When Diana Ross and two replacement members of the Supremes took the stage June 19 in Auburn Hills, Mich. just outside their Detroit hometown Ross looked out at 10,000 adoring fans.
But the Palace of Auburn Hills seats 19,000.
The tour's opening night, June 14 in Philadelphia, found 7,000 empty seats in the 16,000-capacity First Union Spectrum. On Sunday the 18,000-seat Nat Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was only one-third full.
Sales in other markets have been similar, and observers blame the small crowds on exorbitant ticket prices up to $251.75, not including service charges and a feeling among longtime fans that Ross hasn't done right by former members of the legendary Motown group.
"People in this town have long memories," said Susan Whitall, a reporter for the Detroit News and author of the 1998 book "The Women of Motown." "The black community in Detroit has an intense belief that they've been done wrong by Diana."
Ross is touring with Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, both of whom joined the group long after Ross left in 1970. Founding member Florence Ballard was dismissed from the group in 1967, and Cindy Birdsong took her place alongside Ross and Mary Wilson, the other original member of the group.
The Lineup's History
Ballard and Wilson took Ross into the Supremes in 1959, only to have Ross become the group's most prominent member. By 1967, after Ballard was dismissed amid missed concert appearances and health problems, the group became known as "Diana Ross and the Supremes."
Ballard later sued Motown unsuccessfully for $8.7 million because of her dismissal, and she died of a heart attack in Detroit in 1976, destitute at age 32. Laurence replaced Birdsong in 1972, and Payne joined in 1973. Wilson quit the group in 1976. Three other singers were members of the group at various times.
Wilson, Ballard and Ross sang on early Supremes hits, such as 1964's "Where Did Our Love Go" and "Baby Love" (RealAudio excerpt) while the lineup with Birdsong found success with 1967's "Reflections" and 1968's "Love Child" (RealAudio excerpt). Ross was the only Supreme who sang on the group's last #1 pop and R&B hit, 1970's "Someday We'll Be Together" (RealAudio excerpt).
"The tour's not about me. It's not about the individuals," Ross, 56, said at a press conference in April. "It's really about the music and about what we represented and still represent as far as image and possibility."
After she left the Supremes, Ross went on to a successful solo singing and acting career, with hits such as "Touch Me in the Morning" (1973) and "Do You Know Where You're Going To," the theme from the 1976 movie "Mahogany," in which she also starred. The last time she sang with Wilson and Birdsong was on the 1983 "Motown's 25th Anniversary" NBC-TV special.
Ross said she contacted Wilson and Birdsong to join her for the tour but that they couldn't come to financial agreements, something Wilson disputes.
"She called me in December, and I thought the two of us needed to talk things over," said Wilson, 55, referring to the bad blood that had grown between the two over the way Ballard's dismissal was handled. "She wanted to do the business first," Wilson said.
Wilson said she first heard inklings of a possible reunion at the beginning of 1999 and was disturbed that it took Ross so long to contact her. "If Paul McCartney was going to put the Beatles back together, I don't think he'd wait a year to call George [Harrison] and Ringo [Starr]," Wilson said in April.
"Possibly, I wasn't even wanted on the tour," said Wilson, who also claimed that she was offered $2 million to go on tour. Ross said she wished Wilson had been able to join. "I would have been honored to be onstage with all of the Supremes."
Wilson and Ross who exchanged barbs in separate interviews on ABC-TV's "20/20" in April could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but one longtime concert industry observer said he thinks those media appearances have as much to do with the small crowds as do ticket prices, which begin at $40.75.
"The tour got a considerable amount of negative publicity, based on the fact that it wasn't really a Supremes reunion," said Gary Bongiovanni of concert-industry trade publication Pollstar. "Clearly, it wasn't the right move for Ross to book large sports arenas without original members of the group."
"People wanted the emotional resonance of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong," said Whitall, who attended the Auburn Hills show and the Philadelphia tour opener. "On the other hand, [Laurence and Payne] do a great job. This is their chance in the limelight after playing dives as the 'Former Ladies of the Supremes.' "
Neither the tour's promoter, Toronto-based TNA International, nor Ross' publicist returned calls for this story.