Diana Ross And The Supremes
Diana Ross – circa 1966
“I’m the greatest star / I am by far / But nobody knows it” – ‘I’m the Greatest Star’ (Julie Styne, Bob Merrill)
The answer is ‘no’. Berry Gordy, the head of Motown Records, considers the teenage girls in front of him. Naturally, they are disappointed. The year is 1960 and the girls, with stars in their eyes, had hoped to join the stable of recording artists on the up-and-coming Motown label. Gordy’s advice to the young hopefuls is to finish high school and then come back and see him again. Probably no one In the room could predict that these giggly and immature school girls are fated to become the biggest success of Motown, Diana Ross And The Supremes.
Diana Ross is born Diane Ernestine Ross on 26 March 1944 in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A. Due to a spelling error, on her birth certificate baby Diane is registered as ‘Diana’. Years later, when she enters show business, Diane Ross assumes her official name as Diana Ross. Friends and family who have known her from her early years still sometimes refer to her as Diane. For the sake of consistency, here she will be referred to throughout as Diana.
Diana Ross is the daughter of Fred Ross, a foreman at the American Brass plant, and Ernestine Earle Ross, a maid for a wealthy white family. Diana Ross is of mixed African-American and Native American (Cherokee) ancestry. “I was brought up in this part of Detroit they call the ghetto,” Diana recalls. “My father worked hard but we were very poor…My world was the Brewster [-Douglass housing] projects all the way to West Grand Boulevard. That was the scope of my world at the time.” This image of a down-at-heel beginning is somewhat modified by Diana’s claim that, “My life has often been described as ‘from rags to riches’, but in fact the Ross’s were never raggedy.”
Diana Ross is the second of six children. Her siblings are Barbara (who becomes a doctor); Rita (who becomes a schoolteacher); Fred Earl Ross Jr.; Arthur ‘T-Boy’ Ross (who becomes a songwriter at Motown Records before he is murdered in Detroit in 1996); and Wilbert ‘Chico’ Ross (who becomes a backing dancer on Diana Ross’ concert tours).
Diana Ross begins singing in the gospel choir of the local Baptist church. “My family called me a wiggle tail because I was a little, skinny, wiry kid full of energy.” She attends Cass Technical High School. “I majored in fashion design in school,” Ross reports. “All I wanted to do was sing and wear pretty clothes.” In the evenings, Diana Ross takes a job as a busgirl, clearing dishes from one of the four restaurants in Detroit department store J.L. Hudson. She is the first black person employed by the store for a position outside of the kitchen. Diana uses her earnings for weekend modelling and cosmetology classes.
An unsuccessful audition for a school musical results in the 15 year old Diana Ross being invited to join a singing group. Two of the girls who make the offer are neighbours of Diana. They are Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.
Mary Wilson is born 6 March 1944 in Greenville, Mississippi, U.S.A. Her mother is named Johnnie Mae. Mary is raised by her aunt and uncle in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects.
Florence Glenda Ballard (30 June 1945 – 22 February 1976) is born in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A. Her father was born Jesse Lambert but takes the surname of the Ballard family who adopt him. Jesse Ballard works in an automobile factory. His wife (Flo’s mother) is named Lurlee. Florence Ballard is the cousin of Hank Ballard, whose rhythm and blues group, The Midnighters, have a hit in 1954 with ‘Work With Me Annie’.
A fourth girl, Betty Travis a.k.a. Betty McGlown (30 June 1941 – 12 January 2008), is also part of the act. The girls come together in 1959. Eddie Kendricks from a local male vocal group, The Primes, is credited with introducing the girls to each other.
Paul Williams is the group’s first manager. Williams, like Eddie Kendricks, is in The Primes. Williams is also dating Betty McGlown. His young female discoveries are dubbed The Primettes in imitation of his group. Paul Williams’ own career soon takes up too much of his time, so The Primettes are passed along to The Primes’ manager, Milton Jenkins.
A record label, Lu Pine, is created specifically for The Primettes. In 1960 The Primettes release their first single, ‘Tears Of Sorrow’ (lead vocal – Diana Ross) backed with ‘Pretty Baby’ (lead vocal – Mary Wilson). It has ‘not much impact.’ Still, the record gains them some publicity and The Primettes get some gigs as a support act to The Primes. Betty McGlown is forced by her parents to leave the act in 1960 (she dies from diabetes in 2008) and is replaced by Barbara Martin (born June 1943). Later in 1960, The Primettes cut another couple of singles: ‘After All’ (lead vocal – Florence Ballard) in August 1960 and then later, ‘You Can Depend On Me’. Their next move is to audition for Motown Records.
The name ‘Motown’ is a contraction of ‘motor town’, a reference to the label’s home in Detroit, a U.S. city famed for the manufacture of motor cars. The founder and boss of Motown is Berry Gordy. Following a short career as a professional boxer, Gordy opens a record shop specialising in jazz. When that enterprise goes bankrupt in 1955, he gets work on the assembly-line for the Ford automobile factory. Gordy quits that job in 1957, becoming a professional songwriter. His first real success is ‘Reet Petite’ in 1957 for rhythm and blues singer Jackie Wilson. Berry Gordy parlays this into a career as an independent record producer, taking on Marv Johnson and Barrett Strong as clients. From there, it’s a short skip to creating to his own record label, Tammie, which becomes Tamla Records, then mutates into Tamla-Motown, a trademark of the Motown Record Corporation. A reissue of Barrett Strong’s ‘Money’ in 1960 is the first Motown record, but ‘Shop Around’ in 1960 by The Miracles is the company’s first real hit. So, when The Primettes audition for Berry Gordy in 1960, Motown is still just in its infancy, though its future looks promising.
