Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, April 05, 2000


Good heavens!

It's really true!

Diana Ross and the Supremes are going to tour! again!

Sort of.

I actually watched part of the Oprah show in which Miss Ross discussed the details of the tour and other things. (I have got to get on an Oprah show where she's giving away the good stuff. Each member of today's audience got a copy of "Diana Ross and the Supremes: the Ultimate Collection." But I digress.)

Insert Catty Moment Here: Miss Ross really desperately needs a new stylist/wigmaker. She's been looking like a hair bomb exploded on her head for more than ten years now. Isn't she tired of that look? Isn't it a pain in the tuchas? Isn't she ready for a change? I'm not a big one for even noticing hair or style, and it makes me want to get her a gross of hair geegaws to lock it down. Or maybe just a weedwhacker. (end catty moment here.)

You know, apart from everything else, it was a kind of interesting interview. Rather, an enjoyable interview. Finding out details and truths and whatnot. All the celebrity showbiz details that you normall get with this. What are you doing, why are you doing it (for the money of course--although, I believe, the official reason was "Because I felt it was time".)

The publicity preceding this tour has been , so far, unusually muted. Partly, of course, it's the extraordinarily ugly (as reported by the press) fight that preceded this tour. Apparently, the original idea was for Mary Wilson, the other surviving original Supreme, and Cindy Birdsong, who replaced Florence Ballard (who left when the Supremes were demoted to "and the Supremes" and later died) to be on the whole entire tour with Miss Ross. According to the accounts I've read, Mary and Cindy demanded to be paid exactly as much as Miss Ross, who reportedly declined. (It's worth noting that according to Diana Ross, the entire thing was negotiated between Wilson, Birdsong, and the promoters, and she had no input whatsoever into the results.)

Thing is, both positions are entirely understandable and entirely intractable. Wilson's and Birdsong's position was that they had contributed as much to the success of the original Supremes as had Diana Ross, as well has having toured with "The Former Ladies of the Supremes" in Britain; Mary Wilson had also had a career on stage. Diana Ross' position (or that of her agents and/or tour promoters), understandably, was that she was clearly the bigger name, and hence deserved a much bigger payday; also that she could tour with any two backup singers and bill them as "the Supremes" with Motown's blessing (the company owns the name, but given that he's her daughter's father, it's not likely that Barry Gordy would deny Diana Ross use of the name for one summer). Even an attempt to get Mary Wilson onto the bill just for the Detroit performance of the current tour foundered on billing and money.

Which, given the history of the change from just The Supremes to Diana Ross and the Supremes to Diana Ross and that separate entity known as The Supremes--it must have all felt appallingly familiar.

Judging from the response of the crowd on today's Oprah show, Miss Ross' position--that she and the music are the attractions and it doesn't matter who the Supremes actually are--seems to have been borne out. The crowd was absolutely frenzied to see Diana and the Supremes belting out those old chestnuts. And with style, too.

Many of these reunion tours have been much more about the nostalgia and the money than the music. Not that the artists involved didn't care about the music, but many of them have been in semiretirement, many have been off doing other things in the entertainment area, so that when they start performing together again, it just sounds awful (or at least it doesn't sound good, and not remotely like the original music; Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Earth Wind and Fire utterly fail to keep from leaping to mind here...). However, in this case, Diana has been performing nonstop for 40 years, and the current Supremes have been performing in Britain so everyone's in tune, musically speaking. They sound fan-freakin'-tastic, actually.

The plain fact is, of course, that the women touring with Diana Ross on the "Return to Love" tour (I keep wanting to throw a "Canal" at the end of that title) are perfectly and historically (if that's entirely the right word) entitled to be called "The Supremes". Instead of going with any two backup singers (which would, to be sure, have been a PR disaster), she decided that what she would do is to get the other women who were with the Supremes after she left. There was, to be sure, quite a lot of personnel turnover with the group in the last few years of its existence. Apparently in Detroit and one or two other cities, there may be as many as four to six Supremes behind her, but the principal Supremes for this tour will be Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne. (Who, aside from briefly introducing themselves and giving their Supremes provenance, as it were, got to say not one nonmusical word.)

