The Supremes were the female singing group that changed the way people of America viewed black music and artists. Formerly known as ‘The Primettes,’ The Supremes became the first female singing group to gain popularity. The founders of The Supremes include Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson, who sang 12 singles that ranked number one on Billboard Hot 100.
Most of the songs that the Supremes sang were written by the production and songwriting team of Motown records called Holland-Dozier-Holland. The Supremes were a strong rival of the Beatles, and it is believed that this group opened up ways for future African American musicians to gain mainstream success.
How Did the Supremes Form?
All the original members of the group – Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Betty McGlown –belonged to the Brewster-Douglass housing project in Detroit. The Primettes was formed as the sister act of the Primes (a Detroit male singing group). After seeing that both Ballard and Paul Williams’ (a member of the Primes) girlfriend Betty McGlown could sing, the manager of the Primes decided to create the sister group called the Primettes.
Ballard was best friends with Mary Wilson and recruited her to be a part of the group while Wilson recruited Diana Ross. The group was funded and mentored by Jenkins, and they started their career by singing famous songs by other artists, such as The Drifters and Ray Charles, at talent shows and social clubs in and around Detroit.
Due to excellent guidance by the well-established groups and a perfect songwriter Jesse Greer, the Primettes soon gained a significant number of local fan following.
On 4th July 1960, the Primettes won the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival, which became the reason for their higher goals. In 1960, with the help of Ross’s neighbor, the lead singer of Miracles named Smokey Robinson, the Primettes landed an audition for Berry Gordy, the executive of Motown records.
Even though Gordy liked the group and arranged their audition for a cappella, he asked them to return after graduating. This is because he thought the girls were too young and inexperienced to be recorded. Later in the same year, the Primettes recorded their first single titled Tears of Sorrow with another single, Pretty Baby. However, both singles failed and did not gain much attention from the audience. Shortly after this, McGlown left the group as she got engaged and was replaced by Barbara Martin.
After several tries, the Primettes succeeded in getting Gordy’s permission to sing background vocals for the songs by other Motown artists. In 1961, the Primettes made Gordy sign the Primettes as one of his groups. However, Gordy asked them to change the group’s name and gave them a list of suggestions for the new name. This list included names like the Darleens, the Jewelettes, the Sweet Ps, the Royal Tones, and the Supremes. In 1962, the group’s name was changed to the Supremes; however, Martin soon left the group, and the trio continued as the Supremes.
The Journey of the Supremes
After adopting the new name, the Supremes were now busy creating music to be released. From 1961 to 1963, they released a total of 6 singles, including I Want a Guy on Motown subsidiary label Tamla. However, these six singles failed to secure a place among the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. Because of which they were even given the name of ‘no-hit Supremes’ as a joke.
To make it up for their lacking, the girls did everything for the studio, including backup singing and handclaps for other singers. Their hard work paid off in 1963 when the single When the Lovelight Start Shinning through My Eyes made its way to the 23rd rank in the Billboard Hot 100. This was also the very first song written by the Motown production and songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland.
In 1963, Diana Ross was selected as the lead singer of the group by Berry Gordy, while Ballard and Wilson were given solos on the Supremes albums. In 1964, the group recorded their next single titled Where Did Our Love Go, which was initially intended for the Marvelettes that didn’t accept it. The Supremes also didn’t like the song much, but the producers wanted them to record it. During the tour as a part of Caravan of Stars, the song reached the top of the US pop charts and number three on the UK charts.
After Where Did Our Love Go, the Supremes recorded four singles that topped the US charts. These songs include Baby Love, Come See About Me, Back in My Arms Again, and Stop! In the Name of Love. In 1965, Baby Love won a nomination for Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.
After a long iconic career, the Supremes said goodbye to their fans in a farewell concert on 12th June 1977 as a group, as Wilson had decided to start a solo career. Now that there were no original members in the group, Motown decided to disband the Supremes.
The Legacy of the Supremes
The Supremes had changed the concept of Black music and girl groups and left a legacy behind them. Several fictional works were based on the career of the Supremes. In 1976, the film Sparkled featured the story of a singing trio (which was a lot like the Supremes) called Sister & the Sisters. A remake of the same film was also in the making during the 2000s. However, the project was postponed for some reason and released in 2012 with new actors.
The Tony Award-winning musical Dreamgirls was also loosely based on the history and career of the Supremes. Several characters of this musical were analogs of Supremes or Motown counterparts. Mary Wilson loved this musical, but Diana Ross refused to watch it as she didn’t like it.
Awards and Achievements
The Supremes got two nominations for Grammy Awards in 1965 and 1966, but they never won one. However, the three singles You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Stop! In the Name of Love, and Where Did Our Love Go were added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Their song Rolling Stone got them the 97th rank in the list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
While talking about the Supremes, Madonna said, “The Beatles were there, but I was more eager about The Supremes. I was really into girl groups.”
The Supremes worked as an example for the future girl groups. After the Supremes had disbanded, several girl groups came to the spotlight. Moreover, the former members of the Supremes also tried to start a new career as a group. Lynda Laurence, Jean Terrell, and Scherrie Payne started performing as The FLOS (Former Ladies of the Supremes) in 1986.
In 1992, Terrell left while Laurence’s sister took her place for a short time. She was later replaced by Freddi Poole, who left the group in 2009. Regardless of the changes throughout the years, the original Supremes will always stay supreme in the music industry.