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The Supremes Biography

Home > Music > S > Supremes, The > Biography

Birth Place: Detroit, Michigan, United States
Years Active: 1959–1977
Genres: Pop, R&B, Soul, Psychedelic Soul, Motown, Doo-wop, Disco

The Supremes, an American female singing group, were the premier act of Motown Records during the 1960s. Originally founded as The Primettes in Detroit, Michigan in 1959, The Supremes' repertoire included doo-wop, pop, soul, Broadway show tunes, psychedelic soul, and disco. Founding members Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Betty McGlown, all from the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit, formed The Primettes as the sister act to The Primes. Barbara Martin replaced McGlown in 1960, and the group signed with Motown the following year as The Supremes. Martin left the act in early 1962, and Ross, Ballard and Wilson carried on as a trio.

During the mid-1960s, The Supremes achieved mainstream success with Ross as lead singer. In 1967, Motown president Berry Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross & the Supremes, and replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. Ross left to pursue a solo career in 1970 and was replaced by Jean Terrell, at which point the group's name reverted to The Supremes. After 1972, the lineup changed more frequently. Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Greene all became members of the group during the mid-1970s. The Supremes disbanded in 1977 after an 18-year run. They were the most commercially successful of Motown's acts and are, to date, America's most successful vocal group with 12 #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart.

Between 1961 and 1963, The Supremes released eight singles, none of which charted in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. During these years, all three members took turns singing lead. Most of their early material was written and produced by Gordy or Smokey Robinson. In 1963, the single “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” peaked at #23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Lovelight” was the first of many Supremes songs written by the Motown songwriting and production team known as Holland–Dozier–Holland. In late 1963, Gordy chose Ross as the official lead singer of the group. In the spring of 1964, The Supremes recorded the single “Where Did Our Love Go,” which reached #1 on the Hot 100. “Where Did Our Love Go” was followed by four consecutive Hot 100 #1 hits, “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.” “Baby Love” was nominated for the 1965 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording.

By 1965, The Supremes were international stars. They toured the world, becoming almost as popular abroad as they were in the U.S. Almost immediately after their initial #1 hits, they recorded songs for motion picture soundtracks, appeared in the 1965 film “Beach Ball,” and endorsed dozens of products, at one point having their own brand of bread.

By the end of 1966, their #1 hits included “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can't Hurry Love” and “You Keep Me Hangin' On.” That year the group also released “The Supremes A' Go-Go,” which became the first album by an all-female group to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, knocking The Beatles' “Revolver” out of the top spot.

Featuring three group members who were marketed for their individual personalities and Ross’s pop-friendly voice, The Supremes broke down racial barriers with rock and roll songs underpinned by R&B stylings. The group became extremely popular both domestically and abroad, becoming one of the first black musical acts to appear regularly on television programs such as “Hullabaloo,” “The Hollywood Palace,” “The Della Reese Show,” and, most notably, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” on which they made 17 appearances.

Personnel problems within the group and within Motown Records' stable of performers led to tension among the members of The Supremes. Many of the other Motown performers, particularly Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, felt that Gordy was lavishing too much attention upon the group — and upon Ross, in particular. Although The Supremes scored two #1 hits during the first quarter of 1967, “Love Is Here and Now You're Gone” and “The Happening,” the group as a unit began to disintegrate.

In early 1967 it was officially announced that the group was to be billed as “The Supremes with Diana Ross.” The Supremes' name change sparked rumors of a possible solo career for Ross, and contributed to the professional and personal dismantling of the group. However, Gordy held back in spinning Ross off as a solo act for several more years during which he slowly built up her celebrity away from The Supremes.

By 1967, Cindy Birdsong officially assumed Ballard’s role in the group and Gordy once again renamed the group, this time changing it to, “Diana Ross & the Supremes,” putting Ross's name ahead of the group. Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in early 1968 after a dispute with the label over royalties and profit sharing, and the quality of Motown's output and Diana Ross & the Supremes' records in particular began to falter. From “Reflections” in 1967 to “The Weight” in 1969, only six out of the 11 released singles reached the Top 20, and only one of those, 1968's “Love Child,” made it to #1.

The changes within the group and their decreasing sales were signs of changes within the music industry. The gospel-based soul of female performers such as Aretha Franklin had eclipsed The Supremes' pop-based sound, which had by now evolved to include more middle-of-the-road material.

