Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché, and Heather Fabrikant, Deputy Cultural Attaché
As part of our commemoration of Black History Month, the U.S. Embassy is thrilled to be hosting Mary Wilson in Kyiv. She will perform a concert on February 4 at 7pm at The Concert Hall of the Tchaikovsky Music Academy (tickets can be bought at the box office) and The Story of the Supremes exhibit featuring the Supremes’ renowned fashion-defining dresses and a photographic tour of The Supremes and the civil rights movement will appear at Ukrainsky Dim (open daily from 11AM – 7PM from February 4 – 14).
One of the most successful musical groups of all time, The Supremes (Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson) skyrocketed to fame in the 1960s with a string of number one hit songs. Their glamorous style and broad appeal made them the most popular female group in America at the time, rivaling even The Beatles. The meteoric rise of The Supremes from the housing projects of the city of Detroit, Michigan, to superstar status is a rags-to-riches American tale. But the group’s astounding popularity came amidst the backdrop of great changes in American society, and in the context of the civil rights movement. The Story of The Supremes is a tale of music, fashion and marketing, but it is also a story about the role music played in changing attitudes and opening doors that previously had been shut to African Americans.
Indeed, the success of The Supremes relied to a large extent on the incredible team pulled together by Detroit businessman Berry Gordy who founded the famous company Motown. This African American-owned, managed and financed record label dominated the pop charts for most of the decade with an astounding burst of creativity. Did you know that in 1968, Michael Jackson’s first record label – as a member of his family’s wildly popular musical ensemble the Jackson 5 – was Motown records? Among other celebrities, Motown’s successful artists included The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and even contemporary artists Erykah Badu and India Aria.
As teenage girls, the members of the Supremes (originally called the Primettes) hung around Motown’s “Hitsville USA” headquarters after school, singing backup and helping out. They were finally signed to the label in January 1961. After a name change, The Supremes’ first number one hit on the Billboard Hot100 – the American musical industry’s weekly ranking of popular music – came in 1964 with “Where Did Our Love Go.” They went on to have a dozen top songs between 1964 and 1969, making the group the most successful in history. Successes came fast and furious, with hits including “Baby Love,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “The Happening,” “Love Child,” and “Someday We’ll Be Together.”
The Supremes went on to many “firsts” in breaking down racial barriers. They became one of the first black musical acts to appear regularly on American television programs, most notably with 17 appearances on perhaps the most popular show of the Sixties, The Ed Sullivan Show.They became one of the first African American musical groups to be popular among both black and white audiences, paving the way for the other Motown groups, and indeed for many other performers to the present day. They truly were trailblazers.
As we remember Martin Luther King and prepare to welcome Mary Wilson, we’re also looking forward to Black History Month in February. The embassy will present a variety of events about the contributions of African Americans and the movement for civil rights in the U.S. One series of events will be movie screenings at the American Library at Kyiv Mohila Academy. On January 28 and February 11, we will show “Soundtrack for a Revolution,” with Ukrainian subtitles. This documentary examines the connection between music and social protest in the 1960s. On February 4 and 18, we will show “Dreamgirls,” about a fictional Motown singing group loosely based on The Supremes. Please go to the American Library website for more information about the movie showings.