The Supremes in Britain

(Motown Records Archives)

(Motown Records Archives)

by Dave Thompson

If The Beatles had an American equal, The Supremes might just qualify. Their dreamy vocals and striking blend of pop and soul, not to mention their sparkling glamor and silky choreography, made them stand out even among Motown’s multitude of hitmakers.

Formed in 1959 in Detroit as The Primettes, The Supremes had 12 #1 hits, making them Motown’s most commercially successful act. But after Diana Ross left to pursue a solo career, The Supremes’ magical run ground to a halt — due at least in part to Motown’s growing disinterest in promoting the group.

Still, The Supremes remain one of the most admired singing groups of all time. And we celebrate their anniversary.

• • •

Motown may have been the dominant soul label in the U.K. throughout the 1960s. And The Supremes may have been the quintessential Motown act throughout that same decade.

Yet the 1960s were almost half over before the so-familiar black-and-silver Tamla Motown label was first sighted in a British record store.

Not until March 19, 1965, did EMI, the label’s distributor, pull the Motown catalog away from the Stateside subsidiary that had been releasing its wares since late 1963 (London-American, Fontana and Oriole all housed the company’s output prior to that).

But when the label did debut, with the now-historic TMG 501 catalog number, it was with the one band guaranteed to bring things in with a bang — The Supremes.

No less than seven singles were released in that initial batch. The Supremes were joined by Martha & The Vandellas (“Nowhere to Run”), The Miracles (“Ooh Baby Baby”), The Temptations (“It’s Growing”), Stevie Wonder (“Kiss Me Baby”), Earl Van Dyke & The Soul Brothers (“All For You”) and The Four Tops (“Ask The Lonely”). But it was The Supremes’ “Stop! In The Name of Love” that proved unstoppable, coming to rest at #7 on the U.K. chart, The Supremes’ fourth Top 30 British hit in six months, and their third Top Ten smash.

Considering their eventual domination of the U.K. chart, The Supremes were actually very slow starters. Their first U.K. single, “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” flopped in January 1964, and it would be August before Stateside got around to releasing a follow-up, “Where Did Our Love Go” — a song, incidentally, that was originally written for The Marvelettes, only for them to turn it down.  They would wind up waiting another three years to get off the ground in British chart terms (“When You’re Young And In Love” would reach #13 in 1967).

The Supremes, on the other hand, soared to #3 and followed through just weeks later with “Baby Love,” destined not only to become the first-ever British #1 by a Motown act but also the first that the Stateside label ever scored as well!

“Come See About Me” proved a surprisingly ineffective follow-up, running out of steam at #27 in the new year. But “Stop! In The Name Of Love” put all to rights once again and, over the next eight years, The Supremes — in all of their musical incarnations — were seldom out of the U.K. chart.

Not every release was enormous. “Back In Your Arms Again” and “I Hear A Symphony” fizzled out at the very bottom of the Top 40. But “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “You Keep Me Hanging On” restored the trio to the Top Ten, while the group also enjoyed a similar hit on the U.K. EP (Extended Play) chart in summer 1965, and reached #8 with their British debut album, Meet The Supremes.

Ask any British Motown fan for their most cherished memory of Motown’s British 1960s, however, and the chances are that they will opt for another event from that tumultuous spring of 1965, the arrival on British shores of the first-ever international Motown revue in March.

Motown acts had visited before. Mary Wells opened for The Beatles on tour in 1964, and Kim Weston joined Gerry & The Pacemakers on the road that same year. Both Martha & The Vandellas and The Supremes made short promotional trips to London in fall 1964, appearing briefly on TV and playing a pair of one-off club dates. The Miracles appeared alongside The Yardbirds and The Nashville Teens at the Royal Albert Hall shortly before Christmas.

Those visits, however, were fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em affairs. The spring 1965 tour was the real thing.

Earl Van Dyke, Martha & The Vandellas, “Little” Stevie Wonder, The Miracles and Britain’s own (non-Motown) Georgie Fame were all on the bill, with Smoky and company the nominal headliners. For most viewers, however — particularly those whose concert-going habit was dictated by star power — the unquestioned stars of the show were The Supremes.

Promoter Arthur Howes was in charge of arranging the outing, with tour manager Malcolm Cook heading out onto the frontline. “We’d heard the records — we’d heard The Supremes, we’d heard Stevie Wonder — but I didn’t realize the importance of that tour at the time,” he says.

