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Music / The Supremes

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The classic '60s lineup of The Supremes. From left to right: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross.

"The next three singers are aptly named. In the field of popular music, they’re really supreme. Ladies and gentlemen, The Supremes."
Herb Alpert, introducing them in his Variety Show special.

From the Brewster Projects of Detroit came one of the most successful groups on the Motown label and the most successful Girl Group of The '60s. The Supremes were second only to The Beatles in its pop culture impact on the decade: twelve number one singles on the Billboard chart in an eighteen-year career have ensured a legacy that has launched untold numbers of female singing groups to this day. Their vocal talent was matched with grace and poise that endeared this vocal version of a Rock Trio to global esteem.

The group, along with the early years of Hitsville USA, were the inspiration for the musical and movie Dreamgirls.

The phenomenon that greatly helped put Motown on the musical map began in 1959 when Brewster residents Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown organized a sister group to The Primes (with future Temptations Paul Williams and Eddie Kendrick), calling themselves The Primettes. Eventually, Smokey Robinson brought them to the attention of Motown exec Berry Gordy. At Hitsville USA, the group, having not yet finished high school, apprenticed by contributing backing vocals and handclaps to other artists on the label.

Original member McGlown became engaged and left the group in 1960; she was replaced by Barbara Martin. Still a quartet, The Primettes were finally signed to Motown in 1961 on the condition that they change their name; presented with a list of suggestions, Ballard decided on The Supremes. Martin left early in 1962, and it was decided to continue the group as a trio.

In 1964, The Supremes scored their first #1 hit on the Billboard chart with "Where Did Our Love Go?", beginning their tenure as the chart-topping powerhouse that has made them frequently heard to this day on both classic soul and oldies radio. Among their other '60s chart-toppers were "Baby Love", "Come See About Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love", "I Hear a Symphony", "You Can't Hurry Love", "You Keep Me Hangin' On", "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone", "The Happening", "Love Child", and "Someday We'll Be Together".

1967 saw some major changes for the group. Flo Ballard, talented but extremely troubled, was fired after performing drunk onstage and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Concurrently, the group's billing changed to Diana Ross & The Supremes, cementing Ross once and for all as the group's star. The next year, their songwriting/production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland left Motown over some disputes with Gordy. While Gordy put several other Motown staffers to work on Supremes music, he also began grooming Ross for a solo career, and she officially left at the end of 1969, though the group continued with Wilson and new lead singer Jean Terrell.

Similar to what happened to Genesis later, The Supremes' history falls into two distinct eras. Most casual listeners and oldies fans would be familiar with the above songs and others produced in The '60s, when Ross was still a member. But in The '70s, the group, anchored by Wilson, were heard mostly on R&B radio and are staples of classic soul programming to this day.

The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame in 1998.

Members (Founding members in bold):

  • Florence Ballard (June 30, 1943 – February 22, 1976)
  • Diana Ross (born March 26, 1944)
  • Mary Wilson (March 6, 1944 – February 8, 2021)
  • Betty McGlown (June 30, 1941 – January 12, 2008)
  • Barbara Martin
  • Cindy Birdsong
  • Jean Terrell
  • Lynda Laurence
  • Scherrie Payne
  • Susaye Greene

"Come see about my tropes"

