Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Supremes, The #6 Female Artist of the Rock Era*

In 1958, Florence Ballard, a junior high school student in Detroit, Michigan, met Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, two members of a Detroit male group known as the Primes. Williams' girlfriend Betty McGlown and Ballard both sang, so Milton Jenkins, manager of the Primes, decided to create a sister group to the Primes called the Primettes.  Ballard recruited best friend Mary Wilson, who in turn brought classmate Diana Ross into the fold.

The Primettes began performing a repertoire consisting of covers of artists such as Ray Charles and the Drifters at sock hops and talent shows in the Detroit area.  The group quickly built a local fan base.  Guitarist Marvin Tarplin was added to the group.    

The Primettes won a prestigious local talent contest, and Ross asked an old neighbor, Smokey Robinson, if he could help the group get an audition with Motown Records.  Smokey came through, but, with the group's permission, he hired Tarplin to become the guitarist for the Miracles. 

Motown president Berry Gordy, Jr. liked the group, but encouraged them to come back after they graduated from high school.  Meanwhile, the Primettes recorded "Tears of Sorrow" on Lu Pine Records.  McGlown became engaged shortly afterwards and left the group, replaced by Barbara Martin. 

Lest you think it easy to become stars of the magnitude of The #6 Female Artist of the Rock Era*, the Primettes visited Gordy at his Hitsville, U.S.A. recording studio every day after school.  Finally, they convinced Gordy to allow them to sing backing vocals for the other Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells.  

In 1961, Gordy finally gave in and signed the group to his label under the condition that they change their name.  They did, and on January 15, the Supremes signed a recording contract with Motown Records.  

In 1962, Martin too left the group to start a family, so the Supremes became a trio, and they released their debut album Meet the Supremes.  They released eight singles between 1961 and 1963, none of which even made the Top 40.  Most of their early songs were written by Gordy himself or Robinson. 

Then, the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland was assigned to them.  Finally, the Supremes released the single "When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes".  It reached an underrated #23, but it was a #2 R&B hit, and the group was on its way. 

Gordy named Ross as official lead singer of the group, although Ballard and Wilson were each given several solos on Supremes albums.  "Where Did Our Love Go", another Holland-Dozier-Holland song, was originally given to the Marvelettes, who rejected it.  Bad choice.  Extremely bad choice.  

The Supremes recorded it, and in August of 1964, while they were touring as part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, "Where Did Our Love Go" reached #1.  There would be many more to come.  It also got as high as #3 in the U.K., and became one of The Top 500 Songs of the Rock Era*.

The group released the album Where Did Our Love Go, which also included the single "Baby Love", another #1 in both the United States and the U.K., and another member of The Top 500 Songs of the Rock Era*.  "Baby Love" was nominated for Best R&B Song at the Grammy Awards.

The Supremes also released the album A Bit of Liverpool in 1964, consisting mostly of Beatles covers.  The trio was busy in 1965, releasing four albums:  The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop, We Remember Sam Cooke (a tribute album of covers), More Hits by the Supremes, and the Christmas album Merry Christmas.  The latter gave us two of the all-time classic Christmas songs--the first is the gals' version of "Silver Bells".

Although this song featured in the classic movie The Sound of Music was not originally a "Christmas" song, the Supremes made it one, and it became one of our favorites ever since.

"Come See About Me" was next in a now-famous lineup of singles, the third straight to go to #1.

In 1965, the Supremes appeared in the movie Beach Ball.  The group released what would become a classic--"Stop!  In the Name of Love", yet another of The Top 500 Songs of the Rock Era*.  In fact, in their prime in the mid-1960s, the Supremes rivaled the Beatles in worldwide popularity.

The follow-up, "Back in My Arms Again", became the fifth consecutive #1 from the upstarts from Detroit, setting a Rock Era record that would stand until the Bee Gees broke it in 1979 with their sixth straight #1, and then Whitney Houston with her seventh consecutive #1 song in 1988.

The Supremes released the single "Nothin' but Heartaches", which broke the streak when it peaked at #11.

The group released the album I Hear a Symphony in 1966 and the title track returned them to the top with their sixth career #1 song.

The follow-up to that smash was "My World Is Empty Without You", a #5 hit.

The express line of hits continued with the 1966 album The Supremes A' Go-Go, which became the first album by an all-female group to reach #1.  The single "Love Is Like An Itching in My Heart", reached #9.

The Supremes released the single "You Can't Hurry Love", another #1 song in the United States and #3 in the U.K.

Hot on the heels of that success, the group released the album The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, which yielded an eighth #1 smash--"You Keep Me Hangin' On", another Top 500 Song of the Rock Era*.