Tamla Motown was intent on establishing its brand in the U.K., and The Supremes were the act, label chief Berry Gordy was convinced, who would make it happen.

“I got the impression that everything was geared to The Supremes,” Cook explained.  “If there was a promotion, Diana Ross was the focus. She was always sweet and charming and nice but she wasn’t as accessible as Mary [Wilson] and Florence Ballard were.”

The Supremes dominance was only amplified after they made their U.K. television debut on Granada TV’s “The Sound of Motown” special, filmed at the Rediffusion Studios on March 18, the day before “Stop! In The Name Of Love” was released; and before, therefore, anybody knew how it would be received by the record-buying public.

Indeed, that was the problem with this entire visit — Motown had had precious few British hits at this point and no major successes whatsoever. To send its biggest stars out on a three-week tour of one-night stands across a land that had barely heard of them was either a major show of confidence or an act of incredible bravery. In fact, it was both.

One person who had no doubt that the tour would be successful was singer Dusty Springfield. Not only did she host and co-star in “The Sound of Motown,” it was Springfield who first suggested the special to TV producer Vicki Wickham, as a special edition of the weekly “Ready Steady Go” show. Wickham agreed, and material from “The Sound of Motown” would also be shown on “Ready Steady Go” itself. (The broadcast has since been released on VHS as “Ready Steady Motown”).

The Supremes headlined “Ready Steady Go”’s March 28, 1965, broadcast (two previous weeks brought performances from The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles and Martha & the Vandellas), headlining over The Drifters and The Moody Blues.

In the meantime, the package hit the road, opening March 20 with two shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre, moving on to the Hammersmith Odeon, also in London, the following evening, and then marching out into the provinces, two shows a night every night for three weeks. And everywhere, the show was dynamite — even in those places where ticket sales proved slow, audiences were non-responsive and thev visiting Americans started to wonder why they’d even bothered leaving Detroit.

The weather was atrocious, as is often the case in Britain in early spring, and the food sometimes didn’t seem like food at all. “The hamburgers were definitely not the hamburgers we were accustomed to,” Mary Wilson later shuddered. “And all Americans love lots of ice, and we could never find ice. We could not stand hot beer, so there were cultural differences that were often in our discussions.” Even the toilet paper was alien. “[It] was extremely hard. We could not figure out why. It was what we used to call wax paper here in America.”

Another joke went ’round the tour bus, one that Kim Weston brought back from The Gerry & the Pacemakers tour. Asked her name by the compeer at one venue, she answered “Kim Weston from Tamla Motown.” She was introduced on stage as “Miss Pamela Motown.” There were no such nomenclatural mishaps this time around, but still the artists were disillusioned by the poor turnouts that greeted them — all a far cry from the packed houses in the U.S. and even the sardine-packed London shows.

“It’s always — I won’t say the word ‘scary’ — but disheartening when you go out there and you see the house is half-full,” Mary Wilson said years later. “It hurts, but once you’re on stage, even though you’re kind of aware that the audience is not there and you wonder why, I don’t recall anyone doing less than their best, ever. You perform as well for five as you do for 500. That’s what I remember.”

Still, every night brought the best out of all six acts on the bill, with The Supremes’ five-song set a non-stop barrage of smash hits. The Supremes’ We Remember Sam album had yet to be released in Britain (it would finally arrive in July). Their latest LP was the newly released With Love (From Us To You), the group’s personal tribute to The Beatles. But Cooke’s memory was as fondly held in Britain as America, and the song made a superb end to an astonishing set. Neither would the overall gloom that surrounded the tour be repeated by history.  Martha Reeves’s autobiography describes the “huge crowds” that awaited every show. The Motown publicity machine, too, refused to countenance the possibility that the tour was a failure, and when British TV and media celebrated the Motown empire’s 50th birthday early last year, the label’s first assault upon British theater land was given high billing among all of Motown’s many accomplishments.

Besides, the tour may have been too early for many would-be concert goers … in 1965, Motown had racked up just that one U.K. Top 20 hit. But by the end of 1966, another eight had materialized, with every name on the tour posters now staking their own claim for British stardom. The next time Motown sent its stars to the U.K., everybody would wind up happy.


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