The last Supremes

 By Peter Lindblad
The Supremes lineup for 'High Energy' included Scherrie Payne, Susaye Greene and Mary Wilson. (Motown)
The Supremes lineup for ‘High Energy’ included Scherrie Payne, Susaye Greene and Mary Wilson. (Motown)
Nine ladies, in all, would wind up being Supremes. And while everybody knows of Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, many others contributed to a story that has to go down as one of the most fascinating and glamorous in all of pop-music history.

Three of those women, Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Green, were in the group when Motown had, for all intents and purposes, turned their back on The Supremes. Their stories add to the rich history of a group that was nothing less than absolute royalty.

Lynda Laurence, 1972-1973

The Supremes had an opening in 1972, due to Cindy Birdsong’s pregnancy, but Lynda Laurence wasn’t interested … at first.

“I was very content singing backup with Stevie [Wonder, as a member of Wonderlove], because that was like going to school. He’s such a musical genius,” explains Laurence.

Part of her education involved singing backing vocals on Wonder’s smash 1970 hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” She is easily heard above the song’s exuberant din.

“All those little yells and screams in the background, that’s me,” says Laurence. “And everybody thought that was Stevie. And so, when we went on the road, he would tell everybody, ‘That’s her. That’s not me (laughs).’”

Finding her work with Wonder incredibly rewarding, Laurence had no desire to leave Wonderlove. And when a pregnant Cindy Birdsong was about to leave The Supremes in 1972 to start a family with husband Charles Hewlett, she had no inkling she would eventually join perhaps the greatest girl group ever.

Early on, it became apparent the search for the next Supreme would home in on the girls of Wonderlove. Not only was Laurence was one of them, but so was her sister Sundray Tucker. Laurence figured Sundray was a lock to get the job.

“When Cindy left, she asked for my sister to audition, because they saw us working together in Washington at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre with Stevie,” says Laurence. “Well, [Cindy] and my sister looked more like sisters than she and I, than my sister and I. Everybody said that all of our lives. So my thing is, I’m telling everybody, ‘My sister’s going to be one of the Supremes! My sister’s going to be one of the Supremes!’ And I was so excited. I just knew that was going to happen.”

Even beyond the physical similarities, there was ample evidence to support Laurence’s conclusion, considering how far back the connection between Birdsong and Sundray went.

Originally, Birdsong was from Delaware, and Laurence and her sister called Philadelphia home. It was Birdsong who actually replaced Sundray in The Ordettes, the precursor to Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles.

“My sister was actually singing with a group that they were all in prior to them taking over [as] the Bluebelles,” says Laurence. “They were all in a group together that my father [Ira Tucker, the gospel songwriter, producer and lead singer of The Dixie Hummingbirds] used to rehearse in our living room in Philadelphia, and this consisted of Patti and Cindy and a couple other girls.”

Birdsong, in 1967, surprised The Bluebelles by agreeing to join The Supremes, taking the spot of Florence Ballard. Birdsong’s departure soured relations between her and LaBelle for years.

At this time, however, Sundray was with The Three Degrees, but her stay with them was brief, and when Birdsong moved on to The Supremes, Sundray returned to The Bluebelles.

When time came for Birdsong to leave The Supremes, Sundray was summoned to try out. But it wasn’t meant to be.  

“When the auditions finished, they said they wanted to see the other sister, and that was me,” relates Laurence. “When they called me to do the audition, I wasn’t going to go, because my thought was, ‘If I don’t go, they’ll probably choose her.’”

It wasn’t that simple, as Laurence would find out, “ … because I spoke with, at the time, Charlie Atkins, who was one of my biggest mentors in the business, said to me that even though I may not take this position, it is not in stone that they’re going to hire my sister,” says Laurence. “So I said, ‘Oh no. What should I do?’ He said, ‘You should audition.’”

Needless to say, Laurence was in a tough spot. So she went to see the one person whose opinion she valued perhaps above all others: Stevie Wonder.

“So I went to Steve — we all called him Steve — and I said, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘Listen, I don’t wanna do this.’ And he said, ‘Are you sure they’re going to hire your sister?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. With me, you’ll be a backup singer. But if you get the job with The Supremes, you’ll be one of The Supremes,’” says Laurence. “And he said, ‘I think that’s something worth trying for.’ I said, ‘OK.’ And so, because of Stevie Wonder, I’m in the group.” 

Laurence didn’t remain with The Supremes for very long. Her tenure lasted just one year. Still, it was a dream come true for Laurence, who idolized The Supremes when she was young.

