With a little time, some handmade sequin dresses, and killer vocals, a group of teenage girls from Detroit emerged as one of the most successful singing groups in the world. When they were fifteen, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard had no idea that they would one day become the divas known as The Supremes, but their love of singing drove them to success. While the group faced internal problems throughout its career, the catchy tunes and broad appeal of The Supremes brought them fame. Motown Records signed the band, spurred them to reinvent themselves, and eventually led them to stardom.
In 1959, the group formed as The Primettes, a sister act to an all-male band, The Primes. The Primettes originally included Betty McGlown, but she was quickly replaced by Barbara Martin in 1960. At this point, the group became The Supremes, or as they were jokingly dubbed in their early years, the “no-hit Supremes.” In December 1963, when the group was once again composed of its core three members (Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, Florence Ballard), they released the song that became their first hit, “When the lovelight starts shining through his eyes.” From there, The Supremes stormed the scene of clubs like the Copacabana and made appearances before world leaders such as England’s Queen Elizabeth II. Throughout their career, The Supremes recorded 12 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100, playing an important boundary-breaking role by racially integrating the pop music scene for the first time.
On display in the Women Who Rock exhibition are several dresses once worn by Mary Wilson that exude her star-power. In addition to breaking racial barriers in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, The Supremes embodied femininity in a way that was both refined and powerful. Ross’s tender, high-pitched voice combined with the band’s couture costumes played up their femininity; yet the women’s choreographed performances and popularity showed their strength and hit-making power. For both women and African-Americans, The Supremes were icons who defied the odds and created their own rags-to-riches story.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts will host Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power from September 7, 2012–January 6, 2013. Don’t miss this exhibition, which illustrates the important roles women have played in rock and roll from its inception through today.
—Kristie Landing is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.