I am a product of the “golden age” of television. I was conceived on a balmy night in July of 1957, between episodes of Roy Rogers and Wagon Train. Nine months later, Dale Guy Madison was born. Named for Dale Evans, Roy Rogers’ wife, and Guy Madison, one of the guest stars of Wagon Train, my purpose in life seemed destined -- I was to become a performer.
I was cooing only my first words when the group “The Supremes” was born (they were originally founded as “The Primettes” in 1959 and became “The Supremes” in 1961). By the time they had their first hits in 1964, their music, energy, and essence encompassed my world. Every car transistor in my neighborhood could be heard playing “The Sound of Young America,” (the official slogan that then referred to the music of Motown,) and often it would be a Supremes single that would float through the speakers and dance on the air. Whenever my family tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show, I would see those beautiful ladies again as they captivated the audience with their style and grace. What drew me to these three young singers from the Detroit projects, discovered by Berry Gordy? Of course in the sixties, it was exciting just to see black people on television. I shared the same sentiment as Oprah Winfrey when as a child she would holler from her back porch, “Colored people on! Colored people on tv!” But the Supremes had a special appeal to me, beyond any of the other “colored” performers of that era. They were something unique.
Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross. Mary always seemed to be having the most fun. Diana was cute but was always popping her large eyes to make them appear even bigger. Florence always seemed a bit haughty or pissed. She was stern, pretty, and aloof like my mother, who even had a wig very similar to one of the many wigs that Florence wore. I loved to watch those three singers standing in front of the microphone, all eyes on them.
To a black kid growing up in the sixties, the Supremes were an undeniable symbol of success. They were an example of what could happen if you had talent and drive. You could rise from the projects and one day be on The Ed Sullivan Show. They were given very little in the beginning and look how they turned it around -- they were performing all over the world. In the late 50’s and early 60’s when the civil rights movement was huge, success was about crossover. That’s just what the Supremes did. They weren’t just stars for the black community, they leapt over color barriers. White kids helped the Supremes bust the charts open with more number one hits than any other artist or musical group, except for the Beatles and Elvis Presley. Everyone knew their names and I wanted people to know my name: Dale Guy Madison. My name reminded me of the Hollywood star, Edward G. Robinson. Just as the Supremes had done, I wanted to cross over too.
No, I wasn’t a singer and I did not live in the projects. I lived in a middle class neighborhood in Portsmouth, Virginia. The community was named Cavalier Manor, and every street was named after a famous black person. I lived on [Duke] Ellington Square; behind our home was [Billy] Ekstine Drive, and across the way was [Count] Basie Crescent. However, I knew from the time I was a small child that I had been given my name for a special reason. Why else would my parents have named me after those white people? Ironically enough, it sometimes felt like the only obstacles standing in my way were my parents.
One day, as I sat in the living room watching a tv documentary on the life of Marilyn Monroe, (narrated by famous movie heart throb Rock Hudson), my father felt it necessary to comment as he walked past the television set, Issac Asimov science fiction novel in hand. “You know that is not her [Marilyn Monroe’s] real voice singing,” he said.
I continued staring at the television set and tried my best to ignore him -- he certainly had a way of throwing ice water on a dream. But he kept on.
“That long note she is singing at the end of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend is another singer’s voice mixed in on top of hers,” he added. “I don’t understand what you see in those old movies anyway.”
“Marilyn Monroe is famous,” I quipped back. “People know her name.”
“You really live in the past too much, watching those old movies. Why don’t you go read a book? Marilyn Monroe isn’t even her real name.”
Well, I did go read a book. I went to the library, checked out a biography on Marilyn Monroe and studied about the life of Norma Jean Baker, the woman who would groom herself into the famous icon. I read several versions by several different authors from cover to cover. What mattered to me in everything I read was that Marilyn Monroe was a star.
I also learned that Marilyn Monroe died when she was thirty-six years old. That age seemed old to me as a child. I told my brother, Ricky, that I’d rather die than be old at thirty. Headed to Saturday market, one crisp morning in our 1959 red Chevrolet Impala, he tattled on me.
“Hey, Ma -- Dale says he is going to kill himself before he turns thirty!”
“Dale, why would you say a fool thing like that?” my mother asked in shock.
“I don’t ever want to be old,” I replied.
Ricky and my sister, Elsie, burst out laughing at my ridiculous statement. I didn’t understand what was so ridiculous. In the early to mid sixties, many famous people had died young just like Marilyn Monroe, including John F. Kennedy and Dorothy Dandridge. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would die in the late sixties, at only the tender age of 39.
That morning I ignored their teasing and turned up the volume on the car radio to drown them out. As usual, the Supremes were playing on the radio, singing one of their top ten hits, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” With all the enthusiasm my free-spirited, eight-year-old self could gather, I laid down my vocals right along with them:
I was a diva in the making, but this time it was my mother who shut me down.
“Boy, what did I tell you ‘bout singing like a girl? Don’t no boy supposed to be runnin’ ‘round sounding like no girl. Now turn that shit down!”