“Who didn’t?” she asked. “I mean, I went to see them when they were at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia. And oh my goodness, I remember sitting there, and they were singing ‘Buttered Popcorn’ and ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ And oh, I was excited. I said, ‘Wow! Look at that.’ This is before the mega gowns, and before they actually came into their own, so to speak. But they still had on matching dresses and they were pretty and they sounded great. I just loved it.”

Once she was in, however, Laurence had work to do. She, Jean Terrell and Mary Wilson rehearsed diligently — on choreography and songs — for two and a half months to prepare for Laurence’s first show, “ … because The Supremes’ book was massive. We did show tunes … you know, we did everything.”

Laurence wanted to make sure she left no stone unturned. “I wanted to learn the whole book,” she said. “I didn’t want to learn just the basic show they were doing. I wanted to learn the whole book so that if someone called for something, I would know it.”

An admirable goal, but Laurence wasn’t prepared for what fate had in store.

“Two weeks before we were to open [at the H.I.C. Arena in Hawaii] … Mary was extremely concerned because Jean Terrell had become ill and she wasn’t able to do it, and we had two weeks before the job,” says Laurence. “So it was too late to cancel. So I said to Mary, ‘Well, can you do it?’ And she said, ‘No. You’re going to have to do it.’ I said, ‘Do what?’ And she said, ‘You’re going to have to be the lead singer.’ I said, ‘No.’ (laughs).”

Wilson wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and she expressed her faith in Laurence’s abilities to the new Supreme. So Laurence changed her focus and set about learning all of the lead vocals.

“The first thing I remember is someone saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, The Supremes,’” says Laurence. “The next thing I remember is Cindy saying to me, ‘Oh, that was fantastic! You did a great job. You were great,’ hugging me and lights going off, and the dressing room and flashes … I was standing there going, ‘What happened?’ I was in fear. I’m not kidding. It’s as if I blanked.”

Laurence may never recapture those memories. “I went to the doctor, and she said, outside of someone hypnotising me, I would not be able to know. And so, to this day, I’ve seen photos, I’ve heard what I sang, and I was like, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’”

Laurence’s tenure in The Supremes wouldn’t last long. She stayed about a year. Though she appeared on the cover of the 1972 album Floy Joy, it was Birdsong who sang on the record. However, Laurence did record a Stevie Wonder-produced single “Bad Weather” with the group, plus the LP The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb and the concert record Live In Japan.

Leaving The Supremes was somewhat difficult for Laurence, “ … but it was a necessary thing. Things had gone a little south with Motown at that time, and The Supremes weren’t getting any — in my estimation — of the support they needed at the time. So it was a decision that I felt I needed to make. And it wasn’t an easy one, because I knew if I had stayed, I would have been lead singer.”

And wouldn’t you know it? Her replacement was none other than Cindy Birdsong.

Scherrie Payne, 1973-1977

The same year that Lynda Laurence exited The Supremes, Jean Terrell followed suit.

Motown’s waning interest in promoting the group had finally gotten the best of her. But her departure created an opening for Scherrie Payne.

Her boyfriend, Lamont Dozier, of the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing and production team behind many Motown hits, helped Payne land the job.

At a party, Mary Wilson, according to Payne, told Dozier that Terrell was leaving and that they were looking for a new lead singer. Tiny of stature, standing just 5’2″, Payne was blessed with a powerful voice, and after she sent Wilson some of her recordings and photos, “ … two days later, I was on a flight to California and that was it.”

But before all that, a much younger Payne had aspirations of being a Supreme, as many young girls did.

“Of course, being from Detroit, I watched them develop,” says Payne. “I loved The Supremes. I was very proud of them. They were very classy. That’s what I loved.”

When Diana Ross left The Supremes in 1970, there was someone else, besides Dozier, who thought Payne could fill her dazzling shoes: Payne’s own mother.

“I remember when Diana was leaving, my mother urged me to present myself, and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I couldn’t … Are you kidding? No, I couldn’t do that,’” remembers Payne. “We were at a banquet, I think, and she was sitting next to Esther Edwards, Berry’s [Gordy] sister, and of course, she had grown up with him in the same church, and they were talking and she started to tell Esther about me. And I was nudging her, like, ‘Shut up (laughs). Are you kidding? Don’t put me on the spot like that.’ So I was furious with her.”

Three years later though, the so-called “little lady with the big voice” did wind up with The Supremes, joining original member Mary Wilson and longtime Supremes veteran Cindy Birdsong.

