Colorless Crossover: The Temptations, the Supremes and Motown’s Mainstream
Rising as street corner crooners to internationally famous Motown super groups, the Supremes and the Temptations respectively claimed the 1960s spotlight as all-black vocal groups with unprecedented “crossover” appeal. Through their “universally” infectious sounds, stage spectacles, and subtle sexuality, both white and black audiences enjoyed and consumed their music. Motown mastermind Berry Gordy coordinated each group’s rare mainstream success by carefully constructing inoffensive, deracialized identities and musical production that transcended the traditional racial segmentation of the industry. While both groups were forced to adopt the archetypical aesthetic, behavior, and gender roles of mainstream society, these same norms manifested within Motown, affording the groups different degrees of creative control, personal autonomy, and power to question Gordy’s crossover efforts. Ultimately, we will find that the Supremes identified with mainstream gender and class norms much more closely than the Temptations, who had an R&B soul sound and style at their core, as well as the patriarchal privilege to assert greater independence in Motown and challenge Gordy’s mainstream pandering.
To grapple with these loaded questions of racial identity, personal autonomy, and public perception, we will approach the Supremes, the Temptations, and Motown through the lens of several axis of power and analytical mediums. We will begin by exploring Detroit as both a crux of black culture and American life overall and how this duality influenced Motown’s crossover aspirations. By stepping into the shoes of our subjects as youth growing up in Detroit’s black neighborhoods, we will consider group member’s racial and social autonomy and orientation before entering Motown, during an era of white social and media control.
The Supremes, the Temptations, and Motown emerged at the crossroads of black and broader American culture, inspiring the groups’ sound and aesthetic as well as the crossover potential of Motown music. The history of Detroit has long intertwined with that of African Americans. As a key destination along both the Underground Railroad in antebellum America and the Great Migration in 1910 to 1970, Detroit represented a northern beacon of freedom and economic possibility. Despite the growing African American middle-class, the Supremes and Temptations grew up in a Detroit deeply divided along racial lines, limiting the economic and spatial mobility of minorities.
At block parties and crosswalks, a grassroots musical phenomena was brewing on Detroit streets, and a contagious creative atmosphere enabled young black musicians to claim public physical and mental space for personal expression. When Berry Gordy birthed Motown Records in 1959 in the heart of this hyper-local musical movement, young black talents became his potential business partners and profit, but often at the expense of black culture. The Supremes and the Temptations entered Motown with little experience performing for or among white audiences, but knew this was their chance out of the Ford assembly line. It wasn’t long before our doo-wop sibling groups, then known as The Primes and the Primettes, said goodbye to their high school talent show for gigs at the Copacabana and tours through the United Kingdom as the Supremes and the Temptations.
On the other hand, it is important to examine the Temptations and the Supremes from underneath the umbrella of the secular American experience, which comprised both white and black citizens. Though white people controlled most streams of production in the United States during the 1960s, American cultural artifacts did not emerge in a vacuum of whiteness and black Americans certainly consumed and influenced mainstream American culture. Musical experiences in Detroit’s public schools illustrate how mainstream entertainment was inextricable from black American culture during this time. Schools exposed the inner-city students to “classical European music, marching band music, and show tunes.” In her memoir, Mary Wilson discusses how she discovered her singing talent through songs such as ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘Only a Rose’ in school, which highlights that Motown groups grew up with a traditional, white American musical foundation. In their own homes, the Supremes and the Temptations were also heavily exposed to white American entertainment. The vast majority of radio and television broadcasts featured programs created for and by white audiences, but audiences of all races were sure to tune in. Despite their racially segregated physical reality, black entertainment also became mainstream entertainment. Racist media corporation would simultaneously feature negative depictions of blacks while taking their money, reinforcing a cyclical pattern of economic and psychic domination. With constant exposure to exclusively white media, members of the Supremes and Temptations naturally might develop affinity for white mainstream tastes, and even identify with or aspire to that which oppressed them. While much criticism of Motown rightfully concludes that Gordy constructed his artists for mainstream consumption, it often neglects that Motown groups (and black people in general) had already adopted mainstream tastes and pursuits.
Trying to parse the ‘true tastes’ of black society from those of the hegemonic media industry at the time is a fruitless ‘chicken or the egg’ game, as the former never existed without mainstream domination. Motown and black entertainers such as the Temptations and the Supremes targeted the mainstream, an audience that black people also participated in. In this light, Motown’s crossover appeal seems to root not in imitating white culture, but instead capitalizing on a racial no man’s land where black tastes could eventually be authenticated as the “Sound of Young America.”
