It is a classic story: A trio of Detroit schoolgirls (originally called The Primettes their male counterparts, The Primes became The Temptations) convince Motown mogul Berry Gordy to give them a chance. Their early efforts go nowhere until they team with songwriters Holland, Dozer and Holland; then everything they touch turns to gold. Between 1964 and 1970 they have 10 No.1 hits, and 20 more songs that reach the top 10.
In addition to the songs, they are drilled in precise stage moves and trained to be white-gloved ladies offstage. They are regulars on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and even host their own television specials. At a time when racial tensions are at their highest their popularity transcends race.
By the end of the decade the tight-knit magic unravels. Florence Ballard is ejected into a tragic decline. Diana Ross, allegedly romantically involved with Gordy, gets top billing. After recording a final hit, "Someday We'll Be Together" (ironically with no other Supreme at the session), she goes solo. The sole original member, Mary Wilson, carries on the name and tradition with a shifting set of new singers.
Ragland enters the story in the late '70s. After studying at the Boston School of Fine Arts and working with a Shakespeare company, she is singing in an LA nightclub when Mary Wilson hires her for a Las Vegas gig. Wilson "officially" disbands the group in June of 1977, but then re-forms it in 1978 to tour England. They are set to record before Motown, who owned the name, pulls the plug.
According to Ragland, her relationship with Wilson lasted another eight years, never recording, but often performing as The Supremes. When Ragland formed her current version in 1989 there were several variations of The Supremes around. Wilson, who felt she had a unique claim on the name, tried to gain control. "Mary sued everybody who was using the name about five years ago," Ragland says. "And we won the legal right to use 'The Sounds of the Supremes.'" After the decision, they were invited by Motown-owner Polydor (the original, independent Motown is long gone) to perform, an endorsement Ragland views as vindication. (Wilson continues the battle online; in 2000 she objected to bitter rival Diana Ross' "Supremes reunion" with two members of the post-Ross lineup.)
According to Ragland, the only authenticity that matters is in the performance. "From Europe to Australia to Tokyo, every audience is so different," says Ragland. "Each time you work to make it fresh and unique. It's like acting."
The arrangements have the same feel as the originals, but they have been extended. "We use three-part harmonies a lot of times instead of the original two-parts, and three voices give a different blend. We are constantly switching off the leads, like the Pointer Sisters."
If you want to see the originals, the ones that recorded those classic songs in the '60s, you missed your chance. "The Supremes no longer exist," says Ragland. "They were very young, their creativity was just beginning. It's too bad they couldn't get along." S
"The Sounds of the Supremes" will be the culmination of a full day of the Neighborhood Housing Services of Richmond's 20th anniversary HOMEcoming family fun day and picnic in North Richmond's Battery Park on June 22. The concert is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.
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