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A Supremes Primer

On October 11, 2019

There are girl groups and then there are the Supremes. The utmost. The absolute. The paramount. The Supremes do more than personify the ’60s girl group. From sock hops to Las Vegas showcases, they showed that an all-women act can help define a decade. Fashion, style, personality, the Supremes had that something that set them apart from everybody else. With the help of great songwriting (Holland-Dozier-Holland) and great musicians (the Funk Brothers — Motown’s session musicians), these ladies epitomized the Motown sound of adding pop sensibilities to R&B and soul, and showing a different facet to the emergence of black artists in the ’60s crossing over in popularity to white audiences.

When four teenage girls were brought together in 1959 to form a sister group (The Primettes) to an all-male group (The Primes, who would later turn into The Temptations), little did they know what they were getting into. But Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Betty McGlown would carry on through talent shows and seedy nightclubs to eventually hanging out at Hitsville after school in 1960, making themselves known, adding handclaps or whatever background sounds were necessary for various recordings. McGlown dropped out and Barbara Martin joined the group. Finally deeming them ready in 1961, Berry Gordy signed the newly christened Supremes to Motown. But it wasn’t easy street. Their first singles didn’t make an impact and then Martin left in early ’62, making the Supremes a trio, and it would be another two years of recording and doing backup vocals for other artists before finally in 1964 they topped the charts with “Where Did Our Love Go.”

Diana, Flo, Mary — these ladies are icons. Though Ross is well-known as the lead, the truth is any one of them could’ve done it if given the proper push but Ross’s voice and look were different and distinguished the Supremes from the other Motown girl groups, the Marvelettes and the Vandellas. Supremes songs like “Baby Love” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” are embedded in our bones, musical touchstones that are as important today as they were then. With more No. 1 hits than any other female artists in the ’60s, and every other ’60s artist except Elvis and the Beatles, the Supremes are without a doubt one of the most important musical acts of the 20th century.

Since you’re getting Where Did Our Love Go in your VMP Anthology box, let’s look at other albums by the Supremes for you to explore.

More Hits by The Supremes (1965)

More Hits by The Supremes was their sixth studio album, after three albums where they tackled the British Invasion, country pop, and a tribute to Sam Cooke. Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, with all songs written by H-D-H, the album got back to what the Supremes were good at: pure, unadulterated pop. There are the requisite show stoppers like “Stop! In The Name of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” and “Nothing But Heartaches,” but also a tender rendition of “Whisper You Love Me Boy,” previously sung by Mary Wells. Boosted by the success of the singles, the album hit the top 10, but it was the No. 11 finish of single “Nothing But Heartaches” that prompted the writing and recording of the title track that would highlight their next album.

I Hear A Symphony (1966)

So obsessed with making the top 10 on the singles charts, Gordy was incensed that single “Nothing But Heartaches” missed after the string of No. 1’s from his girls. H-D-H were tasked with writing a new song and they took the opportunity to experiment with what had, until then, become a standard formula. The result was “I Hear A Symphony,” just about the perfect pop song. Previous singles tended to be about break-ups or not feeling appreciated by a lover, a melancholic pop that was common to the Supremes. But here was a song that soared with happiness, a classical fugue turned pop masterpiece with a motif that repeats and ascends, describing how it feels to be overcome by love. The work paid off and the single topped the pop charts. Juxtaposed with the brokenhearted “My World is Empty Without You,” and a somber-looking album cover photo, I Hear A Symphony represented a shift toward a more mature sound.

Supremes A’ Go-Go (1966) and The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland (1967)

Both 1966-1967 were successful and turbulent years for Ross, Wilson, and Ballard, with Ross being positioned to go solo, and Ballard’s personal battles with Ross, Gordy, and alcohol coming to a head. The ninth and 10th studio albums released by the Supremes in this time period are singularly characterized by the overwhelming presence of Motown songs, in addition to their own singles. Now legit stars, the pop-standard/show tune pandering lessened, though that would remain in their live act. Supremes A’ Go-Go, lifted by the growling Ross on “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” and driving beat of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” was their first album to go No. 1 on the pop chart, the first for an all-female group in the U.S. The familiarity of the other Motown covers makes this album a go-to for Supremes fans. That success perhaps motivated the next release, with Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland comprised solely of H-D-H compositions, this time highlighted by the urgent, tension-filled “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and the wistful baroque of “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone.”

Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations (1968)

It was a new era at Motown that saw a re-named Diana Ross and the Supremes (Ballard having been fired and replaced by Cindy Birdsong in mid-’67), and Gordy still trying to figure out when to break out Ross to go solo. The group still had a grueling schedule of live performances and television show appearances and after performing on The Ed Sullivan Show together, it was decided that the Supremes and the Temptations should have their own television special. Sessions to record a joint album began in mid-’68 and after the airing of the special, Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations was released in late ’68. Duets between star acts tend to be good for the bottom line and this album was no exception, especially with Ross holding her own on dueling leads with the Tempts on standout tracks like their covers of “I’ll Try Something New,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and the amazing “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Listeners loved the interplay between Motown’s regal queens and soulful kings, making it a critical and commercial success.

