The Supremes - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
The Supremes had more hits than any other female group in the history of R&B. Six of the Detroit trio’s singles topped Billboard’s R&B chart, and twice that number reached the #1 position on the magazine’s pop chart. Seven of their albums placed at #1 R&B and three at #1 pop. All were issued on the Motown label. Next to The Beatles, the Supremes were the hottest musical act in the 1960s.
All of The Supremes chart-topping hits featured the cooing lead vocals of Diana Ross, with the exception of 1970’s “Stoned Love,” which was sung by Jean Terrell after Ross left to pursue a solo career. When The Supremes started in the late-1950s as a quartet, she was not to be group’s only lead singer—Ballard, who many thought had the superior singing voice, was also to sing. However, Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr. quickly recognized something special in Ross’s sensual delivery—as well as her fashion-model looks and stage charisma—and he began grooming her for superstardom.
Diana Ross was born in Detroit on March 26, 1944. The second of the six children of Fred and Ernestine Ross, Diane (her birth name) was greatly inspired by Etta James’ 1955 hit, “The Wallflower.” James’ voice, Ross wrote in her autobiography Secrets of a Sparrow: Memoirs (1993), “made me marvel that one young woman could claim such power and passion!” The Ross family was living in Detroit’s Brewster Projects when Diana met Florence “Flo” Ballard (born June 30, 1943) and Mary Wilson (born March 6, 1944), the trio that would become world-famous as an R&B group for the large part of the 1960s.
In 1959, Milton Jenkins, manager of a local doo-wop group called The Primes that included future Temptations Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, asked Ballard to form a “sister” group to be known as The Primettes. Ballard recruited Ross, Wilson, and Betty McGlown, with McGlown soon being replaced by Barbara Martin.
The Primettes cut their first single in 1960, the Wilson-led “Pretty Baby” for a local Detroit label called Lupine. They backed it with the Ross-fronted “Tears of Sorrow,” but the record failed to spark. Nevertheless, the four women of the Primettes began hanging out at Motown Records, picking up a few dollars doing handclaps on early Marvin Gaye sessions and providing backup vocals for Mabel John and Mary Wells. Motown honcho Gordy—seeing that there was definite pop appeal at work—signed them in 1961, and, at Ballard’s suggestion, they changed their name to The Supremes. After three unsuccessful singles—two on subsidiary Tamla and one on Motown—Barbara Martin left the group in 1962 when she became pregnant.
The Supremes as a three-piece finally clicked with their fourth single for Motown, 1962’s “Let Me Go the Right Way,” a song that was penned and produced by Gordy and climbed to #26 on the R&B charts. Though the song made some waves, the two subsequent releases flopped. Gordy rode out the initial turbulence, and The Supremes were back on the charts with 1963’s “When the Lovelight Starts Shining through Your Eyes.” The song was written and produced by the famed Motown crew of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, and it went to #2 on the Cash Box R&B charts. (Billboard published no R&B chart between November 1963 and January 1965.)
As the most marketable of the group, Ross became the primary singer and centerpiece by this time. With her at the vocal helm and Holland-Dozier-Holland at the creative controls, The Supremes hit it big in 1964 with the #1 pop hit “Where Did Our Love Go”—the first of a dozen #1 hits by the Ross-era Supremes. It was also the first of ten #1 hits that were written and produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland triumvirate—a list that included 1964’s “Baby Love,” 1965’s “Come See About Me,” 1965’s “Stop! In the Name of Love,” 1965’s “Back in My Arms Again,” 1965’s “I Hear a Symphony,” 1966’s “You Can’t Hurry Love,” 1966’s “You Keep Me Hanging On,” 1967’s “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” and 1967’s “The Happening.” Other notable hits by The Supremes during the Holland-Dozier-Holland period include 1965’s #11 pop/#6 R&B “Nothing but Heartaches,” and 1966’s “My World Is Empty without You,” which went to #10 on both the R&B and pop charts. “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart,” and 1967’s “Reflections” (#12 R&B) were also very successful. Two albums from the period topped the pop chart: The Supremes A’ Go-Go (1966 Motown) and Greatest Hits (1967 Motown).
The fact that so many of The Supremes’ singles placed higher on the pop chart than they did on the R&B chart was an indication of the trio’s enormous crossover success—a difficult feat for R&B acts during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In the wake of “Where Did Our Love Go,” The Supremes appeared frequently on national television, including 17 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. They also performed at elite supper clubs such as the Copacabana in New York City during the mid-to-late-’60s. Pop standards such as “Put on a Happy Face” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby” became staples of The Supremes’ act and Motown albums. And, with “Baby Love” topping the pop chart in the United Kingdom, The Supremes’ pop appeal had become international.
