimated; suddenly, they were “the face” of Black America and it was a face of beauty, of
glamour and of unity, an image everyone could identify with.
About this time Diane decided to use the name in her birth certificate which, by a spelling error, had
been entered as “Diana”. This is the year also in which her relationship with ‘Berry Gordy Jr’. becomes
a full fledged love affair although the details are kept away from the press and the fans. The Supremes
continued turning out hits such as “I Hear A Symphony,” “My World Is Empty Without You,” “You Can’t
Hurry Love,” “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” and they were clearly “the sound of young America”
but Gordy had a broader vision for them. Now that he had the kids listening to the group, the next step
was to conquer the adults. The Supremes were the first R & B group to perform at the famed
“Copacabana Night Club” in New York, enchanting audiences with their rendition of old American
standards, songs from Broadway and Hollywood productions and their Motown hits. This was surely a
well calculated gamble which paid off immediately. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard
were now perceived as much more than a rock group. Actually they had become the embodiment of
the American dream and as performers they were now in the same league as Sammy Davis Jr., Frank
Sinatra, Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland. They constantly appeared on television with the greatest
names in show business from Bobby Darin to Ethel Merman, Bob Hope or Bing Crosby. Looking at
their seasoned performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (the new title of “Toast of the Town” (1948)

and other TV shows it is easy to forget that these ladies were barely 20 years old. By 1966 the first
rumors of dissension within the group leaks out. ‘Berry Gordy Jr.’, had made the decision that Diana
Ross would become a solo artist and The Supremes just a showcase for her talents, sort of a
launching pad. This turn of events was not received well by Mary and “Flo” as their own talents
became relegated to background singers for a super star. It should be remembered that The
Supremes owed their sound in recordings to Diana Ross and the lady deserved the extra credit for
being an exceptional talent, but on TV or in concerts, audiences were fascinated by all three
Supremes, by their performances and by their individual personalities. Gordy knew the dangers of this
situation so he pursued the strategy of minimizing The Supremes impact in favor of asserting the
name and appeal of Diana Ross. A disgruntled ‘Florence Ballard’ began drinking and her behavior
became erratic both on and off stage. The hits kept coming (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Is Here
But Now You’re Gone,” “The Happening”) but there was internal turmoil and tensions. In 1967, two
major changes were instituted: “Flo” was dismissed and replaced with Cindy Birdsong (of Patti LaBelle
and The Bluebelles) and the group became officially known as “Diana Ross and The Supremes”.
As with the Ross-Gordy relationship, the details of Ballard’s departure were kept under wraps. The
group went on to higher success, becoming more sophisticated than ever and performing in the best
venues not only in America but all over the world. Beautiful Cindy Birdsong had her own charismatic
presence and was accepted by audiences everywhere. However the departure from Motown of
Holland-Dozier-Holland dealt a blow to the girls recording career. Their last hits with H-D-H were
“Reflections” and “In And Out of Love” but from there on their presence on the charts became hit and
miss. They bounced back with “Love Child”, “I’m Living In Shame” and “I’m Gonna Make You Love
Me” a “duet” with The Temptations with whom the ladies also appeared in two highly rated television
specials: T.C.B. (1968) (TV) and G.I.T. on Broadway (1969) (TV). Their recordings of “The Composer”
and “No Matter What Sign You Are” didn’t do what expected but by the end of 1969 the ladies
released another million seller, “Someday We’ll Be Together” as it was announced that Diana would
no longer be with the group. Their last concert together was in January 1970, an emotional farewell
performance at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. The career of Diana Ross as a solo artist struggled at
the beginning but with Gordy’s guidance and Motown resources solidly behind her she became the
star of the 70s with such unforgettable recordings as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me
In The Morning” becoming one of the world’s highest paid performers. Ross demonstrated her unique
talents both as a singer and as an actress in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues (1972) based on the
life of Billie Holiday, a tour de force which won her an Oscar nomination. About this time it was
expected that Ross and Gordy would make their relationship public but Diana surprised everybody by
marrying Robert Ellis Silberstein on 20 January 1971. It was obvious that Ross was beginning to
question Gordy’s leadership both in her career and her private life. As far as The Supremes were
concerned both Diana and Berry tried to convince the public that the group no longer mattered. The
pitch went out that The Supremes had been great because Diana was great and now it was no longer
important. At Motown there was room for only one diva act and the name was Diana Ross, a gross
miscalculation that would eventually backfire. In spite of Motown’s lack of support, The Supremes
continued their successful recording career well into the 70s with Chicago born singer Jean Terrell
replacing Diana. Top 10 hits such as “Up The Ladder To The Roof”, “Stoned Love”, “Nathan Jones”
and half a dozen of excellent albums, including collaborations with The Four Tops, kept the name alive
and had the potential to go on into new heights. The girls continued to be a big draw in concerts and
television and it seemed the group was destined to live forever. This threw a wrench in the Motown
machinery since they couldn’t afford having a newcomer like Terrell with Wilson and Birdsong at her
side compete with Ross for number one spots on the charts. Something had to be done fast to send
The Supremes into oblivion. Most of the fans stood solidly behind The Supremes while Motown quietly
pulled the plug off the most successful female trio in the business. The lack of company support
eventually created dissension within the group. By 1973 ‘Jean Terrell’ quit and was replaced by
Scherrie Payne; Cindy Birdsong left the group not once but twice, being replaced in each instance by
‘Lynda Laurence’ and Susaye Greene. Surprisingly, during these confusing times, The Supremes
recorded excellent material that kept the fans interested but the group was doomed.The real shocker