During its heyday in the 1960s through to the early 1970s, Motown’s headquarters at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit becomes ‘Hitsville, U.S.A.’ The company’s slogan is ‘The Sound of Young America’. One of the most notable things about Motown is that, for the first time, it is a company whose owners, executives and recording artists are all African-American. Yet that is not something the business emphasises. Berry Gordy wants to woo both black and white teenagers; Motown is ‘The Sound of Young America’, not ‘The Sound of Black America.’
Perhaps inspired by his time on the auto assembly line, Berry Gordy turns Motown into a compartmentalised operation. There are professional songwriters, professional producers and professional musicians. The talent whose names are credited as the recording artists on the hits are rarely anything more than singers wheeled through Motown’s production line process. There is even staff assigned to groom the stars in presentation and etiquette. The Motown roster includes such performers as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson And The Miracles and Stevie Wonder. In 1960, The Primes are signed to Motown but they soon undergo a name change to The Temptations. Their female protégées, The Primettes, are less fortunate, being rejected at their audition in 1960.
Something else of note happens at The Primettes’ unsuccessful audition. Berry Gordy, the boss of Motown, seems to take a particular interest in Diana Ross. “Diane was 16 or 17 years old and this man liked her, loved her,” notes Mary Wilson. “Heck, I probably wouldn’t have looked back either,” Mary admits. She continues, “Berry started paying a lot of attention to us early on. He saw we had the class or whatever it was to go to the next level. I think that the relationship [with Diana Ross] was second to that.”
As Berry Gordy suggested, the girls resume their educations. Florence Ballard, the most mercurial of the bunch, goes through some serious turmoil. Shortly after the Motown audition, she is raped by Reggie Harding, a high school basketball player. Despite this, she continues on with her singing career. Florence becomes ‘known for her humorous ad libbing’ on stage. She is periodically pulled out of The Primettes by her parents for allowing her school work to suffer. Ballard is the one in The Primettes described as having ‘the strongest pipes.’ Yet, even when her parents allow her to rejoin the other girls, Florence is ‘given to unexplained truancy’ from the act or, when she does show up, is ‘a listless and unreliable participant.’ This conduct may be due to post-traumatic stress after the rape.
The Primettes continue to visit Motown’s headquarters. They pick up some work providing handclaps or backing vocals to the recording sessions of other artists. Finally, Berry Gordy relents and gives the girls a recording contract. Despite his clear affection for Diana Ross, ‘Berry Gordy signs them up with Flo [Ballard] as the lead singer.’ Since The Primes have been rechristened The Temptations, it only makes sense for The Primettes to also take on a new designation. Berry Gordy and Motown staffer Janie Bradford submit a list of possible names to the girls. It is Florence Ballard who selects The Supremes. There is an argument that, as time passes, Ballard ‘is forced to watch helplessly while the group she founded is gradually taken away from her.’
In 1961 The Supremes’ first Motown singles are released. April’s ‘I Want A Guy’ (lead vocal – Diana Ross) is described as ‘tepid.’ ‘Buttered Popcorn’ (lead vocal – Florence Ballard) b/w ‘Who’s Loving Who’ (lead vocal – Diana Ross) in July ‘fails to make the [pop singles] chart.’
In 1962 Barbara Martin drops out of The Supremes to get married. This leaves The Supremes a trio with the classic line-up of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. Diana graduates from Cass Technical High School in 1962 where she is voted ‘best-dressed girl.’ “When we first began we didn’t have any hits,” Diana Ross acknowledges. ‘The learning process is long, tedious and frequently trial-and-error.’ The 1962 single, ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’ (US no. 95) is a lilting bossa nova. The year closes with the December 1962 single ‘Let Me Go The Right Way’ (US no. 90), a stamping, energetic belter. The same month sees the release of the trio’s first album, ‘Meet The Supremes’ (1962) (UK no. 8). Produced by Berry Gordy, this introductory package includes both ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’ and ‘Let Me Go The Right Way’.
The Supremes 1963 output begins with ‘My Heart Can’t Take No More’. ‘A Breathtaking Guy’ (US no. 75) in July is a creamy, tropical cocktail with a shared vocal from the three girls. November’s ‘When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’ (US no. 23) has a big, brassy sound, but is not exactly a smash. However this belies the song’s importance for it is the first collaboration between The Supremes and the songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (HDH).
Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie’s brother, Brian Holland, are fated to take The Supremes to their most successful heights. Eddie Holland starts out as a Motown recording artist, scoring a modest hit with ‘Jamie’ (US no. 30) in January 1962, but soon finds his talents are better utilised behind the scenes. Lamont Dozier is ‘a veteran of the local group scene who toils in relative anonymity [as a songwriter and singer] at Motown’ until he begins working with the Holland brothers. Beginning with ‘Heat Wave’ by Martha And The Vandellas in January 1963, HDH are responsible for twenty-eight Motown singles reaching the top twenty of the pop charts – and many of those are by The Supremes.
The musicians who play on The Supremes’ hits – and Motown’s output in general – are later collectively referred to as The Funk Brothers. Among their ranks are: Joe Messina (guitar), Robert White (guitar), Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson, Sr. (bass), Benny Benjamin (drums) and James Giddons (percussion).
The music of The Supremes is sometimes characterised as rhythm and blues or soul. These labels are often lazily applied to any music by African-American recording artists. Rhythm and blues is strong on dance beats and soul draws heavily from the gospel music of church gatherings. Although Diana Ross started singing in church, she betrays few of the characteristics associated with true soul singers like Aretha Franklin. Similarly, though The Supremes’ material is usually eminently danceable, it is not as tough and gritty as more traditional rhythm and blues artists like Jackie Wilson for whom Berry Gordy started out as a songwriter. The Supremes’ true allegiance is to pop music – simple, catchy, commercial fare – and they do it very well.
