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Supreme-ly Historical?
By Cathy Schultz (12/27/06)

For the record, Dreamgirls is a fictional account of a hugely successful black female singing group in the Sixties.

But off the record? The similarities of the film's "Deena Jones and the Dreams" and the real-life "Diana Ross and the Supremes," are overwhelming, and the sense of reality is only heightened when characters resembling James Brown, the Jackson Five, and famed Motown manager Berry Gordy appear on the screen.

The original Supremes certainly noted the similarities. Mary Wilson recalled crying upon first seeing "Dreamgirls" in its Broadway incarnation in the 1980s, because, she said, "there were bits and pieces of my life - and the lives of my two best friends - up there." Diana Ross was less sanguine. She hated the Broadway musical, according to a long-time colleague, "because she feels like she's been ripped off, like its creators changed just enough key elements of her story so they didn't have to pay her royalties."

Twenty-five years after its triumphant Broadway debut, Dreamgirls, the film, has just opened to good buzz and great box-office. And even though the filmmakers can't, or won't, admit to it, here are some ways the film echoes the story of the Supremes.

Q. In the movie, the three girls are discovered in a talent show by manager Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) who sends them out on tour as backup singers for another artist. Is that what happened to the Supremes?
A. Just about. But the Supremes (Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Flo Ballard) weren't "discovered." They had sought out Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records for an audition, and signed with him in 1961, while still only in their teens. As in the film, Gordy soon sent them out to tour on the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit," a collection of ex-vaudeville houses in black neighborhoods.

Unlike in the film, however, Gordy had been in the music business for a few years by 1961, and already managed a large group of artists soon to skyrocket to success at Motown, like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and a young Stevie Wonder. All of them - and others - went on the Motown tours together in the early 1960s, and each took turns taking the stage.

Q. Did Diana Ross take over as lead singer in the same way Deena Jones does in the film?
A. In the film, the full-figured and full-voiced Effie (Jennifer Hudson) sings lead for the group, until manager Curtis peremptorily anoints Deena (Beyonce Knowles) as lead, betting that her slender figure and softer voice would "cross over" to white audiences better. That's fairly close to what happened in the Supremes. Most industry observers thought that Flo Ballard, Effie's real life counterpart, had the best and strongest voice, though initially all three girls took turns singing lead for the group. But Gordy wanted Ross to be the lead, and pushed the other two girls into the background.

Q. Did Gordy have an affair first with Flo and later Diana, as the film suggests?
A. The real Gordy was quite the ladies' man, fathering seven children by four different women, and conducting numerous affairs. But he never had a fling with Flo Ballard, though he did carry on a long affair with Diana Ross, which he discusses in his memoir.

Q. Was Flo Ballard suddenly replaced in the group, like Effie is in the film?
A. She was replaced, but not quite as abruptly as shown. In her memoir, Wilson reports that Ballard's resentment over Ross' prominence created simmering tensions in the group. One night following a performance, Ballard attacked Ross in the dressing room and had to be pulled off her by two security guards.

Ballard also developed a drinking problem. By 1966, she was often showing up late for rehearsals and press conferences, and occasionally got so drunk that she missed entire performances. Gordy hired Cindy Birdsong as a standby singer for those occasions, and in early 1967 installed Birdsong as a permanent member of the Supremes, sending Ballard packing back to Detroit.

Though the film's Effie makes a solo comeback, the real Flo Ballard never could. She had three children, battled depression, and ended up on welfare in Detroit, where she died in 1976 from cardiac arrest. The autopsy revealed both alcohol and pills in her system. She was only thirty-two years old.

Q. In the film, Deena marries Curtis, and continues to get manipulated by him. How true is that?
A. Diana Ross and Berry Gordy never married, though they did have a child together. And while the film's Deena is naïve and often passive, many Motown veterans charged that Ross was by contrast a schemer and a diva. Former Supreme Wilson, for instance, said that Ross "was obsessed not with being a star, but the star." Ross's defenders hotly charge that such accusations arise from jealousy over Ross's stunning success.

Q. Where can I find more background information on the Supremes?
A. I'd suggest Mary Wilson's Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, which brims with backstage gossip and a liberal dishing of dirt. Be forewarned, though. Diana Ross would not approve.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her website at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies.

A (kind of fictional) take on Motown

© 2004 History in the Movies