“Stop…in the name of love!”
It is impossible to discuss the impact of girl groups on popular music without mention of The Supremes. They weren’t the first, but they enjoyed a popularity that put them firmly in a league of their own. With angelic harmonies backing the immense talent of lead vocalist Diana Ross, and accentuated by highly-polished choreography, their presence was felt by way of twelve #1 hits during their brief existence in the 60s. They would help to break down the barriers that African-American artists of the day faced and their immense popularity would catapult Diana Ross into super-stardom.
Their Detroit beginnings were humble. Singer Florence Ballard was working with a local band called The Primes when their manager conceived of a female version of the band called The Primettes. Ballard recruited her friend Mary Wilson, who called upon a high-school friend named Diana Ross to complete the trio. They performed locally, winning a talent contest and catching the eye of Smokey Robinson, who arranged for them to audition for Motown founder, Berry Gordy Jr. He was initially unimpressed, feeling they weren’t ready for the big time but he eventually relented and signed them, under the condition that they change their name to something else. They chose The Supremes.
Soon they were working as background vocalists at Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. and releasing their own singles, all of which failed to chart – earning them the nickname around the studios, the “no-hit Supremes.” That would change in 1963, with the release of “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” which made it to #23 on the billboard charts. The song, written by the famed songwriting team of Holland, Dozier and Holland, would mark the beginning of their mutual relationship.
In 1964, their luck improved considerably with the release of “Where Did Our Love Go.” Featuring the pristine lead vocals of Ross and playful background harmonies, the song catapulted to #1, the first of many for the trio. By the end of 1964, they would add two more #1 hits to their catalog, “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me,” each featuring the driving Motown sound and the sultry voices of Diane singing lead, and Ballard and Wilson providing the lush harmonies. And once the listening public got a glimpse of them on television, including frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, with their polished choreography and glamorous looks, their stardom was assured.
1965 proved to be another big year for The Supremes. They came out of the gates with two more #1 offerings – “Stop! In The Name Of Love!” and “Come See About Me,” each of which continued to straddle the line between pop and R&B and feature the famous Motown sound. Their popularity led to an appearance at the famed Copacabana Club and they seemed unstoppable. The girls had a brief lull in their string of number-one hits with the release of “Nothing but Heartaches” which only made it to #11, but they bounced back by the end of the year with the heavily-orchestrated and aptly-titled, “I Hear a Symphony.” Once again, the top spot on the charts belonged to Diana Ross and The Supremes.
The next year saw the release of a pair of Top-10 hits, “My World Is Empty Without You” and “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart,” but it wasn’t long before they were topping the charts again. They followed up with “You Can’t Hurry Love,” a playful and energetic pop offering and “You Keep Me Hanging On,” an edgier, pulsing, rock-influenced track. Both went to #1. And in 1967, more of the same with two more chart-topping hits – “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening,” which was the theme of an Anthony Quinn film. Their next hit would be “Reflections” a slow ballad that just missed the top spot, ending up in the #2 spot. But, par for the course, they would release another #1 song, “In and Out of Love” before the end of 1967.
Changes were on the horizon in 1968. The song “Forever Came Today” would mark the end of their collaboration with the famed Motown songwriting team, who would leave the label to start their own. While many wondered if this spelled the end of their success, they answered back with “Love Child,” Upon debuting it on The Ed Sullivan Show, the song quickly rose to #1 and put their fans fears to rest, if only briefly. They spent the rest of the year releasing songs such as “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” which paired the girls with The Temptations, and “I’m Living in Shame.”
The glory days of The Supremes came to an end in 1969, with the announcement that Diana Ross would be pursuing a solo career. It didn’t seem right to leave without one more #1 hit though, which came in the form of “Someday, We’ll Be Together.” Upon her departure, Diana would be replaced with singer Jean Terrell, and Mary Wilson would take on the role of lead singer. The group would continue to release new music over the next seven years, scoring hits with songs such as “Up The Ladder To The Roof,” “Stoned Love” and “I’m Going To Let My Heart Do The Walking” but without their leading lady, they would never achieve that elusive #1 again.
Looking back, the influence of The Supremes on popular music as a whole was immense. They were the quintessential girl-band and their music has stood well against the test of time, still receiving regular radio airplay. Their story inspired the Broadway musical and subsequent film, Dreamgirls and they remain one of the most popular acts from the decade. And perhaps most importantly, they helped the world to put aside their prejudice for a moment and accept the fact that their musical abilities were simply undeniable, some might even say, supreme.
If you are a fan of The Supremes (and frankly, who isn’t?), we hope you’ll take a moment to share some memories of this groundbreaking 60s group in our comments section.