“I’m not really a songwriter – I’m an interpreter,” says Diana Ross. “I try to choose the songs that really are basically coming from the heart.” In the early days at least, Ross does very little ‘choosing’. Motown tells The Supremes what to record. Despite the likes of Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy writing early singles for the act (e.g. ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’ and ‘Let Me Go The Right Way’, respectively), it is HDH who really click with the girls. The Supremes is not so much the sound of three girls, but six creators: Ross, Wilson, Ballard, Holland, Dozier and Holland.
Diana Ross offers this handy guide to the roles of the girls within The Supremes: “Mary Wilson was always the glamorous one, Florence Ballard had this incredible voice and my sound was, if anything, a small sound. I never felt myself to be a soul singer but I believed in melody and my music, my songs.” Although some contend that Mary Wilson or Florence Ballard were the lead vocalists originally, it soon becomes irrelevant because the role becomes uncontestably Diana Ross’. ‘Diana Ross is able to thread her way dexterously through a complex and overloaded arrangement to deal effortlessly with changes in tempo, to shift accents, to mount waves of sound like a surfboard rider.’ Mary Wilson testifies that, “Diane always liked to be the centre of attention. If you happened to be in her way while she was going toward the centre, that was your fault.” Yet Mary also claims, “We all three were very close. Florence loved Diana. Diana loved Florence and vice versa. We were all that close.” Diana Ross makes a case against there being any magic formula to The Supremes’ chemistry: “I don’t think it was magical for any of us. I think all of us worked really hard…I remember Berry [Gordy, Motown’s boss] being a tough, tough [taskmaster].” However, “The relationship between Berry and I was such a bond…I would do it because he thought I could do it.” In 1964 the ‘bond’ that had previously been expressed as questionable favouritism for Ross over her two companions, deepens into a full-blown secret romantic affair between Ross and Gordy that lasts ‘several years.’
For The Supremes, 1964 starts with another tentative effort from HDH, ‘Run, Run, Run’ (US no. 93). They really hit their stride with the single released in July. ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ (US no. 1, UK no. 3) had already been rejected by The Marvelettes, a more traditional girl group on the Motown label. The Marvelettes deemed the song to be not good enough – and Mary Wilson shares that opinion: “This song is not gonna do it. We need a hit.” However, that is exactly what it delivers The Supremes, their first chart-topper. The lyrics that Mary Wilson considered ‘infantile’ go: “Baby, baby, where did our love go? / Don’t you want me, don’t you want me no more?” Part of the key to the song’s success is the stomping snare drum sound of four beats to a bar. This simple feature shows up in most of the subsequent Supremes / HDH hits. Also notable about ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ is that Diana Ross drops her voice to sing in what is usually Mary ‘Wilson’s lower mezzo soprano’, giving the vocals a huskier, sexier sound. In August, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ (1964) (US no. 2) also becomes the title of the second album by The Supremes. It collects together ‘A Breathtaking Guy’ and ‘When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’ from before their breakthrough, as well as ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ and what will be the girls’ next two singles, ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Come See About Me’. The production credits are shared between Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield and HDH, reflecting the mixed bag origins of the disc. The Supremes’ third album comes only two months later in October, and it is an odd one. ‘A Bit Of Liverpool’ (1964) (US no. 21), produced by Gordy, has The Supremes tackling the songs of the British group The Beatles and other Merseyside hits. The Supremes’ version of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ is probably the best known track. The October and November singles, ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Come See About Me’, are really just refinements of the HDH formula discovered on ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, but are no less successful because of that. Berry Gordy urges his acts to stick to a proven method until it is totally exhausted. ‘Baby Love’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) is bolstered by a saucy saxophone and it’s impossible not to admire the precision timing of the dance groove on ‘Come See About Me’ (US no. 1, UK no. 27), a song whose lyrics warn, “No matter what you do or say / I’m gonna love you anyway.” With three number one singles, Diana Ross exults, “With The Supremes, I made so much money so fast all I wanted to do was buy clothes and pretty things.”
Striking while the iron is hot, Motown keeps The Supremes hyperactively busy in 1965. Let’s run through the singles first, starting with their all-time best, February’s ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ (US no. 1, UK no. 7). A variation on the standard police warning (“Stop! In the name of the law”), the song is inspired by a fight co-songwriter Lamont Dozier has with his girlfriend. As his lady friend is about to walk out, this title pops into his head. The Supremes offer a nice accompanying dance step, extending a palm out right in the fashion of a traffic cop. A swelling organ flowers into the demand, “Stop! In the name of love / Before you break my heart / Think it over.” With its clever stylistic flourishes wedded to the prerequisite crunching beat, this is The Supremes’ definitive work, a summation of their energy, inventiveness, and emotional savvy. May’s ‘Back In My Arms Again’ (US no. 1, UK no. 40), a song in which Diana Ross’ narrator ignores the advice of friends in order to keep hold of her man, showcases some nicely bespoke lyrics: “How can Mary tell me what to do when she lost her love so true? / And Flo, she don’t know, ‘cos the boy she loves is a Romeo.” The year’s other two hits sound increasingly like excerpts from melodramatic romantic novels. Despite its insistent saxophone, ‘Nothing But Heartaches’ (US no. 11) disgraces itself by only (!) reaching no. 11 in August, breaking The Supremes string of chart-toppers. The dainty, tripping two-step of November’s ‘I Hear A Symphony’ (US no. 1, UK no. 39) restores them to the top of the charts.
