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The nice girls: Sixty years of The Supremes

Steeped in nice girl sugary sophistication, America’s definitive girl group were as significant to the 1960s pop culture explosion as British exports The Beatles and James Bond. The Supremes’ stunning catalogue of hits elevated everyday romance to soaring drama, which thrived on Diana Ross’ velvety, pleading turns as lead singer, buoyed by Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson’s immaculate harmonising. Celebrating sixty years since they signed to Motown, this is the story of The Supremes.

It’s a little known fact that Dusty Springfield effectively introduced Motown to Great Britain. In March 1965, the Tamla-Motown Revue – featuring The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder – toured the UK for the first time.

Hard as it is to believe now, the Revue had a difficult time filling the theatres. Dusty, a huge fan of black American soul and R&B, wanted to help promote the Detroit musicians to a wider British audience, and convinced the British pop show Ready Steady Go! to devote an entire episode to them, which she was more than happy to host.

On the Sound of Motown bill were three young girls from a Detroit housing project with pop appeal and rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Although The Supremes had scored a British chart-topper with the sugar-coated Baby Love in 1964 – and a No.3 with their first UK hit, the immortal Where Did Our Love Go – this was the first time many music lovers had an opportunity to see the trio on commercial television. The Brits, naturally, were wowed.

The Supremes would go on to become the most successful and influential girl group and American act of the 1960s, and lead singer Diana Ross, in a central role between Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, was a primary reason. Though they started out as a struggling quartet called The Primettes, releasing one solitary single, Tears Of Sorrow, on Lu Pine Records in 1960.

The four Supremes in 1961: Barbara Martin, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross bringing up the rear. Martin would leave in 1962
The four Supremes in 1961: Barbara Martin, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross bringing up the rear. Martin would leave in 1962

A waif-like beauty with a honeyed, breathy voice and big telly-ready eyes, Ross cooed lyrics of love, loss and hope on an unprecedented string of US No.1 hits between ’64 and ’67. The songs, including Come See About Me, You Can’t Hurry Love and You Keep Me Hangin’ On (later memorably a hit again for Kim Wilde 20 years and a day after the original) were a consistent salve for a country reeling from assassinations, war and political strife, becoming staples on radio dials for decades to come and putting Ross in millions of living rooms the world over.

The trio wound up influencing not just generations of African-American singers with their grace, elegance, style and flair, but also rock musicians of the punk, garage and new-wave eras as well. Eclipsed only by The Beatles in terms of sales, The Supremes were so huge by 1967’s psychedelic-tinged Reflections (one of the first hits to feature the relatively new use of synthesizers) that Motown chief Berry Gordy changed their name to Diana Ross and the Supremes. After the trio’s 12th and final Billboard No.1, Someday We’ll Be Together in 1969, Diana launched a solo career, while Mary Wilson, together, initially, with Ballard’s replacement Cindy Birdsong, continued the Supremes name in varying permutations with ever decreasing success.

Formulas, it turns out, don’t have to be such a bad thing. All those Supremes songs are absolutely fabulous pieces of pop music, and they all continue to sound trailblazing all these decades later.

So, six of The Supremes’ sassiest, most significant sixties singles? (Try saying that with a lisp.) Coming right up…

Where Did Our Love Go (1964)

Where Did Our Love Go was the Supremes’ tenth single, but it may as well have been their first. After years spent as the joke of Motown — tagged as the “no-hit Supremes” — songwriters/producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland revamped the group’s sound by stripping it down to basics. Over the course of its two minutes and 40 seconds, the song contains no chorus, no key changes, no elaborate instrumentation, no complex harmonies, no vocal calisthenics; instead, it’s defined by a rudimentary 4/4 beat hammered out with foot stomps and handclaps. 

Diana Ross bemoans a lost love in her typical little-girl blue voice, yet there’s also a seductive edge to her performance, as though she’s trying to entice him back. Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson’s alluring coos in the background heighten the dichotomy. The potent simplicity of Where Did Our Love Go must have seemed refreshing to American audiences, who sent the single to the top of the pop charts for two weeks in August 1964. Suddenly, the group was transformed from Motown’s biggest joke to its star act. Both the trio and their label must have been relieved to finally break the losing streak, yet even greater success lay just around the corner.

Baby Love (1964)

When you are on a roll, you just go with it. When devising a follow-up single for The Supremes, Holland-Dozier-Holland stuck by Motown’s “same old song” policy of repeating what worked and not messing too much with the formula. Baby Love is a blatant retread of Where Did Our Love Go, with the same rhythm, identical handmade (and footmade) percussion, similar subject matter, and ultra-basic song structure. It even reprises the brief saxophone break in the middle of the previous song. Yet Baby Love improves on its forerunner by adding some twists to the formula. Its dynamic melody features about as many chord changes in each line as Where Did Our Love Go had in each verse. 

While Baby Love still doesn’t have a true chorus, its verses are split into A/B sections that add variety, contrasting emphatic pleas (“My baby love, oh how I need you”) with quieter entreaties (“Instead of breaking up, let’s do some kissing and making up”). A deceptively ‘fake’ key change between the third and fourth verses ups the drama. Most effectively, Ballard and Wilson supplement their “Baby, baby” harmony vocals with a gently insistent “Don’t throw our love away,” which not only adds a nice counterpoint to Ross’s lead vocal melody, but provides the song with its most memorable hook. The single surpassed ‘Where’ by topping the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks, making The Supremes the first Motown act to score a second No.1 pop record, and topping the charts from Europe to Australia and even South Africa. The girl group would eventually release 12 No.1 hits over the coming decade, becoming not only Motown’s biggest act of the 1960s, but the most successful American vocal outfit ever.

