In the US, the Supremes were one of the biggest acts of the decade, certainly the most popular on Motown, and rivalled the Beatles for commercial success, scoring five consecutive number 1s in a row and 12 in total at the end of the 1960s. However, the girl group only ever peaked at the top once in the UK, with Baby Love.
Originally the trio were a quartet known as the Primettes. Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diane Ross and Betty McGlown all hailed from the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit. They began as a sister act to soul group the Primes, and their line-up featured Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who went on to form the Temptations. They covered songs by artists including Ray Charles and the Drifters at local talent shows, in a youthful manner akin to the Teenagers.
In 1960 the Primettes wanted a recording contract, so Ross asked her old neighbour Smokey Robinson to get them an audition with Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown label. Gordy decided they were too young and should try again after high school, so they released a single elsewhere, but it sank and McGlown left when she became engaged, to be replaced by Barbara Martin. In January 1961, Gordy relented on the proviso they changed their name. He gave them a list of ideas and Ballard liked ‘The Supremes’ but Ross thought it too masculine.
Fast forward to 1963, and the Supremes were a trio, minus Martin, who left to start a family. And who could blame her? They had released six singles and got nowhere, earning them the nickname ‘the no-hit Supremes’. Finally, December’s When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, by Holland-Dozier-Holland saw them enter the charts. Around this time, Gordy decided Ross should be their main singer (she didn’t go by ‘Diana’ until 1965). Early in 1964 they recorded Where Did Our Love Go? despite not being keen (it had already been rejected by the Marvelettes). To their surprise, it was massive, topping the charts in the US and reaching number three in the UK. Clearly Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Supremes were the perfect match, and Gordy inisisted they repeat the formula for the follow-up, Baby Love.
In my opinion, it follows the formula a little too closely, and the previous single is superior, but you’d be a fool to deny Baby Love is a great pop and soul song. Ross coos her way through effortlessly, with an excellent backing from the always reliable Funk Brothers. Ballard and Wilson get to ad-lib towards the end, before Ross was thrust firmly into the spotlight and the resentments began. I’m not sure it earns the right to be called a classic, in part due to its lack of originality, and I find the Supremes a bit too slick and lightweight when compared to other Motown acts. Or perhaps I’ve just heard it too many times?
The hits kept coming, with Stop! In the Name of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love (a number 1 for Phil Collins in 1983) and You Keep Me Hangin’ On among their best. Thanks to the Supremes, Gordy realised his dream of making a Motown act have crossover appeal among black and white audiences. But with that success came greater tension. In 1967 he renamed them the Supremes with Diana Ross, then Diana Ross & the Supremes. Ballard hit the bottle and her weight gain meant she was becoming unable to wear her stage outfits, when she was in a fit state to perform. Wilson came across as staying neutral, but in private she told Ballard that Ross and Gordy wanted her out. She tried to slim down and go sober, but she was unaware that he had already hired lookalike Cindy Birdsong from Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles. Ballard was eventually sacked in 1968. Her solo work was poorly-received and she unsuccessfuly sued Motown in 1971. She died suddendly in 1976 from coronary thrombosis.
1968 was also the year Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown, and the Supremes suffered from a lack of decent material. They were also starting to look a bit middle-of-the-road compared to artists like Aretha Franlin. Wilson and Birdsong were often replaced by session singers on their singles. In November 1969 the long-rumoured Diana Ross solo career was announced, and she was replaced by Jean Terrell. Someday We’ll Be Together marked the end of Ross with the Supremes, the end of the group’s number 1s in the US, and was the final US number 1 of the 60s.
The 70s began promisingly for the Supremes, with hits including Stoned Love (the song the reformed Stone Roses walked out to on all their reunion shows), but fortunes began to fade, and the line-up changed several times as disco became the prevailing chart sound. They finally disbanded in 1977. Diana Ross’s career? Well you won’t be surprised to hear that’s a story for another time.
Written by: Lamont Dozier & Brian and Eddie Holland
Producers: Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier
Weeks at number 1: 2 (19 November-2 December)
Astronaut Nicholas Patrick – 19 November
Geneticist JBS Haldane – 1 December