Finding success as a “general market company” that transcended region and race would not be an easy task for Motown and its entirely African American, Detroit-based roster, especially while at the brink of race riots and revolution across America. In turn, Berry constructed a sound and aesthetic for the company and its artists that was distant from their Detroit, urban origins and defiant towards the traditional racial segmentation of the music industry. Gordy concocted a formula for mainstream success, employing several tools to construct deracialized identities for his top two acts and to manipulate the public opinion of the mainstream. I will discuss several elements of his strategy, including the strict artist development regimen, catalogue diversification, and performance at traditionally white venues. I will also explore the Supremes and the Temptations’ reactions to Motown’s demands.
To shed their “grit,” the Temptations and the Supremes had to undergo extensive etiquette education, in which they learned how to appear “mannerly and likable” to mainstream white tastes. Instructing the groups on everything from the proper way to walk, get out of a car, and hold a microphone, Motown’s in-house charm school was basically a life re-education course. Maxine Powell, the headmistress of the charm school, credits herself for Motown’s crossover potential. In an NPR interview, she reminisces, “they did come from humble beginnings. Some of them from the projects, some of them were using street language, some were rude and crude.” While Gordy and Ms. Powell thought that the etiquette education were necessary for the groups to learn how to carry oneself in a white world, the Temptations and the Supremes both felt insulted by it, but for opposite reasons. For the Temptations, Motown’s charm school threatened their personal and racial identities. While on tour, Otis Williams remarks, “being out on the road gave us an excuse not to sit in a classroom and be told how to act white.” Contrary to the opinion expressed by Maxine Powell, the Supremes considered the classes an “insult” to their upbringings, and Mary Wilson responding that the girls were “hardly trailer trash” and “came from homes that taught manners.”  While the Temptations felt the Ms. Powell’s classes forced them to sacrifice their original selves and succumb to the expectations of mainstream culture, the Supremes, on the other hand, deemed them unnecessary, for their upbringings in Detroit had properly equipped them for mainstream appeal. Even initially, the Temptations resist Motown’s mainstream direction, while the Supremes seem to naturally embody mainstream style and decorum.
Genre and venue diversification was another tactic that Gordy employed to neutralize the roots and race of the Temptations and the Supremes. Between 1964 and 1968, the Supremes had recorded six cover albums and the Temptations one, The Temptations in a Mellow Mood, which contains pop standards by Rogers & Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein. Among the Supremes cover records include A Bit of Liverpool, comprised of tracks by the chart topping Beatles, and The Supremes Sing Country Western and Pop, a genre-specific album featuring Americana, banjos, and Southern twang. The stylistic showcase of the Supremes and the Temptations functioned as tools to widen their commercial reach and also uproot them from racial tropes in the eyes of the public. However, the Temptations understood that their black fans might not so easily accept such shameless catering for the white mainstream, and openly disputed the making of Mellow Mood. Though the album was a commercial success, the original group never had to make another cover album. While catalogue diversification may have come at a personal cost, Motown’s cover albums dissociated the groups from notions of racial solidarity, and instead promoted these groups as versatile, all-American entertainers.
Berry Gordy’s crossover pursuits centered not only on topping the pop charts, but also bringing his music into traditionally white venues such as the Las Vegas casinos and the Copacabana. The Supremes shared his nightclub dreams, and were ready and willing to meet the club’s stylistic and musical demands, and were aware of the “changes” and “work ahead of them.” In 1965, Gordy and ‘the girls’ finally achieved their Copacabana aspirations with the Supremes performing a set of mostly Broadway tunes and mainstream pop standards. Despite Gordy describing the first experience at the Copacabana as a “slave contract,” Gordy eagerly continued to showcase his acts there because he considered the space to be of great mainstream importance. In 1967, shortly after witnessing their city aflame during the Detroit Riots, the Temptations had their first performance at the Copa. Though they were earning top dollar for their performance of neat medleys of hits and show tunes, the Temptations felt deeply dissatisfied and inauthentic. Melvin Franklin later commented that the group wanted to leave Motown when they first played at the Copacabana.
As Motown gained momentum, Gordy more forcefully pursued white mainstream success by dictating the business and artistic direction of the Temptations and the Supremes and ultimately encroaching on their own self-identities. The Temptations openly objected to many of Motown’s attempts to force the group to abandon their authentic selves and black identities. Ultimately, they were afforded much more freedom in Motown than the Supremes who acquiesced and agreed with Gordy’s meticulous management of their image and art.
