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History Blog

Posted: May 10, 2018

A Chapter In Motown: Stevie Wonder & Diana Ross and The Supremes at Forest Hills Stadium

Composed by: Michael Perlman, Forest Hills, NY

Forest Hills Stadium, which became America’s first tennis stadium in 1923, was adapted into a concert venue in 1960 for the Forest Hills Music Festival, a summer tradition. Beyond the Romanesque façade, comprised of an arched colonnade with crests and stone eagles perched up high, is a chapter in Motown history. At least 14,000 concertgoers made the stadium a destination on warm and mild nights, as the stadium stage furthered the careers of legendary Motown artists. They included The Supremes featuring lead singer Diana Ross (born March 26, 1944) and Stevie Wonder (born May 13, 1950), who would give signature concerts at the stadium for over two decades. In 1959, Motown originated in Detroit by Tamla Records, the first record company under black ownership, and ushered in a soulful experience nationally, thanks to founder Berry Gordy, Jr. 

Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Shorty Long August 2, 1968 ad, Courtesy of The New York Times

On November 27, 1966, The New York Times published “The Big, Happy, Beating Heart of The Detroit Sound” by Richard R. Lingeman. It read, “Much of the credit for the spreading of Motown gospel belongs to three herald angels known collectively as the Supremes, and individually as Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard.” Motown record promoter Larry Maxwell said, “The Supremes were our big breakthrough. A few years ago we couldn’t make a WABC pick, because they’d say ‘That’s a blues sound.’ Used to be you had ‘good’ music or popular music, and you had ‘race’ music. Then you had rock and roll, and you had rhythm and blues. Now Motown’s bridged the gap between pop and R & B.” 

Diana Ross was born in Detroit, Michigan and raised in a housing project. She began performing in a church choir, and at 15 in 1959, she founded a musical group, The Primettes, with her friends Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Barbara Martin. After Barbara changed her path, the remaining vocalists were signed by Motown Records and became The Supremes, followed by “Diana Ross and The Supremes. “In 1969, she decided to pursue a career as a soloist, but had one more engagement with her group members in 1970. The Supremes were the most commercially successful Motown acts. Fast-forwarding to 2012, Diana Ross earned a “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Stevie Wonder, born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan, was blind since birth, and did not hesitate to master the harmonica, piano, drums, and bass, as well as cultivate one of his greatest instruments, his soulful and distinctive voice.  He began by singing in the church choir, and at age 11 was signed to the Tamla Motown record label. Nicknamed “Little Stevie,” he was recognized as a child prodigy. One of his inspirations was Diana Ross. Throughout his career, he added songwriter and music producer to his many hats. Around 1969 to 1970, he lived with his brother in Birchwood Towers’ “The Kyoto” at 102-10 66th Road in Forest Hills, a short walk from the stadium. Today, he is the recipient of 29 Grammy Awards and is recognized by “Rolling Stone” magazine as “the ninth greatest singer of all time.”

N.Y. Amsterdam News ran the Forest Hills Giveaway contest in 1966. It stated, “Your letter must be postmarked by August 15 if you expect to be in the judging for free tickets to see The Supremes, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder the evening of August 20 at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. Don’t despair, however, if your letter doesn’t get in on time. You have until August 22 to enter the contest to win free tickets to see Ray Charles give a concert at Forest Hills on August 27.” For a 200 words or less entry, a fan had to write “Why I would like to see The Supremes in concert” or “Why I would like to see Ray Charles in concert.” A free ticket was offered to a total of 25 winners for each concert under the leadership of Forest Hills Music Festival producer Leonard Ruskin. He said, “We feel that in this way many people who might not otherwise be able to attend the concerts will be able to.”

Also leading up to the concert was Stevie Wonder’s scheduled appearance in Bryant Park on August 19, where he would offer an up-close-and-personal talk about the upcoming concert along with a “Stevie Wonder Up-Tight” album signing, as part of Stern Brothers’ fashion show.

Upon his entrance at Forest Hills Stadium on August 20, 1966, he belted into the mic, “Everything is all right, uptight, and out of sight.” Another number was “Blowing in the Wind.” He was only 16, and his earthy vocals and blues sentiment along with solos on harmonica, piano, and drums swept the stadium. After the concert, Raymond Robinson of N.Y. Amsterdam News wrote, “For a finale, Stevie played ‘Fingertips,’ and one could feel the stadium rocking to the rhythm. They had to pull Little Stevie away from the mike and into the wings; he just wasn’t going to leave on his own. This little fellow’s quite an entertainer.” His spot drew enthusiastic ovations.   

