The Supremes were an all female group from the 1960s that was signed to Motown Records. The group was formed in the year 1959 as The Primettes in the city of Detroit by Milton Jenkins, who was managing an all male group known as The Primes. The initial members of the group were Diana Ross, Betty McGlown, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. These girls had grown up in the projects of Detroit and formed the group as a female version of The Primes that included Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. These two later formed The Temptations.
Initially, The Supremes did not perform their own songs, but those by other renowned artists such as The Drifters and Ray Charles. They performed at social clubs, talent shows and sock hops in Detroit, and many of their ‘live’ gigs were mimed, as was the normal practice during this period when backing groups were not only not freely available, but also the expense was not considered worthwhile when songs could be mimed. It was a period when fans paid to SEE their stars, not listen to them singing live.
During this period, none of the girls was a designated lead singer, each taking on the role depending on the song. Shortly after the group was formed, they had a guitarist on board, Marvin Tarplin. With the guitarist, they could sing live instead of miming and this distinguished them from many of the other aspiring groups in Detroit.
The girls entered a local talent competition and won. With this under their belt, they decided to make a record and sign on with Motown. Diana managed to convince a neighbor, Smokey Robinson, to get them an audition with a Motown executive. They auditioned for Berry Gordy Jr. (father of Diana Ross’s eldest daughter Rhonda) who refused to sign them because they were too young. Not to be deterred, they approached Lupine Records and got their first single out entitled “Tears of Sorrow”, which was followed by their second one “Pretty Baby.” None of these were hits.
During this time, McGlown was engaged to be married and decided to drop out of the group. Barbara Martin quickly took her place. The Primettes convinced Gordy to allow them to perform as background singers and he did. They performed for Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye among others. Finally, Gordy relented and signed them up as The Supremes in 1961. In 1962 Barbara left the group and went home to start a family living the remaining three Supremes to carry on.
In their first two years, The Supremes had no hits so they sang backup for The Temptations as well as Marvin Gaye. In the latter part of 1963, Gordy selected Diana as The Supremes lead singer. Their lucky break came with “lovelight” coming in at #23 in December of 1963. In 1964, they recorded “Where Did Our Love Go”, which became their first number one single in America in August of that year. It was also their first song to be put on British pop charts, reaching number 3. This song opened up the flood gates of number one singles in the US by The Supremes.
The singles included “Come See about Me”, “Back in My Arms Again”, “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Baby Love,” this was simultaneously number one in the UK. It was also nominated for a Grammy in 1965 in the category of Best Rhythm and Blues Recording. Another hit “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” received a Grammy in 1966 for the Best Pop Single. Among the number one hits were “I Hear a Symphony” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” In the year 1966 they released their first album “The Supremes A’ Go-Go.”
They had become stars, featuring in movies and producing soundtracks for them. They began touring internationally and endorsing many products. The Supremes broke racial boundaries and were appealing to both black and white audiences. They were among the first musical groups to break such boundaries performing in supper clubs including the New York club Copacabana.
Their songs mixed rock & roll with R&B, making it difficult for others to copy their style. They also began appearing on TV shows regularly including The Ed Sullivan Show, on which they appeared 17 times, The Hollywood Palace, Hullabaloo and The Della Reese Show. It was on the back of The Supremes that groups like The Jackson 5 and The Four Tops found their own success.
As is the way of most famous groups, success brought internal wrangles. The group later became Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1967. Additional changes included replacing Florence Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. Diana left The Supremes in 1970 to pursue a solo career, and was replaced by Jean Terrell and The Supremes carried on.
Many young ladies joined and left the Supremes including Scherrie Payne, Susaye Green, and Lynda Laurence who joined the group in the mid 70s. In 1977 the 18 year reign of The Supremes came to an end. 12 of their singles had been number one on the charts. Of all the groups signed by Motown, they were the most successful, rivaling The Beatles in popularity around the world.