Stop! In The Name Of Love (1965)

Stop! starts off as a demand, a tough-hearted ultimatum in an out of context chorus that consists of Diana Ross telling her guy the game’s up: think of the consequences and stop screwing around. Stop. Stop. STOP! It’s all built around that word, stop, that one, heavy, shouted syllable blasting out of the speakers after an ominous, rumbling organ roll getting louder and louder and louder and then blam! Everything about this huge and barrelling pop single is sweeping, from the strident lyricism and quintessential Funk Brothers string arrangement to those vocals: after years of sounding like the shy girls next door, Stop! In The Name of Love found The Supremes coming out of their shells with their most powerful performance of their career to date. With the backing singers (the Andantes either augmenting or outright replacing Flo and Mary, depending on who you believe) stopping just short of chanting “Ha ha, busted!” you could almost take this as a feminist anthem, a wash-that-man-right-outta-my-hair screed. 

Forever intertwined with choreography on a grand level — the traffic-cop hand gesture dance, taught to them by The Temptations for Dusty Springfield’s Ready Steady Go! special — with this fourth consecutive American number one The Supremes established themselves as rivals to The Beatles when it came to global popularity and sales. The girls were unstoppable at this point. 

You Keep Me Hangin’ On (1966)

This is the pop sensation that gave the trio something of a second wind. While still superstars at this point, The Supremes were beginning to exhaust that sun-kissed approach to music. With You Keep Me Hangin’ On, the group mixed things up by taking a stab at a rock sound. Is it any wonder David Bowie would later pinch its famous telegraphic guitar riff for Starman? Everyone steps up their game here: songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland built a towering Spector-ish wall of sound of urgent bass lines, spidery riffs and a locomotive rhythm section, while Ross delivered vocals fierce, fabulous and determined.

By this stage, tensions within the group and label were festering. Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard were beginning to resent all the attention afforded to Ross, with Ballard leaving the group in 1967, to be replaced by Cindy Birdsong of Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles. Meanwhile, H-D-H were in conflict with Gordy over royalty payments and also departed the label in 1968. The creative tank was beginning to run a little dry.

Reflections (1967)

Materialising during the “summer of love” (and, release-wise, nestled between the two runners up on this list, The Happening and In And Out Of Love), Reflections was a mirror to the changes taking place, not only in music but culture overall. Yes, The Supremes went psychedelic (well, relatively) in this daring mid-career classic, influenced in no small part by The Beatles and The Beach Boys. And in common with many of the records that soundtracked that lysergic summer, the lyrics did contain the buzz word ‘mind’. There was also a fashionably trippy reference to ‘distorted reality’. Yet this was a 45 that came out of industrial Detroit, not California or Carnaby Street, and was Tamla Motown’s first stab at an improbable musical hybrid: soul psychedelia. 

While there are no theremins and vibraphones, one of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s last songs for the group melded a typical sweet soul vibe with some infectious off-kilter melodies and spacey sound effects. Although it is sometimes cited as one of the first mainstream pop recordings to feature a Moog synthesizer, the electronic sounds were generated on a test oscillator and treated with effects. Herb Jordan, author of 2006’s Motown In Love: Lyrics From The Golden Era, elaborates on its comparative weirdness. “The concept of passing off a miniature suite with extra-terrestrial sound-effects and symphonic interludes featuring a choir of flutes as a three-minute, AM radio pop/R&B song is mind-boggling.” Reflections, added Jordan, could well have ended up in the vaults rather than the charts. Nevertheless, the song remains an enduring personification of what we love about The Supremes: glitz, glamour and glorious pieces of pop music, delivered with a wink of mischief. 

Love Child (1968)

Bolder and bolder. Because here’s a topic you wouldn’t have heard much about on the ‘hit parade’ back then. The song deals with the illegitimacy of a child to be born to a girl if her boyfriend keeps pursuing premarital sex. It was certainly a taboo subject for many artists, in particular the Motown roster. Diana Ross sings like she means it, even though she wasn’t convinced by the subject matter to begin with. Unlike the sweetness of previous Supremes hits, this one is more syncopated. The arrangement by trombonist Paul Riser gives the song the urgency needed to support the lyrics, with a string accompaniment far from the syrupy orchestrations you would expect from a 1960s pop song. 

Love Child was one of the last major hits by the group. By this stage, the good times had well and truly wound down. With their key songwriters gone, The Supremes’ relentless chart success faltered, while both Wilson and Birdsong had no creative input into performances. In fact, as with 1969’s elegiac but ironically titled Someday We’ll Be Together, the duo receded so much that they weren’t even asked to record any backing vocals. Ross left The Supremes the following year for an epic solo career that’s still packing them in five decades later, and the group has continued in various low-key formations ever since. Formations of the way they used to be.

Steve Pafford

UPDATE: it has been reported that Mary Wilson passed away in Nevada on 8 February 2021 aged 76. Just two days earlier she was announcing new projects and celebrating the Supremes‘ 60th.

Mary Wilson, Di and Flo, hello… and goodbye.

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