BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
Mark Ribowsky’s book corrects a grave injustice – the
previous lack of any full scale biography of the Supremes, the most successful
girl group of the 1960s (Ribowsky speculates that being female meant their work
wasn’t taken seriously by historians). True, there have been memoirs by Diana
Ross, Mary Wilson, and Berry Gordy, not to mention biographies of Ross, Gordy,
Flo Ballard, and Motown, as well as the Supremes’ mythologization in the
musical Dreamgirls. But no one had
previously tackled the Supremes story from an objective point of view.
Ribowsky’s tale fully lives up to the book’s subtitle. Ross
comes in for the harshest treatment, an ambitious “pretentious phony” who
overcomes her “shrill and adenoidal” voice to plant herself center stage in
both the group and the boss’ bed. Not that Wilson or Ballard are exempt by any
means, respectively portrayed as acquiescently passive and blatantly
self-destructive (Gordy, meanwhile, is so besotted by Ross he doesn’t realize
he’s “shaping a monster”).
Ribowsky does a good job of untangling the group’s early,
pre-Motown days, as well as balancing the numerous conflicting accounts of
events. His biggest coup was winning the confidence of one of the Ballards’
cousins, who offers an inside look at the saddest Supreme. And for all its
triumphs, the story is a sad one, blasting through any notions that there was sisterly
solidarity in the Supremes, or familial community at Motown. As in any
business, everyone was out for themselves, and the bad feelings that linger
make this a most bittersweet look at what can happen when dreams come true.