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Automatically Sunshine - the Supremes

Very, very sad yesterday to hear of the death of the wonderful Mary Wilson, one third of the classic line-up of the Supremes that comprised Mary, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. Mary was the only Supreme to be in the group from start to finish, from 1958 when the three, along with Betty McGlown, formed a quartet, originally called the Primettes, till they split up in 1977.

In 1961 they signed to Motown with their name changed to the Supremes, shortly afterwards becoming a trio. Initially the three took turns on lead vocals, with Florence Ballard taking more the the other two, but early on Motown boss Berry Gordy identified Ross as potentially having more appeal to white American audiences and made her the lead singer. Whether this proved correct or not, there is no doubt that her distinctive voice projected bags of character, was instantly recognisable and came across like soft ice cream, enabling Motown songwriters to specifically write hit after hit around it. So one way another, Gordy was right.

In news programmes over the last few days, much has been said about the importance of the Supremes breaking down race barriers with their phenomenal success. This gives the false impression that they were the first all-black girl group to have chart success - the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Crystals and Motown's very own Marvelettes had all had US number one hits as well as many other chart entries before the Supremes finally hit the Top Ten with the classic "Where Did Our Love Go?" in 1964. Thereafter, until 1969, they were the only American group to offer any rivalry to the Beatles' domination of the US number one spot, topping the charts no less than 12 times in the next six years, leaving little doubt that their continued high profile time at the top must have had an important positive affect on how African Americans were viewed in the US.

As important is the fact that they were successful black women from underprivileged, working class backgrounds, all hailing from the Brewster-Douglass Project, the largest housing tenement in Detroit.

After Diana Ross left the group at the end of 1969, it was Mary Wilson who insisted she be replaced by the Ross soundalike Jean Terrell as opposed to Stevie Wonder wife-to-be Syreeta Wright, recognising that her own role was best suited to remaining as a backing singer, although the lead vocals were shared more in the final line-ups. Ross's first solo single, "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)", one suspects to her great chagrin, was outsold by the Supremes' "Up the Ladder to the Roof". But while Ross, with the full support of Berry Gordy, continued to have hits with Motown well into the seventies, the Supremes were receiving lesser material from the label and their success had petered out by 1973.

Here is the languid and exquisite "Automatically Sunshine" from 1972, which features both Mary Wilson and Jean Terrell alternating on the lead. Mary does first vocal: smouldering, husky and sensual, and steals the show, giving us a glimpse of what could have been.

"Oh baby let's take life's highway,

it's automatically yours and my way,

no road is to rough to travel -

we'll walk barefoot on life's gravel".

Say no more.


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