The Supremes release an astonishing five albums in 1965, but they are very diverse. February’s ‘The Supremes Sing Country, Western And Pop’ (1965) (US no. 79) offers just what the title promises. Clarence Paul produces this set which includes the Willie Nelson song ‘Time Slips Away’. ‘We Remember Sam Cooke’ (1965) (US no. 75) in April is a tribute to the gospel, pop and soul singer who died the previous year. Diana Ross’ airy delivery is a good match for Cooke’s own high vocals on the original ‘You Send Me’. Harvey Fuqua, Hal Davis and Marc Gordon oversee this disc. The Supremes (and Motown and the pop music industry in general at this time) are more singles-oriented than geared towards albums, but ‘More Hits By The Supremes’ (1965) (US no. 6) in July can stake a claim to being their best album. For starters, it’s their only mainstream pop album for the year and, secondly, it’s masterminded by HDH. A track list that includes ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’, ‘Back In My Arms Again’ and ‘Nothing But Heartaches’ makes a strong argument all by itself for this album’s supremacy (pardon the pun). November brings two albums: ‘The Supremes At The Copa’ (1965) (US no. 11) and ‘Merry Christmas’ (1965). The former is a concert recording from a show at New York’s prestigious Copacabana Club. It’s a big deal for Motown’s ambitions and the girls put on a sophisticated show, studded with Broadway tunes, to woo a wider (and whiter) audience. Harvey Fuqua produces ‘Merry Christmas’ which, of course, is a seasonal album with traditional fare like ‘White Christmas’.
The four Supremes singles for 1966 – two of which are chart-toppers – exhibit a previously unknown depth and complexity to the arrangements masterminded by HDH, who continue to act as producers and songwriters. January’s ‘My World Is Empty Without You’ (US no. 5) is darker than customary, with a throbbing bass and sinister organ. ‘Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart’ (US no. 9), released in May, has a strong beat and Diana Ross puts a tigerish snarl into her lead vocals. Perhaps the best of the four is August’s ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ (US no. 1, UK no. 3). It is the simplest of the bunch, but this pared down classicism snaps neatly into place as Ross sings, “My momma said, ‘You can’t hurry love / You just have to wait’ / She said, ‘Love don’t’ come easy / It’s a game of give and take.’” Rounding out The Supremes’ singles for 1966 is November’s ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (US no. 1, UK no. 8). Powered by an underlying guitar figure that is so staccato it resembles Morse code, Ross asks, “Why don’t you be a man about it / And set me free?” The Supremes release two albums this year, ‘I Hear A Symphony’ (1966) (US no. 8) in February and ‘The Supremes A’ Go-Go’ (1966) in August. The former includes the title track from late in 1965 as well as ‘My World Is Empty Without You’. ‘Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart’ and ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ are both on the latter album. HDH are bolstered by co-producers on these sets, Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson respectively. Both albums are padded out with a number of cover versions. In 1966 Motown allows The Supremes a vacation for the first time in three years. Diana Ross spends her break on a charm-school refresher course.
After a hectic few years of hit-making, developments in 1967 will change the status quo for The Supremes. ‘The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland’ (1967) (US no. 6, UK no. 15) in January substantially consists of the girls singing cover versions of songs HDH provided to other Motown artists. It incorporates their own hit, ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, and their next single, ‘Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone’ (US no. 1, UK no. 17). Released in February, this song is coloured by a psychedelic harpsichord sound, indicating the group moving with the times. Similarly, ‘The Happening’ (US no. 1, UK no. 6) in April is a dose of groovy 1960s way-out vibes with some swooping strings for good measure. Diana Ross giddily warbles, “When the fickle finger of fate / Yeah, it came and broke my pretty balloon / I woke up / Suddenly, I just woke up / To the happening.” Frank De Vol shares a songwriting credit with HDH because he is responsible for the music for the ‘little-remembered film’ ‘The Happening’ (1967) from whose soundtrack the song comes. The film is about some hippies going with the flow but finding themselves in trouble with the mafia. Berry Gordy and Gil Askey co-produce the May album ‘The Supremes Sing Rodgers And Hart’ (1967) (US no. 20, UK no. 25). This is another attempt to broaden The Supremes appeal as all-around entertainers instead of just pop stars. It includes ‘Falling In Love With Love’ from Richards Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1938 Broadway show, ‘The Boys From Syracuse’.
Due to the ‘inordinate attention lavished upon [Diana] Ross by [Berry] Gordy…the other Supremes feel themselves increasingly pushed to the background.’ Florence Ballard takes it hardest. She misses some gigs due to ‘illness.’ Actually, she is suffering from melancholia and attempting to drown her sorrows in alcohol. Whether the boozing should be attributed to dissatisfaction with her career, post-traumatic stress from her 1960 sexual assault, or some intrinsic personal flaw, is a matter for conjecture. There are conflicting accounts of Ballard being fired ‘for her increased drinking and problems during recording’ and Ballard angrily resigning due to Berry Gordy putting her on suspension. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: In summer 1967 The Supremes lose Florence Ballard. Her replacement is Cindy Birdsong (born 15 December 1939), formerly a member of Patti Labelle And The Bluebells. It seems Ballard’s departure was on the cards because Cindy Birdsong watched The Supremes act each night for a couple of weeks in preparation, though she says, “I didn’t even know which girl was leaving.” Taking advantage of the reshuffle, the name of the act is modified from The Supremes to Diana Ross And The Supremes, cementing the dominance of their lead vocalist. Mary Wilson grumbles that the name change “was the worst thing that ever happened to us.”
The first release with Cindy Birdsong under the new banner of Diana Ross And The Supremes is ‘Reflections’ (US no. 2, UK no. 5) in August 1967. “Through the mirror of my mind / Time after time / I see reflections of you and me,” coos Ross amidst trippy, psychedelic sound effects with a hot tambourine keeping time. November’s ‘In And Out Of Love’ (US no. 9, UK no. 13) closes the year with a countryish swagger. In March 1968 comes the big and dramatic ‘Forever Came Today’ (US no. 28, UK no. 28). The album ‘Reflections’ (1968) (US no. 18, UK no. 30), also in March, contains these three singles. At this point, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team leaves Motown for independent production with their own Invictus Records.
