The group formed as a teenage quartet with Ross, Wilson, Ballard, and McGlown. In 1960, McGlown left to concentrate on her studies and was replaced by Barbara Martin. In 1961, when Martin left to start a family, the Supremes became a trio. In 1967, Ballard was fired from the group and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Jean Terrell replaced Ross in 1970. Birdsong was replaced by Lynda Laurence in 1972. Scherrie Payne replaced Terrell and Birdsong returned replacing Laurence in 1973. Birdsong left again in 1976 and was replaced by Susaye Greene. Finally in 1977, they disbanded.
When The Supremes formed, the members took turns singing lead. In 1962, Motown president Berry Gordy made Diana Ross the sole lead singer.
The Supremes had 12 #1 hits in the US and 33 in the Top 40.
Before joining the Supremes, Cindy Birdsong was a member of Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles.
On January 14, 1970, Diana Ross gave her final performance with the Supremes at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. At the end of the show, she introduced Jean Terrell (discovered and chosen by Berry Gordy) as the new lead singer. In her two autobiographies, Mary Wilson said that the next morning after that concert, Berry Gordy called Mary telling her that he changed his mind and wanted Syreeta Wright to replace Ross. Mary (knowing that it would be stupid to do since the Supremes already began working on a new album with Terrell) strictly refused, and Berry Gordy threatened to wash his hands of the group.
In 1972, Cindy Birdsong left the Supremes because she was expecting a baby; she was replaced by Lynda Laurence. One year later, Laurence left the group for the same reason and was replaced by Birdsong.
In the mid-'60s, all three members had flings with married men in the Motown community: Ross with Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy; Wilson with Duke Fakir of The Four Tops, Ballard with Otis Williams of The Temptations.
In June 1977, the Supremes gave their farewell performance at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.
Mary Wilson was the mainstay, with the group from beginning to end.
Before they became the Supremes, they were called the Primettes. They formed as a sister group to a male group called the Primes (this group would later be renamed the Temptations). In early 1961, when they signed with Motown, they were told to change their group name because Berry Gordy didn't like it. Florence Ballard chose the name "Supremes."
Before signing to Motown, they recorded for a local label called LuPine in 1960.
When Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in 1967, their group name was changed to "Diana Ross and the Supremes." When Miss Ross left to go solo in 1970, the group name went back to being "the Supremes." Sometimes, the Supremes of the seventies are called "the new Supremes."
On a few of their '70s songs, Mary Wilson shared the lead vocals with Jean Terrell and later with Scherrie Payne. On their last album, Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, all three members took the lead.
After Florence Ballard was fired from the group in 1967, she attempted a solo career with ABC Records. She recorded an album that was never released and her two 1968 solo singles failed to chart. ABC dropped her just nine months after signing her. Eventually, she became one of rock's biggest tragedies. She lost her house, her marriage and career crumbled, her health deteriorated because of her weight gain and addictions to alcohol and different medications, and she and her three daughters ended up having to live on welfare. On February 22, 1976, she died of cardiac arrest; she was only 32 years old.
On December 20, 1981, the musical Dreamgirls, loosely based on the history of the Supremes, opened at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway and ran for 1522 performances. In 2006, Dreamgirls was adapted into a movie.
Mary Wilson wrote two tell-all autobiographies of her life - Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme (1986; this book is about her early life and career before Miss Ross went solo) and Supreme Faith: Someday, We'll Be Together (1990; this book is about her life and career from the seventies to the eighties). In January 2000, the two books were released together to be called Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme. The combination of the two books contains an afterword written by Mary at the end.
Jean Terrell was the sister of boxer Ernie Terrell. Scherrie Payne is the sister of singer/actress Freda Payne.
Two years after the Supremes disbanded, Mary Wilson released her first solo album while Payne and Greene released an album (Partners) as a duo under the names "Scherrie & Susaye".
The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, the first girl group to get in. The next girl group inducted was another Motown act: Martha and the Vandellas, who entered in 1995.
Ross skipped the ceremony because she was feuding with Wilson, who accepted the award alongside a daughter of Ballard.
In the mid-'60s, Diana Ross began to stand out more and more, which eventually led to their name changing to "Diana Ross and the Supremes" and later, rumors that Ross would soon begin a solo career. Before this happened, Berry Gordy and the public started to pay more attention to Ross than the other two Supremes. According to Mary Wilson's first book Dreamgirl (1986), some of the things that caused tension in the group (just to name a few) were interviewers who would talk just to Ross and not the other two Supremes, and Ross getting her own private dressing room at concerts, while the other two members had to share a room.
The fact that Ross was given more publicity and attention proved to be very hard on Florence Ballard. She became very angry and depressed and would sometimes threaten to quit the group. Soon, she turned to alcohol. Her heavy drinking, weight gain, and growing unprofessional behavior did not help matters for the group either. Many times, she began showing up late for rehearsals, concerts, and interviews; sometimes, she wouldn't show up at all. Sometimes, during concerts, she was so drunk, she wasn't able to control herself. During a performance at the Flamingo Hotel, she was replaced by Cindy Birdsong halfway through the show. Finally, in the summer of 1967, Birdsong replaced her for good.
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They never won a Grammy and received just two nominations.
Jean Terrell, who took over for Diana Ross, is the brother of Ernie Terrell, who was a heavyweight boxer in the 1960s and '70s. He fought Muhammad Ali in the famous "What's My Name" fight, when Ali kept beating him because Terrell was calling him "Cassius Clay."
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They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show
20 times, which is more than any other pop act.
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A reunion tour was proposed for 2000, but Wilson and Birdsong refused because Ross was offered much more money. Organizers considered using two later-day members to replace them, but it was clear that fans would only support the classic lineup, and the tour was scrapped.
Diana Ross was known for stealing stage moves from other Motown acts. When the label launched their first revue tour in 1962, The Supremes were low on the bill. After their set, Ross would watch the rest of the show, take note of the moves that got a reaction, then teach them to Wilson and Ballard. This didn't endear her to her labelmates, but Ross wasn't out to make friends. Berry Gordy acknowledged this, saying that Ross "stole everybody's act" when he spoke with Rolling Stone in 1973.
Before joining the Supremes, Lynda Laurence and Susaye Greene were members of Stevie Wonder's group Wonderlove.