I turned down the radio but never turned down my love for the three girls from Detroit. That same year I bought my very first record album, a 45 rpm of the single “Come See About Me,” which I purchased from the Navy commissary where things were discounted below retail. (Only a military ID could get you in and my father was a military man.) I began to collect more record albums, posters, magazine articles, and anything I could find related to the Supremes. I craved for tidbits about their lives; I wanted to know who their boyfriends were, if they fought over gowns, where they lived, and how they really got along. I wondered why Diana Ross had to sing lead on every song instead of sharing the spotlight. The Temptations seemed to have two or three different guys take turns on the lead -- why not the Supremes? Why were the Supremes such a success while some other girl groups were not? During that era, all the girl groups pretty much looked alike. Most had three singers and, if they were black, they always wore big wigs. I did notice that the Supremes always wore nicer wigs than the Marvellettes or the Vandellas. But what made their sound unique?
I wanted to feel the magic and know all the dirt. I believed that if it could happen to them, it could happen to me. It was not that I wanted to be a singer; I just wanted the fame that comes when people know who you are.
At eight years old, I had already started to follow my passion and had held the lead in every school play since grade one, (and would do so through grade five.) From the time I appeared in my first school play, Jimmie and the Sleep Fairies, I was hooked on performing. The play was about a little boy, Jimmie, who refuses to go to bed until he is visited by fairies that tell him, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a young boy healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Jimmie starts going to bed early, (and so did I in real life.)
During the fourth and fifth grades, I would make the morning announcements over the school’s PA system. Being the morning announcer always made me feel special, and the teachers always told me I had a great speaking voice. In classes, the teachers always called upon me to read aloud. Then something happened in the sixth grade -- my voice changed. And it happened right after I was cast as Ebenezer Scrooge in the musical A Christmas Carol.
Like many boys going through puberty, sex hormones began to set in and my voice started cracking. So there I was in this production, giving my best British accent for the meanest Scrooge this side of the London breweries, however, when it came time for me to sing, my voice would akwardly break. The director of the production, Mr. Brown, finally replaced me two weeks before the show opened. (By this time, the Supremes had also replaced Florence Ballard with a new background singer, Cindy Birdsong.) I wondered, “Is this how Florence felt after being pushed out of the group?”
It was my first taste of the bitter side of the world of entertainment. I should have packed up and quit the business then, but I did not. Instead, I just went home and cried.
About a week later, Mr. Brown called saying that, although he had replaced me with a brilliant singer named Anthony Avery, Anthony just couldn’t get his lines right. So, Mr. Brown had come up with a perfect solution.
“Dale,” he said. “Did you see the movie My Fair Lady that came on television the other night?”
“Yes, Mr. Brown. But what does that have to do with me?”
“It was a musical, Dale, and the star, Rex Harrison, could not sing. Did you notice how he talked his way through the songs? I think if you are willing to practice talking through your songs like Rex Harrison, we could put you back in the play.”
It was like a dream come true. My mother was against it, fed up with the going back and forth, but I persisted. I resumed the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge, and the sense of accomplishment of doing that play never left me. Afterwards, I felt I could do anything.
The next year when my school cast the non-musical play No Man Is An Island, based on the poem by John Donne, I knew that I had the lead, since I was on a streak. But Mr. Brown cast my best friend, Bruce Melvin, instead. I guess he figured I had given him enough stress the year before and he didn’t want to take any chances.
I had experienced my first disappointments at the hands of “showbiz,” and would eventually learn that they can not always be avoided. It was around this time in 1969 that I learned that the Supremes were breaking up. I still remember the confusion I felt. What did Diana Ross hope to achieve by going solo? Would it change her sound? I remember watching the Supremes as they performed their song “Someday We’ll Be Together” on The Ed Sullivan Show, wondering why they had to break up and if they were getting a divorce like my mother and father. (My parents were separated by that time, and in the final stages of divorce proceedings.)
I also wondered why Florence had left the group a few years earlier. There were rumors, but information was spotty. I remember reading somewhere that Florence was going to release her own album. I was happy for her because, like most fans, I always wondered what she would sound like if she came out of the background and sang solo. I remember a sense of relief when, after Diana Ross’ departure, the Supremes rebounded with new lead singer Jean Terrell and scored a hit with “Up the Ladder to the Roof.” I loved the new sound as much as I enjoyed Diana Ross’ debut solo hit, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Prior to the breakup, I heard Mary sing the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on the television show The Hollywood Palace. I liked her singing but was hoping she would pick a better song to showcase herself. I wasn’t crazy about the original version, much less Mary’s version. My brother, a die hard Fifth Dimension fan, teased me unmercifully about this.
“Now we know why Mary sings background and won’t be singing lead when Diana Ross leaves,” he jabbed.
“You’re just jealous,” I said. “Your ol’ Fifth Dimension doesn’t have half the hits that the Supremes have!”
My family and I were extremely competitive with our favorite musical groups. In Ricky’s mind, Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension couldn’t sing a bad note if she tried. He was always looking for ways to pick on my beloved Supremes. My baby sister idolized the Jackson Five. My mom kept a picture of James Brown on her dresser, but one day my father came to visit and tore it up. I felt I was always the most dedicated to my group, as I kept up with every member.
When Florence died in 1976, she made the cover of Jet Magazine. The publication reported that she had been broke and on welfare. I knew then that there was an untold Supremes story. It wouldn’t be until years later, when I saw the musical Dreamgirls and read Mary Wilson’s autobiography, that I would be exposed to the drama behind the music. Drama or no drama, showbiz and the Supremes were already in my blood. They weren’t going anywhere.