Maybe nothing new on the girl group, but the book The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal is still a good read.
By Terri Schlichenmeyer
For most of your life, they’ve been your background.
When you were a child, their voices came from your parents’ record albums, and you hummed along. As a teen, you turned up the car radio when they came on, Golden Oldies but no less enjoyable. Later, they brought back fond memories of friends, and the fun you had.
Even now, they’re your background—in supermarkets, waiting rooms, and on-hold phone calls.
So how much do you really know about Diana, Mary, and Flo? In the new book The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal by Mark Ribowsky (Da Capo Press, www.perseusbooksgroup.com/dacapo), you’ll get a good look at the women—and the men—who started a music revolution.
Although they grew up in the same Detroit housing project, Diane (her name as a child) Ross didn’t know Mary Wilson or Florence Ballard well until a part-time pimp and music agent re-introduced them in a seedy hotel room. Mary and Flo needed more voices for their “girl group”; the agent already had approached Diane and a girl named Betty McGlown about singing.
Almost from the beginning, there was trouble amongst them.
Even though Flo had assumed leadership from the outset, Diane, according to Ribowsky, angled for the head spot in the group. Mary, it seemed, played a peacekeeping role by alternately siding with Flo, then defending her. Betty McGlown left the group to get married.
Accounts differ as to how the girls (then called The Primettes) came to meet with Barry Gordy, but Ribowsky says the meeting almost surely happened when Diane used her connection to Smokey Robinson, asking him for an introduction. Unimpressed after an audition, Gordy reportedly told the girls—then teenagers, and still in high school—to come back when they grew up.
Once signed on to Motown, the girls (later re-named The Supremes) rose in popularity, partly in thanks to the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Diane, who later insisted that “Diana” was on her birth certificate, began a long-time affair with Barry Gordy. Flo left the group after a not-very-well-handled meeting, and died nearly penniless at 32. Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Flo) and Mary Wilson perform together now and again.
Ribowsky says they no longer share a stage with Miss Ross.
Filled with stories of astounding chutzpah, me-first betrayal, backstabbing, and deviousness, The Supremes is a scandal-lover’s delight. Author Mark Ribowsky says in his introduction to this “unauthorized biography” that he had to winnow through countless other sources’ information to try to determine the truth, some of which we may never know.
Although I enjoyed reading this book, I couldn’t help but feel that it was the same old thing but more of it. Ribowsky surely presents a well-researched account, and there were a few surprises here, but if you’ve read any other book on The Supremes—whether by a Supreme or not—you most likely won’t learn much that is new.
Still, if “Baby Love” and “Love Child” have always been in your background, you shouldn’t miss this book. For die-hard fans, The Supremes should be at the front of the reading list.
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.