'When Berry Gordy signed The Supremes to his Motown Records on January 15,1961, he never dreamed that these Detroit youngsters would eventually out-scale, in terms of success and recognition, all of their logical predecessors in the girls-group sweepstakes: Connie Boswell and the Boswell Sisters in the thirties, The Andrews Sisters in the forties, and The McGuire Sisters in the fifties. One feels a compulsion to draw all kinds of comparisons between the trios, but where The Supremes are concerned three major differences set them apart from the rest: they were not related to each other, they were black, and they were the leading proponents of a new pop/R&B music explo-sion called "The Motown Sound."
The story is now legend: At first there were four of them-Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Betty Travis-and they called themselves The Primettes, the so-called "sister group" to The Primes (who evolved into The Temp-tations). They were just 14 and 15 years old and they fantasized about stardom. They sang at record hops, on street corners, and for school assemblies. They were, oh-so-serious and when Travis quit the group she was replaced posthaste by Barbara Martin. When Martin quit, the act became a trio. The girls were raised in the Brewster-Douglas housing projects of Detroit. There were children like them, with the same kinds of dreams and ambitions, on every block. They knew that if they were to get their shot at glory, it would only be as a result of per-sistence as well as talent. Diana once lived down the street from young Smokey Robinson and when she heard that his group had been signed by a hot new record company in the area, she asked Robinson to listen to hers. If he liked what he heard, maybe he would use his influence to get the girls an audition for the new label. Smokey liked what he heard. He especially liked the way their guitarist Mary Tarplin played; he gave Tarplin a job with his group. So now The Primettes were without a guitarist, as well as without a label deal. Smokey helped pass the word back to his mentor, Berry Gordy, that the Primettes were eager to sign with his Motown Records. Berry wasn't really inter-ested, and when the girls finally did get their audition they were rejected. But hell hath no fury like the Brewster-ite scorned. The youngsters were unrelent-ing and they muscled their way into the studio as background singers and hand-clappers on recording sessions for Motown's earliest pioneers, artists like Mary Johnson, Mabel John and Smokey Robinson's own Miracles. Florence picked the name "Supremes" from a list thought up by a Motown employee when Gordy finally decided to sign the girls to the label.
They went on to record a dozen songs that were never released (One, "Those D.J. Shows," finally sees the light of day in this compilation, some twenty-five years later). At last, in March, 1961, the group had their first single release, "I Want A Guy" on the Tamla label. It was an inauspicious start; the record flopped. Its fol-low up, "Buttered Popcorn," raced with it right into obscurity. And then, much to the youngsters' horror, there were four more ill-fated releases. By this time, they had earned the tag "no-hit Supremes" from their colleagues on the famed Motortown Revue concert circuit. While Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy tried to figure out how to get these girls a record that would sell to more than just their immediate families, the in-house songwriting/producing team of Holland, Dozier and Holland were hitting pay dirt with Martha and the Vandellas ("Come and Get These Memories," "(Love is Like a) Heatwave" and "Quicksand") and The Marvelettes ("Locking Up My Heart" and "Forever"). Gordy suggested that they work with The Supremes, and one of the results was the mildly suc-cessful single, "When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes." It didn't take long before H/D/H hit upon a magical sound with a song called "Where Did Our Love Go." At first, the song was intended for The Marvelettes, but one of their lead singers, Gladys Horton, thought the song was silly nonsense (no doubt, she's yet to forgive herself). When "Where Did Our Love Go" was released on The Supremes in June, 1964—this despite the fact that all three girls hated the song themselves—no one dreamed that the record would not only alter The Supremes' fate but the destiny of Gordy's entire operation as well. The single was issued while The Supremes were on a Dick Clark road show that starred Gene Pitney, The Shirelles, and others." (The Supremes were one of the many opening attractions generously referred to as the "others"). By the time the summer tour was winding down, "Where Did Our Love Go" was a major hit, The Supremes were headliners and the phrase "there's no business like show business" took on new meaning for Ferry Gordy. Gene Pitney, The Shirelles and the rest of the "others" could only pick up the pieces.