Given his secret relationship with Diana Ross, Motown boss Berry Gordy is not about to see Diana Ross And The Supremes suffer. However, they are passed about from various songwriters to various producers and lose the coherence of their output with HDH. ‘Some Things You Never Get Used To’ (US no. 30, UK no. 34) is written by the young couple Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and features clattering castanets. ‘Live At London’s Talk Of The Town’ (1968) (US no. 57, UK no. 6) and ‘Diana Ross And The Supremes Sing And Perform ‘Funny Girl’’ (1968) (US no. 150) are both issued in August. The latter is another album of show tunes, including ‘I’m The Greatest Star’. ‘Love Child’ (US no. 1, UK no. 15), the single released in October 1968, introduces social conscience to Diana Ross And The Supremes’ catalogue. A dramatic account of illegitimate pregnancy, the lyrics warn, “We’ll only end up hating this child we could be creating.” ‘Love Child’ is penned by Pam Sawyer, R. Dean Taylor, Frank Wilson and Deke Richards – also known collectively as The Clan. The song becomes the title track of ‘Love Child’ (1968) (US no. 14, UK no. 8) the following month, an album that also includes ‘Some Things You Never Get Used To’. Also released in November is ‘Diana Ross And The Supremes Join The Temptations’ (1968) (US no. 2, UK no. 1). This features the girls duetting with their former mentors on songs like ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ (US no. 2, UK no. 3) and ‘I’ll Try Something New’ (US no. 25). On 19 November 1968 Diana Ross And The Supremes meet the Queen of England and perform in the Royal Command Variety Performance in London. From the stage, Ross offers a plea for interracial understanding that draws applause for two minutes. ‘T.C.B’ (1968) (US no. 1, UK no. 11) stands for Taking Care of Business and is the soundtrack to a television special co-starring Diana Ross And The Supremes with The Temptations. It is released in December.
‘I’m Livin’ In Shame’ (US no. 10, UK no. 14), another social commentary song, kicks off 1969 for Diana Ross And The Supremes. Released in February, this is another composition by The Clan with Berry Gordy and Henry Cosby substituting for Deke Richards. The song’s narrator is living a posh life while denying her ghetto roots: “I must have been insane / I told them momma died on a weekend trip to Spain.” Smokey Robinson pens ‘The Composer’ (US no. 27), released in May 1969, a song that equates love and songwriting. Both these songs are on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ (1969) (US no. 24), also released in May. This multiple producer patchwork is also home to the next single from Diana Ross And The Supremes, June’s ‘No Matter What Sign You Are’ (US no. 31, UK no. 37) b/w ‘The Young Folks’. Berry Gordy and Henry Cosby co-write the A side, a song about not letting astrology rule our destinies. ‘Together’ (1969) (US no. 28, UK no. 28) in September is another album of duets with The Temptations.
On 8 November 1969 Diana Ross announces she is leaving The Supremes for a solo career. Before that happens, there are final bows to be taken. ‘Cream Of The Crop’ (1969) (US no. 33, UK no. 34) in November is the final studio album for Diana Ross And The Supremes. From this set comes the act’s final single, titled (ironically?) ‘Some Day We’ll Be Together’ (US no. 1, UK no. 13). Jackey Beavers, Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua co-write this wistful tune that is given careful orchestral shading. On the television variety program ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in December 1969 Diana Ross professes to having discovered Motown’s latest signing, The Jackson 5 – featuring the future self-styled King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Actually, The Jackson 5 submitted a demo tape to Motown in 1967 and other Motown acts, Gladys Knight and Bobby Taylor, had been championing them. Motown signs The Jackson 5 but decides it will look better if their biggest star, Diana Ross, is touted as the act’s sponsor. ‘G.I.T. On Broadway’ (1969) (US no. 38), released in November, is the soundtrack to a television special featuring Diana Ross And The Supremes ‘Gettin’ It Together’ (G.I.T.) with The Temptations for a bunch of show tunes. The last concert by Diana Ross And The Supremes is on 14 January 1970 at the Frontier Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. This is memorialised on the live album, ‘Farewell’ (1970) (US no. 46) in April.
Diana Ross and The Supremes go their separate ways. Let’s begin with The Supremes’ subsequent career…
It may be thought that, without their central figure, The Supremes would just retire, but that is not the case. Apparently, Motown thinks it may double its income from Diana Ross and The Supremes becoming two distinct recording entities. It may be thought that, with Diana Ross gone, Mary Wilson – as the sole remaining original Supreme – would become the central figure, but that is not the case. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are joined in 1970 by a new lead singer, Jean Terrell (born 26 November 1944). ‘Right On’ (1970) (US no. 25) in April, the first (new) Supremes album includes ‘Up The Ladder To The Roof’ (US no. 10, UK no. 6), a song of optimism atop the housing projects, and the sashaying ‘Everybody’s Got The Right To Love’ (US no. 21). The latter day Supremes’ biggest hit, ‘Stoned Love’ (US no. 7, UK no. 3), comes from ‘New Ways But Love Stays’ (1970) (US no. 68) in October, an album otherwise notable chiefly for the girls’ versions of other artists pop hits of the time. Between these two albums, The Supremes cut ‘The Magnificent 7’ (1970) (US no. 113), an album of duets with The Four Tops. Like The Temptations, The Four Tops are another Motown male vocal group but, like The Supremes, The Four Tops’ biggest hits were masterminded by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team in the mid-1960s. The Supremes and The Four Tops record two more albums of duets – ‘Return Of The Magnificent 7’ (1971) (US no. 154) and ‘Dynamite’ (1971) (US no. 160) – that alternate on the release schedule between new Supremes albums.
In 1971 Berry Gordy relocates Motown’s head office from Detroit to Los Angeles, a move that presages the decline of the company.