came in 1976 when original Supreme Florence Ballard died of heart failure in Detroit. After leaving the
group she had tried to launch a solo career and landed a recording contract with ABC Records.
However her first two singles didn’t do well and ABC lost interest. Among rumors of industry
blacklisting, “Flo” ended up destitute and on welfare in order to feed her three daughters. For The
Supremes (Mary, Scherrie and Susaye) the final performance came in 1977 at the Drury Lane Theater
in London but it was not the end of the legend… Diana Ross, whose career was grossly over-managed
at Motown, signed with RCA and enjoyed recording success through the mid 1980s when, suddenly,
the hits just stopped coming. She maintained her super star status on the concert circuit but her career
decisions and choice of material began to be questioned. In 1983 Motown produced a TV special to
celebrate their 25th Anniversary which was planned as a reunion of the old Detroit gang. The
Supremes were invited to reunite for the occasion but during their performance it was obvious that
Diana was not comfortable singing with her old partners. The audience gasped when it saw Ross
pushing Wilson but this was edited out of the TV special and the home video release. Mary Wilson
tried to launch a solo career but record companies were just not interested and rumors of blacklisting
resurfaced. She managed to continue singing all over the world and in 1986 surprised everyone with a
candid autobiography titled “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme” which became a best seller, actually
the biggest rock and roll autobiography in history. There was a sequel titled “Supreme Faith: Someday
We’ll Be Together” which was also well received by the public. In Mary’s books, The Supremes are
presented both as an American dream and an American tragedy.
Far from dying, The Supremes became cult figures with their recordings constantly on release, lots of
air play, the subject of hundreds of articles, dozens of books, documentaries and TV specials. They
are the inspiration behind the Broadway hit and film Dreamgirls (2006) and the film Sparkle (1976),
their music heard in dozens of film soundtracks. The 80s and the 90s witnessed several ex-Supremes
revivals in the concert circuits including the “Mary Wilson Supremes Revue” and reunions by Jean
Terrell with Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne. In the late 80s and well into the 90s, The Supremes
received important recognitions such as a “star” in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and the induction into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which were attended by Mary Wilson with the daughters of ‘Florence
Ballard’. In 2000, Diana Ross herself tried to invigorate her career by planning a “Millennium Supreme
reunion” with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong but both ladies declined the invitation, alleging being
denied input in the shows. Also there was quite a difference between the salaries of Diana and those
of Mary and Cindy. Undaunted, and making the same mistake all over again, Miss Ross deludes
herself into thinking that the important part of this “Supreme reunion” is HER participation and
substitutes her former partners with Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence to serve as background
singers in a monumental tour of the United States. Mary counterattacked publicly about this “fake
reunion” and the tour was canceled after playing a few dates to half filled venues.
Meanwhile, The Supremes recordings keep getting reissues and continue to sell very well. Lately,
scores of previously unreleased Supremes recordings are being issued for the first time, while songs
like “Baby Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Someday We’ll Be Together”
remain perennial favorites worldwide. As for the ladies themselves, Diana continues touring in spite of
many personal problems which have even brought her in confrontation with the law. She has been
known to check herself into “rehab clinics” in at least two occasions. Mary also continues touring both
as a singer and a lecturer and was named by the Bush administration (2002) “United States
ambassador of good will.” She has also appeared in the film “Only The Strong Survive” while Cindy
Birdsong leads a quite life in Los Angeles as a Christian minister helping out disadvantaged young
people. In 2004 Mary and Cindy reunited for the Motown 45 (2004) (TV) TV special where they sang a
medley of Supremes hits with Kelly Rowland, of Destiny’s Child substituting the elusive Diana Ross.
Whatever happens in the future for these ladies it is clear that The Supremes legend has stood the
test of time and will continue. At their prime they touched so many lives and excelled in so many ways
that their impact seems destined to live forever. Where did our love go? Nowhere. It’s still here baby,

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