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

by Mark Ribowsky

Da Capo Press | 426 pages | $17.95

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

The Motownettes

supremesSoft porn and scholarship just might not be a good combination. At least that was my impression while reading this unauthorized biography of the phenomenal Supremes by Mark Ribowsky, author of He's a Rebel: Phil Spector, Rock and Roll's Legendary Producer.

One suggestion to the reader is to ignore the masturbatory adjectives about extra- marital, quasi-marital, and interracial sex replete in this book. It’s not clear whether the mention of possible prostitutes or possible pimps is meant to be funny. Suffice it to say, all of these activities and occupations are mentioned numerous times in this work. Frankly, these 50-year-gone couplings and un-couplings are neither interesting nor racy by today's standards.

What is noteworthy is the amount of information amassed by Ribowsky. As evidenced by the bibliography and the discography, he researched prodigiously. Judging from the pictures attributed to his personal collection, Ribowsky is a Motown fan of many years.

He begins with the history of Motown, the vehicle created by Barry Gordy, Jr. that made possible the stardom of the Supremes, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, song writers Holland Dozier Holland, Marvin Gaye, and many more.

Gordy, a failed entrepreneur in his other business ventures, began Motown as a way to get rich and promote the music that he loved: Blues, and Rhythm and Blues. He had worked variously throughout his career as a singer and songwriter.

Prior to Motown, his start-up businesses were funded largely by his family. In fact, his family lent him $600 to start Motown. (The name is a tribute to Detroit, the automotive capital of America at that time.) Gordy had developed connections in the music industry in Detroit and was able to build a stable of talent fairly quickly.

Among the teenage girl groups that he auditioned were the Primettes. Ribowsky describes the first meeting with this group (later christened the Supremes) as less than auspicious. After hearing the girls’ audition, Gordy asked for an encore.

Then he said, "I want you to come back when you finish high school."

Of the four Primettes who auditioned, Betty McGlown, Florence Ballard, Diane Ross, and Mary Wilson, three of them (Ballard, Ross, and Wilson) returned to take him up on that offer. Although Ross and Wilson graduated from high school, Ballard did not.

As described by Ribowsky, she had post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by a brutal rape years before. She was unable to keep up with her studies and subsequently dropped out of high school.

The group remained a trio despite attempts to make it a quartet. In a caption from a photo in the author's collection, McGlown is characterized as the Primette who dropped out of the group because “she got a real job."

Once under Gordy's tutelage, the group did some admirable woodshedding. They worked as office help for Motown and sang back up for Mary Wells, Mable John and Singin' Sammy Ward, to begin with. They very gradually worked their way to being taken seriously by Gordy and their peers at Motown. The shift in perception of them came when he decided to change their name. According to the book, Gordy "wanted a change to a classier, more market-friendly moniker." He asked his receptionist, Jane Bradford, to come up with one.

She wrote down suggestions, put them into a hat, and had Florence Ballard pick from it. Ballard chose the name that is now synonymous with rock and roll excellence and glamour.

However, behind the scenes, Motown was anything but glamorous. According to Ribowsky, and numerous lawsuits against Motown, Gordy paid his talent as little as possible or often not at all. His reasons were nebulously called “expenses."

This usually meant that Gordy took the money and gave his artists whatever he felt like. Strangely enough, several of them knew they were being cheated.  One singer, Katherine Anderson, was very candid in her opinion about Gordy's business practices.

"We knew what that whole ITMI thing was about," she said, “he was finding ways not to pay us!"

Yet most of them stayed with Motown. Why? Gordy had created what he called a "family" in Motown. Although this sounds romantic, Gordy was a tough businessman. He jettisoned anybody whose talent didn't meet his standards.

Those who passed muster trusted Gordy with their careers. He did for these Black artists something that nobody else had ever done. He respected their talent. That respect bound them to him almost like biology.

Much mention is made here of the vagaries in the careers of other Motown artists. We learn of the trajectory of the Temptations, the career of Tami Terrell, and the problems of Marvin Gaye’s. Gordy was a father figure to all of these performers. Still, he worked them like dogs.

Thus, the Supremes, like all the members of the Motown “family,” endured grueling schedules of shows and road tours. Sometimes they performed multiple shows in one day. As Ribowsky outlines it, the group performed everywhere from state fairs and college auditoriums, to night-clubs, some of which were sleazy. Others, like the Apollo and the Copacabana, were la crème de la crème.

The road tours were the real test of their mettle, however. Often several of the Motown groups traveled together or with other artists under other labels. The tours in the segregated South were especially deadly.

In Birmingham, Martha Reeves, thinking she heard gunshots outside the bus, dove for cover between two seats. Others twitted her, insisting the noise must have been firecrackers.” Sadly, Reeves was right. Later that day, the bus driver dug two bullets out of the Motor Town Tour sign on the bus.

At one gas station, the white owner refused to let the Black entourage use the toilet. Ballard asked him if they could use a bucket with a hose to relieve themselves. The owner agreed to that.

It could be argued that the three women who later became the Supremes were able to endure these hardships because they were scrappers. All three came from the Brewster Projects in Detroit. Admittedly, the housing development became more dangerous and drug addled after they left.

Still, each of the Supremes had a strong instinct for survival. For Ballard and Wilson, that meant growing up in and out of relative poverty. For Ross, who grew up in a solid working-class family, it meant a determination about her career that was tantamount to hallucinatory. Indeed, Ribowsky describes Ross’ obsession with her career as one of the reasons she and the Supremes became international stars. The other reason, he outlines, was her relationship with Barry Gordy, Jr. This 20-year relationship, (characterized in this book as more like a marriage), was a springboard for Ross’ solo stardom.

Slowly, inexorably, according to Ribowsky, Ross turned Gordy away from Motown, “the family” and toward her career. He all but abandoned his company for her. Understandably, once she achieved fame, she abandoned the Supremes, yet she seems to have abandoned Gordy at the same time. Though they have a child together, the relationship seems to have been intact only while Ross worked for Motown.

Somewhere in this process, Diane Ross changed her name to Diana Ross. Ribowsky depicts her as a woman who remade herself and discarded anything and anybody that didn’t fit the new persona.

Still, the book makes it clear that without the steadfast vocal backup of Ballard and Wilson, there would have been no Supremes and no Diana Ross. Despite this, neither Ballard nor Wilson achieved the fame of Ross. Tragically, Ballard died young. Although Wilson can rest on her laurels as one of the Supremes, her solo career has been uneven. Luckily, she has fared better financially.

 "To this day," she is quoted as saying in the early 80s, "I still don't know exactly how many millions of copies any of our records sold, though I still receive royalties."

In some ways this statement is evidence of the family, albeit dysfunctional, that was Motown. This book outlines in detail why the Detroit legend was so important to the history of American music and why it can never be duplicated.

Loretta H. Campbell is a writer, teacher and activist with the New York office of the National Writer's Union.

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