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Group formed c. 1960 in Detroit as vocal quartet the Primettes; original members included Florence Ballard (born June 30, 1943, in Detroit; died February 22, 1976, in Detroit), Diana Ross (born March 26, 1944, in Detroit), Mary Wilson (born March 4, one source says March 6, 1944, in Detroit), and Barbara Martin, who appeared as fourth member on the Primettes' first three singles. Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong (born December 15, 1939, in Camden, NJ) in 1967. Jean Terrell (born November 26, c. 1944, in Texas) replaced Ross in 1970; was replaced by Scherrie Payne (born November 14, 1944) in 1973; other incarnations of The Supremes included Lynda Laurence, Susaye Green, and Karen Jackson; group disbanded, 1977.

More than any other Motown group or artist, the Supremes achieved Motown's goal of appealing to audiences of all races. The group's widespread popularity began in the 1960s and resulted in twelve number-one hits on Billboard' s pop charts. That puts them third on the all-time list, behind only the Beatles and Elvis Presley.

Although the Supremes employed various line-ups, the group achieved their greatest success with Diana Ross as lead singer and Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard as backing vocalists. Their greatest hits were all written by Motown's songwriting/production team--and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers--of brothers Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier (known as Holland-Dozier-Holland).

The Supremes began in Detroit in the late 1950s as a quartet known as the Primettes. As young teenagers in junior high and high school, they attempted to audition for Berry Gordy at Motown, but he considered them too young at the time. As the Primettes, they recorded for Lupine Records, a local Detroit label, both as a featured group and as backing singers. These recordings are now available as reissues on various specialty labels.

The group persisted in their attempts to land a contract with Motown, however, and by the time they graduated from high school, they had become a trio, signed a contract with Motown, and released several singles. According to the liner notes from their first album, Meet the Supremes, the girls had just graduated from high school when the album was released. None of the songs on the album were very popular.

The group's first six singles were produced either by Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson. At that time, Robinson had been generating hits for Mary Wells in addition to his duties as singer-songwriter for the Miracles. None of these early singles performed very well, and the group really didn't click until their seventh single, released late in 1963. Although the group reportedly didn't like the song, they went ahead and recorded "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes." It was their first Holland-Dozier-Holland recording, and the beginning of a remarkable collaboration that would yield twelve number-one hits.

The Supremes' first string of consecutive top pop hits--all written and produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team--began in July 1964 with "Where Did Our Love Go," which was followed by "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In The Name of Love," and "Back in My Arms Again." Led by Ross's vocals, the Supremes captured the attention of American teenagers with a brand of pop/rock that had a good beat for dancing, complemented by striking melodies and lyrics that stood up to repeated listening. Within a few years, the group would also be playing the nightclub circuit and singing for more mature audiences.

By the fall of 1965, the Supremes were in great demand for television appearances, which included variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, and Red Skelton, and several "Hullabaloo" shows. The group toured the Far East, and upon their return to the states made their first Las Vegas appearance at the Flamingo Hotel. By the end of the year, "I Hear a Symphony" was added to their list of chart-topping hits. The song featured a lush musical background provided by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

With the help of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Supremes began another string of top hits in 1966 that would take them into the next year. "My World Is Empty Without You" and "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart," their first two songs of the year, "only" reached the top ten. Those songs were followed by four straight number ones, "You Can't Hurry Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone," and "The Happening."

In retrospect, what happened next to the Supremes may have marked the beginning of their decline in popularity. They were Motown's most popular singing group of the time, and their schedule of live appearances had become very demanding by mid-1967. In live performances, the group was now being billed as "Diana Ross and the Supremes," a change in nomenclature that was adopted by other Motown groups as well, to feature the names of lead singers like Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves.

It was at this juncture that one of the Supremes, Florence Ballard, was removed from the group and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Birdsong was a talented backup singer from Patti LaBelle's group, the Blue Belles. Depending on the perspective, Ballard was either a victim of Berry Gordy's greed and Diana Ross's ambition, or she brought about her own downfall through her own behavior and unrealistic expectations. Motown would explain her departure from the group by saying she was "exhausted from the girls' demanding schedule." In a lawsuit she would later charge Motown, as well as present and future Supremes, with a conspiracy to oust her from the group. Sadly, she was unable to mount her own solo career, and she died in 1976 of cardiac arrest.

