The journey of the Supremes to widespread acclaim was a progression that happened in several stages. Starting out as the Primettes and going from being the “no-hit Supremes” into one of the most legendary all-female bands of the 1960s and ’70s, the American R&B group even proved competition for famed artists such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Despite the initial lag in gaining recognition, it didn’t stay that way for too long. With the release of their breakthrough hit ‘Where Did My Love Go’ in 1964, the band gained swift momentum, thereby securing a place among the top artists of the ’60s music scene.
The band’s original line-up, comprising of band members Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown of what started out as the Primettes, soon changed after the band was signed with Motown Records by its president Berry Gordy. Right from the beginning, the parity in the treatment of the individual members and their place in the band was palpable. While all three of the existing members of the group (Ross, Wilson and Ballard) were vocalists, it was evident that Ross was given more importance in the band as compared to the rest of its members. Eventually, this was what culminated in Ross leaving the band in 1970 to pursue her solo career and the group ultimately disbanding in 1977.
Adding to this was also the fact that Gordy was romantically inclined towards Ross, which also explained why he put Ross first before the other members. As Gordy himself admitted, “I was madly in love with Diana Ross. She was the big star of my life.” Naturally, Gordy did everything in his power to make sure Ross could be the “big star” of the music industry, too. The two eventually got together in a relationship which also gave Ross a lot of control over the band and developing her image as the frontwoman for the group. Having said that, it would be difficult to say whether it was simply a matter of boosting her ego or more as a pursuit of establishing herself better in the entertainment industry.
However, to her bandmate Mary Wilson, it was pretty clear, as she likened Ross’ behaviour to that of a “spoiled brat”. As Wilson later said in an interview: “The higher we ascended, the more Diane wanted for herself … She began dating Berry, and whenever she was unhappy about something, she would let him know.” Wilson further described Ross’ “little tricks” of doing something or the other to set herself apart from the rest of the band – whether it be wearing a different costume for a show or something stretching her arms out while performing so as to obstruct the rest of the members from view. In the greater scheme of things, these were apparently insignificant, but these gestures were what started to create a rift between Ross and the other band members.
It got to the point where Ross’ own wish to pursue a career of her own could be placed directly adjacent to her fellow band members’ declining faith in her as being part of a team. In Gordy’s words, “Diana never wanted to leave the girls, particularly. She was more or less pushed out. But that’s what happens when a person is up front, and people are telling the background singers that she’s stealing the show”. Gordy’s blatant partiality towards Ross played an equal role in the whole ordeal being carried out – “It was perhaps favouritism because Diana was a favourite of mine. But she had the talent to justify that favouritism”.
Ross had her own account of her time in the band, of course. It was bittersweet, as she related later in an interview. Contrasting the highly successful career of the Supremes, Ross said she was thoroughly heartbroken with the treatment she was getting from her bandmates, wherein they alienated her even when they were performing on the same stage or “talked about behind my back when my back wasn’t even turned”.
Plagued by internal conflicts within the band, struggling to cope with personal issues and in a dire need to find a place to be comfortable in and to let her musical abilities shine, Diana Ross pursued her solo journey and went on to have a successful career like no other.