Before getting called up to the Majors, so to speak, Payne was lead singer for Glass House. The group was on the Invictus Label, formed by Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland following their exit from Motown. The label had a #1 hit with The Honey Cone’s “Want Ads,” which, coincidentally, was originally recorded by Glass House and featured Payne on lead vocals. 

Glass House, who released two albums and nine singles between 1969 and 1972, did reach the Billboard Top 10 in 1969 with their biggest hit “Crumbs Off The Table,” featuring lead vocals by Payne. Whatever success they experienced, however, was dwarfed by The Supremes’ chart domination. So when it came time for Payne to go with The Supremes, understandably, she had cold feet.

“Oh, it was a tremendous difference. The Supremes were worldwide. Glass House was more or less a local group,” says Payne. “I mean, it was a giant leap for me. Not to try to put my other comrades down … it was overwhelming. It really was. It was an overwhelming step. In fact, I panicked after I told Mary I was getting on the plane.

It was Payne’s mother who came to the rescue with a pep talk that convinced her she could, indeed, fit right in. And she did, immediately.

It was a whirlwind courtship for Payne.

“Right from the airport, Cindy Birdsong picked me up,” recalls Payne. “She had just returned to The Supremes herself, and we went straight to Mary’s house, suitcases and all. And we went right into rehearsal. That was on a Saturday, because we had a gig the following Friday or the following Saturday. I think it was in New Mexico at the state fair.”

Thrown right into the fire, those first rehearsals didn’t go smoothly for Payne. Payne had to memorize a lot in a short amount of time, “ … steps, lyrics — mainly lyrics, because I didn’t have to do as many steps as Mary and Cindy, because I was doing a lot of the leads.”

Mary told her, though, “ … if you can get through this, you’ve got the job.”

That first show, before a large audience, was a blur, says Payne. “It just went by so fast.” Despite everything, Payne pulled it off with aplomb. Backstage afterward, she found out she was hired.

 And with the strong support of Wilson and Birdsong’s own vocals, Payne stepped out front and delivered, bringing to The Supremes a big, bold singing style infused with plenty of attitude. And that strength, that undeniable show of force she displayed, helped The Supremes transition to disco on The Supremes ’75.

The successor to 1972’s The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb, The Supremes ’75 was a long time in coming for the newly configured group. Contract problems and the personnel shuffling had delayed new Supremes material. It wasn’t until August 1974 that they began recording, and Payne took center stage on “He’s My Man,” the first single and a #1 hit on the Billboard disco charts.

“Gregory Wright had written that song and Mary and I shared lead on that,” says Payne. “It’s a nice dance song, a good dance song.”

As for The Supremes ’75, Payne has only fond memories of the recording process.

Still, Payne, who was an accomplished songwriter before coming to The Supremes, does have one regret: She wishes she had written more material for the group. “I sort of put it to the side,” admits Payne, “and I shouldn’t have.”

Though she did help usher The Supremes into the disco age, Payne felt let down that Motown had, in essence, abandoned the group during her tenure. 

Things could have been different. When asked if The Supremes could have recaptured their former glory if Motown had paid them more attention, Payne replied, “Absolutely. We could have done so much more, because we had the talent, the writers — everything was in place.”

When the end came in 1977, with a farewell concert in London, Payne, who would later write the song “One Night Only” for the play and movie “Dreamgirls,” based on The Supremes’ story, says, “I was devastated. I imagine I felt like Mary did when she found out Diana was going to leave.”

Susaye Greene, 1976-1977

The last to join, Susaye Greene, like Lynda Laurence, was with Wonderlove when she was approached about becoming a Supreme.

And while Stevie Wonder, who was working on his Songs In The Key Of Life LP at the time, gave his blessing to Laurence when she changed allegiances, Green’s imminent departure was greeted with less enthusiasm.

“Well, Stevie was very upset with me about leaving the group, because I had carte blanche, so to speak,” explains Greene. “I selected the material that I sang. I performed what I wanted to on his show. I had solo spots in his show, and … it was a wonderful musical growth situation.”

But being in Wonderlove wasn’t the same as being one of The Supremes. And like Scherrie Payne, who would partner with Greene to record the underrated LP Partners after The Supremes were permanently put on ice in 1977, Greene had a little help from her mom.

Her mother was on the board of the Beverly Hills branch of the NAACP with Bob Jones, the head of publicity at Motown. Jones revealed to Greene’s mother that Birdsong was to leave the group and wanted to know if Susaye wanted to replace her.