‘Touch’ (1971) (US no. 85, UK no. 40) features the mildly erotic title track, ‘Touch’ (US no. 71), and ‘Nathan Jones’ (US no. 16, UK no. 5), an anthem for girls fed up with disappointing men. Smokey Robinson produces ‘Floy Joy’ (1972) (US no. 54) and writes the helpless-in-love title track, ‘Floy Joy’ (US no. 16, UK no. 9), the funky ‘Your Wonderful Sweet, Sweet Love’ (US no. 59) and the relentlessly rhythmic ‘Automatically Sunshine’ (US no. 37, UK no. 10).
Mary Wilson of The Supremes has a two year romance with Welsh singer Tom Jones in the early 1970s.
In April 1972 Cindy Birdsong leaves The Supremes to start a family. Replacing her is Lynda Laurence (born 20 February 1949), formerly of Wonderlove, the backing group for Stevie Wonder, another Motown star. Lynda Laurence debuts on ‘I Guess I’ll Miss The Man’ (US no. 85) in 1972, The Supremes’ version of a song from the stage musical ‘Pippin’. ‘The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb’ (1972) (US no. 129) includes ‘I Guess I’ll Miss The Man’ and pairs the girls with the eccentric composer of such songs as ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘MacArthur Park’. Stevie Wonder writes the March 1973 single ‘Bad Weather’ (US no. 87, UK no. 37). This is followed by ‘The Supremes Live In Japan’ (1973). In October 1973 Cindy Birdsong returns and Lynda Laurence exits. Jean Terrell also bows out in 1973. Her replacement is Scherrie Payne (born 4 November 1944).
On 11 May 1974 Mary Wilson marries Pedro Ferrer. They have three children: a daughter named Turkessa (born 1975); a son, Pedro Antonio, Jr.; and another son, Rafael (born 9 May 1977). The marriage ends in divorce in 1981. Mary’s son, Rafael, is killed in a car accident on 29 January 1994.
‘Supremes’ (1975) (US no. 152) finds Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong and Scherrie Payne experimenting with disco rhythms. ‘High Energy’ (1976) (US no. 42) in April reunites them with former mentors Brian Holland and Eddie Holland, though these two are no longer associated with Lamont Dozier. The Holland brothers, co-writing with Harold Beatty, supply ‘I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking’ (US no. 40), The Supremes’ final top forty hit, which is another disco number. Cindy Birdsong exits the group again in 1976. Susaye Greene (born 13 September 1949), like Lynda Laurence a Wonderlove alumnus, takes over. ‘Mary, Scherrie & Susaye’ (1976) in October is again produced by the Holland brothers. It is also the final Supremes album. The trio disbands in 1977.
Although The Supremes never record again, they do tour in various forms, some more legitimate than others. From 1978 to the mid-1980s, The Supremes consist of Mary Wilson, Kaaren Ragland and Karen Jackson. In 1981, a Broadway musical, ‘Dreamgirls’, begins. It is based on The Supremes, though it is a work of fiction. It runs for one thousand, five hundred and twenty-one performances. It becomes a motion picture, ‘Dreamgirls’ (2006), starring Beyonce Knowles as Deena Jones (Diana Ross), Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell Robinson (Mary Wilson) and Jennifer Hudson as Effie White (Florence Ballard). In 1983, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong perform together on the television special ‘Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever’. The show is taped on 25 March 1983 and broadcast on 16 May 1983. Mary Wilson pens ‘Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme’ (1986) which becomes ‘the best-selling rock ‘n’ roll autobiography ever published’ and spawns a second volume, ‘Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together’ (1990). In 1986, Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence begin touring under the name FLOS (Former Ladies Of the Supremes). Laurence’s sister, Sundray Tucker, replaces Jean Terrell in 1992. Tucker, in turn, makes way for Freddi Poole in 1996 before FLOS shuts down. Meantime, in 1989 Kaaren Ragland starts her own Supremes. She is flanked by Linda Lloyd and Hollis Payseur. After some controversy, the act changes its name to Sounds Of The Supremes. In 2000, a tour, ‘Return to Love’, is announced that will reunite Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong as Diana Ross And The Supremes. However, due to substantial differences in their prospective wages (Ross: fifteen million, Wilson: nine million, Birdsong: less than one million), the plan falls through. Instead, Diana Ross completes the tour with Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence instead, though she had never previously worked with these latter-day Supremes. In September 2009 Scherrie Payne, Lynda Laurence and Joyce Vincent tour under the name of The Former Supremes.
What about Florence Ballard? After splitting with The Supremes, she marries Thomas Chapman on 29 February 1968. They have three daughters: Nicole, Lisa and Michelle. An attempted solo career for Florence Ballard flounders. Mary Wilson offers her a spot in one of the post-Diana Ross line-ups of The Supremes, but Ballard declines. There are ‘several domestic disputes’ with her husband, Thomas Chapman, and she slides toward alcoholism. Florence Ballard files an eight-point seven million dollar lawsuit against Motown for back royalties – but loses the case. Destitute, she lives on Government welfare payments. From this low-point, Florence Ballard begins to gear up for a comeback in 1975 but dies of coronary thrombosis (heart failure) on 22 February 1976. She was 32. Her death is ‘one of rock’s greatest tragedies.’ Diana Ross is reportedly ‘devastated by the loss.’
Diana Ross’ first solo outing is on 8 March 1970 when she begins an eleven-date cabaret show in Framingham, Massachusetts. For the next two years, her standard greeting is, “Good evening, and welcome to the Let’s-see-if-Diana-Ross-can-make-it-on-her-own show.” Diana Ross’ first solo single is ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ (US no. 20, UK no. 33, AUS no. 56), released in May 1970. Her debut album, ‘Diana Ross’ (1970) (US no. 19, UK no. 14) includes ‘Reach Out…’ as well as her version of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (US no. 1, UK no. 6, AUS no. 25), a song previously recorded as a duet by Motown singers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967. ‘Everything Is Everything’ (1970) (US no. 42, UK no. 31), a second album, comes out in November.
