Barbara Martin of The Supremes dies at age 76

(March 6, 2020) They were Motown’s first supergroup, and the model for future female vocal acts. They were The Supremes and they reigned over Detroit and later the world. We are sad to report that today on the Supremes’ Facebook page it was announced that Barbara Martin (pictured at left), one of the original four members when the group became The Supremes, has died at age 76. A Detroit native, Martin had replaced member Betty McGlown back when the quartet was called The Primettes, and stayed in the act until 1964, when the group trimmed down to the trio of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson.

(March 6, 2020) They were Motown’s first supergroup, and the model for future female vocal acts. They were The Supremes and they reigned over Detroit and later the world. We are sad to report that today on the Supremes’ Facebook page it was announced that Barbara Martin (pictured at left), one of the original four members when the group became The Supremes, has died at age 76. A Detroit native, Martin had replaced member Betty McGlown back when the quartet was called The Primettes, and stayed in the act until 1964, when the group trimmed down to the trio of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson.

Formed in modest fashion by teenage girls from Detroit's Brewster housing project, The Primettes came together in 1959 and soon shared the dream of many Detroiters of being signed by the upstart music label Motown.  Upon their high school graduation their dream came true. They changed their name to the Supremes and everything appeared to be looking up.

Unfortunately, being signed by a successful label didn't result in immediate success.  Over the course of 1962-64, the Supremes released a string of unsuccessful singles, working with different songwriters and alternating lead vocalists.  In 1964, after Martin’s departure, Gordy teamed the remaining trio with Holland-Dozier-Holland and they released the melodic thumper "Where Did Our Love Go."  It shot to #1 on the Pop and Soul charts and established the recipe for the group's success over the next half decade.  Diana Ross became the de facto lead vocalist and HDH supplied a series of deceptively simple, infectious singles that highlighted Ross's wispy voice and sing-songy backing vocals by Ballard and Wilson.  The group released an unprecedented five straight #1 singles in a one year span, including "Baby Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Come See About Me" and "Back In My Arms Again."

Ross's magnetism onstage and Berry Gordy's growing personal obsession with her led to her becoming a first among equals, and by 1967 the group was relabeled "Diana Ross & the Supremes," with the talented Wilson and Ballard taking an unfortunate back seat.  The snubbed Ballard became bitter and engaged in erratic behavior, resulting in her being fired from the group, replaced by former Bluebell Cindy Birdsong.  Ballard recorded one unsuccessful album for ABC Records before fading into obscurity and, sadly, drug abuse and poverty.  Her death in 1976 was a blow to the Motown artists who remembered her as a very talented, soulful singer with a big voice.

A major obstacle for the Supremes occurred in late 1967, as Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown to form their Invictus label and the Supremes (and the Four Tops) were left without their hit songwriters.  But over the next two years the group continued to record hits with upcoming Motown writers such as Ashford & Simpson, including "Love Child" and "The Happening."

Despite the growing friction within the group, the Supremes were bigger than ever and had conquered both Las Vegas and television.  In 1968 they were also teamed successfully with the Temptations, both on TV and on record, and their duet "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" became a classic smash.

By this time it was clear that Gordy intended to spring Ross as a solo artist, and a mini- "Farewell Tour" commenced at the end of 1969 and the beginning of 1970.  The group's final hit with Ross, the poignant "Someday We'll Be Together," was an appropriate coda to one of the most successful Soul group lineups of all time.

Ross's solo career was huge and long-lasting, providing her with major success on record and in the movies for over fifteen years.  The Supremes' success without Ross was limited and fairly brief.  In 1970-71, the group scored hits with "Stoned Love," "Up the Ladder to the Roof" and "Nathan Jones," then teamed with the Four Tops as the Magnificent Seven  with the cut "River Deep, Mountain High" before the Tops left Motown.   The hits then slowed down, and the group charted for the final time with 1976's "You're Driving My Wheel."

The post-Ross period was also notable for frequent lineup changes.  Ross was replaced by Jean Terrell (sister of boxer Ernie Terrell), who was in turn replaced by Scherrie Payne in 1974.  Birdsong left temporarily in 1972 (Lynda Lawrence subbing) and for good in 1974 (replaced by Susaye Green).  With Wilson as the sole guiding force of the group, the Supremes split for good in the late 70s, though various former Supremes and combinations thereof have since used the group name, especially in Europe.

In retrospect, the Supremes' light burned comet-like, shining incredibly brightly and briefly.  Their massive hits from 1964-69 may not have aged as well as, say, the Temptations work of that period, by any measure they still must be considered as among the greatest pop/soul hits of that era and one of the most important Soul groups of all time. And while Barbara Martin sadly missed the group’s heyday, she nonetheless played an important role in setting the stage for the groundbreaking success that came after her departure.

By Chris Rizik

picture courtesy of the Supremes Facebook Page

 
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