The Detroit trio were called the 'no hit' Supremes until 'Where Did Our Love Go.' (Detroit News archives)
1964 was a tumultuous year politically, with the nation still recovering from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous November. In June, “Freedom Summer” brought hundreds of young people to Mississippi to work for civil rights.
But musically, it was a landmark year. February brought the Beatles to America, and it was also the year that Motown broke through and crossed over decisively as a pop powerhouse, never to be seen as a regional R&B label again.
It was three young girls from Detroit, the “no-hit” Supremes, who sealed the deal, racking up five consecutive No. 1 pop records, starting in June.
The Supremes recorded the song “Where Did Our Love Go,” and it was released 50 years ago on June 17, 1964. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard’s pop charts on Aug. 16, 1964.
With all the hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in February, and of the British Invasion of beat groups that swept America, it can be forgotten that it was a mere girl group that put Motown over the top, finally.
“I know the fans are into it; they love us. But in the polls, everything is about the male groups,” says Mary Wilson of the Supremes, talking from her home in Las Vegas.
“Five consecutive No. 1s, we were really huge,” Wilson, 70, adds. “but I’ll tell you what, something I’ve noticed, as a historian of the Supremes — I’ve appointed myself just like everybody has appointed themselves collectors and everything — I think it has to do with being female. The Rolling Stones had a big thing about their 50th anniversary, the Beatles, but you don’t hear about the Supremes as much.”
Wilson points out that it’s also the 50th anniversary of another girl group classic, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” released in late July. The Marvin Gaye/Mickey Stevenson/Ivy Joe Hunter-penned song went to No. 2 and became one of the theme songs of that and many summers to come. Reeves is touring in Europe, celebrating the anniversary.
Bubble gum kind of music
In 1964, the Supremes sniffed at “Where Did Our Love Go” when the songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland first presented it to them. “I didn’t like it, at all,” Wilson recalls. “I know Florence didn’t like it. I don’t think Diana liked it, although I can’t talk for her.
“Florence and I were against it because we had been really singing harmony all of our career. When we became famous, doing the nightclubs we’d do those harmonic kinds of songs, that’s what we did well. Now we’re singing this song, there’s no harmony, Florence and I were singing in unison, ‘baby baby ooh baby baby’ — for us it was beneath us, it was very basic. We were singing nothing! So we were not thrilled about it.”
The Supremes watched as the Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas racked up soulful R&B-style hits, which is where they wanted to be.
“It made us feel really bad. Their records are soulful and R&B, really cool, and here comes H-D-H bringing us this song that I felt was bubble gum kind of music, it wasn’t soulful like the other girls had,” Wilson says. “We really wanted that kind of song.”
Wilson complained, but Eddie Holland insisted that it would be a hit. “Hey, we were low on the totem pole, we were definitely not bringing money in, so we’re lucky they were even recording us,” she says with a laugh. “We couldn’t say we’re not going to record it.”
The clock was ticking. Wilson’s and Ross’s parents were going to make them go to college if they didn’t have a hit soon.
That elusive hit record
On Broadway, in “Motown: The Musical,” Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. compresses the timeline a bit for dramatic effect and has the Supremes coming in with “Where Did Our Love Go,” saving the company after the crushing departure of singer Mary Wells.
The Supremes’ breakthrough didn’t happen instantly. It took a determined Gordy to foist the group onto the Dick Clark “Caravan of Stars” summer tour to get things rolling. Clark wanted Brenda Holloway, hot with “Every Little Bit Hurts,” for his bus tour. He was going to get the Supremes whether he liked it or not, once Gordy tasked his sister Esther with convincing Clark to add them.
Somehow, she succeeded, although Gordy wrote in his memoir “To Be Loved” (Warner Books, 1995) that Clark would only pay $600 a week for the Supremes. That had to be split four ways, since Diana’s mother was going along as a chaperone.
They left on the 36-date tour at the bottom of the bill. “It was the Drifters, the Shirelles, Lou Christie and all kinds of people, and others,” Wilson recalls. “The Supremes were the ‘and others.’ We’d go out onstage and there’d be very small applause for us. With Gene Pitney being the star, it’d be a huge hand for him. One day when we were out, the crowd absolutely went crazy. We thought maybe Gene had stuck his head out of the curtain and they were applauding for him, but no, they were applauding for us. The song had become a hit while we were on tour.”
By the time the Supremes returned to Detroit at the end of July, the record was rocketing to the top of the charts.
“Being on a bus tour for several months, we didn’t know what was going on. We were absolutely thrilled … wow. We just thought, what took them so long? We knew how wonderful we were, but we couldn’t get that elusive hit record.”
Once those No. 1s started rolling in for the Supremes, it’s as if they couldn’t stop. After “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” with the same cooing and foot stomps, hit the top in October 1964; “Come See About Me” in December, then “Stop! In the Name of Love” in March 1965. Their next release, “Back in My Arms Again,” was the fifth consecutive No. 1, in late May 1965.
If the media doesn’t recognize the Supremes, the Beatles certainly adored them and all the girl groups. John Lennon once said the Beatles wanted to be “the male Shirelles.”
“Most of the English groups will tell you that. I’m very dear friends with Bill Wyman (of the Rolling Stones),” Wilson recalls. “He talks for hours about how they’d get those records and they would study them.”
The Beatles studied Motown, literally. They would slow Motown records down, to figure out what each instrument was playing. “The (British) haven’t done like Americans, we’re so busy moving up to the next person that we’ve forgotten our roots. Blues and gospel, we’ve kind of let it go.
“I do think that we Supremes should have a little more credit,” Wilson says. The earlier Motown stars were successful, she argues, but it was the Supremes, in 1964, who helped take the label over the top, internationally.
“The Supremes introduced Motown to the world in a big way,” she adds. “I think that what Berry Gordy wanted to achieve, he achieved with the Supremes.”
In the summer of 1964, the Supremes started an unprecedented run of five No. 1 consecutive releases — other No. 1s by the girl group would come later. The feat was all the more remarkable considering their lack of recording success up to June 1964, when “Where Did Our Love Go” was released.
Aug. 16-29, 1964 “Where Did Our Love Go”
Oct. 25-Nov. 21, 1964 “Baby Love”
Dec. 13-19, 1964, Jan. 10-16, 1965 “Come See About Me”
March 21-April 3, 1965 “Stop! In the Name of Love”
June 6-12, 1965 “Back in My Arms Again”