Vintage Gold: America’s Most Successful Vocal Group in The Supremes

the supremes

At the height of their rise in the mid-1960s The Supremes had risen to become—and still remain—America’s most successful vocal group, even rivaling The Beatles in terms of international popularity. Although the lineup changed dramatically throughout their run the core group of Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross are often recognized as the definitive lineup responsible for many of the group’s career-defining records. While the rise and eventual disbanding of The Supremes is a tragic narrative, to say the least, the trio’s legacy is one that has transcended generations of music lovers and inspired dozens of female vocal groups since. From the moment they first appeared in their glam-gowns and wigs, glittering radiance and singing in that thin, clear vocal style that pierced the soul, The Supremes had nuzzled themselves into the hearts of American audiences for decades to come.

A Bit of Liverpool (1964) was the third studio album by The Supremes. The album featured a number of covers of Smokey Robinson, including a version of “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” that stood toe-to-toe with the original. But the record also saw The Supremes take on The Beatles with covers of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Cant’ Buy Me Love,” and the seminal track “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Just to really hammer in the scope of The Supremes’ popularity, the record barely missed entering the Top 20 in the U.S. with a 21 spot—and their renditions of soon to be classic songs are immortalized in their own unique style of singing.

In an issue of Q magazine published in 1994, Madonna said of her childhood that “The Beatles were there, but I was more eager about The Supremes.” It’s hard to overestimate the effects it would have on young females seeing The Supremes received with such praise, enthusiasm, and success—commercially or otherwise—that was on par not just with their Motown male counterparts but also crossed racial borderlines and allowed them to rival even The Beatles. Female vocal groups like The Three Degrees, The Emotions, En Vogue, TLC, and Destiny’s Child owe something to The Supremes’ legacy of rising above gender and racial constraints.

A Bit of Liverpool also wouldn’t be the last time The Supremes would break-down genre barriers. While the African-American community in music was now used to the trend of R&B songs being taken by often white rock-and-roll artists and then flipped for greater commercial success by the former, The Supremes upended that expectation by taking rock-and-roll songs and then giving them the R&B treatment. The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop followed in 1965 and featured a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.” The Supremes were also not finished with their obvious affinity with The Beatles, with a gorgeous cover of “Yesterday” appearing on their 1966 album I Hear A Symphony. And then on their 1966 album Supremes A Go Go the group gave a cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” made famous by Nancy Sinatra, with an unused recording of The Rolling Stones’ hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” also recorded for the album and eventually added to the extended version.

The Supremes had poise and grace that seemed to just radiate off them with every performance. Everything from their carefully tailored outfits and hairdos to the way they sang in perfect harmony was built on this image of glamorous fashion and elegance. Just watch the above clip of best-of appearances by them on the Ed Sullivan Show—Ballard, Wilson, and Ross are the epitome of beauty and class from the moment they appear onscreen or onstage, and when they start singing, one’s heart never again stops swooning. Early recordings of The Supremes, unedited by Motown chief Berry Gordy, offer a more cohesive sound of the trio that doesn’t have Ballard and Wilson’s backing vocals edited-down to shine a heavier light on Ross—who Gordy was grooming and eventually knew would pursue a solo career. The Supremes, although the launching pad from which Ross would eventually achieve her own stardom, should be remembered as the cohesive and powerful female vocal group that they were—one made-up of countless individual women who later filled the roles as one of America’s most important and influential songstresses.

Words: Steven Ward

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