Talk about your bare ruined choirs: 20 years after the last hit record by the Supremes, there is a cottage industry of unauthorized biographies, tell-all interviews and as-told-to books, working overtime to preserve the saddest and most fractious aspects of the group's story. Never mind that the Supremes' variety-show version of soul music has proved less durable than the contemporaneous stuff on Stax and Atlantic, or even the rest of Motown. In a reversal of the standard show-biz homily, the infighting has lingered long after the music has faded.
In fact, the infighting, the stormy changes in the group's line-up, the public fights and on-stage shoving incidents--all these are starting to grow a golden-oldie quality of their own. Tony Turner's "All That Glittered: My Life With the Supremes" and Mary Wilson's "Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together" don't offer much new information, but each adheres to the tested formula of wince-inducing detail softened with touching retrieved innocence--ours and the Supremes' both.
Tony Turner was a 12-year-old Harlem kid when he walked into B. Altman's department store and saw "a total vision, all wig and lashes and fur . . . a fabulous being rising up out of a mountain of shiny Christmas shopping bags. She looks at me and believe me, time stops."
The vision, who asked Turner to call a cab for her, was Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes. Though the group was just starting to have hit records, Turner hadn't heard of the Supremes (he hadn't heard of Detroit, either). However, he was quickly swept up into their orbit as Ballard's mascot-gofer, and apprenticed himself to their makeup artist, so that in time he was "laying everything out immaculately on make-up tables in dressing rooms in cities all over the world, from L.A. to Malaysia."
For a while, it was wonderful: The Supremes lived and traveled in style, and Turner dotes on details of meals, china, crystal, gowns and a fancy Detroit neighborhood with "the sun just bright enough, the grass just green enough, perfect mansions with perfect Supremes living inside." Ballard came to dinner at Turner's mother's home and helped rearrange the furniture; the next day, Turner's mother "had a small, tasteful plaque made for the foyer. It read, 'Interior Design Inspiration by Miss Florence (Flo) Ballard of THE SUPREMES.' "
But the group's harmony lasted only through the first few hits, and Ballard's exuberant happiness went with it, giving way to chemical dependence. When Berry Gordy forbade hotels to deliver liquor to Ballard's room and posted a guard on a chair outside her door, Turner became Ballard's 14-year-old bootlegger, smuggling liquor, diet pills and Valium to her in his school book bag. Fired from the group in 1967, Ballard died nine years later at 32, having gone on welfare to support her children.
Mary Wilson's "Supreme Faith," the original Supremes' follow-up to her "Dreamgirl," tells of her life with various editions of the group after Diana Ross' departure in 1969. That Ross was unlikely to be voted Miss Congeniality by the other Supremes, and that life on the road with her was not one long giggly slumber party, is no longer news.
But reading "Supreme Faith," one has the shuddering sensation of an as-yet-unshaken family trauma. "Lots of people assume that Diane's departure hurt me or made me bitter, but that's not how it was," Wilson writes at the beginning. But, two pages later: "Once I knew for sure that Diane would go, I experienced a whole range of emotions: anger, hurt, sadness and, finally, acceptance."
Wilson focuses on her thankless attempts to keep various post-Ross editions of the group afloat through the '70s. By 1975, the Supremes were playing to a near-empty room at the Hotel Executive Inn in Evansville, Ind. Wilson's short solo discography ends with "My Lovelife Is a Disaster" (an unreleased demo) and "Don't Get Mad, Get Even," on the Nightmare label.
But in the midst of the real tragedy portrayed in both books, we are never too far from kitsch. For all the fuss that's been made over the significance of Motown's move from Detroit to Los Angeles, the Supremes' shining city always was Las Vegas.
There is more attention paid, in both books, to the group's appearance than to its music. "Joining the group," Wilson writes, "meant conforming to our image on and off the stage. You not only had to look your best wherever you went, you had to be your best. This meant always being a lady: dressing stylishly, being friendly to everyone, and never leaving the house without your eyelashes."