When Greene was asked, “I said, ‘Well, it sounds intriguing. That’s something I’ve never done (laughs),’” says Greene.

At the time, The Supremes were out on the road. Greene met with Mary Wilson’s husband and manager, Pedro Ferrer, and they talked. Ferrer said they wanted someone who could sing lead. “He wanted everyone [in The Supremes] to be able to sing lead. And they were trying to regain — how shall we put it — within [Motown]  a higher attention.”

 Ferrer had done his homework on Greene, whose resumé was extensive. In addition to Wonderlove, Greene was a Raelette, the girl group that performed backing vocals for Ray Charles. In fact, Greene first encountered Mary Wilson and The Supremes while with The Raelettes.

“We had met when I was with Ray at the Carter Barron (Amphitheatre) in Washington, D.C.,” says Greene. “I believe Jean Terrell had been in the group a very short time, and they opened for Ray Charles. So all of us, the Raelettes, were stuck to the side of the stage trying to see what was going on. This was The Supremes after all … they had all the wigs and the hair, the full regalia, the sparkles and delights — the fantasy of The Supremes — and they were marvelous.”

Later, backstage, Greene remembers “ … talking with Ray and we were in there laughing and chuckling,’ when Wilson and Charles were sorting out who would get to use a reception area in Charles’ dressing room.

“When I went to meet her for The Supremes, she said (Greene’s voice excited), ‘Oh, you’re that little girl (laughs) who was there with Ray,’” relates Greene.

It could have been an awkward introduction, but Payne and Wilson welcomed her with open arms. “Oh, I’m sure there were some misgivings,” says Greene. “I’m sure they were disappointed that Cindy was leaving, but they showed none of that to me, because they are such lovely, gracious, professional ladies.”

As an aside, Greene was with Wilson in 1976 when she received the news that former Supreme Florence Ballard, her tragic story recounted many times over, had died.

“Oh, it was just heartbreaking,” says Greene. “Mary is a very emotional lady, very tender. And I could see she was just brokenhearted, because it represented the end of her dream in a way.”

 In a sense, Greene’s arrival signaled a new beginning for The Supremes. Ferrer knew Greene had talent beyond her singing. After all, she had written the song “Free” that Deniece Williams took straight up to #1 in the U.K., and she had — and still does — written with Stevie Wonder (later, she would compose “I Can’t Help It” for Michael Jackson, a song that wound up on Off The Wall).

So, in negotiating Greene’s membership in The Supremes, promises were made. “I was told I would be able to write and possibly produce things for the group,” says Greene.

There were other benefits. Greene recalls that Wilson would often pick her up in a long, white Mercedes limousine, with black windows, that was once owned by George Harrison, and they would go shopping to get Greene ready to go on the road.

“We had a lot of appointments, trying on clothes, you know, a lot of beaded gowns … oh, what a fantasy for a lady that is (laughs),” says Greene.

A size 3 at the time “ … or something ridiculous (laughs),” adds Greene, “I was just a slip of a girl.” So she wore Diana’s gowns. “And this gown, I swear to you, weighed 35 pounds, and the bottom was weighted, so that once you put it on and it would fit, it kind of had a life of its own.”

As Greene says, it was ideal for doing “the dip-and-swoop, which was a Supremes thing.” And she would first do “Supremes things” as part of the group on an episode of the TV show “Soul Train.”

“I remember not knowing any of the choreography,” says Greene. “And that made me feel a bit insecure, so you just kind of keep smiling and (laughs) moving those arms around and singing those songs, singing the words.”

Unfortunately, Greene, blessed with a voice that could range over multiple octaves, didn’t get to fully display all of her prodigious talent with The Supremes. She did appear, however, on the last two Supremes albums, including 1976’s High Energy. Greene remembers the recording of that LP being a “nerve-wracking experience, because it was all new to me, that particular style of recording. First of all, we did very little recording at the same time. We did a whole lot of piece work where the tracks were done. You weren’t involved in that part and that was killing me.”

She compliments the Holland brothers for pulling together a cohesive album, but for Greene, who had experience producing and was able to notice things in the studio that could be improved upon, recording High Energy was a frustrating experience, especially in light of the latitude she was given while working with Stevie Wonder.

“Basically, you show up, look cute and hit the spot,” says Greene.

To her dissatisfaction, Greene was never allowed to write or produce for The Supremes. Still, she harbors no bitterness about her days with The Supremes.

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