A typical Motown long-player from 1965. More Hits by The Supremes. is perhaps just as notable for its cover than for most ofthe music it contains. the usual formula of hit single plus hastily turned-out filler. The front of the sleeve is shared by a trio of beautifully coiffed young black women. whose first names are inscribed at the bottom: Diana. Mary and Florence. All three appear on equal terms. but as events over the next few years were to unfold. the destinies of Diana Ross. Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard were to be very different.
Although Ross parted company with the others to pursue her glittering path as a solo artist as far back as 1970. and The Supremes under various line-ups led by Mary Wilson have ceased to exist as a unit since 1977. the succession of all-time classic pop singles like Where Did Our Love (70?. Baby Love. and St0p.’ In The Name ofl.ove recorded during their most fruitful mid-Sixties period will be an enduring legacy. Today as Diana retains her position as a crossover superstar. and Mary perseveres with a career that could all too easily have run out of steam. it‘s just over fourteen years since Flo Ballard died penniless and almost forgotten in Detroit. the industrial centre widely known as Motortown. which gave Motown Records its name.
Yet. back in 1959 it was Flo Ballard who brought the group together in the first place. At high school. she recruited first Mary Wilson and then Diane Ross, as she was known in thOse days. to join a vocal quartet (fourth member Barbara Martin left to get married in 1962 before success really broke) named The Primettes Success in a local talent contest got
them an audition at the fledging Hitsville operation. at the time just another ambitious independent record company with a few hit singles to their credit. and even though their a cappella renditions of r'n‘b classics initially failed to win over label boss Berry Gordy. their persistence was eventually to pay off. ‘In Detroit they were really what was happening.‘ recalls Mary. now a courteous and charming 44 year-old.
‘We would hitch to Motown every day after school and just hang around. hoping that they'd say ('ome in here and record. Which they did eventually.‘
At this stage. Flo Ballard’s deeper tones compared to Ross's sometimes almost squeaky higher pitch meant that they alternated singing lead. with Mary happy in her role as sturdy back-up. After signing to Motown in 196] . with Flo at seventeen a year older than all the others. they did however find it difficult. despite the efforts of both Gordy and the H-D-ll team (Brian Holland. Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. one of the company‘s classic songwriting partnerships) to come up with the breakthrough song. until Where Did Our Love Go? followed a series of minor releases to hit number one in June 1964. Significantly. during the recording session Eddie Holland voted for Mary Wilson‘s soft voice
As Diana Ross prepares to play two major Glasgow concerts. Mary Wilson talks to Trevor Johnston about the triumph and tragedy that is the true story ofThe Supremes.
upfront. but his two partners over-ruled him and so Ross sang her way into the big time. With hindsight. it was to prove a crucial moment.
Seven consecutive chart-toppers were to follow over the next couple ofycars. making The Supremes second only in US sales popularity to The Beatles. ‘The most phenomenal thing was being accepted as people and stars in an era when maybe black wasn‘t so beautiful.‘ Mary recalls ‘It wasn't race music or ghetto music anymore but acceptable to everyone .'
Meanwhile Ross was increasingly attracting the attention of Motown chief Gordy. who began to see in her the potential to become something like the black Barbara Streisand. (‘hanging her name from Diane to the more elegant Diana. he began to personally oversee every aspect of her career. But there was grumbling in the ranks. Group founder Ballard in particular began to resent the spotlight always falling on Ross. but her unhappiness with the situation and her powerlessness to confront Gordy's autocratic management style was to manifest itself in the kind of absenteeism and erratic behaviour that saw her replaced in April 1967. Three months later the trio (with
new member ( 'indy Birdsong) suddenly became ‘Diana Ross and The Supremes‘ according to the artist credit on their newly released single Reﬂections. Mary descibes her feelings: ‘ln the beginning. everyone knew our names. but when the push became much more on Diana. we were sort of forgotten in mid-stream. We became less than we really were. but we didn't really know about the politicsofit.‘
Within three years. Diana Ross and The Supremes were two separate entities. Although the latter recorded more fine 45s like Stoned 1 me and Nathan Jones. the attention of the by now hugely successful corporate power that was Motown was definitely elsewhere. ‘lt was devastating because the hits dried up. I began to realise that Motown had stopped us. At that time in the early Seventies. artists like The Four Tops began to leave the company because the thrust was away from reCords and more towards movies'
Indeed. when the whole operation moved out of Detroit west to Hollywood. (iordy‘s plan was to further elevate the status of Ross to movie star. l‘)72's Lady Sings The Blues distorts the tragic Billie Holiday story into a parallel of the
Svcngali-like relationship between Diana and the boss. but the later vehicles Mahogany. a glossy melodrama. and The Wiz. a leaden black musical version of 02. were to receive a reception much more subdued than the Oscar nomination that greeted Ross‘s first big screen foray. Between that period and the present. the matchless Supremes back catalogue has always helped Diana to maintain her broad commercial viability. and the years have been dotted with the occasional further huge hit. like 1980‘s Upside Down. or the later smash ('hain Reaction.
However. there remain two sizeable footnotes to The Supremes story. In February of 1976. Flo Ballard collapsed and died. alone and near destitute l“ ack in Detroit. The years since stardom had seen her embroiled in interminable legal proceedings when her accountant embezzled most of the $300000 settlement from Motown. and she never recovered from the shock of being left broke after all the adulation. ‘lt's a long story. but she was a grossly misunderstood lady' is Wilson‘s comment. though she does devote the final chapter to Flo in her autobiography Drearngirl. Tellineg the crowds that gathered at the funeral booed Diana Ross when she arrived. but Ross went on to seize the pulpit microphone and deliver a heart-rending homily on her eternal affection for the deceased. Later. however. she was notably absent from the graveside.
Talking to Mary Wilson. for all hei courtesy one can sense a sort of bitterness that she does not get the kind of recognition her more famous partnerobviously commands (‘When The Beatles split up. people still knew who Ringo was. didn’t they'."). but it seems to have been the events at the 1983 glossy TV reunion special Motown .3." that directly encouraged her toivrite it all down. "They never really told us that they were going to have us all on stage at the same time: then she just came and did Diana Ross all over us‘ she points out. When Ross. Wilson and Birdsong were finally brought back together after all those years the tension was such that even Diana was lost for words. Mary took the opportunity to grasp the lead on
Someday We'll Be Together. but afterwards when she signalled for Berry (iordy to come on down and join them. Ross stunned the studio audience by physically shoving her several feet away 'lt's being dealt with w as what she said.‘ The event of course was edited out of the final broadcast version.
While one always has to admire the sheer will to succeed and the determination that has kept Diana Ross at the top for over 25 years. one thing remains certain. On stage she prefers to be alone under the spotlight.
Diana Ross plays the .S'I'X '( ' (i/asgou on Aprill‘) and again on .llav /.i’. both dates sold-out.
Dreamgirl: My life A s xi Supreme by Mary ll’ilson is published by
A now at [3. ()9.
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The List 31 April ‘4 May 10805