This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #183: Where Did Our Love Go? by The Supremes.
We have covered enough Motown songs by now that I would hope that you would have a fair idea of how the Motown music system worked. A case in point is the simple fact that today’s song, “Where Did Our Love Go?” is listed as being by “The Supremes”….not, “Diana Ross and the Supremes”. That small detail is instructive and helps place this song as being from the formative stages of the career of this highly successful, all-girl group from the 1960s. Like so much of what went on during the early years at Motown Records, The Supremes experienced many changes with regard to their line-up, the group’s stage name, the manner in which they were promoted on the world’s stage, the percentage of royalties they earned and so on. The story of The Supremes is interesting in its’ own right but, it is, also, similar to what happened to many singers of colour under the leadership of Motown CEO, Barry Gordy. “Where Did Our Love Go?” was The Supremes first #1 hit (of five consecutive #1s) but, it is, also, an apt commentary on the relationships that existed at Motown between the artists, the writers, the session players and the executives at the time when Motown first came to be.
The Supremes only became “The Supremes” once they were signed to Motown. Prior to that, Diane Ross (*That is not a typo), Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown were known as The Primettes (the sister act to an all-male group from The Projects in Detroit, known as The Primes. The Primes went on to sign with Motown and ended up becoming The Temptations). The Primettes were rejected by Gordy after auditioning (because he felt they were too young….they were still in HS), The Primettes kept hanging around the Motown studio, doing whatever back-up, supportive work they could do, until Barry Gordy could ignore them no longer. He signed them on the pre-condition that they come up with a “better” name for their group. The four ladies thought that The Supremes sounded like a strong name and thus, a legend was born.
As with all singers and groups, The Supremes were paired with a writing team. In their case, their team was the famous trio, Holland-Dozier-Holland. Not only did Holland-Dozier-Holland provide the girls with lyrics for finished songs but, they, also, instructed them on how to sing those lyrics and how to present themselves on stage. One of the first things they did was to pull Diane Ross to the front of the stage and put Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson to the back. *(Betty McGlown had left the group by then, making The Supremes a trio). H-D-H, also, insisted that Diana Ross sounded better than “Diane Ross” and so, the tweaks to who The Supremes were, how they sounded and how they were being packaged for promotional purposes, began in earnest.
Prior to working with Holland-Dozier-Holland, all three girls shared singing duties equally. Each possessed a slightly different timbre in their voices and, as a result, each was better suited for singing certain types of songs. This, they thought, was a selling point because it gave them a wider variety of material to work with but, Holland-Dozier-Holland disagreed. They stated that this format “diluted” their image, causing fans to not know what to expect, who to focus on and so on. H-D-H insisted that there be one star and, as such, they wrote songs for the girls that were only suited for Diana Ross’s style of singing. The first of those songs was, “Where Did Our Love Go?”. “Where Did Our Love Go?” was followed in quick succession by #1 hits like “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In The Name of Love” and “Back In My Arms Again”. A few years after that, they scored #1 hits with, “I Hear a Symphony”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”, “Love is Here and Now, You’re Gone”, “The Happening”, “Love Child” and their final hit as a trio, the ironically named, “Someday, We’ll Be Together”.
In the middle of this string of #1 songs, the coronation of Diana Ross as “the star”, not only of The Supremes but, of Motown’s entire stable of talent, was made complete when their stage name was formally changed to “Diana Ross and the Supremes”, thus cementing Ballard and Wilson’s status as backup singers, as opposed to the equal partners they were always intended to be. Furthermore, as the 1960s rolled along, the men who pulled the strings behind the scenes, Holland-Dozier-Holland, left Motown in a contract dispute with Barry Gordy over, you guessed it, royalty rates! With them gone, it was decided that Diana Ross was ready to start a solo career and leave The Supremes behind. That she did. She had already left the group when it came time to record, “Someday, We’ll Be Together”. Ross returned because she was contractually obligated to finish this last album. She appeared with Ballard and Wilson on The Ed Sullivan Show to promote the song. That appearance was the last time that The Supremes, as we knew them, with Diana Ross at the helm, ever performed together.
In the years that followed, Diana Ross continued to be a prominent name at Motown and within the music indiustry, as a whole. In addition to having more hits under her own name, she was given the job of helping to mentor The Jackson 5 as they launched their career. She and Michael Jackson became good friends in time, as well.
As for Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, they stayed in The Supremes, with a variety of other lead singers brought in but, The Supremes never again reached the lofty musical heights that they had once enjoyed with their pal from The Projects, Diane Ross. Ballard tried a solo career and failed to find any traction and was eventually dropped from Motown Records. At age 32, Ballard suffered a heart attack and passed away. Mary Wilson remained with The Supremes right until the bitter end. After the dissolution of the group, Wilson decided to write a book about her life as a “Supreme” and became a best-selling author. Her book was entitled, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme”.
Wilson, along with Ross and Ballard, were all inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. As a group, they sold over 100 million albums worldwide, making them the biggest selling all-female group of all-time. Their image as classy-looking, glamourous black females helped to inspire many young female singers of colour to feel beautiful about themselves, in an era when racial tensions remained high and it wasn’t always easy to have discussions across racial lines that focused on beauty and talent, as opposed, to hatred and bigotry. So, as much as The Supremes were known mostly for their singing career, their contribution to the cause of racial harmony cannot be overlooked either. In any case, musically or politically, The Supremes made a difference in the world in which they lived. That ability to make a positive difference began with a song called, “Where Did Our Love Go?” I present that to you now.
The link to the video for the song, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by The Supremes, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Supremes, can be found here.
The link to the website where you can purchase the book written by Florence Ballard, can be found here.
The link to the website where you can buy the book written by Mary Wilson, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.