Diana Ross’ romantic relationship with Berry Gordy comes to an end in 1970. Although he apparently doesn’t realise it, Ross is pregnant with Gordy’s child. She marries Robert Ellis Silberstein on 20 January 1971 and her daughter, Rhonda (born August 1971), is raised as Silberstein’s child. Ross and Silberstein have two more daughters, Tracee (born 1972) and Chudney (born 4 November 1975). The third child is intended to be named Chutney but the name is misspelled as Chudney when the birth is registered.
In 1971 Diana Ross releases the singles ‘Remember Me’ (US no. 16, UK no. 7), ‘I’m Still Waiting’ (US no. 63, UK no. 1, AUS no. 69), ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ (US no. 29) and ‘Surrender’ (US no. 38, UK no. 10) as well as the albums ‘Diana’ (1971) (US no. 46, UK no. 43) in March (the soundtrack to a TV special) and ‘Surrender’ (1971) (US no. 56, UK no. 10) in July.
Broadening her career, Diana Ross stars in the movie ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ (1972). This is a biography of Billie Holiday and Ross collects an Academy Award nomination for playing the part of Holiday, a tragic jazz singer. The movie soundtrack, ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ (1972) (US no. 1, UK no. 50, AUS no. 43), and the single ‘Doobedood’ndoobedoobedoo’ndoobe’ (UK no. 12) keep Diana Ross in the charts.
In June 1973 Diana Ross releases the album ‘Touch Me In The Morning’ (1973) (US no. 5, UK no. 7, AUS no. 20), and its hit single title-track, ‘Touch Me In the Morning’ (US no. 1, UK no. 9, AUS no. 5). This is followed by ‘Diana And Marvin’ (1973) (US no. 26, UK no. 6, AUS no. 26), an album of duets with fellow Motown singer, Marvin Gaye. This pairing produces the singles ‘You’re A Special Part Of Me’ (US no. 12), ‘You Are Everything’ (UK no. 5), ‘My Mistake Was To Love You’ (US no. 19) and ‘Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart’ (UK no. 25). December’s Diana Ross album, ‘Last Time I Saw Him’ (1973) (US no. 52, UK no. 41, AUS no. 50), again yields a hit with the title song, ‘Last Time I Saw Him’ (US no. 14, UK no. 35, AUS no. 18). ‘Live At Caesar’s Palace’ (1974) is a concert recording. Ross’ acting ambitions get another workout with ‘Mahogany’ (1975), ‘the story of a black fashion model’s rise and disillusionment’. The character’s gowns and outfits are designed by Ross. If the film is less well received than ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, the ‘Mahogany’ (1975) (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 38) soundtrack album at least contains two of her more impressive solo hits: the wistful ‘Theme From Mahogany’ (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 38) and the amorous ‘Love Hangover’ (US no. 1, UK no. 10, AUS no. 67). These two songs are also on ‘Diana Ross’ (1976) (US no. 5, UK no. 4, AUS no. 39). [Despite sharing a name with her 1970 debut solo album, this is a new and different disc.] In June 1976 the marriage of Diana Ross and Robert Silberman goes to divorce court and the divorce is granted on 9 March 1977.
‘Baby It’s Me’ (1977) (US no. 18, AUS no. 81) is followed by ‘Ross’ (1978) (US no. 49), the latter being a mix of old and new material. Diana Ross returns to cinemas in ‘The Wiz’ (1978), a musical version of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900), L. Frank Baum’s children’s book, though it’s perhaps better known for the film starring Judy Garland, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939). ‘The Wiz’ starts out as a Broadway musical before being made into a film. In the movie, Diana Ross plays the part of Dorothy and her young friend Michael Jackson plays the Scarecrow. ‘The Wiz’ (1978) (US no. 40) soundtrack album features Ross and Jackson singing a duet on ‘Ease On Down The Road’ (US no. 41, UK no. 45). Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson produce ‘The Boss’ (1979) (US no. 14, UK no. 52, AUS no. 76) which scores with the singles ‘The Boss’ (US no. 19, UK no. 40) and ‘It’s My House’ (UK no. 32, AUS no. 71). Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of disco music powerhouse Chic produce the next album, ‘Diana’ (1980) (US no. 2, UK no. 12, AUS no. 17). [This disc has another recycled album title, but is different to the 1971 set of the same name.]. Their expertise helps push ‘Upside Down’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1), ‘I’m Coming Out’ (US no. 5, UK no. 13, AUS no. 40) and ‘My Old Piano’ (US no. 109, UK no. 5, AUS no. 25) into the charts. However, ‘Diana’ is also the singer’s last album for Motown…at least for a while.
Diana Ross and Gene Simmons, of U.S. hard rock band Kiss, become a couple from 1980 to 1983.
Diana Ross debuts on RCA Records with ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ (1981) (US no. 15, UK no. 20, AUS no. 47). Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers had a hit with the title track in 1956 and Diana Ross’ energetic take on ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ (US no. 7, UK no. 4, AUS no. 15) also works well. The same album also hosts ‘Endless Love’ (US no. 1, UK no. 7, AUS no. 1), a mellow duet with Lionel Richie. The song comes from the film ‘Endless Love’ (1981), a teenage love story starring actress Brooke Shields. (Diana Ross doesn’t appear in the film.) ‘Silk Electric’ (1982) (US no. 27, UK no. 33, AUS no. 84) includes ‘Mirror, Mirror’ (US no. 8, UK no. 36), ‘Work That Body’ (US no. 44, UK no. 7) and ‘Muscles’ (US no. 10, UK no. 15, AUS no. 50). The last-named is a song written and produced for Diana Ross by Michael Jackson.
