By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — Thursday marks one of the most significant anniversaries in popular music history. That’s the day (January 21) back in 1961 four 15-year-old girls from Detroit who called themselves The Primettes were signed to signed to Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records. It was nearly nine years later, on Jan. 14, 1970, that the group — by then a trio billed as Diana Ross & the Supremes (minus Florence Ballard, who was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in 1967 after struggling with alcoholism) — performed a final show at the New Frontier in Las Vegas.
Two of the surviving originals are icons in their own right. Both Ross and Mary Wilson have gone on to have lengthy careers. Wilson remembered those days this week in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, while emphasizing that whether there will be a Supremes reunion in the future isn’t up to her.
“We sat outside Motown every day until one of the producers came out and said, ‘You know what, we need some background hand claps,” Wilson, 76, said about the early days. When Gordy saw how “serious” they were, he signed them: “Our parents had to actually sign the contract because we were underage.” He then made them change their name (so he could own the rights to it). They threw a few options in a hat and Ballard pulled out “The Supremes.”
They learned poise and polish In Artist Development. That end was supervised by Maxine Powell, who ran a Detroit modeling agency. Their on-stage moves were taught by Cholly Atkins, who also choreographed labelmates The Temptations. Maurice King, musical director at Detroit’s Flame Showbar, mentored them and other groups on harmonies.
While there was ample competition at Motown, Wilson says there was also a very supportive attitude. Everybody was talented,” she added. The Supremes may have started out behind other women’s groups like The Marvelettes, but everything changed in 1964. That year they had five number one hits, among them “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” They had 12 chart-topping songs overall.
She also remembers the impact of societal changes. “The Civil Rights Act was passed around then. We became divas and citizens in the same year.” The Vegas farewell, which made way for Ross to embark on a solo career, was “really sad,” Wilson said. She chose to stay with the Supremes, but things weren’t the same “My two best friends would no longer be there.”
In conclusion, Wilson’s response to questions about a concert reunion are quite succinct. “Let’s put it this way: It’s really up to Diana.”