The story of the Supremes
This film explains the background to the Supremes exhibition, staged at the V&A in 2008
(music: My world is empty….)
NARRATOR: In 2008 the Victoria and Albert Museum staged one of its most unusual exhibitions. (music: ‘…and as I go my way alone…) Visited by over 60,000 people, the exhibition brought a little bit of Motown to London. (‘…I need your strength, I need your tender touch. I need the love my dear, I miss so much…) The exhibition had at its heart the dresses and costumes worn by the most successful girl pop group ever: The Supremes. (music: ‘…from this cold world I tried to hide my face…) It even saw the attendance of one of the band’s founding members for a special one-off talk.
[CUT TO CLIP] INTERVIEWER: Ladies and Gentlemen, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, c’mon.
NARRATOR: This show was: The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection.
The costumes in the Exhibition show how The Supremes’ image was created and how it was the changing face of American society in the 1960s. The show was put together by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes.
VICTORIA BROACKES: What we’ve tried to do in the exhibition is interweave the story of the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s with the story of the Supremes’ success. The Supremes represented a sort of counterpoint to the political activism of the time because they represented beauty, elegance, style, and above all, success. The core of the exhibition is in fact the fashion and the collection here is Mary Wilson’s own collection of dresses and we have about 50 dresses in the exhibition. The beaded dresses that you see on the revolve were the dresses they wore to meet the Queen Mother in 1968 and every bead was sewn on by hand and they weigh 35 lbs each.
And this case where you see a cascade of records is about how they found success in 1964 when they released ‘Where did our love go?’ they’d actually signed with Berry Gordy at Motown in 1961 but they’d had 3 years without a single hit and they had come to be called the no-hits Supremes. But from then on they had five hits in a row and that’s a record, I think, to this day.
From then they went on to represent success on an international stage and there’s a poster at the back of the case which shows them opening the Lincoln Centre in 1965.
And a very early example of product endorsement down at the bottom in the shape of the Supremes bread where you see them on the cover of the bread.
The recording desk which we’ve tried to recreate with an example of how the studio looked behind and so on, is where we talk a bit about the Motown technology which was, at the time, amongst most advanced in the world. There was only united western in LA and Abbey road where the Beatles recorded that could compete with them at all and even those not in the terms of numbers of hits. On the desk we have an original version of “Babylove”. “Babylove” was actually recorded before “Where Did Our Love Go?” but when “Where Did Our Love Go?” went to number one, Berry Gordy sent them back to the studio. He said he wanted their second hit to sound just like the first. And that’s when they added the foot stomps and the hand claps.
(‘…Break my heart and leave me sad, tell me what did I do wrong, to make you stay away so long? Cause babylove, my babylove, been missin’ ya…)
We wanted to bring film into the exhibition where we could to show how things looked at the time. And we recorded Mary Wilson talking about what it was like to be a Supreme… Um… Also Maxine Powell who played such a major part. She ran the Motown charm school which was a bit like the Hollywood star factories of the 1940’s and 50’s. She taught the Supremes how to… how to sit, how to be interviewed, as she says on the film, ‘how to meet kings and queens.’
MAXINE POWELL: So then they learned the basic standing position. How not to protrude the buttocks. How to roll under. And if they didn’t know the step, then smile and not act tough about it.
(music: ‘…my world is empty without you babe...’)
VICTORIA BROACKES: We wanted to look at the legacy of the Supremes and what they might mean to people today, er, we talked to Trevor Nelson about that and he finishes off the exhibition by talking about girl groups now and how they’ve been influenced by the Supremes. And it’s not just… it’s not that they were the first girl group or the best girl group, it’s the fact that following their success one can see just how incredibly successful a girl group could be.
TREVOR NELSON: I would say as you look at girl groups full stop, they all want that Supremes’ success. And The Supremes have proved that a girl group can last ten years or more at the very top.
VICTORIA BROACKES: The story of The Supremes it’s a good story itself but its also a great story to talk about the history of the 1960s. I think from where we are now, it is hard to imagine a segregated world. Impossible to imagine having two charts: a black chart and a white chart. It’s extraordinary. And I think it’s good to remind people that that was how the world was then.
VISITOR: I heard about the exhibition and it was something I definitely wanted to see, so I specifically came here to see this exhibition. I didn’t actually have a favourite part because I loved the entire exhibition. I think the history bit of it was really good and the clothes and of course the music.
MARY WILSON: [SUNG] So here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams. Funny how the time just flies, how love can go from warm hello’s to sad goodbyes and leave you with the memories you’ve left behind to keep your winters warm. For there’s no yes in yesterday and who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away. As long as I’m still in the game I wanna play: the laughs, the life, the love. So here’s to life! - And every joy it brings. So here’s to life! - To dreamers and their dreams. May all your storms be weathered and all that’s good get better. Here’s to life! Here’s to love! Here’s to you!
INTERVIEWER: [MUFFLED: So proud of you, fantastic] Ladies and Gentleman, the wonderful Mary Wilson!
MARY WILSON: Gotta go. Thank you, thank you so much. OK.
INTERVIEWER: We’ll let you go
MARY WILSON: I gotta go
INTERVIEWER: You gotta go, babe. Lovely to see you take care all the best. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
MARY WILSON: Oh good, I did too
INTERVIEWER: All the best take care honey all the best all the best…
MARY WILSON: byebye…
The Supremes were one of the most important and best-selling all-female pop groups ever. This film explores the background to the important show staged by the V&A's theatre and performance team and showcasing original group member, Mary Wilson's collection of stage costumes.
As co-Curator Vicky Broackes explains, the exhibition told visitors as much about the Civll Rights movement as it did about the Supremes history as the first female super group.