Love Child (1968)

In 1968, in addition to their work with the Tempts, Diana Ross and The Supremes were also cutting their own tracks, trying to prove they could still hit the top 10 without the presence of longtime producer/songwriters H-D-H, who had left Motown. Their last top five single was “Reflections” in mid-’67, so the pressure was on for a team of hastily convened songwriters. The result was “Love Child,” about a young woman pleading with her boyfriend not to pressure her to sleep with him for fear of getting pregnant. The times were definitely changing in the late ’60s, with many socially conscious songs making their way to radio, but children out of wedlock was still a sensitive subject and on a mainstream pop song by the sophisticated Supremes, downright scandalous. The public ate it up, sending the single to the top of the charts. It didn’t matter that Wilson and Birdsong did not sing the backup vocals on it, nor did they on many singles released in this era of the group. Love Child was released the same month as their duets album with the Tempts, the cover depicting a more casual-looking trio. Other album highlights include the funky “Can’t Shake It Loose” co-written by George Clinton, the driving rhythm of “Keep An Eye,” and bedroom dreamy “Does Your Mama Know About Me” co-written by Tommy Chong (yeah, that one).

Cream of the Crop (1969)

Cream of the Crop is the last studio album to feature Diana Ross as a Supreme. Released in late ’69, it was the culmination of a busy year when Motown finally decided it was time to split the group. The ladies proceeded with a tour, in the midst of which Wilson and Birdsong began recording with Ross’s eventual replacement Jean Terrell, and Ross prepared for her solo debut. The album is a decent snapshot of grown-up Supremes with a mix of love songs and more mature fare like “Shadows of Society” and “The Young Folks” but nothing beats “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Motown had struggled to find the right swan song and time was running out before announcing Ross’s departure to the public. “Someday,” a cover of an old Johnny & Jackey song and originally meant for Jr. Walker & The All-Stars before getting redirected to be a Ross solo single, was pulled out and called a Supremes record. Though Wilson and Birdsong didn’t sing on it, it remains one of the best Supremes songs ever. Those strings and guitar lines in the intro, the backup singers starting up with Ross chiming in with a soft, wistful vocal, songwriter Johnny Bristol’s ad-libs getting Ross in the mood, all of it reassured a lover and crying fans everywhere that it would all be OK.

Right On (1970)

The Supremes, now composed of Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong, and Mary Wilson (the only original Supreme left) had big shoes to fill but fans were rooting for them and a collectively held breath was released with 1970’s Right On. Terrell’s lead vocal is very similar in style to Ross but the backup vocals are mixed a bit louder and more varied, allowing Wilson and Birdsong to shine along with Terrell. Everyone sounds relaxed, as on “Everybody’s Got the Right to Love,” a top 40 hit, and “But I Love You More.” The opener “Up The Ladder to the Roof,” a top 10 single, is airy and funky, the ladies long for a soldier off to war in “Bill, When Are You Coming Back,” and refuse to take back a lover until he declares himself forever loyal in “Then We Can Try Again.” One might have expected the new Supremes to play it safe with recycled Motown covers and other pop standards, filler that had become a staple of other Supremes albums, but producer Frank Wilson worked to make this the most cohesive Supremes album to date, refocusing their sound to be more R&B and soulful than they’d been in years. Rather than fold, the Supremes were revitalized and managed to hit the top 40 singles charts multiple times over the years, along with more lineup changes, and did well on the R&B album charts until the group disbanded in 1977.

Diana (1980)

Diana Ross had a very productive decade in the ’70s. Her solo debut Diana Ross (1970) did well, the breathtaking version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” earning her a Grammy nomination. She hit the top 10 on the LP charts with 1973’s Touch Me in the Morning and 1976’s Diana Ross, got nominated for Best Actress (Golden Globes and Oscars) for the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, and starred in two other movies (Mahogany and The Wiz), all while maintaining a rigorous performing and recording schedule. By the end of ’79, Ross was ready to try something different and approached Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to produce and write songs for her next album. They got to work and when Ross was unhappy with their version, she got another producer to remix it. That little bit of behind-the-scenes drama aside, 1980’s Diana was a commercial smash, single “Upside Down” going to No. 1 and single “I’m Coming Out” becoming an empowerment anthem for women, the LGBTQ community, and anyone else whoever felt like they couldn’t be themselves. “Have Fun (Again)” and “My Old Piano” will take you to a late night club and other highlights include “Now That You’re Gone” and “Give Up.” Diana is fun, full of dance songs, and showcases a Ross that was willing to shake off those laurels and try something more challenging, reestablishing her diva status in the process. It would be her last album with Motown, with Ross signing with RCA the following year.

Profile Picture of Marcella Hemmeter
Marcella Hemmeter

Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.

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