The Supremes were recognized as a highly polished and sophisticated singing group in 1966. Although known for their rock ‘n’ roll style, their repertoire largely consisted of ballads. They opened their performance swinging and began singing “Come See About Me.” Their performance numbers often resulted in thunderous applauses. “Pride of Motown” Diana Ross told The New York Times in November 1966, “We got out there and worked like hell. I wasn’t really nervous until I heard that crowd screaming. It was a big shock. The audience was so far away, you couldn’t see them, and I worried about that. I wanted to see everyone. I was soaking wet when we finished.”

The Supremes appeared with the Four Tops on July 29, 1967 at 8:30 PM. On a rainy night, it was a full house, and The Supremes were praised for their tender ballads and adventurous arrangements, as showcased in their repertoire comprised of “Yesterday,” “More,” “Can’t Hurry Love,” and “Somewhere,” the “West Side Story” classic. Foreshadowing the concert, journalist Richard Goldstein of The New York Times wrote: “This Saturday night at Forest Hills Stadium will be the same as a private chat, and just as intimate. The light will radiate from the silver sequins in their gowns, from the stardust in their towering hair-dos, from their fingertips as they raise their hands high above the grandstand. The crowd will cheer in anticipation as Diana Ross whispers with just a hint of voice under her breath: ‘Stop-in the name of love.’” It turned out that concertgoers screamed less than that of the Monkees, who appeared on stage two weeks earlier, since their ears were in tune with The Supremes’ intimate nature, but the electrical dynamics were particularly evident through Diana Ross. ­­­

Prior to the concert, Goldstein also stated, “When Diana Ross pleads ‘Stop in the name of love,’ the response can be heard up Broadway from Times Square to 125th Street. And that rapport has earned the group seven gold records and five consecutive chart-topping hits, all in a time when our pop idols are supposed to be men. Their style has evolved from street-sound rhythm and blues to a smooth supple balladry, and their latest releases are as far from the classic definition of rock ‘n’ roll as ‘The Naught Lady of Shady Lane.’”

Diana Ross and The Supremes ad, 1968 Forest Hills Music Festival program, Courtesy of Rego-Forest Preservation Council

Diana Ross and The Supremes appeared with Stevie Wonder, Shorty Long, and the WMCA “Good Guys” on Saturday, August 3, 1968. RC, the “Mad, Mad Cola” sponsored Leonard Ruskin’s 1968 Forest Hills Music Festival, and fans could pursue a mail order coupon option by contacting the Forest Hills Music Center at “1968 Music Festival, 11 Station Square” and circling the price desired at $6, $5, or $3.50 for stadium seats or $7.50 for field seats. The office was open from 10 AM to 10 PM daily, and fans could call (212) 261-0600. TWA was the official festival airline. Tickets were also available at all Singer Sewing Machine Centers in Manhattan and at the stadium that evening. A Motown Record Corporation ad featured the elegant trio overlooking their record albums, “The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart,” “Diana Ross and The Supremes Reflections,” “Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits,” and “The Supremes A’ Go-Go.” 

That evening, Diana Ross was the hostess and gave the stage to Shorty Long, performer of “Here Comes The Judge” and “Never Going To Give You Up,” two hits which were enthusiastically received. Stevie Wonder followed with a routine noted for his groovy pace, and began with “Precious Sweetheart,” followed by hits such as “Place In The Sun,” “Uptight,” and an instrumental rendition of “Alfie” on the harmonica. He also self-accompanied numbers on electric piano and drums. The stadium echoed from foot-stomping and thunderous clapping. He was referred to as “Big Stevie” by some fans and critics, as a playoff of his “Little Stevie” nickname, despite being a young veteran of the stage. Then came Diana Ross and The Supremes, who performed a medley consisting of “Stop In The Name of Love,” “Come See About Me,” and “Love Is Here.” That was followed by a humorous performance of “Queen of the House.” The second half of their program featured ballads.   

