Interview Date: August 6, 2012 @ 1pm
Special Guest: Mary Wilson – One of the founding members and the only consistent artist of The Supremes. The Supremes were Motown’s biggest stars, scoring 12 number one hits in five years. In this half of the interview, Wilson covers The Supremes first hit “Where Did Our Love Go, The Supremes in the face of the civil rights movement, and touches on some of the stars that graced the halls of Motown.
The Rocky Road to becoming The Supremes
The Supremes seemed to be Hitsville’s wellspring, but getting there wasn’t as easy as snapping your fingers to one of their songs; The Supremes went through line-up changes and some bitter strife just like any band. It didn’t necessarily help that Smokey Robinson stole the girls’ guitar player, Marv Tarplin, after they went to Berry Gordy’s studio for their audition at Motown. Smokey had a good eye for talent, obviously, because Tarplin went on to help write some of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ biggest his, including “The Tracks of My Tears.” Tarplin came to be known as “The Miracles’ Secret Wheapon.” Fortunately, Gordy could back up The Supremes and anyone else he wanted to support with one of the best backing bands from any time period – The Funk Brothers.
The Supremes, known as the Primettes before they were signed to Motown (named as the female counterpart to The Primes, who later became The Temptations) were actually formed by Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson. Diane Ross (she was known as Diana later) was brought in by Wilson shortly thereafter, and Betty McGlown came in to make the original foursome. They were initially turned away by Gordy because of being so young, and were told to come back after they graduated High-School. Through their persistence and dedication, they captured Gordy’s attention and were allowed to contribute on studio recordings.
Early on, and before their identity as a pop group had taken firm hold, the girls in the group actually shared singing lead, with the girls singing in the style that they generally preferred. This, you can imagine, led to competition. Tempers tended to run high even before the weight of stardom. It was Gordy’s decision, of course, to place Ross as the lead and to steer the sound towards pop and away from soul. As Mary Wallace explains in the interview, she learned that Gordy shied away from using “every element” of the gospel sound.
What seems so completely baffling about the history of The Supremes is their absolute dismal start. Nothing they produced charted, even despite Gordy’s invested efforts to push and promote the band. Rumour has it that they were dubbed the No-Hit Supremes for about three years due to their poor start. But by 1964, they had a #1 hit with “Where Did Our Love Go” and were quickly on their way to becoming the most successful chart topping pop group in America. “With the release of this album, The Supremes became the first act in Billboard magazine history to have three number-one hits from the same album. It was the album that introduced “The Motown Sound” to the masses. It was also, at the time, the highest ranking album by an all female group. It remained in the #2 position for 4 weeks, in January 1965, remaining on the Billboard charts for an unprecedented 89 weeks.”1
But success was no solution to ease the troubles that already present, plus the added stress and heavy touring took it’s toll. Florence was unable to perform some shows leaving Diana and Mary to perform as a duo. Different stories go around, but it wasn’t long before Flo was out of the group she built with Mary.
Troubles continued after the formative years, but they were able to roll out a steady stream of hits, and despite the inner strife and bitterness, it’s really about the music. If one pays attention to that, you can recognise the positive impact The Supremes had on music and in the role of race relations in America during turbulent times.
Although we wholly support the independent record store, Mary Wilson’s new single from her upcoming album can be found at Amazon or iTunes
1. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_Did_Our_Love_Go_(album) Aug 16, 2012