The red-hot trio was on another roll that consisted of four more consecutive #1's, the third of which was the great "Love Is Here And Now You're Gone".

The trio appeared regularly on television shows such as Hullabaloo, The Della Reese Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show, on which they made 17 appearances.  Another #1 North American smash, that was #6 in the U.K., was "The Happening".

Ten #1 songs in 13 releases.  There's never been anything like it.  By this time, the group was promoted as Diana Ross & the Supremes.  The irony is that one of their best songs in that stretch, "Reflections", only reached #2 in the U.S. and #5 in the U.K., making it one of The Top #2 Songs of the Rock Era*. With this recording, the Supremes were innovators--"Reflections" was the first big hit to feature synthesizers, a sound which would pave the way for countless progressive rock groups to follow.

The Supremes then hit #9 in the United States and #13 in the U.K. with "In And Out Of Love".

The trio failed to make the Top 15 for the first time since they became stars with a couple of releases, then returned with another amazing #1 that became another of The Top 500 Songs of the Rock Era*:  "Love Child".

The Supremes (and all of Motown) suffered a big blow when the famous songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label.  The quality of future releases for the group as well as the rest of their labelmates faltered as a result. 

Two groups that used to be called the Primes and the Primettes, but by this time were both legendary as the Temptations and the Supremes, combined for one super record.  "I'm Gonna' Make You Love Me" went to #2 in the U.S. and #3 in the U.K.

The Supremes then released the single "I'm Livin In Shame", a #10 hit in the United States that peaked at #14 in the U.K.

The group then uncharacteristically failed to reach the Top 10 with their next four releases, until "Someday We'll Be Together" saved the day with another #1 song--the twelfth of their career.  It was the last of the trio's classics to make The Top 500 Songs of the Rock Era*.  The song had originally been planned to launch a solo career for Ross, but Gordy wanted to land one final #1 for the Supremes, despite the fact that Ross was the only vocalist on the song.

At this time, the Supremes had scored more #1 songs than anyone in the Rock Era except Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and they did it in just six years.  Yep, in 1969, the Supremes were the #1 Female Act of the Rock Era, a position they held until well into the 1970's.

But longstanding rumors came true.  Diana Ross left the group for a solo career, and we saluted her as The #12 Female Artist of the Rock Era*, exclusively from her solo work.

Jean Terrell was handpicked by Gordy to replace Ross in the Supremes.  She was introduced on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, where Diana Ross & the Supremes gave their final performance.  In 1970, the group released "Up the Ladder to the Roof", #5 on the R&B chart and #10 overall in the U.S. and #6 in the U.K.

The Supremes had a great follow-up, "Stoned Love", a #1 smash on the R&B chart and #7 overall, and a #3 ranking in the other side of the Atlantic in the U.K.

The group then joined another Detroit supergroup, the Four Tops, for this great single.  "River Deep - Mountain High" was a #7 R&B song, #14 overall, and #11 in the U.K.

In 1971, the group released "Nathan Jones", and hit #8 with it on the R&B chart, but #16 overall.  It did land at #5 in the U.K.

Later in the year, the Supremes scored a #5 R&B hit with "Flow Joy", #16 overall, and #9 in the U.K.  It was the group's last Top 20 hit.

The lineup changed often after 1972, with Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Greene all becoming members.  The Supremes released the album The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb, but neither the album nor its only single ("I Guess I'll Miss The Man") did well.  The Supremes broke up for good in 1977.

Many projects have been loosely based on the Supremes, most notably the Broadway play Dreamgirls, which later became a motion picture.

Besides being the most successful all-female group of the Rock Era, the Supremes have had unquestioned influence on other girl groups who followed them, such as the Three Degrees, the Emotions, the Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, TLC and Destiny's Child.

When the Temptations reunited in 1982, it was rumored that the Supremes would do the same.  Plans for a reunion were scrapped, but Ross, Wilson and Birdsong did perform "Someday We'll Be Together" for the 1983 television special, Motown 25:  Yesterday, Today, Forever

Ross, Payne and Laurence went on a "Return to Love" reunion tour, although none of the three had ever performed together.

In 1988, the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  They were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, and inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.  Two Supremes' classics, "Stop!  In the Name of Love" and "You Can't Hurry Love" are included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.   Three songs:  "Where Did Our Love Go", "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Stop!  In the Name of Love" have all been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Since Motown seldom had the RIAA audit its sales, sales figures for all of its artists are an inexact science.  However, we believe Supremes album sales to be over 32 million in the U.S.  Simply put, the Supremes have given us some of the greatest songs of the Rock Era; it was a whirlwind era of success for the group.  They exploded for 47 hits, 28 of those in a six-year span, with 20 Top 10 songs and the 12 #1's. 

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