Book Review: The Supremes Biography by Mark Ribowsky

supremes-coverThe Supremes, a Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal by Mark Ribowsky is a much needed 440 page book on one of the greatest “girl groups” of all time, some say the ultimate girl group. And it would be hard to disagree with that thought as Diana Ross and The Supremes were everpresent on the radio in the 60s and – unlike Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Doors and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the group was able to continue to have hits after the lead singer – in this case Berry Gordy’s focus, Diana Ross – left the group. Sure AC/DC survived Ronald Belford “Bon” Scot’s “death by misadventure” (drinking) and other members coming and going…but does the general public know who lead vocalist Brian Johnson is by hearing his name or AC/DC?

Mary, Flo, and Cindy have the “John, Paul, George, Ringo” effect, even though the singers-not-in-the-lead were downplayed by Motown. Even when Jean Terrell took over people still thought of it as Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong’s group. While the drama in the book is the Ross/Gordy relationship, Diana’s need to be a superstar and how the talents and egos of the team that made it happen – including, of course, the essential Holland, Dozier, Holland, Ribowsky – very wisely – keeps the history front and center, the made-for-tv shenanigans part of the history, but not as vital as the end result, the music.

Yes, the hardcore fans would like even more of the story, a bigger emphasis on the latter-day Supremes, but what the author has done here is no small achievement…he’s managed to put a solid document together of this incredible hit machine, and bring the humanity of each individual involved to center stage. Sure, a film could be made on each individual that was a major part of the Supremes, including Jean Terrell, but it is the story of the dreamgirls that is what the public craves most.

Flo Ballard’s passing is every bit as tragic as Phil Spector’s fall from grace, and Mark Ribowsky handles all of the bad and the good with objectivity and diplomacy. Now out in paperback, The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal (DaCapo, hardcover and paperback) is a good companion volume to the author’s books on The Temptations and Stevie Wonder (Wiley Press). A good trilogy for the fans of Motown.

Highly recommended.