Monday, June 26, 2017

The Supremes in 1967

1967 is colloquially known as "the summer of love," the name given to the time when thousands of young people congregated in San Francisco's Haight-Asbury neighborhood.

Musically speaking, fifty years ago the Monkees released their best album, Headquarters, and it hit number one on the album chart June 24, 1967. The week after that, the Beatles' Sgt Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band took the top spot and was there for fifteen weeks. Finally, they gave up the top the week of October 28, when the Supremes' Greatest Hits took the top spot and stayed there for 5 weeks. Ironically enough, it was replaced by another Monkees album (Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd.).

If you are a fan of Motown in general or of the Supremes in particular, you know that Summer 1967 is an important time for the group, and not because of "love." Today we're going to talk about the events of that epic year.

The last show of  the Supremes with their original line-up occurred on July 1, 1967. The first show of the new line-up of the Supremes also occurred on that day.  In-between those matinee and evening shows, original member Florence Ballard left the group, and Cindy Birdsong took her place.

The Supremes were founded by Florence Ballard, who recruited several friends to join her singing group. Eventually this became the trio of Flo, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross. They called themselves the Primettes. This is the name they used when they auditioned for Motown Records. When Motown told them they didn't like that name and had to pick a new one, Flo picked "the Supremes."

Starting in 1964, the group became world-famous with a string of 5-in-a-row Number One hits. Motown was the US record company with the most Number One hits during the Sixties, and the Supremes had more than any other Motown group. They were second only to the Beatles in musical popularity. According to Billboard magazine, to this day they remain the US group with the most Number One songs.

Motown founder and president Berry Gordy believed that the success of the Supremes was due to Diana Ross' lead vocals. Slowly but surely, Supremes' singles began to play up her voice and play down the harmonizing of Flo and Mary. They were not given any more lead vocals, shared vocals, or even harmony work. They were becoming back-up singers. Although both Flo and Mary were upset with this arrangement, Flo specifically began to show her unhappiness. She missed atleast one show, causing Diana and Mary to perform as a duo. Her unhappiness led to her bickering with Gordy and with Diana. This led to what Gordy has termed "acting up." Gordy began looking for a possible replacement for her.
Diana up front; Flo and Mary in the back
There are several different versions of what happened during late June early July 1967, but the basic facts are these: the decision was made to change the name of the group to "Diana Ross and the Supremes," which was announced to Flo and Mary as a done-deal instead of as a conversation point. The new billing began at their Las Vegas show, which began June 29.
Berry Gordy at far left; circa 1965
The first days' shows had no events, but on July 1 Flo discovered that Cindy Birdsong was travelling with the entourage as her "under-study." Flo threw a fit, performing inebriated (or as if she were) during the matinee show that day. Gordy then fired her in-between the shows, and Cindy took her place for the evening show and from thereafter. Flo was out.
Back at Motown, the album Diana Ross and the Supremes' Greatest Hits had already been sent to press. It was released as planned on August 29. Besides the atmospheric group shot on the cover, there are individual prints of the original members on the album sleeves, all done by Robert Taylor. Look closely: Diana's name is there above the group name, but in a smaller font and different color. As noted, it eventually became the Number One album in the nation.
For years I searched through album bins at antique malls and garage sales trying to find a copy of this album that included the inserted prints. Finally last year I found one and bought it for thirteen dollars. As you can see the portraits are beautiful, but also bittersweet. They represent something sweet and innocent that died in 1967. And more sadly still, Flo herself died of a heart attack in 1976. She was only 32 years young.
I often wonder what would have happened if Flo had somehow managed to hold on that year and stayed through all of the humiliation. Would she have become the lead singer again when Diana left the group in 1970? We will never know.

Originally I loved the majority of the Supremes' catalog, but after I read about what had happened in 1967 I changed my mind. I resisted listening to any of the later, post-1967 Supremes songs. It didn't seem "fair" to the memory of Flo.
Then a few years later I read Mary Wilson's autobiography and learned that songs that I had rejected, such as "Reflections" and "In And Out Of Love" actually featured Flo! Although they were released later, they had been recorded while she was still a member. I also learned that hits such as "Love Child" and "Someday We'll Be Together" don't feature Mary or Cindy at all! So now I can appreciate those later two songs as de facto Diana Ross solo hits, not as Supremes hits.

Thanks to Broadway and Hollywood productions of Dreamgirls, more young people know (or think they know) the story of the Supremes and Florence Ballard. When Jennifer Hudson won the Golden Globe for her portrayal of "Effie," she called out Flo in her acceptance speech.
The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 alongside the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Drifters, and Bob Dylan. 

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