HITSVILLE 1964, Detroit Michigan. In a small house on West Grand Boulevard 2648, called Hitsville, a group of young black Americans were making music. Some of these young artists had already made it big. Little Stevie Wonder was only thirteen years old when "Fingertips" was a hit, The Miracles made it to the second spot in Billboard's Hot 100 with "Shop Around", while the Marvelettes hit number one with "Please Mr. Postman". Hitsville's leading lady Mary Wells had reached the top 10 for four times already. Between all these stars, three skinny girls were trying to be noticed. They did admire their colleagues, but they were even more determined to do better. Barely twenty and referred to as "the girls," the three young women did anything to be part of the Motown sound. When a hand clap was needed or a Marvelette did not show up, when a high pitched voice had to be added to Marvin Gaye's "Wonderful One" or the boss' desk needed to be cleaned up: the girls where there to do the job.
BREWSTER HOUSING PROJECTS Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard lived in the Brewster Housing Projects, an estate specifically designated for the poor. It was predominantly an African American neighborhood. In 1959, Florence and Mary met each other at a song contest. Flo was deeply impressed by Mary's classical voice and she invited her to join a vocal group. Mary also invited Diane Ross (not until later would Ross be referred to as Diana). When the male vocal group The Primes (later The Temptations) were looking for a sister group, The Primettes were formed. Originally, The Primettes consisted of four girls: Diana, Mary, Florence, and Betty McGlown. Betty got married and stepped out of the group. She was replaced by Barbara Martin. In 1962, Martin left the group, because she was becoming a mother. It was a logical move for The Primettes to try their luck with the successful record company Motown. Even though Motown founder Berry Gordy liked the girls, he told them to finish high school first.
"BABY, BABY" The name Primettes was changed into The Supremes when the girls released their first record "I Want A Guy" on the Motown (Tamla) label. However, The Supremes were not that Supreme; their colleagues called them "The no-hit Supremes". Their first eight singles hardly cracked Billboard's Hot 100. In June 1964 The Supremes 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 "warming up" act for other artists, The Supremes watched and learned from the wings when their colleagues performed on stage. Right before the tour The Supremes' latest single "Where Did Our Love Go" was released. "Where Did Our Love Go" is 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 songs, they were ready to try anything. The songwriter trio Holland-Dozier-Holland had earlier written The Supremes biggest success yet (the song "When The Lovelight Starts Shining In Your Eyes" made it to number 23). However, when The Supremes were touring the country, "Where Did Our Love Go" hit the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100, making The Supremes the major act on the Caravan Of Stars.
MEET THE SUPREMES The singles which the Supremes recorded before "Where Did Our Love Go" can be found on the album/CD "Meet The Supremes." This collection also features songs with Mary and Florence on lead vocals. Even though in the beginning The Supremes shared lead vocals, it was clear to Berry Gordy that Diana Ross' voice was the most commercial and that she was to become lead vocalist. Gordy did not want to make music for either a black or a white audience. Instead, he wanted to appeal to both black and white. Diana's voice fitted right into this concept. Combined with the Motown Sound crafted by Holland-Dozier-Holland, nothing sounded better on the American car stereo than the voice of Diana. The Supremes' success proved Berry Gordy right.
TWELVE # 1 HITS After "Where Did Our Love Go," nothing could stop The Supremes' success. "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In The Name Of Love," and "Back In My Arms Again" - five consecutive # 1 hits within a period of one year. An unparalleled success. In the period of 1965 to 1969, The Supremes recorded seven more # 1 hits: "I Hear A Symphony", "You Can't Hurry Love", "You Keep Me Hangin' On", "The Happening", "Love Is Here And Now You're Gone", "Love Child", and "Someday We'll Be Together". Of the singles which did not make it to the top spot, nine did reach the top 10. Not only The United States, but also England loved The Supremes: "Baby Love" was # 1 on the British charts at the end of 1964. On the European continent, however, The Supremes did not have any number 1 hit. Even though of all Motown groups The Supremes sang the most pop version of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, the Dutch audience was not really accustomed to The Supremes sound. However, "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," and "The Happening" did make it to the top 10.
In October 1964, The Supremes sang "Where Did Our Love Go" in the Dutch popular Snip en Snap Revue, leaving a lasting impression. A year later they repeated this success by performing at the Grand Gala du Disque. They sang a medley of their hits, "Somewhere" from "West Side Story," and their latest single "Nothing But Heartaches." Even though they were not introduced as the main act of the evening, everyone agreed that The Supremes were the highlight of the gala.
FLORENCE BALLARD, MARY WILSON, DIANA ROSS On stage the three girls were identically dressed, their hairdo's matched perfectly, and they performed a fitting subtle choreography. The Supremes were a threesome on stage, 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 the one who kept close contact with the fans. Everyone knew her roaring laugh and her voice was anything but quiet. Florence had the style and capacity to be a solo singer. She loved singing, but was down-to-earth about the group's success.
Mary Wilson was the one with the twinkle in the 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, Diana Ross. Skinny, 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.
1967: FROM "SUPREMES" TO "DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES" 1967 was a hectic year for The Supremes. It was decided that the group would be renamed "Diana Ross & The Supremes". For Diana Ross this meant a first step towards a solo career. While the change was acceptable to Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard realized she would always remain in the shadow of Diana Ross. At the peak of their fame, at the time when the life of The Supremes was booked from minute to minute, The Supremes decided that Florence should leave the group. This decision turned out to be decisive in the life of Florence. After leaving The Supremes, Florence never found the success she was striving for. In 1976 she died as a bitter woman, living in poverty, full of anger towards Motown, and too proud to call on either Mary or Diana to ask for support. Cindy Birdsong, formerly one of Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, replaced Florence.
HOLLAND - DOZIER - HOLLAND LEAVE MOTOWN Another major happening in 1967 was the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They had written all The Supremes' million sellers. Now they left Motown to start their own record company. Yet, The Supremes still made a couple of hits, including "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" (with The Temptations), "Love Child," and "Someday We'll Be Together." By now, The Supremes had developed into an act which was more than a teenage group, one which appealed to a larger, general audience. The true Motown sound albums - such as "Where Did Our Love Go," "More Hits By The Supremes," The Supremes A Go Go," "The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland", and "Love Child" - were alternated with albums with self-explanatory titles as "We Remember Sam Cooke", "The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart," and "Diana Ross and The Supremes Sing and Perform Funny Girl".
EXPOSURE ON TELEVISION Due to 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 at 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 played nuns in the Tarzan TV series and hosted their own Hollywood Palace Show. They continued their cooperation with The Temptations with the TV special "On Broadway". The Dutch broadcast organization AVRO recorded a forty minute special of The Supremes in January 1968, and they broadcasted the programme twice. The Supremes' rise from Motown girl group to one of the best paid acts of America was largely based on their exposure on television.
DIANA ROSS SOLO Not only the change in name from The Supremes to Diana Ross & The Supremes was a signal that Diana Ross would start a solo career. Berry Gordy pushed Diana Ross more and more to the foreground. Diana Ross had become the star of The Supremes and therefore the news that she would leave the group did not come as a surprise. On January 14, 1970, Diana Ross & The Supremes gave their final performance. America said goodbye to its most famous act: Diana Ross & The Supremes. Simultaneously, it welcomed two new acts: DIANA ROSS and THE SUPREMES.