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The Supremes started out as a quartet known as the Primettes. In 1959 two fifteen year olds, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, met at a talent show. Milton Jenkins, who managed a local doo wop group the Primes, wanted a sister group to accompany the Primes for stage performances. Jenkins asked Ballard to put together such an act. Ballard remembered Wilson and the two of them brought in sixteen year old Betty Travis. Prime's member Paul Williams, recommended a fifteen year old from Detroit's Brewster Housing project Diane Ross. Jenkins named the group the Primettes after Diane's parents gave their permission to join. The Primettesprimettes then started doing club dates.
Travis was forced to quit the Primettes because her parents wanted her to pay more attention to her studies. Barbara Martin took her place, but had to leave shortly, as did Ballard, under the same parental conditions. Wilson and Ross continued to work as duo until the two improved their grades and were allowed to rejoin.
The groups influences ranged from the McGuire Sisters to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and unlike most black groups of the time were not largely influenced by gospel music.
Ballard, Wilson, and Ross could all sing lead, but Ballard's voice was considered the best and most powerful.
"Florence had a very strong gospel voice, and she was the original lead singer. When the group came to Motown, it was Flo's group, she had formed it and named it"
.....Carolynn Gill of the Velvelettes
In 1960, the they met Ross' neighbor William "Smokey" Robinson and auditioned for him in the basement of the home of his girlfriend Claudette Rogers in hopes of getting to Motown's Berry Gordy. Rogers would later become Robinson's wife and an original member of the Miracles. The audition turned into a dead end, but they did audition for Gordy later, singing the Drifters' "There Goes My Baby." Gordy told them to come back after they completed high school.
Undaunted the girls began hanging out in Motown's office reception room. They continued doing local talent shows where they were spotted by Richard Morris, who brought them to Lupine Records owner/producer Bob West. They recorded two sides "Pretty Baby" with Wilson on lead and "Tears of Sorrow" with Ross on lead for West. Released in 1960, the record went nowhere and they were soon back hanging around Motown again, doing handclaps on Marvin Gaye's early records and singing some backups for blues artist Mabel John.
In January 1961 Gordy signed them, but required them to change their name. Ballard who had formed the group named them the Supremes. Wilson and Ross initially disliked the name, but Gordy approved. By this time Ross was calling herself Diana Ross.
The Supremes' first single, issued on the Tamla in April 1961 was "I Want a Guy' and the second an R&B dance tune "Buttered Popcorn" with Ballard on the lead. Both went nowhere.
The next three singles barely made the bottom of the Hot 100. Things were going so badly that in the middle of 1962 Ross took a job in cafeteria of Hudson's Department store in Detroit and Martin left to get married.
The best of their early releases "When the Love Light Starts Shining," in the fall of 1963, reached #23 on the charts. By the fall of the 1964 the Supremes had released eight singles with none even making the Top 20.
"Where Did Our Love Go," a Holland-Dozier-Holland song rejected by the Marvelettes, was brought to the Supremes. Nonetheless, by August "Where Did Our Love Go" reached #1 on the Pop and R&B charts. In a matter of weeks the Supremes went from no billing on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars show to top billing.
Ross was now doing all the lead vocals, which did not always sit well with Ballard.
"It was Berry's choice to put Diana as lead. I think Diana's voice appealed to Berry because it was young, crisp commercial sound; maybe Flo's voice was a little to strong for that time. I don't think Berry chose Diana because he particularly liked her more than the other girls. They were after all high school kids to him" Carolynn Gill of the Velvelettes
"Baby Love" followed in September 1964 and reached #1 Pop, R&B, and in the U.K. The Supremes with "Baby Love" became the first all girl group to reach number one in England.
The Supremes became the first American group to have three number ones from the same album when "Come See About Me,' released in October, reached number one.
With "Stop! In the Name of Love," the Supremes became the first group to have four number ones in a row on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also reached number 2 R&B and number seven in England. The Supremes began on the historic Motown Revue tour through Europe. It was while on this tour this tour that the Supremes developed their hand motions (resembling a traffic cop stopping oncoming car) for "Stop! In the Name of Love" in the men's room of a London TV studio with the help of Berry Gordy and the Temptation's Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin prior to a live appearance.
"Back in My Arms Again, on June 12, 1965, became the Supremes fifth #1.
