The Supremes: the best girl group ever

They were the best girl group ever, and they’ve got the numbers to prove it: 12 top-ranked pop hits, Grammy nominations, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, packed concert halls, numerous television appearances, and always and everywhere the stars of the show. The numbers and the facts don’t lie. The Supremes in the mid-1960s were at the top of the popular music mountain, the only group to give The Beatles a run for their money.

But within the Motown musical milieu, there has always been doubt — and more than a little grousing.

The Supremes, and especially Diana Ross, were always Berry Gordy’s pet. Gordy was Motown’s founder and final word on every aspect of the operation, and The Supremes received his special attention and more than their share of breaks and promotions. Partly, this was because Gordy had fallen head-over-heals in love with Ross, and they eventually had an affair.

But the group was also good — good musically and good commercially. They had an appearance and a sound that made you forget about race and gender, which was especially important in the 1960s, and concentrate on the moves and the music. They could get your hands clapping and your feet stomping and your voice singing if you were so inclined.

And they sold records. Their list of million-sellers is almost without precedent.

Like other Motown groups, the girls — originally Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diane (later Diana) Ross, and Betty McGlown — grew up near the Brewster-Douglass housing project in Detroit and started singing as teenagers. In the late 1950s, they formed first as the Primettes, a sister group to the Primes whose members went on to form the core of The Temptations. They had made some records in those early years, but they were having no success. They signed with Motown in 1961, and by that time, McGlown had dropped out, and they had a new name, The Supremes.

Even with Motown in the first two years, they never had a record break into the top 20 on the pop charts. In the spring of 1964, they were told to record a song titled “Where Did Our Love Go,” a song that had been written for the Marvelettes. That group had rejected the song, and The Supremes didn’t like it much either. Still, they made the record, Motown released it, and it rocketed to the top of the charts while the group was touring with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars.

That song was followed by four consecutive U.S. 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.” During the next two years, those hits were followed by more, such as  “I Hear a Symphony”, “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The Supremes’ album The Supremes A’ Go-Go, released in October 1966, became the first album by an all-girl group to reach the top of the charts, and it knocked The Beatles Revolver out of first place. More importantly, the group had finally achieved one of Berry Gordy’s main aims: crossover appeal. The Supremes were as popular with white audiences as they were with black fans.

But, as usual, all was not well within the group or within the Motown confines. In 1967 Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross and the Supremes, further exacerbating the relationships among Ross, Wilson, and Ballard. Ballard particularly believed that she was being cut out, and she began drinking and gaining weight so that her appearance no longer lined up with the image that Berry Gordy was trying to market. There were also persistent rumors that Diana Ross would leave the group and strike out on her own.

Ballard left the group in 1967, but that did not solve the personnel problems. The situation deteriorated to the point that in 1968, the women would not record together, and they came in at separate times to lay down their tracks. The final number one record for the group, “Someday, We’ll Be Together,” was a Diana Ross solo, originally meant to help launch her solo career in 1970. At the last minute, Gordy changed his mind and marketed the record as Diana Ross and the Supremes.

After Ross’ departure, the group continued for several years, but it never recaptured its old magic. The Supremes finally disbanded in 1977 with a final concert in London’s Drury Lane Theater.

See these previous posts about Motown:

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

Please, Mr. Postman

Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family

Martha and the Vandellas: Heat Waves, Quicksand, and but always Dancing in the Street

Temptations: soulful voices, close harmonies, and choreography that made you want to dance

Smokey Robinson, Motown’s founding brother

Stevie Wonder: the most talented Motowner of them all

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Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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