Florence Ballard was a student at junior high school in the Detroit housing projects and became friends with Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, (two members of The Primes, later to become the Temptations). The boys encouraged her to form a sister group called the Primettes (1959). Flo recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who recruited classmate Diana Ross; and Paul Williams added his girlfriend, Betty McGlown and the quartet were complete. Flo had the biggest voice and could sing soulfully so she was considered the lead singer. In 1960 they signed to the Lupine label but their first single, "Tears of Sorrow" flopped.
Betty McGlown left the group and was replaced by Barbara Martin in 1961 when they signed for Motown Records and became the Supremes. Flo sang lead in most of the early recordings but the group had no success. They were known as “the no hit Supremes,” and busied themselves as session singers. Then came their breakthrough with "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," (1963) it got into the charts and Diana Ross took over as the lead singing and Barbara had left the group to bring up a family.
Berry Gordy Jnr's patience paid off and the Supremes started to record Holland-Dozier-Holland’s compositions beginning with "Where Did Our Love Go" . The song went to the US number one in 1964 and was also their first song to reach the UK pop charts. The song was originally written for The Marvelettes, but they did not like it. Neither did the Supremes but they felt obliged to record it anyway.
Now the trio could do no wrong and under the direction of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s production and song writing, the group had a series of number one hits including "Baby Love," (1964) "Come See About Me,"(1964) "Stop! In the Name of Love," (1965) and "Back in My Arms Again" (1965).
By 1965, the Supremes were international stars and toured the globe. Not all of their songs were chart toppers however, but all did reasonably well and were disco favourites, spearheading the Motown Sound. By the end of 1966, their number-one hits included "I Hear a Symphony", "You Can't Hurry Love", and my own favourite, the uncharacteristic "You Keep Me Hangin' On".
Despite success there were problems brewing in the Motown stable. Benny Gordy Jnr had favoured the Supremes and Diana in particular, not because she was the best singer and performer, but simply because she had the crossover appeal that would sell more records to both black and white audiences. Gordy was ever the businessman but he and Diana also had a romantic assignation which frustrated the other Supremes and his attention to Diana caused other artists to become disgruntled (Martha Reeves in particular). Flo Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong (from Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and Flo look-a-like) in 1967 and the group became Diana Ross & the Supremes. Gordy was adamant however the name change was a rouse to charge more appearance money, because the punters were getting to see two acts. Meantime Flo later fell on very hard times and tragically died in 1976. Although there is no actual association with the musical Dream Girls, the story is unmistakably based loosely around these events. (Mary Wilson loved the musical, but Diana Ross was reportedly angered by it and refused to see it).
Diana Ross and the Supremes scored another hit in 1967, with the psychedelic influenced, "Reflections."
By this time Holland-Dozier-Holland, had left Motown after a dispute over the quality of music Motown was producing. Despite having a hit with Love child, The Supremes were middle of the road now, and soul music had overtaken Motown, the group was considered more white than black and that affected their credibility in a politically sensitive US.
Gordy came up with a brilliant idea and matched his super groups in studio collaborations marrying those with a white fan base with those with a black fan base. The Supremes and The Temptations joined forces to produce “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." (1968).
When “Someday We'll Be Together", the Supremes last major chart success, was recorded neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong featured and The Andantes provided backup vocals.
Diana Ross left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Jean Terrell. Mary Wilson continued as the only original while other personnel line ups took place. The (New or 70s) Supremes continued to make some cracking records and proved themselves capable of continuing after the departure of their popular lead singer. After 1972, the lineup of the Supremes changed frequently, with Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne (Freda Payne sister) and Susaye Greene all becoming members before the group ended its eighteen-year existence in 1977. In 2000, Diana Ross announced a Supremes reunion tour with Wilson and Birdsong. Both Supremes declined the tour and were replaced with Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne. The tour was cancelled after nine dates, because of lackluster ticket sales.
Worth a listen:
When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes (1963)
Baby Love (1965)
I hear a symphony (1966)
You keep me hangin’ on (1966).
I’m gonna make you love me Supremes with the Temptations (1968), Someday we will be together again (1969)
Stoned Love New Supremes (1970)