THE SUPREMES: A SAGA OF MOTOWN
DREAMS, SUCCESS, AND BETRAYAL
By Mark Ribowsky
Da Capo Press. $26, 440 pages, illus.
Reviewed by William F. Gavin
“Strange how potent cheap music is,” Noel Coward wrote in “Private Lives” (1930). I believe if Mr. Coward were writing today, he would use “popular” instead of “cheap,” but his point remains a strong one. Who among us is immune to a catchy pop tune, an irresistible rhythm, or a sappy lyric about love?
If proof of his assertion is needed, consider the success of the Supremes — Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. In recordings and personal appearances throughout the 1960s, they went from triumph to triumph, with 12 No. 1 hits, appearances at the Copacabana nightclub and — the ultimate proof of popular acceptance — appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That the Supremes were young, black and female made their success even more extraordinary. In a male-dominated, white-controlled business, they worked for a successful black boss and “crossed over,” i.e., sang black music in a style that appealed to white audiences.
As Mark Ribowksy shows in his exhaustively researched book, some widely accepted stories about the group are false. Their early years in Detroit’s Brewster Douglas project, while not easy, were not marked by ghetto squalor, as the British press believed. Although Berry Gordy, the mastermind of Motown Records, played the major role in shaping their career, he did not discover them. Milton Jenkins originally used them in a group called the Primettes.
Mr. Ribowsky says this about the contract the girls signed with Berry Gordy Enterprises:
“[W]hat they had signed was the abrogation of every conceivable right a human being has, except possibly the right to vote and to have trial by jury. The decision on how, when, and how much to pay them rested solely with ‘The Company.’ They had no inherent right to question The Company draining such remuneration for unspecified ‘expenses.’ … Motown retained 100 percent of all royalty rights to future commercial applications of songs in movies and commercials.”
Mr. Gordy left nothing to chance. The composing team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland wrote a string of hits (e.g., “Baby Love,” “I Hear a Symphony”) with melodic or rhythmic hooks that grabbed the listener in the first few bars. Dancer and choreographer Cholly Atkins showed the girls how to move onstage. Their gowns were chosen to give them an image that said: Here are young black singers who are sexy but well-behaved. They are here to entertain you, black and white.
The trio’s story follows the usual plotline of bad movies about showbiz. First, poverty, then ambition, then struggle, then success, followed by exploitation, artistic compromises and, in their case, internal division and then dissolution. The fame, the money, the tours, the new homes, the “cocktail classy” dresses and the careful management (critics said manipulation) of their careers by Mr. Gordy were, it would seem, all they ever could have hoped for.
But the turmoil engendered by Miss Ross’ haughty personality led to Miss Ballard’s increasing discontent. A traumatized victim of rape, Miss Ballard’s weight problems and heavy drinking gave Mr. Gordy (by then Miss Ross’ lover) the excuse to force her out of the group in 1967. Nine years later, Miss Ballard, 32, died of heart trouble.
Mr. Ribowksy describes Miss Ross as “weirdly sexy,” which is exactly right, but for all her centrality to the story, she is the least well-developed major figure in the book, (and I am not referring to her Twiggy-like shape). I do not know if this is an artistic failure on the part of the author, or evidence Miss Ross never had any inner life to begin with. Even her positive, fostering relationship with the young Michael Jackson, was, in Mr. Ribowsky’s view, exploitative.
Two odd facts caught my attention: In 1964, Miss Ross changed her name from Diane to Diana, which for some reason she thought sounded more classy, and, incredibly enough, before she starred in the movie “Lady Sings the Blues,” about Billie Holiday, she had never heard of the great jazz singer. For a black female singer of Miss Ross’ generation not to know about Miss Holiday suggests either willful ignorance or terminal self-absorption.
There is a Rashomon-like quality to the book because Mr. Ribowsky intersperses throughout the narrative first-person testimony from the girls’ friends, enemies and relatives, offering varying interpretations of their misadventures. He goes into considerable — and, to me, interesting — detail explaining how the Supremes’ sound was painstakingly created in the studio by Mr. Gordy, with the “ungodly bass licks” of the great James Jamerson driving the music.
The author’s style is like a weather report, generally bright, clear and breezy, but with intermittent haziness. He tells us a Supremes’ album rose “ineffably” to No. 5 on the soul charts. An unutterable rise? Then there are the three songwriters who “had sprung fully formed from Medusa’s head. All through 1963 the troika rumbled in high gear.” As S.J. Perelman once wrote: Block that metaphor.
Mr. Ribowsky believes Richard Nixon, in 1968, had a “secret peace plan” to end the war in Vietnam. Mr. Nixon, contrary to the persistent myth, had no such plan and never said he did, which can be instantly ascertained by any computer search engine. And, in a piece of musical criticism that says all that needs to be said about Mr. Ribowsky’s critical powers, he writes that the Gershwins’ immortal “Love Is Here to Stay” is an “elevator music” standard.
So, what was it all about, the popular glory and the personal sturm und drang that marked the Supremes’ period of ascendance? The Supremes, it would appear, were mostly about money. Mr. Gordy spent millions perfecting their act and promoting their music. The girls persuaded fans to spend perhaps as much as $100 million to listen to them sing. Whatever else you can say about their music, it was never, ever cheap.
William F. Gavin is a writer who lives in McLean.