The pervasive patriarchy of the 1960s strongly influenced the aesthetic and musical identities Gordy constructed for the two groups, and the autonomous creative control afforded to them. In previous discussion, we witness the Temptations’ frequently resist identifying with mainstream America and following Motown’s shape shifting to fit mainstream desires. The freedom and opportunity for the Temptations to so readily resist Motown’s movement towards the mainstream reflects gendered power dynamics that afforded men the privilege of independence. The Temptations were also granted greater trust and creative control, enabling their sound and image to emerge more naturally than the Supremes. After the Temptations expressed regret about their inauthentic record of pop covers, Motown did not require the Temptations to release another, despite the mainstream commercial benefits that such a record would have.
Furthermore, in order to attract mass mainstream following, the Supremes and the Temptations had to approach sexuality as prescribed by the race conscious, morally delicate status quo. Both acts had to disassociate from pervasive stereotypes that deemed black sexual behavior as “wild,” “uninhibited,” and “animalistic.” First and foremost, both groups had to be sure to adopt nonthreatening identities. At the same, the all-female and all-male groups respectively performed and internalized this safe sexuality quite differently.
The Supremes and the Temptations’ respective stage performances mirrored the era’s gender norms. The Supremes’ always performed with “perfect elbow-length-white-glove-synchrony,” and through polished hand gestures alone somehow still seemed provocative. While many criticized Diana’s voice as lacking the depth and bellow of fellow Supreme Florence Ballard, the lack of power in Diana’s voice reflected notions of female docility. Unlike the rigid choreography characteristic of the Supremes, the Temptations were afforded greater flexibility and range in their performances. To everyone’s delight, unison dance routines would be interrupted by David Ruffin’s microphone tricks and Eddie Kendrick’s acrobatics, exuding confidence and independence amidst Motown’s choreography.
The Supremes practiced much restraint in expressing sexuality in their music and performance, contrasting that of women of color during the era of ‘race records.’ Many women featured on ‘race records’, or the bluesy music produced in the 1920s and 1930s for black consumers, would overtly display their sexuality. According to the black activist and scholar Angela Davis, female blues artists such as the Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith would make explicit sexual references, evidenced by Rainey’s “moaning style” and songs such as Smith’s “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” in order to achieve a modicum of independence in a patriarchal black society. However, Motown was making music for mainstream white America. To become the object of universal attraction for blacks and high-society whites, the Supremes would have to depart from traditional notions of black female sexuality, and embrace “universal deferential femininity”. In a 1994 interview, Diana Ross attributed her group’s crossover success among young black and white males to “three black girls and they could openly enjoy them and even lust for them — without thinking what color they were.” The Supremes racial transcendence transformed them into objects for the black and white male gaze, but also stripped the Supremes of much sexual agency and freedom. Ross also comments that the Supremes “really became what Berry had imagined. And the message to all those guys was loud and clear. You can look but don’t even think about touching.” Through their elegance, petite figures, and doe-eyed prude performances, the Supremes represented the ideal American white woman, but their black bodies put them in an isolated league of their own. In attempt to attract all but offend no one, the Supremes became sexual spectacles rather than sexual beings.
With many Americans still harboring fears of ‘miscegenated sex appeal’ and the music industry’s general discomfort with the prospect of legitimate black male sex symbols, the Temptations treaded in precarious social terrain. Despite their private promiscuity and candor, they confronted sexuality in their music and public personas with expert subtlety that appeased nervous whites, and further titillated women. Motown’s in-house finishing school instructor, Maxine Powell, describes the art of the Temptations’ sexuality as “suave, reigned in sexuality that appealed to black audiences but didn’t frighten white ones.” Not only did the Temptations’ demure sexuality appease wary white audiences, but also became an attractive element for fans and the Temptation’s themselves. True to their name, the Temptations understood that if you look beyond their dashing smiles and fresh pressed trousers, one could find a sexual energy propelling a sound and style that drove audiences, particularly women, wild. Baritone Paul Williams would encourage the group’s lustful intentions, reminding, “we’re selling sex.”  Through their calculatedly soft approach, The Temptations were able to find a new sense of sexual charisma within the mainstream social framework that brought admiration from female fans of all races, albeit from a safe distance.
The Supremes and Temptations, both with homegrown talent raised in the black schools and neighborhoods of Detroit, were shaped by Berry Gordy and the Motown image making machine to achieve enormous mainstream success. We’ve explored how each group’s journey was differentially shaped by early affiliation with mainstream tastes, societal norms for male/female behavior, male privilege, sexual boundaries and different racial identities and attitudes toward assimilating stylistically and musically. Gordy’s goal was to remove race as an inhibiting factor, and the enormous commercial success of each group proves his successful strategy worked. Still, it is worthwhile to explore the consequences of minimizing racial identity for each of these iconic groups and for society as a whole.
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