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Reflections: The Supremes and the Politics of Image

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The meteoric rise of The Supremes in the 1960s can be best measured in the context of singular tragic events in American history: When President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas in November of 1963, few knew who The Supremes were, yet when Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis in April of 1968, Diana Ross and the Supremes appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to help bring sense to the tragedy.

That many of the front-line Civil Rights activists like Bob Moses, Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael and the Greensboro Four -- Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond -- were barely out of high school, like The Supremes, is a reminder of how these young folk literally changed the world. While no one will ever mistake the Freedom Summer of 1964 for a groundbreaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Supremes and Motown were waging a battle on behalf of African-Americans within the realm of image making. The success of the Supremes embodied an inside/outside strategy that mirrored the radical versus reform politics (at least in the early 1960s) of the most visible black political spokespersons.

Though the southern theater of civil rights movement seemingly occurred in far away places such as Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta and Jackson, it was brought closer to home for the young women of the Supremes via television and the presence in the city of Detroit of movement surrogates like Reverend C.L. Franklin (Aretha Franklin's father) and activists such as Grace Lee and James Boggs. Detroit was also not immune to the kinds of racial violence that would erupt as black protesters clashed with police and others. As early as 1943, as Detroit was dealing with the influx of black migrants, the city erupted as black and white youth clashed on Belle Isle. The city again erupted in July of 1967 when Detroit police officers raided a black after-hours club. The subsequent violence forced then governor George Romney (father of Mitt) to request federal troops to quell the violence and re-establish order.

Though little of the movement was directly reflected in the music and presentation of The Supremes until the late 1960s, Motown played some role in the increased visibility of civil rights in the city and nationally. Detroit was the site of the Great March for Freedom, which was led by Dr. King in June of 1963, weeks after The Supremes' "A Breathe Taking, First Sight Soul Shaking, One Night Love Making, Next Day Heart Breaking Guy" was released and became their highest charting single to date. The Great March featured a preview of Dr. King's famous "I Have Dream" speech, and Berry Gordy had the foresight to record the speech, releasing it as a recording on Aug. 28, 1963 -- the same day as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Great March recording would be the first spoken world album released by the label and the foundation of what would later become the Black Forum subsidiary which eventually released recordings from Stokely Carmichael, poets Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner, Bill Cosby (his address to a newly formed congressional black caucus), Amiri Baraka and an album by singer-songwriter -- and Black Panther leader -- Elaine Brown.

In the midst of the Black Freedom Struggle, Motown, and in particular The Supremes, were symbols of changing race relations and the breaking of racial barriers. The presence of The Supremes as glamorous, refined and respectable young black women was a counter to centuries-old stereotypes of black women as lascivious, insatiable and sexually available -- stereotypes that Nina Simone outlined musically in her classic "Four Women." The appearances of The Supremes on mainstream variety shows like the Ed Sullivan Show (on which they appeared 15 times in the 1960s), American Bandstand, The Steve Allen Show (where they made their first national appearance in 1964), The Andy Williams Show or the Mike Douglas Show were not just critical for what it said about the humanity of African Americans, it also said a great deal about the position of black women in American society.

To be sure, there were female pop stars before the emergence of the Supremes. In the 1920s one could look at blues artists like Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters and, of course, the legendary Bessie Smith. Between the war years, the Andrews Sisters -- the most logical precursors to The Supremes -- became pop sensations. In the 1950s Patti Page -- one of the best-selling female artists of the 1950s -- and Doris Day, singer turned rom-com film star, were the very definition of mainstream feminine pop stars. By the time rock 'n' roll began to take flight in the late 1950s, vocal groups like The Shirelles, The Chiffons, the Chantels, the Crystals, and the Ronnettes were the feminine faces of the moment. Even within the Motown camp, The Supremes competed with girl groups such as The Marvelettes, who scored Motown's first major hit with "Please Mr. Postman."

In an era in which there were few or any examples of female pop artists who were publically acknowledged as being songwriters or producers, it was not surprising that The Supremes, like many of their female peers, were subjected to a rigid double standard intended to police their behavior both onstage and off. To this end, the legendary Maxine Powell, who founded her "Modeling and Finishing School" in Detroit in 1951, was brought in to "polish" The Supremes (and other Motown acts), as Gordy had his eye on establishing a presence for the trio at high end venues like The Copa in New York City.

Mary Wilson suggests that Powell's presence was more about Berry Gordy's ambitions, as all three women were products of two parent households, in which they were raised to comport themselves in a manner that respected to themselves and others. Wilson's reminder about her upbringing is one example of the subtle ways in which the trio attempted to push back from their brand, and establish identities that better reflected who they were as young, confident, talented and famous women -- black women -- who were arguably the most well known black women in the world at the height of their commercial success from 1964 to 1967; they were not yet 25 years old.

By the time The Supremes began to be fitted for gowns designed by Bob Mackie and his close associate Michael Travis, they had become the epitome of upscale feminine style, sharing space with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor. Even when the style of The Supremes tuned to "mod," mirroring the styles of Twiggy and Dusty Springfield, as was the case during their Love Child phase, they did so with aplomb. Though for many in the mainstream, The Supremes were mere high fashion in blackface, the group was inspired by notions of style long celebrated in black communities in figures like Josephine Baker, Dakota Staton, Ruth Brown, Laverne Baker, and perhaps most famously, Lena Horne. Often unspoken in the glitter that adorned The Supremes was their celebration of generations of black women artists who never had the opportunity to function in the entertainment mainstream in the ways that the Motown trio did.

Implicit in the image of The Supremes was the impact that they had on generations of young black women and girls, who saw the group not only as style icons but role models, as so many of them negotiated the troubling history of their images and their self-esteems. By the time The Supremes began their regular two- and three-week yearly runs at The Copa -- exploding the established pay-scale by the end of the 1960s -- there were literally thousands of little girls (and probably little boys), of all races and ethnicities standing in from of mirrors with a hairbrush or toothbrush pretending that they were Mary, Diana or Flo. The power of those cues would be witnessed generations later with the accent to pop stardom of figures like Irene Cara, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, Mariah Carey, and another fabulously successful trio (also once a quartet), Destiny's Child.

Yet part of the challenge of selling the Supremes, was the selling of the image of black women's bodies. Though there were many dynamics that led to the firing of Florence Ballard from the group, concern over Ballard's (relatively) more voluptuous and full-figured body was a concern for some at Motown. As Diana Ross drew comparisons to fashion model Twiggy -- the inspiration for fashion models whose dress sizes and body types are simply not accessible to the average American woman -- Ballard's body was interpreted as one that would not be appealing to mainstream audiences. In many ways Ballard's presence in the group served as a powerful image for many black women who saw their own body-types reflected on stage in her. It was perhaps one of the things that Berry Gordy took for granted in his desire to make The Supremes appealing to the broadest audiences possible.

What was being established with the success and circulation of The Supremes' image was a unique intellectual property -- a brand -- that would be forever linked to what Andre Harrell has called "High Negro Style." For all of the importance to Motown of having the Supremes on the cover of mainstream magazines and being featured on television special, these magazines and television shows were also in the business of attracting advertising, and packaging The Supremes helped them attract viewers and the companies that wanted to sell their products in ways that were fundamentally unprecedented with regards to black performers.

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Duke University Professor Mark Anthony Neal is the guest curator of Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes' Collection, which runs at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) until June 30th.