SOMEDAY WE’LL BE TOGETHER
My first experience seeing a Broadway play was in 1981 when my best friend Greg and I drove to New York to see the musical Dreamgirls. We slept in his red Volvo under a bridge near Christopher Street, (the famous New York City street known as a hub for gays and lesbians), since we couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel.
For a gay man in the 80’s, Dreamgirls offered everything on the attention menu. Filled with glamorous gowns, diva attitudes, dancing and disco, it was the thinly veiled story of the Supremes. I was living in Baltimore when news first broke that the show was opening, and Greg and I immediately purchased our tickets over the phone and waited anxiously for them to arrive in the mail.
Everyone we knew who had seen the show before us had nothing but wonderful accolades for it. It was that familiar story of three black girls and their rise to fame as singers in the early days of 60’s soul music. I had already seen the 1976 Irene Cara movie Sparkle, which was a favorite among black audiences for its loosely Supreme-like story. As a die hard Supremes fan, finally seeing Dreamgirls was the moment I had been waiting for.
I knew that too much bad blood had passed between the Supremes over the years. But I had given up on ever finding out the real drama behind it all. The musical was going be as close to the truth as we fans would get to it in our lifetimes. From the first big musical number, “Move (You're Steppin’ On My Heart),” I was a ball of energy as I began uncovering parallels between the production and the history of the Supremes. I kept jabbing Greg with my arm and telling him, “That song’s got to be ‘Stop in the Name of Love!’ And who are they fooling, ‘Dreamettes’ is just another way of saying ‘Primettes’!”
When they started singing “Heavy” I hollered, “That’s the Supremes song ‘My World is Empty Without You’!” Finally, the lady sitting in front of me turned in her seat and said, “Obviously you know a lot about the story.” She was curious to know more.
During the intermission, I explained to her that all the details of the show were really based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. The character James “Thunder” Early was really a combination of several soul stars like David Ruffin and James Brown, and Mary Wilson, (embodied in the Lorrell character), did have an affair with a fellow Motown singer but he was a member of the Four Tops. I also revealed that the character Curtis Taylor, Jr. represented none other than Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown who pushed the Supremes towards pop success and became romantically involved with Diana Ross. The same way Curtis (in the musical) uses payola to keep Effie’s solo effort from going up the charts, many rumored that Berry Gordy, Jr. conspired against Florence Ballard so that her solo project would be lost and shelved away.
Michael Bennett (director, producer, choreographer), Henry Krieger (composer), Tom Eyen (writer and lyricist), and the other Dreamgirls producers denied connections between the musical's plot and the history of the Supremes, in order to avoid legal issues with Motown Records and Diana Ross. Reportedly, Diana was angered by the show and expressed her displeasure to the media. Ironically, however, she delivered a heartfelt version of a song from the musical, “Family,” in her unforgettable concert in Central Park in 1983.
Forever affected by the theater experience, I bought the soundtrack and a souvenir button once the show let out that night. For days, I played every song from the soundtrack over and over again, trying to associate each one to various Motown songs I had collected over the years. I was then a front desk agent at the Hyatt Hotel in Baltimore, and I convinced a few of my co-workers to get together and sing the song “Family” for our employee talent show. As the ringleader, I launched into an entire synopsis of the play before we began our song, which we recorded on video. As I look back on that footage now, I realize the performance was horrible. However, my Dreamgirl passion refused to die.
In 1986, Mary Wilson released her book Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, and it confirmed all I had suspected in terms of the “coincidences” between the musical and my beloved group. Before the musical opened, Mary had mentioned her book in a television interview and said that its title would be Reflections: My Life as a Supreme. Once she saw Dreamgirls, however, she changed the title of the book to incorporate the title of the musical.
Although my singing skills were still not the best, I yearned to be in a production of Dreamgirls. Around 1985, I auditioned for a national touring company of the show. I bought sheet music for the 1964 Marvin Gaye hit, “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved By You)” and prepared to sing that song. I stood in line outside for several hours and, when I was called in, I discovered that several members of the touring cast had shown up to support me. (At that time I was a singing trolley car driver in Baltimore, and a number of the touring cast members rode my route while the show was up in the city.) Prepared as I was, when it came time for me to sing, I could not remember the words. The pianist played it a couple of times and I could not even get the melody to come out of my mouth. It was like a bad American Idol moment. I had to walk out of the theater and past all my other friends who were in line to audition and try to hold my head up. I wanted to be invisible in that moment. Nevertheless, it still did not stop me. I knew that some day I would be close to the Supremes, have an iota of fame close to their fame, or both.
