The lifespan of the Supremes strangely parallels that of their chief commercial competitors of the ’60s, the Beatles. In their classic configuration with lead singer Diana Ross and support vocalists Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, the hit-making trio lasted only a handful of years –1962 to 1969 — virtually shadowing the Beatles’ own brief, brilliant existence. Yet while the British legends maintain a virtually pristine legacy, the Supremes’ tale is mired in ugly accounts of collective sordid behavior; Ross’s rampaging ego and gift for backstabbing; and, in the pathetic case of Ballard, early, ignominious death. In other words, perfect fodder for any intrepid biographer willing to delve into the murky waters of Motown history. For unlike the multi-talented Beatles, the Supremes were far from a self-contained unit seemingly predestined for success no matter whom they eventually aligned themselves with. Without the Motown machine behind them — in particular, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s expertly crafted songs and production — and the monolithic guiding hand (make that fist) of company founder and mogul Berry Gordy, the triumph of the group is practically inconceivable. In workmanlike prose that gets the dirty job done, Ribowsky minutely chronicles the incestuous bedding and vicious infighting that went on between Motown acts, as well as the shifty business machinations that allowed Gordy to flagrantly screw his artistic “family.” If the author never attempts to make a truly compelling case for Ross’s unique vocal prowess, he does display a genuine affection for the Motown sound and its workings, acknowledging the indispensible contributions of the label’s studio musicians, — particularly the influential bassist James Jamerson — and those of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier. Thanks to these inspired collaborators, the mini-masterpieces of the Supremes’ heyday have yet to lose their luster, but, as Ribowsky rams home, they came at quite a cost.
About the Author
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.