Gordy obviously looked to The Andrews Sisters for example when he conceptualized The Supremes' imagery, their choreography, close harmonies, and the fact that they would have one, and only one, recognized lead singer. Prior to Supremes-mania, Patty, Maxene and Laverne Andrews were considered the highest ranking female vocal trio. When they appeared with the upstart Supremes on Sammy Davis' television series in the sixties, there was instant chemistry. The older women could relate to much of what these three youngsters were about to face, the demands that would be placed upon them, and the hard work that would be expected of them. The two groups sang a medley of each other's songs and popular music had reached another turning point. The Andrews Sisters passed the torch that night, and The Supremes accepted the challenge-they went on to become the most suc-cessful female vocal group of all time. "Where Did Our Love Go" was a number one hit, and the first of five consecutive chart toppers: "Baby Love" (nominated for a Grammy Award), "Come See About Me," "Stop In The Name of Love," and "Back. In My Arms Again." The Supremes still bear the distinction of being the only American group to ever chart five consecutive number ones on Billboard's pop charts. And these are some pretty terrific songs! Each one is the result of great ingenuity and imagination by young writers, producers and singers. The team quickly learned the importance of pop simplicity and its application to the creation of a commercial hit record. In the midst of this magical roll, The Supremes and H/D/H amassed a peerless body of work that includes: "Nothing But Heartaches," "I Hear A Symphony" (another number one), "My World is Empty Without You," and "Love is Like an Itching in My Heart." And then there were four more consecutive number one records: "You Can't Hurry Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Love is Here and Now You're Gone," and "The Happening." "Reflections" would have been number one in 1967 were it not for the tenacious "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry.
Gordy and the girls could hardly believe what had happened. The Supremes' overwhelming success was much more than a coup for black music, or for Motown. It was a social phenomenon. The girls were the fore-runners of Gordy's ingenious invasion into the so-called "cross-over" market. In an era of Civil Rights activism, the group transcended barriers that had segregated the music industry. Blacks and whites enjoyed the girls' uplifting sound and began to look to other Motown stars for more of the same quality. Youngsters emulated The Supremes' glamorous style and wholesome ideology. The sixties were turbulent years, but The Supremes were strong role models-homespun girls who didn't do drugs, who were always well groomed and who encouraged their young fans to graduate from high school. Adults were impressed by the girls' upstanding morality and by the girls' onstage finesse, characterized as much by their instinctive show biz savvy as by their expen-sive (at first store-bought, but very quickly designer-made) sequined gowns, and bouffant wigs. The look, incidently, was a throwback to Hollywood's golden years.
Artfully, they blended pre-rock and roll standards such as "Put On A Happy Face," "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" and "More" with their own popular Motown originals. Because of their versatility and showmanship, the girls were welcomed into the upper echelons of entertainment's hall of fame. They played the Copacabana in New York (July, 1965) and were warmly received by one of the country's toughest and most cynical night club audiences. The rest of the Motown stars followed in suit(s and gowns). It wasn't unusual to see The Supremes on television cavorting with show biz icons—trading punch lines with Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, or cutting a mg with Sammy Davis, Jr., or crooning dreamily with Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. There they were, one Sunday evening in 1968, arm in arm with the great Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman on Ed Sullivan's show. And somehow, it all seemed to make crazy sense. You really had to catch your breath at the magnitude of what these girls achieved in just a few short years. Diana was always the center of attention as the lead singer, with her wide-eyed mugging, geisha girl allure and undeniable magnetism. Mary, who sang bottom harmony, was half-jokingly called "the sexy one." Always poised and charismatic, she had flashing eyes and the most curvacious figure. Florence, on top harmony, was tall, stately and dignified. At the ready with a brassy one-liner, or some unusual twist to the show's stage patter, she was a delight to watch. When she was replaced in 1967 by Cindy Birdsong ( who had been a member of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles), an entirely different personality joined the group.
