Enduring legacy of The Supremes

Kaaren Ragland's Supremes love their audience reactions.

Kaaren Ragland's Supremes love their audience reactions.

It is near on four decades since The Supremes disbanded, but one of the authentic voices from the group's later years will bring her Sounds of The Supremes tour to Wollongong.

The group formed in 1959 in the throes of the American civil rights movement, under the name The Primettes before becoming The Supremes in 1962. They disbanded in 1977 having rewritten pop music history, paving the way for African-American faces and voices in the formerly homogenised Western music world and firmly stamping the then-fledgling Motown Records as a force to be reckoned with.

Original Supremes Florence Ballard and Diana Ross eventually left the group, leaving Mary Wilson as the only founding member to stay on until 1977 when Motown decided to disband the group. Buoyed by the success of a recent album, Wilson refused to let The Supremes die, collecting a new group of singers including Kaaren Ragland to tour as The Supremes through the 1970s.

"I joined the group in '77, then first came over to Australia in '78. We toured all over in those days, then came back several times with Mary," Kaaren said from her home in Los Angeles.

In 1989, after the disbanding of the Wilson-led Supremes, Kaaren started her own group called The Sounds of The Supremes, touring the world and performing Supremes tunes.

"This started as a spin-off group because people still wanted to see the songs and the original singers had started to do solo things.

"People love the music. The two other ladies have been with me since 1997. It's the real deal."

Kaaren's Sounds of The Supremes has toured the world since, playing to audiences across the globe hungry for the tunes of the R&B pioneers. Kaaren's group returns to Australia this week, kicking off an extensive month-long national tour at the Illawarra Master Builders Club.

"We do all the hits. There's so many songs because at that time, Motown had some wonderful writers," Kaaren said.

"We try to present as much as we can, even some of the more obscure stuff from the '70s. We still move around and dance, get the audience going."

Almost 40 years on from the disbanding of the original Supremes, Kaaren said interest in the pioneering vocal group has not waned.

"The ladies love to come, we get a lot of hens' parties. Women, young kids, we get 'em all and I love it. We get little kids dancing and you're just thinking, 'How do they know these songs?'," Kaaren said.

"The songs go through generations. They are easy to memorise lyrics and the songs are standards now. It's just great songwriting."

She said her ensemble would normally tour Australia "every other year," but as this will be her first visit Down Under since 2006, she is especially looking forward to the trip.

"It's really interesting, the cross-cultural and cross-age groups we get. It doesn't make any difference where we go, there are no barriers. It goes from kids to grannies. The music just travels well."

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