[28 July 2009]
Reading Mark Ribowsky’s self-described unauthorized biography of the Supremes, subtitled A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal, you can’t help but get the feeling that you’re not exactly hearing a symphony.
Sure, the story behind one of the most successful musical acts ever—only Elvis, the Beatles and Mariah Carey charted more No. 1 singles—is an intriguing one, a genuine all-American, rags-to-riches tale, complete with villains, victims and heroes, as well as a messy unraveling that rivals anything seen on Behind the Music. And for the uninitiated, Ribowsky’s skillful retelling of how Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. built an empire from scratch is a gripping read. Berry’s success story—aided and abetted by the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, songwriting legends Holland-Dozier-Holland, and studio masters the Funk Brothers—is still a stunning accomplishment, especially considering the dearth of independent labels as the ‘50s gave way to the ’60s.
But for all that, it seems that several voices essential to this tale are absent, or are merely echoed from previous biographies and autobiographies. Not that the Supremes story can’t be told without Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Flo Ballard (who died in 1976), or Gordy, but their absence certainly makes it harder to know what really went on, and more importantly, why.
In the introduction, Ribowsky explains the rationale behind this approach, and makes plain his reasons for writing a biography of what he calls “the most important modern American music act after Elvis Presley” (I guess Bob Dylan doesn’t rate). Not only does he want to right the wrongs that have kept the Supremes from earning their proper place in the rock-lit canon—due in large part, Ribowsky feels, to sexism—but he believes that no one has yet to write the definitive book about the group.
“This may well be the first real biography of (the Supremes),” Ribowsky boasts, “that is, one written from the perspective of an outsider, with no personal investment in how events are told.” And he goes even further, claiming that Ross and Wilson “may actually be the world’s worst sources about the Supremes”.
While that may be true, it still doesn’t explain why the latter half of the book, which details the sour end of the Supremes and the eventual departure of Ross for greener pastures, feels a little on the thin, and dull, side. Sure, we understand that Gordy and Ross always had a plan to break out “Miss Ross”, as she liked to be called, and it’s understandable the toll it took on Mary and Flo, especially the latter, who eventually drank herself to death, but without these players actually telling the story firsthand, it starts to read a bit like a Wikipedia entry, and devolves into a he-said-she-said morass of ambiguity.
This is unfortunate, because the beginning of the book positively brims with life. With Ribowsky’s attention to detail, the humble, and seedy, roots of Motown come alive, as he puts us smack-dab in the middle of Detroit’s mean streets, which were, and continue to be, such fertile soil for musical talent to take root.
We can almost taste the “sweat, stogies, cheap beer, and cheaper perfume” at the Flame Show Bar on John R Street, where the action was as hot on stage as it was at the bar, as “hustlers lined up ... sucking on Camels and draining malt liquor while hoping to cross paths with someone in the ‘in’ crowd”. Among these hustlers was none other than Berry Gordy Jr. (whose sister ran the Flame’s photo concession), as well as one of the most interesting characters in the book, Milton Jenkins.
Jenkins was, by all accounts, a “pimp”, or “a playboy pimp”, but he was better known as the manager of the Primes, the group that would eventually spawn the Temptations. Jenkins was also manager of a group he recruited to back the Primes—the Primettes. Little did Jenkins know that this backing quartet would go on to be one of the greatest musical acts of all time, after shedding one of its original members and adopting a new name, the Supremes.
Jenkins would never see that success, though. The Primettes slipped through his fingers after an extended hospital stay, brought on by the broken arm that he kept, seemingly forever, in his trademark sling, and which he refused treatment for until gangrene nearly set in.
From there, the story shifts to 2648 West Grand Boulevard and the “dank, unfinished cavern that could be entered only through the rear of the house and down a flight of stairs”. That was Motown Studio A, the unlikeliest source of countless classic songs, and where the “Sound of Young America” and Gordy’s crossover dreams took shape. But the Supremes didn’t get to Studio A right away. In fact, they were sent home after their first audition for Gordy in 1960, and told to come back when they finished high school.
The “scrawny girl with the big eyes”, the aforementioned Miss Ross, did leave an impression on Gordy, though, and when the Primettes returned to Hitsville a year later, still not high school graduates, not only did they take on a new name and drop original member Betty McGlown, but they soon became the pet project of Gordy. Like most things Supremes, Gordy’s interest began and ended with Diane, as she was originally known, although the girl-group phenomenon at the time helped, too. Gordy even considered signing Ross on her own months before the Supremes were under contract to Motown.
And so it goes for the remainder of the Supremes’ saga, with Gordy and Ross forever scheming to set Diana free from the Supremes, while the two of them grew more and more intimate. Ballard and Wilson eventually became mere passengers on the Supremes express as it steamed through New York’s famous Copa club, Las Vegas, Europe, and the Ed Sullivan Show. Sadly, Ballard would eventually be forced out, to be replaced by look-alike, but far from sound-alike, Cindy Birdsong.
At the recent memorial service for Michael Jackson there was one notable absence—Diana Ross. Notable because it was Ross who “presented” the Jackson Five on their first album (one of the great Motown myths is that she discovered the quintet), and it was with Ross whom MJ apparently shared a lifelong, intimate bond, one so strong that he named her in his will as the fallback guardian for his children.
It is her absence, among others, in Ribowsky’s biography that strikes a sour chord, for Diana was as central to the Supremes story as she was to MJ’s life. Without her voice Ribowsky’s biography seems too stacked against her, and the real story of this supergroup is lost in a sea of speculation.