Diana Ross and her days with the Supremes

Back when she was one of the Supremes, Diana Ross told CBC about the trio's start and the evolution of their musical style.

The singer often took the lead when the Supremes were interviewed on tour in Canada

Diana Ross (at centre), with Mary Wilson (middle) and Florence Ballard (at left), in 1964. Together they were known as The Supremes. (The Associated Press)

Back in June 1966, Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, known as The Supremes, headlined a series of concerts in Toronto. They were appearing with another Motown Records star, Stevie Wonder.

The day after opening night, they appeared on CBC TV's Luncheon Date, and chatted about Motown music and life at the top of the charts.

Diana Ross and the Supremes on Motown

3 years ago
Duration 2:28
The trio explain how they met and their role at Motown Records.

Asked how long they'd been together, the 22-year-old Ross gave a surprising answer.

"It's been eight years ... it's going on nine," Ross said. 

She clarified further that they had appeared in Toronto five years before, when they had not yet made any hit records, and "we were just doing record hops."

The Motown sound

In this Aug. 19, 1966 file photo, members of The Supremes are shown. Diana Ross, lead singer, is on top of the slide, Mary Wilson, hangs on the ladder and Florence Ballard, stands under the slide. Ross and the Supremes lived in Detroit’s Brewster projects. (The Associated Press)

Florence Ballard broke down how the three had begun singing together — she and Wilson were at the same school, and Wilson and Ross at the same church. 

"But we all lived in the same neighbourhood, ... the Brewster Projects [in Detroit]," Ballard said.

"Would you say that singing in church influenced your style ... would you call this a kind of a spiritual style that you have?" interviewer Elwood Glover asked.

"Maybe just slightly," Ross said, and Wilson brought the name Motown Records into the discussion.

"Yes, we must discuss this, this is the Motown sound," Glover said. "I believe this whole record company almost exists because of you ... am I being too expansive?"

"Just a little bit," Ross said. 

"We are considered the top group at Motown right now," she continued, clarifying that "we have a lot of great talent within our company there." 

'We separated ourselves'

Diana Ross on the sound style of the Supremes

3 years ago
Duration 2:05
Diana Ross and Mary Wilson explain their singing style - a lead voice with background unison singers.

They were also asked about the unique style of their singing, which had evolved from harmony to one singing lead and the others background.

"This is very popular and so this is what we do," said Wilson, adding "however, on stage we have enough time to do a lot of different things."

Ross explained further: "As we began to release records, we separated ourselves into a lead and background singers. In the rhythm and blues field and rock and roll, this is the way it is, with the lead voice." 

In August, a year later, the Supremes were in Montreal, appearing at Expo 67 as "Diana Ross and the Supremes." 

They were booked for six sold-out nights.  At the Montreal interview, for the CBC Radio show Expodition, Ross took the lead when Lynn Jackson spoke to them. 

Diana Ross speaks about the groups hit records, their signature stage fashions, acting, and what makes a Supreme.

The question on everyone's mind regarded the change of personnel in the group — Cindy Birdsong was subbing for Florence Ballard.

"You've recently lost one of your number and replaced her," Jackson said.

Ross described Ballard as "not really lost, she's decided that she wanted to go into something a little bit different." 

'The show must go on'

Motown Records stars Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, known collectively as The Supremes, are seen in this October 1964 image. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

She added that Birdsong had been an understudy, and they still had one "because the show must go on." 

"I don't have an understudy though, I have to suffer," she laughed.

She had a little difficulty tracking the million-selling gold records and albums, estimating that they'd so far had nine or 10, concluding "we've been quite lucky girls and we're very happy about it."

The group was known for their high fashion gowns on stage — as Jackson put it, "you don't go for the sort of hippie-type things that people seem to be wearing ... for entertaining today." 

Ross explained that although they kept to the "feminine" look on stage, they also liked to "go along with the fad" and not be "out of date." Offstage however, they all embraced current fashion.

"We're kind of crazy and mod," Ross said.

'Separate roles'

Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong are seen in this 1968 image. Birdsong joined the group in 1966. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Discussing plans for the future, Ross talked about getting into other areas of "show business as a whole," including movies and an appearance as nuns in the Tarzan television series.

"I've had a funny thing for Tarzan since I was a little girl, you know?" Ross confessed. 

Jackson also asked if the trio would ever have separate dramatic roles.

"It's hard to have three stars in a movie, and I'm sure that in the future we probably will be doing separate roles," Ross said.

She did however, take one more opportunity to sing the praises of the newest addition to the group. 

"It's amazing how Cindy Birdsong has become a Supreme at heart ... she fits in everything, you know, Florence's clothes fit," she laughed.

The complete interview can be heard here.

Post-Supremes success

Diana Ross appeared July 6, 2000, at Madison Square Garden in New York, as a stop on the "Return to Love" tour with the Supremes. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Ross stayed with the group until 1970, when she left to pursue a solo career. Jean Terrell replaced her.

Her prediction for solo acting roles proved accurate — among her film credits was the lead role in the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, which earned her an Oscar nomination. 

In 1978 she played the role of Dorothy in The Wiz.

The musical success did not stop when she left the group. 

She went on to record Ain't No Mountain High Enough, Touch Me in the Morning and Do You Know Where You're Going To, to name a few that were hits.

In 2019, Ross performed at the Grammy Awards ceremony, and her 75th birthday was marked by the theatrical release of her film Diana Ross: Her Life, Love and Legacy.

She also announced her "Brand New Day" tour, including a June appearance at the Toronto Jazz Festival.

Diana Ross is seen performing at the 61st Grammy Awards in February 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)