Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Diana Ross - Snapshot #1 - 'Reflections Of The Supremes'

1986 was a significant year in this author’s life.  It’s the year I completed high school, and had to consider seriously what new direction I would take, what changes and decisions would help shape my life from there going forward.  One thing would remain a constant though, and that was my passion for music, and 1986 offered up plenty of instant classics to indulge that passion.  One such slice of pop heaven was the infectious ‘Chain Reaction’ performed by the legendary Diana Ross.  But aside from the artist performing the song, there lay another pop prodigy who played an integral part in the song’s radiance.  It was a combination of rare talents that propelled the song to the top of the charts here in Australia.

The journey to legend status began for Diana Ross in the late 50s.  Ross, along with Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin formed a group called the Primettes, a female vocal group put together to perform live with the Primes (who would eventually morph into thee Temptations).  One time Diana Ross neighbour, Smokey Robinson, introduced The Primettes to Motown mogul Berry Gordy, but as they were still in high school Gordy felt they should wait.  After learning their craft some more by hanging around the Motown studios, Gordy finally deemed them ready for a recording contract in January 1961.  Now reduced to the trio of Ross, Ballard and Wilson, they changed their name to the Supremes.  Their first nine singles failed to chart earning them the nickname ‘the no-hit Supremes’, but the beginning of an association with the gun song writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland would see their fortunes change dramatically for the better in 1964.

Single number ten was ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, which went directly to #1 on the U.S. Hot 100 (UK#3/OZ#19) in the summer of ‘64, going on to sell 2 million copies for good measure.  ‘Baby Love’ learned how to walk at US#1 for four weeks during October of ‘64 (UK#1/OZ#38), and the Supremes rounded out a stellar 1964 with the US#1 ‘Come See About Me’ late in ‘64.  The Supremes sensational streak of #1 singles continued into 1965 with ‘Stop In The Name Of Love’ (US#1/UK#7), ‘Back In My Arms Again’ (US#1), and ‘I Hear A Symphony’ (US#1) late in the year.  By this stage they were rivalling the Beatles as the most dominant artist on the U.S. charts.

During this period the marketing machine behind the Supremes was in overdrive, with the trio appearing regularly on national television, and playing at least one major concert venue each week.  But it was on the charts that they continued to dominate.  ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ notched up the Supremes seventh chart topper in September of ‘66 (US#1/UK#3/OZ#14), followed soon after by ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (US#1/UK#8) to round out the year.  All of these songs were to become long time classics of the pop era, and have been covered numerous times over the years by other top line artists.  1967’s ‘Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone’ (US#1), and ‘The Happening’ (US#1/OZ#2/UK#6) kept the Supremes name at the top echelon of the charts, but a change in that name was just around the corner.  Ballard left the group during this period and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong.  For some time it had been evident that Diana Ross was the focal point of the Supremes.  She handled most of the lead vocal duties, and in essence Wilson and Birdsong were backing singers.  Motown head Berry Gordy positioned Ross as the clear lead singer, and during 1967 the Supremes became Diana Ross & the Supremes.  Around this time the trios association with Holland-Dozier-Holland also came to an end, with the husband and wife team Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson (see separate post) given a chance to write for the group.

Despite the changes, the chart toppers continued for Diana Ross & the Supremes, in the form of ‘Reflections’ (US#2/UK#5) in late ‘67, and ‘Love Child’ (US#1/OZ#3/UK#15) in late ‘68 - but the trios halcyon days were slowly fading into pop folklore.  They reunited with old friends Eddie Kendrick and Paul Williams (formerly of the Primes) now members of the Temptations.  Aside from appearing together in two television specials the two acts released a clutch of singles, including ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ (US#2/UK#3), and ‘The Rhythm Of Life’ (OZ#5).

During 1969, rumours abounded that Diana Ross was going to split from the Supremes to pursue a solo career.  In essence she already had, as several singles that had already been released under the banner of Diana Ross & the Supremes, were recorded by Ross with anonymous backing singles.  One of those singles, ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ (US#1), was the Supremes 12th, and final, chart topper.  In November of ‘69, it was formerly announced that Ross had parted ways with the Supremes, and her final live performance with the group took place in January of 1970 in Las Vegas.  Jean Terrell replaced Ross, and the trio resumed under the banner The Supremes.  But post Ross, Motown boss Berry Gordy pulled back support for the group (likely in favour of Ross’ solo career), but despite this The Supremes notched up several top twenty hits over the next couple of years, the biggest of which was ‘Up The Ladder To The Roof’ (US#10/UK#6) in 1970, and ‘Stoned Love’ (US#7/UK#3) in ‘71.  Over the next five years the fortunes of The Supremes continued to steadily decline, with the hits drying up, and the line-up changing a number of times, with Wilson the only consistent member.  Their last top forty single was ‘I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking’ (US#40) in 1976, and the trio gave a farewell concert in London during ‘77.))

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