A Supreme Party, But Where's Flo?
BY INVITATION ONLY – AND AN UNEXPECTED SUBSTITUTION
Both girls bought their outfits at the same New York City department store.
“Saks Fifth Avenue was the shop we put all our money in,” Mary Wilson once confessed about the Supremes’ wardrobe and how success upscaled their look and their lives. In 1965, each one of the trio was said to have grossed around $100,000. “I put all my money on clothes,” said Mary.
Likewise, when the time came for Christy Wilson (no relation) to acquire the white chiffon dress for her debutante party? “I got it at Saks,” the millionaire’s daughter confirmed to a Detroit newspaper. And for one night 54 years ago, the two Wilsons occupied the same Great Hall of the Country Club of Detroit, in privileged Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
Last week, the New York Times brought her name into the orbit of Motown followers worldwide, via an intriguing article about the 18-year-old’s extravagant “coming-out” party of June 18, 1965. Fascinating, too, were the accompanying images of the Supremes, who had been booked by Wilson’s parents for the occasion. There was the iconic “Stop! In The Name Of Love” choreography, offered that night for an all-white elite: several hundred youngsters, the offspring of some of Michigan’s wealthiest citizens, clad in tuxedos or ball gowns – and evidently magnetised by the three young, black girls in front of them.
“For One Night in 1965,” declared the article’s headline, “the Supremes Brought the Two Detroits Together.” Journalist Alexis Clark reconstructed the event with acuity, drawing on the original New York Times coverage and more. She interviewed Christy Wilson herself, whose late father was an influential figure in the business of American football, and several others, including Coraleen Rawls of the Motown Museum and Dolores Barclay, who collaborated with Diana Ross on her memoir, Secrets of a Sparrow.
“Everyone had very glamorous deb parties when I was growing up,” said Wilson, now Ms. Wilson Hofmann and 72 years old. She added, “I grew up in Grosse Pointe and loved the Supremes and that kind of music, like the Temptations and Marvin Gaye.” She had spoken about it one other time between then and now, telling the Detroit Free Press in 1995 that the party took place shortly after the Supremes appeared on the cover of Time magazine, “so everyone wanted their autograph.”
SIGNING WHOSE NAME?
Leaving aside the glamour – and, for a moment, the headlined disparity between “the two Detroits” – Motown fans may be curious to know whether Marlene Barrow signed Florence Ballard’s name for those autograph hunters, or her own. For that night was the first time that Barrow of the Andantes, Motown’s background queens, substituted on stage for Ballard of the Supremes, Motown’s new superstars.
That substitution isn’t obvious from any of photographer Allyn Baum’s dramatic pictures, retrieved from the New York Times archives for Clark’s report. Only Diana’s face is visible, with Mary and Marlene either obscured or viewed just from behind.
This was so artfully done that it’s hard to accept as happenstance. Granted, Baum was governed by location: he was shooting from behind the group, or to their immediate left. None of his published pictures were taken from the audience’s perspective, and the newspaper’s original 1965 account of the party featured no photos of the Supremes at all. They were mentioned merely once, as “a rock ’n’ roll group” entertaining the Wilsons and their guests.
The evidence that Barrow subbed for Ballard appeared elsewhere: in a contemporaneous photo in the Detroit Free Press (available today only in a dark, grainy version from its digital archive) and in the recollections of the backing singer herself. “The first thing I did as a Supreme was a private performance for the Fisher family, here in Detroit,” explained Marlene in Motown From The Background, the Andantes’ biography written by Vickie Wright. “It was at Grosse Pointe Country Club.”
Barrow went on, “A daughter of the Fishers wanted The Supremes to perform at her coming-out party, and the crème de la crème of Detroit was there. The Fishers were General Motors. I was able to fit the gowns and, of course, I knew the songs very well. I just had to learn the routines.” (She confused the Fishers with the Wilsons, although both families were, indeed, part of the city’s crème de la crème. If the Fishers were General Motors, the Wilsons were Buffalo Bills, as Ralph Wilson founded that accomplished football team in 1959.)
Barrow also claimed in the book that she was drafted to take Flo’s place in Grosse Pointe while Motown was “negotiating” with Cindy Birdsong as a permanent substitute, but that’s mistaken – or contentious – since the debutante’s ball took place in 1965. Was the record company considering such an option so early in the Supremes’ breakthrough?
THEIR TIME IS NOW
By then, the Supremes certainly had broken through. Their appearance for Christy Wilson occurred one week after “Back In My Arms Again” became the trio’s fifth consecutive No. 1 single, while their Where Did Our Love Go album was still in the Top 20 after 40 weeks on the Billboard charts. They were fast becoming fixtures on national television and, as importantly, they were just six weeks away from debuting at New York’s all-important Copacabana.
Others were falling for Diana, Mary and Florence, too. That Time piece (“Rock ’n’ Roll: Everybody’s Turned On”) mentioned by Christy Wilson had been published in May, with the Supremes on the cover alongside the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brothers and Herman’s Hermits leader Peter Noone, among others; the girls were also the only black act pictured there. At home, both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News had run substantial articles about them, while they were featured in European media for their spring U.K. tour and a show in Paris.
Motown Records publicist Al Abrams seemed to be pumping out press releases every week; in one handout, he included advance word of the Supremes’ Grosse Pointe appearance. After the fact, the $85,000 shindig (the equivalent of $680,000 today) received much local ink, as well as the New York Times splash. “Deb Bows in Versailles Setting As Supremes Sing, Duchin Plays,” headlined the Free Press, suggesting a resemblance to the court of Louis XIV.
Still, Motown From The Background seems to be the only book with mention of the party. It earned no place in Diana’s autobiography, in Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl or in Peter Benjaminson’s The Lost Supreme. Of course, all three books contained stark memories of the racial prejudice which Motown’s artists faced in that era, and which was implicit in Alexis Clark’s article. “The three elegant darlings of Detroit…serenade a room of finely attired guests, many of practically the same age,” Clark wrote. “But between the groups were also the realities of race and class – the distance between Grosse Pointe and the Brewster projects where the Supremes grew up, 10 miles and several worlds away.”
When speaking to Mary in 2015, she told me of the time the Supremes were performing in Miami and how, after the show, one of the (white) audience members approached her with a compliment: “Every time you come on The Ed Sullivan Show, I allow my family to watch you.”
In Secrets of a Sparrow, Ross recalled, “In some of those Southern towns, you could just feel the bigotry in the air. You could slice it with a knife like stinking cheese. Sometimes we were afraid to get off the bus and ask where the toilet was. There were many times we would stop at a café or gas station and were not allowed to use the public rest rooms.”
For sure, Christy Wilson’s guests at the Country Club of Detroit on June 18, 1965 never experienced that.
Footnotes: Florence Ballard died on this date — February 22 — in 1976, at the age of 32. Peter Duchin, middle-of-the-road pianist and bandleader, played for the more formal dancing which took place at Christy Wilson’s party, while some of his musicians backed the Supremes under the direction of Motown’s own Maurice King (he is visible in one of the New York Times photographs). Elsewhere on June 18, another of the company’s bands, led by Choker Campbell, was in Louisville for a Motortown Revue show, with a line-up which included Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, the Four Tops and Brenda Holloway. Two weeks later, several of those same acts, and the Supremes, were set to play a show in Detroit, on Belle Isle. It ended prematurely with a riot – but that’s a story for another time.