On June 14 to July 3, 1976, she starred in 16 shows of “An Evening With Diana Ross” at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. This added to the anticipation of Stadium attendees who purchased tickets at $16 or $25 for the July 23, 1977 concert. The evening began with the sight of a surprise package on stage. It was torn open, and Diana Ross emerged! The N.Y. Amsterdam News read, “Her white dress unraveled by a mime became a screen on which a moving synopsis of clips from ‘Mahogany’ (a 1975 romantic drama directed by Berry Gordy, Jr) displayed Diana in living color.”

Ballads consisted of “Send In the Clowns,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “The Point,” and “Lady Sings The Blues” which generated memories of her acting debut, where she portrayed Billie Holiday in the 1972 titled film which resulted in her Academy Award nomination. Then the vibe shifted. “Love Hangover” felt like a production when she began by singing and turning a glass of water to her head and drinking. She exited and changed her dress, and then delivered the Real McCoy. She said she would turn the stadium into a discotheque, and actions spoke louder than words alongside the stadium’s Romanesque archways. The N.Y. Amsterdam News stated, “She asked a young man in the audience who was wearing a ‘Diana is Dorothy in the Wiz’ sweatshirt to dance with her, and he, overwhelmed and willing, did just that.” “I love you, Diana” echoed throughout the stadium on a memorable evening.

The late Robert Palmer, a chief music critic of The New York Times, shared a few words in May 1978. He referred to her 1977 performance as “the most assured and artful evening of pop music imaginable.” He then explained, “Considering how many performers attempt to cross over from rhythm and blues to a mass mainstream audience, and how few are able to do it without seeming slick and insincere, Miss Ross has done an admirable job.”

On August 16, 1980, Diana Ross made a comeback, and fans could purchase a field chair ticket for $20. Fans would have to wait 16 years for her return to the stadium. For the June 6 and June 7, 1996 engagement, seats ranged from $20 to $100, and her appearance signified the comeback of musicians with big names at the venue, after lying dormant for nearly a decade.   

Concertgoers shared their memories. Forest Hills resident, recording artist, and author Mickey Leigh, brother of the late Joey Ramone, attended the 1968 performance with his brother and mother, and sat in great seats. It was the first concert they attended at the stadium. He reminisced, “It was sort of a concession show since we wanted to see The Beatles, but we were too young. We were huge fans of Stevie Wonder and The Supremes, but mostly Stevie. Shorty Long we would see on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“Stevie jumped from drums to harmonica to piano. He had such talent. He did all his hits, and every one of them were my favorites,” Leigh said. He especially recalled “I Was Made To Love Her” and “Fingertips,” a harmonica solo.

He pinpointed other highlights. “Stevie kept walking right to the edge of the stage, and making everybody nervous that he was going to fall off. We talked about it on our way home. I don’t know how he knew where he was, and we asked, ‘How did he do that?’ It was also remarkable for us that he was 18 in 1968, and not that much older than us. We first became fans in 1963, when I was 9 and he was 4 years older. It wasn’t like Mickey Rooney or Shirley Temple.” Leigh remembered dressing casually, as if he and his brother were going to school. “We must have been wearing clam diggers.”

“We were fanatics for rock ‘n’ roll radio, and listened to WABC and WMCA which played everything from Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, to Wayne Newton, The Monkees, and Motown artists and British bands.” They would also tune in to American Bandstand. “There were kids who would sing those songs in the guys’ locker room, but we wanted to hear things spoken with British accents,” he said.

Diana Ross and The Supremes, 1968 Forest Hills Music Festival program, Courtesy of Rego-Forest Preservation Council

However, Leigh considered Motown “soothing and fun.” “It has an undeniable groove, heart, and soul. It made you feel good and wasn’t rebellious, but got rebellious later on, such as for Curtis Mayfield, which began getting political.” They did not analyze it. “It was magical and became part of our foundation. It’s one thing that manifests in other creative things that you put out,” continued Leigh.    

Queens Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, who serves Forest Hills and nearby communities, attended the July 23, 1977 Diana Ross concert. She said, “I am a fan of Diana Ross. I dressed casually and went with my ex-husband. Her performance skills were great, and her singing was wonderful and still is.” Today she owes much gratitude to Madison House Presents, the West Side Tennis Club, and the community for their partnership, which led to the revitalization of the historic stadium as a concert venue. “They had a lot of good entertainment in those days, and I am glad that it is back at Forest Hills Stadium.”