The lighthearted, radio-friendly pop sound of 60s sensation The Supremes has always been misleadingly easy to swallow. In fact, success was hardly an overnight phenomenon for the group, and throughout their careers they withstood dim-witted yet stinging criticisms about their stylized sound being too "pop" and not "soul," enough and about the girls not "being black enough."
But The Supremes' whole, storied journey through the golden gates of musical immortality, beginning with their incubation as a foursome called the Primettes and culminating with their final performance in 1977 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, has been captured an exhibit entitled Girl Power: The Supremes as Cultural Icons, now showing at the Lockhart Gallery.
As with most exhibits reflecting on a cultural period in history, Girl Power's resonance is less with the memorabilia and more with what it represents. In that regard, the Lockhart's small size gives the exhibit an appropriate intimacy while managing to keep sections beautifully organized, avoiding clutter and confusion. The musical relics themselves, all courtesy of collector and Geneseo alumnus Thomas Ingrassia, are varied and always interesting, ranging from original music charts and sheet music to photographs and timelines. Arranged are 24 original vinyl covers, 33 single 45s, and original examples of Supremes music in every format, including reel to reel, phonographic records, eight-tracks, cassettes and CDs.
Of particular interest are The Supremes caught on camera. There are many fascinating examples of the look of The Supremes, who were known for being a very photogenic group. There are also original photographs of the group performing with other musical icons of the era like Bobby Darin, Stevie Wonder, and their initial male counterparts, The Temptations.
When it comes to Diana Ross and the rest of the Supremes, it was less the songs themselves, and more the circumstances of the group's popularity, which ultimately resulted in their long-term cultural impact. It wasn't just that they were three African-American women who were dominating the music charts; they built the bridge between pop and soul that has stood strong ever since. The cultural impact of these musicians, even at the height of their popularity, is affirmed at the Lockhart, represented by coverage in Ebony and Life magazine and commercial endorsements for Coca-Cola.
Before Ross left The Supremes in 1970, the group represented an ideal synchronicity between the performers Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, producer Berry Gordy and legendary songwriting trio Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland that resulted in a showcase for Motown and a sensation that helped clear a dense, foreboding thicket for African-American and female performers. That synergy, as well as its eventual effect on the music world, is captured adeptly at the Lockhart for a new generation of music hopefuls and music lovers to analyze and absorb.