During the 80’s when I was romantically involved with a Baltimore politician, he took me to see the show again in New York City. Sheryl Lee Ralph was out that day and Phylicia Rashad, (Debbie Allen’s sister and Bill Cosby’s television wife), was performing as a wonderful understudy. During the 90’s, I saw a touring production of Dreamgirls in Philadelphia with singer Mikki Howard playing the role of Deena. Several Baltimore community theaters also did productions over the years and I tried to see them all. Then, I finally got close to a real Supreme.
It was in 1995 that I met Diana Ross during the promotional tour of her album, Take Me Higher. She made a guest appearance on the BET show Video Soul, hosted by Donnie Simpson. The show dedicated the first hour to a retrospective of her music videos, and during the second half she sat down for an interview with Simpson. People in the audience were hoping she might sing, but my buddy who worked on the show and who had gotten me a seat in the studio audience warned me that she was not going to. She wasn’t even going to stay for the entire show because she had to head to New York for a record store signing the next day.
In the harsh studio lights, I was surprised that she looked so fabulous up close. What I was impressed with most was her face, as time seemed to have stopped for her. Her make-up was so simple that she reminded me of the fresh-faced girl on the Where Did Our Love Go album, wearing black eyeliner with a small turn up at the corner. Her sexy red dress got a lot of attention, because her breasts seemed to want to jump out. It also caused a number of technical difficulties, and the sound guy was continuously re-adjusting her microphone during the commercial breaks. Everyone loved the joke she made about her high stiletto “fuck me” pumps, and the studio audience was enthralled.
During the interview, she tried very hard to be gracious and politically correct. It was during the commercial breaks that she appeared less than enthusiastic. In her interview with Donnie, she mentioned that she really liked a song on her album called “Don’t Stop.” It was smooth and jazzy and had a rap verse in it, but she hinted that Motown did not want to promote it and she appeared irritated by this. Her disposition wasn’t helped by the fact that one obnoxious lady in the audience kept calling out loudly, “Hey Diana! Hey Diana! Are you gonna sing for us?”
Diana turned towards the woman’s general area and sang the word “sing.” Everyone laughed. Unfortunately, this did not deter the overzealous fan. “Hey Diana!” she persisted.
Finally, Diana turned away from her conversation with Donnie off camera and looked the woman directly in the face, giving a real sharp stare. The woman became uncomfortable and corrected herself. “Miss Ross,” she said, “You were just wonderful in Mahogany.”
Diana responded very politely. “Thank you.”
The woman reminded me of a child who keeps tugging at a parent for attention, just to get it and then tell the parent something so simple and useless. After the parent expresses annoyance, the child shrinks back to a better behavior.
I tried to break the tension in that moment by asking if I could get Diana to sign my CD. I had rushed out the previous week to purchase the more expensive, overseas import of her new album, fearing that the regular CD wouldn’t be in stores in time for her studio appearance. I had also purchased a gold felt tipped marker to gather the all-important autograph. I gave my buddy all the materials and he rushed them over to her on set. She asked my name and after he told her she said, “If Dale wants me to sign this CD, why doesn’t he give me a pen that works?”
“Oh my God,” I said to myself. “She just called out my name!”
I jumped up from the bleachers and explained that the pen just needed to be pumped. She signed the CD and I sat down, rather embarrassed. I don’t know whether it was because I hadn’t explained the pen beforehand or because she hadn’t figured out how to use it. Either way, I had her signature.
I took a few pictures “of” her signing my CD during the break, since she had only agreed to take a picture “with” a couple that had won some contest. At that moment, an old piece of advice I’d often heard came to mind: “Never try to meet your idols -- they always disappoint you.”
Having already seen one Supreme up close and personal, imagine my joy when I moved to Los Angeles in 2000 and one of the first celebrities I met was Dreamgirls star Loretta Devine. She and James Avery were doing a play at the Hudson Theater, and I was able to talk with her after one of her shows. I later wrote her a fan letter, asking her to sign the photo that we had taken together at the Hudson. She was the first celebrity to whom I had ever written a fan letter. She wrote me back very graciously and returned the photo we had taken together, autographed.
Although I did extra work on two Sheryl Lee Ralph projects, the movie The Distinguished Gentleman and the sitcom Moesha, I never had a chance to meet her on set because we never appeared in the same scenes. Years later, however, I appeared as a yard sale browser on the Style Network show Clean House, in an episode featuring a yard sale at Sheryl’s home. Although I had an opportunity to buy a huge poster of the Ebony Magazine cover of Dreamgirls, I ended up buying a beautiful oriental entertainment center instead. At least I bought something from a Dreamgirl.