In mid-1967, Gordy rechristened the group “Diana Ross and The Supremes,” spotlighting the singer in the same way he’d renamed The Miracles “Smokey Robinson and The Miracles” several months earlier. Speculation was that Gordy was priming Ross for a solo career. The change in the group’s billing didn’t sit well with Wilson and Ballard, and the situation was exacerbated by an ongoing romantic relationship between Ross and Gordy. (Gordy is the father of Rhonda Ross, born in 1971.)
Ballad took the news of Ross being singled-out and spotlighted the hardest, and she started drinking heavily and putting on weight as products of her increasing depression. She was fired from the group in June 1967 for failing to attend recording sessions and for appearing drunk onstage. She was temporarily replaced by Marlene Barrow of The Andantes, and finally by Cindy Birdsong of Patti LaBelle and The Blue Belles, who officially took her spot in the trio late in 1967. Ballard put out two solo singles in 1968 for ABC Records, both of which were unsuccessful. She would also file a lawsuit against Gordy and Ross in 1971 (again unsuccessful) before her spiral delivered her into poverty. Flo Ballard died from coronary thrombosis on February 22, 1976, at age 32. Her life and passing would be called “one of rock’s greatest tragedies.”
Dozier and the Holland brothers left Motown in early 1968, and Ross finally left The Supremes in November 1969. During the year-and-a-half period in between the group recorded three albums with The Temptations, the first of which—1968’s TCB—hit the pop chart summit and yielded the #2 pop hit single, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” The song was originally recorded by Dee Dee Warwick. They also put out two singles that climbed to #1 on the pop charts—1968’s “Love Child,” a track produced by Gordy in collaboration with Frank Wilson, Henry Cosby, Deke Richards, and R. Dean Taylor, and 1969’s Johnny Bristol-produced “Someday We’ll Be Together,” which also hit #1 on the R&B charts. The latter song, written by Bristol, Jackie Beavers, and Harvey Fuqua and originally recorded by Bristol and Beavers for Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label, served as Ross’s swan song as a member of The Supremes. Although it was issued as being by Diana Ross and The Supremes, Wilson and Birdsong did not appear on the recording. Background vocals were instead done by Southern California session vocalists Merry Clayton and sisters Julia and Maxine Waters.
Ross made her final appearance with the group at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas on January 14, 1970. After singing a six-minute rendition of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” Ross introduced the audience to her replacement, Jean Terrell. The Supremes would continue on without Ross for another seven years.
The sister of former World Boxing Association heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell, Jean was born in Belzoni, Mississippi, on November 26, 1944. She sang lead on such Supremes singles as 1970’s “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” 1970’s “Stoned Love,” which hit #1 on the R&B charts, and 1971’s “Nathan Jones.” All of the songs were produced by Frank Wilson. She shared leads with Levi Stubbs on a Supremes/Four Tops 1970 remake of the Ike & Tina Turner classic, “River Deep-Mountain High,” and with Mary Wilson on 1972’s Smokey Robinson-penned-and-produced, “Floy Joy.” The Robinson song was the only substantial hit by The Supremes to feature the original member Wilson. The group never again penetrated the pop Top 40 or the R&B Top 20.
Birdsong left The Supremes in April 1972 and was replaced by Lynda Lawrence, formerly of Stevie Wonder’s backing group Wonderlove. In hopes of reversing the trio’s sagging chart success, Lawrence asked Wonder to write and produce a single to The Supremes to help revitalize their status. After Wonder’s song, “Bad Weather,” made only a modest showing in 1973, stalling at #87 pop and #74 R&B, Terrell left the group and was soon followed by Lawrence. Sherrie Payne, the sister of vocalist Freda Payne, was brought on as Terrell’s replacement, and Birdsong returned to replace Lawrence. Birdsong left again in 1976 and was replaced by Susaye Greene, formerly of The Raelettes. Greene would be the last to ever join the legendary girl group known as The Supremes.
The Supremes disbanded on June 12, 1977 following a farewell concert in London. There were, however, a couple brief reunions. In 1983, Ross performed “Someday We’ll Be Together” with Wilson and Birdsong on the television special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” Ross also joined forces with Payne and Lawrence for a poorly attended tour in 2000 billed as “Diana Ross and The Supremes: Return to Love.”
Ross was extremely successful as a solo artist, as she went on to release the #1 pop and R&B hits “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1970), “Love Hangover” (1976), “Upside Down” (1980), and “Endless Love” (a 1981 duet with Lionel Richie), all on Motown. She also starred in the motion pictures Lady Sings the Blues (1972), with Ross playing Billie Holiday, Mahogany (1975), and The Wiz (1978), which was an urbanized retelling of The Wizard of Oz.
The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998.
Anthologies of The Supremes’ recordings include the single disc, 25-song The Ultimate Collection (1997 Motown) covering the years 1963 to 1969, the two-CD, 40-song Gold (2005 Motown) covering the years 1963 to 1977, and the two-CD, 41-song The ’70s Anthology (2002 Motown) covering the years 1970 to 1977.