  • Artist and the Band: The group changed its name as Diana Ross And The Supremes in 1967 before Diana left the group three years later.
  • Ascended Extra: As The Primettes, the ladies were primarily background performers for other Motown performers.
  • The Band Minus the Face: One of the most notable examples, as they carried on for quite a while after Diana Ross went solo. While not coming anywhere close to their previous success, they managed to get a few more hits, though after a while they started doing better on the R&B charts than the pop ones (the post-Ross Supremes had six Top 10 R&B hits in the 1970-71 period).
  • Break-Up Song:
    • "Reflections"
    • "You Keep Me Hanging On" is an inverted version, being about begging for a break-up.
  • Christmas Songs: Their 1965 Merry Christmas album.
  • Concert Film: They are prominently featured in 1964 all-star concert film T.A.M.I. Show.
  • Delicious Distraction: In "Buttered Popcorn"
    I said kiss me please
    He said after I eat
  • Disappeared Dad: "Love Child" is about a woman who grew up without a father. She is telling her story to what one presumes is an eager boyfriend, telling him to hold his horses because she's not going to inflict that life on her own baby if he disappears.
  • Distaff Counterpart: The Primettes were conceived as this to The Primes, who later became The Temptations.
  • Dolled-Up Installment: Twice over with "Someday We'll Be Together". It was originally recorded for Junior Walker to sing, but Berry Gordy thought it would be an excellent choice for Diana Ross's first solo single. After she recorded her vocal to the backing track, Gordy changed his mind and decided to release it credited to The Supremes, with much fanfare about it being her swan song with the trio, even though Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong had zero involvement with it.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "Someday We'll Be Together" is ostensibly about the song's narrator promising she'll see her lover who has gone away again one day, but due to the time it came out (late 1969), the song acquired deeper meanings:
    • Diana Ross departed the group two months after the single's release, with some interpreting it as a wistful swan song to her time working with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, and how they would "be together" again sometime in the future, which indeed happened when the trio briefly reformed in 1983 for the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.
    • Many soldiers were still overseas serving in The Vietnam War, leading their friends and family to buy copies of the record and think about the time their loved ones would come home.
    • Ross herself theorized the song could be seen as an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement (especially considering the political unrest surrounding it at the time and the nation still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year), with the lyrics dreaming about a time when all the races could come together in harmony.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Several of their albums, including The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop, The Supremes Sing Holland–Dozier–Holland, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, and The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb.
  • Fade In: "Come See About Me" fades up on its opening drum beats, making it the first pop song to use that technique.
  • Heavy Meta: The singer is in love with "(The Man with the) Rock and Roll Banjo Band." Yes, it has a banjo solo, too.
  • "I Want" Song: "I Want a Guy"
  • Invincible Hero: The Supremes seemed like invincible heroes on the Billboard charts in 1964-65 when five consecutive singles, from "Where Did Our Love Go" to "Back in My Arms Again," went all the way to No. 1. Then came "Nothing but Heartaches," which broke the streak by stalling out at No. 11. However, they had seven more No. 1 smashes to go, including another four in a row in 1966-67 (from "You Can't Hurry Love" to "The Happening").
  • Love Hurts: "Nothing But Heartaches"
  • Mock Millionaire: "I'm Livin' in Shame". The narrator is ashamed of her poor upbringing and her slovenly mother, so when she gets to college she lies and says she's a wealthy girl whose mother died, and becomes estranged from her past, but Never Got to Say Goodbye when her mother died for real.
  • Never Be Hurt Again: "Never Again"
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Dreamgirls is a very thinly-fictionalized retelling of the Supremes story, centered on the tension between Diana Ross and Flo Ballard being transformed into the Deena Jones/Effie White rivalry.
  • Officially Shortened Title: The first pressing of "A Breath Taking Guy" gave the title as "A Breath Taking, First Sight Soul Shaking, One Night Love Making, Next Day Heart Breaking Guy". After realizing how ridiculous it looked on the label, Motown amended it to the shorter title.
  • One-Man Song:
    • "(The Man with the) Rock and Roll Banjo Band"
    • "Nathan Jones"
  • Power Trio: In all their lineups from 1962 onward.
  • Psychedelic Rock: "Reflections" was Motown's first overt attempt at a psychedelic sound, with a beeping oscillator and mildly trippy lyrics.
    I'm all alone now
    No love to shield me
    Trapped in a world
    That's a distorted reality
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "Stop! In the Name of Love"
  • Questioning Title?: "Where Did Our Love Go?"
  • Self-Titled Album: Their 27th album, not counting many albums that have the name as part of the title.
  • Singer Namedrop:
    • Diana Ross mentions her bandmates in "Back in My Arms Again".
      How can Mary tell me what to do
      When she lost her love so true?
      And Flo, she don't know
      'Cause the boy she loves is a Romeo
    • Their final album, Mary, Scherrie, and Susaye, referencing members Wilson, Payne, and Greene respectively.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Title: The group became Diana Ross & The Supremes in 1967. Reverted to The Supremes when Ross left in 1970.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Florence Ballard got some lead vocals on the early albums and in live shows, including a version of "People".
  • Stringing the Hopeless Suitor Along: "You Keep Me Hangin' On"
  • Studio Chatter: The instrumental version of "Love is Like an Itching in My heart" by Motown studio band The Funk Brothers starts off with several musicians speaking at once.
  • Tears of Joy: "Touch"
    (Oh, baby!)
    Don't worry, don't worry if I cry
    These are tears of love in my eyes
    I feel this love flowin' through
    Like a river, boy, straight through me to you
  • Trademark Favorite Food: "Buttered Popcorn" is about a boyfriend who likes it "for breakfast, lunch and dinner too." It's an answer song to another song fitting the same trope called "Peanut Butter" by The Marathons.