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
Mary Wilson of the Supremes Interview – Touching on some double meanings with Mary Wilson [Listen 23:06] S02 Ep14 (Part 1 of 2)
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, having 12 number one hits in five years. In this interview we talk about what it was like growing up in Detroit in the 1950's, the early years as the Primette's, the songs "Paper Baby", "Butter Popcorn", and how the girls decided on the name "The Supremes."
The perfect storm of Motown
Berry Gordy Jr. and Motown. It's a remarkable story, and one with a great deal of controversy, but if that aspect of the story can be put aside, it can seen much more clearly what a great positive aspect that Motown had on the history of America and of music in general. Ironically, it was the unequal distribution of funds inherent in the music industry that contributed largely to the birth of Motown. Starting out by writing songs, and having “Lonely Teardrops” become a commercial success for Jackie Wilson, but Gordy himself not receiving much funds or credit, he decided to put his attention towards producing. Had he been sufficiently rewarded for his songwriting, he may have continued to keep his efforts only to that and Motown might have never been.
Spurred to build his company, Berry Gordy Jr. looked to find what he had around him. He had to have known his town and a good ear for music. Motown owes a great deal to the excellent music program in Detroit's schools. Gordy's openness to sign new, untested performers led to initial success. Apparently, he learned from the automotive production line he where he worked for a time; taking a base and adding to it to produce a polished product at the end of the line. He is part of the American spirit that gathers the unrefined resources at hand and fashions them into a new construct, one that serves the people and fuels the appetite for more.
Berry Gordy developed the Motown sound. It sold and grew into an empire.
Motown was the second record label Gordy started. With his first label, Tamla, he had signed The Miracles (which included Smokey Robinson) which carried over to Motown, and they had quick success and became one of Motown's first and most successful acts. But Gordy was open to signing female artists as well including Mary Wells, who approached him initially with a song she had written intending to have Jackie Wilson record. Gordy, recognizing her talent signed Wells as a singer. She became so successful and helped build Motown, she earned the title of "The Queen of Motown." And with signing The Supremes, Gordy had a band that would equal the Beatles in terms of worldwide recognition. Although at the first encounter, Gordy turned them away thinking that they should finish high-school first before seeking success as recording artists. The Supremes disregarded his advice and released a record under their initial band name, The Primettes, with the Lu Pine label. This record, plus their continued presence at his studio, Gordy agreed to sign the band under the name The Supremes.
With Mary Wells, The Temptations, and the Supremes and through his efforts, Gordy signed acts that landed Motown its first hits such as The Contours, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, and The Four Tops. All of whom helped define the Motown sound.
There aren't many places and times where such a company and acts would have been able to succeed to such a degree. Detroit itself had a significant advantage with the productive auto industry fuelling the city, and there was more tolerance in the north than in other parts of the states. The timing was right as well. Ten years earlier, its very doubtful enough people would have been so accepting to allow it to be profitable, at least not to degree of success that Motown came to enjoy.
But Gordy had an ear for talent, and developed his marketing and production skills. It might have only been the industrial northern United States that would have allowed music to break the colour barrier, but once it gained a foothold, it quickly spread to the other corners of the states and onwards to the modern music markets around the world spreading their success and joy of music and forever changing the face of music the world over.