Not only were the Supremes competing head on with the British invasion, they were becoming superstars in the realm of pop entertainment. On July 29, 1965 they headlined New York's famous Copacabana nightclub.
The same month "Nothing But Heartaches" was released and broke the string of number ones, only reaching #11. But it was a short lived decline; "I Hear a Symphony" reached number one on November 20th.
In early 1966 they had hits with "My World is Empty Without You" and "Love is Like a Itching in My Heart" . "You Can't Hurry Love" reached #1 on September 10, 1966 which began a new string of #1s that included "You Keep Me Hanging On," "Love is Here and Now You Are Gone," and "The Happening".
"The Happening" was the last of ten #1s written by Holland-Dozier-Holland for the Supremes. They left Motown to form their own labels, Hot Wax and Invictus.
"Over a period of time, favoritism surfaced, which I believe had something to do with the romantic link between Berry Gordy and Diana Ross"
Carolyn Gill of the Velvelettes
By now the friction between Ballard and Ross had taken its toll and Ballard missed two shows in Montreal and New Orleans. Part way through the Supremes appearance at the Flamingo Hotel in :Las Vegas Ballard was fired by Gordy and replaced by Cindy Birdsong of the Bluebelles.
"Initially there was a phone call - someone from Motown's office asked me to audition as a replacement for one of the Supremes. I didn't know who it was. I actually thought it was a joke. It surprised me, but I got on a plane and went straight over to Berry Gordy's house. The Supremes were in a meeting in another room and I was waiting outside. Then Florence came walking through the living room in tears and that's what made me know that it was her they wanted me to replace" .... Cindy Birdsong
Gordy now renamed the group Diana Ross and the Supremes. Though Diana was gaining stature on her way to a solo career, the new lineup was not nearly as successful saleswise. Over the next two years twelve singles were released with only "Love Child" reaching number one.
The groups first two singles "Reflections" and "In and Out of Love" were carryovers from the Holland-Dozier-Holland days.
The group did several good remakes with the Temptations. "I'm Going to Make You Love Me" was one of them.
Diana grew more and more estranged from us. We even stopped recording together. If we were in town just for one day during a tour, Diana would do all the leads and then the studio group would do all the back-up vocals when we left. And that really built up alienation.
"Someday We'll Be Together," issued in October 1969, became the Supremes last number one record, the trios last record together, and they performed it in the last of twenty appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Also, it was the last song they sang together when they appeared at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas on January 14, 1970. Then while on stage Ross introduced her replacement Jean Terrell.
On March 7, 1970 the Jean Terrell led Supremes reached the Billboard charts with "Up the Ladder to the Roof" and proved the name still had power even without Ross. In fact, their Right On album with Terrell did better than the double live farewell album with Ross .
The new Supremes third single "Stoned Love" was a million seller in 1970, and became the Supremes eighth number one on the R&B charts.
In June 1972, Birdsong left for home and family and was replaced by Lynda Lawrence, who was followed by a succession of replacements that included Sherrie Payne, Birdsong again, and Susaye Greene.
On December 1976 Mary Wilson left and was replaced by Karen Jackson. The Supremes last pop single was "You're Driving My Wheel" , and the group was soon disbanded. Florence Ballard, after leaving the Supremes in 1967, did two singles for ABC Records and then spent several years fighting Motown a lawsuit over her firing. She lost the suit and spent sometime on welfare attempting to support her three children. Overweight and despondent, Ballard died of a heart attack at Monte Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit at the age of thirty two.
The driven and aggressive Ross realized her every dream as a superstar performer and actress of the 70s and 80s. She had forty-one Hot 100 hits and her movie career included roles in Lady Sings the Blues and The Wiz.
Mary Wilson went on to form her own group Mary Wilson and the Supremes, with Karen Jackson and Karen Ragland.
In May 1983, she, Ross, and Birdsong reunited for Motown's 25th anniversary TV show.
In 1984, Wilson wrote her story Dream Girl: My life as a Supreme.
The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
The number one female group had 18 Hot 100 hits as the Supremes, nine as Diana Ross and the Supremes, three as Diana Ross and the Supremes and Temptations, twelve as the Supremes after Ross left, and two as the Supremes and the Four Tops. Obviously, the whole was always greater than its parts to its fans, and the Supremes sound as good at the end as they did when the hits first started.
(Courtesy of www.history-of-rock.com)