The Supremes: The Top Girl Group of the 1960’s
by Erika Cox
The Supremes were just that - Supreme. Other than the Beatles, the Supremes reigned as the top group and the most popular and successful girl group of the 1960’s.
The group had more than twelve #1 pop songs, achieved many gold records, performed in sold-out concerts, and made regular public appearances on various television programs. The original group consisted of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson. In 1959, the girls came together singing as part of a quartet called the Primettes during their teenage years in Detroit.
All three could sing lead but Florence Ballard had the most distinctive and the best voice of the three. In 1960, they met a neighbor, William “Smokey” Robinson and auditioned for him in his basement. Smokey Robinson had already signed and recorded with Motown Records and was introduced to Berry Gordy by Smokey Robinson.
The group initially sung for Berry Gordy, owner of Motown Records, but he asked them to come back after they graduated from high school. They continued to perform locally, and in 1961 officially signed with Motown Records. Their first few singles went nowhere.
Under the guise and direction of Gordy, the group sang in a polished style, were dressed by Gordy’s hired designers, and trained to perform and present themselves professionally. Although this method of Gordy’s could be seen as oppressive, controlling, and even limiting the artist’s creativity, it seemed to work for many of his artists on that label.
In 1964, the Supremes finally received national attention and success with their number one hit, “Where did our Love Go.” At this time, Ross was singing lead because Gordy liked her voice better than Ballards’. Ross had a young, light voice that Gordy may have thought would attract the youth and allow the group to be more accepted in mainstream society, especially as pop artists.
Ballard’s voice was strong and more gospel or blues sounding, which may have appeared to make the group sound older. That same year the group had another song that went to number one, not only in the U.S. but in England as well, making them the first girl group to have a hit song in England. The group would go on to have a slew of number one hits and top ten hits throughout the 1960’s.
Eventually a personal relationship developed between Ross and Gordy, which produced a daughter. Favoritism shown by Gordy toward Ross created friction among the girls and Ballard frustrated by it would start failing to show for a number of appearances. Eventually, Gordy fired Ballard and replaced her with Cindy Birdsong. Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross and the Supremes.
This new group was not as successful as the original group and Ross became more aggressive in her pursuit to separate herself from the other members and purse a solo career. She would eventually stop recording with the group, coming in to record the lead vocals, and then Wilson and Birdsong would come in separately to record back-up vocals.
This caused major problems and in 1969 the group performed their last single, “Someday we will be together” on the Ed Sullivan show. In 1970, Ross announced her replacement, Jean Terrell. The Supremes went on to perform with new lead, Jean Terrell, but eventually failed to recapture the success of the original group.
Because of Ross’s attitude and manner in which she treated her fellow group members, the women would go years before performing together. Mary Wilson refused to perform with Ross but finally agreed to perform during the 1983 Motown 25th Anniversary show.
Unfortunately, Ballard’s singing career went down hill after she was fired from the group. Sadly, after having a successful music career and receiving fame and fortune she was forced to go back on welfare to support herself and her children. Ballard died of a heart attack in 1976 at the young age of 32.
Wilson would go on to keep the name of the Supremes alive, performing with various members and Ross went on to have a successful solo career. The group received numerous awards and in 1988 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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