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The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal | reviews, news & interviews

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal

Mark Ribowsky's biography reviewed

At first sight, it seems extraordinary that there has never been a serious biography dedicated to the Supremes before now. They achieved more than enough to deserve a shelf-ful.

In their heyday from 1964 to 1969  America loved them to distraction: only Elvis and the Beatles bettered the 12 number ones the Supremes racked up on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Their popularity with white audiences who had been raised on the Elvis principle – that it was OK for pop to sound black as long as the singers weren’t - rocked the mainstream on its axis.

Black acts from the Four Tops to the Jackson 5 eagerly surfed their wave. Michael Jackson built the foundations of his career on the Supremes’ groundbreaking blend of slinky pop glamour and funky r’n’b smarts. As the most successful girl group in history, their template has been closely studied by black female trios such as TLC and En Vogue. In the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, a fictionalised bio-pic based on the career of the Supremes, the starring role was played by the lead singer of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé Knowles.

The rags-to-riches story of the Supremes is almost as captivating as their music. It began in Detroit in 1958 in the Brewster Douglass housing projects, when Florence Ballard asked her friend Mary Wilson to join her singing backing vocals for a local r’n’b group. The Primes – later known as the Temptations - were managed by a suave pimp, Milt Jenkins, whose fellow procurer Berry Gordy III, an aspiring songwriter from a well-to-do family, wanted out of pimping. He felt sorry for “my girls”, he explained to the girl who became his second wife, Raynoma Singleton. In 1959 Gordy borrowed $800 from his parents and set up the record company which became Tamla Motown.

By then the Primettes had recruited Wilson’s schoolmate, the ambitious and clever 16-year-old Diane [sic] Ross whose close friendship with Tamla’s brightest talent, William “Smokey” Robinson, gave her a separate entrée into Gordy’s circle. He was instantly smitten with the skinny, doe-eyed Ross and, ignoring the fact that she couldn’t type, hired her as his secretary. In a famous exchange he told one of his associates that he was “gonna sign that Diane Ross girl.” When asked about the other Primettes, Gordy replied, ‘Oh yeah, them too.”

Gordy’s infatuation with Ross proved a mixed blessing for the group that Ballard re-named the Supremes in 1961. On the one hand it meant that Tamla Motown persevered witb them in the face of a string of early failures. They released eight singles that flopped before topping the charts in 1964 with "Where Did Our Love Go?" During the years in the doldrums, Ross borrowed dance moves and costume ideas from Motown’s other more successful girl groups – the Vandellas and the Marvelettes – safe in the knowledge that Gordy would always support her. Out on the road she became his spy. Whatever Ross saw happening in or outside the bus went straight back to the boss. “Who made her the keeper of our morality?” one of the Marevelettes asked indignantly, even though she knew the answer.

The downside of Ross’s protected status was the corrosive effect it had on the Supremes’ morale as a group. For Florence Ballard this proved mortally wounding. The daughter of a violent alcoholic, and the eighth of his 14 children, "Flo" was the most vocally gifted and psychologically fragile of the three – a predisposition worsened after she was date-raped at 17. As Gordy progressively sidelined her, giving all of the vocal leads to his favourite, now "Diana", Ballard took to the bottle. Her weight ballooned and her temper frayed. She took to calling Ross "Miss Thing". After she spat a gin and tonic into Gordy’s face backstage in 1966 he began looking for a replacement. Ballard left the Supremes the following year with a cheque for $140,000 and a hurt swiftly made worse by her stalled solo career, a failed marriage to an abusive husband and her copious intake of drink and drugs. She died of heart failure in 1976 aged 32.

With the troublesome Ballard out of the way, and Ross now publicly acknowledged as his mistress, Gordy reverted to his original plan. He re-cast the trio as Diana Ross and The Supremes, a formation that lasted until 1970 when Ross took off. Wilson soldiered on, pretty well hitless, with Cindy Birdsong and others for seven more years. The Supremes finally disbanded in 1977 and have not been seen on stage since. A row over money scuppered a projected reunion tour in 2000 for which Ross stood to earn $15m while Wilson would have made $3m.

Reading Mark Ribowsky’s diligently researched biography, you soon realise why it’s the first. There are so many other stories crowding the Supremes’ narrative, all of which have been told elsewhere. Wilson, Ross and Gordy have published sanitised autobiographies which they have declined to add to here. The history and significance of the Tamla Motown label has been extensively covered by r’n’b authorities such as Nelson George and Gerri Hershey, while the showbiz biographers have feasted on Ross.

Aside from their vocal prowess, it was the Supremes’ faux gentility which most struck their contemporaries. “We’re training them for Buckingham Palace and the White House,” proclaimed Motown’s in-house deportment specialist. The Beatles were horrified when they met them in New York in 1966, smothered in furs and make-up. George Harrison commented later: “We expected soulful, hip girls. We couldn’t believe three black girls from Detroit could be so square.”

One of them at least wasn’t. Ribowsky’s liveliest moments involve fresh disclosures about the unfortunate Florence Ballard, courtesy of her cousin Ray Gibson and former lover Otis Williams of the Temptations. The notion that it was Ballard, rather than Gordy or Ross, who supplied the animating spirit of the Supremes, is hardly original – it is there in Dreamgirls – but Ribowsky gives it added colour.

In particular Williams’s fond memory of Flo calling him "Big Daddy" and proposing that they “shoot the habit to the rabbit" lingers in the memory. Partly because it’s such an unusual euphemism for sex – which even Williams confesses he’d never heard before, “and I’ve been around, man,” – and also because it evokes the indefinable texture of a far-off time. More of this would have lightened the book’s rather heavy load.

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