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Supremes are still golden 50 years after first hit
The Beatles aren't the only ones celebrating a big 50th anniversary this year.
While Beatlemania was stirring up in the U.K. and Europe prior to the group's 1964 arrival in the U.S., a trio in Detroit was busy trying to the moniker of "the no-hit Supremes" at Motown's Hitsville USA headquarters.
"We knew everyone was talking behind our backs," recalls the group's Mary Wilson, who formed the Supremes as the Primettes during 1959 in Detroit's Brewster-Douglass housing projects with Diane (later Diana) Ross, Florence Ballard and others who left the group before it signed to Motown in 1962 and changed its name.
"We were the first girl group at Motown, but then everyone else who came there -- the Marvelettes, the Vandellas -- they all got hit records, and we were still waiting. And not only we were anxious, but our parents were threatening to send us to college if something didn't happen soon."
Something did, and it was well worth the wait.
On June 17, 1964 the Supremes released "Where Did Our Love Go," the result of a specific commission from Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., gave the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland to "get the Supremes a hit." They did just that; "Where Did Our Love Go" spent two weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, starting a run of five straight No 1 singles and 33 Top 40 hits overall. The "no-hit Supremes" quickly became the reigning queens of Motown -- and all of pop music, for that matter -- with a body of work that remains as seminal and beloved now as when the songs were first released.
"Every time I do music from the early days...it just resonates with all audiences, and when I'm performing it they become like a brand new song," says Ross, 70, who left the Supremes for a solo career in 1970. "And these songs, the energy that happens between the audience and myself is just phenomenal. It's very positive. It's exciting. I love watching them enjoy what we are offering, and it's really very special."
Ironically, Wilson -- who's also 70 and led the Supremes for seven years after Ross' departure -- says the Supremes initially turned up their noses as the song that put them in their hit-making lane.
"We didn't like it at all," Wilson says with a laugh. "At the time we were really a group that did harmonies, and 'Where Did Our Love Go' was so simple. It had no harmony. Florence and I were singing unison, which we thought was so beneath us, and all we had to sing was 'baby baby, ooh baby baby.'
"But now I've really got to fess up -- I love those songs. I don't mind saying we were wrong about them."
The "self-appointed Supremes historian" has written two memoirs and says an under-appreciated aspect of the group's massive success was its importance not only to Motown but also for American pop music in the face of the Beatles-led British Invasion.
"Throughout that time we were the ones giving them a run for their money," Wilson recalls. "We'd have a No. 1, they'd have a No. 2. Then they'd have a No. 1 and we'd have a No. 2, and that went on for quite awhile. The Supremes were holding their own -- and then we went over to England and became just huge stars there, too.
"And that happened all over the world. The borders just broke down thanks to music, and I'm happy to say that we, the Supremes, along with the Beatles really helped to bring those borders down."
History has turned the Supremes' story into "Dreamgirls" on Broadway and in film, and into a central part of "Motown: The Musical." The 50th anniversary of "Where Did Our Love Go" -- and "Baby Love" and "Come See About Me" after it in 1964 -- isn't being commemorated on the same level as the Beatles this year, but Wilson says she's working "to make sure people are aware" of the this year's anniversary. "Motown is still a company, but it's a company for today's artists and they don't really represent us," explains Wilson, who recorded much of her forthcoming new album, "Life's Been Good to Me," in Detroit. "There's not really an organized celebration, so I'm it's a personal sort of mission for me now."
Ross, like Wilson, continues to perform live, and her performances of "Where Did Our Love Go" and the Supremes' other hits will certainly have a bit more resonance on the road this year.
"We were blessed to be able to record so many great songs and timeless songs and songs that were masterpieces, really," she says. "I've never taken that for granted. Each place...it feels brand new and it's like a new adventure. It's about the music people come to hear and have their own private and personal memories about each of the songs."
"That is really the exciting part of being on stage at this time in my life."
Diana Ross performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 13, at the Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Parkway, Sterling Heights. Tickets are $10-$89.50. Call 586-268-9700 or visit www.freeddomhill.net.
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