Jess Cagle
January 10, 1992 AT 05:00 AM EST

When they were discovered a decade earlier, they were wearing homemade dresses. But by the time Diana Ross and the Supremes stood on the stage of Las Vegas’ Frontier Hotel on Jan. 14, 1970, they were draped in Bob Mackie’s elegant black velvet. After a medley of hits, Ross swept into the audience as they joined her in singing ”Let the Sunshine In.” The Detroit girls, whose rags-to-riches story would inspire the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, ended with ”The Impossible Dream.” And then it was all over.

After that concert, Ross left the group. Her lover — Motown founder and president Berry Gordy Jr. — had been grooming her for a solo career for some time, pushing her colleagues further into the background. Original Supreme Flo Ballard had already been dismissed; Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson didn’t sing at all on the last two hits, ”Love Child” and ”Someday We’ll Be Together.”

The Ross-less Supremes performed in various incarnations until 1978, but the name of their group no longer seemed apt. By some accounts, Miss Ross was less than completely superlative. In her 1986 tell-all, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, Mary Wilson says Gordy and Ross conspired to further Ross’ career, no matter what the cost to the Supremes. In All That Glittered, Tony Turner says Ross inflicted such petty tortures as making the others change gowns at the last minute, forcing them to perform in mismatched nail polish. J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 1989 Call Her Miss Ross says the singer spread her hands to cover their faces during TV appearances. And on the 1983 Motown 25 TV special, viewers saw Ross push Wilson aside during their reunion number.

But that was later. The Vegas audience in 1970 was oblivious to the tensions. A telegram from Ed Sullivan praised the group’s lack of ”backstabbing and hypocrisy.” After Wilson sang her solo, ”Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Ross jovially quipped, ”Get back to your microphone.” To the audience, it was Supreme fun, and almost none of them knew this would be the last of it.


TIME CAPSULE
Jan. 14, 1970
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was the best-seller no one could refuse. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid shot up the box office, and the movie’s theme song, ”Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” became the No. 1 single. Laugh-In was a third-season TV smash.

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