Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



US female vocal group from Detroit: the undisputed first among girl groups, the queens of the charts and the airwaves in the '60s. Classic lineup: Florence Ballard (b 30 June 1943; d 21 February 1976); Diana Ross (b Diane Earle, 26 March 1944); Mary Wilson (b 6 March 1944; d 8 February 2021), all from a Detroit housing project. They began working together in the late '50s, met the Temptations, then called the Primes, and called themselves the Primettes. They went to Motown '61 after Ballard (then seen as the group's leader) suggested the name change to Supremes; Berry Gordy saw more in them than in his other girl groups (Marvelettes, Vandellas): they became his ultimate crossover act, and indeed it was in their heyday that the Billboard R&B chart was abolished for a year, black and white charts being virtually identical. Special attention was paid to their education in the Motown 'finishing school', where they were taught movement and deportment as well as singing. Some early releases were flops; the first hit was 'When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes' (US top 30 '63), but when Holland/Dozier/Holland began producing and writing their material it was mega-hit time: three no. one hits in a row '64 were 'Where Did Our Love Go', 'Baby Love', 'Come See About Me'; in '65 'Stop! In The Name Of Love', 'Back In My Arms Again', 'I Hear A Symphony' were all no. 1, 'Nothing But Heartaches' in top 20; in '66 'You Can't Hurry Love' and 'You Keep Me Hanging On' were no. 1, plus 'My World Is Empty Without You' and 'Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart' in top ten.

Most of these charted high in UK too, including two no. ones; but storm clouds were already forming: it was clear that Ross was seen as the group's leader because she was Gordy's favourite, but also (to be fair) because the Motown education probably did her the most good: she was the star material, but all of this was to Ballard's discomfort. After two more no. ones in early '67, 'Love Is Here And Now You're Gone' and 'The Happening' (the latter show-type tune departing from the soulful, danceable formula for the first time among the hits, though not in the stage act), Ballard left, an event forever in the 'did she jump or was she pushed' category, replaced by Cindy Birdsong (b 15 December 1939, NJ), a fine singer from Patti LaBelle's Blue Belles. The group was then known as Diana Ross and the Supremes for more hits including 'Reflections' (no. 2), 'In And Out Of Love' (no. 9) '67; 'Forever Came Today' (top 30; their last collaboration with H-D-H), 'Love Child' (no. 1) '68, 'I'm Livin' In Shame' (no. 10) and 'Someday We'll Be Together' (no. 1) '69. They recorded with the Temptations, octet hits '68--9 incl. 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me' (no. 2); Ross left, replaced by Jean Terrell (b 26 November 1944, Texas); they recorded with the Four Tops '70-71 including 'River Deep/Mountain High' (top 15) but there were no more chart-toppers; Birdsong left '72, replaced by Lynda Lawrence, but the hits had virtually dried up. Terrell left '73 replaced by Sherri Payne (b 14 November 1944); later replacements included Karen Jackson and Susaye Green, but by the end of the '70s they had all quit. Ballard had received a financial settlement from Motown which was soon spent; her solo career began with a signing to ABC, but her first single flopped: she was not allowed to mention her Supremes background in press releases and the single did not even get publicity in Detroit due to a newspaper strike; she died penniless, having tried unsuccessfully to sue Motown and her former partners. Wilson later led a group billed as Mary Wilson and the Supremes; Ross has had showbiz solo success; the hit musical Dreamgirls '81 was based on their story and brought back the painful backstage machinations; Wilson published a book about her life as a dreamgirl '87 and the story is well-covered in Nelson George's excellent Where Did Our Love Go? '85, a history of Motown. Their splendid 19 top ten hits '64-70, twelve at no. 1, are as remarkable in their way as Glenn Miller's hits of '39-43 as souvenirs of their era. Compilations included two-CD Anthology, two-CD Live On Stage, many more.