In 1961 three teenage girls, Florence Ballard, Diane Ross (not until later would she be known as Diana) and Mary Wilson, began a journey that would carry them from the run-down Brewster housing projects in Detroit’s ghetto area to the top of the music world.
They were originally a quartet (with Barbara Martin, who left to get married) called The Primettes and they were the ‘sister group’ to The Primes who went on to become The Temptations.
When The Supremes hit the road with Gene Pitney, The Shirelles and Brenda Holloway on Dick Clark’s ‘Caravan of Stars’ tour in June 1964, their presence was denoted only by the words “and others” at the bottom of the tour posters.
Six months later they were set to become Motown‘s most successful group ever, notching up three US Number Ones before the year was out.
In the now well-established girl group tradition, The Supremes provided the glamorous icing on a cake that was baked by a team of backroom boys – In this case, the songwriting and record producing team of Lamont Dozier in tandem with brothers Eddie and Brian Holland.
This trio offered one of their songs, Where Did Our Love Go? to The Marvelettes, but the group turned it down. The Supremes didn’t count for it either, but with a string of eight flops behind them, lacked the muscle to hold out for something better.
With the release of Where Did Our Love Go?, The Supremes initiated a string of five astounding, unparalleled #1 hits that included Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop In the Name of Love and Back in My Arms Again. With their winning hit song formula, supplied by songwriting team Holland, Dozier and Holland, The Supremes could do no wrong.
From 1965-1969, The Supremes recorded seven #1 hits including I Hear a Symphony and You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On.
In 1967, after Florence Ballard’s dismissal, the group changed their title to Diana Ross & the Supremes. With the addition of Cindy Birdsong, The Supremes recorded several #1 hits including Love Child and Someday We’ll Be Together.
Hard times ensued for Ballard, in particular a failed $8.7 million lawsuit against her former employer, Motown Records.
The name change inevitably began rumours of Diana’s leaving the group and going solo. On 14 January 1970, Diana Ross and the Supremes gave a farewell performance at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
This beginning of a new decade welcomed two new acts; Diana Ross (as a solo artist) and The Supremes, both of whom would remain at the forefront of popular music during the 1970s.
After the split, Diana Ross went on to achieve major status as a pop performer and The Supremes released Up the Ladder to the Roof, followed by the number-one hit Stoned Love in 1970.
With original member, Mary Wilson, The Supremes continued to record and perform throughout the ’70s, officially disbanding in 1977.
Florence Ballard passed away on 22 February 1976 as a result of a cardiac arrest following an overdose of alcohol and pills. She was only 32 and for her final four years had been receiving welfare while living in a four-room flat with three children by her estranged husband.
In 1988, they were one of the very first groups, alongside The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones, to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They also have their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
During a meeting being held to discuss the possibility of Revlon creating a line of cosmetics to be endorsed by Diana Ross, a company spokesman said that he was “certain that she could do quite a bit for the black woman’s market of cosmetics.” Ross jumped up and stormed out of the meeting.
Several minutes later, one of her representatives came back into the room to say that the meeting was over and that “Miss Ross is not black! Not in her mind and not in the mind of anyone who works for her.”