If you could accept the premise Diana Ross singing all of the old hits with two former members of the Supremes the Return to Love tour that kicked off at the First Union Spectrum on June 14 was a smash. Ross, backed up by Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne and a full orchestra, gave the audience just what it came to hear for nearly an hour with one hit song after another.
For the Gen-Xers in the crowd, it was a chance to see what all the fuss was about. For the baby boomers, it was an opportunity to relive the 1960s, when the Supremes ruled the pop music charts.
Shortly after the announced starting time, the house lights dimmed, and the orchestra went through a medley of the familiar tunes. When the curtain finally parted, Ross and the girls made a grand entrance by walking down a staircase behind the band to the front of the stage. Despite the negative press that surrounded the tour, everything seemed to be forgotten once the trio broke into Reflections and followed with most of the other hits, including Come See About Me, Back in My Arms Again and Baby Love.
All of the elements were there the tight arrangements, the songs that we all danced to and the glamorous evening gowns. People didn't seem to care that although Lawrence and Payne were members of the group in the 1970s, they weren't the Supremes.
By now, most ardent fans know the history, but to recap, the group began as the Primettes in 1959 with Diane Ross (before she changed it to Diana), Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown. Barbara Martin replaced McGlown, and it was this quartet that Berry Gordy signed to Motown Records in 1961.
After taking a new name, the girls released a few unsuccessful records. Martin eventually left, and the Supremes became a trio. Several records later, Where Did Our Love Go? shot to the top of the charts in 1964, and the girls began an unprecedented assault on the Billboard Top 40.
Changes within the group in 1967 upset Ballard, and when she began to miss live appearances, Marlene Barrow and Cindy Birdsong stood in for her. When Ballard left, Birdsong, who had been singing with Patti LaBelle and the Blue-Belles, was hired as a permanent replacement.
The trio underwent many personnel changes during the 1970s, but the Ross-Wilson-Birdsong lineup is what people had hoped to see when rumors of a reunion tour began to surface. (Ballard died in 1976.)
Ross made no pretensions about who she was with at the Spectrum. At one point, she introduced Lawrence as a Philadelphia native and gave her a solo. And as long as the hits kept coming, everybody enjoyed hearing them You Can't Hurry Love, Love Child, The Happening and, of course, everybody thrust their palms forward at the appropriate times during Stop! In the Name of Love.
Ross left the Supremes in 1969 and began a successful solo career, which was the focus of the second half of the two-hour show. After a 15-minute intermission, she emerged alone to do many of her familiar hits, including Touch Me in the Morning (from the movie Lady Sings the Blues), Love Hangover, Endless Love and the Theme From Mahogany.
From the latter song, Ross segued into one of her biggest solo hits, Ain't No Mountain High Enough. The distinctive piano riff that introduces the song on the record was missing, but Mountain was definitely a highlight of the second half.
Another highlight was the surprise appearance of Luther Vandross, who was attending the concert as Ross' guest. She brought him up on stage to back her up on a quiet version of Amazing Grace.
After Ross, Lawrence and Payne paid tribute to some of the other Motown artists, with Money and Reach Out (I'll Be There), the finale was a rousing rendition of I Will Survive.
Although there were TelePrompTers positioned in several spots to help her out, Ross missed a few lines of some of the songs, but, again, nobody seemed to care. The lady can sing, and at 56 years of age, she looked fabulous. And she enjoyed basking in the adulation showered upon her during the show.
During a recent appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to promote the tour, Ross indicated that all of the Supremes were invited to take part and that some of the others could appear in certain cities. The tour wraps up on Aug. 5 at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. If the financial obstacles can be overcome by then, we could possibly see the dream reunion on that date.
For those who missed last week's concert at the Spectrum, the Return to Love tour makes another appearance in the area on Friday, July 14, at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.