This was a different era for celebrities: no security, no entourage of publicists, dressers, or agents–just the most successful female-singing group of all time, The Supremes, in their slips.
The news editor of The Denisonian walked across Livingston Gym to the women’s locker room carrying her reporter’s notebook and pen. Nervous? “I was too young to be nervous.” Besides, Sara “Sally” Fritz would be graduating in two months, and she had other things competing for her apprehension.
It was March 1966. “Those were the days when most women got married right after college,” she recalls, “and there were no role models–none–for other careers. The issue of marriage and careers was on my mind a lot. I knew I wanted my independence, but I didn’t know what I would do for a career or how I would do it.” That evening, she was collecting her thoughts to talk with three unmarried young women, all of whom were within a few months of her age and already had some impressive career experience.
Fritz pushed through the swinging door into the locker room, meeting first with the aroma of moist socks and disinfectant, and then with the sight of the three most glamorous women in American popular culture– arguably the three most glamorous women in America, period. Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross were casually extracting themselves from their form- fitting sequined gowns, standing and sitting in front of the communal mirror where generations of Denison girls have adjusted their hair and clothes after a lively game of volleyball. This was a different era for celebrities: no security, no entourage of publicists, dressers, or agents–just the most successful female singing group of all time, The Supremes, in their slips. Fritz and Ross sat on the locker room bench to talk. “At that age, I’d never interviewed anyone famous,” says Fritz ‘66, “and I didn’t yet have any idea that was what I’d end up doing with my life.”
The three 22-year-olds, who had just been swaying and cooing ‘baby-baby’ under the visitors’ net in Livingston gym, were at the top of their game in 1966. Just five years earlier they’d been a Detroit high school girl group, The Primettes, plucked up by Berry Gordy of Motown Records. Their infectious pop sound was crafted around the silvery voice of Diana Ross, while founder Flo Ballard’s strong soulful vocals were soft-pedaled into demure repetitions of Ross’s lyrics. Gordy also managed their appearance, including their trademark make-up, wigs, gowns, and gestures, a confection of telegenic ultra-femininity. The formula, paired with enormous talent, worked. By 1966, The Supremes had won three Grammys and were America’s strongest commercial rivals to The Beatles at the height of the British Invasion. Two years after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they were also Motown’s first and biggest cross- over success, appealing equally to black and white fans and opening that market to many groups who followed.
No sooner had The Supremes reached their high-water mark than the escalation of the Vietnam War and the emerging counterculture movement pushed race, gender, and musical taste in a more progressive direction. After firing and replacing Florence Ballard in 1967, the rebranded “Diana Ross and the Supremes” began losing market share to more gospel-rooted and Afrocentric artists.
The war and shifting culture steered the fortunes of Sara Fritz in quite a different direction. After graduation, she landed a job at the copy desk of The Pittsburgh Press for $115 a week, a position that would have been open only to men before the draft. News reporting was still reserved for men, but Fritz gradually started writing for United Press International and within the amount of time it took the Primettes to become The Supremes, she was promoted to White House correspondent in Washington, D.C., where she still lives. Fritz has met and interviewed every U.S. president and many leading politicians since then, but her best dinner party story begins in the girls’ locker room of Livingston Gym.