The story of The Supremes

American Motown group The Supremes recorded 12 US No.1 hits between 1964 and 1969, including an unprecedented five consecutive chart toppers. Against a backdrop of the meteoric rise of Motown Records and of the American Civil Rights Movement, The Supremes played an inspirational role in changing racial perceptions – influencing subsequent performers for years to come.

In 2008 we interviewed Mary Wilson, co-founder of The Supremes, about her extraordinary career and the heyday of Motown, as part of the major V&A exhibition The Story of the Supremes:

Mary Wilson and Maxine Powell, founder of Motown's Artist Development Finishing School, talk about The Supremes' image:

Radio and television broadcaster Trevor Nelson reflects on The Supremes' influence at the time, their significance now and their legacy to popular music:

The story of The Supremes

Poster advertising The Supremes at the Lincoln Center, New York
Poster advertising The Supremes at the Lincoln Center, New York, designed by Joseph Eula, 1965, USA. Museum no. E.323-1973. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1959 in the northern industrial city of Detroit, entrepreneur Berry Gordy created a music business which evolved into Motown Records. Known as 'Motor City', Detroit was one of the greatest industrial cities in the world and dominated automobile production. Gordy was inspired by the assembly line process at the Ford car plant where he worked, aiming to create a hit factory ('Hitsville USA'), where "a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist – a star". The Supremes would become the embodiment of this vision.

Florence 'Blondie' Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson met as children in Detroit's Brewster-Douglass Housing Project (America's first federally funded housing for African Americans). In early 1959, the three girls along with Betty McGlown, started 'The Primettes', an all-girl singing group. They auditioned for the fledgling Motown label and in January 1961, they were eventually signed as 'The Supremes'.

Paired with the genius of Motown's in-house composers, Holland-Dozier-Holland, there was no stopping The Supremes. They became the epitome of Motown glamour, appealing to Black and white audiences alike. By 1965 The Supremes had made history by achieving five consecutive number one hits and Motown was the most successful Black-owned enterprise in America. Gordy had seen the commercial potential of creating a pop version of rhythm and blues music which, while still being generated by Black culture, could also cross the race divide to attract a white teenage audience. This became 'The Sound of Young America' that was shared irrespective of class or race.

Poster advertising The Supremes at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
Poster advertising The Supremes at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, England. Museum no. S.4478-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 1940s and 50s, America was still racially segregated and most African Americans had still not been granted the social freedom they had expected from the slavery emancipation of the 1860s. In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights Movement mobilised and Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr rose to prominence as the leader of the movement. Previously Motown had generally avoided 'issue' tracks, but in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, 1965, contemporary popular music began to reflect the changing times. Stevie Wonder's 'Down to Earth' (1966) began a trend for 'message' songs. Edwin Starr's 'War' and Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On?' followed, along with The Supremes' 'Love Child' which became number one in the US in 1968. On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, an act which led to rioting in cities across America. On the evening following his assassination, The Supremes appeared on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show, singing 'Somewhere'. Diana Ross gave a eulogy to King and his life's commitment to human rights.

Styling was a big part of The Supremes' success. The artists and staff at Motown were predominantly Black but the 'Motown look' was deliberately styled with no particular leaning towards race or colour. By refusing to be constrained by traditional barriers but still incorporating traditional show business conventions into its acts, Motown appealed to a youthful record-buying audience within a system that had previously excluded African Americans.

Poster advertising The Supremes with Mary Wilson
Poster advertising The Supremes with Mary Wilson, designed and printed by Arena. Museum no. S.4479-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Supremes – Mary, Diana and Flo, and later Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrell, Lynda Lawrence, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Green – were always beautifully dressed and elegant. Gordy instituted a special 'Artist Development' programme similar to the Hollywood charm schools of the 30s and 40s. Maxine Powell gave lessons on the proper way to dress, eat, sit, walk and how to appear on television. To hone dance and performance skills, legendary choreographer and dancer Cholly Atkins developed the slick dance routines that were the hallmark of Motown performances, and musician Maurice King handled music and on-stage patter.

As The Supremes graced more stages and television screens, Gordy enlisted leading Hollywood designers such as Bob Mackie and Michael Travis to create glamorous and extravagant costumes fit for international superstars. Chiffon and velvet were replaced by skin-tight sequinned evening dresses to maximise their impact under strong studio lighting. Their trademark wigs were complemented by false eyelashes, big earrings and dramatic makeup.

Costumes on display inside The Story of The Supremes exhibition
Inside The Story of The Supremes exhibition, 2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum

The stage wardrobe of The Supremes was a major expense: lavish outfits with beading and sequins cost thousands of dollars in the 1960s. Several of the Supremes' original performance costumes, from the collection of Mary Wilson, were displayed at the V&A in 2008, charting the group's carefully styled and changing image – from their dresses in the early days as 'The Primettes', to the glamorous Hollywood designs worn at the height of their fame.

Costumes on display inside The Story of The Supremes exhibition
Inside The Story of The Supremes exhibition, 2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This content was originally created for the 2008 V&A exhibition The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection, in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.