Elevate Difference

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal

Mark Ribowsky did not interview singer Diana Ross or Berry Gordy, the founder and iron-fisted ruler of Motown Records, for this unauthorized look at The Supremes’ rise and fall. That said, his copious research makes the book—all 440 pages—a fascinating assessment of both music trends and the gender and race politics that have governed the industry since the late 1950s.

The Supremes' story, as traditionally put forward, channels the American Dream: high-school-aged girls living in the Detroit projects with nothing but their voices find one another and miraculously rise to stardom. Reality, of course, is far less dramatic. Indeed, the “girls” did come from the projects, but their families were intact. From the start there were tensions—competition between singers, four at first and then three, over who would be showcased most prominently. Despite the fact that Florence Ballard created the group, Berry Gordy was smitten by the demure, and ultra-feminine, Diane Ernestine Ross. As he pushed her into the lead, the other young women were reduced to backup roles, and over the course of several years Diane morphed into Diana and became a diva extraordinaire. Not surprisingly, this riled the others and Ribowsky goes to great lengths to document bitter catfights and rivalries.

He also documents Gordy’s managerial immorality, his legendary refusal to pay much of anything to performers hungry for fame. His descriptions of the company’s tenacious stranglehold on performers like the Jackson 5, Four Tops, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Supremes is astonishing, especially since Gordy was largely unschooled in either business or music promotion. In fact, before starting Motown, he was a never-do-well who was literally reduced to begging his financially savvy family for $800 to start the company. Call it right place, right time, right instincts, and you pretty much have Berry Gordy’s ascension in a nutshell: He pulled together a winning mix of talented writers, musicians, singers and promoters, forged a unique sound, and worked feverishly to get radio airplay and stage time for Motown acts.

While Motown is front and center in The Supremes, Ribowsky simultaneously focuses on Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson, the three singers responsible for the group’s twelve number one singles and ten additional Top Ten hits. Throughout, his portrait is devoid of feminist sisterhood, and makes clear that the singers were more interested in racking up personal accolades than in promoting the group. Take Florence Ballard’s accelerating alcoholism and self-destruction as an example. Despite ample evidence of her decline, neither Ross nor Wilson intervened to help her; instead, they allowed Gordy to fire her.

Still, no one in the book is wholly demonized. For example, Ribowsky reports on Ross’ periodic generosity, mentioning that when Ballard died of heart disease at the age of thirty-two—after being booted out of the group—Ross set up trust funds for each of Ballard’s three children. Yet, he also makes clear that everything Ross did—from love affairs with the married Smokey Robinson and Gordy himself, to kind social gestures—was on her terms.

The Supremes were Gordy’s answer to the social turmoil of the 1960s, a way to hang on to the propriety of earlier decades. The “girls” were always stylishly coiffed and wore only the best designer gowns and cocktail dresses. The message was simple—they were not hippies, but ladies. What’s more, they didn’t address the Vietnam War and ignored the civil rights movement until Martin Luther King’s assassination. Unlike militant Black musicians-slash-activists, they represented the status quo and were rewarded handsomely for the reassuring image they presented to an oft-worried Caucasian mainstream.

Was this image a calculated business decision on Gordy’s part? Probably. But if it’s true, it makes The Supremes an even more interesting look at U.S. social politics and mores. In the end, apolitical beauty sells, even when it is manufactured.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, October 6th 2009

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