Long before they were internationally-known superstars and the inspiration for the Broadway and film versions of “Dreamgirls,” The Supremes were three high-schoolers growing up in the Detroit projects. Originally known as The Primettes, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard would go on to become the most successful “girl group” in history.
The Supremes first appeared on the Sullivan stage on December 27, 1964 to perform their smash single, “Come See About Me.” In this early black and white performance, the girls wore simple dresses and matching bouffant hair-dos, and the audience fell in love with their infectious charm and appeal. Over the next several years, with the support of Motown songwriters, choreographers and stylists, their look and sound became much more sophisticated. By the time they performed their hit “You Can’t Hurry Love” on Sullivan in 1966, the trio had gone from cute girls to beautiful women, showing off sequined gowns, glamorous hair and impressive talent.
On November 19th 1967, a memorable event featured two of Motown’s biggest acts – The Supremes and The Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Supremes sang The Temptations’ hits (“Get Ready” and “I’m Losing You”), while The Temptations performed The Supremes’ hits (“Stop! In The Name of Love,” and “Baby Love”). The success of this musical pairing inspired NBC to give them two primetime specials.
Apart their great performances, what makes the Supremes’ run on The Ed Sullivan Show so special is the relationship the group had with Ed Sullivan himself. By all accounts, Sullivan developed a soft spot for the three young singers over the course of the show’s run. Mary Wilson was quoted as telling reporters, “At first, being young, there was a little distance, but he became very close to us when he found we were kind of, you know, nice girls. He really liked that.”
But the symbiotic relationship between The Ed Sullivan Show and The Supremes was more than just a soft spot. The show offered not only a highly visible stage for the group, but also some valuable artistic advice as well. John Moffitt, one of The Ed Sullivan Show directors, recalls that the show’s musical director Bob Arthur “was the first one to talk Diana Ross into doing classics rather than just doing the real pop stuff. He talked her into doing classics – Rodgers and Hammerstein and other composers. [Arthur] helped, really, to diversify her material and her career.” On the May 5th 1968 show, The Supremes performance was dedicated to composer Irving Berlin. They performed a 5-minute medley (with Ethel Merman) of 50 Irving Berlin-tunes.
On December 21st 1969, Diana Ross and The Supremes performed their final song together as a group, the ironically entitled “Someday We’ll Be Together.” When the cameras cut to Ed, he told the audience that Diana Ross was leaving the group to pursue a solo career. In effect, it ended The Supremes’ run on this very stage where they had risen to fame.
The departure of Ross struck a major blow to the Supremes, who were unable to find success in the years after Diana Ross’ departure. Ballard fell on hard times and died of heart failure in 1976. After the group’s final performance in London in 1977, Wilson disbanded the group and retired the name. Ross went on to massive solo career, earning a Golden Globe, an Academy Award nomination, a Tony and a Kennedy Center Honor.
After everything was said and done, the Supremes had twelve #1 singles, setting the record for the most consecutive #1 hits for an American group. The darlings of the Sullivan show were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and their timeless performances on The Ed Sullivan Show remind us of the trio’s immense and undeniable talent. The career of The Supremes is inextricably interwoven with the musical history of the Sullivan Show .