Cindy was all softness and warmth; she was positioned into the show as gracefully as her name implies. Because of their sleek, grown-up sophistication, and the way they mixed-it-up so well with the big boys on TV, it's easy to forget what kids these Supremes really were. Diana and Mary were born in 1944; Florence in 1943. That means they were still teenagers (Diana and Mary still in high school) when they first started recording for Motown. So by the time they had their string of number ones, Diana and Mary were barely 21, Flo 22. Skipping a few years, after a dozen number one singles and years of accomplishments and star-dom, Diana was only 25 years old when she left The Supremes. She had forged one record-breaking career and was about to embark on another, and she was still in her mid-twenties. Also overlooked in retrospect is the group's startling versatility and endurance in the Motown recording studios. Between 1961 and 1970, Diana Ross and The Supremes had 34 single and 25 album releases. But they also recorded scores of songs that were never released to the public. Entire album concepts were recorded, with cover jackets designed and the machin-ery ready to roll. But then, at the last possible moment, the releases were cancelled and the songs shelved. And it wasn't because the performances weren't up to snuff (as you'll hear when you listen to the previ-ously unreleased material included in this collection), but because of sudden changes in career strategy. Where The Supremes were concerned, every step of the way was calculated personally by Berry Gordy. Each release was carefully considered.
Also, it wasn't unusual for The Supremes to go into the studio with no idea at all as to what they were going to record, and then come out at the end of a grueling 12-hour recording date with an entire album, even two. The girls would skillfully jump from pre-rock standards to Motown originals in the course of one recording session, often switching producers in mid-stream. By simply settling their talents and minds on the stories the songs told, they'd always deliver the goods with great heart and passion. Considering the fact that they were not exposed to much country music (The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop, 1965), or Rodgers and Hart (The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart, 1967) or Jule Styne (Diana Ross and the Supremes Sing and Perform Funro, Girl, 1968) while growing up in the projects, their adaptability to this kind of music was really a marvel. After Florence left the group (sadly, she died in 1976 of a heart attack), the act's name was changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes. This was in recognition of Diana's strong commercial appeal, and of her growing popularity. A strong emphasis was placed on her solo potential when The Supremes were teamed with The Temptations for two network television specials (TC.B.- Taking Care of Business, 1968, and On Broadway, 1969). All three girls made acting debuts on an episode of the Taman TV series playing-what else?-nuns. And they continued to score with major hit records like "In and Out ofLove," "Love Child," "I'm Livin' In Shame," and, with The Temptations, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." The group was satirized on Broadway in the sixties rock musical Hair, they hosted TV's Hollywood Palm, twice; they endorsed Acrid Extra Dry Anti-Perspirant on television commercials (prior to this they were spokeswomen for Coca-Cole); a Supremes Bread was named after them (and their faces were sketched on the plastic wrapping). More seriously, The Supremes publicly endorsed Hubert Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign. They pleaded for racial tolerance on Johnny Carson's show the night after Martin Luther King's assassination, and in the middle of their Royal Command Performance at the Palladium in London.
Rumors persisted that Diana would strike out on her own, and when the sixties came to an end so did Diana Ross and the Supremes. The farewell show took place at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas on January 14, 1970. Diana was succeeded by Jean Terrell, and The Supremes continued at Motown rather successfully at first. The group disbanded in 1977. Its former lead singer, of course, went on to enjoy unqualified success as a film star as well as a TV attraction and recording artist. Diana's career is one for the record books in that she's enjoyed more number one hits-18, 12 with The Supremes, and all for Motown-than any other American artist in the history of pop music. They say you can never go back. But they're wrong. This 25th Anniversary package proves that you not only can go back, you can have a swell time while you're there. For those of us who've adopted the sound and spirit of Motown as the very core of our souls, the years Berry Gordy's girls reigned Supreme are so special. This collection of music is testimony to The Supremes originality and exciting sound, but also to the group's historical importance in terms of their impact on a sixties' pop culture. -J. Randy Taraborrelli
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