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The Supremes were an American female singing group and the premier act of Motown Records during the 1960’s. Originally founded as the Primettes in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959, the Supremes’ repertoire included doo-wop, pop, soul, Broadway show tunes, psychedelic soul and disco. They were the most commercially successful of Motown’s acts and are to date. America’s most successful vocal group with 12 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Most of these hits were written and produced by Motown’s main songwriting and production team, Holland–Dozier–Holland. At their peak in the mid-1960’s, the Supremes rivaled the Beatles in worldwide popularity and their success made it possible for future African American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream success.
Founding members Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson,
Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown, all from the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit, formed the Primettes as the sister act to the Primes (with Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who went on to form the Temptations). Barbara Martin replaced McGlown in 1960, and the group signed with Motown the following year as the Supremes. Martin left the act in early 1962, and Ross, Ballard, and Wilson carried on as a trio.
During the mid-1960’s, the Supremes achieved mainstream success with Ross as lead singer. In
1967, Motown president Berry Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross & the Supremes, and replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. Ross left to pursue a solo career in 1970 and was replaced by Jean Terrell, at which point the group’s name reverted to the Supremes. After 1972, the lineup changed more frequently; Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Greene all became members of the group during the mid-1970’s. The Supremes disbanded in 1977 after an 18-year run.
In 1958, Florence Ballard—a junior high school student living in the Brewster-Douglass housing projects in Detroit—met Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, two members of a Detroit male singing group known as the Primes. Since Ballard sang, as did Paul Williams’ girlfriend Betty McGlown, the Primes’s manager Milton Jenkins decided to create a sister group to the Primes called the Primettes. Ballard recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who in turn recruited classmate Diane Ross. Mentored and funded by Jenkins, the Primettes began by performing hit songs by artists such as Ray Charles and the Drifters at sock hops, social clubs and talent shows around the Detroit area. Receiving additional guidance from group friend and established performer Jesse Greer, the quartet quickly earned a local fan following. The girls crafted an age-appropriate style that was inspired by the collegiate dress of popular doo-wop group Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers; and, for the most part, Ballard, Ross and Wilson performed equal leads on songs. Within a few months, guitarist Marvin Tarplin was added to the Primettes’ lineup – a move that helped distinguish the group from Detroit’s many other aspiring acts by allowing the girls to sing live as opposed to lip-synch.
After winning a prestigious local talent contest, the Primettes’ sights were set on making a record. In hopes of getting the group signed to the local upstart Motown label, in 1960 Ross asked an old neighbor, Miracleslead singer Smokey Robinson, to help the group land an audition for Motown executiveBerry Gordy, who had already proven himself a capable songwriter. Robinson liked the girls and agreed to help, but he liked their guitarist even more; with the Primettes’ permission he hired Tarplin, who became the guitarist for the Miracles. Robinson arranged for the Primettes to audition a cappella for Gordy – but Gordy, feeling the girls too young and inexperienced to be recording artists, encouraged them to return upon graduating from high school. Undaunted, later that year the Primettes recorded a single for Lu Pine Records (a label created just for them) entitled “Tears of Sorrow”, which was backed with “Pretty Baby”. The single, however, failed to find an audience. Shortly thereafter, McGlown became engaged and left the group. Local girl Barbara Martin was McGlown’s quick replacement.
Determined to leave an impression on Gordy and join the stable of rising Motown stars, the Primettes frequented his Hitsville, U.S.A. recording studio every day after school. Eventually, they convinced Gordy to allow them to contribute hand claps and background vocals for the songs of other Motown artists including Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. In January 1961, Gordy finally relented and agreed to sign the girls to his label – but under the condition that they change the name of their group. The Primes had by this time combined with Otis Williams & the Distants and would soon sign to Motown as the Temptations. Gordy gave Ballard a list of names to choose from that included suggestions such as “the Darleens”, “the Sweet Ps”, “the Melodees”, “the Royaltones” and “the Jewelettes”. Ballard chose “the Supremes”, a name that Ross initially disliked as she felt it too masculine. Nevertheless, on January 15 the group signed with Motown as the Supremes. In the spring of 1962, Martin left the group to start a family. Thus, the newly named Supremes continued as a trio.
Between 1961 and 1963, the Supremes released eight singles, none of which charted in the Top 40 positions of the Billboard Hot 100. Jokingly referred to as the “no-hit Supremes” around Motown’sHitsville U.S.A. offices, the group attempted to compensate for their lack of hits by taking on any work available at the studio, including providing hand claps and singing backup for Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and the Temptations. During these years, all three members took turns singing lead: Wilson favored soft ballads; Ballard favored soulful, hard-driving songs; and Ross favored mainstream pop songs. Most of their early material was written and produced by Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson. In December 1963, the single “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Lovelight” was the first of many Supremes songs written by the Motown songwriting and production team known as Holland–Dozier–Holland. In late 1963, Berry Gordy chose Diane Ross – who began going by “Diana” in 1965 – as the official lead singer of the group. Ballard and Wilson were periodically given solos on Supremes albums, and Ballard continued to sing her solo number, “People”, in concert for the next two years.
In the spring of 1964, the Supremes recorded the single “Where Did Our Love Go”. The song was originally intended by Holland-Dozier-Holland for the Marvelettes, who rejected it. Although The Supremes disliked the song, the producers coerced them into recording it. In August 1964, while The Supremes toured as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, “Where Did Our Love Go” reached number one on the US pop charts, much to the surprise and delight of the group. It was also their first song to appear on the UK pop charts, where it reached number three.
“Where Did Our Love Go” was followed by four consecutive US number-one hits: “Baby Love” (which was also a number-one hit in the UK), “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again”. “Baby Love” was nominated for the 1965 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.
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