The previously mentioned ‘Motown 25’ television special is broadcast on 16 May 1983 on NBC-TV. This reunites Diana Ross And The Supremes for the first time since 1970. What happens during the show – but is cut out of the broadcast – is a physical conflict between the girls. As Diana Ross begins ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, she is joined onstage by Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. The crowd is ecstatic. All goes well until ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ starts. It may be remembered that this was Diana Ross’ first solo hit, not a song she recorded with The Supremes. This seems to be the cue for Ross to ‘give Mary Wilson a spontaneous spiteful on-camera shove of such force that it causes Wilson to drop her microphone.’ ‘The audience gasps’ and only the hasty entrance of Smokey Robinson as peacemaker prevents further bickering.
On 21 July 1983 Diana Ross puts on a benefit concert in New York’s Central Park (minus The Supremes). The idea is to raise funds for a children’s playground to be named after Diana Ross. The show is washed-out by rain after only a few songs. Ross returns the following night to fulfil her commitment. Many in the crowd are robbed by roaming gangs of thieves. Violence and assaults spill into neighbouring streets. An accounting in January 1984 reveals the shows failed to make any profit and actually ended up costing the city money. Not helping the situation were Ross’ exorbitant expenses (e.g. gown = four thousand and thirty-five dollars; make-up = six hundred and twenty-five dollars; limousine = twelve thousand dollars). The embarrassed star writes a personal cheque for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to get the playground construction started.
‘Ross’ (1983) (US no. 32, UK no. 44, AUS no. 59) [which is not the 1978 album of the same name], ‘Swept Away’ (1984) (US no. 26, UK no. 40, AUS no. 78), ‘Eaten Alive’ (1985) (US no. 45, UK no. 11, AUS no. 11) and ‘Red Hot Rhythm And Blues’ (1987) (US no. 73, UK no. 47) complete Diana Ross’ tenure at RCA. The most interesting of these is ‘Eaten Alive’, written and produced for Diana Ross by disco pop group The Bee Gees. ‘Chain Reaction’ (US no. 95, UK no. 1) from this album does its best to recreate the old Holland-Dozier-Holland sound.
On 23 October 1985 Diana Ross marries Arne Naess, a Norwegian shipping millionaire. They have two sons, Ross (born 7 October 1987) and Evan (born 26 August 1988).
Diana Ross returns to Motown for ‘Workin’ Overtime’ (1989) (US no. 116, UK no. 23, AUS no. 85) and ‘The Force Behind The Power’ (1991) (US no. 102, UK no. 11).
In April 1993 ‘When You Dream’, a children’s book written by Diana Ross, is released.
EMI releases ‘A Very Special Season’ (1994) (UK no. 37), an album of Christmas tunes. Back at Motown, Ross issues ‘Take Me Higher’ (1995) (US no. 114, UK no. 10) and ‘Every Day Is A New Day’ (1999) (US no. 108, UK no. 73) in May.
On 23 September 1999 Diana Ross is arrested. A (female) airport security guard was required to frisk Ms Ross after a metal detector was set off. Claiming the guard touched her breast, Ross responded by grabbing the guard’s breast. This action gets her arrested.
Diana Ross and Arne Naess divorce on 12 February 2000. (Arne Naess dies in a climbing accident in South Africa on 13 January 2004.)
In 2000 there is the troubled ‘Return To Love’ reunion tour with The Supremes. Instead of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong accompanying Diana Ross, it is latter-day Supremes Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence instead.
On 20 May 2002 Diana Ross enters ‘Promises’, a Malibu, California, drug and alcohol centre. On 30 December 2002 Diana Ross is arrested in Tucson, Arizona, for driving under the influence of alcohol. She incurs two days in jail, thirty-six hours of counselling and one year on probation. She is arrested again on 10 February 2004 for driving while intoxicated.
In 2005-2006 Diana Ross is romanced by actor John Voight.
‘Blue’ (2006) (US no. 146), from June, is an album of jazz and standards Diana Ross originally recorded in 1971-1972 but Motown had shelved it at the time. Moving to EMI again, Diana Ross issues ‘I Love You’ (2006) (US no. 32, UK no. 60) in October. This is a set of classic rock love songs from the past. It is produced by Peter Asher, known for his work with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
When Motown rejected Diana Ross and her friends on their first audition it became an ironic moment in the career of the act that would become ‘Berry Gordy’s consummate commercial coup.’ Their heyday was the period from 1964 to 1967 when The Supremes worked with Holland-Dozier-Holland. Yes, at times, Diana Ross could seem overbearing, but it was that aggressive personality, her ambition to be a superstar, that drove the success of the act. “We were all three very close,” Mary Wilson said. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard were three girls from the housing projects who conquered the pop world. Diana Ross And The Supremes were ‘the most successful black performers of the 1960s. ‘They were, and always will be…Supreme.’
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 190, 192, 196, 197
- ‘Diana Ross And The Supremes – The Greatest Hits Anthology’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Motown Record Co., 1986) p. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Motown’ by Joe McEwen, Ian Miller (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 277, 278, 279, 280, 282, 286, 289, 290, 291
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 16 December 2013
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 16 February 2014
- You Tube – Diana Ross & The Supremes Pt. 1 & 2 (ABC-KETV?) (8 December 2013?)
- brainyquote.com as at 16 February 2014
- wikipedia.org as at 15 February 2014
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 5, 21, 47, 63, 79, 150, 170, 172, 253, 313, 340, 354, 356
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 55, 63, 85
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 256
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 76
- ‘People’ magazine – ‘Singer Mary Wilson pens memoirs that Diana Ross might rather forget’ by Roger Wolmuth (17 November 1986) (reproduced on people.com)
- ‘Motown’ (Collier) by David Morse – quoted in (2) above p. 3, 4
- lyricsfreak.com as at 12 February 2014
- allmusic.com, ‘Diana Ross And The Supremes’ by Richie Unterberger as at 16 February 2004
- whosdatedwho.com as at 15 February 2014
Song lyrics copyright EMI Songs with the exception of ‘I’m The Greatest Star’ (Warner Chappell Music)
Last revised 6 March 2014