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My interview with The Supremes was an accident. I had gone to Cleveland to interview that week's "Mike Douglas Show" co-host — I can't remember who — and the guest performers that day included the up-and-coming Motown singing group.

After the show I went to the lobby to wait for whoever it was I was going to interview over lunch. A few second later the three Supremes joined me in the lobby while they waited for a ride to their next stop. We started talking, though the one who dominated the conversation was Diana Ross. The other two, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, were friendly enough, but not particularly interested in chatting. Ross, however, knew how to make the most of a publicity opportunity.

Ross, of course, eventually left the group and had a successful solo career that included a few movies, most notably "Lady Sings the Blues," the story of Billie Holiday. Ross went on to become a full-blown diva, not quite in the Barbra Streisand class. As such she gained a reputation for being difficult. For whatever reasons, she never quite met the expectations that seemed possible soon after she went out on her own.

However, I remember her as an unusually personable young woman. We had a second interview, over the phone, a few years after our first meeting, and she amazed me because of how much she remembered out that day in Cleveland.

Akron Beacon Journal, March 20, 1966
The Supremes are definitely special. They’ve got something The Toys, The Shangri-Las, The Marvellettes and the 112 other female singing groups will never have – and this something is a super-cute, big-eyed pixie named Diana Ross.

The big question is just how much longer will The Supremes have her?

Ross is the lead singer and is considered good enough to be a top star in her own right. Her style is Eartha Kitt-ish, but her voice is more versatile and exciting than Kitt’s.

Some fuss is being made of the fact The Supremes’ itinerary hasn’t changed in several weeks – the final engagement on their schedule remains the Sept. 29-to-Oct. 19 date in Las Vegas.

Because of this there is a rumor Ross will quit the group in October and strike off on her own.

She denies it. “We’ll do what Mr. Gordon tell us to,” she said.

Berry Gordy is president of Motown Records and is boss where The Supremes are concerned. He has father, manager and guiding light since the girls began singing together eight years ago.

The relationship between the girls has always been, and remains a close, friendly one, said Ross, who admitted that in some ways she is growing apart from the other two Supremes, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.

Ross is the only one who has come completely out of the shell. Wilson and Ballard are still, basically, a couple of nice kids from Detroit. Ross is thinking about moving to New York City so she can be right there where IT is happening.

Ross also handles the bulk of the group’s publicity, and lately has done almost all the interviews. Wilson and Ballard have a tendency to clam up when Ross is holding court.

Ross has developed a comfortable, professional stage presence, and is unusually animated, using her crazy big eye to good effect. She knows how to handle a crowd. Even if she weren’t the lead singer, Ross would command attention. Yet she might never have become a performer if it hadn’t been for the other Supremes.

Singing was Ballard’s idea. Some of her male friends had formed a singing group called The Primes. They wanted a sister group, so Ballard, Wilson, Ross and another neighborhood pal, Barbara Martin, started a quartet called The Primettes.

The girls sang at school dances amateur shows, super market openings – anywhere they could. The auditioned for Gordy,, whose record company already had helped many black youngsters from Detroit.

Gordy gave the girls one piece of advice: Finish high school. It was a way of testing the girls’ sincerity about singing. He also was looking out for their welfare. He knew how important a high school diploma would be to the girls if they dropped out of show business.

Three years later the girls returned to Motown and signed a contract. A few months after that they were a trio. Barbara Martin had left the quartet to get married, and her replacement, Betty Travis, soon quit for the same reason.

The trio’s first taste of fame, such as it was, came during the 1961 Emancipation Day Talent Contest in Windsor, Canada. The girls won first place – and $5 apiece.

In their early recordings the girls were used only to provide the do-wah background for other performers. When Gordy decided to spotlight the girls, said it was time to change the name of their group. He showed them a list of possibilities, and from that list Ballard chose The Supremes.

After eight straight flop singles, the Supremes chalked up a small hit with “I Want a Guy,” which sold 250,000 copies. Big things happened with their next release, “Where Did Our Love Go?” It became a smash hit and was the first of five consecutive Supremes songs to become number one in the country.

Money began pouring in during 1964, a year in which each Supreme grossed $100,000. Last year they doubled their income, but continued to live on a $100-a-week allowance. The rest of their money – except for $35,000 per girl – was invested by Gordon. Each girl used the $35,000 to buy a home.

The girls and their families live within a block of each other, and until recently they spent even their spare time together.

“Now we’re finding it’s a good idea to stay away from each other while we’re home,” said Ross. “I think these short vacations from each other help us get along better.”

Disagreements, when they arise, are usually over petty, girlish things – what to wear and when. Ross said the group has been unanimous on their big decisions.

If Ballard and Wilson are jealous of Ross’s growing popularity, they don’t show it. Ballard, in particular, shrugged off the suggestion. “What I like about what we’re doing is the money,” she said, and as long as the money is split equally she’ll be happy.

Ballard and Wilson are 22, Ross will turn 22 this Saturday (March 26). All three are single. As far as their social lives are concerned the girls are discovering they are having more dates in the newspapers and the magazines than they are in person. Each has been linked with several men – in gossip columns.

Said Ross, “The truth is we seldom date while we’re working, and the guys we date at home are the same we dated in high school.”

The Supremes’ schedule through October includes an assortment of television appearances, night clubs and college concerts. The women would like to go into movies, but Gordy says opportunities for black performers are still limited.

Aside from this, said Ross, The Supremes have had little trouble because of their race. “A few times in the South we played theaters where whites sat on one side, blacks on the other. That was the only sign of discrimination.

“Another time I thought we were headed for trouble. We were in a Southern restaurant and three tough-looking white men came in and headed in our direction, but they never reached our table. They tried to pick a fight with The Lovin’ Spoonful instead. They didn’t like the long hair the guys were wearing.”

The reception The Supremes receive is warm and pleasant – and often surprising.

Ross recalls how, during an appearance in England, they did what a lot of American tourists do – they tried to break up one of the stony-faced guards at Buckingham Palace. Ross, Wilson and Ballard giggled and mugged, danced and sang, but the guard kept a straight face.

Finally they gave up, but when they turned to leave the guard whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “Write your autographs on a piece of paper and slip it into my pocket.”

Several times a year they return to their old neighborhood and visit the schools.

“The girls are really great,” commented a Detroit school official. “This is a tough neighborhood and the kids can easily lose their will to work. School dropouts are a real problem. That’s why we appreciate The Supremes. They’ve shown these kids it’s possible to rise from their environment.”

 

 

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