I have loved and admired every single lady who has officially been a Supreme. When I wrote Mary Wilson and told her of my book project, she sent back the most beautiful postcard and an autographed picture that read, “To Dale -- why did it take so long?”
In 2003, there was a release and signing of the Supremes’ 70’s anthology at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood. All of the “70’s Supremes” showed up except for Mary. I stood in line for hours with other fans, each of us holding and sharing our memorabilia. Even RuPaul attended. Someone asked for his autograph, but he refused saying, “It’s about the ladies tonight!”
Jean Terrell and I chatted about my hair, which at that time was in natural twists. I had heard that she owned a salon in the San Fernando Valley. She had released a solo album after she left the Supremes and I had it with me, so I asked her to sign it. I also had a huge poster of the Supremes’ final album, Mary, Sherrie & Susaye, and Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene signed that for me as well. I had already taken photos of Linda Laurence and Scherrie Payne at the Supremes convention of 1997, so they added their signatures to that memory. Later, Cindy Birdsong also graciously took a picture with me.
Everyone was disappointed that Mary was not there but no one was surprised. Mary and the other women were in the midst of legal hassles, since Mary was trying to prevent Linda and Sherrie from performing as the FLOS (Former Ladies of The Supremes.)
During my time in Los Angeles, I have had the opportunity to run into Diana Ross’ daughter, Tracee Ellis-Ross, at various Hollywood parties and premieres. No matter where she is, she is gracious and kind and always finds a moment to take a picture.
She is truly one of Hollywood’s gifted comediennes. I look forward to the time when she does some important work on the big screen. I had even been hoping that Tracee would be cast in the Paramount / DreamWorks film production of Dreamgirls. Although she was not, I was thrilled with the casting choices. Beyonce’ was perfectly cast as Deena, Anika Noni Rose made a lovely Lorrell, and Jennifer Hudson took the role of Effie and made it her own. Hudson actually seemed to channel Florence Ballard rather than Jennifer Holiday. When she won the Golden Globe Award for the role in 2007, she thanked Florence Ballard. I understood that moment.
When they finally announced the movie production of Dreamgirls, I knew not to even think about auditioning for a role because that would mean I would have to sing. In addition, I knew that anyone and everyone who had ever performed in a touring production of the show would be there and ready to cut throats. Instead, I signed on to do extra work in the film and promised myself that it would be my farewell performance to that kind of gig. Background work had paid a lot of my bills and had even gotten me a few breaks and upgrades, but for the most part I hated, (and still hate), the treatment of background actors on a set. Furthermore, what I really hated was being in the background when I wanted to be in the foreground. However, I was willing to bite the bullet one more time to be close to the experience of Dreamgirls.
They called me to work the final scene of the movie where the Dreams have their farewell concert and ask Effie to the stage. The scene took two nights to film and I was so impressed with the attention to detail. I was one of hundreds of people at the concert dressed in the formal wear of the 70’s. Our haircuts, sideburns, and even eye glasses were checked and doubled checked, and a “wardrobe Nazi” went through each of us with a flashlight to make sure we looked authentic.
The assistant director explained to us that the scene was very much like the 1969 farewell performance of the Supremes in Vegas. Several actors working the scene that night didn’t understand the reference, as they were either too young or too unfamiliar with the Supremes to get it. I owned the Farewell album. I knew the history. What really happened that night was Diana Ross passed the crown of lead singer on to Jean Terrell. Florence Ballard was not in the audience. The Dreams’ fairytale ending was very different from the real life story.
Jamie Foxx, who plays Curtis in the film, ran around the theater keeping all the extras entertained during the long waiting periods between takes. He did comedy stand up, made fun of our clothes, had us do a sing-a-long of old 70’s sitcom theme songs and basically helped everyone forget they had been sitting there for such a long time. The only other stars in attendance that night were Beyonce’, Jennifer Hudson, and Danny Glover. No photographs were allowed to be taken on set and the production had special security guards who made sure that everyone was screened. Not even our cell phones were permitted on set.
As I sat there in the audience being an extra, doing my “paid” applause, I flashed back to my seat in a Broadway theater twenty-five years earlier, enjoying the finale of Dreamgirls. I then thought of the many friends I had grown up with who had also shared that experience but had not lived to see things come full circle.
When I think of the Supremes, I think of dreams. I went on to experience a lot of my dreams, although long-term fame has seemed to elude me. It has been a struggle but I have had some wonderful accomplishments to look back on and have had a life full of rich learning experiences. To paraphrase lyrics from the Dreamgirls tune, “When I First Saw You”…
(From the song “When I First Saw You,” from the Dreamgirls Original Broadway Cast Album, 1982, composed by Tom Eyen/Henry Krieger)