In mid-1968, Motown initiated a number of high-profile collaborations for The Supremes with their old colleagues, The Temptations. By 1969, the label began plans for a Diana Ross solo career. After seeing 24-year-old Jean Terrell perform with her brother Ernie, Gordy decided on Ross' replacement. Terrell was signed to Motown and began recording the first post-Ross Supremes songs with Wilson and Birdsong during the day, while Wilson and Birdsong toured with Ross at night. At the same time, Ross began to make her first solo recordings. In 1969, Ross' solo career was publicly announced.

“Someday We'll Be Together” was recorded with the intent of releasing it as the first solo single for Diana Ross. Desiring a final Supremes #1 record, Gordy instead had the song released as a Diana Ross & the Supremes single, despite the fact that neither Wilson nor Birdsong sang on the record. “Someday We'll Be Together” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming not only the Supremes' 12th and final #1 hit, but also the final #1 hit of the 1960s. This single would also mark The Supremes' final television appearance together with Ross, performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in December 1969.

Diana Ross & the Supremes gave their final performance in January 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. At the final performance, the replacement for Ross, Jean Terrell, was introduced. After the Frontier Hotel performance, Ross officially began her career as a solo performer. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong continued working with Jean Terrell on the first post-Ross Supremes album, 1970’s “Right On.”

The Terrell-led Supremes — now rebranded as “The Supremes,” and known unofficially at first as “The New Supremes,” and in later years informally called “The '70s Supremes” — scored Top 10 hits including “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” “Stoned Love” and “Nathan Jones,” all of which were produced by Frank Wilson. These three singles were also R&B Top 10 hits, with “Stoned Love” becoming their last #1 R&B hit in December 1970.

In 1972, The Supremes had their last Top 20 hit single release, “Floy Joy,” written and produced by Smokey Robinson, followed by the final Hot 100 Top 40 hit for the Jean Terrell-led version of the group, “Automatically Sunshine.” On both “Floy Joy” and “Sunshine” Terrell shared lead with Wilson. Motown, by then moving from Detroit to Los Angeles to break into motion pictures, put only limited effort into promoting The Supremes' new material, and their popularity and sales began to wane.

Cindy Birdsong left the group in April 1972, after recording the “Floy Joy” album, to start a family. Her replacement was Lynda Laurence, a former member of Stevie Wonder's backup group, Third Generation. Jimmy Webb was hired to produce the group's next LP, 1972’s “The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb,” but the album and its only single “I Guess I'll Miss the Man” failed to make an impact on the Billboard Hot 100, with the single peaking at #85.

In early 1973, Laurence prevailed upon her old mentor Stevie Wonder to write and produce a hit for The Supremes, but the resulting “Bad Weather” peaked at #87 on the Hot 100. Laurence can be heard briefly, shouting several times at the end of the song (the only recording on which Laurence is heard). Laurence left to start a family with her replacement being a returning Cindy Birdsong. Dismayed by this poor-performing record and the lack of promotional support from Motown, Jean Terrell left the group and was replaced by Scherrie Payne, the sister of Invictus Records recording artist Freda Payne.

Between the 1973 departures of Laurence and Terrell and the first Supremes single with Scherrie Payne, “He's My Man,” a disco single on which Payne and Wilson shared lead vocal, Motown was slow in producing contracts for Payne and the returning Birdsong. Before the release of their album in 1975, The Supremes remained a popular live act, and continued touring overseas, particularly in the U.K. and Japan. The group's new recordings were not as successful as their earlier releases, although “He's My Man” from the album “The Supremes” was a popular disco hit in 1975, reaching #1 on Billboard's Disco Singles chart.

In 1976, Birdsong, dissatisfied with the management of The Supremes, left again and was replaced by Susaye Greene. This final version of The Supremes released two albums, both of which reunited The Supremes with Holland-Dozier-Holland, 1976’s “High Energy,” which includes Birdsong on all of the tracks, and “Mary, Scherrie & Susaye.” During that year, The Supremes released “I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking,” their final Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and their third #1 single on the Disco Singles chart.

On June 12, 1977, The Supremes performed their farewell concert at the Drury Lane Theater in London and disbanded. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, and entered into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.