Book Review

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal

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The Bookworm

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal ffw-0813-bookcover

by Mark Ribowsky

c.2009, DaCapo Press $26

For most of your life, they’ve been your background. When you were a child, their voices came from your parents’ record albums, and you hummed along. As a teen, you turned up the car radio when they came on, Golden Oldies but no less enjoyable. Later, they brought back fond memories of friends, and the fun you had. Even now, they’re your background – in supermarkets, waiting rooms, and on-hold phone calls.

So how much do you really know about Diana, Mary, and Flo? In the new book “The Supremes” by Mark Ribowsky, you’ll get a good look at the women and the men who started a music revolution.

Although they grew up in the same Detroit housing project, Diane (her name as a child) Ross didn’t know Mary Wilson or Florence Ballard well until a part-time pimp and music agent re-introduced them in a seedy hotel room. Mary and Flo needed more voices for their “girl group”; the agent had already approached Diane and a girl named Betty McGlown about singing.

Almost from the beginning, there was trouble. Even though Flo had assumed leadership from the outset, Diane, according to Ribowsky, angled for the head spot in the group. Mary, it seemed, played a peacekeeping role by alternately siding with Flo, then defending her. Betty McGlown left the group to get married.

Accounts differ as to how the girls (then called The Primettes) came to meet with Barry Gordy, but Ribowsky says the meeting almost surely happened when Diane used her connection to Smokey Robinson, asking him for an introduction. Unimpressed after an audition, Gordy reportedly told the girls, who were then teenagers and still in high school, to come back when they grew up.

Once signed to Motown, the girls rose in popularity, thanks in part to the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Diane, who later insisted that “Diana” was on her birth certificate, then began a long affair with Barry Gordy. Flo left the group and died nearly penniless at 32. Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Flo) and Mary Wilson sometimes perform together. Ribowsky says they no longer share a stage with Miss Ross.

Filled with stories of astounding chutzpah, me-first betrayal, back-stabbing and deviousness, “The Supremes” is a scandal-lover’s delight. Ribowsky states in the introduction to this “unauthorized biography” that he had to winnow through countless information to try to determine the truth, some of which we may never know.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, I felt it was the same old thing but more of it. Ribowsky presents a well-researched account, but there were a few surprises. If you’ve read any other book on The Supremes, you probably won’t learn much.

Still, if “Baby Love” and “Love Child” have always been in your background, you shouldn’t miss this book. For die-hard fans, “The Supremes” should be at the front of the reading list.

Panel to Panel

By Nathan Patton

Low Moon

Author: Jason

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books

Cost: $24.99

Award-winning graphic novelist Jason (“I Killed Adolf Hitler,” “The Left Bank Gang”) returns with a collection of strips from the titular story originally published weekly by the New York Times Magazine, and four brand new tales of crime, science fiction and silliness.

Jason visits new territory here. Demonstrating that he was getting a little too comfortable with his standard 48-page, softcover graphic novels, this collection is his first hardcover, and at 216 pages, one of his biggest books to date.

In the titular story, Jason tackles the typical western with tons of humorous twists. Instead of a gun battle showdown, there’s an impending chess match that the sheriff and the outlaw are preparing for while, in the background, people sip cappuccinos and talk on cell phones. The weirdness and absurdity is handled so matter-of-factly, it heightens the hilarity.

“Emily Says Hello” is a simple story, like a one-act play. It all takes place in a single apartment as a woman gives a hitman sexual favors in return for his services. It has shades of Hitchcock as Jason’s work often does, but with a more puzzling ending.

“&” uses a clever storytelling device and old school comedy to delivers a hilarious, yet heartbreaking, tale. I’m not sure any other artist could juxtapose slapstick comedy with tragic themes of death and unnerving obsession.

“Proto Film Noir” can best be described as “The Postman Always Rings Twice” meets “Groundhog Day.” Jason uses repetition so well in his work, especially here. It’s one of the many ways he does so much with so little. By creating a sort of shorthand with the audience, it makes the story all that much more effective. The ending is, like “Emily Says Hello,” a bit of a departure for Jason. Not as easily digested as most of his endings.

The final story, “You Are Here,” could have been the only thing in the book and I would have felt like I got my money’s worth. Not only is it a perfect way to close the book, it elevates the other stories by its presence.

The story begins with an argument between a husband and wife that we can see but not “hear.” The wife storms off into the kitchen and is quickly abducted by aliens. Where it goes from there is something that only Jason could successfully accomplish, and with another heart-grabbing ending.

One of the most reliably entertaining cartoonists has once again delivered an unparalleled graphic novel. “Low Moon” is the perfect next step in Jason’s career and is only lessened by the sadness that stems from waiting for his next work.

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