Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Dance Party: The Supremes Reunion

This week's Dance Party celebrates a little-known reunion of the classic Pop/R&B group The Supremes. The event happened decades after Diana Ross left the group, and included four original members. But first, as usual, we are inspired by a dead guy:

Nick Ashford


This well-known songwriter, producer, and performer died last week, the same day as Jerry Leiber, who inspired last week's clip. It helps the Dance Party when famous musicians die.

Ashford was part of a performing/writing/producing team which included his wife, Valerie Simpson. Together they provided hits for just about everybody at Motown Records and elsewhere: Ray Charles, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight, both with and without Pips, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Marvellettes, the 5th Dimension, Chaka Khan, and the Supremes. As a performing team, they had a huge seller with "Solid," and had success with "Street Corner," "It Seems to Hang On," and others.

As producers, they found great success with many of the above artists, but perhaps above all, with Diana Ross. They produced her first three solo albums, including her self-titled solo debut. That album produced two big hits, both penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" and the song which provides today's Dance Party.

A bit of context: as The Supremes were hitting the heights with their music, there was trouble afoot backstage. In 1967, Florence Ballard, one of the founding members of the group, had gained weight and was hitting the bottle. During this period, Motown changed the name of the group to Diana Ross and The Supremes, preparing to spin the star off into a solo career. Jealousy reared its head, and after a period during which Ballard was unruly and often drunk onstage, she was replaced. This backstage drama forms the skeleton plot of the musical Dreamgirls.

But here's a little known fact. In the late 1980s, the Supremes reunited for one single performance. That reunion included Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and the singer who replaced her, Cindy Birdsong. If you watch this clip, the foursome are surprisingly assured, considering the animosity which the breakup of decades earlier had caused. So, in honor of Nick Ashford, here is one of his biggest compositions: