Three years doesn’t seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but the last three years of my life have certainly been eventful. The biggest thing that happened is that I moved from NJ, where I had lived for my entire life, to southern RI. I live on this beautiful little island in Narragansett Bay now, but after more than two years I have to admit that I still miss home.
The reason I bring up the three year time span is because this column turns three today. It’s still an infant in terms of human life span, but it seems pretty grown up in terms of a column. Many people start weekly columns with good intentions, but before long they lose interest. The advantage I have is that this column is fueled by music that I love, and never tire of hearing. So why stop now?
Not only is today the third anniversary of Soul Serenade, but as I write this, it’s my birthday. It’s a time of reflection, both musically and personally. After giving it a lot of thought the right song seemed to turn up at the right time. The 156th song to be featured in the Soul Serenade column (if you’ve been following along you’ve got a really good music collection by now) is “Reflections” by Diana Ross & the Supremes, fittingly, a trio.
The Supremes had an extraordinary career. They were Motown’s most commercially successful group, and that’s saying something. There were 12 #1 singles, most of them written by the legendary team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. For awhile there in the mid-’60s they were right up there with the Beatles in terms of popularity around the world.
The Supremes started out in Detroit as the Primettes in 1959. The original lineup was Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diane Ross, and Betty McGlown, with the first three trading off on lead vocals. They were the female counterparts of a male group called the Primes, which featured future Temptations Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams. With the help of Smokey Robinson, the Primettes got to audition for Berry Gordy, who had just started the Motown label. Gordy liked the group but felt they were too young and told them to come back when they had graduated from high school.
The Primettes didn’t give up however. They recorded a single for Lu Pine Records that didn’t go anywhere. McGlown got engaged and left the group. She was replaced by Barbara Martin, and the Primettes remained a quartet for the time being.
The Primettes hung around the Hitsville USA studios every day after school, and eventually found their way on to records doing background vocals and handclaps. Gordy finally gave in and signed them to Motown in 1961. He insisted that they change their name to one from a list of suggestions he gave them. That’s how the Primettes became the Supremes. The following year Martin left the group and they decided to remain a trio.
The classic lineup had their first chart hit with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” at the end of 1963. Real success however didn’t come until the spring of ’64 when “Where Did Our Love Go” was released and became the Supremes first #1 single. Four consecutive #1’s followed, “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back In My Arms Again.”
In 1965 the Miracles became Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Two years later Gordy decreed that the Supremes would become Diana Ross & the Supremes. Later that year Martha & the Vandellas became Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, and David Ruffin sought unsuccessfully to get the name of his group changed to David Ruffin & the Temptations.
Florence Ballard was unhappy to say the least. She felt that she had been pushed aside in favor of Ross. Gordy thought about replacing Ballard in 1966, but when the Copacabana threatened to cancel the group’s gig there if Ballard was fired, he relented. Meanwhile Ballard became depressed and began to drink heavily. By early ’67 the Supremes were still a hit-making machine, but they were falling apart.
In April Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, who had been a member of Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles. Ballard returned briefly but by the end of June she was gone for good, replaced full-time by Birdsong. Ballard’s official release from Motown was announced in February, 1968.
Before she left, Ballard was a part of one last hit single. The Holland-Dozier-Holland song “Reflections” was released on July 24, 1967. Ballard’s vocals had been recorded on May 9, just before she was dismissed from the group. It was the first record to be released under the name Diana Ross & the Supremes.
It was the Summer of Love, and “Reflections” is a record under the influence of the psychedelic sounds that were in the air in those days. It found Diana Ross & the Supremes moving away from the pop sound that had made them megastars. It didn’t matter a bit. While the song failed to become another #1 single for the group, it did make it all the way up the charts to #2, held out of the top spot only by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”
Florence Ballard continued to suffer from depression and alcoholism after she was forced out of the Supremes. Sadly, inexcusably given the number of hit records she had been a part of, she lived in poverty. Just as she was trying to make a musical comeback, she died of cardiac arrest in February, 1976 when she was only 32 years-old.
Ballard was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Supremes in 1988. Hers is one of the saddest stories that rock and roll has ever known.
This Spotify playlist includes nearly all of the songs that have ever been featured in this column, and then some. There’s a similar playlist on Rdio.