Michael Jackson’s death is another reminder of the richness and depth of the Motown Records saga. But the greatest story of the label’s ’60s heyday is still that of The Supremes, who fueled a variety of books and inspired the Broadway and movie musical Dreamgirls. Yet dirt keeps popping up, and there’s more than enough of it, old and new, to keep Phil Spector biographer Mark Ribowsky going in his new book The Supremes: A Saga Of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal.
The tale’s parameters are well-known enough: pushy, vain, driven Diane Ross (renamed Diana for the stage), easygoing Mary Wilson, and big-voiced, easily hurt Florence Ballard get together as The Primettes, female counterparts to local boys The Primes. (Later, The Temptations.) Motown head Berry Gordy Jr., later Ross’ lover, benches Ballard’s conventionally robust voice in favor of Ross’ sexy mewl. Ballard leaves in 1967, gets replaced by Cindy Birdsong, and dies on welfare nine years later; reunited at 1983’s Motown 25 concert, Ross shoves Wilson after she takes the lead vocal on a song. Ross’ legendary hauteur and dramatic fashion sense have made her an icon, not to mention one of the most hated women in show business.
As Ribowsky demonstrates, Ross was well on her way to that title from a young age, wrapping men around her finger beginning with her father, and boasting about office conquests to the Motown secretaries. These included Smokey Robinson and Eddie Holland (who, along with his brother Brian and Lamont Dozier, wrote and produced the bulk of The Supremes’ hits until leaving the company in 1967) before she hooked up with Gordy. Ribowsky gleefully chronicles the tangled love lives of The Supremes—by contrast with a 1965 Teen Screen feature casting the singers as near-virginal—but he’s also invested in the music: The trio’s 1964 masterpiece, “Come See About Me,” has “a lush, trance-inducing rhythm made for Ross’ flan-light, chimerical vocals.”
That’s an apt description, but nevertheless, Ribowsky’s writing gets a little overheated. He pushes Eddie Holland’s fling with Ross, on which Holland has almost no comment, into the subtext of many of his Supremes songs—an intriguing notion that Ribowsky is a little too eager to sell. Still, he sorts through conflicting multiple sources with the zeal of a true fan, albeit one who doesn’t make excuses for Ross’ diva excesses.