The Primettes changed their name to the Supremes, endured a series of flops, and became one of the most successful female vocal groups ever. But before their torrid chart run in the mid-'60s, they were highly sought-after backing vocalists. Their contributions to Bob West's Lupine label are documented, but one can also hear them backing obscure artists on a myriad of tiny Detroit-based labels.
Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballad, and Betty McGlown were the original Primettes; McGlown married early and became Betty Travis. Florence Ballad formed the group while the members were still in school. All lived in the Brewster Projects. Ross once lived in Detroit's Belmont neighborhood, but Fred and Earnestine Ross (Diana Ross' parents) moved their brood to the Brewster Public Housing Projects, where Ross befriended the other girls. This was during the late '50s and early '60s when public housing was clean, drug-free, decent, and safe, not the crime havens they became in the '70s and '80s. Ross' family had more room and more modern amenities at Brewster than they did at their previous rundown tenement. Fred Ross later moved his family to a middle-class neighborhood when he landed a union job, and later became a union steward.
Milton Jenkins managed the Primes -- Eddie Kendrick, Paul Williams, and Kell Osborne -- an exciting trio from Birmingham, AL, via Cleveland, OH. In Birmingham, they were known as the Cavaliers and had a fourth member, Willy Waller. Jenkins discovered them in Cleveland performing with contortionist Caldonia Young at the Majestic Hotel. He took them to Detroit, where they befriended Ballad, Wilson, Ross, and Travis. Taking them under his wing, Jenkins named them the Primettes, the Primes' sister group. They practiced together, but the Primettes got the most work, and contrary to rumors, they never performed together on-stage.
When she lived in the Belmont area, Ross resided down the street from Smokey Robinson's family and watched the Matadors practice; she was tight with Robinson's sister, Sharon. She begged Robinson, who was making noise with the Miracles, to get them an audition with Barry Gordy. Robinson wanted to hear them first, and arranged an audition for the young ladies in Claudette Rogers' (his future wife) parents' basement, where Ross used to watch the Matadors woodshed. He liked them and promised to tell Gordy, but was really impressed with their guitarist, Marv Tarplin, and persuaded the sweet-strumming guitar man to go with the Miracles. He did, and stayed with Robinson for nearly 35 years.
The Motown audition in 1960 was a disappointment; Gordy wasn't exactly wowed with their rendition of the Drifter's "There Goes My Baby," and told them to come back after finishing high school. According to Robinson, "they looked better than they sang." Songwriter Richard Morris loved them and introduced them to Bob West, the owner of Lupine and their subsidiary labels. West signed the youngsters, mainly to sweeten his other artists' tracks with their arresting vocals. Motown was their first love, however -- it was where the people they admired (the Miracles, Mary Wells, Marv Johnson, and others) recorded -- and they hung around 2648 West Grand Boulevard every chance they got, befriending producers, writers, and office staff. They recorded one single on Lupine in 1959 that wasn't released until 1964 when the Supremes were hitting on Motown. "Pretty Baby" b/w "Tears of Sorrow" sounds like the material they recorded on their first Motown album, Meet the Supremes. Mary Wilson sings lead on "Pretty Baby" and Diana Ross leads on "Tears of Sorrow." Every member sang lead in the early days, depending on the song. Their talent was obvious -- their infectious vocal blend featured Ross' nasal soprano on top and Wilson's alto on the bottom.
Constant rehearsals and coaching made them better singers, they learned parts quickly, which is essential for backing vocalists. Extremely coachable, they did what producers asked, and, for Wilson, Ross, and Ballad, at least, music was first and foremost, not college, marrying, having babies, or the other things normally associated with young ladies. They wanted to make records, tour, sing, and entertain.
McGlown left because of parental pressures and to devote more time to a new boyfriend; Barbara Martin replaced her. A promo picture taken for Lupine Records shows Martin with Ross, Wilson, and Ballad. Martin stayed until 1963; she sang with them on their early Motown sides as the Supremes, but is not pictured or credited on the group's first Motown album. The Primettes did so many backing sessions that it's hard to track them all. They accompanied James Dee and a Piece of the Action on "My Pride"; Gene Martin on "Lonely Nights"; Don Revel on "The Return of Stagger Lee"; Wilson Pickett on "Let Me Be Your Boy"; James Velvet on "When I Needed You," "Bouquet of Flowers," "We Belong Together," and "I'm Gonna Try"; Al Garner on "I'll Get Along" and "All I Need Is You"; Walt Jessup on "Roll On"; Eddie Floyd's sessions at Lupine; and more, all before Motown. Their labels include Lupine, Cub, Correc-Tone, and Pussy Cat.
During all the sessions and little gigs around town, the girls attended school. Ross took up dress design at Cass Technical High, and Ballad and Wilson attended Northeastern High. Their persistence paid dividends, and they finally signed with Motown in 1961 when all the members were near 18 years of age. Not liking the name the Primettes, Gordy suggested a change, and Ballad came up with the Supremes, which everybody liked. As the Primettes, they recorded some unreleased tracks on Motown, such as "After All" and others, that didn't surface until some 30 years later. They also backed many Motown artists, including Bob Kayli, Mabel John, Pete Hartfield, Stevie Wonder, Don McKenzie, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, and Kim Weston. Their friends, the Primes, were signed to Motown as the Temptations. Osborne dropped out and Williams and Kendrick merged with Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, and Al Bryant (the Distants) to form the supergroup. Gordy initially liked the Primettes as backing vocalists because they were so accommodating and professional in the studio; if they had failed as featured artists, they would have reigned as Motown's premier female backing unit instead of the Andantes. The Andantes possessed a classy choral sound, but lacked the distinct voices of the Supremes, not to mention Ross, Wilson, Ballad, and Martin's supreme looks.
Martin left after the first few non-charting singles to pursue other things, and Ross, Wilson, and Ballad continued as a trio. The Primes and the Primettes recorded one tune together in the early days called "Not Now I'll Tell You Later," written by Smokey Robinson and Otis Williams; a version, not the original, appeared on the Temptations' Gettin' Ready album. After came a string of 11 singles that received regional play but didn't generate much chart action. But soon they began a torrid string of number one hits, commencing with "Where Did Our Love Go." They became household names all over the world and set the standard for female groups for years to come, obliterating previous high watermarks set by the Shirelles, the Chantels, and Motown's own Marvelettes.