The most successful American performers of the 1960s, The Supremes, for a time, rivalled even The Beatles reeling off five No.1 singles in a row. The Supremes were the most commercially successful of Motown’s acts and are, to date, America’s most successful vocal group with 12 No.1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1959 two fifteen-year-olds, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson met at a talent show. Milton Jenkins, who managed a local doo-wop group the Primes, wanted a sister group to accompany the Primes for stage performances. Jenkins asked Ballard to put together such an act. Ballard remembered Wilson and the two of them brought in sixteen-year-old Betty Travis. Prime’s member Paul Williams, (who went on to form the Temptations), recommended a fifteen-year-old from Detroit’s Brewster Housing project, Diane Ross. Jenkins named the group the Primettes after Diane’s parents gave their permission for her to join.
In the same year, they met Ross’ neighbour William “Smokey” Robinson and auditioned for him in the basement of the home of his girlfriend Claudette Rogers in hopes of getting to Motown’s Berry Gordy. Rogers would later become Robinson’s wife and an original member of the Miracles. The audition turned into a dead end, but they did audition for Gordy later, singing the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby.” Gordy told them to come back after they completed high school.
Undaunted the girls began hanging out in Motown’s office reception room. They continued doing local talent shows where they were spotted by Richard Morris, who brought them to Lupine Records owner/producer Bob West. They recorded two sides “Pretty Baby” with Wilson on lead and “Tears of Sorrow” with Ross on lead for West. Released in 1960, the record went nowhere and they were soon back hanging around Motown again, doing handclaps on Marvin Gaye’s early records and singing some backups for blues artist Mabel John.
In January 1961 Gordy signed them but required them to change their name. Ballard who had formed the group named them The Supremes. Wilson and Ross initially disliked the name, but Gordy approved. By this time Ross was calling herself Diana Ross.
The first two singles “I Want A Guy” and “Buttered Popcorn” failed to make the charts and more releases failed to sell. The 1962 single release “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” gave The Supremes their first Top 30 hit (No. 23) and in the same year they struck gold with the Holland–Dozier–Holland penned “Where Did Our Love Go” which gave them their first of five US No.1 hits in a row.
More hits followed and during 1965 -1967 The Supremes once again topped the charts with “I Hear a Symphony”, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening”. Also in 1966, their ninth studio album The Supremes A Go-Go gave the girls their first US No.1 and the first album by an all-female group to reach the top of the Billboard 200 album charts.
During 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 line-up 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 18 years).
Following her departure from the Supremes in 1970, Ross released her debut solo album, Diana Ross, which contained the hits “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and the No.1 hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. She released the album Touch Me in the Morning in 1973. Its title track reached No. 1, becoming her second solo hit. By 1975, the Mahogany soundtrack included her 3rd No.1 hit “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”. Her 1980 album Diana spawned the No.1 hit “Upside Down” and the international hit “I’m Coming Out”. After leaving Motown, Ross achieved her sixth and final No.1 hit with the duet “Endless Love”.
In July 1971 Ballard sued Motown for royalty payments she believed she was due to receive; she was defeated in court by Motown. Later that year Ballard’s plight started to be reported in newspapers as word got around that the singer had applied for welfare. Florence Ballard died on February 22, 1976.
In 1981, the Tony Award-winning musical Dreamgirls opened at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway and ran for 1,522 performances. The musical, loosely based on the history of the Supremes, follows the story of the Dreams, an all-female singing trio from Chicago who become music superstars. A film adaptation of Dreamgirls was released by DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures in December 2006.