Judging from the Oprah show, some parts of the tour may also devolve into the Diana Ross' Greatest Hits Without The Supremes tour, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, the woman has had a longer career without the Supremes than she had with them; if she wants to celebrate the entirety of her career, why not? (They didn't discuss whether or not the reconstituted Supremes will perform on next week's VH1 Divas 2000 Tribute to Diana Ross, but I'd expect it.)

It's not the same as it was the first time around, of course: not the same sound, not the same women. Miss Ross no longer has that shimmering high pure voice; after all, she's no longer twenty years old, so that shouldn't be expected. The Supremes don't sound the way they did when they were younger. Overall, the sound is just a shade deeper, more mature, maybe a bit more settled than the original. However, the arrangements have been tailored to match the vocal changes and restrictions, so that they're not straining to reach notes they can no longer hit. And as long as they keep the tunes, the cadences intact, it will be enough for most audiences. They know not to expect 20-year-old Diana, after all; what they want is the feel, the flavor of that group they remember from that long ago day. The feel and flavor of their youth.

That's the whole point of attending something like this, after all. Not to hear someone recreate something that, really, they simply can't; besides, these particular people never created that sound in the first place. The point of a tour like this is to revisit the past, to pull up old feelings, old memories, good ones, maybe to introduce your children to how your life used to be, something you used to enjoy. It might not even matter if the performance, the music were particularly good (although in this case it should be). The whole point is whether or not it can evoke what the audience wants, needs it to call from them.

I suspect The Supremes will be able to live up to their name in this case.

ADDENDUM 6 April 2000:an article in today's Chicago SunTimes, the difficulty with getting Mary Wilson on board wasn't all about the money. I'm not sure, exactly, what the difficulty was, but it wasn't the money. As far as I can tell, part of it seems to be that rumors of this have been drifting around for nearly a year, but Diana Ross didn't contact Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong until December 1999. (Boy, this tour came together FAST.) According to what she says on the Oprah site, Miss Ross didn't hear the rumors at all until quite late, and when she did, she contacted them.

According to an article in yesterday's SunTimes, however, it was at least partially about the money. And, it seems, about the fact that Mary Wilson and Diana Ross seem to loathe each other.

And according to this article and then this article from USA Today earlier this month, it was all about the money. (Well, and the respect that the money symbolized.) According to that first link, dated March 12, 2000, either the tour came together blindingly fast or someone involved flat-out lied to both Mary Wilson and the press (no wonder she's bitter!); the story cites (as we now know) credible rumor that Laurence and Payne will be touring with Miss Ross, to which Arthur Fogel, a tour promoter, said "emphatically" as reported, "There are no plans for a tour with anybody." It's also worth noting that in the same interview, he said, "There are lots of Supremes. It has everything to do with the music and not necessarily specific members of the group." Which should have told anyone which way THAT wind was blowing.

Cindy Birdsong does come off as a class act, I must admit. Said her piece just the once, and it was very neutral, comparatively, and then seems to have completely shut up about it.

The Supremes: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, 1988

The 70s Supremes (In other words, no sign or picture of Miss Ross is to be seen.)

Ross, Diana (biographical information at

Yahoo! Music! The Supremes (includes discography; the Biography page actually goes into what looks like it must have been astonishingly acrimonious history at times)

Posted by iain at 11:34 PM in category



A reunion tour of the Supremes without original Supreme, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong, is about as much as reunion as Peanut Butter without Jelly.

Diana Ross is and always will be a star. But she is fooling herself if she thinks that the Supremes was all about HER. The public fell in love with 3 beautiful girls, their style, and their music. Lynda Lawrence is immensely talented, and Scherrie Payne is simply incredible, but they are not the original Supremes.

I hope Diana learned her lesson and realizes that she can't erase Mary and Cindy's contributions to the Supremes.

All of the elements have to be there in order to find success-the group, the songs, the styles-The Supremes!

Posted by Norman Fidel at July 28, 2003 09:26 PM

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