Most casual fans of the group were probably unaware of the personnel change. Indeed, Motown promoted the group in such a way as to downplay the individuality of the group's members, at least until the Supremes became a launching pad for Ross's rise to individual stardom. With Ross clearly featured as the group's lead singer, the Supremes achieved two more top pop hits, "Love Child" in 1968 and "Someday We'll Be Together" in 1969. The group joined the Temptations to host Motown's first television special, T.C.B.: Taking Care of Business, in the Christmas season of 1968. In addition to several albums, the collaboration resulted in a number-two pop hit, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," that featured the lead vocals of Ross and Eddie Kendricks.

"Reflections," the first song released by the Ross-Wilson-Birdsong lineup, also reached number two, and their next song, "In and Out of Love," made the top ten. Again reflecting Motown's lack of concern with the group's individual members, "Reflections" was recorded when Ballard was still a member of the group, according to Mary Wilson. Indeed, Wilson points to other substitutes being used as unidentified backup vocalists on records and in live performances when necessary.

Motown had always groomed the Supremes for the posh nightclub circuit as well as for the charts. It was appropriate, then, that the Supremes' farewell shows would be held at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in January, 1970. Highlights from these performances can be found on the double-album set, Farewell. In addition to a medley of their mid-sixties hits, Ross led the group through a variety of show tunes and pop songs. Reflected on the Farewell album is Wilson's statement that Ross, who was leaving the group, "really wanted to upstage us that night."

The Ross decade was over for the Supremes. She would go on to even greater heights as a solo artist and film star, not leaving Motown until the end of the 1970s. As for the Supremes, a succession of personnel changes would finally leave the group with little or no audience, and they would be out of existence before the end of the decade.

Jean Terrell replaced Ross as the group's lead singer. She had been discovered in 1968 by Berry Gordy, who heard her singing at Miami's Fountainbleau Hotel with her brother's group, Ernie Terrell & The Heavyweights. The Terrell-Wilson-Birdsong edition of the Supremes was the most popular post-Ross combination. They recorded such hits as "Stoned Love," which charted in the top ten in 1970; "Nathan Jones" in 1971, which reached the top twenty; and "Floy Joy" in 1972. The latter two songs were also top ten rhythm & blues hits.

When Terrell left the group in 1973 to get married, the Supremes didn't release any albums until her replacement Scherrie Payne joined the group in 1975. The Supremes disbanded in 1977, although Wilson toured the United Kingdom in 1978 with Karen Ragland and Karen Jackson performing as the Supremes.

The fame of the Supremes still lives on, however. In 1988 the group, featuring the lineup of Ross, Wilson, and Ballard, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their achievements. Their most popular songs are still heard on radio today--indeed, superstar Ross still performs them in her solo concerts--and they are recalled fondly as a major part of the celebrated "Motown Sound." As Rolling Stone stated in elevating the group to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "The Supremes embodied the 'Motown sound' that kept America dancing throughout the Sixties." With their many great singles, the citation concluded, the Supremes "set a gorgeous new standard for Top Forty pop."

by David Bianco

Supremes, The's Career

Supremes, The's Awards

The Supremes--Ross, Wilson, and Ballard--were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1988.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Supremes, The Lyrics

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almost 15 years ago

The group toured the Far East, and upon their return to the states made their first Las Vegas appearance at the Flamingo Hotel. PLEASE NOTE: (THE FOLLOWING TWO SENTENCES SHOULD BE INSERTED IN THE ARTICLE BEFORE THE TEXT MENTIONING THE FAR EAST TOUR AND LAS VEGAS. I HEAR A SYMPHONY WAS RELEASED IN 1965 AND HIT #1 THAT SAME YEAR.)By the end of the year, "I Hear a Symphony" was added to their list of chart-topping hits. The song featured a lush musical background provided by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.